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CNN Special Reports
Finally Home: The Trevor Reed Interview. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired May 22, 2022 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: He was a marine who had been stationed in hot spots around the world, but it was not until he went on vacation in Moscow that veteran Trevor Reed, then only 28 years old, was thrust into the most dangerous experience of his life.
I'm Jake Tapper, and this hour, you will hear Trevor Reed for the first time describing it all -- a Kafka-esque trial, his defiance, his struggles, and you'll hear from his family who fought to get him home, so thankful for his return. They've all made it a mission now to raise awareness of the scores of other Americans being unjustly detained around the world.
TAPPER: So you were in a Russian prison for 985 days?
TREVOR REED, IMPRISONED 985 DAYS IN RUSSIA: Yup.
TAPPER: And it's now been three weeks since you've within back in the United States. How are you doing?
T. REED: I'm doing well. I feel better every day that I'm here.
TAPPER: Have you been able to fully grasp that you're free?
T. REED: No. So, you know, the last couple of days, it's been -- been more real to me. But there's a time there where you -- you just don't accept at all that you're back, you can't understand that you're actually free.
TAPPER (voice-over): Free, a reality that was almost unthinkable to this American son, brother and former marine just a short time ago. But today, after enduring a hell few have lived to tell about, Trevor Rowdy Reed is back on U.S. soil, unafraid and sharing his story for the first time.
You're a marine. One of your jobs literally in the past was to guard and protect the president of the United States. Could you ever have imagined that you would depend upon the president of the United States to rescue you?
T. REED: No. I not one time ever considered that
TAPPER: You guarded and protected President Barack Obama. I'm sure you saw his vice president running around --
T. REED: Absolutely.
TAPPER: -- at that time.
T. REED: Yeah. President Biden was there are as the vice president at that time.
TAPPER: How do you look at his role in your release?
T. REED: I mean, he's the person who held the -- the single most important role in that decision that's made by the president of the United States, and I think that President Biden made the right one.
TAPPER: After three years in Russian custody, a period in which Trevor not only became fluent in Russia but picked up a slight accent, he's back in Texas.
President Biden's decision rescued this former Boy Scout from the grips of a regime that Reed has come to believe is one of the most evil on Earth.
T. REED: You have this view kind of like I did when I went there Russia is them being, you know, yeah, they've got a bad government, but it's like -- you know, maybe Putin is evil but like the whole government isn't.
And from being there inside and seeing that government from the inside, how that works, you realize that the problem is actually much bigger than that.
They have absolutely no value of human life, and that apathy permeates every level of the Russian government, and that trickles down from the very top to the lowest level -- prison guard, inside of their government, all of their police officers, all of their FSB, everyone who works for that government has absolutely no empathy for other humans. They are completely desensitized to that.
That government is really sincerely evil at all levels from the top to the bottom, and there is absolutely no reason why any Americans should travel to Russia for anything, ever.
TAPPER: For Reed, the warning signs were there. In December 2018, just a few months before Reed flew to Moscow, fellow marine Paul Whelan had been wrongfully detained by the Russians on unsubstantiated charges of espionage.
T. REED: I knew about that, and because of Paul Whelan's case, I almost did not travel to Russia. So this is going to sound stupid because of what happened, but I had already bought a ticket.
And I was like I don't want to pay that 200 bucks to change my ticket, but at that same time I thought, okay, they have like clearly taken this marine hostage. There's absolutely no way that they're going to do that a second time.
TAPPER: But in the summer of 2019, Reed ignored his instincts and followed his heart to Moscow where he planned to spend the summer with his girlfriend of three years, a Russian lawyer named Lina.
Where did you meet her to begin with?
T. REED: I met her online on a dating app.
TAPPER: And you would visit her and she would visit you?
T. REED: Yeah, yeah. She would come to the U.S. and visit me. I actually went to Russia once to see her and meet her family. I did not know Russian at all, and that's one of the reasons why I decided to start studying Russian was to be able to communicate with her family.
