Return to Transcripts main page

Inside Politics

Brittney Griner Traded For Convicted Russian "Merchant Of Death"; Whelan "Disappointed" Biden Admin Hasn't Done More To Secure His Release; Griner Trade Sends Notorious Arms Dealer Viktor Bout To Russia; U.S. Official: "It Was A Choice To Get Brittney Or Nothing"; Biden Vows To "Never Give Up" On Getting Paul Whelan Home; Whelan: I'm Treated Differently By Russians Than Other Prisoners; Now: WNBA Star Brittney Griner Heading Home; Dem Senator: "More We Engage...More Americans Are At Risk". Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 08, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. Homeward Bound, the WNBA superstar Brittney Griner out of a Russian penal colony, heading for American soil that after the United States trades her freedom for a convicted Russian arms dealer.


JOE BIDEN, 46TH U.S. PRESIDENT: She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home after months being unjustly detained in Russia held under untolerable circumstances. Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.


KING: Plus, quote, I don't understand why I'm still sitting here. The president of the Biden administration could not bring home right now. Paul Whelan, says he feels let down and urges the president to pay any price to bring him home, that in a new CNN exclusive interview from his Russian jail cell.

And today, a bill to protect same sex marriage clears Congress and heads to the president's desk. It is likely the last big act of Nancy Pelosi speakership and a reminder, democratic priorities face a very different fate when Republicans take the House next month.

Up first though, a trade on a tarmac in Abu Dhabi brings an American prisoner home. The WNBA star Brittney Griner is heading for American soil right now that after the United States and Russia agreed on and then executed a swap for the convicted Russian arms dealer and warlord Viktor Bout. The one-on-one trade happened earlier this morning.

The White House releasing photos of Griner's wife, excuse me, Cherelle embracing President Biden overjoyed, immediately after getting the confirmation Griner is back in American hands. This morning, Cherelle Griner standing near the president at the White House expressing a pure and simple thanks. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHERELLE GRINER, WIFE OF FREED WNBA SUPERSTAR BRITTNEY GRINER: I'm just standing here overwhelmed with the emotions. But the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration. Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole.


KING: This trade brings 10 months of hell for Griner to a close. Sources telling CNN, the president gave final approval to the trade over the past week and that he received updates throughout the morning as the swap unfolded. But the cost of this operation, freeing a convicted arms dealer and leaving another American still behind bars in Russia was quite high.

In a brand-new CNN exclusive interview direct from Russian captivity, Paul Whelan says the president needs to bring him home and soon.


PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETERMINED IN RUSSIA (voiceover): I have to say I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release. Especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred. I'm happy that Brittney is going home today, and that Trevor went home when he did. But I don't understand why I'm still sitting here. My bags were packed. I'm ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me.


KING: CNN is covering these dramatic developments from across the globe, including in just a few moments more from that CNN exclusive interview with Paul Whelan. But let's start at the White House and our senior correspondent, MJ Lee. MJ take us inside this dramatic moment.

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, there are two things going on at the White House today. One of course is the real celebration over Brittney Griner's released after months and months of negotiations. The U.S. is now making final preparations to receive Brittney Griner on U.S. soil in a matter of within the next 24 hours.

But the second thing that is going on is the recognition of the regrettable and unfortunate reality that Paul Whelan was not a part of this deal and that he will not be coming home. U.S. officials have described this decision and this negotiation as difficult and painful.

But what they said is that in recent weeks, the Russians made very clear that Paul Whelan could not be a part of this deal. And that it was in recent days that President Biden himself gave the final greenlight to agree to this deal. What officials have basically said is that at the end of the day, the choice was not which American are we going to bring home, but the choice was to bring Brittney Griner home right now or no American home from Russia at all. So, I can tell you, John, that the pressure to bring Paul Whelan home that is not going to let up anytime soon.

But of course, the big question is what is it that the U.S. can now offer in exchange for him now that Viktor Bout is off the table? John?

