Two days after NBC reported that in what would amount to a stunning foreign policy concession by the White House, the Trump Administration was contemplating extraditing Turkish president Erdogan's nemesis, cleric Fethulah Gulen who has been living for decades in rural Pennsylvania, in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on Saturday Trump denied the report, rejecting that he is considering handing over Erdoğan's foe.
Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving for a trip to California that extraditing exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen was "not under consideration." Trump also said that "we’re having a very good moment with Turkey,” referring Erdogan’s release of American pastor Andrew Brunson last month, and said the U.S. is always looking for "whatever we can do for Turkey."
On Thursday, NBC reported that the White House had directed the DOJ and FBI to find ways to extradite Gulen and that cooperation over the extradition was an attempt quell tensions between key US allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.
Trump's comment echoed that of DOJ spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman, who on Friday told Reuters that the DOJ “has not been involved in nor aware of any discussions” regarding Gülen's extradition in an attempt to appease Turkey. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also rejected the NBC News report on Thursday, saying, “The White House has not been involved in any discussions related to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen.”
Predictably, US national security and foreign policy experts had been stunned by the NBC report: “This is the Trump administration seeking to barter away a US resident who has lived here legally for years,” the former National Security Council senior director Ned Price told Business Insider, adding that such a move would be “seeking to skirt the rule of law.”
Then again, even if the NBC report weren't fake news, any extradition meant to ease tensions would have proven futile: on Friday Turkey said any US attempt to suppress its investigation into the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death wouldn’t work. Ankara, which has provided the news media with a steady drip of leaks from the Turkish investigation implicating Saudi leadership in Khashoggi’s death, has ruled out any sort of cooperation with the US to wind down its investigation according to Business Insider.
“At no point did Turkey offer to hold back on the Khashoggi investigation in return for Fethullah Gulen’s extradition,” an unnamed senior Turkish official told Reuters on Friday. “We have no intention to intervene in the Khashoggi investigation in return for any political or legal favour.”
An unnamed Turkish official also told NBC News on Thursday that the government did not link its investigation into Khashoggi’s death 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.”
And perhaps to confirm that there will be no silencing Turkey's "probe" of the dissident journalist's murder, on Friday a Turkish daily reported that the planning of Khashoggi's execution was caught on audio.
The audio tape, allegedly in the possession of Turkish investigators, features a 15-minute conversation, in which “the Saudi team discusses how to execute Khashoggi,” the Turkish Hurriyet Daily wrote on Friday, citing its columnist Abdulkadir Selvi. In a recording that was allegedly made even before the journalist entered the Saudi consulate, “they are reviewing their plan, which was previously prepared, and reminding themselves of the duties of each member,” he said.
The Hurriyet report contradicted the statement made by the Saudi deputy public prosecutor, Shaalan al-Shaalan, who said that the team was actually sent to Istanbul to retrieve the journalist and bring him back to Saudi Arabia. A decision to murder the reporter –and outspoken critic of Riyadh– was allegedly taken by the head of the team after its ‘persuasion’ failed.