TAPPER: On August 15th, 2019, the young couple attended a party, and after an evening of drinking vodka, Trevor blacked out and became ill on the side of the road. Police arrived on the scene and took Trevor back to the station lobby to dry out.
T. REED: I don't remember anything until the next morning. I woke up in a police station. I was in a cell, and I asked the duty officer there like, what happened? And she said you drink too much. It's Russian vodka. We'll teach you how to drink later, and she said so you -- you can leave.
TAPPER: No handcuffs, no arrest. Trevor was free to go.
T. REED: So I waited about ten minutes for -- for Lina to get there, and in that ten minutes, the shift changed at the police station, and the new officers came in with a new police chief. He saw that I was speaking English with the duty there, and he asked like why is this American here, and after about three minutes they came back and told me that I could not leave. So I did try to ask them why, but they wouldn't answer me, and FSB showed up probably 10 minutes after, so like almost immediately.
TAPPER: The FSB is a successor organization to the KGB.
T. REED: Yeah. So, when Lina did get there, you know, she said what crime are you charging him with? And they said he assaulted police officers here tonight in the police station. She said, are you guys stupid? I was with him at night in the police station? He didn't assault anybody, and she said, you know, I'm a lawyer. I want your cameras, and after that they completely stopped talking to us.
They realized that they had 40 security cameras there and that trying to say that all 40 cameras did not work was probably not going to go well. So then they ended up changing that story to say that I fought police in the police car on the way to the police station.
TAPPER: That never happened?
T. REED: Yeah. My defense team did end up getting video from the road where they said it supposedly happened, and they were able to prove that none of that happened.
TAPPER: So when Lina saw you, she noticed that you had what appeared to be injuries.
T. REED: Yeah, and she said your nose has like a black line across it. You've got bruises on the back of your head, and I was -- I was limping, and -- and she actually went up and asked them did you beat him, and they said no, no, and she said I want to see your cameras, and they refused to show those cameras actually that whole time.
TAPPER: So, just to be clear, you were drunk and essentially passed out and they beat you while you were just this lying body?
T. REED: Yeah, apparently, and after that, you know, my lawyer showed up. He was walking back and forth sweating and he's red, and I said, is there a problem? And he said, they called the director of FSB. I said, the director of FSB in this region? And he said the director of FSB in Russia.
So I said do they normally do that for Americans? And he said no. I think you're going to have a political issue.
TAPPER: And that is where Trevor Reed's nightmare truly began. After what would become by most accounts a year-long sham of a trial, Trevor was sentenced to nine years in prison, a judgment usually reserved for those who have committed murder.
It was then that Trevor's focus shifted from being proven innocent to surviving.
Any prison is brutal. Russian prisons are notoriously awful and tough. Did you have a strategy for surviving?
T. REED: I did. I tried to kind of compartmentalize and focus not on being in prison, kind of, you know, distract myself and think about future plans, what university I was going to go, to you know, what plans I was going to have with my family.
TAPPER: Did you have confidence you were going to get out?
T. REED: No, I didn't, and a lot of people are not going to like what I'm going to say about this, but I kind of viewed there having hope as being a weakness. So I did not want to have that hope of like me, you know, being released somehow and then have that taken from me.
TAPPER: You denied yourself hope?
T. REED: Yeah. I denied myself that. I wouldn't let myself hope.
TAPPER: What was the worst conditions that you had, that you experienced during that time?
T. REED: The psychiatric treatment facility. I was in there with seven other prisoners in the cell. They all had severe serious psychological health issues. Over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder or like multiple murders, sexual assault and murder, just really disturbed individuals.
And inside of that cell, you know, that was not a good place. There's blood all over the walls there where prisoners had killed themselves or killed other prisoners or attempted to do that. The toilets are just a hole in the floor and there's, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls. There's people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.
TAPPER: Were you afraid for your life?
T. REED: I mean, I did not sleep there for a couple of days so I was too worried about, you know, who was in the cell with me to actually sleep.
TAPPER: You thought they might kill you?
