US president Joe Biden met Friday with family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, the first face-to-face encounter that the president has had with the relatives.
In a statement after the meetings, which were held separately, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely”.
“He asked after the well-being of Elizabeth and Cherelle and their respective families during this painful time,” Jean-Pierre said. “The president appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long.”
Still, administration officials have said the meetings were not an indication that negotiations with Russia for their release have reached a breakthrough.
Earlier Friday, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that Russia has not responded to what administration officials have called a substantial and serious offer to secure Griner and Whelan’s release.
“The president is not going to let up,” Kirby told reporters. “He’s confident that this is going to remain in the forefront of his mind and his team’s mind, and they’re going to continue to work as hard as they can.”
Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and has appealed the punishment. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are false. The US government regards both as wrongfully detained, placing their cases with the office of its top hostage negotiator.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the administration had made a substantial proposal to Russia. Though he did not elaborate on the proposal, a person familiar with the matter has said the US has offered to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The administration carried out a prisoner swap last April, with Moscow releasing Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, participated in both meetings. Biden sat down with Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan. Then the president met with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas, according to the White House.
Cherelle Griner offered her thanks to Biden in a statement issued to the Guardian through Brittney Griner’s representatives.
“I want to thank President Biden for today’s meeting,” the statement read. “It was an honor to speak with him directly about the Brittney we know and love, and to thank him for the Administration’s efforts to secure her release. I’ve felt every minute of the grueling seven months without her. I look forward to the day my wife is back home.
“As my family and I continue on this journey, I’d like to thank the broad coalition of friends, leaders and supporters who continue to stand with us and advocate for Brittney’s swift and safe return. Let’s share a unified commitment to bringing all Americans home to their families and loved ones.”