Multiple Republican members of Congress on Thursday responded to the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner from Russian custody by blaming the Biden administration for not also rescuing veteran Paul Whelan, who is also being held in Russia.
Russia has alleged that Whelan is a spy and isn’t eligible for the same sort of prisoner swap as Griner.
Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February and sentenced to nine years in prison for drug charges. The Russian government agreed to exchange Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was sentenced to 25 years in U.S. federal prison in 2012.
Whelan was arrested in December 2018 and was accused by the Russian government of espionage, a charge he and his family deny. Whelan’s capture and detainment began while former President Donald Trump was in office, and his administration failed to negotiate Whelan’s release.
President Joe Biden explained why Whelan had not been a part of the exchange in a speech.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. We brought home Trevor Reed when we had a chance earlier this year. Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up.”
Biden said that U.S. diplomats will continue to negotiate for Whelan’s release and called on Russia to ensure his health and humane treatment while he remains detained.
Whelan’s family members welcomed Griner’s release and noted the different circumstances of the two cases.
“The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement.
Republican members of Congress on Thursday accused Biden of abandoning Whelan without noting that it is the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin — not Biden — who excluded Whelan from the prisoner exchange.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed that the prisoner swap was “a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” and added, “leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.”
“Joe Biden’s prisoner swap with Vladimir Putin released Viktor Bout, the notorious ‘Merchant of Death’ who armed America’s worst enemies. And it left behind Paul Whelan, a Marine veteran who’s languishing in a Russian jail cell on trumped-up charges,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) wrote in a statement.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) said freeing Griner was “weak and disgusting,” and added that “doing so while leaving Paul behind is unforgivable.”
“It is a bitter pill to swallow that Mr. Whelan remains in custody while we release the ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout back to Russia,” wrote Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“I can’t help but think of Paul Whelan, who’s been ABANDONED by this White House,” wrote Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX).
The Biden administration has taken a more adversarial position with the Russian government than Trump, who downplayed concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Biden signed an executive order in April 2021 imposing sanctions on Russia for “actions by its government and intelligence services against U.S. sovereignty and interests.”
Following Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February, the Biden administration has — in concert with other governments — imposed multiple sanctions against the Russian government in protest of that nation’s unprovoked aggression.
Biden has said the U.S. will “stand with the people of Ukraine for as long as it takes” while calling on Russia to “end this unprovoked aggression immediately and remove its troops from Ukraine.”
Reprinted with permission from American Independent.