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Brittney Griner Released from Russian Detention. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired December 08, 2022 - 11:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We have more details coming in on the breaking news. WNBA star Brittney Griner on her way home. Heading back to America as part of a prisoner exchange brokered by the Biden administration and Russia.

President Biden, with Griner's wife alongside him, announced the news this morning. Listen.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home. After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along.


BOLDUAN: In exchange for Griner, who had just started serving a nine year drug sentence in a Russian penal colony, Russia also secured the release of arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Administration officials say it was months of negotiations that led to this moment. Not included in the exchange, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. He remains left behind in Russia. CNN just spoke to him from behind bars and we'll bring that to you in moments. We'll also get a live interview with the White House about all of this at this hour. Now before that, let find out what led up to this big moment. Kylie Atwood is at State Department.

How did this play out?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Months in the marking. We reported over the summer that the Biden administration had put a deal on the table with Russia to try and get out both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. That isn't the deal that came to fruition today. Of course, the White

House and Cherelle Griner, who is Brittney Griner's wife, welcoming the news that Brittney Griner is coming home after serving in Russian prison for about 10 months, with Cherelle saying their family is whole again today.

But not all families are whole today because Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia for about four years now, was not part of this swap. And President Biden essentially said from the White House today that it wasn't a choice.

This was the only deal that the United States could pull off. And we spoke with a senior administration official this afternoon and -- excuse me -- this morning and briefing reporters, who said this is the only deal that Russia was willing to make at this point.

And it is clear that Russia is treating Paul Whelan, who is charged with espionage, which are charges that he vehemently denies, differently than Brittney Griner. And that is of major concern for Paul Whelan's family.

Of course, they so graciously welcomed the fact that Brittney Griner was released today, saying that was the right move for the Biden administration but also raising questions as to how Paul Whelan is going to get home, because they don't know what the U.S. could put on the table that Russia actually wants right now.

This prisoner swap included Viktor Bout, that convicted arms trafficker. And he's the person that Russia really wanted. There is reason to believe that the channel of communication between U.S. and Russia will remain open. But we'll have to wait and see how that turns out. Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Kylie, more details coming in about how this is all playing out and what this means going forward as we wait for Brittney to land back on U.S. soil. Thank you so much.

So in announcing the news, the White House released these photos of President Biden talking to Griner by the phone. You could see he is joined by Brittney Griner's wife and Vice President Kamala Harris and the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, who played a heavy hand in these negotiations. MJ Lee is live from the White House with more on this.

MJ, the president spoke this morning and Cherelle Griner spoke this morning. Tell us about the reaction from the White House right now.

MJ LEE, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: First and foremost, there is no question that there is real celebration about this news of getting Brittney Griner finally out of Russia. When the president spoke, he said that he expects that Griner should be arriving on U.S. soil within the next 24 hours.

He said that the nightmare and the hell that Brittney Griner and her family have been through this year, that that is about to be over soon. He also gave the podium briefly to Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner's

wife, who joined him in the room. And when she took the podium, she breathed a big sigh of relief and said she was so overcome with emotion and expressed gratitude to the administration.

But another big part of President Biden's speech was really addressing the Paul Whelan situation.


LEE: He said we have not forgotten about Paul Whelan. We're not going to give up in trying to get him out. And that the negotiations are going to continue and he was pretty frank in saying that these negotiations have been very, very difficult. Take a listen.


BIDEN: Make no mistake about it, this work is not easy. Negotiations are always difficult. There are never any guarantees. But it is my job as the President of the United States to make the hard calls and protect American citizens everywhere in the world, anywhere in the world.

And I'm proud that today we have made one more family whole again.


LEE: And we were told earlier today that a senior administration official actually visited Whelan's sister recently to convey the news that this deal was coming. And that another senior administration official spoke directly with Whelan today to also talk through this news with him.

So this is going to be the huge focus for the administration going forward, is how exactly to now get him out.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. MJ, thank you.

So Vladimir Putin got something out of this exchange as well, the release of Viktor Bout, the convicted arms dealer. He was more than a decade into a 25 year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. Fred Pleitgen is live there Berlin with this side of it.

An important side of how this whole thing was able to be pulled off.

Why is Bout so important to Vladimir Putin?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's extremely important to Vladimir Putin because of his past and being a high profile Russian, who was in U.S. custody.

