Fresh off striking a tentative deal to avoid a rail strike that would have caused major travel disruptions across the country, President Joe Biden plans to meet Friday with the families of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
The announcement has fueled speculation that the Biden administration may have reached a deal to bring Griner and Whelan home or be closing in on securing their freedom.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Moscow this week to discuss Griner and Whelan’s release.
However, the Democrat did so against the wishes of the White House, which had earlier successfully discouraged former NBA star Dennis Rodman from taking the trip.
Cherelle Griner told reporters that the family asked for Richardson’s assistance.
“We asked Gov. Richardson and the Richardson Center to help us, and have been working with them for a while,” Cherelle Griner said during a television interview.
Earlier this year, the former governor helped the negotiations between America and Russia that led to the freedom of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed.
“We are encouraged to hear that they are having meetings in Moscow,” Griner stated.
The White House didn’t want news of the planned meeting to give false hope of the detainees’ release.
“One of the things that the President wanted to make clear is, and one of the reasons he’s meeting with the families, is that he wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day, on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre said.
“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.”
Earlier Thursday, Biden celebrated the tentative deal he struck with rail carrier unions, noting that negotiators had remained awake and talking for 20 hours before reaching an agreement.
Griner and Whelan’s families hope Biden uses those deal-making skills with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“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,” Jean-Pierre said.
During the summer, the administration offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a deal to secure freedom for Griner and Wheeler.
Biden reportedly signed off on the deal to include Bout, despite his reputation as the “Merchant of Death.” He’s currently serving a 25-year US prison sentence.
Despite speculation, the White House cautioned that the administration and Russia haven’t agreed on anything.
“We would love to be saying today that we have news about Brittney and Paul coming home today,” Jean-Pierre stated. “That is, unfortunately, that is not where the negotiations are at this time.”