White House offers Russia deal to release WNBA star Brittney Griner, former Marine

The U.S. is now offering to trade prisoners with Russia to bring home basketball star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine from Michigan. Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, and Jonathan Franks, a crisis management specialist who worked to free a former U.S. Marine from Russia earlier this year, join Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, the Biden administration today announced an offer of a potential prisoner swap to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia.

    Amna Nawaz looks at what's at stake.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug possession charges. She pleaded guilty earlier this month to unintentionally bringing cannabis oil into the country and testified in her case for the first time today, saying she was denied basic rights when she was first detained and interrogated.

    The Biden administration revealed this afternoon that officials offered Russia a deal last month to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American citizen held in Russia since 2018. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is now waiting for Russia to respond.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: We have conveyed this on a number of occasions and directly to Russian officials.

    And my hope would be that, in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For more on what this means, I'm joined by Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. He is now a professor at Stanford University. And Jonathan Franks, a crisis management specialist who worked to free former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from Russia earlier this year. He has worked on the successful release of several other Americans wrongfully detained overseas.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thank you for being here.

    Ambassador, I will begin with you.

    We didn't get many details about what that deal was from Secretary Blinken. He said it was substantial, offered weeks ago. But this is the first time they're saying publicly, we have made a deal.

    What does this say to you about where those negotiations are?

    Michael McFaul, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia: Well, I think it would be highly unlikely for Secretary Blinken to say anything about the deal if he didn't think the deal was going to be completed.

    So this is a very positive sign, I think, for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. I hope that they add to the list another American who I think is wrongly detained in Russia. His name is Marc Fogel.

    But it sounds like they have put together a deal. It sounds like it's probably for Viktor Bout, a criminal that was arrested a long time ago and the Russians have been asking for his release for years, going all the way back to when I was ambassador. It sounds like they are putting that deal together.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, what about Viktor Bout?

    As Ambassador McFaul just said, Blinken also mentioned this deal is based on what he called a history of conversations with the Russians. They have been seeking Viktor Bout's release for years. He's a convicted Russian arms dealer, we should say, who is serving a 25-year sentence here in the U.S.

    Tell us what we should know about him. And is that a good deal?

  • Jonathan Franks, President, Lucid Strategies:

    Well, yes is the short answer.

    I mean, Mr. Bout has five to six more years on his sentence. And we would get significantly more off Paul Whelan's, and I imagine that Ms. Griner is going to be sentenced to a ridiculous prison term as well, so we'd get time off of hers and get the better end of that deal.

    Obviously, I have been out there trying to sell prisoner trades since October that include — you know, I was trying to sell Yaroshenko and Bout for Whelan and Reed. And it turned out to be a one-for-one deal.

    So, to me, all I have to say tonight is, bravo, Secretary Blinken. Bravo, Mr. President.

    We have been trying to get them for some time to build on the success of the release of Trevor Reed. And it appears that they're about to do so, as the ambassador just alluded to.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, should they have done this sooner? The Russians have been asking him — for Viktor Bout for a while. And if that is, in fact, the deal, should this have been done earlier?

  • Jonathan Franks:

    When? How much earlier is my question.

    I don't — they have been trying to do this, at least publicly — the earliest I could find was 2016. I don't know that I would have been there in 2016, because he doesn't get out until 2029. So I think, at this point — would I have liked to see them do this several years ago? Yes, no question.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador, what about Viktor Bout here?

    I mean, we're talking about freeing a very dangerous man. His nickname is the Merchant of Death. He has fueled incredibly violent conflicts all over the world. Does this compromise global stability or U.S. security in any way?

  • Michael McFaul:

    These are hard deals. Viktor Bout is a real horrible criminal.

    Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, Marc Fogel, they're innocent Americans. So when you do these trades, they are not — they're uncomfortable trades. When I was in the government at the White House back in 2010, we faced a similar deal in swapping spies, right?

    And it wasn't a symmetric thing. We sent a dozen spies, Russian, back, and we got four out. But at the end of the day, you have to calculate, are Americans better off and their security better off by doing the trade than not? Our Justice Department doesn't like it. Those — the FBI doesn't like it. The CIA doesn't like it.

    But the secretary of state and, ultimately, the president of the United States has to make that decision. And I think, in this case, it's the right decision.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador, what about the precedent? That's the other question, right? At a time when there are more states, not third-party or other actors, more states detaining Americans overseas, does this set a precedent that the way for them to get other people released here in the U.S. is by nabbing more U.S. citizens?

  • Michael McFaul:

    You know, that's the conventional wisdom, but, actually, there's a lot of data to support that hypothesis.

    The idea that now we're going to see more and more detained, I just have not seen the evidence that support it's that way. With terrorist organizations, it may be true. I don't think it's the true with state actors. I most certainly don't think it's true with the Russian government.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, let me ask you about the U.S. response in this, because, obviously, Brittney Griner has been detained since February.

    You have been among those very vocally and more recently calling for the government to do more. There was a sense that the administration was moving slowly, at least publicly. Was that a fair criticism?

  • Jonathan Franks:

    I think it was.

    And I think we'd hoped to see trades fall on Trevor within 30 days or so. And we didn't. But they have clearly made significant progress. And I absolutely commend them for it. And, to your earlier point, I commend the ambassador too. There is no data to support the notion that doing trades causes more hostage-taking.

    And we — I work very closely with the James Foley Fund. They are the keeper of statistics. And they — I'm not a statistics or math guy, but they tell me there's no correlation, and pretty much exactly what the ambassador just said.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the public pressure in this case? What kind of role do you think that played?

    You were here in D.C. holding a press conference calling for the government to do more. We know Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, has been giving more interviews, high-profile WNBA and basketball stars like coach Dawn Staley. Did that help, do you think?

  • Jonathan Franks:

    Yes, I think absolutely. I think it created both a political space to make a deal like this and also some urgency.

    And there are — I just want to say there are 15-plus other cases that can be resolved with trades. Now, some of them are probably a little too much, and some of them may be palatable, right? But I think there comes a point at which we have to clear the decks and bring our people home.

    So I am — I was very excited watching Secretary Blinken's remarks today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador, we should underscore here this is a proposed deal. They are waiting for Russia to respond.

  • Michael McFaul:

    Exactly. Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The trial is ongoing. We know Griner has another court date on August 2, and all of this is unfolding as the Russian war in Ukraine continues.

    How do you think this moves forward from here?

  • Michael McFaul:

    Well, I'm glad you pumped the brakes there. Let's not get ahead of our skis yet.

    We do that when the Americans are on American soil. And I have enough bitter experience in negotiating with the Russians to have deals fall apart at the last minute. Again, though, I would — I do not think that Secretary Blinken would make the remarks he said today if he were not confident it's going to happen.

    My guess is, we will — they will have to wait until Brittney Griner has been sentenced. I don't think it'll happen before then, but hopefully right after that, this deal will happen.

    And, again, I want to emphasize I hope Marc Fogel, who is also wrongly detained and convicted in Russia, will also be part of the deal. I think it's a pretty good deal to trade one horrible criminal, Viktor Bout, for three innocent Americans.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, what about you? When you look ahead, how do you see this playing out?

  • Jonathan Franks:

    I agree with the ambassador completely.

    I also am concerned about Marc Fogel, concerned about the case against him, and concerned about what is, I think, an absurd sentence. So I think it'd be great if Marc could be in the deal, and whatever it takes to bring our people home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, it's big potential news today in the case of Brittney Griner detained overseas in Russia.

    We thank you both for joining us to explain what all of this means.

    That's Ambassador Michael McFaul and Jonathan Franks.

    Thank you.

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