Pastor Brunson, freed from Turkey, to meet with Trump upon return to US, president says

President Trump drew loud cheers at a rally on Friday evening when he announced that Pastor Andrew Brunson -- newly released from Turkey and heading home -- is expected to visit him in the Oval Office on Saturday.

“We bring a lot of people back,” the president told the crowd in Lebanon, Ohio, near Cincinnati. It was an apparent reference not only to the release of Brunson, but to the negotiated return of three American hostages from North Korea in May. President Trump also won the release of three UCLA basketball players who were detained in China last November.

“We bring a lot of people back.”

— President Trump, telling an Ohio crowd about the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson

Earlier in the day, Trump spoke with reporters about Brunson, after it was confirmed that the 50-year-old North Carolina pastor was beginning his journey home after being detained for two years.

“He’s, I think, in good shape,” the president said. “He’ll be stopping most likely in Germany for a full check-up and then he’s going to be coming to the Oval Office, most likely on Saturday.

“But we’re very honored to have him back with us,” Trump continued. “He suffered greatly, but we’re very appreciative to a lot of people.”

Reports late Friday said Brunson had arrived at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, with plans later to fly to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, near Washington, D.C.

Brunson was ordered released Friday by a Turkish court, ending a diplomatic dispute between Washington and the Turkish government in Ankara. The court dropped an espionage charge against Brunson, who had faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges against him.

He was among tens of thousands of people, mostly Turks, who were caught up in a government crackdown after a failed coup.

Winning freedom for Brunson was a diplomatic triumph for Trump, who is counting on the support of evangelical Christians for Republican candidates ahead of congressional elections in November.

"I love Jesus. I love Turkey," an emotional Brunson, who had maintained he was innocent of all charges, told the court during Friday's hearing. He tearfully hugged his wife Norine Lyn as he awaited the court decision.

“This is the day our family has been praying for – I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States," Brunson said in a statement provided by the American Center for Law and Justice, which had been working to secure his freedom.

“This is the day our family has been praying for – I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States."

— Pastor Andrew Brunson

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted Friday about Brunson’s impending return to the U.S.

“Pastor Andrew Brunson is coming home! Thanks to the strong leadership of @POTUS Trump and the steadfast prayers of millions of Americans, this innocent man of faith will soon be home!” Pence tweeted.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also tweeted about Brunson’s release.

"NC native Pastor Andrew Brunson has been freed! I’m grateful for the efforts of President Trump, the State Department and my Senate colleagues for fighting to secure his release. I look forward to welcoming him home!" Tillis wrote.

Friday's ruling followed witness testimony that seemed to partly undermine the prosecutor's allegations and highlighted concerns that Turkey had been using the U.S. citizen as diplomatic leverage. Turkey bristled at suggestions that its judicial system is a foreign policy instrument, and has accused the U.S. of trying to bend Turkish courts to its will with tariffs in August that helped to send the Turkish currency into freefall.

Brunson's release doesn't resolve disagreements over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, as well as a plan by Turkey to buy Russian missiles. Turkey is also frustrated by the refusal of the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric accused by Turkey of engineering the 2016 coup attempt.

The pastor had been accused of committing crimes on behalf of Gulen, as well as Kurdish militants who have been fighting the Turkish state for decades.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.