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Biden to meet with families of Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan

Brittney Griner in Russian court in Moscow on July 27. (For The Washington Post)

President Biden on Friday will meet with the families of WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan, both of whom remain detained in Russia despite ongoing negotiations for their release, the White House said Thursday.

Biden will hold meetings at the White House with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre suggested the meeting did not mean there had been substantive developments in efforts to bring the two detainees home.

“He wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day and making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” Jean-Pierre said Thursday.

“While I would love to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer and we are bringing their loved ones home, that is not what we’re seeing in these negotiations at this time,” she added.

Griner has been detained in Russia since February on a drug-possession charge and faces 10 years in prison, while Whelan, a former Marine, was sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison in 2020 after being convicted of spying. In July, the United States made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to secure the release of the two Americans, but no agreement has been reached.

Jean-Pierre said Griner and Whelan were being wrongfully detained “under intolerable circumstances” and said the Biden administration had followed up on its offer repeatedly.

“As we have said, the Russians should accept our offer. They should accept our offer today,” Jean-Pierre said. “We will keep working diligently until the day we get to share that good news.

One family member was already scheduled to be in town and the president wanted to meet with both of the families on the same day.

In early July, Griner wrote a letter to Biden to implore him to continue working for her and others’ release.

“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,” Griner wrote in an excerpt of the letter shared by Wasserman, a talent agency that represents the Phoenix Mercury center.

“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,” she added. “Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D) was reported in July to have plans to travel to Russia to help negotiate the release of Griner and Whelan. Richardson is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations with a history of trying to negotiate the release of U.S. prisoners from other countries, including that of Otto Warmbier from North Korea.

On Thursday, Jean-Pierre would not confirm Richardson’s reported plans, only saying the White House had been in contact with the Richardson Center, a nonprofit organization founded by the former New Mexico governor that specializes in negotiating the release of political prisoners across the world.

“Private citizens attempting to broker a deal do not and cannot speak for the U.S. government,” Jean-Pierre said.

Jake Russell and Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.