T. REED: Yeah. I thought that was a possibility. Actually I went to knock on the door to give a letter once, and the whole -- all of the prisoners in the cell yelled at me, don't knock on the door. And they said, if you knock on the door they will say that you're violent and they will come in and hold you down and hit you with this sedative and turn you into a zombie.
So that was -- that was a scary situation there. I thought that they were going to try to like, you know, basically chemically disable me from fighting the court process.
TAPPER: It sounds like had a horror movie.
T. REED: Yeah. And that sort it was like, not only because of like the physical, you know -- like conditions in the cell, the prisoners there. That part is scary in itself, but the scarier part is you being under this threat of them just chemically disabling you.
My whole goal there was to fight and to resist that whole time, and if someone uses chemicals to disable you, how can you find, and that was the scariest part to me was being helpless.
TAPPER: Coming up --
T. REED: That was tough.
TAPPER: The painful journey home.
You didn't want to go without him?
TAPPER: So I'm going to hand you something, and if you could read it. This is your verbatim transcript from the court.
T. REED: Yeah, so, this isn't my last word whenever I was being, you know, sentenced. I understand in this country that pleading guilty may lead to you having a shorter sentence, but I think it would be unethical and immoral to plead guilty to a crime that I truly did not commit, and if I'm going to be given a prison sentence, I would rather stay in prison an honest man than walk away tomorrow a liar and a coward.
TAPPER: That's a remarkable thing to tell a Russian court.
T. REED: That's truly what I believe.
TAPPER: When the sentence came down, did you turn to your dad? Did you turn to Lina?
T. REED: Well, I knew what was written on that sentence before the judge actually started reading, that and I actually looked over at my dad at that point and shook my head at him, like, yeah, they are going to screw me right now.
And when they read off the sentence of nine years, I was not shocked by that, but Lina did have a reaction, and she said, are you kidding me? Nine years in prison? She started crying. They physically removed her from the courtroom.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey, hey, hey. Easy.
T. REED: In Russia, once you're convicted, then you're sent to a forced labor camp. I was not going to work. Ethically I could not do that.
It was like you kidnapped me, you convicted me and gave me the biggest punishment that you've ever handed out under this criminal article, and then you send me to a forced labor camp and you expect me to go in there and work and produce things for the same government who is kidnapping Americans.
TAPPER: Did you do any work at all?
T. REED: No, absolutely not. So I was like, no, I'm not going to work. They said, we're going to punish you, and I said that's not going to change anything.
So they immediately started putting me into solitary confinement.
TAPPER: At the labor camp, Trevor would spend nearly seven out of his nine months in solitary confinement. Disturbing as the punishment was, Trevor had a goal with his resistance.
T. REED: I hoped that I would be such a problem for them that in the future when they considered, you know, taking Americans hostage they would think, you know, is it worth it?
TAPPER: Did you ever come close to hitting any sort of breaking point?
T. REED: No, and to be honest with you, the longer that I was in there, the more dedicated I was to not allowing them to break me.
And that was really one of the main things that I held on to that got me through that was knowing that no matter how long I was going to be there, they were never going to break me. Maybe I would have died, but psychologically, they never would have broken me.
TAPPER: They didn't break him, but physically, Trevor's body was paying a price.
What did you look like? How fit were you and how strong were you? What did you weigh when all this started?
T. REED: When I went to prison, I weighed 175 pounds and I probably had about 6 percent or 7 percent body fat. When I came back from Russia I weighed 131 pounds, so I lost 45 pounds there.
TAPPER: Forty-five pounds?
T. REED: Yeah.
I had lost, you know, a lot of weight already by that point just because the diet there is, you know, extremely poor. It's probably exactly what they gave prisoners to eat like in the middle ages in Europe.
TAPPER: What is it? What do they -- what do they serve you?
T. REED: At dinner, you have either cabbage or potatoes, and then fish of some type. There's three types of fish they can give you. So one is like a patty which is difficult to eat because of the bones inside. The other type is baked fish so that's like a whole fish about this size with a tail and head and everything.
