The good (and the bad) of Biden’s deal to get Brittney Griner home

Ultimately, we should all be happy to see Griner released. Yet the details of this deal are certainly worthy of further scrutiny.

Brittney Griner is coming home. The women’s basketball superstar and US citizen has been detained by Russia on trumped-up drug charges since February 2022. But she will soon be reunited with her wife, friends, and family, because President Biden just announced that they’ve reached a deal to secure her release.

As far as Griner is concerned, this is wonderful news. She was originally arrested at a Russian airport for allegedly having hashish oil cartridges, a THC product, and bizarrely sentenced to 9 years for this nothing-burger of a “crime.” It quickly became clear that she had really been imprisoned by Russia as a political pawn. Securing the freedom of a wrongfully imprisoned US citizen is always something we should fight like hell for. 

But this deal is… not all good news.

In exchange for Griner’s freedom, the US is releasing arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “merchant of death.” As CNN reports, “Bout, a former Soviet military officer, was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization.”

So, this doesn’t exactly seem like a great trade. We’re releasing a dangerous criminal who conspired to kill Americans in exchange for a basketball player who never threatened Russia in any way.

There’s also the matter of US marine veteran Paul Whelan. 

As Fox News reports, “Whelan has been in Russian custody since 2018 when he was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.” However, the US maintains that these charges are baseless. Many were upset to see Griner freed but Whelan left behind. Some even went so far as to suggest that the Biden administration doesn’t care about Whelan because he isn’t a celebrity athlete and/or because he isn’t a black woman. 

“We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “This was not a choice about which American to release. Russia is treating Paul’s case differently … we are not giving up.”

The backlash against Biden over the Whelan part of this seems rather unfair. He surely tried to release them both, but was only able to secure Griner’s release. That’s not an insult to Whelan, it’s a cause for partial celebration—which is exactly how Whelan’s family responded to the news. 

And the reason for Whelan remaining imprisoned while Griner is freed is most certainly not apathy or indifference on the Biden administration’s part… it’s a reflection of the differing severity with which Russia views the prisoners. They surely never really cared about imprisoning Griner beyond her utility as a political pawn, after all, it was just over hashish oil. 

In contrast, Whelan is imprisoned over espionage charges. Even if we believe these charges are unsubstantiated, they nonetheless mean Russia is surely much less willing to release him. That, not some nefarious indifference from Biden, is the most probable explanation for why one prisoner is being released but not the other.

Ultimately, we should all be happy to see Griner released. Yet the details of this deal are certainly worthy of further scrutiny.

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Brad Polumbo
Brad Polumbo
Brad Polumbo is a libertarian-conservative journalist and co-founder of Based Politics. His work has been cited by top lawmakers such as Senator Rand Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Pat Toomey, Congresswoman Nancy Mace, Congressman Thomas Massie, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as by prominent media personalities such as Jordan Peterson, Sean Hannity, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and Mark Levin. Brad has also testified before the US Senate, appeared on Fox News and Fox Business, and written for publications such as USA Today, National Review, Newsweek, and the Daily Beast. He hosts the Breaking Boundaries podcast and has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.