KING: MJ Lee, important reporting at the White House. Thanks for kicking us off. MJ now let's move to Foggy Bottom and the state department CNN's Kylie Atwood standing by live there. Kylie, more details. How did this come together?


KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, what U.S. officials are saying today is that this was of course months in the making, we reported over the summer that the administration put a deal on the table to try and convince Russia to release both Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, but of course that deal that the United States initially proposed isn't the one that came to fruition today.

And U.S. officials are saying that it became clear in recent weeks that this was the only choice here that the Russians were treating Paul Whelan differently. He is charged with espionage, charges that he vehemently denies. But because of that, they were treating him differently. They were only offering to give up Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout.

And we should note that U.S. officials also worked with the United Arab Emirates. And when the president of the UAE actually traveled to Russia, just back in October and spoke with President Putin, he offered to be involved in prisoner swaps. And a UAE official tells me that that is part of the reason that this deal got done today.

U.S. officials thanking the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia saying they were also involved. We're waiting for details on that front. But the Secretary of State Tony Blinken is speaking here at the state department, making it clear that the Biden administration will work relentlessly, of course now to try and bring Paul Whelan home, but questions about how they'll be able to do that.

KING: Giant questions, giant questions. Kylie Atwood of the state department, thank you. Let's move on to London now and our CNN senior international security editor Nick Paton Walsh. Nick, you've reported on Viktor Bout for a long time. Tell our viewers just who is he?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes. I mean, he's an outsized figure, frankly, in Russia's geopolitical history over the past decades. A man who will always tell you, I'm just a pilot, I'm just a tradesman. Yes. I worked in conflict zones, but I was flying around harmless material.

But a man whose track record through U.N. investigations with the work of analysts and journalists has, with some pretty convincing evidence, backed up the title as he's earned through a book, The Merchant of Death, for a movie starring Nicolas Cage fictitious to some extent, the Lord of War.

Now, he denies all that, I should say, but he's essentially a man accused of flying small arms weaponry around the conflict zones of Africa, as I say, in the 90s and in the early 2000s. And that potentially, those weapons had an enormous impact on those conflicts, sometimes against the interest of the west. He's been accused of multiple other arms deals, all of which he denies.

But when you meet him, as I did, 13 years ago, and months of negotiations to get him to agree to his last on camera interview in a Bangkok jail before he was extradited to the United States to face trial, over the charges he served 18 years for already before his release, today or yesterday.

He was a very charismatic individual with a long history, a personal history with big geopolitical names. You'd know in some of the wars in Afghanistan, in Africa. I've seen home videos of him that show him pretty close to some of those conflicts, as well.

So, a man with a very scattered past, always on the surface, denying any wrongdoing, but having this incredible significance to Moscow that they were willing to spend all that time, trying to stop and being extradited to the United States diplomatically over the past years trying to get him back to Russia.

Some say that's just pure evidence, frankly, of what he'd done for Russia geopolitically as an arms dealer, which he denies. Others suggests perhaps a more complex history that maybe he served in the past with other Russian intelligence officials who went on to be close to Vladimir Putin, and therefore may be useful to the United States in that way.

We don't really know exactly all about his past, but we do know, it led him to be so important to Russia, that they would go through all this kind of diplomacy at a time of the lowest relations between the United States and Russia for decades to get him home.


WALSH: Why did the Americans want you so badly?

VIKTOR BOUT, RUSSIAN ARMS DEALER: Go and ask them, go and ask the Bush administration, the Obama administration, go and ask Mrs. Clinton why they need me. I don't know, I had no clue.

This is a lie and just bullshit, and I never supplied arms as such at all and I especially didn't have any deal with Al-Qaeda.


WALSH: So those full-throated denials from him delivered over a prison microphone there. At that time, he was so keen to tell the world that all of this against him was kind of nonsense, but one-on-one, you've got the feeling of a man spoke multiple languages. You've seen all the world, all the conflicts I've been to as well and so much history there that it led so much weight to the accusations against him. I should say, he's denied all of that and will I'm sure continue to do so despite the remarkable significance Russia's diplomacy gives to what it was to them. John?

