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White House says Brittney Griner is "a role model for LGBTQI+ Americans and women of color"

Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledges that pressure from certain groups weighed in on the decision to choose the athlete in the negotiation with Russia.

Karine Jean-Pierre

(Cordon Press)

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Criticism of the U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange is growing. The Biden Administration prioritized the release of Brittney Griner - sentenced to nine years for smuggling and possession of marijuana by the Russian justice system - over former Marine Paul Whelan - accused of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. This preference by the federal government may be due to the basketball player's sexual status and skin color, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre hinted:

On a personal note, Brittney is more than an athlete, more than an Olympian. She is an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI+ Americans and women of color. She should never have been detained by Russia. And we are — I am — deeply proud of the work that the President has done, and this administration has done to get her home.

The Oval Office media liaison stated that the Biden Administration took into account the grassroots endorsement the athlete received:

Journalist: You mentioned that Brittney is a part of two communities: the Black community and the LGBTQ+ community. There were, as you know, many advocacy groups and civil rights organizations that were rallying for her. To what degree was that helpful or impactful to the administration’s work to bring her home?
Karine Jean-Pierre: And, yeah, you know, does that matter? Of course, that matters. But I want to be very clear as well: The President has been committed to this. He showed — he has shown his commitment in the past almost two years of his administration, when it comes to bringing home Americans who have been wrongfully detained. That is something that you’ve seen his administration work through.

"Release Griner or no one."

Jean-Pierre said that the Moscow regime only gave them the option of releasing Griner, without putting Whelan's name on the table:

In recent weeks, it became clear that while the Russians were willing to reach an agreement to secure Brittney’s release, they continue to treat Paul Whelan differently, given the nature of the totally illegitimate charges they have levied against Paul. Unfortunately, the choice became to either bring Brittney home or no one. As the President said this morning, he will never stop working to secure Paul’s release and return home. And he will not give up.

Nor did the White House's efforts focus on Marc Fogel, an English teacher held in a Russian prison for more than a year after being arrested for cannabis possession - like Griner - at an airport in the Russian capital. Regarding Fogel, Jean-Pierre noted that "each case is different."

we take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation. Any specifics on Marc Fogel or any others, I would — I would refer you to the State Department for additional information on those specific cases. There are — every case is different — different ways that I can talk about them, so I don’t want to get ahead of that. So I would refer you to the State Department.

Brittney Griner case

Moscow's authorities arrested Griner on February 17 at an airport in the Russian capital. The White House has been supporting and calling for Griner's immediate release for months. In July, the player pleaded guilty to a smuggling offense and was sentenced to 9 years in prison.

Days later, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken set up initial talks with his Russian counterpart to carry out the exchange of Griner - and Whelan - for arms dealer Viktor Bout. But these conversations had no impact.

After learning of the sentence, the White House released a statement at the end of October, in which they noted that "President Biden has been very clear that Brittney must be released immediately." He further stated that "the Biden-Harris Administration has continued to engage in dialogue with Russia through all available channels and to do everything possible to bring Brittney home."

The player was finally released on December 8 and will enter U.S. territory in the next few hours.