The White House has secured the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner, President Joe Biden announced Thursday, confirming that the U.S. sent arms trafficker Viktor Bout to Russia in exchange.
“Moments ago, standing together with her wife, Cherelle, in the Oval Office, I spoke with Brittney Griner,” the president said from the White House. “She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances.”
Vice President Kamala Harris and Cherelle Griner, who stood behind Biden during the announcement, were also in the room for his Oval Office call.
A U.S. official said Griner and Bout walked past each other on the tarmac at the Abu Dhabi airport on their way to exchanging planes.
The prisoner swap, conducted at Abu Dhabi airport, ends a brutal 10 months for Griner, who Russian authorities arrested in February for possession of vape cartridges containing hash oil. She was sentenced in August to nine years in prison and was recently sent to a penal colony 300 miles outside of Moscow.
Griner is on the way to a medical facility in San Antonio for a routine evaluation.
The news is bittersweet for the family of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine held in Russia since 2018 on unproven charges of espionage. His family was given notice Wednesday by the administration that Whelan was not part of the deal.
David Whelan, Paul’s brother, described the news in a statement as “a disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.” But he said “the Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. He later added: “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittany’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We are never giving up.”
Biden promised his administration would continue to push for Whelan’s release. But former U.S. officials are concerned about Whelan staying behind in Russia.
“The Whelan situation is troubling, and although there will be catharsis felt in the U.S. for Griner, families of the many remaining not-so-famous detainees will want more action,” Hugh Dugan, the acting U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs in the Trump administration. “The deal for Bout is the public description, what else might have passed across the table has to be pondered, particularly since the Bout offer was not taken since July. Whether we gave even more, including having to make a ‘Sophie’s choice’ leaving Whelan on his own, comes to mind.”
The Biden administration worked for months to trade both Griner and Whelan for Bout, but the Russian position was that there could only be a one-for-one deal. Moscow wanted the U.S. to release a Russian spy in exchange for Whelan, but the American position has long been that it doesn’t have such a person in custody. The Russians then asked for another person who was in German custody, a U.S. official said.
Asked about the Russian stance on Sunday, Blinken told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “the other side gets a vote in this. It’s not just what we want. It’s what they’re prepared to do.”
The Biden administration hoped to secure Griner’s release by Christmas, a U.S. official said. Griner was expected to be stateside within the next 24 hours.
Biden previously indicated an openness to discuss a prisoner exchange directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the Kremlin boss never agreed to such a conversation.
During a press conference last month, Biden said he hoped Russia would be more willing to strike a deal after the midterms. “We’ve had a number of discussions so far, and I’m hopeful that now that our election is over, there’s a willingness to negotiate more specifically with us,” he said on Nov. 9.
Griner is now the second U.S. hostage returned to American authorities since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Trevor Reed, a former Marine imprisoned for nearly 1,000 days, was released in April.
Cherelle Griner, speaking after Biden, said she and Brittney will advocate for Americans wrongfully detained abroad, including Whelan.
“Today my family is whole but as you are all aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole,” Cherelle Griner said. “… B.G. and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
Kelly Hooper contributed to this report.