And then the last one is salt fish which isn't like a salted fish that's like dried out or anything. It's just like a fish that they have put in salt water to try to like kill the parasites I guess.
TAPPER: Not even the feral cats at the prison labor camp would eat the fish.
It sounds like the depth of human mystery. What went through your mind during this period? I mean, did you -- some pretty dark thoughts must have entered it?
T. REED: Again, tried to distract myself. If you're able to read and to escape into a different world and kind of just leave your own world for a little while, that can psychologically really help you.
TAPPER: Soon the Russians cut off the only escape Trevor had, refusing to provide books in his native language.
T. REED: Which is the last straw kind of that led me into that first hunger strike. After the first hunger strike that I did, I started to get sick. I really at that point was consistently sick until I left. I started to cough up blood, and I coughed up that blood for a period of about three and a half months every day, multiple times a day.
And they just refused to send me to the hospital, which is the reason why I went on the second hunger strike so that they would get me medical attention.
TAPPER: For their part the Russians say reed was sent to a medical facility at the end of his hunger strike and his health was, quote, satisfactory, but that according to Trevor is a lie.
Back home, the Reed family grew increasingly worried.
T. REED: I knew from day one as soon as this happened that my family would never stop fighting for me. I never doubted that. I knew that if there was a way that my family would find that.
PAULA REED, TREVOR'S MOTHER: He's being held in a Russian prison.
TAPPER: Trevor was right. As he fought against his wrongful conviction and cruel conditions in Russia, the Reed family was waging their own battle to bring him home.
I spoke with Trevor's family. His father Joey, a former marine himself, mother Paula and his sister Taylor about their struggle to bring Trevor home.
Joey, people might not know this, but you literally moved to Russia, you moved to Moscow.
JOEY REED, TREVOR'S FATHER: Yeah. There was a lot of frustrations that first year. We had frustrations with the embassy. After one year, he was considered wrongfully detained and they started speaking for him, and they have been wonderful ever since and we love them but that first year was a struggle.
TAPPER: When he wasn't in Russia, Joey Reed was with his family stateside as they tried desperately to get attention for their son's case.
You've talked about some people in the Trump and Biden administrations and in the Congress that have been helpful, but I know there are also people that weren't.
P. REED: I would always try to say to them or their staff member or whatever, you know what, if this was your child? What if your child was there? And it was even more from us straight because, you know, in the back of my mind I thought, well, if it was their child, their child wouldn't have been there that long. Their child would have already been home.
TAPPER: The Reed family believed their best bet to get Trevor home was a prisoner swap.
TAYLOR REED, TREVOR'S SISTER: Well, the Russians have been pretty clear about it from the beginning.
J. REED: You know, and we heard rumors that after Paul Whelan was taken, that they wanted to trade for them immediately.
I mean, hey, it's Russia. You're not going to leverage them to let a couple of prisoners go.
TAPPER: The Reed family was convinced if they could just meet face-to- face with President Biden, he would act on their son's behalf.
You hear that President Biden is coming to Texas. When did you decide that you needed to get his attention and why?
P. REED: We just knew that he's going to be that close and he's in Ft. Worth and we're 45 minutes away. There was not any way that someone could keep us from going there. We waited until the motorcade came by and I think that's when he saw me and I think that's started everything really rolling.
TAPPER: Later that day, Paula received a call.
P. REED: My phone rang, it said, "The White House". Oh, my gosh. It says, what is it, the White House is calling you, and it is not in your contact list. Oh, okay.
So I -- I answered it, and then, you know, we said, Mr. President -- so we had to put it on speaker phone so all three of us could hear it.
And then he talked to us. He said some very nice things, and he said when he got back to D.C. that evening, he would have someone set up a meeting for us to come talk to him at the White House.
TAPPER: Twenty-one days passed and still no meeting. So Joey and Paula Reed traveled to the nation's capital.
