For 293 days, Cherelle Griner prayed, pleaded and pressed for the safe return of her wife. Since February 17, Brittney Griner had been held in Russian custody, separated from the family, team and country she loves and represents.
On Thursday morning, Cherelle sat next to the president of the United States in the Oval Office and together, they learned the news: Brittney Griner was free, safe and finally headed home.
December 8 ended a harrowing, emotion-filled time — a test of hope. It also marked the beginning of a new and uncertain journey for the Griners.
“It’s through hardship that character is revealed, and over the last nine months, we have seen the best of so many,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said in a statement. “Throughout this ordeal, BG has carried herself with courage, grace, and grit, and President Biden … kept his word and did what was necessary to bring her home. We are forever grateful for his follow-through on that commitment.”
Reporting and interviews with a senior White House official authorized to speak on background reveal the details that led to the day the Biden administration had been focused on for months, a promise fulfilled to a family and a nation.
In June, U.S. officials went to Russia through established channels to communicate with them about Griner, who had been declared a wrongful detainee by the State Department the month before, and former Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained in 2018 on charges of espionage and has been serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia. The official said the United States made a “substantial offer” involving arms dealer Viktor Bout, who ended up being part of the final exchange.
At first the administration said they “weren’t getting traction” on their offer. On July 4, Griner penned a letter to the president — a personal plea for help.
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote.
The next day, a letter signed by 1,200 prominent Black women pressuring the administration to take action was delivered to the White House. Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who had been working as senior adviser to the president for 10 days, recalled an off-the-record Zoom meeting where top-level officials met with the group for an hour to answer questions and address concerns. The meeting demonstrated the administration’s commitment to securing Griner’s release, Bottoms said.
“When he said that it mattered to him to bring Brittney home, to her wife, privately, and publicly, he meant it,” she said.
The Biden administration ramped up the pressure in July by making the offer to release Bout public, hoping to get the ball rolling and to move things forward, the official told The 19th.
Griner’s third wedding anniversary in June and 32nd birthday in October came and went. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the administration continued negotiations. They talked about the case publicly. The fairly new White House Press Secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre — herself a queer, Black woman — mentioned Griner’s case and the president’s commitment to securing her release frequently from the podium.
Meanwhile, the administration continued to work behind the scenes on Griner and Whelan’s release. Other offers were floated, the official said. Other categories of detainees were proposed. But according to the administration, “those conversations were not really met with any sort of reaction or engagement in a good faith way, by Russia.”
Negotiations continued to stall through most of November until Russia made it clear they would be interested in a very specific deal: to trade Griner for Bout.
It was the only option. According to an administration official: “There wasn’t any sort of other combination on either side.”
The administration is actively continuing to work to secure Whelan’s release, which is why officials can still only say so much about the details of how Griner’s freedom was brokered. It’s not clear if or to what extent Griner’s celebrity or gender is a factor in why she was the one Russians agreed to, and the administration declined to comment on this.
According to the official, “in the last couple of weeks” it became clear that they had a choice to “either bring one American home or not.” Roughly a week ago, Biden approved the one-for-one deal and officials began lining things up to execute the plan.
Within the last 72 hours, Griner was moved from the penal colony, where she had been sentenced to serve nine years, to Moscow, the official said. On Wednesday, a special envoy for hostage affairs who was in frequent contact with the Whelan family traveled to his sister’s home to meet with her and share the news that while the United States would be able to bring Griner home, the Russians were unwilling to negotiate for Whelan.
At around the same time, Griner boarded a flight to the United Arab Emirates as Bout left Indiana, also bound for the UAE.
Early Thursday morning, Cherelle Griner arrived at the White House for what she believed would be a meeting with an assistant to the president and National Security Council adviser Jake Sullivan.
Instead, she was taken to the Oval Office, where Biden informed her of the operation underway. Not long after, Griner’s plane touched down and the president and Cherelle received the news together that Griner was in U.S. custody.
According to the official, Griner was able to speak to the president and her wife, who were in the room with the vice president, secretary of state, national security adviser and others. Cherelle was also able to step out of the Oval Office for a private moment with Griner. Within the hour, Biden and Cherelle were at the podium announcing the good news.
“It’s been a pretty remarkable 48 hours here,” the official said on Thursday.
On Friday, Griner landed in San Antonio, where she was reunited with Cherelle. Griner will be offered voluntary medical and mental health care, as well as specific support services as she navigates the trauma of the last nine months, as well as her reentry.
While some detainees can enjoy anonymity, Griner’s will be recovering in the public eye, which could present additional challenges.
People sent “thousands” of emails to the administration advocating for Griner’s release, the official said. For Bottoms, Griner’s return is a reminder of a phrase used often in the Black community: Trust the process.
“So many people were upset and didn’t think BG mattered, that she had been forgotten,” Bottoms said. “Even when we don’t always know what’s going on and we think more should be happening, it’s often happening behind the scenes and we have to be patient. He would not rest until he got Brittney home.”