White House faces tough questions from press over Brittney Griner deal

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Susan Walsh/AP

White House faces tough questions from press over Brittney Griner deal

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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre faced a series of tough questions from the press during Thursday’s news briefing, with scrutiny placed on several aspects of the deal that brings Brittney Griner home in exchange for “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout.

The Biden administration billed the deal as a moment to be celebrated as it ends Griner’s 10-month detention in Russia. However, the afternoon press briefing brought questions 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, among other issues.


“Obviously, we’re all very happy to hear the news that [Griner is] coming home,” asked one reporter. “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.

“He believed it was the right thing to do to secure Brittney’s release,” she said of Biden. “What we were left with is we either bring Brittney home or no one at all.”

The latter statement referred to Whelan, who, at one time, was believed to be part of negotiations that could see both himself and Griner exchanged for Bout. In the end, the United States accepted a deal to bring home only Griner.

“How do you dispel the perception that if you’re a celebrity … you get preferential treatment?” another reporter asked.

Jean-Pierre repeated that the Russians treated Whelan differently due to the nature of his charges, which included espionage.

“We made every possible offer available to us to secure Paul’s release, but there was no way to bring Paul home right now,” Jean-Pierre said.

The harsh questioning didn’t end there.

Correspondents also grilled the press secretary about Bout, a notorious arms dealer.

“This was someone who conspired to sell AK-47s that he knew would have been used to kill Americans, American drug agents,” a reporter asked. “Law enforcement officials may not be happy with his release. What’s the president’s message to them and to others who say essentially that this was a bad deal?”

Jean-Pierre noted that Bout, who was arrested in 2008, was scheduled for release in 2029 and had already served 12 years in U.S. prisons. She added that “negotiations for the release of wrongful detainees are often very difficult. That’s just the reality.”

Asked repeatedly if the Griner deal could fuel a magnet effect of encouraging other repressive governments to take Americans prisoner to secure negotiating leverage, Jean-Pierre eventually retorted that she “cannot speak for other countries.”

One reporter asked if the deal was deliberately announced after the midterm elections, which wrapped up with the Georgia Senate runoff on Tuesday, were completed. Another said flatly, “In this prisoner swap, why did Russia get such a better deal?”


Jean-Pierre continued to defend the deal until she abruptly ended the briefing when a reporter started yelling questions on an unrelated topic.

“We have been focused on how we can bring [Americans] home, and we make no apologies for that,” she 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.”

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