Biden calls Paul Whelan’s sister after criticism

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President Biden on Friday placed a phone call to Elizabeth Whelan to pledge his commitment to securing the release of her brother Paul, who has been detained in Russia since 2018.

The phone call took place after the White House endured criticism from Elizabeth Whelan herself and others for the lack of outreach to the Whelan family after the White House set up a call between Biden and the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner – who is also detained in Russia – earlier this week.

“President Biden reaffirmed that he is committed to bringing Paul home as soon as possible, and the U.S. government will continue its efforts to secure the release of Paul as well as Brittney Griner and all other Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world,” a White House official said.

“The U.S. government will continue to be in regular contact with Paul’s family, and with the families of other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, to provide support and assistance and keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones,” the official added.

David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, confirmed in an email to The Hill that the call happened but the family has not commented yet on the engagement.

The White House was forced to defend its handling of communications with the Whelan family earlier this week.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described regular contact between the Biden administration and the family during a Thursday briefing when peppered with questions about a potential presidential call.

White House staff joined a call between Elizabeth Whelan and Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens earlier this week, she said.

“This is top of mind,” Jean-Pierre added.

Consular officials and others in Carsten’s office are in regular touch with the Whelan family as well as other families of Americans detained abroad. Still, a presidential phone call signals greater attention to any one individual’s case.

Elizabeth Whelan had openly criticized the administration’s outreach earlier this week, tweeting Wednesday that she as “crushed” that Biden hadn’t phoned her family after the news about the call with Griner broke. She later clarified that she did not “begrudge” the Griners’ access to the president.

The call to Griner’s wife, Cherelle, also came after the administration withstood criticism from the family after the basketball star sent a handwritten note to Biden.

Whelan was jailed in Russia in 2018 on espionage charges that he has consistently and vehemently denied. The U.S. has called his detention as well as that of Griner “wrongful.”

The White House successfully secured the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from a Russian jail earlier this year through a prisoner exchange. That development came after Reed’s family secured a meeting with Biden after protesting outside the White House to demand his attention.

At the time, the Whelan family praised Reed’s release but also questioned the administration’s commitment to freeing Paul.

The White House has been tightlipped about the administration’s strategy in seeking the release of Griner and Whelan.

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