P. REED: And that's when we went to D.C., on March 30th and that's when we started protesting.
J. REED: We're hoping that he'll see you through the media.
While we were out there having the press conference, afterwards we heard, I believe, Kaitlan Collins, if I got this right, she's the one who said --
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Will you meet with Trevor Reed's parents, Mr. President, while they're here in Washington? They say that you promised them a meeting.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm going to see if I can get to see them.
BIDEN: They're good -- they are good people. I haven't -- we're trying to work that out.
P. REED: But then she said, today? And then we got the call. TAPPER: That's our Kaitlan.
TAPPER: And you got your meeting?
J. REED: We did, thankfully. Yes.
TAPPER: Hours later, Trevor's parents were in the Oval Office with the president of the United States.
J. REED: He listened intently to everything that we had to say until we were through talking. And I mean, we couldn't -- we couldn't ask for more in a meeting.
P. REED: He was really great.
TAPPER: Taylor, do you think that President Biden finally was confronted with the humanity, the reality these just aren't people in the paper, people on the TV, that I'm meeting them, and he said, just get this done.
What do you think?
T. REED: I know better than most people exactly how annoying my parents can be, so I would imagine that at a certain point, he was sick of hearing about it and like, let's just do it and get it over with, so we can have them stop harassing us ever. So, they'll leave in front of our house.
TAPPER: Coming up, the prisoner swap straight out of Hollywood.
T. REED: They said, we have a man there in America. American jet will fly here. You will cross each other on the runway and get in your own planes. And when he told me that, I was like -- no.
(UNKNOWN) (voice over): Russia has invaded Ukraine. Explosions are being heard right now across the entire country.
TAPPER (voice over): When Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine in February, the Reed family feared it could explode their efforts to free Trevor from his horrific ordeal.
(on camera): Did you think, "Now I'm really never going to get out?"
TREVOR REED: I didn't really have a lot of hope of anything happening before that. But, once that happened, I was like, "OK, now there's no way that I'm ever getting out of here." TAYLOR REED: My mom and I both started having horrible nightmares, night terrors, sleep paralysis. I sincerely didn't think I was going to see him again.
PAULA REED: She called one day and said, "Mom, I'm not sleeping." And I said, "Oh, well, Taylor, neither am I. It's OK. You know, I think it's to be expected. This is a really hard time." And then she said, "No, but I'm really having horrible dreams." And I said, "Well, I am, too, so."
TAPPER: Thankfully, those dreams never became reality.
TREVOR REED: In the morning, they picked me up from the prison in an FSB convoy, put me on the plane.
TAPPER: Did you know where you were going?
TREVOR REED: I asked the FSB, like, security team there, "Is -- are we going to Turkey?"
And they were, like, you know, "Yeah."
I thought, like, maybe the U.S. embassy in Turkey was going to come pick me up. I had no idea what was going on. And these vans were driving back and forth to the -- to the jet on the runway. And I said, "Maybe that's the U.S. embassy."
And the FSB was like "No."
And I was, like, "Oh, OK."
So then another van would come and I would say, like, "Maybe that's the embassy."
And they said, "No." I said, "How do you know that that's not them?"
And they said, "We have a man there in America. American jet will fly here. He will land next to us. You will leave the plane. He will leave the plane. You will cross each other on the runway and get in your own plane."
And when he told me that, I was, like, "No."
Like, this guy has to be screwing with me. And I was like, "Really?"
And he said, "Yes." He said, "It's pretty cool, huh?"
He said, "Do you feel cool?"
(LAUGHTER) And I said, "I don't know."
He said, "You should because this plane costs a boatload of money."
He said, "They would never fly us on these planes."
TAPPER: At this point, were you allowing yourself to feel hope?
TREVOR REED: I was still avoiding that.
But it was difficult.
TAPPER: An American finally did show up. It was the top diplomat with SPEHA, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
TREVOR REED: So Colonel Carstens came on, Roger Carstens from SPEHA. And when he was walking out there, I was, like, "Man, who is this actor they sent me, like...
... Arnold Schwarzenegger is coming to come on here, just waste all the FSB guys and rescue me. So...
So he came, got on the jet. He said, "I'm Roger Carstens. I have to identify you."
