James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EST
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Good afternoon, everybody.
Q Good afternoon.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: President Biden keeps his promises. And today he fulfilled a deeply important promise to bring Brittney Griner home to a family that loves her, a team that misses her, and a country that has marveled at her strength and courage.
Brittney’s safe return home is the product of months and months of painstaking negotiations that were the culmination of extraordinary efforts across the U.S. government. Officials from the White House, the State Department, and across the administration worked tirelessly and relentlessly to see this moment through.
As the Secretary of State said publicly in July, we have been engaging in intense negotiations with Russia, pursuing many different avenues over the course of the last six months to secure Brittney’s release. And we know Brittney fought tirelessly too.
Throughout her ordeal, we saw Brittney — a two-time Olympic Gold medalist for Team USA — demonstrate strength, courage, and dignity. As the President said this morning, she represents the best of America.
I had the opportunity to speak to Cherelle Griner a couple of hours ago, who is looking forward to seeing Brittney as soon as she returns home later today.
Cherelle, who herself has handled Brittney’s detention with incredible strength, asked me to communicate once again her sincere gratitude to everyone in the administration and in their broader — and in their own broader support network, who made this day possible. She also wanted to reinforce the commitment she and Brittney have made to stand up and speak out for other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.
While we’re celebrating Brittney’s return home today, we have also continued to be in touch with the Whelan family for whom this news brings mixed emotions.
In recent weeks, it became clear that while Russians were willing to reach an agreement to secure Brittney’s release, they continue to treat Paul Whelan differently, given the nature of the totali- — totally illegitimate charges they have levied against Paul. Unfortunately, the choice became to either bring Brittney home or no one.
As the President said this morning, he will — he will never stop working to secure Paul’s release and return home. And he will not give up.
On a personal note, Brittney is more than an athlete, more than an Olympi- — Olympian. She is an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI+ Americans and women of color. She should never have been detained by Russia. And we are — I am — deeply proud of the work that the President has done, this administration has done to get her home.
With that, Seung Min.
Q So, a couple of questions on Brittney Griner. In his post-Election Day press conference, the President said, quote, “My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be more willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange.” So can you discuss how precisely the end of — how the talks changed after the midterms? Did Russia seem more — did their posture change? Were they kind of cognizant that the campaign season was over?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: If you could bear with me for a second, I’m going to give you all a timeline that will answer probably many of your questions about what happened and when things changed.
So as you all know, over the past year, we have been pursuing many different avenues, as I just stated at the top, to secure Brittney’s release, as — and I mentioned what the Secretary said in July. But since that time, U.S. officials continued to press Russia publicly and privately to engage in good-faith negotiations pursuing a variety of different options.
In recent weeks, though, it became clear that while the Russians were willing to reach an agreement to secure Brittney’s release, they continue to treat Paul differently, as I just stated, with their totally illegitimate charge that they levied against Paul.
In this pa- — in this last week, the President approved moving forward with releasing Viktor Bout in exchange for bringing home Brittney Griner.
Over the last 48 hours, Brittney was moved from the penal colony where she was held in Russia, to Moscow, and then flown to the UAE.
Bout conditional grant of clemency was not complete — completed until today, when U.S. officials in the UAE verified Brittney was there too and ready to return to the U.S.
Yesterday, U.S. officials met with Paul Whelan’s family to inform them of the news. And I expect, as the President said earlier today, this President will speak with them later or when they are ready to have that conversation, understanding — and the President said this as well — how difficult of a moment this is for the Whelan family.
And this morning, just to clear up some of the questions that you all have had, Cherelle had been invited to the White House for a meeting with the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan.
When she arrived, she was welcomed into the Oval Office by President Biden, who personally delivered the news that Brittney would be returning home today.
The President was joined in the Oval Office by Vice President Harris, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and also Secretary of State Blinken.
Once Brittney lands in the United States, she will be offered appropriate care and support from the U.S. government, including medical screenings as well.
Look, I’m not going to get into specifics as to your question about what was occurring to change the minds of Russia as it relates to the midterms or af- — doing this after the midterms. I’m not in the business of speculating how Mr. Putin thinks.
What we want to make sure that is very clear: The President made a promise, and he kept his promise — and not just to Brittney Griner; he’s keeping his promise — he’s going to do everything — his team is going to do everything that they can to secure Paul’s return as well, and other Americans that are — that are wrongfully detained abroad.
And so we have seen this happen — right? — just across the President’s administration. And we’ve brought home — the President has been able to secure about a dozen wrongfully detained or hostage individuals — Americans — bringing them home. We know — we saw the situation with Trevor Reed just this past April.
So this is a commitment that the President has, that his administration has, and we will continue.