And you could really see over the past couple of months, Kate, the Russians ramping this up and talking about how important it would be to get Viktor Bout back and saying he was wrongfully convicted. And the Russians saying today they do not leave their citizens behind

and we've been looking at Russian state TV over the past couple of hours. And you've had Viktor Bout's Russian lawyer calling this a miracle and his mother has been on Russian state TV, thanking Vladimir Putin and thanking Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, as well.

So the Russians celebrating this as a win and talking about just how important Viktor Bout is to them. And it really was a protracted process that went on because it was a month ago -- months ago that the United States came out and said that they had put what they called substantial offer on the table for Brittney Griner.

It was clear that that would be for Brittney Griner with Viktor Bout. And the Russians were irate about that. And said all of this needed to happen behind closed doors. And then just a couple of days ago they said there won't be any more negotiations until the end of the year.

And now this deal has come through and the Russians certainly, from what we could see in Russian public, making a big deal out of this and celebrating it as a win for Vladimir Putin and for the Kremlin, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Fred, thank you for that.

Now a CNN exclusive: speaking moments ago to Paul Whelan himself, he remains behind bars in a Russian prison, left behind as part of this prisoner swap, CNN State Department producer Jennifer Hansler just got off the phone with Paul Whelan. She joins us now with her exclusive reporting.

Jennifer, what did Paul Whelan tell you?

How does he sound?

JENNIFER HANSLER, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: Well, he was disappointed that he had been left behind in this prisoner swap. He said he was surprised that he wasn't included in this, that he had gotten indications that things were moving in a good direction toward his release.

And he said he's disappointed that more has not been done to free him from this penal colony. He's been there nearly four years now on espionage charges. He was charged with 16 years in prison for those charges that he vehemently denied.

And he said he was very disappointed that he was left behind but he was very happy that Brittney Griner got out today.


PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN IN RUSSIAN PRISON: They've always considered me to be at a higher level than other criminals of my sort. And, for whatever reason, I'm treated differently than another individual here from a Western country that is also on the charge of espionage.

So even though we're both here for espionage, I'm treated much differently than he is. And my treatment is also much different than others held for espionage at other prisons.


HANSLER: Yes, Kate, so you heard him describing that he knew that the Russians considered him to be on a different level from Brittney Griner, which is something that U.S. officials have also said.

They said they negotiated as much as they could to bring both Griner and Whelan home today and ultimately the Russians would not take those two out, only trade Griner for Bout today.

BOLDUAN: And this is the -- treating the cases differently is something that President Biden when he announced the release of Brittney Griner.


BOLDUAN: What was Whelan's message now to President Biden?

HANSLER: Whelan told me that he wants the Biden administration to continue to do everything that they can to bring him home. I want you to just take a listen to his own message in his own words that he wanted the president to hear.


WHELAN: I would say that, if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly. And I would hope that he and his administration would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.


HANSLER: So we'll have to wait and see whether the Biden administration and the Russians can reach another deal to bring Paul home. Kate.

BOLDUAN: Let's get some more answers to that. Jennifer, great reporting. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Joining me now from the White House is John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council.

John, this is a very important day. And it is, as the president said, a day of mixed emotions for so many people. You heard Paul Whelan, speaking to my colleague, Jennifer Hansler, from the State Department, saying that he knows that his case has been considered a higher level or considered differently or separately than others like Brittney's.

Biden spoke to this today, saying it's for totally illegitimate reasons.

What are the reasons?

ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, I don't want to get into too much detail here, with you, Kate. But it has to do with the nature of the sham charges against him, based on espionage.

That is the hook that the Russians seem to have in him. And we're just not able to -- to deal with him the same way that we were able to deal with Mr. Reed or, in this case, Ms. Griner.

But that doesn't mean we're going to stop trying. That interview that just aired, I think demonstrates what a remarkable individual Mr. Whelan is. The stoicism and the courage that he continues to display is not something lost on us here.

And I can tell you, we worked very hard to get Mr. Whelan home. It was always the goal to get both of them home and we just couldn't make it work. This is the deal that we could get and now was the moment we could get it.

And it was either get one American home or get none. And it was important to at least get one home and we're able to do that.

BOLDUAN: And you also heard right there Paul Whelan in his own words, his message for the president, saying that he hopes that the administration could do everything they can, regardless of the price to get him home.

What will you do now to make sure that he comes home, especially now that you don't have the bargaining chip of Viktor Bout?

What more can you do?