And I said, you know, "Yeah, it's me."
Like, "I'm Trevor."
He didn't respond to that, and then he left. And I was, kind of, like...
... like what?
TAPPER: But, dude?
TREVOR REED: Yeah.
So I was, like, "Can I go?"
And the FSB said, "No."
And I said, "What's the problem?"
One of them looks at me, and he goes, "Are you sure America wants you back?"
They sent their guy over to the other jet. They checked out their guy. And we -- we did the exchange, walked past Konstantin Yaroshenko.
TAPPER (voice over): Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was 11 years into a 20-year sentence for conspiring to bring $100 million worth of cocaine into the United States.
(on camera): And how did he look, versus how did you look?
TREVOR REED: Yeah, so he has not been on any hunger strikes there, not missing any meals.
TAPPER (voice over): Once on board the plane, Trevor got a real meal.
TREVOR REED: They gave me a steak on there, and that was the best thing I've ever ate in my whole life.
I'll never forget that.
TAPPER: And there was also that first phone call home to Mom and Dad.
TREVOR REED: That moment was extremely surreal. I don't even really remember what I said there. I think I told them, you know, "Hey, it's me. I'm on the plane. I'm coming home. I'll see you guys. Everything's OK. Don't worry."
P. REED: I think we're really going to -- it's going to really hit us when we get to put our arms around him.
TAPPER: Hours later in San Antonio, Texas, the reunion did not quite work out that way because Trevor left Russia sick, fearing he caught tuberculosis from another prisoner.
TREVOR REED: They all tried to hug me, but...
P. REED: Then he said, "No."
TREVOR REED: I was like, "No, don't touch me." I'm not going to go give my whole family tuberculosis.
After the initial tests came back negative, they were like, "Well, if you want, you can hug 'em."
And I knew that they were just freaking out, like, so...
... I was like, OK, hug you guys.
P. REED: Who got the first hug, Trevor?
TREVOR REED: I don't know.
P. REED: Aww, Trevor.
TAPPER (on camera): Obviously, it was your mom.
P. REED: And it was a very long one. It was very long. I tried to pull back once and he wouldn't let go, and Taylor goes, "Mom."
And I said, "I'm sorry, he's not letting me go."
TAPPER: Someone he has let go, his Russian girlfriend Lena.
TREVOR REED: Lena told me that she did not want to continue our relationship, and that's related to personal emotional issues that she's having dealing with my release. I told her that I absolutely understand that, and I'll owe her for the rest of my life.
(UNKNOWN): He is being held in a prison camp.
TAPPER (voice over): Others he'll owe? The Reeds say among them are Republican politicians who put aside differences with the Biden administration to work for their son's release, such as their congressman, August Pfluger, who was there when Trevor landed.
JOEY REED, FATHER OF TREVOR REED: This is not political. When they took Trevor, they didn't take a Republican or a Democrat; they took an American, and a veteran at that. And we need to start looking at these cases as being an attack on America, and let's get them home. And if we can't force them, we should trade or do whatever we need to do to get our Americans home.
TAPPER (on camera): It is controversial in some circles to do a prisoner swap. People who are not in favor of it say this is just going to incentivize other governments to take Americans hostage or prisoner under false charges so as to get their people out of American jails. You don't buy it?
TREVOR REED: No. The thing that you have to understand is countries like North Korea, Russia now, obviously China, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, countries like that are going to take Americans hostage no matter what. Those types of governments need no incentive to take Americans hostage. They're always going to do that. It's our duty as Americans to get back every American who is being held overseas. And I think that's what sets the United States apart.
TAPPER (voice over): It's quickly becoming a new mission for Trevor, who was forced to leave a man behind, Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine Trevor never met but grew to admire.
TREVOR REED: I would ask prisoners, "Do you know Paul Whelan?"
And they said, "Yeah, yeah, we know who he is."
I said, "How is he doing there?"
And they said, "He's just like you. He's fighting. He's resisting. He's causing as many problems as he can. He's not giving up." I was proud to hear that. And I'm still proud of him.
