Biden says Brittney Griner is 'safe' after release from Russia in prisoner swap

President Biden on Thursday said Brittney Griner is “safe” and on her way home after being freed from Russian custody in a prisoner exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said in brief remarks at the White House, where he was joined by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “After months of being detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should’ve been there all along.”

Biden said he spoke with Griner and that she is in “good spirits.”

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House
President Biden speaks to reporters about the release of WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner on Thursday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

“The fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma,” he said. “She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”

Griner has been held in Russia since February, when she was detained in Moscow after being found carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” Biden said. “We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstakingly intense negotiations.”

Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow.
Biden said Griner was "unjustly detained" in Russia before she was released in a prisoner swap with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. (Alexander Zemlianichenko, File/AP)

The president thanked those in his administration who worked to secure her release as well as the United Arab Emirates, where a plane transporting Griner back to the United States landed.

“These past few months have been hell for Brittney and Cherelle and her entire family,” Biden said. “People across the country have learned about Brittney’s story, advocated for her release throughout this terrible ordeal. And I know that support meant a lot to her family.”

The president also said the U.S. has not given up on Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive who has been jailed in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges.

“We did not forget about Brittney, and we have not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home.”

President Biden and Cherelle Griner speak on the phone with WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner after her release by Russia, in this White House handout photo taken in the Oval Office, as Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken look on.
The White House released this image of Biden and Griner's wife, Cherelle, speaking to the WNBA star after she was released from Russia. (The White House/Handout via Reuters)

Biden pointed to Trevor Reed, a 30-year-old U.S. Marine veteran who was released in a prisoner swap with Russia in April.

“We brought home Trevor Reed when we had a chance earlier this year,” the president said. “Sadly, for illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

In a statement, the Whelan family said the Biden administration “made the right decision” in securing Griner’s release and “to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to [happen].”

In brief remarks, Cherelle Griner thanked Biden for helping secure Brittney’s release.

“Today my family is whole,” Cherelle Griner said. “But as you all are aware, there's so many other families who are not whole."

She added: “Brittney and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”