Dec 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Ex-Trump official defends Biden administration's Griner swap with Russia

David Urban, an ex-adviser for former President Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, defended the Biden administration's prisoner swap to free jailed basketball star Brittney Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

Why it matters: In the final years of the Trump administration, Urban had worked to free Paul Whelan, an American and former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Russia since December 2018. Critics of the swap for Griner, including Trump, have implied that the Biden administration had favored her release over Whelan's.

  • The Biden administration has defended the swap, saying the Russians were unwilling to release Griner and Whelan in exchange for Bout and were treating Whelan's imprisonment differently because of his espionage conviction, which he, his family and the U.S. have criticized as political and resulting from a setup.
  • It said last week that it had a choice between bringing Griner home in exchange for Bout or bringing home no Americans wrongfully detained in Russia.

What they're saying: Urban disagreed with the implication that the Biden administration had a choice between bringing Griner or Whelan home, saying, "None of this is very easy."

  • "The American people believe it's an either or, that they had a choice. They don't have a choice. You have to negotiate with the Russians," Urban said.
  • "So, think about [Russian President Vladimir Putin] sitting across the table. And Vladimir Putin doesn't give you a choice. He says, 'You can have this, or you can have nothing.'"
  • "Listen, we'd love to have Paul Whelan home, and I know his family would, I know Roger Carstens would. I know the Biden administration would love to have Paul Whelan home, and they're going to get him home. But at this point in time, they just couldn't get it done. And it's very difficult to do."

Trump criticized the release of Griner, a U.S. citizen who spent nearly a year in Russian captivity, in a social media post Thursday.

  • "What kind of a deal is it to swap Brittney Griner, a basketball player who openly hates our country for the man known as ‘The Merchant of Death,'" Trump said. "What a stupid and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!"

David Whelan, Paul Whelan's brother, defended the swap and pushed back on Trump's criticism on social media last week.

  • "Former President Trump appears to have mentioned my brother [Paul Whelan]'s wrongful detention more in the last 24 hours than he did in the 2 years of his presidency in which Paul was held hostage by [Russia] (zero)."
  • "I don't suggest he cares now any more than he did then (zero)."

The big picture: Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison for accidentally packing a small amount of cannabis oil when she flew to Moscow to join a Russian team during the WNBA offseason.

  • Bout had been serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for charges that included conspiring to kill U.S. citizens and aiding a terrorist organization.
  • The Biden administration secured former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed's release from Russia in April in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen serving a 20-year sentence after being found guilty of conspiracy to smuggle more than $100 million worth of cocaine into the U.S.
  • Reed had been imprisoned since 2019 and was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Moscow court in 2020 after being arrested for allegedly assaulting two police officers. He, his family and the U.S. government said the charges were false and politically motivated.
  • American teacher Marc Fogel, 61, is also still imprisoned in Russia on marijuana charges, and the White House last week declined to comment on whether it was also negotiating his release.
  • Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Department of State has repeatedly urged Americans to leave Russia and not travel to the country because the Russian government may be intentionally seeking out Americans for detention as tokens in prisoner swaps for Russian criminals in U.S. prisons.

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

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