Q And can you discuss specifically what Russia wanted beyond Victor Bout and what the — that the U.S. would not do? And what is it that the U.S. was willing to offer in addition to Viktor Bout?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So here’s the thing: The Russians were not willing to negotiate in good faith for the release of Paul Whelan at this time. And in order to increase the chances for success, we’re not going to certainly discuss more about the negotiations for his release publicly. What — we are committed to securing Paul’s release, but we’re just not going to get into specifics. But like I said, they were not operating in good faith.
Q And one more question. I mean, obviously we’re all very happy to hear the news that she’s coming home. But I’m wondering if the administration’s concern about whether there’s any precedent set here about what the U.S. government is willing to trade in exchange to release Americans imprisoned abroad.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, this was not a decision that the President made lightly, but he believed it was the right thing to do to secure Brittney’s release.
And — and so, you know, this is a commitment that he had, a promise that he made. And where we were left with is either we bring Brittney home or no one at all. And so the — you know, had a — one of my colleagues in the National Security Council said today he believed that there was a moral obligation here to get her home. Does this not mean that this President will stop with Brittney? He’s going to continue to make sure that we secure Paul Whelan’s return, as well, and as well as other Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad.
Q Thanks, Karine. Was there a risk assessment to determine how dangerous Bout may be now that he’s been released back into the world? And what is the result, if there was one? How should people be thinking about the fact that this man is free?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, again, this was not a decision that the President made lightly. I just want to be very clear on that. We will always stay vigilant about our national security. That’s something that the promise — the President will always do, and we will act swiftly to protect it. That — that was true yesterday. That is true today. And that will be true after Mr. Bout’s release.
So that is a commitment that the President has to the American people. But again, he believed this was the right thing to do in bringing Brittney home.
Q But in making that decision, surely, he heard from officials, the intelligence community, about how dangerous Bout is or is not. So I’m just asking —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: No, I hear the question.
Q — the degree of the assessment.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I hear your question. I’m not going to get into specifics about what the President was told by the intelligence community. That is not something that we do from here, as you know, on any specifics.
What I can say is that the President will continue to be vigilant about our national security, and — and he will remain — we will remain to act swiftly to protect it. Again, this is not a decision that he made lightly.
Q And with regard to Whelan, David Whelan said in his statement that — I’m guessing you’ve seen by now — that Paul “worked so hard to survive” for nearly four years. And he questioned, “How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice?” Essentially painting a pretty hopeless picture for his brother. So are there any concerns that Paul Whelan will hurt himself? And are there any measures that the U.S. can take to ensure his wellbeing?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, all very good questions. And the President said this morning he understands how difficult a moment this is for the Whelan family. It is not — certainly not lost on us. And as we have said, we’ve been speaking with the Whelan family, including today, and we’re not going to certainly betray any of that confidential conversation. You clearly have heard from the family directly in the statement.
But, look, what we are going to continue to do is we are going to continue to work to secure Paul’s — Paul’s return, Paul’s release. You know, I think you can understand why we won’t go into details.
But, of course — of course, we’re always concerned about the safety — the safety and the health of any American that is being held — wrongfully detained and held hostage. And I’m not going to get into specifics on any, you know, future conversations that we might have with Paul and how that’s going to — our interaction with him is going to look like.
One thing that I can say is our consular office — officers in Moscow were able to make contact with Paul on December 2nd. And as we — as we know from that time, he was — he was feeling well. He was in good health.
Q And just one more. And just to clarify, on December 2nd, he wasn’t aware that this was happening? It wasn’t until today?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, he was — we have made Paul Whelan aware of — of this — of the exchange that happened today. He’s aware of it.
Q Okay. And one more on Brittney Griner. I understand how the deal went down and what the Russians were willing to give. But how do you dispel the public perception that if you are a celebrity or a professional athlete, you get preferential treatment in a situation like this?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, I want to be very clear here. And I think we — you know, we tried to lay this out in a clear way as well — the President did and my colleagues, as you’ve heard from them, from the NSC: This was not a choice for us on — of which American to bring home. That was not the choice. It was a choice between bringing home one American or bringing home none. And we brought one home today, and that is important to note. And just like we were able to bring home Trevor Reed back in April.
And through every step of this process, we have sought to bring Paul Whelan home. And that will not change. That will continue to be our commitment.
Again, regrettably, due to nature of the total — totally illegitimate charges they levied against Paul, the Russians are treating this situation differently than Brittney — Brittney’s situation, and we have been unable to secure his release.
We made every possible offer available to us to secure Paul’s release, but there was no way to bring Paul home right now. We would have preferred, of course — of course, we’d have preferred to see them both released. That’s what we’ve been calling on. That’s what you’ve been hearing from me and the President these past — this past year. But we did not want to lose the opportunity before us to secure the release of one of them. And so that was the choice: one or none, and not “which one.” It was either none or one.