KIRBY: Viktor Bout was never a bargaining chip for Mr. Whelan. And the Russians consistently made that clear. So I think we need to make that well-known.

We will work as hard today and tomorrow and the next day to get Paul Whelan home as we've been working since he's been in Russia, wrongfully detained. It has never escaped us, he has never been off our minds. We will continue to make every effort we can in good faith to get Mr. Whelan home.

And I can assure Mr. Whelan and certainly the Whelan family that the focus of this administration and this president in particular will not waver, will not wane. We will continue to work on this.

BOLDUAN: With the news today and you say that Viktor Bout was never a bargaining chip for Paul Whelan and you're looking for any bargaining chip to get Paul Whelan that's reasonable to get him home, is it fair to say that it is back to square one in trying to negotiate for his release today?

KIRBY: No, I don't believe I would say that, Kate. We have been in active discussions with the Russians on Mr. Whelan's case again for a very, very long time.

BOLDUAN: Right. KIRBY: Certainly those conversations accelerated in recent months.

And I can assure that we're going to stay at those active discussions going forward.

So, no, I would not say, hey, we're back to square one. We knew it was pretty obvious early on they were going to treat Mr. Whelan separate and distinct from Brittney. That is still the case. So we're going to continue to have the conversations that we need to have to deal in good faith with the Russians and see if we get Mr. Whelan home.

BOLDUAN: The president said this morning that Brittney Griner is in good spirits.

But what more you could say about how she's doing physically and mentally and emotionally?


KIRBY: Well, again, I want to be careful that I respect Ms. Griner's privacy. She was in good spirits on the phone call with her wife, Cherelle, and the president, being able to now come home.

I'm not going to talk about her health. We'll make sure, the first priority right now, is to make sure that she gets the adequate care she needs after being 10 months in detention in Russia and under what the president described as intolerable conditions.

So we suspect that there'll be a need here for her to have access to proper health care before she's ready and fit to get back home. I don't think that that will take a very long time. But again that is up to the doctors to work with the family on.

That is going to be the main focus now. Is just making sure that we look after her well-being before she's able to, you know, to get on her way.

BOLDUAN: Democratic senator Chris Coons, in reacting, applauding her release and said he is concerned that, the more the government engages in these swaps, the more Americans are going to be at risk and the more that the U.S. will be forced to release people that you don't want to have released.

Is the world more dangerous now with Viktor Bout released and free?

KIRBY: We were focused on our national security yesterday and today. And now that Mr. Bout is out of detention here in the United States, he is at a jail and will be going back to Moscow or to Russia.

I can assure you and I can assure all Americans and certainly assure our colleagues up on Capitol Hill that our focus on our national security interests is not going to change. We're going to make sure that we could defend this country against any and all threats.

So with Mr. Bout back on the street, we're going to focus on making sure we could defend this country. BOLDUAN: Absolutely. The president said this morning that returning

all wrongfully detained Americans is a priority, in Russia and beyond, of course. Emad Shargi is an American wrongfully detained in Iran since 2018. We followed his story closely. And I believe we've spoke to you about it in the past. His sister will join us in a few minutes.

Short of getting Emad home, they want to meet with President Biden, which we know Cherelle said was critical for her as well.

Will the president do that and meet with the family?

KIRBY: Well, first, I want to tell the family, again, we are still focused on that case as well. We want to get all wrongfully detained Americans home. We are going to work on this and that and every other case very, very hard.

And we'll have continued conversations with them as appropriate at various levels to do that. I don't have a schedule item to speak to today, Kate. But I can promise you that the president is going to stay focused on this and every other case of every other wrongfully detained American.

BOLDUAN: And I totally appreciate that, John. But I know you appreciate as well, the final decision on this is the President of the United States and this face-to-face engagement, every family who has someone released from wrongfully detained said that face-to-face interaction has been critical for them.

KIRBY: Yes. And the president understands that. And that is why he has met with so many of these family members in the past. I just don't want to get ahead of the schedule right now, Kate.

But the president was personally very much involved in helping get Brittney Griner home. He is personally involved in helping try to make a negotiation with the Russians to get Mr. Whelan home.

And he's personally kept in touch or briefed and constantly monitoring the cases of all of the wrongfully detained Americans around the world. He knows the weight that sits on his shoulders.

He understands the responsibilities that he has to Americans overseas, to make sure when they are wrongfully detained, that we're doing everything that we could to get him home.