KING: And now on his way back, I think believe already on the ground in Russia. Nick Paton Walsh's critical perspective, very important. Appreciate it so much. Now let's get some more important perspective on this dramatic deal. The former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Beth Sanner joins us now.


Beth, you've been in the room when difficult things like this are discussed. This is a basketball star, an American athlete who played for a Russian team, who was accused of smuggling cannabis oil into Russia traded. For you just heard Nick Paton Walsh and you've seen the file, you know who Viktor Bout is, traded for a notorious arms dealer. How does the present United States come to decide, it's my only choice, I'm going to do it?

BETH SANNER, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE & CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, in this case, I mean, I think, you know, the-all or nothing. The Russians were telegraphing this for some time that it was going to be a one for one, and they weren't going to do a two for one swap. So, the White House kind of knew that this was coming. And I think people were prepared for this. But it does not make it feel any better.

You know, the choice of president is often, you know, two bad decisions that you have to make, and you just try to pick the best you can. But this is not going to be the last decision that the president often make in terms of prisoner swaps. We have dozens and dozens of Americans around the world, being held hostage by foreign governments.

KING: And so, we know Viktor Bout is a Russian arms dealer, his nickname is the Merchant of Death. He was sentenced to 25 years for conspiring to kill Americans, among other things supporting terrorism. Former soviet military officer, he says in custody for about 15 years since he was first apprehended overseas and then. So, why is he important? Why is Viktor Bout has been so important to Vladimir Putin?

SANNER: There's a little bit of a mystery there as a number of people have mentioned. You know, I think that, look, the reports are that he was probably a GRU officer. There was some kind of Intel background there. He's part of this emergence of these, yes, Merchant of Death, but kind of a, an arms oligarchy.

In a way, you can think of him that way, where he was promoting Russia, expansionism and influence through arms deals in Africa. And look right now, what would - what is Russia need, these more arms, kind of convenient for him to come back.

Now I'm sure that all these contacts that were just mentioned around the world, certainly would be useful, but the Russians have been after him for a long time. And I'm sure it's because of personal professional and economic financial connections from his past.

KING: The president discussed today the difficult choice in the sense and Secretary Blinken has is well. That as you noted, this was not a deal where - it was not a bring Paul Whelan home or Brittney Griner home It was either get Brittney Griner in exchange for Victor boot or get nothing. Listen to the president?


PRES. BIDEN: We've not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years. This was not a choice of which American to bring home. Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's. And while, we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.


KING: Putin is difficult to read. But what is your sense of what happens now? And in saying they treated differently, Mr. Whelan is charged with espionage. And the Russians obviously treat that, he says he is innocent. He says flatly, he is completely innocent. But they treat that as a much higher offense than drug smuggling, obviously. But what next? And if you could not get Paul Whelan home for Viktor Bout, what would the price be? What would the president have to do?

SANNER: Well, I think Paul Whelan's brother was correct. As he mentioned earlier today on CNN, that there has to be another prominent Russian, you know, maybe a spy, somebody that they can trade. Right now, I am not privy to understanding who that might be. I know that there have been some considerations in the past, but I'm not sure that there's anyone prominent enough for the Russians right now to have a deal on the table. And that's kind of the subtext, I'm reading.

That said, I do think that this deal, it is a success for Putin. He sees these kinds of things as being, you know, I'm still a legitimate player. The United States will still negotiate one on one with me. And so, I think that there's still very much a potential for getting Paul Whelan out. People should not lose hope because I think these kinds of deals actually give Putin some stature.

KING: Beth Sanner, I appreciate your time and important perspective on this important day. Thank you so much. Up next for us. A CNN exclusive that detained American Paul Whelan tells CNN he is " disappointed." The White House has not been able to do more to secure his release.




KING: Now more on the day's big dramatic news, including a new CNN exclusive interview with Paul Whelan, that of course on the same day the WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from Russia. Whelan telling CNN, he is surprised to not have been included in that prisoner swap. And listen hear his message to President Biden.


WHELAN (voiceover): 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.


