President Trump shot down reports on Saturday that his administration was considering extraditing a Pennsylvania-based foe of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in order to diffuse tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Erdogan says Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who has been living in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, was involved in a failed coup in 2016. The government has requested the U.S. send him back to Turkey.
This week, NBC News, citing four unnamed sources, reported that the White House was considering whether to expel Gulen. The report stated that the White House was looking to "placate Turkey" and to "persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on the Saudi government" after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
"It's not under consideration," Trump said. "We're having a very good moment with Turkey," the president said, adding that he has a good relationship with Erdogan. "He's a friend of mine. He's a strong man, he's tough man, and he's a smart man."
In October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he spoke with Turkish officials about Gulen. "We did talk about Fethullah Gulen ... It's something that the Turks remind us of often, and we're mindful of places that we can work with them to make sure that we all have a shared set of facts as well," he said.
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the agency received multiple requests from the Turkish government to extradite Gulen and "continue to evaluate the materials."
She went on to say that some news reports "are trying to conflate the two, Saudi Arabia and Turkey with Khashoggi and Gulen."
The Justice Department on Friday denied that it was planning an extradition deal, according to Reuters.
"At no point did Turkey offer to hold back on the Khashoggi investigation in return for Fethullah Gulen's extradition," a senior Turkish official told the outlet. "We have no intention to intervene in the Khashoggi investigation in return for any political or legal favor."
Over the years, anti-Gulen rhetoric has become a mainstay of Turkey's pro-government media. The Gulen religious movement has been commonly referred to as FETO, "Fethullah Terrorist Organization," and it's commonly referred to as a "terror-cult," NPR's Peter Kenyon reported.
Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI, lobbied for Turkey while advising the Trump campaign. On Election Day, he published an opinion piece calling for the United States to stop harboring Gulen, "a shady Islamic mullah" whose "global network has all the right markings to fit the description of a dangerous sleeper terror network."
Gulen, an Islamic scholar, has denied involvement in Turkey's 2016 coup, the aftermath of which left tens of thousands arrested and more than 100,000 fired from their jobs.
He spoke with NPR last year, commenting on Turkey's extradition efforts. "I think the United States is mindful of its reputation for its democracy and rule of law, 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," he said. "I would go willingly."