President Joe Biden will meet with the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan at the White House on Friday, his press secretary said.
It will be the first time he meets them face to face. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden has spoken with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, to make sure his administration is committed to freeing loved ones and that they remain “on top of things.” “Biden will meet with them separately,” an official said.
“One of the things that the president wanted to make clear, and one of the reasons for meeting with the families, is that he wants to let them know that they are still in his heart and that his team is working every day. In making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” Jean-Pierre said at the White House.
He added: “A family member was scheduled to be in town and the president wanted to meet with both families on the same day.”
The Associated Press was the first to report on the meeting.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said that working to secure the freedom of Griner and Whelan, as well as other Americans wrongfully detained abroad, is a top priority. In late July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to try to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. Sources told CNN the proposal included a swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner was arrested in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in his luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she accidentally packed the drugs in a hurry.
He has been sentenced to nine years, along with a fine of around 16,400 dollars. His legal team in Russia has appealed the verdict.
Whelan has been accused by Russia of alleged espionage since 2018.
The Biden administration has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a possible deal to free Whelan and Griner, according to people briefed on the matter. Sources told CNN that the plan to swap Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison, for Whelan and Griner received Biden’s backing after controversy earlier this year. Biden’s support for the swap trumps opposition from the Justice Department, which generally opposes prisoner trafficking.
Asked by CNN if there would be any major updates for the families on Friday, Jean-Pierre said there won’t be any major updates to share.
“I would like to say that the purpose of this meeting is to let the families know that the Russians have accepted our offer and that we are bringing their loved ones home, which is not what we are seeing at this point in these negotiations.” said Jean-Pierre.
He added: “We would like to say today that we have news about Brittney and Paul coming home today. That is, unfortunately, there are no negotiations at this time.”
The president’s special envoy for hostage matters, Roger Carstens, is in Rome for Vatican meetings and will not attend Friday’s meetings, according to a US official. Secretary of State Tony Blinken met with Griner and Whelan’s families earlier this year.
The State Department did not immediately confirm whether Blinken would attend Friday’s meetings.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.