National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby declared Sunday that “there was never a choice” between WNBA star Brittney Griner and U.S. former Marine Paul Whelan in the controversial prisoner exchange with Russia.
Kirby’s comments follow days of speculation and outrage after Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was released from federal prison in exchange for Griner, while Whelan remains imprisoned at a labor camp in Russia’s Mordovia republic.
NBC News was forced to issue an embarrassing correction after initially reporting that President Biden could have received Whelan instead Griner, writing that “the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan — or none.” Later, the article was edited to read, “The Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of Griner or no one after different options were proposed.”
A correction was added, noting that “an earlier version of this article misstated the choice the Biden administration was given over hostages. It was to swap for Griner or no one, not a choice between Griner or Whelan.”
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The White House has insisted that Russia is treating Whelan differently because he is accused of espionage, and that the U.S. was given the opportunity to get Griner back or no one at all.
Kirby responded to NBC News’ reporting on “Fox News Sunday,” telling anchor Shannon Bream that he can unequivocally say that there was never an option between Whelan or Griner.
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“There was never a choice posed by the Russians,” he said. “It was only Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout. They treat Paul differently, Shannon, because of these sham espionage charges. He is put in a special category by the Russians. And try as we might and believe me, Shannon, we did right up until the very end, we were making efforts to try to get both of them out. There was just no way to get there. So it was either make this deal now and at least get one of them home, and keep up the efforts to get Paul home and that’s where we are right now.”
Kirby also pushed back at criticism over freeing Bout, who convicted in 2011 for conspiracy to kill Americans, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization. Kirby pointed out that Bout had been scheduled to be released in 2029 before the deal was made.
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“Nobody over at the White House is doing backflips of joy that he is walking the streets, but this was the deal we can get and now is the moment we could get it,” Kirby said. “We’re obviously going to look after our national security going forward and Mr. Boot has choices to make, and if he chooses to get back into that line of work then we’re going to do everything we can to hold them properly accountable as we have in the past.”