What to know about Brittney Griner
- WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed Thursday after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a Russian penal colony in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
- Biden, in a press conference, said Griner is "in good spirits" after being released and will be home within 24 hours. He also said the U.S. will "never give up" on securing the release of Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia.
- Griner's release marks one of the most high-profile prisoner swaps between Moscow and Washington since the Cold War.
Photo: Brittney Griner seen on plane on her way back to the U.S.
Griner likely faced difficult conditions at Russian penal colony, former prisoners and advocates say
Brittney Griner likely entered a system of isolation, grueling labor and psychological torment when she was transferred to a penal colony, the successor to the infamous Russian gulag, former prisoners and advocates said prior to her release in a prisoner swap Thursday.
She was free Thursday after a trade for arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Human rights violations are a regular feature of many of the camps, according to the U.S. State Department, human rights groups and others who have maintained regular contact with prisoners in Russia. That the WNBA star is a gay Black woman could have added unknown variables to a penal system that is known to be remote and harrowing.
“Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening,” a 2021 State Department report on Russian human rights abuses said. “Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.”
Brittney Griner prisoner swap a rare diplomatic success between U.S. and Russia as war rages in Ukraine
The exchange of WNBA star Brittney Griner and arms dealer Viktor Bout was a rare moment of successful diplomacy between Moscow and Washington as relations between the two countries deteriorate over the war in Ukraine.
For many, the trade will evoke memories of Soviet-era spy swaps — a more positive reminder of that era than the nuclear standoff that President Joe Biden recently said left the world facing its most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Analysts said the fact that the Biden administration and the Kremlin were still able to carry out such talks was a notably positive sign as Russia and the West enter what many see as a new Cold War.
Lawmakers express worry about implications of prisoner swap: This sets in motion 'just grab an American'
Some prominent lawmakers expressed concern about the prisoner swap Biden approved to secure Griner's release.
"The Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equivalence between the Brittney Griner’s of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘Merchant of Death,'" said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., in a statement.
"Nothing could be further from the truth, and we cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision," Menendez continued. "We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try [to] do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., signaled this could set a dangerous precedent in future situations. While he refused to blame the administration for the decision to bring Griner home, he told reporters he worried about Bout's release because it could encourage other foreign adversaries to kidnap Americans abroad.
"It’s easy to throw rocks at people. But you know, when your nickname is the 'merchant of death,' you probably should not be released unless you have to be, but what I worry about [is], this sets in motion, you know, just grab an American," he said. "You know, that’s that’s the problem with these things, but let’s just celebrate her coming home. Let’s redouble our efforts to get Paul home and not put ourselves in these positions anymore."
Brittney Griner’s teammate Brianna Turner: ‘I’m just so excited. It was the best news to wake up to’
White House denies Saudi Arabia helped mediate Griner's release
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly dismissed claims that Saudi Arabia was involved with meditating Griner's release.
"So as I've said before, this negotiation was between the U.S. government and Russia and that's how we were able to secure Brittney's release, and I don't have anything further to share on that," Jean-Pierre said at the daily press briefing.
Asked again if the U.S. extends its gratitude toward the Saudi government, Jean-Pierre said, "Again the only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia and there was no mediation involved. We are grateful for the UAE — as the president mentioned, as I am mentioning now — for facilitating the use of their territory for the exchange to take place."
Jean Pierre added that the U.S. is grateful to other countries like Saudi Arabia for raising the issue of wrongfully detained Americans with the Russian government.
The Emirati government issued a joint statement with the Saudi government Thursday in which they appeared to take credit for Griner's release. The statement said that "the success of the mediation efforts is a reflection of the joint and close friendship between their two countries, the United States of America, and the Russian Federation, and the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties."
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says Griner's release is 'another reason' to impeach Biden
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., joined other Republican lawmakers lashing out at President Joe Biden in response to Griner’s release.
“The President of the United States traded Russian terrorist arms dealer, Viktor Bout, left a U.S. Marine in Russian jail, and brought home a professional basketball player,” Greene tweeted Thursday.
