By Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood and Kevin Liptak, CNN
It was “like you see in the movies,” Trevor Reed’s father said.
An American plane pulled alongside a Russian one on a tarmac in Turkey, two prisoners disembarked and were escorted simultaneously across to the opposite aircraft, where American Reed was greeted by Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko met a representative of his government.
After more than two years in Russian detention, Reed was heading back to the United States. He had arrived as of early Thursday, according to a tweet from his mother Paula Reed.
“It’s been (a) very exciting day for the Reed family,” Paula Reed tweeted. “Trevor is back in the USA.”
According to State Department spokesperson Ned Price, Reed “was released just as the sentence of a Russian pilot” — Yaroshenko — was commuted.
“This was a decision that the President made,” Price said in an interview with CNN.
President Joe Biden said he raised the matter with the Russians “three months ago.”
Behind the scenes, officials from both in and outside the US government had for years been working to get Reed released, including “months and months of hard careful work across the US government,” one administration official told CNN, which took place against the backdrop of growing tensions between Washington and Moscow, exacerbated dramatically by Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine.
The US government efforts have largely been led by US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan — whose staff in Moscow has been winnowed down by Russian government restrictions — and Carstens’ team. The case had also been raised at the highest levels, including by Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and “other channels” of the US government, a source familiar said.
But for months — since Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva last June — the US government has faced the question of whether to allow a prisoner swap that would free Americans detained in Russia, another source familiar told CNN.
The release of a prisoner from US custody is ultimately a decision for the President, but also requires approval from the Department of Justice, and has happened rarely. And even in this case, when Biden made the decision to authorize the swap, Reed’s release was not instantaneous.
Crucial pre-war meeting
In February, in the days immediately before the Russian war in Ukraine, members of the Richardson Center — which privately advocates on behalf of families of hostages and detainees — were invited to Moscow to meet with Russian leadership, the second source said. The National Security Council was advised that the trip was happening, and there were conversations between the Richardson Center and the NSC both before and after.
Following the visit, the Richardson Center came away with a clear sense of what the Russians were willing to do and how they were willing to do it. This was presented to the White House with the hopes that it would act on the advice — and quickly, the source said.
It was a culmination of factors around Reed’s case — his deteriorating health, his family’s activism that led to a meeting with Biden, and the situation in Ukraine — that led Biden to authorize the swap for Yaroshenko, according to the second source.
Indeed, those concerns about Reed’s health lent urgency to the Biden administration’s efforts to get him home from Russia, according to multiple sources, including Price.
Reed’s family said that he had Covid-19, was exposed to tuberculosis, and told them in March he was “coughing up blood multiple times a day, running a fever, and still experiencing pain in his lung.”
These mounting concerns about Reed’s health led the administration to have “a more focused conversation on what would be necessary to get that happening in the near term,” in the words of the first source familiar.
This source explained there were warnings to Moscow that it would be bad for both the United States and Russia if his health failed while he was still detained.
US officials “did emphasize that should those health conditions deteriorate, that’s obviously very, very bad for us because we want to keep American healthy and safe. But it would also be very bad for them,” the source said, referring to the Russians.
The second source noted that the swap also came about after the Reeds met directly with Biden — the only family of a detainee to do so.
“We believe that that meeting with the President is what made it happen,” Joey Reed said Wednesday, with his wife Paula calling it “a tipping point.”
That meeting came after an immense amount of public pressure and appeals by the family. When Biden was visiting Texas last month for an event on veterans’ health care, Reed’s parents sought a meeting through the White House. When they were denied, the Reeds stood outside the venue where Biden was speaking, hoping to catch his attention as he arrived.
It worked, to some extent; as he was arriving in his limousine, the couple caught Biden’s eye with their sign, and he pointed in their direction. But the motorcade didn’t stop.
Later, in a phone call, Biden told the Reeds he’d prayed the rosary for their son aboard Air Force One as he was flying south. He told them he “thinks of Trevor every day.” Biden told the couple someone from the White House would call them back.
Days and then weeks passed without word and the Reeds had grown frustrated that their direct appeal appeared to be fading from memory.
So they came to Biden’s front yard, raising their sign in Lafayette Park across from the White House and said they would remain until Biden met with them.
“We wanted to be here to bring attention to Trevor’s case and to let them know we did not forget. We are waiting for the phone call. We want the meeting the President promised us,” Paula Reed said on the morning of March 30.
It wasn’t just the President’s attention the Reeds were seeking. They came to Washington with a specific request: that Biden consider a prisoner swap that could lead to the release of their son.
By midday, Biden had directed his team to set up a meeting and met with Paula and Joey Reed inside the Oval Office later that day.
“He listened intently to everything we had to say until we were through talking. We couldn’t have asked for more,” Joey Reed said afterward.
‘A very hard decision’
A senior administration official told reporters Wednesday that the negotiations with the Russians “led the President to have to make a very hard decision with a decision to commute the sentence of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of conspiring to import cocaine.”
According to the first source, the Russian government had long expressed interest in getting Yaroshenko back from the United States.
The US does not see an equivalence between the two cases, given they regard Reed as wrongfully detained and Yaroshenko has been convicted in the US court system, but this was Russia’s “consistent demand,” they said, noting it’s something “they’ve been amenable to discussing and, really even one step further, negotiating for a number of months now, that they have something they want, they have people that they would like home.”
The first source would not say if Yaroshenko is explicitly tied to the Kremlin. Though the second source said he had spoken of having close links to Putin, but questions remain about the actual closeness of their relationship.
Although the Department of Justice wasn’t “actively involved in these negotiations with the Russians,” they did have to authorize the release of Yaroshenko, the first source said.
“It’s a conversation that we’ve had with the leadership in the Justice Department for a while now,” the source told CNN, but noted that ultimately “it is the President’s call to make.”
Biden is regularly kept apprised of hostage and detainee cases, the source said, and got the advice of his Cabinet in making the decision on the prisoner swap that freed Reed from Russian detention.
“This is a tough call for a President,” the senior administration official said.
“You don’t get these Americans released for free,” said former Gov. Bill Richardson, the head of the eponymous center, in an interview on CNN Wednesday. “There’s always a price, but for this, it was worth it.”
Officials stressed that these were negotiations on “a discrete issue on which we were able to make an arrangement with the Russians.”
“It represents no change — zero — to our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine,” a senior administration official said.
A second senior official told CNN they do not necessarily see this success as translating to momentum in the case of Paul Whelan or Brittney Griner, other Americans detained in Russia, although the US government will continue to press for their release, and the channel for potential swaps will remain open.
Meanwhile, Whelan is questioning why he was left behind in the prisoner swap that freed Reed.
“Why was I left behind? While I am pleased Trevor is home with his family, I have been held on a fictitious charge of espionage for 40 months,” Whelan said in a statement to his parents and shared with CNN. “The world knows this charge was fabricated. Why hasn’t more been done to secure my release?”
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CNN’s Chris Boyette and Chandelis Duster contributed to this report.