“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted along with a photo of him embracing Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, in the White House Oval Office.
“We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations,” Biden said at news conference alongside Griner’s wife, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Biden thanked those involved in the negotiations and also the United Arab Emirates, where the prisoner swap took place. He described the past few months as “hell” for Griner and her wife, but noted Griner is “in good spirits, relieved to finally be heading home” after experiencing “needless trauma.”
Griner, 32, was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner admitted that she had the canisters, but said that they were unintentionally packed and that she had no criminal intent.
She was sentenced to nine years in prison for drug possession in August.
The prisoner swap, while a success, leaves behind an American the U.S. says has been wrongfully imprisoned in Russia since 2018.
Former Marine Paul Whelan, 52, has been in custody on espionage charges, which he has denied, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.
Biden said that securing Whelan’s release remains a priority and that the swap for Griner “was not a choice about which American to bring home.”
“For totally illegitimate reasons, Russia has treated Paul’s case different from Brittney’s,” he said.
Biden said his administration would continue negotiating for Whelan’s release and urged Russia to do the same.
Whelan said in a phone call to CNN that he’s “greatly disappointed” he wasn’t released from a penal colony in a remote part of Russia.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
Whelan said he was told that his espionage charges placed him at a higher level than both Griner and former Russian prisoner and Marine Trevor Reed, whose release was secured by the U.S. in April.
Still, he said he had been hopeful.
I “was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon,” Whelan told the network.
Whelan’s brother also expressed disappointment in an email to reporters, but said his family had been informed in advance that his brother wouldn’t be coming home.
“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,” said David Whelan.
Whelan’s brother said the family does not begrudge Griner for gaining freedom and always knew one of them may be freed without the other.
Still, he said the family feels as though the U.S. government now has twice failed them. He pointed to the successful release of Reed in April as a first missed opportunity.
“Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice,” David Whelan said. “I can’t imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point.”
David Whelan expressed concerns for his brother’s health and feared their parents, who will be 85 and 83 on the fourth anniversary of Whelan’s detention later this month, may never see him again.
“Time is Paul’s, and our, enemy. The likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues,” David Whelan said. “Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won’t survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony. He has tried to stay healthy but one wonders how long that determination to keep going can endure.”
He asked for donations to Paul Whelan’s GoFundMe account that he said is used to support him in prison.
Reed’s mother, Paula Reed, said she was “heartbroken for Paul Whelan and his family,” though “elated” for Griner and her family.
“We became close to the Whelan’s during our ordeal [with] Trevor’s detention,” Paula Reed wrote in a Facebook post. “They were the first other family we spoke to after Trevor was arrested and they gave us support since the very beginning. They are good people and we pray that Paul has his homecoming soon.”
Trevor Reed was arrested in Russia in 2019 after being accused of drunkenly assaulting local police officers, which he denied. During his trial, the then-U.S. ambassador to Russia said the prosecution’s evidence was “so preposterous that they provoked laughter in the courtroom. Even the judge laughed.”
Reed, sentenced to nine years in prison, was freed in a prisoner exchange.
Paige Lavender contributed reporting.