“How many people will Viktor Bout now kill bc Biden set him free?” she continued.
Greene has filed multiple articles of impeachment against Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland in the past two years. She was stripped of her assignments last year after a series of incendiary remarks. With Republicans taking control of the House next month, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told CNN that he would reinstate the far-right lawmaker’s committee assignments if he becomes speaker.
Biden officials: Russia 'made clear' releasing Bout was 'only route' to secure Griner's release
During a background briefing, senior administration officials said Russians “made clear through multiple engagements” that the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was the “only route” to securing Brittney Griner’s release.
“Nothing can change the fact that Bout has spent over 12 years behind bars and U.S. custody, paying a price for his crimes,” officials said. "In the last 48 hours, as this has all come together, Brittany was moved from the penal colony where she was being held to Moscow.”
Officials said that they believe that have “every reason to believe the channel” to continue negotiations for Paul Whelan’s release will “remain open" and that Russians know how “unacceptable” the U.S. finds his detention.
'She’s on her way': Brittney Griner's team celebrates her release
WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns celebrated news of Brittney Griner’s release.
“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” they said in a joint statement Thursday. “The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one.”
The teams went on to praise the WNBA All-Star for her strength and “unwavering belief” over the past 10 months, and ended their post with a celebratory message: “We no longer have to Bring BG Home — she’s on her way."
Blinken on Griner's release: 'The choice was one or none'
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Brittney Griner’s release was “not a choice of which American to bring home.”
“The choice was one or none. I wholeheartedly wish that we could have brought home Paul home today on the same plane as Brittney,” Blinken said, referring to Paul Whelan, a former Marine who remains imprisoned in Russia on suspicion of spying.
Blinken said he wishes that Griner and Whelan were brought home upon the release of American Trevor Reed in April, who spent nearly three years in a Russian jail and was freed in a prisoner exchange.
“But we will stay at it,” Blinken said, reiterating President Joe Biden’s remarks earlier Thursday that negotiations would continue until Whelan is free.
Paul Whelan says he's 'disappointed' in Biden administration: 'I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here'
Paul Whelan told CNN on Thursday that he is “disappointed” President Joe Biden's administration has not done more to secure his release from Russia, where he’s been jailed since December 2018 on espionage charges.
“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said in a phone call, according to CNN. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
He said he was happy for Brittney Griner, but was surprised he was not included in the prisoner swap. Whelan told the news station that he “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.”
Biden said Thursday that his administration has not forgotten about Whelan and that negotiations would continue until he is free.
Cherelle Griner was first informed by Biden about wife's release this morning
Multiple White House officials told NBC News that earlier this week, Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, was invited to the White House for a Thursday morning meeting with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to receive an update on the latest developments.
It was not until Cherelle Griner arrived at the White House this morning that she was told the operation to bring Brittney Griner home was underway. In short, these officials say, Cherelle Griner did not officially find out that her wife was coming home until President Biden himself told her this morning
Their call with Brittney Griner took place shortly before 8 this morning. The President’s first words to Brittney Griner: “It’s Joe Biden. Welcome, welcome home!”
Paul Whelan's lawyer believes he will be freed in the next month or two
An attorney for Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Russia on suspicion of spying, said he understands why Brittney Griner was released in a prisoner exchange and believes an exchange will be made "in the next month or two" for his client.
“The Russian side offered an exchange one-to-one. And the American side then chose to exchange Griner because, firstly, she is a woman, and this is more humane, and secondly, she is an Olympic champion. That is, more significant for them,” Vladimir Zherebenkov said. “And Paul is an officer, a soldier, and naturally it is easier for him to be in custody. Apparently, that was the thinking — and therefore the priority was given to Griner.”
National Security Council spokesman refuted the claim that Griner was given priority over Whelan, telling MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell that "the deal that we got with Ms. Griner was the only deal we could get and now was the only moment we could get it, so we took advantage of that to get one American home."
"I would push back on this notion that, that we deliberately, you know, we, we chose Brittney over Paul, there was only one way to get one American home and that was this particular deal," he said. "So we’re gonna stay at it. We were working on it yesterday. We’re working on it today. And I can guarantee the Whelan family that tomorrow and every day hereafter, we’re going to continue to work to bring Paul home."
