Then, on the 9th Hole, Trump Called Netanyahu: Erdogan Wants Something

New book details how the U.S. president pressed Israel to release Turkish woman charged with aiding Hamas

Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his party's group meeting at Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, on January 14, 2020.
Adem ALTAN / AFP

WASHINGTON – A recently published book on U.S. President Donald Trump's foreign policy reveals new details on how he allegedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release a Turkish citizen held in Israel on charges of smuggling for Hamas.

Trump had asked for the Turkish citizen's release as part of a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release an American evangelical pastor jailed in Turkey. 

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The July 2018 release of 27-year-old Turkish citizen Ebru Özkan reportedly came a day after a phone call between Trump and Netanyahu, during which the subject was discussed. In their new book “A Very Stable Genius,” Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker describe exactly how the deal for her release unfolded, shedding light on the relationships between Trump, Netanyahu and Erdogan.

The deal, according to the book, started shaping up when Trump met Erdogan at a NATO summit in Brussels in early July 2018. During their meeting, Erdogan asked Trump to press Israel to release Özkan, who had been arrested several weeks earlier upon landing in Israel and indicted for smuggling money and a cellphone to Hamas operatives. In return, Erdogan promised Trump he would release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was arrested in Turkey.

The book claims Trump and Erdogan concluded the deal with a fist bump. A few days later, Trump took the Turkish president’s request to Netanyahu. “On July 14, while Trump spent the weekend at his golf resort in Scotland, he decided in the middle of playing a round to call Netanyahu,” the authors write. “His aides brought a secure phone out to the front nine. Trump leaned into the Israeli prime minister and asked him to release Özkan. Netanyahu confessed that he knew nothing about the woman. Her name did not register with him.”

Özkan was accused of smuggling a relatively small amount of money – several hundred dollars – and her trial in a military court received little media coverage in Israel. That may be why Netanyahu was surprised by the American president’s request. Nevertheless, write Leonnig and Rucker, “He agreed to look into it and to help speed her release, barring some other issue.”

“The next day, July 15, Özkan was released,” according to the book. “She flew from Israel to Istanbul, where she was met by reporters and professed gratitude for Erdogan.”

Her release caught Israeli officials by surprise, and it was not immediately clear why Trump had asked Netanyahu to handle it. But “on July 18, a Turkish court rejected appeals to release Brunson and set another court date for October. At the White House, where the president had just returned from his European trip, officials were taken aback. Trump tweeted that the Turkish court’s decision was a ‘total disgrace.’”

Trump felt he was cheated by the Turkish president: He had secured the Turkish citizen’s release from Israel, only to see the U.S. pastor remain in Turkey. “On July 26, Trump called Erdogan and was livid. The call was short, with Trump doing most of the talking and not getting the answers he wanted. Trump then took to Twitter to announce his displeasure. The United States “will impose large sanctions” on Turkey, he wrote.

A few weeks later, in mid-August, the book reports that Trump “publicly acknowledged for the first time his role in the Israeli prisoner trade. ‘We got somebody out for him,’ he said, referring to Erdogan. ‘He needed help getting somebody out of someplace; they came out.’”

It took another two months but eventually, in October 2018, Brunson was finally released and allowed to leave Turkey. His first stop after arriving in the United States was the White House, where he was photographed together with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. American pundits and analysts suggested at the time that his release would help Trump secure high turnout among evangelicals in the 2018 midterm elections, held less than a month later.