President Joe Biden has been scheduled to meet with the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan at the White House on Friday, marking his first time personally meeting with them since their loved ones were detained in Russia.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that Biden will meet with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, to assure them his administration is committed to securing the release of their loved ones and that they remain “front of mind.” Biden will meet with them separately, an official said.
“One of the things that the President wanted to make clear is, and one of the reasons he’s meeting with the families, is that 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,” Jean-Pierre said.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said that working to secure Griner and Whelan’s release, as well as that of Americans wrongfully detained abroad, is a top priority. In late July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US had put forward a “substantial proposal” to try to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. Sources told CNN that proposal included a swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner was detained in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry. She has been sentenced to nine years, along with a fine of about $16,400. Her 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 that he vehemently denies. He was sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.
A senior administration official told CNN Thursday that there has been “movement but not breakthrough” on the efforts to secure the releases of Griner and Whelan. The official said that the US has urged Russia to put forward “a serious counteroffer” to the proposal on the table to secure the release of the two, but “we’ve not gotten a serious response back.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday that “there have been discussions with the Russian government,” but acknowledged the negotiations process “certainly hasn’t moved with the speed we would like.” He said he wouldn’t call the process “stalled.”
The White House meetings come after CNN first reported earlier this week that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and his team were in Moscow and held meetings with Russian leadership.
The details around those meetings were not immediately clear. Richardson and his namesake center privately work on behalf of families of hostages and detainees.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that private citizens’ attempts to broker deals to repatriate wrongfully detained Americans may end up hindering ongoing efforts by the US government to bring them home.
Since taking office, Biden has met with the families of other Americans who have been detained abroad.
The President in May met with the family of Austin Tice, an American journalist detained at a checkpoint near Damascus in August 2012. The Biden administration relayed in August that it has engaged directly with the Syrian government to try and 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 freed and repatriated to the US in April as part of a prisoner swap.