“Moments ago, I spoke to Brittney Griner,” President Joe Biden said on Twitter. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”
But the deal’s mixed reception was obvious by the afternoon when the White House press corps peppered press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre with questions about whether Russia got the better end of the deal.
“Obviously we’re all very happy to hear the news that [Griner is] coming home,” one reporter said. “But I’m wondering if the administration is concerned about whether there’s any precedent set here about what the U.S. government is willing to trade in exchange for the release of Americans imprisoned abroad.”
Jean-Pierre responded that “this was not a decision the president made lightly,” a statement she repeated multiple times.
Similar questions followed about what will become of detained Marine Paul Whelan, whether Bout remains dangerous, whether the deal will encourage other countries to take Americans hostage, and whether Griner received special treatment as a celebrity.
“We have been focused on how we can bring [Americans] home, and we make no apologies for that,” Jean-Pierre said. “That’s what you have seen us do today, and that’s what you’ve seen us do with Trevor Reed and others. … We’re going to continue to put our efforts forward.”
Biden faced similar questions when former Marine Trevor Reed was released in April in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence in Connecticut for conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Criticism in each case focused on the idea that taking Americans hostage is being rewarded.
“Apparently White House is right now in process of releasing the most infamous ‘Merchant of Death’ — Viktor Bout — who was working to help terrorists kill DEA agents,” tweeted Marshall Billingslea, the former Treasury Department assistant secretary for terrorist financing. “Seems he will be traded for Brittney Griner. So much for longstanding policy of 0 concessions to hostage-takers.”
While the Russia detainees have drawn the most attention, the Biden administration has cut other deals and made other efforts toward helping detained Americans.
Seven American detainees were returned from Venezuela in October in exchange for two prisoners, and in September, the administration agreed to swap Afghan drug lord Bashir Noorzai for U.S. citizen Mark Frerichs, who had been held by the Taliban for more than two years.
Biden issued an executive order in July authorizing agencies to issue financial sanctions and visa bans as a tool to secure the release of detained Americans.
The executive order also included a warning indicator the State Department can use to slap travel advisories on countries presenting a risk of wrongful detentions. Countries including Myanmar, Afghanistan, Belarus, Russia, and Iran are listed as Level 4: Do not travel.
Jean-Pierre mentioned the executive order during Thursday’s press briefing while defending the administration’s actions in the Griner deal.
But reporters did not seem swayed by the arguments in favor of the once-celebrated deal, with one asking, “In this prisoner swap, why did Russia get such a better deal?”
The Biden administration’s focus will now likely turn toward securing the release of Whelan, though with Bout now off the table, it’s unclear what it will take to get the former Marine home.
“While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday. “Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney. Nevertheless, we will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong.”
In nearly every case, including Griner’s, there was a dispute with the family. But in many cases, the detained American was released.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he told CNN shortly after the news of the prisoner exchange was revealed publicly. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”