Zherebenkov said negotiations are underway for Whelan’s possible release, but he did not have additional details because such talks are confidential.
“There are about 300 Russian citizens in custody in the U.S. Of them, 50-60 people on serious charges. Thus, there is still someone to change for. I don’t see a problem here,” he said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee says Griner's release brought 'jubilation'
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner's home city of Houston, expressed her joy over Griner's release to Jose Diaz-Balart on MSNBC.
"I felt honored to be able to know that Brittney was in safe hands," Lee said of receiving the call from the State Department early this morning.
Lee praised Griner’s wife, Cherelle, for her strength throughout the process. She also expressed gratitude to the Biden administration, the State Department, and fellow Democratic Reps. Greg Stanton of Arizona and Colin Allred of Texas, who joined forces for a resolution calling for Griner's release in May.
Lee also added that she will keep fighting for international prisoners, including Paul Whelan.
"You know what I'm going to do?" Jackson said. "Keep fighting."
First lady Jill Biden embraces Brittney Griner's wife
Saudi Arabia says it cooperated with UAE in Griner release
In a joint statement Thursday, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabian Ministries of Foreign Affairs said the release of Griner in exchange for an arms dealer is the result of “success of the mediation” led by the two countries.
“The success of the mediation efforts is a reflection of the joint and close friendship between their two countries, the United States of America, and the Russian Federation, and the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties,” the ministries said.
The statement said Griner arrived in Abu Dhabi Thursday via private plan from Moscow following her release from Russian authorities. In conjunction, Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in the U.S. in 2012 after he was convicted of selling arms to Colombian rebels, was received “in the presence of specialists from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.”
Obama gives 'kudos' to Biden for diplomatic efforts to bring Griner home
Former President Barack Obama applauded Biden and his administration for their work in bringing Griner home.
"Grateful for the long-overdue release of Brittney Griner today from Russian custody. Kudos to @POTUS and his administration for the difficult diplomatic work involved to make it happen. We’re looking forward to having Brittney back home," he tweeted.
During Obama's two terms in office, he helped secure the release of Americans detained abroad.
The former president also approved the largest U.S.-Russian spy swap since the Cold War in 2010 when 10 Russian sleeper agents, including Anna Chapman, were exchanged for four prisoners accused by Russia of spying for the West.
Athletes celebrate Griner's release: 'Today feels like a holiday!'
Athletes celebrated Griner's release from Russian prison, cheering her eventual homecoming on social media.
Griner's Houston high school basketball team, the Nimitz Lady Cougars, tweeted, "Thank you God!! She’s Home."
Elizabeth Williams, who plays for the Washington Mystics, tweeted, "So grateful."
"My best friend is on the way Home !!!!!! I love you BG!!!" tweeted Emma Cannon, who plays for the Indiana Fever and previously played for the Phoenix Mercury.
Erica Wheeler, who plays for the Atlanta Dream and was the WNBA All-Star MVP in 2019, tweeted, "BG!!! I am literally tearing up right now!!! Faith man!!!! Thank God!!!"
NBA player Bradley Beal, who plays for the Washington Wizards, retweeted news of Griner's release, with a series of exclamation points.
Tennis great Billie Jean King tweeted, "Brittney Griner is free! After 294 days in Russian captivity, @POTUS negotiated a 'one-for-one' prisoner swap. Thank you to President Biden, and to all those who worked so hard to secure her freedom."
GOP senator on release of Russian 'Merchant of Death': 'I hate it'
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other senators said they were upset that the Brittney Griner prisoner swap included Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after he was convicted of selling arms prosecutors said were intended to kill Americans.
“I hate it,” Cornyn told reporters.
But Cornyn and other lawmakers praised Griner’s release and said these were extremely difficult negotiations.
“I think you’re left with a decision — yes or no — and like I said, I would never be happy with an American in a Russian penal colony under any circumstance," Cornyn said. "Unfortunately, that’s the sort of way Putin does business.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Bout was being held in his home state, in Marion federal prison, when the negotiations were taking place.
“It’s always painful when you’re looking at the person who’s being released in exchange,” Durbin said. "I don’t like that outcome, but at least we have Griner back home, and that’s good news.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called Bout a “pretty vicious criminal” but said he was “overwhelmed with joy” that Griner is free.
Family of Paul Whelan says Griner release was 'right decision'
The family of Paul Whelan, a businessman and former Marine imprisoned in Russia on suspicion of spying, said they were told by the Biden administration in advance that he would not be part of the prisoner swap Thursday that allowed the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that while he can “literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” the inability to also bring Whelan home remains difficult for the family to process.
“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,” David Whelan said. “I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media.”
David Whelan said gaining the release of Griner was the “right decision” rather than “waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
“It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,” he said. “As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.”
Senate Democrats cheer Griner news but worry about other prisoners in Russia
Senate Democrats said they were thrilled to learn that Brittney Griner had been released but said they worried about other Americans and political dissidents who continue to be held in Russia.
“I’m happy [Griner] was released; it was a political persecution," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Thursday. "The notion that she was going to spend nine years in a Russian prison was a political move, and I’m happy that the Biden administration was successful in negotiating a release."
But he added: “There’s more. It’s not just Paul Whelan, but other dissenters in Russia who are paying a heavy price for their political views, so I’ll continue to put the pressure on as best I can to try to get their release."
Sen. Chris Coons, a close Biden ally who represents the president’s home state of Delaware, also hailed Griner’s release “good news for Brittney, for her family.”
But he, too, said the job is not finished.
“Frankly, there are too many other Americans being held captive by other countries. I routinely hear from their families, meet with them," said Coons, who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "This is a significant accomplishment by the Biden administration to secure her release, but there are many others, both in Russia and in Iran, and we need to continue to press for their release as well.”
Coons said the Griner release was not raised in a Wednesday national security briefing for senators led by Biden Cabinet officials.
GOP lawmakers lash out at Biden over failing to secure Paul Whelan's release
Several Republican lawmakers lashed out at Biden because Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia, wasn't part of the prisoner swap that led to Brittney Griner's release.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., tweeted, "I’m glad Brittney is coming home…but what about U.S. Marine vet Paul Whelan? He’s still held by Putin in Russia. For Biden to give Putin a dangerous arms dealer — someone known as the “Merchant of Death” — is weak & disgusting. Doing so while leaving Paul behind is unforgivable."
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., warned of the implications for not securing Whelan's freedom.
"So a basketball star is released, we can celebrate, but what about Paul Whelan? An American unjustly detained for years. May not be high profile but he is innocent. This is a dangerous road," he tweeted.
The Biden administration wasn't able to secure Whelan's release because the Russian government is treating his case differently than Griner's, Biden said. People familiar with the negotiations for his release say the Russians refused to release Whelan without getting a Russian spy in return. The U.S. insists it does not have any Russian spies in its custody, and thus no one to trade to meet the Kremlin’s demand.
"If @POTUS is going to release a guy convicted of providing aid to a terrorist organization & conspiring to kill American citizens, he should have at least gotten BOTH Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan in return," tweeted Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y. "A U.S. Marine is left behind in another bad deal made by Biden."
"Where is U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly held by Russia for far longer? Celebrities over veterans?" Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., tweeted.
Other Republicans took aim at Griner's participation in the national anthem protests that swept through major sports leagues in 2020. Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas tweeted, "Trading a convicted arms dealer for a basketball player who kneeled for the National Anthem is a terrible deal."
"I hope Britney Griner stands for The National Anthem now," Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee said, spelling her first name incorrectly.
Blinken celebrates Griner's release, laments that Whelan and his family 'continue to suffer'
Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked officials across the government who worked “tirelessly” to bring Griner home in a statement Thursday.
Blinken also acknowledged the administration’s disappointment over the “wrongful detention” of Paul Whelan, who remains jailed in the country.
“While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly,” Blinken said. “Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention.”
Blinken said he “wholeheartedly” wishes that Whelan could have been brought home with Griner on the same plane.
“Nevertheless, we will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong,” Blinken said.
Who is Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer that the U.S. exchanged for Brittney Griner?
In the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie “Lord of War,” the character loosely based on Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout evades his American law enforcement pursuers, apparently saved by the CIA.
But in real life, the U.S. government set up an elaborate operation in 2008 to capture and prosecute Bout, dubbed “the Merchant of Death,” because he was said to be one of the world’s largest illicit arms dealers.
Bout, 55, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012 after he was convicted of selling arms to Colombian rebels, which prosecutors said were intended to kill Americans. The Russian government had been demanding his release ever since, saying he was unfairly targeted.
After the sentencing, Attorney General Eric Holder called Bout “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers,” while the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, New York, Preet Bharara, said he had been “international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe.” Amnesty International says he sold arms to sanctioned human rights abusers in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Bout, a former Soviet military officer who became rich as an arms dealer, has always maintained his innocence.
Brittney Griner’s wife says 'today is just a happy day for me and my family'
Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, said the last nine months were “one of the darkest moments of my life,” but expressed gratitude about the WNBA star’s release from a Russian penal colony.
“Today I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions but the most important emotion I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration,” Cherelle Griner said at a news conference alongside Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Today is just a happy day for me and my family. I’m gonna smile right now.”
Biden says Griner is in 'good spirits' after release, administration hasn't forgotten about Whelan
President Joe Biden said Griner is in “good spirits” and is relieved to finally head home after enduring trauma from her time in a Russian penal colony.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” Biden said, adding the administration “never stopped pushing for her release.”
The president mentioned that Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after being accused of spying, hasn’t been forgotten by the administration.
Biden criticized Russia for “treating Paul’s case differently” than Griner’s and said that negotiations are ongoing.
“We’re not giving up, we’ll never give up,” the president said.
Griner's release caps monthslong saga
Griner’s return to the United States will cap a monthslong saga that began in February when she was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was later jailed on drug charges.
The 32-year-old Phoenix Mercury player was the subject of prolonged and often public negotiations between the two countries after a trial that underscored frayed relations amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden’s administration had sought the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan.
Griner’s release also marks a stunning turn of events from last month, when she began serving a nine-year sentence at a Russian penal colony more than 200 miles east of Moscow.
During her trial in July, Griner pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent. Griner said the canisters, which she had been prescribed to treat chronic pain, were packed inadvertently as she hurriedly prepared for her flight.
White House tweets photo of Biden and Griner's wife speaking to her this morning
Senior U.S. official on Paul Whelan: Russians said 'the choice was either one or none'
A senior U.S. official tells NBC News they tried everything they could to get Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia, out, but “they are treating him differently. They say he is an espionage case. They said the choice was either one [Griner] or none.”
A former U.S. Marine, Whalen was detained in 2018 and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail on espionage charges, which the U.S. has denied. The Whalen family has publicly criticized the Biden administration for not doing more to secure his release.
People familiar with the negotiations for his release say the Russians refused to release Whelan without getting a Russian spy in return. The U.S. insists it does not have any Russian spies in its custody, and thus no one to trade to meet the Kremlin’s demand.
No comment from prosecutors about Viktor Bout, 'one of the world's most prolific arms dealer'
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of the New York declined comment on the trade of Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner.
At the time of his conviction then US Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Today, one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past.”
“Viktor Bout’s arms trafficking activity and support of armed conflicts have been a source of concern around the globe for decades. Today, he faces the prospect of life in prison for his efforts to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to terrorists for use in killing Americans”, Holder said.
Bout was convicted “of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals; conspiring to kill U.S. officers and employees; conspiring to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles; and conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.”
WNBA star Brittney Griner released from Russian custody in a high-profile prisoner swap between the U.S. and Moscow
WNBA star Brittney Griner is free Thursday after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a Russian penal colony in exchange for an arms dealer, according to a senior administration official.
President Joe Biden signed off on the trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, even though it meant leaving behind Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive who remains jailed in Russia.
Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was in the Oval Office with Biden and the two were able to speak with her by phone, according to a senior White House official.