On Thursday, news broke that WNBA player Brittney Griner was being released from a Russian labor camp and flown back to the United States. According to an announcement by the White House, Griner had been swapped for a notorious arms dealer named Viktor Bout, also known as the “merchant of death.”
Quickly, the backslapping began, with Joe Biden taking full credit for the deal, but it didn’t take long before questions began to emerge. Former US Marine Paul Whelan has been held on false charges in Russia for nearly four years. Why wasn’t he prioritized in the deal? Then there is teacher Mark Fogel, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for possessing medical marijuana (very similar to Griner’s charge). The White House won’t even acknowledge his plight, having not designated him as being wrongfully detained.
As the Biden administration told it, though, Whelan was never on the table. Instead, the Russians insisted that the trade had to be for Griner or no one. Yet, astute observers noted how little sense that makes. Why would Russia want to make the choice easy for Biden? Wouldn’t they gain much more from making him make a choice between two Americans? And why would the Russians want to give up Griner before Whelan given that Griner is a public figure and obviously more valuable?
Sure enough, there’s evidence emerging that the White House’s story isn’t exactly accurate. For example, NBC News originally reported via a senior government official that the Russians were offering either Griner or Whelan in the deal. Later on, the article was stealth edited to match the administration’s talking points.
NBC had a bombshell report that Russia offered America Brittney Griner OR Paul Whelan, citing a senior government official. It would be Biden’s choice which one to save.
The report was later edited without explanation to mirror Biden’s explanation that only Griner was offered. pic.twitter.com/5BvGeyP0RU
— David Hookstead (@dhookstead) December 9, 2022
Are we to believe the original article just misquoted the government official? Somehow, I seriously doubt that is the case. Rather, it feels like NBC News got a call from the White House and then cleaned things up to push the official narrative, undercutting their own bombshell in the process.
There’s more, though. Whelan’s lawyer was quoted in the same NBC News article as saying that the United States chose Griner because she was the more “humane” choice.
Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, also said that the deal was an exchange of “one to one” and that choosing Griner, 32, appeared “more humane” because she is a woman and an Olympic champion, while Whelan was in the military and it is “easier for him to be in custody.”
Further, consider the administration’s messaging on the prisoner swap. Karine Jean Pierre, the White House press secretary, touted Griner being a gay, black woman during her briefing in what appeared to be an attempt to justify her importance. Others in the administration toed the same line, with the press dutifully playing along. If Griner’s identity wasn’t a factor, why make such a big deal about it?
There’s just too much here that doesn’t add up. That we are dealing with an administration that has made a habit of lying to the American people only makes the questions more prudent. Did Biden choose Griner because she’s famous and/or checks the right intersectional boxes over a former Marine who has been rotting away for nearly four years? It sure seems like it.
At the very least, there needs to be a lot more investigation as to what exactly went on here. The original deal was bad enough, if not arguably necessary. But if the White House played identity politics with a former servicemember’s life, that would be a major scandal.
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