Jeff Duncan: Brittney Griner's release comes at a cost

Dec. 9—U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said Brittney Griner's release from a Russian penal colony comes at a cost.

Duncan, whose district includes Edgefield and southwestern South Carolina, addressed the swap of Griner, a WNBA star, for arms dealer Viktor Bout in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Griner, 32, was arrested on Feb. 17 after Russian customs officials found vape cartridges with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. On July 7, Griner pleaded guilty to smuggling charges and, on Aug. 4, was sentenced to nine years in prison and a 1 million ruble fine.

Bout, 55, known as "the merchant of death," was arrested in Thailand in 2008 as the result of a sting operation and extradited to the United States. He was convicted of attempting to kill American officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles and attempting to aid a terrorist organization on Nov. 2, 2011. Bout was sentenced to the minimum of 25 years in prison.

Duncan said Griner's release comes at a cost and that Biden was endangering national security by releasing Bout and leaving behind former Marine Paul Whelan.

Whelan, 52, is a Canadian-born former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for spying in 2020.

"From the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, pushing reckless, inflationary spending and refusing to secure the border, to now cutting terrible deals with Putin, we see a consistent pattern of bad judgment from the Biden administration," Duncan said. "There's no possible way to spin trading an arms dealer for a woke professional athlete, and leaving the Marine behind."

A senior administration official said Thursday in a background call that there was never a choice between releasing Griner or Whelan. The official said the Russians treat Whelan's situation differently because he was convicted for spying and that they have rejected every proposal for Whelan's release. The official added there was a choice to bring one wrongly imprisoned American home or none.

Duncan added that he wondered if Griner would continue to kneel for the national snthem as many WNBA players did during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 or if she would "fall face down and kiss the ground of a nation that allows her to be free and affirms her freedoms of speech and protest."

"A nation that, in spite of her illegal activities and her anti-American protests, still came to her aid, brought her home, and restored her freedom (literally!)," Duncan continued.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.; and former President Barack Obama addressed Griner's release via Twitter on Thursday morning.

Graham said that while he appreciated and celebrated Griner's release from a Russian penal colony "on trumped up charges and facing an excessive sentence," Americans must not lose focus on the fact that Whelan remains unjustly held.

"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," Graham said.

Wilson offered congratulations to the State Department officials — President Joe Biden approved the exploration of a swap in late July — who worked to bring Griner home.

"It is long overdue that Paul Whelan be released after his 1,441 days of wrongful detention," Wilson said. "No American deserves to be wrongfully imprisoned abroad."

Obama said on Twitter he was grateful for Griner's "long-overdue release."

"Kudos to [President Joe Biden] and his administration for the difficult diplomatic work involved to make it happen," Obama said. "We're looking forward to having Brittney back home."