Mon. Sep 26th, 2022

Washington — President Biden met at the White House on Friday with family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, both of whom remain jailed in Russia, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

The separate meetings were the first in-person encounter between Mr. Biden and the families and took place amid sustained, but so far unsuccessful, efforts by the administration to secure the Americans’ release. The administration said in July that it had made a “substantial proposal” to get them home, but despite plans for the White House meetings, there is no sign that a breakthrough is imminent.

Mr. Biden met in the Oval Office separately with Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, according to a Friday evening statement from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

“The president held the meetings to reiterate his continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely,” Jean-Pierre said. “He asked after the wellbeing of Elizabeth and Cherelle and their respective families during this painful time. The president appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long.”

Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and has appealed the punishment. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are false. The U.S. government regards both as wrongfully detained, placing their cases with the office of its top hostage negotiator.

“I want to thank President Biden for today’s meeting,” Cherelle Griner also said in a statement Friday night. “It was an honor to speak with him directly about the Brittney we know and love, and to thank him for the administration’s efforts to secure her release. I’ve felt every minute of the grueling seven months without her. I look forward to the day my wife is back home.”

Negotiations have been complicated by the tense relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“As we have said before, we believe that Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney and Paul under intolerable circumstances,” Jean-Pierre said at the White House press briefing Thursday. “And, as you know, we have been directly engaged with the Russian government through appropriate channels.”  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the administration had made a substantial proposal to Russia. Since then, the administration has followed up in multiple ways to press its offer and get serious negotiations underway, one of the administration officials said Thursday.

The Russians, who have indicated that they are open to negotiations but have chided the Americans to conduct them in private, have come back with suggestions that are not within the administration’s ability to deliver, said the official, declining to elaborate. But the U.S. has been following up through the same channels that produced an April prisoner swap that brought Marine veteran Trevor Reed home from Russia, the official said.

The administration has not provided specifics about its proposal, but a person familiar with the matter previously confirmed it had offered to release Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer now imprisoned in the U.S. It is also possible that, in the interests of symmetry, Russia might insist on having two of its citizens released from prison.

Mr. Biden spoke by phone in July with Griner’s wife and with Whelan’s sister but both families had also requested in-person meetings. 

The meetings were done separately so as to ensure that each family had private time with the president. But the fact that they happened on the same day shows the extent to which the two cases have become intertwined since the only deal that is presumably palatable to the U.S. is one that gets both Americans — a famous WNBA player and a Michigan man who until recently was little known to the public — home together at the same time,

In the past several months, representatives of both families have expressed frustration over what they perceived as a lack of aggressive action and coordination from the administration.

Cherelle Griner, for instance, told The Associated Press in an interview in June that she was dismayed after the failure of a phone call from her wife that was supposed to have been patched through by the American Embassy in Moscow left the couple unable to connect on their fourth anniversary.

Whelan’s relatives have sought to keep attention on his case, anxious that it has been overshadowed in the public eye by the focus on the far more prominent Griner — a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA all-star. They also conveyed disappointment when Whelan, despite having been held in Russia since December 2018, was not included in a prisoner swap last April that brought home another detained American, Marine veteran Trevor Reed.

Friday’s meeting was scheduled before news broke this week of an unconnected trip to Russia by Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has been a veteran emissary in hostage and detainee cases. Administration officials reacted coolly to that trip, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying Wednesday that dialogue with Russia outside the “established channel” risks hindering efforts to get Griner and Whelan home.

Administration officials say work on hostage and detainee cases persist regardless of whether a family receives a meeting with the president, though there is also no question that such an encounter can help establish a connection. Mr. Biden met in the Oval Office in March with Reed’s parents after the Texas couple stood with a large sign outside the White House calling for their son’s release.



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