Biden will meet with Griner and Whelan families over release efforts
President Joe Biden will personally meet with the families of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan for the first time at the White House, his press secretary said.
Biden will meet with Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan's sister, Elizabeth Whelan (pictured), to assure them his administration is committed to securing the release of their loved ones.
"One of the reasons he's meeting with the families, is that he wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day, on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely," Biden’s press secretary said.
In August 4, a Russian court sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for drug smuggling.
In a statement, President Joe Biden said the sentence was "unacceptable" and demanded that she be returned to the US to be reunited with her family.
Paul Whelan is a former US marine that has American, Canadian, British an Irish citizenship. He’s been held in Russia since 2018, accused of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Both Griner and Whelan are classified by the US Department as wrongfully detained and are believed to be held as political pawns.
In July, CNN reported that the Biden administration had offered Russia a prisoner exchange as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
The administration offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as “the merchant of death,” who’s serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
The Russian government has frequently floated Bout as the subject of a potential trade for a number of Americans. Asked at the Aspen Security Forum why Moscow is so interested in getting Bout back, CIA Director Bill Burns replied, "That's a good question because Viktor Bout's a creep."
Russian media outlets had directly linked Bout’s case to Griner’s months earlier, but US officials would not confirm it until the end of July.
While Biden has supported the idea of a prisoner swap all along, the Department of Justice, is usually against prisoner trades.
Russia countered by requesting that convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov also be released, according to CNN, but the US has not considered the counter as a legitimate proposal and expects Russia to “take the deal that’s on the table,” National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said.
It was understood that Griner’s trial would have to conclude prior to the prisoner swap taking place, according to US officials familiar with the Russian judicial process and the inner workings of US-Russia negotiations. Now that it’s over, the ball is on Russia’s court.
Furthermore, Russian officials said that all legal avenues must be exhausted before a potential exchange can be discussed.
The US government has long resisted prisoner swaps, claiming concerns that they only incentivize countries to detain Americans so they can be used as bargaining chips.
However, advocates have questioned these concerns and have argued that it is more important that Americans are able to come home.
Among senior Biden administration officials, the idea of prisoner swaps gained new momentum earlier this year after the successful release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was held captive in Russia for more than two years.
Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot then serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for cocaine smuggling conspiracy.
Biden officials had been concerned that the decision to swap Reed for Yaroshenko would be criticized by Republicans. Instead, it won bipartisan praise.
"Whatever the kind of moral indignity of them holding innocent people and trying to extract from us someone like Yaroshenko, who is the opposite of that, we nonetheless are so committed to bring our people home that we will make those painful choices," a senior administration official told CNN.
Securing Griner and Whelan’s release would also give the White House a much-needed political win ahead of the midterm elections in November, a point that some officials quietly acknowledged when speaking privately to CNN.
There is also a sense of urgency to bring the two detainees home as the White House faces growing public scrutiny from the families of Americans unlawfully detained abroad and the general public as well.