TAPPER: Proud and determined to push for Whelan's freedom, and Brittney Griner's, too. The WNBA star was picked up in Moscow's International Airport in February, while returning from playing off- season ball there.
interior Whelan's freedom, and Brittney Griner's, too. the WNBA star was picked up in Moscow's international airport in February while returning from playing off-season ball there. The U.S. considers her unlawfully detained.
There are around 55 American citizens unlawfully detained or held hostage overseas.
TREVOR REED: We need to do absolutely everything we can as Americans to advocate for those Americans who are being held illegally overseas, and do every single thing we can possible to get them out. We have to do that.
When they told me that I was leaving, I thought that Paul, you know, was leaving with me, and when I found out that they left him, that was tough.
TAPPER: You didn't want to go without him? You didn't have a choice, Trevor.
TREVOR REED: Sorry.
TAPPER: You didn't have a choice. There was nothing you could do.
TREVOR REED: Yeah, I realize that. But the fact is that the United States should have got him out, and we have to get him out at -- at any cost.
TAPPER: Coming up, the Whelan family joins us live.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [20:45:19]
As we've discussed, former Marine Paul Whelan has been held in Russia for more than three years. He was visiting Moscow for a friend's wedding when he was detained and accused of espionage. In June 2020, Paul was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian labor camp.
Joining me now, Paul's younger brother David and big sister Elizabeth.
And, David, let me start with you, because I understand your parents spoke to Paul yesterday, and he found out that Trevor was speaking out for the first time. What was his reaction?
DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF PAUL WHELAN: I think he was excited that Trevor was having that opportunity. And he sent a message back through our parents. He uses these phone calls really as our primary conduit of getting information out of the prison to -- to us, to let us know how he's doing.
TAPPER: Can you tell us what the message was, or...
WHELAN: Sure. Yeah, I brought it with me.
He said, "This is a disintegrating experience for mind, body and soul. I need the White House to take decisive action to secure my release -- top level action -- and there is no better time than the present."
TAPPER: So, Elizabeth, I don't know if it's difficult to see Trevor home, given the fact that Paul has been there longer and is still in Russian captivity. Trevor's family had the chance to speak with President Biden twice to push for Trevor's release. If you had the opportunity to speak with President Biden, what would you say?
ELIZABETH WHELAN, SISTER OF PAUL WHELAN: Well, it -- actually, it's not difficult to see Trevor home because we're so pleased that he is back, and I have worked alongside the Reeds for a couple of years now to try to get both Paul and Trevor home.
I think -- so, if I could tell you what I would tell the president, because he hasn't met with me, although I've asked four times and I've sent a personal email to his chief of staff -- and now we're being told, "Well, we should make more noise and we should, you know, do what we can to try to see the president." And, honestly I'd like to see a process for wrongful detention work that didn't require me to do that.
But if I was going to talk to the president, first I would say that we were very glad that Trevor was back, but that the decision to bring Trevor home without Paul was a decision to leave Paul in a Stalin-era gulag in Mordovia, in -- you know, eight hours away from Moscow. It was a decision to keep the family in agony, because every day has just been hell since he was arrested wrongfully.
And it was a decision to continue to use our resources. I've been to Washington 20-something times. We have three congressional resolutions that were passed on behalf of Paul. One of them was passed when Trevor was in the air. This particular resolution was being passed on the House floor, five or six members of Congress speaking out for Paul.
So, of course I want to say to the president, please, bring my brother home. Finish this job.
E. WHELAN: But the other thing I would like to say is that we've got 55-plus Americans being held in 18 different countries. And if you were to go to a forest and see 55 trees on fire, you wouldn't send your firemen in to put out just the fire on one tree and then go home and celebrate and come back a couple of months later and figure, "OK, now we're going to put out the fire on another tree." Because by then the fire would have spread. You'd have more people wrongfully detained. You would have all of these families, these trees representing these hostages and families, burning to a cinder.