And so, our efforts to bring Paul home will continue. It will not stop. And, you know, the U.S. government continues to encourage the Russian government through every — every contact with them, through every channels to secure his release. And we want them to do it in good faith.
Q I want to get your reaction to Paul Whelan’s own words in response to this. He told one of our colleagues that he doesn’t understand why he’s still sitting there, that he’s greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure his release. So can you respond directly to him? Can you assure him that you are, in fact, now doing everything you can?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, I would refer — refer you to the words of the President himself, right? This is something that it we are committed to doing.
And again, I’ll repeat this because the President said this, and this is just repeating the President as well: is, like, he understands how difficult a time this is for the family — Paul’s family. He understands that. There are mixed emotions today for them.
They also said that they were proud to see, you know, Brittney come home today. And the President is going to do everything that he can, as we have seen him do many times across this — his — across the time, his tenure in the administration, to bring Paul home. And so, this is a commitment that the President is giving to the family and to Americans.
Q And does the President have any plans to speak with Whelan’s family or to try and speak with Paul Whelan himself?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, as he said himself, he’s looking to — he’s looking forward to speaking to the Whelan family today or when they are ready to have that conversation. He is open and ready to communicate with them.
Q And does the President — should we have any plans or any expectation for him to meet with Brittney Griner?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I don’t have anything to preview at this time. Our — our efforts right now, our focus is to get her home safely and — and to get her back to her family, to her team, to her loved ones, and give her all the necessary tools that she will need to reengage, to come back to the U.S. in her — in the way that she chooses, right?
Q Thank you, Karine. A quick question on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in securing Griner’s release. How do you view the Crown Prince’s involvement here? Do you view this as an act of good faith? And how do you think this will help them as the U.S. reevaluates its alliance with Saudi?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: 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 — Brittney’s release. And I won’t have — I don’t have anything further to share on that.
Q So there was — there were U.S. officials on the background call this morning thanking the Emiratis, for example, but there was no explicit mention of MBS and the role he played. I mean, is the administration still extending their gratitude or a thank you to —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: 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.
We are also grateful to other countries, including Saudi Arabia, that released [sic] the issue of our wrongfully detained Americans with Russian government — that raised that issue.
But, again, I don’t have anything more to say. But when it comes to her release, it was between the U.S. government and Russia.
Q And a quick one on the Whelan family saying that the United States needs to be more aggressive in arresting Russian criminals so there is more leverage during negotiations. One of the options is for the U.S. to arrest more Russians that, you know, the government is sanctioning already. Is that sort of a feasible path being floated? Is that — you know, how would you respond to that?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I don’t have anything more to share or anything to add or preview on your question.
Look, as you know, the President recently put forward — the Biden administration expanded their toolkit for the U.S. government can use to make sure that, as we think about hostages that are wrongfully detained, Americans that are being held, to deal with that issue, including the ability to impose serious costs and consequences, such as sanctions and visa bans on governments and non-state actors who are involved in hostage taking and wrongfully — and wrongfully detentions.
So, the State Department has also introduced a new risk indicator to their travel advisories to inform U.S. citizens about the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government in six countries that have regularly engaged in this practice.
So, clearly, we have expanded our toolkit. We did that most recently. And — and so that is showing how important this issue of Americans being wrongfully detained abroad and held hostage is important to the President and making sure that we bring them home, but also stop — stop those actions that we’re seeing from those countries.
Q Karine, just back to what Paul Whelan told my colleague earlier. He said, “I don’t understand why I am still sitting here.” When the senior officials spoke with Mr. Whelan earlier today, what was the explanation that was given to him on why he is still in a Russian penal colony?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I mean, I laid it out. He’s — Paul Whelan is being treated differently and — because of a totally illegitimate charges that have been levied against him by the Russians. And, you know, the Russians were not willing to negotiate in good faith for the release of — of Paul Whelan at this time. And that is the reality. That is what we’ve been sharing with all of you. But the President, again, is committed — committed to securing Paul’s return.
I’m not going to get into details of negotiations of what that will look like, just because, as you could imagine — you all understand — because of security reasons here. But, again, this is — this is something that we have worked for, worked on for the past several months — getting them both home. That is something that the President wanted to do. But this is what the Russians are doing. And so now we’re going to continue to have those conversations and finding a way to bring him home.
Q And can you clarify: When the Saudis say that the Crown Prince, MBS, was involved in mediation efforts to secure Griner’s release, is that true?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, I don’t have anything else to share beyond of what I’ve said. I’ll refer you — again, let them speak for themselves. But I’m — I’m not going to comment beyond what I just laid out of — of what we saw — who we’re thankful to and what we saw the — the involvement.
