President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan at the White House on Friday, the first time he has met them in person since their loved ones were arrested in Russia.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that Biden has spoken with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, to make sure her administration is committed to their family members’ freedom and that they are “moving forward.” in mind.” 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. Making sure Brittney and Paul get home safely,” said Jean-Pierre.
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 sentence.
Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia for more than three years after being convicted on espionage charges, which he vehemently denies. In June 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial that US officials said was unfair.
A senior administration official told CNN Thursday that there has been “movement but no progress” in efforts to secure the releases of Griner and Whelan. The official said the U.S. has asked Russia to make a “serious counteroffer” to the proposal on the table to secure the release of the two, but “we have not received a serious response.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that “there have been discussions with the Russian government,” but acknowledged that the negotiating process “certainly has not moved at the speed that we would like.” He said he would not call the process “stalled.”
The White House meetings come after CNN first reported this week that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and his team were in Moscow and held meetings with the Russian leader.
Details of those meetings were not immediately clear. Richardson and the center that bears his name work privately for the families of hostages and detainees.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly expressed concern that attempts by private citizens to broker deals to repatriate wrongfully detained Americans could hinder the US government’s efforts to bring them home.
Since taking office, Biden has met with the families of other Americans detained overseas.
The president met in May with the family of Austin Tice, an American journalist arrested in August 2012 at a checkpoint near Damascus. The Biden administration announced in August that it had spoken directly with the Syrian government to try to bring Tice home.
Biden also met with the family of Trevor Reed in March. Reed, an American citizen and former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019, was released in April and returned to the United States as part of a prisoner swap.