Cherelle Griner’s invitation to the White House on Thursday morning was to meet with national security adviser Jake Sullivan. This wasn’t her first trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but it was the first time officials didn’t work to lower her expectations before she got there.
Upon arrival, she was taken to the Oval Office and greeted not by Sullivan but by his boss, President Joe Biden. The deal is in progress, he told her. A minute later he received a phone call and together they heard the news: Brittney Griner returned to the United States in custody.
The call went to Griner, who was standing on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, wearing a knit cap over his newly cropped hair. President Biden speaks first.
“It’s Joe Biden,” he said, according to a White House official. “Welcome – welcome home.”
Cherelle Griner was then led to a private dining room, where she could speak to her wife – a free woman for the first time in 294 days – without Russian officials overhearing. And sometime in the early hours of Friday, she was supposed to talk. greeting his wife after she landed in San Antonio.
Government officials and sources close to Griner interviewed on Thursday described a hectic final chapter of Griner’s time in Russia.
For months, American officials have said privately and sometimes publicly that Russia will not participate in the negotiations. The United States offers to exchange convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, 12 years in prison with a 25-year sentence, to Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained by Russia on espionage charges for 4 years. But Russia has never shown a willingness to trade Whelan, several administration officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have been raising Paul Whelan’s case with the Russians since the earliest days of this administration,” a senior administration official said at a briefing.
A White House official told ESPN on Thursday that the US at one point offered to trade Bout directly for Whelan, who has 12 years left on his sentence.
“It’s a bad thing,” the White House official said. Russian officials say they consider Whelan a “different class of prisoner” than Griner or Bout. But officials said their Russian counterparts had not made any objections regarding Whelan.
From July until a few weeks ago, a White House source told ESPN, US officials did not make any more specific offers to Russia, because they did not want to corner themselves. Instead, the source said, officials were more general about the type of prisoners they might be willing to trade in.
US officials had hoped that Russia might be ready to negotiate in earnest after the November 8 midterm elections, knowing that Vladimir Putin’s government would not want to give Biden any major victory. any previous value.
Instead, Griner was transferred from the Moscow prison, where she had been held since February, to a penal colony, where officials and her family feared for her health and safety.
Maria Blagovolina, one of Griner’s two Russian lawyers, said on Thursday that her client’s life in IK-2 prison was not as bad as it could have been. “Honestly, she didn’t complain at all,” Blagovolina said. “Things could have been much worse.”
Watch some of Brittney Griner’s first shot videos after she boarded a charter plane and began returning home to the United States.
Most of the women at IK-2 worked during the day to sew uniforms, but the 6-foot-9 Griner was too tall to sit at a desk and her hands were too large to handle the needlework. Instead, she wears the fabric all day and says she enjoys the job, compared to what she could have done.
Blagovolina said Griner recently had the flu but is recovering.
Griner made a decision in the meantime, which came as a surprise to fans who watched her video on Thursday: Her signature hair is gone. Blagovolina said Griner cut it two Sundays ago and had told her lawyer she planned to do it to make life a little easier during the Russian winter. It is clear that Griner is preparing for a long way.
“It’s very cold there and every time she washes her hair, she gets cold and chills,” she said. “She should have waited until New Year’s Day.”
Within the past few weeks, administration officials say, Russia has finally put forward a proposal, saying it is willing to do a one-for-one Griner transaction for Bout. American officials say they believe the choice is either Griner or none of them, and Whelan will have to stay in Russia for the time being.
President Biden last week decided to make the deal. The administration took steps to avoid the mistake made in April when it traded to bring home American Trevor Reed without telling Whelans that Paul was not part of that deal. This time, a government official personally visited Paul’s sister, Elizabeth.
Blagovolina said on Monday she was told that Griner had been transferred to a Moscow prison, which was the most promising sign.
For the next few days, “complete silence,” she said. “It was stressful. We were worried for her – she didn’t have the glasses; she broke the glass and we don’t know if she’ll get the food.”
Thursday morning, the news arrived: Griner was on his way to the airport.
(A curious development on Thursday was an announcement by Saudi officials that Saudi Arabia helped broker the deal. Several administration officials said they were unaware of the Saudi government. Ut has any role in the negotiations.)
What happens next will be up to Griner. After her release, she becomes the legal guardian of her own destiny. After nearly 10 months being told when to get up, when to sleep, when to eat, when to work, while diplomats she has never met haggle over her freedom, the US government forced must respect her wishes legally.
The plan was for her to land in San Antonio and stay at Brooke Army Medical Center for observation. She may need medical and nutritional treatment, and her mental health will get more attention. The plan was to move her to a secure, private location when she was ready. She will receive advice from the government and from advocacy groups on the healthiest way to move on with her life. But the decisions will be hers.