KING: With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, our CNN's sports analyst Christine Brennan, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Laura Barron-Lopez of the PBS NewsHour, and our CNN state department producer Jennifer Hanson, who spoke with Whelan in that exclusive interview this morning. His tone is remarkably calm. He has to understand the seriousness of the moment in that he was hoping for a joint prisoner swap to leave with Brittney Griner, especially after Trevor Reed already gone. What was your biggest sense? He says the president should pay any price here because why?

JENNIFER HANSON, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: That's right, John. He said he's very disappointed and he's worried about his outlook going forward. He's been in Russia nearly four years. He was arrested on these, what he says are false espionage charges back in December of 2018. And he has been detained there ever since he was sentenced to 16 years in prison.


He still has 12 of those years left to serve and he's very concerned that he won't see his elderly parents again. He won't see his beloved family dog Flora again, and he worries he himself might not make it out due to how dismal the situation is in that penal colony that he called me from. So, he was happy that Brittney Griner got out, but he was very, very disappointed to be.

KING: I want to play a little bit more because it is remarkable and a testament to his courage and his strength. How he gets this so clearly that, you know, he's disappointed, but he gets the fact that, you know, Brittney Griner that won an athlete in a global star, if you will, but a drug smuggling charge versus he says it's trumped up, but the Russians say that he's a spy.


WHELAN (voiceover): 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's also on a 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 and other prisons.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Any sense than you've spoken to him before, as well as this very important exclusive the timing today, critical of why he believes the Russians are doing that? Is it because he's an American, is because he's an ex-marine, a combination of those things?

HANSON: I think it's a combination of all of the above. I mean, he doesn't know for sure, and the Russians certainly haven't come out and said that, but the fact that he is an American, they believe. He said that he was a brigadier general in the U.S. military. They think he is this high value target for some reason.

And that's something we heard from U.S. officials today as well, that they tried to negotiate with Russia to bring him home. They tried a number of different permutations. I was told on how to bring both of those home and the Russians just would not budge on letting wheeling out.

KING: And so, let's bring the voice of the president of United States into the conversation in that he understood this. Number one, that Mr. Whelan and his family were going to be profoundly disappointed at this day. And number two, that he would face some political criticism. And I'll let's bring some of it up. Now, these don't quite follow the facts.

But Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican in Congress, another reason to impeach Biden she says. The president of United States traded Russian terrorist arms dealer and left a U.S. marine in the Russian jail. That does not follow the facts as laid out by the administration that they had no choice here that the Russians were not going to give up Paul Whelan for Viktor Bout. But that's what Marjorie Taylor says said and Laura Barron-Lopez, the president says this.


PRES. BIDEN: Make no mistake about it. This work is not easy. Negotiations are always difficult. There are never any guarantees.

GRINER: We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved one. So, thank you everybody for your support. And today, it's just a happy day for me and my family. So, I'm going to smell right now.


KING: The grace of Cherelle Griner, there is remarkable and that is happy as she is. She understands there are other family members who are having a sad day. But the president had to know both diplomatically and politically, this is a tough choice.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST & WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: And that's why also when White House officials were talking to reporters today about this decision. They said that it was painful. It was difficult and that for months essentially, since President Biden took office. They said that he's been trying to work on Paul Whelan's case that his administration has been trying to work on it.

And that initially, they had wished that today they would have been having two Americans coming home. But that ultimately, it became very clear in recent weeks that Russia was not going to release, Whelan was not going to be OK with any of the different alternatives and types of swaps that they were trying to come up with to get both of them. And so, the White House felt as though they had to get Brittney when they could.

The other thing that they noted, White House officials noted was that President Biden they said he's ready and willing to meet with Paul Whelan's family. It sounds as though, meet with them more personally to try to explain to them everything that is going on and why it has been so difficult to get him release.

