This will be the first time he has met with them in person. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden will meet with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, to assure them his administration is committed to securing the release of their loved ones and that they remain “front of mind.” Biden will meet with them separately, an official said.
“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,” Jean-Pierre said at the White House.
She added: “One family member was already scheduled to be in town and the President wanted to meet with both of the families on the same day.”
The Associated Press was first to report on the meeting.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said that working to secure Griner and Whelan’s release, as well as that of Americans wrongfully detained abroad, is a top priority. In late July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US had put forward a “substantial proposal” to try to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. Sources told CNN that proposal included a swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner was detained in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry.
She has been sentenced to nine years, along with a fine of about $16,400. Her legal team in Russia has appealed the ruling.
Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia for more than three years after being convicted on espionage charges that he vehemently denies. He was sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.
The Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Whelan and Griner, according to people briefed on the matter. Sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, for Whelan and Griner received the backing of Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden’s support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.
Asked by CNN whether there will be any substantive updates for the families on Friday, Jean-Pierre said that there won’t be any major updates to share.
“While I would love to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer and we are bringing their loved ones home, that is not what we’re seeing in these negotiations at this time,” Jean-Pierre said.
She added, “We would love to be saying today that we have news about Brittney and Paul coming home today. That is, unfortunately, that is not where the negotiations are at this time.”
A senior administration official told CNN Thursday that there has been “movement but not breakthrough” on the efforts to free Griner and Whelan. The official said that the United States has urged Russia to put forward “a serious counteroffer” to the proposal on the table to secure the release of the two, but “we’ve not gotten a serious response back.”
“We’ve gotten back a repeated demand for something that we are not capable as a government of delivering on. I don’t mean not inclined to, I mean not capable of delivering on. It’s not something within our power to deliver. And I think anyone would see that as a non-serious counteroffer,” the official said without going into specifics.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday that “there have been discussions with the Russian government,” but acknowledged the negotiations process “certainly hasn’t moved with the speed we would like.” He said he wouldn’t call the process “stalled.”
The official told CNN that Biden’s meetings with the Griner and Whelan families have “been in the works for a little while now,” but he doesn’t have a specific development to share with the families.
“Based on meetings he’s had with others, unfortunately, who’ve been in these circumstances — the Reeds, the Tices — they tend to be very, very personal conversations,” they said.
Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens is currently in Rome for meetings at the Vatican and will not be attending the meetings on Friday, according to a US official. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has met with the families of Griner and Whelan earlier this year.
The State Department did not immediately confirm if Blinken would attend the meetings on Friday.
The personal meeting with the President comes after Elizabeth Whelan told CNN earlier this summer she was furious that Biden had not spoken with her family after the President and Vice President held a phone call with Cherelle Griner. Biden also wrote a letter in response to Brittney Griner’s handwritten letter to him and shared a draft of it with Cherelle Griner during their phone call.
Elizabeth Whelan said she was angry that her brother’s case was not receiving the same level of attention as Griner’s from the White House. After her comments, White House staff joined a call with Elizabeth Whelan in July to discuss her brother’s detainment.
This story has been updated with additional information.
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