(CN) – Amid reports of White House pressure to expel the Turkish president’s top foe Fethullah Gulen, experts noted that evidence in a potential extradition case against the cleric would be thin.
“If the report is true, I think it is extremely disturbing on a number of levels,” Johns Hopkins University professor Lisel Hintz said in a phone interview.
The Turkey scholar referred to Thursday’s NBC News bombshell reporting the Trump administration had been leaning on the Department of Justice to remove Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based green card holder whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for a July 2016 coup attempt.
Nicholas Danforth, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, noted that the Turkish government indictments linking Gulen to that aborted putsch boil down to a pair of secret witnesses code-named “Hat” and “Raven.”
“The specific evidence linking Gulen to the coup appears to come in the form of two anonymous witnesses, who claim to have been part of a meeting where Gulen gave instructions over the phone,” Danforth said in a phone interview.
The Turkish government also deployed secret witnesses against U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, who spent roughly two years inside an Istanbul prison before the anonymous accusers mysteriously recanted prior to a rapprochement between Trump and Erdogan’s governments.
“As people following the Brunson case saw, there have been a number of situations where these anonymous witnesses have given absurd statements and retracted them when the political climate changed,” Danforth noted.
Brunson’s case has been cited as a signature example of what experts call Turkey’s “hostage diplomacy.”
“Turkey has been engaged in hostage diplomacy with a number of countries, not just the U.S., for a while,” Hintz said. “We know this is the case with Germany, with the Netherlands, possibly with Greece.”
In 2017, Erdogan proposed swapping Brunson for Gulen in a televised speech.
“They say ‘give us the pastor,’” Erdogan said at the time. “You have a preacher there. Give him to us, and we will try and give him back.”
But the United States has long held that there is no basis to do so.
“Until now, the U.S. has fallen back, rightly so, on rule of law – and saying, ‘We cannot really extradite someone just because you demand them,’” Hintz said. “The evidence that the U.S. has been presented in terms of the extradition case has been found wanting.”
Danforth noted that the Obama administration tried to help the Turks in their investigation.
“Under Obama, the Department of Justice actually sent I believe two delegations to Turkey to try to work with the Turkish Ministry of Justice to better prepare or present this evidence in a way that might pass muster in U.S. courts,” he said.
Both experts said that the only evidence that emerged linked Gulen’s followers with the coup, but not the cleric himself.
‘Play the Game by Turkey’s Rules’
With Turkey’s evidence hunt stalling, its investigation into the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi offered a new bargaining chip.
Quoting four senior U.S. officials, the NBC article suggested that the Trump administration hopes turning Gulen over would placate Turkey so it wouldn’t implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s killing.
“For the U.S. to be using its pressure to try to get Turkey to back off Saudi because of an administration’s position on the regional order, or more maliciously, because of potential personal economic ties, I find that extremely disturbing,” Hintz said.
Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has been called the linchpin of Trump’s Middle East policy to isolate Iran. The prince’s financial ties to the Trump family through real estate and other interests also have faced scrutiny.
“For the U.S. to use him [Gulen] as a bargaining chip would be to play the game by Turkey’s rules – that is, engage in hostage diplomacy,” Hintz said.
Though the Obama administration rebuffed Turkey’s overtures, Trump’s inner circle has long floated legal and extralegal ways to accede to the regime’s demands.
“The Trump administration first looked into this when they came into office,” Danforth noted, referring to Gulen’s extradition. “How much of that was connected to Michael Flynn and his dealings with the Turkish government we do not yet know.”
Flynn, Trump’s former campaign adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his ties to Turkey.
Flynn admitted that he had been under the Turkish government’s payroll and supervision when he wrote an editorial comparing Gulen to Osama bin Laden. The article appeared in The Hill on Election Day.
And former CIA director James Woolsey told The Wall Street Journal that Flynn considered a plan to “whisk” Gulen to Turkey outside the extradition process for $15 million.
‘Par Excellence the Way Trump Operates’
Bessma Momani, an analyst at the Washington-based Stinson Center and a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, predicted Trump’s attempts to cut corners would give way to political reality.
“Look, it is par excellence the way Trump operates,” Momani said in a phone interview. “He thinks he runs a kingdom and can just wave a wand and it shall be done. But that’s just not how it works.”
The NBC story already suggests pushback from within the Department of Justice, which has received many such requests to give up Gulen.
“At first there were eye rolls, but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious,” a senior U.S. official involved in the process told the network.
Even if an extradition case were brought, U.S. prosecutors would have to present their evidence before a federal judge.
“So, it may indeed be that there are discussions and attempted pressure from the White House to whoever it is that would be in charge,” Momani said. “But I just don’t think that they will get it, and once the adults in the room are able to explain to Trump and others, they are going to be able to explain the geopolitical costs that are going to come with this.”
Such a legally dubious deal, Momani said, would not serve the U.S. interest.
“I just don’t see a convincing argument for why this is in the American interest to absorb the potential fallout that you’re going to get from the legal community,” she added.
Hintz found other reasons in the NBC report to doubt that Trump looked at the Gulen case very closely. Four people told the network that the administration asked the Homeland Security Department for information about Gulen’s legal status, even though his permanent residency is well-known and he has lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s.
“If the U.S. administration has to ask for information on Gulen’s status, we’re in a very sorry state of affairs,” the professor said.
Danforth found parallels to the Gulen affair in the Reagan administration.
“This isn’t the first time there’s been tension with a U.S. ally over extradition,” he noted.
In the 1980s, the British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fumed over the U.S. refusal to turn over suspected Irish Republican Army terrorists.
“This was a case where the president was eager to help the British, but U.S. rule of law stood in the way,” Danforth added.
Gulen, who denies the Turkish government’s terrorism accusations, told NPR last year that he put his faith in U.S. checks and balances.
“With regards to the extradition demand by Turkey, I think the United States is mindful of its reputation for democracy and the rule of law,” the cleric said. “And if they are willing to risk that reputation by extraditing me based on the request and claims made by Turkey, I would never say no.
“I would go willingly,” he continued. “I am living my final years, even if they decide to kill me or poison me or bring back the death sentence to hang me.”
In 2004, Turkey abolished capital punishment, but the Erdogan government proposed bringing it back after the last coup attempt. Erdogan, who called the attempt a “gift from God,” seized upon the aborted putsch to consolidate power, attack political rivals, and erode the country’s democratic institutions, human rights advocates have observed.