The White House stressed on Thursday that it is committed to bringing home former Marine Paul Whelan and will remain vigilant over Viktor Bout’s release amid a backlash of criticism over a prisoner swap deal that released WNBA star Brittney Griner from months of detention in Russia.
In exchange for the release of Griner, the U.S. is releasing Bout, an infamous Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged to reporters during the White House briefing that the “immediate results can feel unfair or arbitrary” when it comes to a prisoner swap.
“The question has been placed to us is … do we have security concerns, right?” she added. “And what we have said is that the president did not make this decision lightly — just want to make that very clear — but he believed it was the right thing to secure Brittney’s release. And we are going to stay vigilant.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called that the swap “a gift” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and “endangers American lives.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told Fox News on Thursday that the swap is not a fair exchange and that “this is a Russian play right out of their playbook.”
Jean-Pierre pushed back on those notions.
“Negotiations for release of wrongful detainees are often very difficult, that’s just a reality,” she said.
She also stressed that Biden is committed to bringing home Whelan. In remarks made just after Griner’s release were made public, Biden earlier on Thursday said that Russia is treating Whelan’s case differently than Griner’s “for totally illegitimate reasons.”
When asked if Russia got a better deal in the swap, Jean-Pierre said, “Our choice was Brittney or no one at all.”
Fox News’s Peter Doocy cast the Bout-Griner swap as Russia getting a better deal, noting that Griner is a professional athlete and Bout is a prolific arms dealer.
“The professional athlete is also an American citizen, let’s not forget that,” Jean-Pierre pushed back. “The president felt that this was an opportunity to bring Brittney home.”
Jean-Pierre said that the White House understands how difficult it must be for the Whelan family and that Biden looks forward to speaking with them today “or when they are ready to have that conversation.”
“The president is going to do everything that he can, as we have seen him do many times across … his tenure in the administration, to bring Paul home. This is a commitment the president is giving to the family and Americans,” she said.
In an interview with CNN from a Russian prison, Whelan said he was surprised he was not included in the swap but seemed to agree that it was because Russia is holding him to a different standard because of the espionage charges against him.
Robert O’Brien, who served as Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs and National Security Advisor under former President Trump, said that Griner’s release was not an “either or” situation and said he’s confident Whelan will come home in the near future.
“Both Whelan and Griner were taken for political purposes by the Russians, in order to achieve leverage [against] the U.S. to release Viktor Bout and others. I know the administration has been involved, very heavily, in negotiating the release of both detainees.
“I don’t think there’s an ‘either, or’ situation on the table…You hate to see situations where a murderer or a terrorist or an arms dealer like Bout is traded for innocent Americans but, at the same time, we’ve got an obligation to bring our fellow citizens home if they’re taken for political purposes,” he said.
“Here, the Russians have made it very clear with both of them that they’re detained in order to obtain leverage over the United States. It is not the detainees’ fault that they’re in this situation. They carry a blue passport, so they’ve been put in a very bad situation because of their nationality. We’ve got to do everything we can to get them home,” O’Brien added.
Updated at 3:26 p.m.