US President Joe Biden met with family members of the WNBA star on Friday Britney Greener and another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, marking the president’s first face-to-face meeting with relatives.
In a statement after the meetings, which were held separately, White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said Biden stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working in every way possible to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”
“He asked about the well-being of Elizabeth and Cherelle and their families at this painful time,” Jean-Pierre said. “The president appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Britney and Paul from those who love them the most, and acknowledged that every minute they hold is a minute too long.”
However, administration officials said the meetings were not a sign that negotiations with Russia achieved a breakthrough for their release.
Earlier on Friday, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Russia had not responded to what administration officials called a substantial and serious offer to secure the release of Griner and Whelan.
“The president is not going to give up,” Kirby told reporters. “He’s sure that will remain at the forefront of his mind and his team’s mind and they will continue to work as hard as they can.”
Since February, Griner has been detained in Russia on drug charges. She was sentenced to nine years in prison last month after pleading guilty and appealing the sentence. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that he and his family believe are false. The U.S. government is treating both as unlawfully detained, referring their cases to the Office of the Chief Hostage Negotiator.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the administration had made a substantial offer to Russia. Although he did not elaborate on the offer, a person familiar with the matter said the US had offered to free convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The administration conducted a prisoner swap last April, when Moscow released Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenka, who was convicted in a drug-trafficking conspiracy.
Both meetings were attended by the president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. Biden met with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister. The president then met with Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Collas, according to the White House.
Cherelle Griner thanked Biden in a statement released to the Guardian through Brittney Griner’s representatives.
“I want to thank President Biden for today’s meeting,” the statement said. “It was an honor to speak with him directly about the Britney we know and love and thank him for the administration’s efforts to free her. I felt every minute of the grueling seven months without her. I look forward to the day my wife comes home.
“As my family and I continue on this journey, I would like to thank the broad coalition of friends, leaders and supporters who continue to support us and advocate for Brittney’s speedy and safe return. Let us share a united commitment to bring all Americans home to their families and loved ones.”