Dissecting the Griner prisoner swap

Presidents have to make tough decisions. Sometimes they’re agonizing. That’s what the job description is. When Harry Truman sat behind that desk, he kept a sign that said, “The buck stops here.”

Presidents also sometimes have to make decisions that are unpopular, because they get the problems for which there’s no good answer. If it was easy, it would’ve been solved at a lower level of government. That results in what Jimmy Carter once said: “In this job, you’ll be criticized no matter what you do.”

This story begins with the arrest in March 2008 of Russian arms deal Viktor Bout for violating sanctions. He was detained in Thailand, extradited to the U.S., convicted of various charges, and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison (details here).

A little over 10 years later, Paul Whelan, an American IT manager, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 for spying, was convicted in June 2020, and sentenced to 16 years in prison (details here). While Whelan’s activities in Russia seem sketchy, the U.S. government has called his trial and conviction a sham, and his detention illegitimate.

In February 2022, Brittney Griner, an American Olympian and WNBA player, flew to Russia to play off-season basketball in a Russian league, and was arrested at a Moscow airport for having vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her baggage. She was accused of drug smuggling, pled guilty in a Russian court in July 2022, and was sentenced to 9 years in prison (details here).

Immediately after Griner’s sentencing, President Biden approved negotiating with Russia for Whelan’s and Griner’s released, and the U.S. dangled Bout as a trading card. Russia observers predicted no deal would be made before the U.S. midterm elections, because Moscow didn’t want to help Biden in the elections. On December 8, 2022, two days after the Georgia Senate runoff election, Russia traded Griner for Bout, but refused to include Whelan.

The decision to accept that deal was made by Biden personally, behind the desk where the buck stops, and the White House called it a very difficult decision, saying it was either this deal or no deal (story here). Republicans reacted with anger.

Now let’s pick this apart.

Republicans like Whelan, and hate Griner. This case is politically charged for a couple reasons. First, Whelan is a Trump supporter; and second, Griner, during the George Floyd protests, called for the WNBA to stop playing the national anthem before games. It also doesn’t help that she’s black and gay.

Republicans will use any excuse to attack Biden. That’s just the way it is. As Carter would say, Biden was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. By all appearances, Biden went about this the way presidents should: He weighed the options and took the best deal our side could get, and disregarded the domestic political implications. He hasn’t given up on bringing Whelan home; the U.S. is still negotiating for his release.

Whelan and Griner aren’t angels. The media often describe Whelan as a “former Marine.” What they don’t mention is that Whelan was court-martialed and given a bad conduct discharge for theft. Griner was arrested for domestic violence resulting in injury when she and her then-partner got into a fight. These incidents are described in more detail at the Wikipedia links above.

What Griner did was dumb; what Whelan did was dumber. When you go to a foreign country, you’re under their jurisdiction, and subject to their laws. You’re also vulnerable to arbitrary arrest if authorities in that country decide to grab; but if you try to look at this from the Russians’ point of view, if Griner actually had the vape cartridges (she isn’t denying it) and Whelan was trying to buy sensitive information from a Russian contact (who, it appears, turned informant), then you could argue they were asking for trouble. True, Griner had a medical marijuana prescription valid in Arizona, but she wasn’t in Arizona; if this was Indonesia, she might be facing a firing squad. Whelan ostensibly went to Russia for a wedding, but he separated from the group and went alone to a hotel room to meet an apparently clandestine contact. This is Russia, for God’s sake. Those actions put our government in the position of trying to fish them out of there.

Bout has served more of his sentence than Whelan and Griner have of theirs. All three eventually would have been released, but Bout has been in custody much longer; he’s been held 16 years, and is about halfway through his sentence. Whelan has served 2 years of a 16-year sentence, and Griner was held less than 10 months. But Bout, on an objective scale, is more dangerous than Whelan or Griner; at least the U.S. side thinks so.

Law enforcement doesn’t like the deal. CNN says (here), “The situation was complicated further when senior law enforcement officials, angry at the prospect of releasing a notorious figure it had taken years to capture and alarmed by the precedent Bout’s release would set, raised strong objections.” Probably few considerations would’ve given Biden more pause than this one, but undercutting law enforcement’s hard work is just another factor to be weighed in an agonizingly tough decision. Would it be any less palatable to those LE officials if Whelan were included in the deal? And the efforts to nab Bout weren’t for naught; he’s been locked up for 16 years. Also weighing in the balance is his eventual release. As for precedent, these kinds of prisoner swaps have been going on forever (think “Bridge of Spies”).

Whelan says he’s disappointed Biden hasn’t done more for him. AOL News says (here), “Whelan says he is happy that the Biden administration was able to secure … Griner’s release from Russia in a prisoner swap but is ‘greatly disappointed’ … that more has not been done” to secure his release. His frustration is very understandable, but the Biden administration made herculean efforts to include him in the prisoner swap, but the Russians were intransigent. What “more” can Biden do? Once it was clear Russia wasn’t going to trade Whelan for Bout, the U.S. had nothing more to offer. Whelan’s brother says Biden “made the right decision.”

Trump couldn’t free Whelan, either. Trump had two years to get Whelan released, but he couldn’t do it, either (see story here).

Rep. Greene says Biden should be impeached for this. (See story here.) So what? She’s wanted Biden’s head on a platter ever since he beat Trump. For Afghanistan, for Hunter Biden, for being a Democrat, for being born. Greene is an unserious twit who does things for attention (see article here). Presidents can be impeached for treason or “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Policy disagreements don’t fall into any of those categories. Even if it was a bad decision or a policy mistake, that doesn’t make it an impeachable offense.

Republicans are going full-throated nasty. You expect normal Americans to celebrate Griney’s release whether they agree with the deal’s terms or not, But Republicans aren’t normal people. Trump responded to her release by claiming she “hates America.” Other Republicans called her a “drug smuggler.” Welcome home, Brittney; they hated you before, and now they hate you more. Two exceptions: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said he’s “very pleased she’s coming home,” and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said, “I’m very thankful that she’s coming home. Any time we can get an American home, that’s good” (see story here).

Bottom line, two Americans went to Russia of their own free will and got into trouble there, putting our government in an awkward position. Whether their arrests were arbitrary or justified is debatable, but nobody here would consider Griner’s 9-year sentence reasonable (although keep in mind that American conservative judges used to routinely hand down lengthy sentences for merely smoking pot).

When U.S. citizens venture abroad and run afoul of foreign authorities, our government does everything it can to retrieve them. The Biden administration went further and elevated Whelan’s and Griner’s release to a presidential priority. Whelan is still in Russian custody because of Russian intransigence, not because of any unturned stone on Biden’s part. If he hadn’t taken the deal, he would’ve been attacked for that, too; Republicans were going to make a stink no matter what he did.

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