President Biden’s decision to release basketball star Brittney Griner was a “difficult” one, a senior administration official said Thursday, adding that the Russians rejected U.S. efforts to also release imprisoned American Paul Whelan.
“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” the official said, speaking in a call with reporters shortly after Griner’s release was made public.
“In recent days, we were able to reach agreement on an option to secure Brittney’s release. President Biden made a difficult decision to accept that option. It resulted in the safe return home of an American. That is always our goal, get wrongfully detained Americans home safely, then keep working for the return of others,” the official said.
Griner’s exchange came with the early release from U.S. federal prison of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The senior administration official said Biden made the “painful” decision to grant Bout clemency to secure Griner’s release.
Whelan, a former U.S. marine, has spent four years behind Russian bars and was sentenced to 16 years in prison following a conviction on espionage charges in 2020. The U.S. has determined Whelan’s detention to be unlawful and criticized the Russian criminal allegations and court process as a sham.
His family said last week he was transferred to a Russian prison hospital.
The official said the Russians are holding Whelan’s release to a higher bar than Griner’s because of the espionage charges.
“We as a government have sought to bring Paul Whelan home as well. We did so in good faith with the Russians and proposed multiple different options. Regrettably due to the nature of the sham espionage charges Russia levied against Paul, the Russians have treated, continue to treat, his situation differently from Brittney’s and rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release.”
The official added that a senior U.S. official spoke with Whelan from prison on Thursday “to talk through today’s news,” and that another senior official spoke with Whelan’s sister, but that the president has yet to communicate with the family.
“The President has made clear to the Whelan family that when they are ready, he is eager to personally convey his commitment to Paul’s case and its resolution, and keep them informed of our efforts,” the senior official said.