Biden meets with families of Whelan, Griner at White House

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden meets with family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan, on Friday.

The White House meetings are the first face-to-face encounters between the President and the families of Griner and Whelan. The meetings, held in the Oval Office, began shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, the White House said.

Administration officials said the sessions were intended to underscore Biden’s commitment to bringing home Americans held abroad and making a personal connection, but did not indicate that negotiations with Russia over their release had achieved a breakthrough.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Friday Russia has not responded to what government officials have described as a substantial and serious offer to secure the release of Griner and Whelan.

“The president is not going to let up,” Kirby told reporters Friday ahead of the president’s meetings with families. “He is confident that this will remain at the forefront of his mind and that of his team and they will continue to work on it as hard as they can.”

Griner has been held in Russia for drug offenses since February. She was sentenced to nine years in prison last month after pleading guilty and has appealed the sentence. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges he and his family believe were wrong. The US government considers both to be wrongly imprisoned and is referring their cases to the office of their chief hostage negotiator.

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the government had submitted a substantive proposal to Russia. Although he did not elaborate on the proposal, a person familiar with the matter said the US had offered to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The government last April conducted a prisoner swap in which Moscow released naval veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Jake Sullivan, the President’s National Security Advisor, is attending both meetings. Biden is sitting with Elizabeth Whelan, sister of Paul Whelan. In a separate session, the president will meet with Cherelle Griner, wife of Brittney Griner, and player agent Lindsay Colas, according to the White House.

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