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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

President Donald Trump prays with American pastor Andrew Brunson in the Oval Office of the White House. AP

Donald Trump thanks Turkey for pastor's release and denies cutting deal

President Donald Trump said the release of US pastor Andrew Brunson after two years in Turkish custody was a "tremendous step" toward improved relations with Turkey, but he denied cutting a deal with Ankara.

"The only deal, if you could call it a deal, is a psychological one. We feel much differently about Turkey today than we did yesterday, and I think we have a chance of really becoming much closer to Turkey," President Trump told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Mr Brunson.

A Turkish court on Friday sentenced Mr Brunson, who had been charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of a US-based Muslim cleric, to more than three years in prison but said he would not serve any further time because he had already been detained since October 2016.

The pastor's release could signal a thaw in relations between the two NATO allies, which worsened in August after a deal to free Brunson fell apart and Trump authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey, helping drive the lira currency down against the dollar.

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Mr Trump did not pledge to lift the sanctions but said he welcomed an end to the "harsh relationship" the countries had over the past two months.

In front of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump's national security adviser John Bolton, US lawmakers and Mr Brunson's family, the pastor knelt beside the president on the floor of the Oval Office, placed a hand on his shoulder, and prayed for God to give him "supernatural wisdom."

Mr Trump also thanked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Saturday's meeting for helping secure Mr Brunson's release, despite a curt Twitter post from the Turkish leader earlier on Saturday repeating that the pastor's release was a court's decision to make, not his.

"Dear Mr President, as I always pointed out, the Turkish judiciary reached its decision independently," Erdogan wrote on his Twitter account. "I hope that the United States and Turkey will continue their cooperation as the allies that they are, and fight together against terrorist groups."

President Trump said Mr Brunson's release "wasn't easy" for the Turkish president.

In response to a question, Mr Trump said the administration is actively working on the status of other imprisoned Americans and government employees in Turkey.

Senator Thom Tillis, who was at the White House on Saturday, previously criticised Turkey for continuing to detain "multiple other US citizens, as well as several Turkish staff of the US diplomatic mission, on scant evidence under the state of emergency."

Mr Brunson said that US State Department personnel in Turkey are working on behalf of other American prisoners currently in custody. "They were involved very much in advocating for the other prisoners," he said.

President Trump meets with Pastor Andrew Brunson, his wife Norine Brunson and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. EPA
President Trump meets with Pastor Andrew Brunson, his wife Norine Brunson and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. EPA