For the first time since their loved ones were detained in Russia, the families of American basketball star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Paul Whelan will have the chance to speak to President Joe Biden in person.
Biden plans to meet with Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan's sister, Elizabeth Whelan, at the White House on Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday.
“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,” Jean-Pierre said.
In late July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that the Biden Administration had made a “substantial proposal” to the Kremlin in hopes of securing the release of Griner and Whelan. The offer reportedly was a swap for notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison for conspiring to kill Americans and provide weapons to terrorists.
While Russia did not accept the offer of a 2-for-1 swap for Bout, the U.S. has continued to try to negotiate. When asked Thursday for an update, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, “Why this process is taking so long is a better question for Moscow than it is for us.”
“I wouldn’t characterize this process as stalled,” Price continued. “It certainly hasn’t moved with the speed we would like. The fact that Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan still remain separated from their families in detention in Russia is a testament to that.”
Biden had previously spoken at least once by phone with Cherelle Griner and Elizabeth Whelan. During his July phone call with Cherelle, Biden reassured her that his administration is working to secure Griner’s release and read her a draft of a letter he was having delivered to Brittney in prison.
Griner was arrested last February when she flew into Moscow with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. During her trial, Griner confessed to inadvertently violating Russian law, telling the Russian judge she packed in a hurry and mistakenly brought the vape cartridges with her.
The judge largely disregarded Griner’s pleas for leniency, declaring Griner guilty of drug possession and drug smuggling and handed down a nine-year sentence that was just shy of the maximum 10-year penalty. Griner’s attorneys appealed the verdict on Aug. 15, but experts in hostage exchange and Russian foreign policy say her appeal is likely to face the same challenges as her initial defense because of the political calculus involved.
The real purpose of Griner’s trial, according to experts, was to legitimize the Kremlin’s desire to hold her until it could extract concessions out of the U.S. in exchange for her safe return. A guilty verdict and a long sentence give the Kremlin the most leverage in negotiations with the U.S. and increase the pressure on the Biden administration to cut a deal to bring Griner home.
Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020 after being convicted of espionage. Both he and U.S. officials have vehemently denied the charges and denounced his trial as wholly unfair.
While relations between the U.S. and Russia are at a low point, the two former Cold War adversaries did manage to negotiate a prisoner exchange earlier this year. The U.S. secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug smuggling charges.
“We made a significant offer a couple of months ago through the same channels we used for Trevor Reed,” Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday. “We have followed up on that offer repeatedly and will continue to pursue every avenue to bring them home safely.”