The White House is looking for ways to remove an enemy of Turkish President Recep Erdogan from the U.S. in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to two senior U.S. officials and two other people briefed on the requests.
Trump administration officials last month asked federal law enforcement agencies to examine legal ways of removing exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen in an attempt to persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on the Saudi government, the four sources said.
The effort includes directives to the Justice Department and FBI that officials reopen Turkey’s case for his extradition, as well as a request to the Homeland Security Department for information about his legal status, the four people said.
They said the White House specifically wanted details about Gulen’s residency status in the U.S. Gulen has a Green Card, according to two people familiar with the matter. He has been living in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s.
Career officials at the agencies pushed back on the White House requests, the U.S. officials and people briefed on the requests said.
“At first there were eye rolls, but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the process.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council initially declined to comment on this story but after it published, said in a statement: “The NSC has not been involved in nor aware of any discussions relating the extradition of Fethullah Gulen to the death of Jamal Khashoggi.”
The State Department, Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
A lawyer representing Gulen declined to comment. The FBI also declined to comment.
A Turkish official said the government does not link its concerns about the Khashoggi murder with Gulen’s extradition case.
“We definitely see no connection between the two,” the official said. “We want to see action on the end of the United States in terms of the extradition of Gulen. And we’re going to continue our investigation on behalf of the Khashoggi case.”
The secret effort to resolve one of the leading tensions in U.S.-Turkey relations — Gulen’s residency in the U.S. — provides a window into how President Donald Trump is trying to navigate hostility between two key allies after Saudi officials murdered Khashoggi on Oct. 2 at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
It suggests the White House could be looking for ways to contain Erdogan’s ire over the murder while preserving Trump’s close alliance with Saudi Arabia’s controversial de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The kingdom, after initially denying any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, reversed course and admitted that Saudi officials were responsible for the killing. On Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s top prosecutor recommended the death penalty for five out of the 11 suspects charged with killing Khashoggi. A total of 21 suspects have been arrested in connection with the case, according to Saud al-Mojeb.
Erdogan, meanwhile, has kept the pressure up by leaking pieces of evidence and repeatedly speaking out to accuse Prince Mohammed of orchestrating the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and outspoken critic of the Saudi leadership.
Saudi Arabia is critical to Trump’s Middle East policy. The White House’s relationship with Prince Mohammed is key to Trump’s goals of countering Iran and helping to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Turkey is a NATO ally in possession of evidence about Khashoggi’s murder that positions Erdogan to stoke international outrage over Riyadh’s culpability in and cover-up of Khashoggi’s murder.
Erdogan has for years demanded the U.S. send Gulen back to Turkey. The Turkish leader accuses the elderly cleric of being a terrorist who was behind a failed coup against Erdogan’s government in 2016. After the coup attempt, Ankara made a formal request to the U.S. for Gulen’s extradition.
One option that Turkish and Trump administration officials recently discussed is forcing Gulen to relocate to South Africa rather than sending him directly to Turkey if extradition is not possible, said the U.S. officials and people briefed on the discussions. But the U.S. does not have any legal justification to send Gulen to South Africa, they said, so that wouldn’t be a viable option unless he went willingly.
Trump and Erdogan also recently discussed another option to relieve tensions — the release of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who was sentenced in May to 32 months in prison by a U.S. federal judge for his role in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, two people familiar with the discussion said. Erdogan has criticized the case against Atilla as a political attack aimed at undermining his government.
The U.S. and Turkey have been engaged in negotiations over a series of sensitive diplomatic issues over the past few months, including a deal for last month’s release of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey and an agreement for joint U.S. and Turkish military patrols in Manbij, Syria.
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