- Christian Hartmann/Reuters
- National-security and foreign-policy veterans were floored by a bombshell report that the US weighed extraditing one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s biggest enemies to get Turkey to ease up on its investigation into the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- Turkey is furious at the Saudi government for carrying out Khashoggi’s murder at the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey.
- The White House reportedly floated the idea of booting out Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric and legal US resident, in exchange for Ankara backing off the Khashoggi inquiry.
- “This is the Trump administration seeking to barter away a US resident who has lived here legally for years,” Ned Price, a former senior director of the National Security Council, told INSIDER.
- “If the White House seriously considered it, it shows to what lengths the [Jared] Kushner camp was willing to go to protect [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] in Riyadh,” said another foreign-policy expert.
Foreign-policy veterans were floored Thursday following a bombshell report that the White House considered extraditing one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top enemies to get Ankara to back off the investigation into the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
NBC News reported that the White House was looking for legal ways to boot out Fethullah Gulen – an exiled Turkish cleric whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating a failed coup against him in 2016 – in exchange for Turkey easing pressure on the Saudi government, which is responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
Gulen is a legal US resident and a green-card holder who’s been living in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s.
When the White House first floated the idea of extraditing Gulen, career officials at top federal agencies thought it was a joke but became “furious” when they learned it was a serious request, according to NBC News.
Foreign-policy veterans were similarly shocked.
‘This is the Trump administration seeking to barter away a US resident’
Ned Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said the reported move was “hugely significant.”
“This is the Trump administration seeking to barter away a US resident who has lived here legally for years,” Price told INSIDER.
Diplomatic, immigration, and law-enforcement officials during the Obama administration determined that Turkey’s case for Gulen’s extradition did not meet the required threshold.
Price said it now seems “that the Trump White House, in order to make life easier for the Saudi Crown Prince, is seeking to skirt the rule of law by pressuring officials to return Gulen to Turkey, even without a sufficient evidentiary basis.”
Randa Slim, the director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, echoed that view.
“The question to ask is can the Trump administration legally do it?” Slim told INSIDER, emphasizing Gulen’s status as a legal resident as an impediment for the White House.
“If the White House seriously considered it, it shows to what lengths the [Jared] Kushner camp was willing to go to protect their young protege in Riyadh,” she added.
Slim was referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who once reportedly bragged that he had Kushner, a senior White House adviser, “in his pocket.”
The crown prince is largely believed to have played a key role in carrying out the Khashoggi killing last month, but the Saudi government denies this, and Trump has mostly accepted this narrative.
‘The process of extraditing Gulen would be complicated and fraught with controversy’
Legal experts also weighed in, saying it would be extremely “complicated” to extradite Gulen to Turkey.
“Under current US law and the applicable extradition treaty, the process of extraditing Gulen would be complicated and fraught with controversy,” Bradley P. Moss, a DC lawyer specializing in national security, told INSIDER. “To this day, the specific crimes(s) for which Gulen would actually be prosecuted if returned to Turkey remains unclear.”
But Moss said there was a “political offense” exception in the 1979 extradition treaty between the US and Turkey that “Gulen’s lawyers would almost certainly argue is applicable here and which they would argue justifies preventing the extradition.”
“Ultimately, any extradition effort would hinge on the level of detail provided by the Turkish government regarding Gulen’s purported criminal offenses and the particular nature of the crime(s) regarding which he is alleged to have committed,” Moss added.
Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer in Memphis, said the language of the extradition treaty “would certainly seem to open up a line of defense” for Gulen given Erdogan’s case against him appears to be “politically motivated.”
Khashoggi’s killing has put an uncomfortable spotlight on America’s relationship with the Saudis and Turkey
Riyadh’s story on Khashoggi’s slaying has shifted several times over the past month amid increased international pressure to bring his killers to justice.
Though the Saudi government initially denied it had any role in the killing, the Saudi public prosecutor’s office on Thursday said 11 people had been indicted in connection to Khashoggi’s death and that the death penalty had been requested for five of them.
The public prosecutor added that 21 people had been detained overall. Riyadh said last month that it detained 18 people.
The White House’s reported effort to extradite Gulen sheds light on US President Donald Trump’s attempt to ease rising tensions with Turkey – which is said to be furious over the fact that Saudi officials killed Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey – while providing some cover to the crown prince, with whom Trump has touted a close alliance.
Trump has also consistently emphasized America’s strong strategic partnership with the Saudis, as well as the economic benefits of US arms sales to the kingdom.
Erdogan has called for Gulen’s extradition for years, saying after the 2016 coup attempt that Turkey had never turned back any extradition request for “terrorists” by the US.
A Turkish official told NBC News that the government did 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.”
Similarly, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert rejected the report from NBC News on Gulen. “The White House has not been involved in any discussions related to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen,” Nauert said.
‘Washington has given Erdogan the greatest gift’
Regardless of the Gulen situation, Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Erdogan has come out on top.
“Today’s developments have provided Erdogan yet another opportunity to claim the moral high ground in the Khashoggi case,” Erdemir told INSIDER. “As the world’s top jailer of journalist, the Turkish president has already presented himself as a champion of press freedoms and human rights.”
Erdemir added that Erdogan – who he said has “destroyed the justice system” in Turkey – could also “claim the moral high ground on the rule of law and due process.”
The former Turkish politician also said the Trump administration’s relatively toothless approach to the killing has strengthened Erdogan’s position.
“Washington has given Erdogan the greatest gift – that is, the ability to reframe the debate by airbrushing his egregious violations of human rights and freedoms in Turkey while also refashioning himself as a champion of justice and righteousness,” Erdemir said.