KING: And for the diplomatic angst here and the tough choices for the administration, and obviously, the disappointment. And Mr. Whelan his joy across the sports community, including in the WNBA community, which had from day one would not let this issue go. How important is this moment? And what does it tell you?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: John, the irony is that for a while early in the conversation, February, March, once we did find out about three weeks after that she was arrested that in fact, the news broke. The irony was people were saying, well, if this were a male athlete, we'd care, but it's a female athlete, so we don't care as much.

The WNBA change that conversation. Those players putting the number, her number 42 on every court, the way they did those interviews, the way they had a social media campaign combined, John, with her wife, Cherelle. All of a sudden, the pressure was put on the White House in a way that I must admit, I did even see that coming. So, by April and May, this became a national conversation.


Once again, sports taking us to a national or international conversation that we should have. But these WNBA players were the same ones who worked to make sure that Kelly Loeffler, their owner of one of the WNBA teams lost in the Georgia Senate race. They're the ones who work so hard on Black Lives Matter. And the way I look at it, it's another victory for the WNBA, having Brittney Griner stature, her name rise to the point where it became a household name and an issue that the Biden administration had to address.

KING: One of the political conversations you have is interesting. This is one of the president's best friends, the man who has his Senate seat Chris Coons saying, it's great that Brittney Griner is coming home. But he worries, every time you pay a price, do you encourage someone to take an American hostage.


SEN. CHRIS COONS, (D) (DELAWARE): And it was clear over many months that Putin was only going to release Brittney Griner in exchange for this person. And that's the risk is that the more we engage in such exchanges, the more Americans are at risk of being scooped up and held as leverage.


KING: The leverage part, again, for damned if you do, damned if you don't. That's an overly simplistic way of saying it. But you're the president of United States and you want to get every American home. But every time you do, you run the risk that some bad actor out there in the world stitches, oh. Here's a way to get attention, make money, get somebody out of prison.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: For sure, it's exactly why President Biden today when he was talking about this, repeated the warning and he urged Americans really implored them to follow state department warnings in terms of traveling. But I think to Christine's point, this touched President Biden.

When he saw these interviews on television, with the shrill in our own Abby Phillip show. And he saw all these interviews, it touched him, and he was deeply concerned about this. He played a personal role with a Trevor Reed. He played a personal role in this. He emphasized this. This was a priority to him in the Oval Office. So, he made this happen.

And he served in a position like Senator Coons did for a long time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's not naive in any of this, but he made the decision, the tough decision that presidents have to do. And he made the value that this was worth it coming at the holidays.

Of course, he would have wanted Paul Whelan as well, but that he's going to still work on his behalf. So, I think for President Biden, this really - it's a win for him. You hate to look at it like that, but without question, this was because of him.

KING: Is this part over Christine, on the global stage, the WNBA is a better product today than it wasn't the beginning. It's having more commercial success here in the United States than it did four years because of the commitment of the NBA and the WNBA to keep it going now has more lucrative television contract. As a basketball fan, it's fantastic to go see the product. They actually pass the ball and play defense. It's an interesting thing.

But I want to just show you some pictures. You see Diana Taurasi, other American players are playing for Russian teams. This became a big thing because they said they needed to make more money that they couldn't - they weren't getting paid big salaries anywhere near with the men making the basketball leagues here in the United States. So, they were traveling the globe, including in Russia for these teams, mostly owned by Putin's buddies, the oligarchs, to make more money. I assume that part, the Russian part of this is over.

BRENNAN: One would think although, that's where Brittney Griner was because that exact point you're making. I mean, they're making 200 - 250,000, the WNBA players are during their season. Steph Curry is making over 40 million in a course that's capitalism that would be in a conversation. The WNBA started many, many decades after the NBA women's sports are catching up in this 50th anniversary of Title Nine yearend season.

But yes, there's so many other places, Asia, Western Europe, other places that these players go, but it did highlight this issue that is front and center. I think in many American homes when they look at their daughter's playing sports, and their son's playing sports and obviously this became much bigger than that.

KING: Well, I can just tell you to get us a basketball fan. It is a fantastic product. You should support it on this happy day for the Griner family. Just moments ago, the Democratic House finishing work on an important measure to protect same sex marriage.