For a lot of reasons, Thursday (Dec. 8) was a great day at the White House. Early that morning, White House staff heard the news that WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison on drug charges after 10 months and was enroute to U.S. soil.
“You could hear the applause,” White House Senior Advisor Keisha Lance Bottoms told BET.com. “It was just sheer joy and excitement.”
Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta who now leads the Biden administration’s Office of Public Engagement, said everyone suspected something really big had happened when the daily 8 a.m. West Wing meeting was pushed back – which rarely happens.
“The White House is a pretty quiet place for the most part. I heard cheers in the West Wing. You could feel the energy across the White House. So it's been a great day,” she recalled with excitement.
Griner, who was sentenced in August to nine years in prison, landed early Friday (Dec. 9) morning at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, CBS News reported. Her release from a Russian penal colony was the result of months of sensitive negotiations between U.S. diplomats and their Russian counterparts.
The administration, and indeed scores of people across the nation, celebrated Griner’s freedom, even as others criticized the prisoner swap for her release, saying it was a win for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Indeed, there was a price to secure Griner’s release. The Biden administration agreed to a one-for-one prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “merchant of death,” who was serving a prison sentence in the United States.
The deal didn’t include the release of retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who the U.S. government says is falsely accused by Russia of espionage, and remains imprisoned in Russia.
“The President really hoped it worked to bring Paul and Brittney home together,” Bottoms said. But the Russians were very clear that it was Brittney or no one. And the president made the decision to bring Brittney home while he continues to work to bring Paul home, the same way he worked to release Trevor Reed several months ago, and people wondered if Brittney had been forgotten.”
News of the prisoner swap, Griner for Bout, has ignited a firestorm of criticism that it was an uneven trade.
“The Bout-for-Griner prisoner swap is not a trade, it's an American surrender. This is not what American strength looks like. Terrorists and rogue states are smiling,” tweeted Trump administration National Security Advisor John Bolton.
But in a call with reporters on Thursday, a senior administration official said only negotiations to free Griner were ever on the table. “It became clear in recent weeks that we had the choice of bringing Brittney home right now or bringing no one home,” the official said. “It was not a choice between which hostage to bring home.”
Bottoms said that it's easy for people whose loved one has been unlawfully detained to call the deal an uneven exchange.
“At the end of the day, Brittney Griner is an American citizen, and it was important to bring her home, in the same way it was important to bring Trevor Reed home, in the same way it will be important to bring Paul Whelan home, in the same way it will be important to bring other Americans who are being unlawfully detained home,” she said.
Bottoms continued: “So we know that this exchange was for an arms dealer who was sentenced to 25 years in prison and served more than half of that sentence. And it brings Brittney Griner home. So I don't know how people can say it's unfair when you have brought home an American citizen who has been unlawfully detained in a Russian penal colony.”
Bottoms said the negotiations were part of a process that involved multiple channels and over several months. “Even when no one was paying attention, there was still work being done” from the day that Griner was unlawfully detained.
The Biden administration classified Griner as “wrongfully detained” by America’s former Cold War enemy.
Griner, an Olympic gold medalist and center for the Phoenix Mercury, who plays basketball in Russia during the WNBA off season, was detained in Russia in February after her arrest at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow for allegedly carrying hashish oil vape cartridges in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to drug charges on July 7. But she has said the vape cartridges were in her luggage mistakenly, and she didn’t intend to commit a crime.
She explained to the court that she legally obtained cartridges with cannabis oil in the United States with a medical permit issued in Arizona, where she plays center for the Phoenix Mercury. She used the drug to help treat her inflamed knee and ankle joint.
Bottoms said the status of Griner’s health upon her release was unclear. Physical and mental health evaluations are needed after her ordeal.
“Those wounds will take time to heal, I'm sure. So we will make sure that we have all of the resources available to make sure that she's receiving the support that she needs, as Brittney works to reunite with her family and process the very traumatic experience,” Bottoms stated.