E. WHELAN: What we go through is -- is extraordinary. And so I would say to the president, please, bring my brother home and bring them all home.
TAPPER: And, David, you've said Russia floated two of its citizens held in the United States as possible exchanges for your brother. One of those was Konstantin Yaroshenko, who we saw in the piece was traded for Trevor Reed. Where does that leave Paul's chances for release?
D. WHELAN: Well, it's hard to know. The Russians have actually asked for a number of people over the years. This week they asked for Roman Zeleznev (ph), who is the son of a Duma legislator. So apparently the Russians still want concessions from the United States. So I think the frustration for our family is that everybody, the Russians, the American government, our family, has known that Mr. Yaroshenko was a concession the U.S. could have given three years ago, and they didn't. And it's not clear why they didn't, now that they have made the concession now.
TAPPER: It does feel like the zeitgeist is changing on this prisoner swap idea. President Biden did it, openly, for Trevor, and there was not a lot of criticism from Republicans, who criticized Biden, fairly or unfairly, for everything.
They were pretty quiet about this. And Trevor's family was really appreciative.
Do you think maybe this is going to change things, changing the idea of legislators, others in Washington willing to say, "Yes, just do whatever we need to do to get people home?"
E. WHELAN: You know, it's hard to say. We were really pleased to see Congress standing behind that decision and supporting the president with what he did. We don't know what will happen for Paul. The family doesn't know what is being asked, what possible negotiations there are. But I will say to Congress, to begin with, thank you to Congress in general. Ninety percent of you have been right there with families of wrongful detainees. We have a bipartisan co-sponsoring on all of these resolutions.
There are a few members of Congress, though, that I would like to address right now. And I'm doing this as a preemptive strike. You know, it's difficult for the president to make these decisions to give up anything in exchange for getting Americans home because, of course, that's what hostage-taking is all about. It is really important that you don't tell him, "Yeah, you know, go ahead and do it," and then slam him, bash him after -- after the fact.
So I want to ask that anybody who is even thinking that, save that weasel dance for some other issue, and support the president, whichever president, doesn't matter what administration, in bringing home Americans. What we really have to do is we have to solve that problem of wrongful detention.
TAPPER: Yeah, wonderful to have you here, Elizabeth and David. Thank you so much for your time. And we're going to continue to cover Paul.
E. WHELAN: Thank you.
TAPPER: We're going to continue to do it.
We'll be right back.
TAPPER: According to the James Foley Foundation, U.S. citizens and residents are being held in every one of these countries you see on your screen right now. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says, quote, "We remain committed to securing the freedom of U.S. citizens Paul Whelan and Brittney Grinder in Russia and all U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad," unquote.
We're going to leave you tonight with just some of those whose families have asked for public advocacy.
Salah al-Haidar, Saudi Arabia, 37 months.
Bader al-Ibrahim, Saudi Arabia, 37 months.
Aziza al-Yousef, Saudi Arabia, 48 months.
Airan Berry, Venezuela, 24 months.
Shahab Dalili, Iran, 6 years.
Luke Denman, Venezuela, 24 months.
Dr. Walid Fitaihi, Saudi Arabia, 54 months.
Mark Frerichs, Afghanistan, 27 months.
Matthew Heath, Venezuela, 20 months.
Majd Kamalmaz, Syria, 5 years.
Kai Li, China, 5 years.
Alina Lopez Miyares, Cuba, 5 years.
Siamak Namazi, Iran, 6 years.
Baquer Namazi, Iran, 6 years.
Paul Overby, Abducted in Afghanistan, 8 years.
Jose Pereira, Venezuela, 54 months.
Paul Rusesabagina, Rwanda, 20 months.
Emad Shargi, Iran, 48 months.
Mark Swidan, China, 10 years.
Austin Tice, Syria, 9 years.
Jorge Toledo, Venezuela, 54 months.
Tomeu Vadell, Venezuela, 54 months.
Jeffery Woodke, Mali, 5 years.
Alirio Zambrano, Venezuela, 54 months.
Jose Luis Zambrano, Venezuela, 54 months.