WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre faced a barrage of questions Thursday about President Biden’s decision to release notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a prisoner swap for basketball star Brittney Griner — while leaving fellow Americans Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel behind.
“It was either Brittney or no one at all and we’re not going to apologize for that,” Jean-Pierre said at her regular press briefing.
Jean-Pierre added that the Kremlin was “not willing to negotiate in good faith” to release Whelan, who Russia convicted of spying, and side-stepped questions about Fogel — who, like Griner, was sentenced to prison this year for possessing a small amount of marijuana.
Griner, 32, pleaded guilty in July to possessing a small amount of cannabis oil when she was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport on Feb. 17, one week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
“How do you dispel the public perception that if you are a celebrity or a professional athlete, you get preferential treatment in a situation like this?” asked CBS journalist Weijia Jiang.
“This was not a choice for us on of which American to bring home. That was not the choice. It was a choice between bring home one American or bring home none. And we brought one home today… just like we were able to bring home Trevor Reed back in April,” Jean-Pierre replied.
“Regrettably, due to nature of the totally illegitimate charges they levied against Paul, the Russians are treating this situation differently than Brittney’s situation and we have been unable to secure his release,” she added. “We made every possible offer available to us to secure Paul’s release. But there was no way to bring Paul home right now.”
Whelan, 52, was born in Canada and served in the Marine Corps during the Iraq War. He was arrested in Russia in 2018 and was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage. His defense attorney said he was apprehended with a thumb drive that contained “state secrets” but claimed that Whelan was given the files in a set-up after being told the drive had photos of churches.
Jean-Pierre would not directly address Fogel’s imprisonment, which unlike Griner and Whelan’s cases, has not officially been declared by the State Department to be wrongful detention.
Fogel, 61, was arrested in August 2021 for possessing 17 grams of what he said was medical marijuana. The former history teacher, like Griner, was arrested in Moscow when the pot was found in his luggage.
Fogel was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June — just over a month before Griner was handed a nine-year sentence. The US government asked for Fogel to be released on humanitarian grounds, CNN reported, but reportedly did not include him in a proposed two-for-two prisoner swap involving Griner and Whelan.
“Have there have been any similar efforts regarding [the release of] American Marc Fogel, who was also in Russia, also arrested on marijuana charges? How is his case different — or why [are] the actions for Marc Fogel different than these?” asked NPR journalist Franco Ordoñez.
“We take seriously our responsibility to assist US citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation. Any specifics on Marc Fogel or any others, I would refer you to the State Department for additional information on those specific cases,” Jean-Pierre said.
“Every case is different. Every case, there are different ways that I can talk about them. So I don’t want to get ahead of that. So I would refer you to the State Department.”
“But you do see a difference between Griner’s case and Fogel’s case?” Ordoñez pressed.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that sometimes we’re not able to talk about that particular individual … There are reasons for that — for their own security, for their own privacy,” Jean-Pierre said.
Later, Daily Mail reporter Geoff Earle said “he’s doing a 14-year sentence for less than an ounce of pot. Would you say he’s been wrongfully detained?”
“I can’t speak to any individual’s specific case at this time. I would refer you to the State Department. Everyone has a different classification … But we want Americans to know that their safety and security is among our highest priorities,” Jean-Pierre said.
Biden faced blowback from Congress for leaving Whelan and Fogel behind.
“I cannot help but think about Paul Whelan — as he has apparently been abandoned by the Biden administration,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.).
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) said, “I will continue to relentlessly advocate for Pittsburgh native Marc Fogel’s release and for the State Department to classify him as wrongfully detained, something they have failed to do since his detainment in August 2021.”