By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Friday denied that it was planning an extradition deal designed to persuade the Turkish president to ease off on a probe over the killing of a journalist in an Istanbul embassy.
NBC News reported on Thursday that the Trump administration had been seeking ways to extradite U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is wanted in Turkey over accusations that he was involved in a failed 2016 coup, in order to appease Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
It said the move was designed to persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month. Trump has sought closer ties with Saudi Arabia, citing Riyadh's role in countering Iranian influence in the region, and billions of dollars in potential arms deals.
In a statement on Friday, Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman denied the NBC report, saying the department "has not been involved in nor aware of any discussions" connecting an extradition of Gulen and the death of Khashoggi.
The denial was unusual for the Justice Department, which typically does not comment on matters pertaining to potential cases of extradition.
Navas Oxman would not comment beyond the statement.
The NBC report said that Trump administration officials had asked U.S. law enforcement agencies to look into whether Gulen could legally be forced out of the United States.
The report said that the administration had directed the Justice Department and FBI to reexamine a request from Turkey for Gulen's extradition and also asked the Department of Homeland Security for information about his legal status.
A White House official, who declined to be named, also denied the NBC report on Thursday, saying it "has not been involved in any discussions relating the extradition of Fethullah Gulen to the death of Jamal Khashoggi."
Erdogan has long demanded that Washington extradite Gulen, who denies any involvement in the attempted coup and has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.
Erdogan ramped up pressure on Saudi Arabia after U.S.-based journalist Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi rulers, was killed at the consulate, where he had gone to pick up documents related to his upcoming marriage.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)