Inside Biden’s agonizing decision to take a deal that freed Brittney Griner but left Paul Whelan in Russia
By Kevin Liptak and Phil Mattingly, CNN
President Joe Biden had already personally informed Cherelle Griner that her wife was being released from Russian detention when aides arrived with more news: Brittney Griner was now securely out of Russia — and on the telephone.
“It’s Joe Biden,” the president said when the call was patched through. “Welcome, welcome home!”
Nearly ten months after Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport, the jubilant moment in the Oval Office on Thursday amounted to the culmination of prolonged, frustrating negotiations and one painful decision that left another detained American disappointed and wondering what his fate may be.
In conversations across an array of government channels, Russian officials were clear with their American counterparts: they would release Griner — and only Griner — in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “merchant of death.”
Because of the matter’s exceedingly high profile, it was certain those conditions had been set by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, one US official said.
Despite Biden’s attempts to link Griner’s case to that of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine arrested on espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later, it became plain recently that Putin would not budge.
“The choice was bringing Brittney Griner home right now, or bringing no one home right now,” one senior administration official said.
With winter approaching at the penal colony where Griner was being held, Biden faced a singularly presidential decision. Welcoming Griner home would fulfill a promise and end the nightmare endured by her and her family.
But any victory would be tempered by the inability to secure Whelan’s freedom and inevitable blowback over the release of one the most prolific arms dealers of the past decades.
The situation was complicated further when senior law enforcement officials, angry at the prospect of releasing a notorious figure it had taken years to capture and alarmed by the precedent Bout’s release would set, raised strong objections.
Biden took the deal.
“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and — and she should have been there all along,” the president said from the Roosevelt Room, where he was joined by Griner’s wife. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time.”
Moments earlier in Abu Dhabi, Griner had stepped from her transport plane into the Middle East air — fifty degrees warmer than Moscow — and smiled, a US official said.
Deal comes together
By the start of this week, US officials had grown confident a resolution to Griner’s case was not only possible, but probable. Biden gave final approval to the parameters of the deal and set in motion the prisoner swap.
The decision was shared with only a tight knit group of US officials to prevent the news from breaking before Griner was in US custody, one US official explained. US officials were concerned about Russia pulling back on the promise after repeated warnings from the Kremlin that the matter should not be discussed in public. They were also cognizant of the ongoing war in Ukraine, wary that any major escalations had the potential to derail the plan. So concerned were White House officials that the fragile deal could collapse that Biden didn’t sign the commutation papers for Bout until Griner was on the ground in Abu Dhabi and in the sight of a US greeting party.
Griner’s wife, who arrived in Washington on Wednesday, was invited to an early morning meeting at the White House set for Thursday. She was initially scheduled to meet with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who had briefed her several times over the course of the negotiations.
Griner, by that point, had been moved from the penal colony where she’d been held to Moscow: a concrete sign of an imminent resolution. When Cherelle Griner arrived at the White House for the meeting with Sullivan, it had become apparent the critical question was no longer if her wife would be released, but when.
Cherelle Griner waited at the White House for a short period of time before it became clear the planned meeting with Sullivan had shifted. One person in particular wanted to deliver the official news that Griner’s nearly 10-month ordeal had come to an end.
She was led into the Oval Office, where Biden was waiting to tell her Griner was officially on her way home.
Griner’s flight to freedom marked a moment officials acknowledged was only the first step of what will likely be a difficult and emotionally jarring process for the professional athlete in the weeks and months ahead. A range of support programs, developed across the US government over years to address the needs of detainees and hostages returning to US, have been prepared for Griner to utilize.
Biden, who has been briefed on what may lie ahead, according to officials, made his own public plea as he announced Griner’s release.
“The fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma, and she deserves space, privacy, and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained,” he said.
A star athlete with an outspoken wife and a dedicated base of supporters, including several fellow celebrities, Griner’s case captured public attention and heaped pressure on Biden to secure her release over the past year. The White House described her suffering “intolerable circumstances” during her detention. And there had been concern about the health and wellbeing of Griner, who is Black and a lesbian, while detained in Russia.
Her case also served to amplify the plight of Whelan, whose arrest on espionage charges led to a conviction in 2020 and a 16-year prison sentence. US officials have called the trial unfair and say the charges are manufactured.
In July, Griner wrote a letter to Biden saying she was “terrified I might be here forever.” She asked him to do all he could to bring her home. At the White House, Biden met with Griner’s wife for the first time to show her the letter he was sending in response.
It was later that month the White House made the unusual decision to reveal publicly it had placed a significant offer on the table to secure both Griner’s and Whelan’s release. For Griner and Whelan, they were willing to exchange Viktor Bout, who was convicted in 2011 on charges including conspiring to kill American citizens.
American officials voiced intense frustration that Russia seemed to reject the proposal.
Behind the scenes, Russian officials told their counterparts that releasing two detained Americans for one Russian prisoner was a non-starter. Yet when American officials sought to raise other options that would secure Whelan’s release alongside Griner’s, they were met with significant resistance.
A senior administration official said the US had “tried to articulate other options, other categories of options, to create the space to really have the haggling that we want to have,” describing the other categories as involving individuals in US custody.
“If you’re haggling, you’re getting closer,” the official said. “And instead we have had no change or softening of a response that is simply a demand for something we just can’t provide because it’s not something in our control.”
As it became clear that Whelan would not be released alongside Griner, Whelan’s sister was visited in person by senior US government officials to “share and talk through” the news. Another senior US official spoke at length Thursday with Whelan himself.
In a phone call with CNN on Thursday, Whelan voiced his frustration that more has not been done to secure his release.
“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” 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 with Biden on Thursday afternoon, she told CNN.
She described it as a “good call.”
‘Merchant of death’
As the outlines of the deal emerged over the past week, White House officials briefed other US government agencies that the Russians would only agree to swap Bout for Griner. Justice Department officials, who were always opposed to releasing Bout, expressed frustration that an earlier deal that included Whelan had, in their view, gotten worse.
One official said law enforcement officials raised strenuous objections but were told the decision had been made. For law enforcement officials from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which spent years and elaborate efforts to try to capture Bout, the release of Bout raised additional concerns about the precedent the deal could set.
The Biden administration conducted a security assessment in the lead-up to Biden giving the final green light to accept the deal to trade Griner for Bout. Ultimately, the assessment’s conclusion was that “Bout was not a security threat to the US,” a US official told CNN.
One reality the assessment took into account, the official said, is the fact that Bout has been in prison for over a decade and has not been actively engaged in any recent criminal activity.
Other than to say that the security assessment conducted on Bout was “thorough,” the official would not elaborate further on how the US was able to be certain that the Russian arms dealer wouldn’t pose a future risk to the country.
The publicity surrounding Griner, including celebrities posting criticism of the Biden White House on social media for not moving more quickly to secure her release, appeared to raise the Russian price for Griner’s release, law enforcement officials said.
That added to concerns that the deal increases the likelihood that Russia, Iran and other countries could use the arrest of Americans to try to use the publicity to gain concessions the US otherwise wouldn’t give.
Speaking Thursday, an administration official rejected the notion that Bout’s release set a new precedent for securing the release of Americans and said hostile governments would be mistaken if they interpreted Thursday’s swap that way.
“Any inference that somehow this has become the norm would be mistaken, and I don’t think governments around the world would be wise to draw that inference,” the official said. “But in the rare case when there is an imperative to Americans home, which is a real priority for this president, there sometimes are no alternatives left, and a heavy price has to be paid.”
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CNN’s Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler, MJ Lee and Kylie Atwood contributed reporting.