This is the emotional moment Joe Biden told Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle that the WNBA star is finally coming home, before the pair hugged in the Oval Office.
Griner was on her way back to the United States on Friday after being released from a Russian prison in exchange for an arms dealer known as the ‘Merchant of Death.’
The 32-year-old was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges. She was swapped for Viktor Bout, 55, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison.
President Biden announced Griner’s release early Thursday in an address to the nation at the White House. ‘She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,’ he said. He said he had spoken to her and she was in ‘good spirits’ after suffering ‘needless trauma’ at the hands of the Russian state.
This is the emotional moment Joe Biden (right) told Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle (left) that the WNBA star is finally coming home, before the pair hugged in the Oval Office
In heartwarming footage released by Biden’s staff, the President is seen holding Cherelle Griner’s arms, telling her that her wife is on the way home.
‘She’s on the ground,’ Biden is heard telling Cherelle, presumably referencing her landing in Abu Dhabi for the prisoner swap. ‘Stop it,’ Cherelle replies in disbelief.
‘Yep, she’s on the ground,’ the President says again. The footage then cuts to show Cherelle walking behind the Resolute Desk, saying today is a ‘great day’.
‘It’s just such a good day!’ she says again sitting in a leather-bound chair with Biden on one side, and Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the other. All are shown beaming.
‘Oh my god,’ Cherelle, seen in a red dress, says while laughing with joy.
Press pictures from the office also showed Cherelle being embraced by First Lady Jill Biden, who posted the pictures to her Twitter account. ‘Brittney is coming home,’ the First Lady wrote, along with a heart emoji.
Biden said ‘this is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. It took painstaking and intense negotiations’ to orchestrate the prisoner swap.
In heartwarming footage released by Biden’s staff, the President is seen holding Cherelle Griner’s arms, telling her that her wife is on the way home
Cherelle Griner is seen sitting in a leather-bound chair with Biden on one side, and Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the other
Biden made the announcement of Griner’s release flanked by Cherelle, the Vice President, and Blinken. ‘I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,’ Cherelle (pictured) said
Pictured: President Joe Biden (left) and Cherelle Griner (second-left) speak on the phone with WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner after her release by Russia as Vice President Kamala Harris (second-right) and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) look on
Cherelle Griner and First Lady Jill Biden hug in the Oval Office on Thursday
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion and LGBT trailblazer, was arrested at a Moscow airport nine months ago against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
She was accused of possession of vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.
In footage released by Russian state media, Griner, shorn of her distinctive dreadlocks, and a relaxed and animated Bout could be seen crossing paths on the airport tarmac and heading towards the planes that would take them home.
Earlier, Griner was seen in footage on a plane after being freed, where she is told that she will be going back to the US. Asked what her mood was, she said: ‘Happy.’
However, the swap has been criticised. Many see Bout’s release as a gift to Putin and his war effort in Ukraine, consider it a damning indictment on Biden’s diplomatic track record, and are appalled by the involvement of Saudi Arabia in negotiating.
The White House on Thursday denied that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved, but also thanked the UAE for the ‘use of their territory’.
Brittney Griner seen on a plane on her way home, where she is told that she will be going back to the US. Asked what her mood was, she said: ‘Happy’
And while Griner’s family and friends celebrated her release, another American held in Russia, Paul Whelan, a former US Marine detained since 2018 and accused of spying, was not part of Thursday’s exchange.
He told CNN he was ‘greatly disappointed.’
‘I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,’ Whelan told the US television network in a phone call from the Russian penal colony where he is imprisoned.
Biden pledged to obtain Whelan’s freedom, saying ‘we will never give up.’ ‘Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s.’
Biden made the announcement of Griner’s release flanked by Cherelle, the Vice President, and Blinken.
‘I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,’ Cherelle said.
She acknowledged Whelan’s fate, saying: ‘Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware there’s so many other families who are not whole.’
In a statement late Thursday, the Griner family thanked President Biden and his administration again, and said they ‘pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.’ ‘We ask that you respect our privacy as we embark on this road to healing,’ they added.
Pictured: Merchant of Death Victor Bout is seen smiling during the prisoner swap in the UAE. Griner is shown in red, left, as she is handed over to US officials
War criminal Viktor Bout (right) smiled as he made his way towards the jet waiting for him to be taken back to Russian soil for the first time in years
At the time of her arrest, Griner had been playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the off-season.
She pleaded guilty to the charges against her, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
The Russian foreign ministry said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout’s release ‘for a long time’ and that initially the United States had ‘refused dialogue’ on including him in any swap.
‘Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot,’ it said. ‘The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.’
The 2005 film ‘Lord of War’ starring Nicolas Cage was based in part on Bout’s arms trafficking exploits and he has been the subject of several books and TV shows.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told Bout in a video message that he was aware that the arms dealer had been subjected to ‘powerful physical and moral pressure’ while in prison, Russian news agency TASS reported.
‘And you endured it with dignity,’ the ambassador added, saying Moscow was ‘genuinely delighted by the fact that Russia’s efforts for your release have eventually succeeded.’
Asked about Bout’s release, a senior US defense official said ‘there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past.’
Paul Whelan (shown in 2019) said he was ‘disappointed’ not to have been included in the swap on Thursday. He has spent four years in Russian prison on charges of espionage and spying
Pictured: Griner is shown on August 4 this year after being found guilty in Russia
The news of the prisoner swap was met with anger by Republicans. Republican leader Kevin McCarthy called it ‘unconscionable’ to leave behind Whelan.
‘Merchant of Death – that’s the nickname of the prisoner Biden returned to Putin. He was convicted of conspiring to kill American law enforcement.
‘This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives. Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable,’ McCarthy said.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and former Air Force pilot, also cried foul. ‘So a basketball star is released, we can celebrate, but what about Paul Whelan?
‘An American unjustly detained for years,’ he tweeted.
‘May not be high profile but he is innocent. This is a dangerous road.’
Former ambassador John Bolton told CNN that the deal was more of a ‘surrender’ than a ‘swap’. ‘Obviously, there’s a lot of very understandable human emotion here in getting Griner released, but this is a very bad mistake by the Biden administration.
‘This is not a deal. This is not a swap. This is a surrender. And terrorists and rogue states all around the world will take note of this, and it endangers other Americans in the future who can be grabbed and used as bargaining chips by people who don’t have the same morals and scruples that we do,’ he said.