Republicans Turn to Rescued Hostages to Highlight Trump Foreign Policy
With President Trump largely stymied in his efforts to achieve landmark foreign policy victories like a nuclear deal with North Korea or an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, the start of the Republican National Convention spotlighted his record in a narrow category: the release of Americans detained overseas.
In an unusual video segment that aired on Monday and was pretaped by the Trump campaign’s advertising firm, Jamestown Associates, the president met at the White House with six Americans whom his administration helped to free from foreign imprisonment. Rather than dwelling on their ordeals, most of them lavished praise on Mr. Trump.
The event underscored the transactional approach to foreign policy of a president who has shown little patience for abstract ideals like alliances and stability and appears motivated instead by tangible results like arms sales and concessions like the release of imprisoned Americans. It also left some security experts concerned that the president’s focus on hostage cases might inspire foreign adversaries to capture more Americans.
The presentation was all the more notable given Mr. Trump’s praise for Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during an exchange with the Rev. Andrew Brunson, whom Mr. Erdogan’s government imprisoned for two years before his release in 2018.
“You took unprecedented steps actually to secure my release,” said Mr. Brunson, an evangelical pastor who had been held on terrorism and espionage charges. “I think if you hadn’t done that, I may still be in Turkey.”
“To me, President Erdogan was very good,” said Mr. Trump, who mentioned no other foreign leaders by name. “He ultimately, after we had a few conversations, he agreed. So we appreciate that.”
The president has sought to maintain friendly relations with Mr. Erdogan despite a deepening rift in American and Turkish strategic interests that has alarmed security officials in Washington and among NATO allies. About 12 hours after the video aired, the State Department condemned Mr. Erdogan in a statement for hosting two leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the United States designates as a terrorist organization.
Mr. Trump said the freed Americans alongside him at the White House were among more than 50 people released from 22 countries during his tenure. He characterized all of those people as “hostages,” though most were imprisoned, albeit often on dubious charges, in foreign legal systems.
From the earliest days of his presidency, Mr. Trump has taken an intense interest in cases of Americans detained abroad, which he sees as opportunities to portray himself as a tough negotiator and protector for Americans overseas. Breaking from a general precedent of muted discretion in such matters, he has repeatedly celebrated the return of Americans from nations like Iran, Egypt, North Korea and Turkey with photo opportunities and gloating tweets and statements. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the release of Americans held overseas the president’s “top priority” in foreign affairs.
Planning for the meeting with Mr. Trump took shape in recent weeks. The office of the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, emailed one formerly detained American last month, inquiring about interest in a potential event at the White House on July 31. The email described it in general terms as an “opportunity” to “send a strong message to the individuals and families of those who remain in captivity that the U.S. government will continue to work on their behalf until they are home with their loved ones.”
That email did not mention the convention, and it was not immediately clear to at least one participant that the meeting with Mr. Trump would be featured on prime-time national television, a person familiar with the events said.
During the event, Mr. Trump cited Mr. O’Brien, who had served as the U.S. government’s chief negotiator for the release of prisoners and hostages abroad. His performance in that job — winning releases of detained Americans, which allowed Mr. Trump to stage triumphant events for the news media — delighted the president and helped him ascend to one of the U.S. government’s top jobs despite a relatively thin résumé.
Mr. Brunson was the most prominent of the attendees. After his case became a cause for evangelical Christians in the United States, Mr. Trump pressured Mr. Erdogan’s government with threats and economic sanctions.
Also present was Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran arrested in July 2018 while visiting a woman in the Iranian city of Mashhad. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of espionage before he was freed in June as part of a prisoner exchange with Tehran. On Monday, Mr. White told Mr. Trump that he had been the victim of a “major trap” and said the president was “able to get me out of that prison in record time. It was amazing.”
Although the cases of Mr. Brunson and Mr. White drew significant public attention, others who joined Mr. Trump were relative unknowns. Among them was Sam Goodwin, a St. Louis resident seeking to visit every nation on earth who was arrested soon after entering war-torn Syria and held there by government forces for 63 days early last year.
The Trump administration was not previously known to have played a significant role in Mr. Goodwin’s release. When he was freed in July 2019, his family released a statement thanking Lebanon’s internal security chief.
Another previously obscure case was that of Bryan Nerren, an American pastor arrested in India last year, en route to Nepal, after he failed to declare $40,000 in cash that he said was to fund missionary work. Mr. Nerren’s lawyer called him a victim of religious discrimination by Indian authorities.
India is a longtime ally of the United States, and Mr. Trump has cultivated close relations with its prime minister, Narendra Modi, making the notion of Mr. Nerren as a political “hostage” seem incongruous.
Mr. Trump was also joined by Joshua Holt, who was held for two years by Venezuela’s anti-American government on charges of stockpiling weapons before his release in May 2018. Mr. Holt had traveled to the country to marry a Venezuelan woman, Thamara Candelo, whom he met online and who joined him at the event with Mr. Trump.
The president’s focus on the freed Americans left some security experts worried that foreign governments and terrorist groups could see a greater incentive to detain more people.
Rob Saale, a former senior F.B.I. agent who retired in 2018 after running the government’s bureau-led hostage rescue operation, called the video a “great ad letting everyone know if you want Trump’s attention take an American hostage. They put a bull's-eye on every American abroad.”
Several prominent Americans freed during Mr. Trump’s tenure did not appear in the video, including Aya Hijazi, who joined Mr. Trump in the Oval Office after her release from Egypt in 2017, and Xiyue Wang, a dual Chinese national freed from imprisonment in Tehran last fall.
The president suggested at the event that more releases were in the works. Among the Americans of interest to him are Austin Tice, a former Marine who was abducted in Syria in 2012 and whose case has been a priority for Mr. O’Brien. Former and current intelligence officials have said previously that Mr. Tice was being held by the Syrian government and was thought to be alive, though his current status is unclear.
“Remember, we have a few more people we want to get back,” Mr. Trump said, “and we’ll be getting them back very soon.”
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.