House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has defended the Biden administration for exchanging notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner in a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia that left Marine veteran Paul Whelan languishing in a Russian jail.
In one of her last press conferences as Speaker of the House, Pelosi suggested that the White House had no other choice. The administration faces criticism for swapping the WNBA star for the former KGB agent who tried to arm the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Griner has been detained by Moscow since February on marijuana-linked drug charges, and was recently sentenced to nine years of grueling labor in a Russian penal colony.
Bout, 55, was snared by the DEA in a devilishly complicated sting operation in 2008 in which he thought he was selling arms to the FARC – Colombian rebels – to shoot down US passenger jets. He was the inspiration for the lead character played by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War.
The Biden administration had been under intense public pressure to get the celebrity basketball player out, against the backdrop of the worst diplomatic relations between the White House and the Kremlin since the Cold War.
Pelosi suggested at her weekly press conference that Bout, once nicknamed the ‘merchant of death,’ was the administration’s only ‘leverage’ to free her.
Biden has been put under scrutiny for his failure to secure the release of Whelan and other Americans including Marc Fogel.
The criticism was compounded by anger over Bout’s return to Moscow authorities. Republicans have attacked Biden for what they call a one-sided deal that has the potential of emboldening Vladimir Putin.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the U.S. government’s prisoner swap with Russia during her weekly press conference on Thursday
Asked about the GOP criticism at her weekly press conference on Thursday, Pelosi conceded Bout’s hostile reputation but claimed his American prison sentence was almost up.
‘Well, he has served most of his term is my understanding, the majority of his term,’ Pelosi said.
‘I agree with their characterization of who he is, he is bad guy. But the fact is that we wanted Brittney Griner freed and that’s the leverage that we had, to do just that.’
Bout was convicted of terrorism-related charges – including conspiring to kill Americans – in November 2011. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison the following April.
The arms trafficker’s release date was not meant to come until August 2029, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
As for Whelan, Pelosi said his continued detention was ‘of equal concern’ to the United States but defended the president by pointing to statements from the former Marine’s family that the administration made ‘the right decision.’
‘Everyone is fully committed’ to securing Whelan’s release, the House Speaker said.
A composite image shows US basketball player Brittney Griner (L) escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki City Court, Russia, 7 July 2022; and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (R) in handcuffs escorted by Thai special forces to board the airplane for extradition to the USA at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand, 16 November 2010; issued 8 December 2022. US and Russian government officials on 8 December 2022 confirmed that Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout were exchanged in a prisoner swap
‘Brittney [Griner] being a basketball star, and that her name was more famous to everyday Americans, but Paul Whelan is of at least equal concern to us – to have his freedom.’
She added that Whelan is now an ‘even larger priority.’
Republican lawmakers who spoke with DailyMail.com on Thursday were hesitant to criticize the deal but agreed that Bout’s freedom is of some concern.
‘Well, he’s a bad person. And he should have served every day of the sentence that he was given. But I really believe the administration did the right thing in getting a literal hostage out of there. And, of course, we need to continue to work to get other people that the Russians are holding,’ retiring Sen. Roy Blunt said.
‘Sometimes what you have to do is not what you’d rather do, and often in a situation like that, the deal you have to make is something you’d rather not do, but I’m supportive of the decision made.’
But he added in an extra shot at the arms dealer, ‘It’s tragic that we have to send somebody back with the terrible human rights and life record of this guy.’
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey said it was a ‘difficult situation’ and noted that one of his own constituents, teacher Marc Fogel, is also still being held in Russia on marijuana-linked charges like Griner was.
‘It’s always a difficult situation. I’m certainly very glad that Brittany is on her way back home. But we have Americans still there. And I have a constituent still there. And you know, we got to get him out too, he’s wrongfully detained,’ Toomey said.
Toomey also called for greater blowback against malign state actors who unfairly detain Americans.
‘This is why there really should be repercussions when state actors — you know, we’ve always sort of understood that there’s a certain level of terrorist and criminal activity of kidnapping Americans to hold them for ransom of one kind or another. Now it seems to be happening with state actors. And we have to find a way to make it clear that that’s totally unacceptable,’ Toomey said.
GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx, asked if the move emboldens Putin, told DailyMail.com: ‘I’m not sure that Vladimir Putin needs anything external to embolden him’
Democrat Sen. Patty Murray would not say whether she had any concerns about national security with Bout’s release.
‘Well, I mean, I wanted Griner to come home, and I’m listening to what she and the President have to say on this,’ Murray told DailyMail.com.
Biden confirmed Griner’s release via social media early on Thursday morning, sharing photos of the basketball player’s wife Cherelle inside the Oval Office.
The president said at the time that he’d spoken to Griner by phone and she was on a plane back to the U.S.
Griner, 32, was flown from Moscow to Abu Dhabi, where she and Bout were made to literally cross paths on an airport tarmac to rejoin their relevant delegations.
A senior administration official said Griner was ‘all smiles’ when she reached the Americans.
Whelan’s family said shortly before Biden delivered remarks on the prisoner swap that they are ‘glad’ for Griner’s freedom but that his continued detention is a ‘catastrophe.’