The backstory of Brittney Griner’s unexpected release from Russia

TheGrio was on the ground at the White House in the early morning hours to witness the president's announcement that Griner is "on her way home."

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The announcement of Brittney Griner’s release from Russian custody in a prisoner swap on Thursday morning was one of shock and jubilance around the world. TheGrio was on the ground at the White House in the early morning hours as part of the presidential pool that was summoned several hours before its initial call time. 

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a court room after an August hearing in Khimki, just outside Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP, File)

TheGrio was alerted about movement on the historical moment in an unexpected call at 5:16 a.m. to gather for the new pool arrival time at the White House for an unannounced event on President Joe Biden’s public schedule. Before the abrupt change, there was only one-afternoon event on the president’s schedule on Thursday, with an original pool call time at noon.

President Biden emerged from the Oval Office and into the Roosevelt Room to announce that Griner was free and on her way back to the United States. Biden said Griner was “in good spirits.” Minutes before addressing the nation, the president spoke with Brittney Griner on the phone inside the Oval Office with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who all stood beside the president during his remarks.

At the conclusion of his brief televised address, Biden told White House reporters that Griner would be home “within 24 hours.”

Cherelle Griner (3rd L), wife of Olympian and WNBA player Brittney Griner, speaks after U.S. President Joe Biden announced her release from Russian custody, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (L) and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House on December 08, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Griner was exchanged for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian gun dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death” and former Soviet military officer. Bout was sentenced to 25 years in U.S. prison for conspiring to kill Americans, among other crimes.

Reverend Al Sharpton, who has been a vocal advocate for Griner’s release, in a written statement to theGrio said he wants to be among the first to see the WBNA superstar when she returns to American soil. “I and the ministers who were denied access to see her in Russia look forward to meeting her here, so we can finally pray over her and offer her spiritual guidance,” said Sharpton. “We also continue to pray for the release of Paul Whelan and all U.S. citizens detained abroad.”

Whelan, a former Marine who is still being detained in Russia on espionage charges, was a part of U.S. negotiations for the release of Griner. The Biden administration had hoped it could conduct a prisoner swap for both Griner and Whelan. 

The NAACP briefly paused its national staff retreat upon learning the news to celebrate Griner’s release with a recorded message of “Welcome home, Britney!” 

Many groups like the WNBA, the LGBTQ+ community, and civil rights organizations like the National Action Network (NAN), had been working behind the scenes to ensure Griner was freed after nine months of imprisonment for a small possession of cannabis while traveling to Moscow. 

Sharpton, who is the president of NAN, said, “After nine horrific months behind bars, Brittney Griner’s family, friends, and teammates can finally breathe a sigh of relief that she’s on her way home.”

White House administration officials said during a press background call on Griner’s release that there were conversations with Russian officials about the prisoner swap that began a couple of days ago. Russians moved Griner from the penal colony to Moscow and flew her Thursday morning to the United Arab Emirates, where the prisoner exchange occurred. A Biden official said she will be offered a wide range of support from the United States government to help her cope with the “trauma” she has endured.

While the White House had hoped they could bring home both Griner and Whelan,  administration officials told reporters of the historic move: “The choice was to bring Brittney home right now or bring no one home.”

Brittney Griner russia
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner stands in a cage in a courtroom prior to a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo via AP)

The top secret Russian negotiation “took months and months” of hard work, said an administration official. The official also said for President Biden, “it was a difficult decision to accept the option.” Officials said firmly that “we will never relent until we bring Paul home.”

Negotiations were described as very targeted and considered to be a series of dialogues. The UAE and the Saudis were brought along to help with the successful negotiation. 

In the past, the United States has resisted hostage negotiations. TheGrio asked administration officials about the precedent this prisoner trade with Russia sets for future hostage trades, to which an official noted, “administrations have long resisted, wherever possible, releasing individuals early from our justice system who have earned time in our law enforcement system. And at the same time, administrations before ours also made exceptions to that in extraordinary and rare cases where that is, proven through extensive negotiations, the only way to bring an American home.”

The official added, “Now, given how extremely rare this is, any inference that somehow this [will] become the norm would be mistaken.”

The administration official warned, “I don’t think governments around the world would be wise to draw that inference. But in the rare case, when there is an imperative to bring Americans home, which is a real priority for this president, there sometimes are no alternative left, and a heavy price has to be paid.” 

After the release of Griner, Whelan told CNN that he is “disappointed” that the administration had not done more to bring him home. An administration official acknowledged to theGrio that there is “jubilation” over Griner’s return, but that Whelan is still very much a priority. 

“Today is very much tempered by a real consciousness of how unacceptable his circumstances are and how committed we are to finding a way to break through and bring him home. And, of course, there is great relief that Brittney’s coming back. But I think what the Russians have heard from us … [and] our insistence that we find a way to resolve this situation and get him home where he belongs.”

TheGrio’s White House correspondent Gerren Keith Gaynor contributed to this report.

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