This will be the first time he has met with them in person. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden will meet with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, to assure them his administration is committed to securing the release of their loved ones and that they remain “front of mind.” Biden will meet with them separately, an official said.
“One of the things that the President wanted to make clear is, and one of the reasons he’s meeting with the families, is that he wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day, on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” Jean-Pierre said at the White House.
She added: “One family member was already scheduled to be in town and the President wanted to meet with both of the families on the same day.”
The Associated Press was first to report on the meeting.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said that working to secure Griner and Whelan’s release, as well as that of Americans wrongfully detained abroad, is a top priority. In late July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US had put forward a “substantial proposal” to try to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. Sources told CNN that proposal included a swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner was detained in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry.
She has been sentenced to nine years, along with a fine of about $16,400. Her legal team in Russia has appealed the ruling.
Whelan has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018.
The Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Whelan and Griner, according to people briefed on the matter. Sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, for Whelan and Griner received the backing of Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden’s support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.
Asked by CNN whether there will be any substantive updates for the families on Friday, Jean-Pierre said that there won’t be any major updates to share.
“While I would love to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer and we are bringing their loved ones home, that is not what we’re seeing in these negotiations at this time,” Jean-Pierre said.
She added, “We would love to be saying today that we have news about Brittney and Paul coming home today. That is, unfortunately, that is not where the negotiations are at this time.”
Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens is currently in Rome for meetings at the Vatican and will not be attending the meetings on Friday, according to a US official. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has met with the families of Griner and Whelan earlier this year.
The State Department did not immediately confirm if Blinken would attend the meetings on Friday.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.