White House: Biden has read Griner letter pleading for help

WNBA Finals - Game One - Chicago Sky v Phoenix Mercury
Getty Images
5 Comments

Brittney Griner’s appeal to President Joe Biden in a handwritten letter continued to garner reaction Tuesday after the WNBA All-Star acknowledged she feared never returning home and asked Biden to not ” forget about me and the other American Detainees.”

Griner’s letter was delivered through her representatives to the White House on Monday and officials say the president has read it. However Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said Tuesday on a morning talk show that she hadn’t heard from Biden.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked repeatedly about Griner on Tuesday during the regular briefing. She said Biden read the letter, but she did not detail his reaction.

“This is very personal to him.”

Jean-Pierre did not say whether there were plans for Biden to speak with Griner’s family, but did say that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken both spoke to Griner’s wife recently.

Jean-Pierre said Biden wanted to get Griner and other Americans home.

“We are going to use every tool we possibly can to make that happen,” Jean-Pierre said.

Griner is in the midst of a trial in Russia that began last week after she was arrested on Feb. 17 on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for her Russian team. The trial will resume Thursday.

Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in U.S. courts, acquittals can be overturned.

Griner’s representatives Monday shared a few excerpts from her letter to the president.

As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote.

“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran,” the Phoenix Mercury center added. “It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”

Cherelle Griner was disappointed not to have any direct communication with the White House since the letter was delivered.

“I still have not heard from him and honestly, it’s very disheartening,” Cherelle Griner said on CBS Mornings.

Cherelle Griner said for Brittney to reach out directly to Biden is an indication of just how afraid her wife is about what’s next.

“BG is probably the strongest person that I know. So she doesn’t say words like that lightly,” Cherelle said. “That means she truly is terrified that she may never see us again. And you know I share those same sentiments. … I’m sure she was like, `I’m gonna write him now because … my family has tried and to no avail. So I’m going do it myself.”‘

Griner pleaded with Biden in the letter to use his powers to ensure her return.

“Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore,” Griner said “I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

Griner has been able to have sporadic communications with family, friends and WNBA players through an email account her agent set up. The emails are printed out and delivered in bunches to Griner by her lawyer after they are vetted by Russian officials. Once the lawyers get back to their office, they’ll scan any responses from Griner and pass them back to the U.S. to send along.

She was supposed to have a phone call with her wife on their anniversary but it failed because of an “unfortunate mistake,” Biden administration officials.

Griner’s supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy. The State Department in May designated her as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Griner isn’t the only American being wrongfully detained in Russia. Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director is serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction.

In rare contact, U.S. offers Russia deal for Griner, Whelan

RUSSIA-US-DIPLOMACY-BASKET-COURT
Getty Images
1 Comment

WASHINGTON – The U.S. has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine to discuss the deal and other matters.

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the U.S. government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial. Though it is unclear if the proposal will be enough for Russia to release the Americans, the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us toward a resolution,” Blinken said.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal outlined to the Russians, but U.S. officials suggested it is similar to the prisoner swap that secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed in April. Russia has made no secret of its desire for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to be freed from U.S. prison and the officials would not rule out that Bout’s release is on the table.

President Joe Biden, who authorized the Reed prisoner swap after meeting with his parents, signed off on the deal the U.S. offered in this case, officials said.

“The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring them home,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters.

Should the call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov take place, it would be the first conversation that the men have held since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested a new call with Lavrov.

Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a U.N.-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

“There is utility to conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” including the release of Griner and Whelan, he said. They also include “what we’re seeing and hearing around the world is a desperate need for the foods, the desperate need for prices to decrease.”

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.

Griner, in Russian custody for the last five months, acknowledged in court that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contends she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.

At her trial Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and had packed in haste. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage additional hostage-taking and promote false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national regarded as justly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, in which Reed was traded for jailed Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future and the Biden administration has been hounded with political pressure to bring home Griner and other Americans designated as unjustly detained.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last publicly recognized contact was Feb. 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert the Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the matter. The State Department said later that Russia’s diplomacy was “Kabuki Theater” – all show and no substance.

The two last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military build-up along Ukraine’s border and Russian demands for NATO to reduce its presence in eastern Europe and permanently deny Ukraine membership. The U.S. rejected the Russian demands.

Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month at the next time they were in the same place at the same time: at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations in Bali, Indonesia.

The two men will next be in the same city at the same time next week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they will both be attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum. It was not immediately clear if the phone call ahead of that meeting, set for Aug. 4-5, would presage an in-person discussion.

LeBron critical on his show of US efforts to get Griner home

2022 NBA Summer League - Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
Getty Images
1 Comment

LeBron James is publicly criticizing the United States’ handling of WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner’s case in a trailer for an upcoming episode of his television show: “The Shop: Uninterrupted.”

LeBron James is publicly criticizing the United States’ handling of WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner’s case in a trailer for an upcoming episode of his television show: “The Shop: Uninterrupted.”

Griner is on trial in Russia for drug possession. She pleaded guilty last week and will appear again in court on Thursday.

“Now, how can she feel like America has her back?” James said in the trailer. “I would be feeling like, `Do I even wanna go back to America?”‘

It’s unclear when the show was filmed, although in the trailer it is mentioned that Griner had been in Russia for more than 110 days, which would have been nearly five weeks ago as she was detained on Feb. 17.

During the weeks since day 110, in addition to the trial beginning and the guilty plea, Griner’s wife Cherelle has had a phone conversation with President Joe Biden. Biden also received a letter from Brittney Griner on July 4 and sent a letter back to her which she was given in court last week.

There is also no mention of other detained Americans in the trailer.

Klutch Sports Group, the agency that represents James, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Washington hasn’t disclosed its strategy in the case and the U.S. may have little leverage with Moscow because of strong animosity over its actions in Ukraine. The State Department’s designation of Griner being wrongfully detained moves her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington will continue to work for the release of Griner, as well as other Americans held by Moscow, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted last week,

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had been in contact with the National Security Council, but wouldn’t comment on “his travel or what he intends to do” amid reports that Richardson plans to travel to Russia and work on Griner’s release.

James’ show will air on Friday.