A growing number of Republican lawmakers are criticizing President Biden for freeing a Russian arms dealer to secure WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release, and for failing to free former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in the deal.
Biden on Thursday morning announced Griner was returning to the U.S. after she spent nearly 10 months in Russian custody, in exchange for the U.S. releasing infamous arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The administration had also sought the release of Whelan, who was arrested in Russia in 2018 on spying charges that he vehemently denies, but Biden on Thursday said Moscow is “treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s.”
Republicans quickly issued statements expressing relief at Griner's release while condemning the president for snubbing Whelan. Many of the GOP lawmakers also expressed worry the deal would incentivize Moscow to imprison Americans in the future for leverage.
"The Biden administration has allowed Viktor Bout, a dangerous arms dealer who was convicted of conspiring to kill American law enforcement, to walk free,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the House Armed Services Committee ranking member, said in a statement.
“This move to appease Vladimir Putin will only encourage further hostage taking by Russian security forces. While I welcome the release of Brittney Griner, I cannot help but think about Paul Whelan — as he has apparently been abandoned by the Biden administration,” Rogers added.
Biden said on Thursday his administration will "never give up” on securing Whelan's release.
Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence on charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, kill U.S. employees, transfer and use of anti-aircraft missiles and support of a designated terrorist organization.
He has been accused of running massive arms shipments to sanctioned regimes in African and Middle Eastern countries, earning him the nicknames “Merchant of Death” and “Sanctions Buster.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who introduced impeachment articles against Biden last year, said the swap marks another reason to push for his removal from office.
“Biden just returned the ‘Merchant of Death,’ an international arms dealer convicted of conspiring to kill Americans, to Putin and left former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained for over four years, to rot in a Russian prison,” wrote Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House.
“Biden's now aiding both sides of the war,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who will succeed Banks in the role, wrote in a retweet of Banks’s post.
Whelan himself spoke with CNN on Thursday from Russia, saying he was happy that Griner was released but adding he felt "greatly disappointed" that more had not been done to secure his freedom.
“My prayers are with Brittney Griner and her family as they heal from this,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) wrote on Twitter. "I hope Brittney continues to use her platform to keep the pressure to bring former Marine Paul Whelan home. Leaving Paul in Russia to Putin's whim would be a disgraceful abdication of Biden's leadership.”
Scott's home-state colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), tweeted, “It is a bitter pill to swallow that Mr. Whelan remains in custody while we release the ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout back to Russia.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed relief at Griner’s release while criticizing the continued detainment of Whelan and Marc Fogel, an American teacher detained in Russia for allegedly possessing 17 grams of medical marijuana in violation of Russian law.
“Unfortunately, the Biden Administration’s handling of this situation leaves behind other Americans, like veteran Marine Paul Whalen and teacher Marc Fogel,” Rubio wrote.
“What’s more, Putin and others have seen how detaining high-profile Americans on relatively minor charges can both distract American officials and cause them to release truly bad individuals who belong behind bars.”