And he will do whatever he needs to do in the interests of those families and every other American around the world to make sure that we're keeping their safety and security right at the forefront of his mind.

And if that -- if doing that means he's got to have -- and he will have conversations with family members, whether that is telephonically or in face-to-face, then he'll do that as he has done in the past.

We've secured in this administration alone dozens of releases of wrongfully detained Americans overseas. And I can promise every family that the president will do whatever he needs to do to get the rest of them home.

BOLDUAN: A very big day for the country, a big day for the White House. John, thank you so much for coming on and so quickly and taking the time. I appreciate it.


BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

So from the moment that Brittney Griner was detained in Russia, her wife led the fight and public pressure campaign to try to secure her release and also make sure that people did not forget her name, did not forget about the WNBA star. Up next, what Cherelle Griner is saying now that her wife is headed home.





CHERELLE GRINER, BRITTNEY'S WIFE: So the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life. And so today I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions. But the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.



BOLDUAN: That was Cherelle Griner this morning, the wife of Brittney Griner, speaking from the White House just after President Biden announced the release of the WNBA star.

In exchange for Griner, Viktor Bout is returning to Russia a free man. Joining me now for more is anchor of "INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY" Abby Phillip and Jill Dougherty, the former CNN Moscow bureau chief.

Thank you for being here.

Abby, you've interviewed Cherelle Griner.

What has this been like for her both in the public eye and behind the scenes?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You heard her say it there. It has been a nightmare. And one of huge geopolitical consequence. And I think that for Cherelle Griner, she's really taken this on and also charted a course forward on this issue that I think hadn't quite been handled in this way.

This was a very public campaign that enlisted not only her own words; she sat down with me and many others, and also enlisted the WNBA, who put pressure on the NBA to make this a central part of their season, having her name and cause repeated over and over again.

I can't emphasize how different that is from how these things are typically handled. Part of it is because Brittney Griner is a famous person. That is very true.

But part of it is also because of a decision that was made, that she and her -- and her advisers and Brittney Griner's agents made to take a different tact (sic), put public pressure, ask for the meeting with President Biden.

And as you were just talking to John Kirby about that. I think a lot of the families realizing now that that is key to the process of making wrongful detentions at the top of the diplomatic agenda for these families.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

And, Jill, you have some very unique perspective on this prisoner exchange. You interviewed Viktor Bout back in 2002. We've spoken about this before. I thought it was interesting to hear John Kirby just now in speaking about how Paul Whelan's case is viewed or treated by the Russians differently than Brittney Griner's case.

And he said that Viktor Bout was never a bargaining chip that Russians would consider for Paul Whelan.

What do you think of that?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I presume that he is right. Obviously they decided that Paul Whelan is a different type of prisoner. And I mean you're into espionage charges, et cetera.

And if you stand back and you kind of look at what is going on this morning, it is really two different types of calculus I think in Washington and in Russia.

Because in the United States, Brittney Griner, very well known. A lot of public pressure. And kind of a human element to it, no question. And then you look at Russia. I don't think that most Russians even know who Viktor Bout is. But he was very important to Russia.

And why?

Because we've been talking about this, former arms dealer, even though he denies that. But he has been, as far as we could tell; his connections, alleged connections to Russian security and intelligence. So it was important to the Kremlin to get him back. But again, very different situations as to why.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

Abby, on that point, the administration has made clear they have been working to try to secure Paul Whelan's release for years as well. But he is left behind and the president said obviously that Russia is treating his case differently. But how much, if at all, do you think Griner's celebrity, the

celebrities that were advocating for her, keeping her name out there, contributed to her getting out when she did?

PHILLIP: I think it had a huge impact on the pace at which this moved. I mean, when you consider that Paul Whelan has been in prison for four years and Trevor Reed was in prison for I believe about three years.

That is a long period of time for most people in this situation. And there are dozens of Americans, we should be clear, all over the world who are detained for years and years. So the celebrity aspect made a huge difference in the timeline.

And I think there was some hope among the Griner family and the Whelan family that combining these two efforts would produce a deal that would get both of them out because Viktor Bout is a huge figure for both the United States and Russia.

And I think there was some thinking that that ought to mean they could get at least those two out. But Russia was never willing to come to the table on that. And President Biden came and senior aides came to that conclusion over time. And they did, based on our reporting, what they believed was the only option at this moment.