Last Friday, President Joe Biden met with the families of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. When announced, the meeting fueled speculation that the Biden administration may have reached a deal to bring Griner and Whelan home or be closing in on securing their freedom. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Moscow last week to discuss Griner and Whelan’s release.
However, the Democrat did so against the wishes of the White House, which had earlier successfully discouraged former NBA star Dennis Rodman from taking the trip.
Cherelle Griner told reporters that the family asked for Richardson’s assistance.
“We asked Gov. Richardson and the Richardson Center to help us, and have been working with them for a while,” Cherelle Griner said during a television interview.
Earlier this year, the former governor helped the negotiations between America and Russia that led to the freedom of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed.
“We are encouraged to hear that they are having meetings in Moscow,” Griner said.
The White House didn’t want news of the meeting to give false hope of the detainees’ release.
“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,” White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre said. “The president appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long.”
Earlier Thursday, Biden celebrated the tentative deal he struck with rail carrier unions, noting that negotiators had remained awake and talking for 20 hours before reaching an agreement. Griner and Whelan’s families hope Biden uses those deal-making skills with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During the summer, the administration offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a deal to secure freedom for Griner and Wheeler.
Biden reportedly signed off on the deal to include Bout, despite his reputation as the ‘Merchant of Death.’ He’s currently serving a 25-year U.S. prison sentence.
Despite speculation, the White House cautioned that the administration and Russia haven’t agreed on anything.
Griner was arrested in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to the drug charge, saying that the drugs were mistakenly packed while she was in a hurry. Griner is appealing her nine-year sentence.
Whelan was convicted on espionage charges, which he strongly denies, and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison.