Updated Dec 11, 2022 - World

Kirby: U.S. is still "negotiating" for Paul Whelan's release

The U.S. is still "negotiating" for the release of detained American Paul Whelan, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

Driving the news: Kirby said that the U.S. made a "very serious, specific proposal made to the Russians" to secure the release of Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner together, but "it just didn't land anywhere ... with the Russians."

  • "As we progressed through this summer and into the fall ... it was clear that they were treating Paul very separately, very distinctly because of these sham espionage charges they levied against him."
  • Kirby also said that it became clear last week that Whelan's release was unlikely.
  • "It really occurred to us that there was just no chance of doing it last week ... we had been trying all the way up until the moment we actually secured the deal that got Brittney home, we were still trying to get Paul out."

State of play: The U.S. earlier this week exchanged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner.

  • Whelan has been jailed since December 2018 on charges of espionage, which the U.S. government has denied.
  • David Whelan, brother of Paul Whelan, said Saturday that Biden "made the right choice" in choosing to bring the WNBA star home from Russia.
  • "An American should come home if they can come home," David Whelan said.

What he's saying: Kirby maintained that the Biden administration is committed to "trying as hard as we can" to secure Whelan's release.

  • "This business of getting wrongfully detained Americans home, there's nothing easy about it," Kirby said.
  • "There's very rarely moments where it's just an aha. ... It's hard work and there are tough decisions that go into it. This was one of them too."
  • "Even if you do everything right ... and you get detained wrongfully, the United States isn't going to forget you," he said.
  • "If we have to make tough decisions to get you back home, then this president's willing to do that."

The big picture: Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that during the Trump administration, Russia made several overtures to trade Whelan for Bout or Russian drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.

  • Yaroshenko was eventually traded for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed.
  • "They had every intent of trying to swap Americans that had been wrongfully detained for individuals in the United States custody who were there for pretty good reasons," Hill said.
  • Hill also said that at that time, "President Trump wasn't especially interested in engaging in that swap for also Paul Whelan. He was not particularly interested in Paul's case in the way that one would have thought he would be."

Go deeper... How the Biden admin says Brittney Griner's release happened

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Fiona Hill.

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