By SEUNG MIN KIM and ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is meeting Friday with family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan.
The meetings at the White House are the first face-to-face encounter between the president and the relatives of Griner and Whelan. The meetings, held in the Oval Office, began shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, the White House said.
Administration officials said the sessions are meant to underscore Biden’s commitment to bringing home Americans held overseas and to establish a personal connection, but are not an indication that negotiations with Russia for their release have reached a breakthrough.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Friday that Russia has not responded to what administration officials have called a substantial and serious offer to secure Griner and Whelan’s release.
“The president is not going to let up,” Kirby told reporters on Friday ahead of the president’s meetings with the families. “He’s confident that this is going to remain in the forefront of his mind and his team’s mind, and they’re going to continue to work as hard as they can.”
Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and has appealed the punishment. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are false. The U.S. government regards both as wrongfully detained, placing their cases with the office of its top hostage negotiator.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the administration had made a substantial proposal to Russia. Though he did not elaborate on the proposal, a person familiar with the matter has said the U.S. has offered to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The administration carried out a prisoner swap last April, with Moscow releasing Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, is participating in both meetings. Biden is sitting down with Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan. In a separate session, the president is meeting with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas, according to the White House.
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