In what is the most shocking geopolitical news of the day, NBC reports that the Trump administration is weighing extraditing the nemesis of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, cleric Fethulah Gulen who has been living for years in relative seclusion in rural Pennsylvania, from the U.S. in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to the NBC report, Trump administration officials last month asked federal law enforcement agencies to examine legal ways of removing the exiled Turkish cleric in an attempt to persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on the Saudi government. The effort includes directives to the Justice Department and FBI that officials reopen Turkey's case for his extradition, as well as a request to the Homeland Security Department for information about his legal status, four sources told NBC.
In hopes of finding immigration irregularities, the White House has requested details about Gulen's residency status in the U.S. Gulen - who has been living in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s - has a Green Card.
As NBC also adds, there was a certain level of incredulity at this sequence of events: career officials at the agencies pushed back on the White House requests, the U.S. officials and people briefed on the requests said.
"At first there were eye rolls, but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious," said a senior U.S. official involved in the process.
What is strange is that while Trump appears eager to appease Erdogan by handing him his arch enemy, the person whom the Turkish president has blamed for creating a "shadow government", and being responsible for the failed 2016 coup attempt, a Turkish official said the government does 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."
So why the extradition push? According to NBC, the secret effort to resolve one of the leading tensions in U.S.-Turkey relations – Gulen's residency in the U.S. – provides a window into how President Donald Trump is trying to navigate hostility between two key allies after Saudi officials murdered Khashoggi on October 2 at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.
It suggests the White House could be looking for ways to appease and contain Erdogan's ire over the murder while preserving Trump's close alliance with Saudi Arabia's controversial de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump has been desperate to brush aside the entire Khashoggi affair so Riyadh can continue to purchase billions in US weapons without complaints from Congress; Erdogan, meanwhile, has kept the pressure up by leaking pieces of evidence and repeatedly speaking out to accuse Prince Mohammed of orchestrating the murder of Khashoggi.
Of course, as regular readers know, Erdogan has for years demanded the U.S. send Gulen back to Turkey, however such requests have been regularly denied by both the Obama and Trump administration, at least until now.
The Turkish leader accuses the elderly cleric of being a terrorist who was behind a failed coup against Erdogan's government in 2016. After the coup attempt, Ankara made a formal request to the U.S. for Gulen's extradition.
Turkish officials made clear to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his Oct. 17 meeting with Erdogan in Ankara that they wanted the Trump administration to turn over Gulen, the U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter said.
"That was their number one ask," said a person briefed on the meeting.
One option that Turkish and Trump administration officials recently discussed is forcing Gulen to relocate to South Africa rather than sending him directly to Turkey if extradition is not possible, said the U.S. officials and people briefed on the discussions. But the U.S. does not have any legal justification to send Gulen to South Africa, they said, so that wouldn't be a viable option unless he went willingly.
Whether or not Gulen is ultimately extradited remains unclear, however the fact that Trump is even considering this shows just how much leverage the Turkish president now has over Trump. As a result, it will hardly come as a surprise that the Turkish Lira has surged on the news, rising to just above 5.300 after trading at 5.45 earlier...
... as Turkey slowly emerges as one of the most powerful nations in the middle east, engaged in friendly diplomatic relations with Moscow on one hand, while seemingly calling the shots in the US as well.