'This isn't a Jason Bourne movie': Brittney Griner's case presents new challenge for White House

·Senior White House Correspondent
·7-min read

WASHINGTON — In late April, former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed returned home to the United States after two years of imprisonment in Russia. President Biden celebrated Reed’s return as a diplomatic coup, at a time of heightened hostility between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine.

“We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends,” Biden said in a statement, referring to another former Marine now being held in Russia on what are almost certainly fabricated charges.

Among those unnamed “others” was Brittney Griner, the professional basketball star arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February after cannabis vape cartridges were found in her luggage.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, holding the ball and with dreadlocks flying, slams past Candace Parker, who is straining, in vain, to stop her.
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner drives past Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker in the WNBA basketball finals in 2021. (Ralph Freso/AP)

The White House initially tried to downplay the arrest, fearing that drawing attention to Griner’s plight would only make her more valuable in the Kremlin’s eyes. But as her trial began in Moscow last week on charges of cannabis possession and trafficking, her American supporters have grown more vociferous in their frustration, challenging the White House to do more to bring her home.

For its part, the White House insists it is doing everything it can. “This is an issue that is a priority for this president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday. “The same focus that we did and put behind bringing Trevor Reed home, we’re going to do the same with Brittney Griner and others.”

On Monday, Biden received a handwritten letter from Griner. “I'm terrified I might be here forever," she wrote to the president. The 31-year-old Phoenix Mercury center had been traveling to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, which she had done during the WNBA off-season since 2016. The team is owned by Andrei Kozitsyn, a mining magnate with close ties to the Kremlin.

The letter marked a renewed effort by Griner’s family and supporters to publicize her plight, which could include a prolonged prison sentence. “I will not be quiet anymore,” Griner's wife, Cherelle, told CBS. “They're not moving, they're not doing anything,” she said of efforts by the Biden administration. “So my wife is struggling, and we have to help her."

Brittney Griner, looking apprehensive, pale and thin, and shackled to a Russian female officer, makes her way into court.
Griner arrives for a hearing at the Khimki court outside Moscow on July 1. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard also made news when she said racism, sexism and homophobia were hampering efforts to free Griner. “If it was LeBron, he'd be home, right?” Nygaard said, referencing NBA superstar LeBron James. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”

On Wednesday, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner, according to a readout of the call released by the White House.

"The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world," the readout said.

Griner’s camp was frustrated last month when a call between Cherelle and her imprisoned wife that was supposed to be routed through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow failed to go through, due to what the State Department described as a “logistical error.” Cherelle, in response to the error, said at the time: “I have zero trust in our government right now.”

Since then, the invigorated campaign by Cherelle and others — including several prominent LGBTQ organizations that sent a letter to the White House last month — has increased interest in Griner’s story in the American media, but it is not clear what effect that will have on Russian courts.

Cherelle, talking in front of a bookcase that contains framed certificates and an outline of Texas, pauses, with a look of pursed frustration expression on her face.
In this image from video, Griner's wife, Cherelle, speaks to the Associated Press on June 20. (AP)

“This isn’t just about Brittney,” said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a University of Pennsylvania scholar who has studied Black identity in the Soviet Union. “Paul Whelan has been held in Russian custody for more than four years. He is a straight white man. We have to think about both of their cases in the context of international foreign policy.”

St. Julian-Varnon noted that Griner was arrested a few days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, two developments that she believes are closely linked. “We have to be very careful about how we approach her case,” she told Yahoo News. “Her case is fundamentally tied to the war in Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin will no doubt seek concessions from the U.S. in exchange for Griner’s pardon or release. In 2020, Russia released an Israeli American traveler, Naama Isaachar, from prison after she, too, had been arrested and imprisoned for cannabis possession. In exchange, Israel transferred the rights to a Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem back to Russia.

In exchange for the far more high-profile Griner, the Kremlin could seek the return of Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer imprisoned in the United States. The White House has said nothing about a potential deal involving Bout.

Viktor Bout is escorted, shackled, from a plane.
Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout is escorted by Drug Enforcement Administration officers in 2010. (U.S. Department of Justice/Handout via Reuters)

In general, the White House believes that the less attention devoted to Americans captured abroad, the better, based on the conviction that public outrage ultimately only benefits the captors and gives them more negotiating leverage. After a New York Times journalist was captured by the Taliban in 2008, the newspaper labored to keep news of his imprisonment from the press for more than half a year, until he finally managed to escape the following June.

As a 6-foot-9 basketball superstar, and as a queer Black woman not afraid to voice her opinions on social justice issues, Griner was bound to attract attention. That made her case more fraught than that of imprisoned Americans like Whelan and Reed, neither of whom was widely known before they were arrested.

St. Julian-Varnon believes that Griner's celebrity and identity could help her, as could the fact that she was on her way to play for a Russian team owned by an oligarch close to the Kremlin. “She is not being treated the same way a Russian detained in pretrial detention is being treated,” St. Julian-Varnon said. “She is too high-profile. That is one of the benefits of the African American uproar over her detainment.”

Brittney Griner raises her arm in a closed fist during a game against Australia at Saitama Super Arena in their Tokyo 2020 Olympic women's basketball quarterfinal game in Saitama, Japan on August 4, 2021. (Brian Snyder/AP)
Griner during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. (Brian Snyder/AP)

Biden’s political enemies have also commented on the Griner case, contrasting his efforts with then-President Donald Trump’s successful effort to secure the release of the rapper A$AP Rocky from a Swedish prison. “President Trump would have had her home weeks ago. Everyone knows it!” the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee tweeted on Tuesday.

Other conservatives have highlighted Griner’s social justice convictions, which lend her case an added edge that Russia — ever aware of fractures in American public opinion — could potentially exploit.

The White House insists it has been working every diplomatic angle available to bring Griner home. Officials at the National Security Council pointed Yahoo News to a statement from NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson. “The President’s team is in regular contact with Brittney’s family and we will continue to work to support her family,” the statement said. Watson added that the White House was “closely coordinating” with Roger D. Carstens, who leads the State Department’s hostage affairs efforts.

“This isn't a Jason Bourne movie,” said St. Julian-Varnon. “Just because you don't know what the State Department is doing in this case doesn't mean the State Department is doing nothing."

Griner’s trial resumes on Thursday. If convicted on trafficking charges, she could face a decade in prison.

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