Again — but it was — the deal was negotiated. The only countries that actually negotiated this deal was the United States and Russia.
Q I guess, do you make anything of the fact that they are saying that MBS was involved?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I’m just not — I’m just not going to say beyond — more be- — outside of what I’ve just laid out.
Q Okay. Just a final one. Just revisiting Seung Min’s question on just the precedent that this might possibly set, I guess, what would the President’s message be to any foreign actor or rogue country that has watched all of this unfold and might be thinking, “Okay, so this was possible in this situation, so this is something that we might be able to pull off too”?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, you know, Russia and — sadly, Russia and other countries have already been willing to wrongfully detain U.S. citizens. This is something that has been occurring for some time, as you know. So we have been focused on how we can bring them home, and we make no apologies for that. And that’s what you have seen us do today, and that’s what you’ve seen us do with Trevor Reed and others.
And so, look, we’re going to continue to put — to put our efforts forward. We have, again, expanded our toolkit to make sure we do everything that we can to bring them home. But this is something that has been happening for some time now.
Q But is there a concern of this kind of precedent being set?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, what I can say — again, this is — this is something that we have seen not just Russia and other countries continue to do. This is something that they’ve been willing to do, which is wrongfully detained U.S. Americans.
We are going to do everything that we can to bring them home. We’re not going to apologize about it. We are going to keep our commitment to bring American citizens — again, who are being wrongfully detained, who are being held hostage — safe — back home safely to their families, where they should be.
Q Thanks. Does the White House have any indication that this negotiation is foundational and could lead to greater communication with Russia up to and including about Ukraine?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, these — this — this release culminated after an extraordinary amount of hard work by many people just across the U.S. government, as I just laid out early on, and our national security team, obviously. It was about securing Brittney’s — Brittney’s release, pure and simple. That’s what this — this is — was about. That’s what this — this particular action was about.
As we stated numerous — on numerous occasion, the U.S. government engaged with Russian government through every available channel to bring Griner and Paul Whelan home.
As it relates to — if you’re asking me about what we’re seeing in Ukraine, the invasion in Ukraine by Russia, it’s not going to change our commitment to the Ukrainian people to make sure that they are able to fight against the — their aggressive — the aggression that they are dealing with, with Russia, to fight for their freedom, to fight for their democracy. That does not change.
But this — I would look at this particular issue specifically to what we were trying to do: bringing home and — Americans back home safely.
Q And one more. The President indicated that he had talked to Brittney Griner. Can you give us any more details about — about that conversation, how long it was, what was talked about? And has he talked to her again, since this morning?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I don’t have a new call, a conversation to read out to you at this time. We have — basically has shared that, this morning, in the Oval Office, as I kind of gave a little bit of a timeline moments ago, when the President invited Cherelle Griner into the Oval Office to let her know what was occurring today — that Brittney was coming home — they called — I think there’s a photo out there that we tweeted — they called Brittney together, along with the Vice President and Secretary Blinken. And — and we have shared with all of you that she was in good spirits.
I don’t have anything further to share. But, yes, there was a conversation — I think we shared that earlier this morning — that he had with Brittney Griner when she was on her way here, on the plane, when she was able to have communications to have that conversation with her wife, the President, the Vice President, and Secretary Blinken.
Q Thanks. Just building on Cleve’s first question, it was a channel that works — a channel of communication with the Russian government that was successful in reaching this agreement. Is the admini- — does the administration not think that that is an opportunity to make progress in other areas, whether it’s Ukraine, whether it’s arms? There are so many issues. Is that not an opportunity there though?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, totally understand the question about what else can we po- — what other avenues can we potentially go through after this — after this — after securing Brittney’s coming — return home.
But we just want to be — again, this was — we want to be really clear: This was about securing Brittney’s release home, yes. But it was about this particular issue, pure and simple. That’s what this was about.
I don’t want to get ahead of any potential conversation about Ukraine. Don’t want to get ahead of any conversation about arms deal. I know there’s a new treaty out there. I know you all have questions about that. But this was about what the President’s commitment is and has been, what the administration’s work has been, which is bringing home American citizens who are wrongfully detained. And that has been our focus with Brittney this past year.
Q On another one: You know — obviously we’re talking about Griner. You also talk about efforts to reach to Paul Whelan’s family, as well as Paul Whelan himself. I just wanted to ask: Have there been any similar efforts regarding American Marc Fogel, who is also in Russia, also arrested on marijuana charges? How is his case different? Or how does the — why is the actions for Marc Fogel different than these?