White House: US sanctions top Turkish officials over detention of American pastor

  • The Department of Treasury will sanction Turkish ministers who played a role in the arrest and detainment of American citizen pastor Andrew Brunson.
  • He was arrested in October 2016 on accusations of spying and attempting to overthrow the government. Brunson has denied all charges.
US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson escorted by Turkish plain clothes police officers arrives at his house on July 25, 2018 in Izmir. 
AFP | Getty Images
US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson escorted by Turkish plain clothes police officers arrives at his house on July 25, 2018 in Izmir. 

The Department of the Treasury will sanction Turkey's ministers of Justice and Interior for the arrest and detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

"We've seen no evidence that pastor Brunson has done anything wrong and we believe he is a victim of unfair and unjust attention by the government of Turkey," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.

"As a result, any property or interest in property of both ministers within U.S. jurisdiction is blocked and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them," Sanders added referring further questions to the Treasury Department.

In October 2016, Turkey detained American pastor Andrew Brunson on accusations of spying and attempting to overthrow the government. Brunson has denied all charges.

Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have intensified over Brunson's trial and his continued detainment. Ankara recently transferred the American citizen to house arrest. Last week, President Donald Trump threatened to slap "large sanctions" on Turkey unless it freed Brunson.

"The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being," Trump wrote in a tweet. "He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!"

Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on Trump's tweet Thursday issuing a similar threat.

"To President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences," Pence told a religious freedom conference hosted by the State Department.

At the time, neither Trump nor Pence elaborated on what kind of sanctions they could impose.

The tweets prompted an angry response from Ankara and further escalated tensions between the two NATO allies. A spokesman for Turkish President Erdogan said Tuesday that Ankara will retaliate against any U.S. sanctions.

Meanwhile, all of this comes as Congress is inching closer to blocking the transfer of two F-35 jets to Turkey.

The stealth fighter jets that hang in the balance

Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Turkey, an F-35 program partner, is currently slated to receive two of the jets. Lockheed Martin's fifth-generation jets are the first of what Ankara hopes will be the start of a 100-strong fleet.

In June, the U.S. defense giant held a formal hand-off ceremony at its F-35 facility in Fort Worth, Texas. After the ceremony, Lockheed ferried the aircraft to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona where Turkish pilots began training alongside U.S. airmen.

Meanwhile, Turkey is also trying to buy Russia's S-400 missile defense system, a move that has spooked U.S. lawmakers and defense officials.

"There is a general concern across the NATO alliance, and certainly within the Department of Defense and now in Congress, that the Turkish purchase of an S-400 would allow the Russians to have a backdoor into very hyperactive radar readings of the alliance's front-line jet for decades," explained Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, to CNBC in a previous interview.

"If you kick Turkey out of the F-35 program, you're basically saying that they can't be trusted with this fighter jet and that calls into question the NATO alliance."

Todd Harrison, senior fellow and director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that it would likely take months before the Senate's measure became law.

"So in the meantime, the administration can move ahead with the sale because it is not yet prohibited in law," Harrison told CNBC.

— Reuters contributed to this report.