The family of retired Marine Paul Whelan said Thursday that a prisoner swap for WNBA star Brittney Griner that left Whelan in Russia was a “catastrophe” because the U.S. would no longer have leverage to free him.
On Thursday, it was revealed that President Joe Biden’s administration had returned Griner to U.S. custody after she had been sentenced for a drug charge. In exchange, it gave Russia convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
But Whelan was left behind in Russia, though the Biden administration had been telling reporters for months that the U.S. was trying to secure his release as well. He has been imprisoned on spying charges that he denies.
NBC News reported Thursday that Whelan’s relatives said they had been warned in advance of the impending Griner swap — and that it would not include Whelan — so they could prepare themselves for disappointment:
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that while he can “literally only imagine the joy [Griner] will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” the inability to also bring Whelan home remains difficult for the family to process.
“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,” David Whelan said. “I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media.”
Biden’s prisoner swap continues a pattern in which Democratic administrations swap high-level prisoners, and even pallets of cash, for Americans held abroad. President Donald Trump used threats and pressure instead.