Inside Biden’s painful decision to make a deal to free Brittney Griner but let Paul Whelan stay in Russia

Washington D.C

Chairperson Joe Biden personally informed Cherelle Griner that her wife was suffering from released from Russian custody when aides arrived with more news: Brittney Griner is now safely out of Russia – and on the phone.

“It’s Joe Biden,” the president said when the call was made. “Welcome, welcome home!”

Nearly ten months after Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport, Thursday’s moment of jubilation in the Oval Office became the culmination of lengthy, frustrating negotiations and a painful decision that left a Other incarcerated Americans are frustrated and wonder what their fate might be.

In conversations on a variety of government channels, Russian officials made it clear to their American counterparts: they would release Griner — and only Griner — in exchange for a Russian arms dealer convicted nicknamed “the merchant of death”.

Because the issue is of a particularly high nature, those conditions must have been set by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, a US official said.

Despite Biden’s efforts to link Griner’s case to that of Paul Whlan, A former U.S. Marine who was arrested for espionage in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later, it has recently become clear that Putin will not budge.

“The choice is to bring Brittney Griner home now or not to take anyone home right now,” said a senior administration official.

As winter approaches in the penal colony where Griner is being held, Biden faces a unique presidential decision. Welcoming Griner home would fulfill a promise and end the nightmare she and her family had to endure.

But any victory would be held back by the inability to secure Whelan’s freedom and the inevitable consequences for the release of one of the best arms dealers of the past decades.

To further complicate the situation, senior law enforcement officials, angered by the prospect of releasing a notorious figure they had spent years capturing and concerned by the precedent that Bout’s release would set, made voiced strong objections.

Biden made the deal.

“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and – and she should have been there all the time,” the president said from the Roosevelt Room, where he was with Griner’s wife. “This is a day we’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”

Moments earlier in Abu Dhabi, Griner stepped from his transport plane into the Middle Eastern air – 50 degrees warmer than Moscow – and smiled, a US official said.

Earlier this week, US officials were confident that a resolution to Griner’s case was not only possible, but possible. Biden gave final approval to the agreement’s parameters and began the prisoner exchange.

A US official explained that the decision was only shared with a group of US officials with close ties to prevent information from being leaked before Griner was detained by the US. US officials are concerned about Russia reneging on its promise after repeated warnings from the Kremlin that the issue should not be discussed publicly. They are also aware of the ongoing war in Ukraine, wary that any major escalation has the potential to derail plans. White House officials were concerned that the fragile deal could collapse to such an extent that Biden did not sign the transfer paper for Bout until Griner was present in Abu Dhabi and in the presence of a welcome party by Mr. USA.

Griner’s wife, arriving in Washington on Wednesday, was invited to an early morning meeting at the White House on Thursday. She was originally scheduled to meet with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who informed her several times during the negotiations.

Griner, at the time, was transferred from the penal colony where she was detained to Moscow: a concrete sign of an impending resolution. When Cherelle Griner went to the White House to meet with Sullivan, it became clear that the important question was no longer whether her wife would be released but when.

Cherelle Griner waited at the White House for a short time before it became clear that the planned meeting with Sullivan had changed. One person in particular wanted to make an official announcement that Griner’s nearly 10-month ordeal was over.

She was ushered into the Oval Office, where Biden was waiting to tell her Griner was officially on his way home.

Griner’s flight to freedom marks a time when officials acknowledge it’s just the first step in what will likely be a difficult and emotional one for the professional athlete in the weeks and months. next. A variety of assistance programs, developed throughout the United States government over many years to address the needs of detainees and hostages returning to the United States, were prepared for Griner’s use.

According to officials, Biden, who had been briefed on what might lie ahead, made his own public defense when announcing Griner’s release.

He said: “The truth is that she has spent months of her life going through an unnecessary trauma and she deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal wounds after being imprisoned unjustly.

As a star athlete with an outspoken wife and devoted supporters, including several fellow celebrities, Griner’s case has attracted public attention and put pressure on Biden to secure her release over the past year. The White House described her as “unbearable circumstances” during her detention. And there have been concerns about the health and welfare of Griner, a black man and a lesbian, while detained in Russia.

Her case also adds to the plight of Whelan, whose arrest for espionage resulted in a 2020 conviction and a 16-year prison sentence. US officials have called the trial unfair and said the allegations were fabricated.

In July, Griner wrote a letter to Biden saying she was “appalled that I could be here forever.” She asks him to do all he can to bring her home. At the White House, Biden first met with Griner’s wife to show her his reply.

Later that month, the White House made the unusual decision to publicly disclose that it had made a substantial offer to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan. For Griner and Whelan, they are willing to trade Viktor Bout, who was convicted in 2011 of charges including conspiracy to kill American citizens.

American officials expressed extreme disappointment that Russia appeared to reject the proposal.

Behind the scenes, Russian officials told their counterparts that the release of two Americans held for a Russian prisoner was unlikely to begin. However, when American officials sought to come up with other options to secure Whelan and Griner’s release, they were met with considerable resistance.

A senior administration official said the US was “trying to clearly present other options, other categories of options, to create the real bargaining space that we wanted,” describing other categories related to individuals in U.S. custody.

“If you’re haggling, you’re getting closer,” the official said. “And instead, we didn’t change or soften the response, but simply asked for something we couldn’t deliver because it wasn’t something within our control. we.”

When it became clear that Whelan would not be released along with Griner, Whelan’s sister was personally visited by senior US government officials to “share and talk” about the news. Another senior US official spoke at length on Thursday with Whelan himself.

In a phone call with CNN on Thursday, Whelan expressed his disappointment that not many measures had yet been taken to secure his release.

“I was arrested for an unprecedented crime,” he said from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

Paul Whelan’s sister Elizabeth Whelan spoke to Biden on Thursday afternoon, she told CNN.

She described it as a “good call.”

As the outlines of the deal emerged this past week, White House officials informed other US government agencies that the Russians would only agree to exchange the Bout for the Griner. Justice Department officials, who have consistently opposed Bout’s release, expressed disappointment that an earlier deal that included Whelan, in their view, had gone from bad to worse.

An official said law enforcement officials raised stiff objections but were told the decision had been made. For law enforcement officials from the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, who have spent years and elaborate efforts trying to catch Bout, Bout’s release further raises concerns about precedent This agreement may be in place.

The Biden administration conducted a security review before Biden gave the final green light to accept the Griner-for-Bout deal. Ultimately, the review’s conclusion was that “Bout is not a security threat to the United States,” a US official told CNN.

One fact the review took into account, the official said, was that Bout had been in prison for more than a decade and had not been actively involved in any recent criminal activity.

Aside from saying that the security assessment conducted on Bout was “thorough,” the official would not elaborate further on how the United States can be sure that the Russian arms dealer will not pose a risk in the future. for country.

Law enforcement officials say public opinion surrounds Griner, including celebrities posting criticism of the Biden White House on social media for not acting faster to secure her release. , seems to have cost Russia more for Griner’s release.

That adds to concerns that the deal raises the possibility that Russia, Iran and other countries could use the arrest of Americans to try to use publicity to gain concessions that the United States would make. not given.

Speaking on Thursday, an administration official dismissed the notion that Bout’s release had set a new precedent to secure the release of Americans and said hostile governments would be wrong. if they interpret Thursday’s swap that way.

“Any inference that this has somehow become the norm would be false and I don’t think governments around the world would be wise to make that inference,” the official said. “But on the rare occasion when Americans are forced to return home, which is a real priority for this president, sometimes there’s no other choice, and a heavy price to pay.”


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