Biden to Meet With Families of Griner and Whelan, Who Are Imprisoned in Russia

Biden to Meet With Families of Griner and Whelan, Who Are Imprisoned in Russia

WASHINGTON — President Biden will meet with the families of Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan at the White House on Friday, making good on a longstanding request from the relatives of the two Americans being held prisoner in Russia.

But the president does not have good news to deliver about the prisoner exchange that the administration offered Russia this summer, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday.

“While I would love to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer, and we are bringing their loved ones home, that is not what we’re seeing in these negotiations at this time,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.

“The president wanted to make sure that their families understood that they were front of mind,” she added, “and that his team was working tirelessly every day to get Brittney and Paul home safely.”

Ms. Griner, a W.N.B.A. star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained in Russia in February after the Russian authorities found vape cartridges with 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in the country to play basketball. She was convicted last month of trying to smuggle narcotics into Russia and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. Mr. Whelan, a former Marine and corporate security executive, was arrested in 2018 and convicted in 2020 on spying charges and later sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The fates of both Americans have been complicated by the deteriorating diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia over President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Biden has condemned Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and the United States has joined with other nations to impose severe sanctions on the country.

Despite that, Mr. Biden’s administration offered this summer to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer sentenced to 25 years by a court in New York in 2012, in exchange for the release of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.

Russian officials have confirmed that diplomatic discussions are taking place, but White House officials have been frustrated by the lack of a response to the offer.

“The Russians should accept the offer that’s at the table, and we will encourage them to do that,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said on Thursday.

In the meantime, the families of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan have been increasing public pressure on Mr. Biden to ensure that his administration does not let up.

Early in the summer, relatives of both prisoners expressed frustration that they had not heard directly from Mr. Biden. Cherelle Griner, Ms. Griner’s wife, said on CBS in early July that the administration was “not doing anything” and that she wanted to hear from Mr. Biden directly. Two days later, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner.

That prompted Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Mr. Whelan, to publicly question why she had not received a similar call. In a call soon after, Mr. Biden assured Ms. Whelan that the administration was working to free both of the prisoners.

Since then, there has been continued pressure for Mr. Biden to meet with the families face to face. Ms. Jean-Pierre said on Thursday that the meeting was scheduled for Friday because one of the family members was already going to be in the area and that the president wanted to meet with both families on the same day.

It is not clear whether the president will meet with the families together or separately.

The possibility of reaching a prisoner-exchange deal with Russia comes several months after the United States freed a convicted Russian drug smuggler in exchange for Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had been detained in a Russian prison for three years. White House officials said their Russian counterparts indicated at the time that another trade, for Mr. Bout, could be possible.

Mr. Bout is known as the “Merchant of Death” for his activities as an arms dealer. He is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell arms to undercover U.S. agents, telling them he did not object to the use of the weapons to kill Americans.

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