President Joe Biden plans to meet 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, the White House announced Friday.
“He wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Thursday’s press briefing at the White House.
The separate meetings are to be the first in-person encounter between Biden and the families and are taking 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.
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.
Friday’s meetings, which both families have long sought, are intended to underscore the administration’s commitment to bringing home Griner, Whelan and other Americans jailed abroad, as well as to “connect with them on a human level as they undergo an ordeal that the Russian government has imposed on them,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as the meetings had not yet been publicly announced.
Negotiations have been complicated by the tense relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
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.
Biden spoke by phone in July with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and with Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, but both families have also requested in-person meetings. On Friday, Biden plans to speak at the White House with Cherelle Griner and with the player’s agent in one meeting and with Elizabeth Whelan in the other.
The meetings are being done separately so as to ensure that each family has private time with the president. But the fact that they are happening 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. 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.