Whelan family 'astonished' after Biden calls Griner's wife: 'What are we to think?'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The family of Michigan's Paul Whelan was "astonished" Wednesday  after President Joe Biden called the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner but did not also call the Whelans.

More:Griner appears in court, pleads guilty in Russia drugs trial

Both Whelan and Griner are imprisoned in Russia, but Griner was arrested in February, while Whelan has been held for 3.5 years. His family has sought a meeting with Biden for months and months, with his sister, Elizabeth Whelan, putting in four requests that have not been granted, she said.  

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022.

More: Russian media: Griner pleads guilty in Russia drugs trial

The Whelans suggested the disparate treatment is due to Griner's celebrity. The two-time Olympic gold medalist plays for the Phoenix Mercury and faces possibly 10 years in prison in Russia. 

"We are astonished at this development and feel badly for our elderly parents, and in particular for Paul," Elizabeth Whelan told The Detroit News on Wednesday. "Does this mean he is going to be left behind yet again?" 

She was referring to a prisoner swap negotiated earlier this year that led to Russia releasing Texan Trevor Reed. Reed, like Whelan, is a former U.S. Marine arrested after traveling to Russia as a tourist, but Reed was included in the prisoner swap, and Whelan was not

The White House said Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke Wednesday to Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, to "reassure" her that his administration is is working to secure her release, as well as the release of Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained. Griner's trial on drug charges began Friday in Moscow.  

Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre said Wednesday that Griner has been "top of mind" for Biden and that he receives daily updates about the status of negotiations to her release.

"I am crushed. If he wants to talk about securing Paul's release, he needs to be talking to the Whelans!" Elizabeth Whelan tweeted Wednesday. "What are we to think?!"

Biden also read Cherelle Griner a draft of a letter that he is sending to Brittney in Russia, according to a readout of the call. Griner had written to Biden in a letter delivered Monday, urging him not to "forget about me and the other American detainees."

"I'm terrified I might be here forever," she wrote to Biden.

Notably, Biden's call to Griner's wife, Cherelle, came after a national CBS interview she did Tuesday, arguing that the president needed to do more to help and noting that she had not yet heard from Biden.

Whelan's twin brother, David, said the episode says a lot about how a detainee's family resources matter. 

"I don't begrudge Ms. Griner and her supporters their success in getting the president's attention while he ignores so many other families," David said.

"It suggests the only way to get the White House's attention, under President Trump or President Biden, is to have celebrity and wealth and resources that most wrongful detainees do not have."

Paul Whelan awaits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020. He was sentenced to a 16-year sentence of hard labor at a prison camp in Mordovia. Whelan and his family have denied that he was spying.

David said his family will have to "wait and see" what happens, noting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told the family that Paul's case remains a priority. 

"At some level, we take that at face value," David said. "Unfortunately, if it unfolds that Ms. Griner is released and Paul isn't, again, we'll be faced with the same question we were with the release of Trevor Reed: Is the White House only working on the cases when the president takes the time to call? And how do families explain that to their loved ones?"

Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor at a prison camp in Mordovia. U.S. officials and lawmakers have long labeled his detention "wrongful" and pressed for his release.

In the wake of Reed's return, State Department representatives advised the Whelan family to "make more noise" or "be a squeakier wheel," David said.

He pointed out that they'd done 40 media interviews after Reed's release and that Elizabeth took part in a rally outside the White House. She also has made nearly 20 visits to Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers.  

"We cannot stop talking about Americans detained abroad. My constituent Paul Whelan has been wrongfully detained since the start of 2019 — his family is desperate for his return," U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Waterford, said Wednesday.

"I urge the Biden administration to continue to work to secure the releases of Paul and Brittney.”

Elizabeth's last high-level meeting with the Biden administration was a May 4 sit-down with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The family has received no new information in the two months since then, she said. 

She would even skip the meeting with Biden if instead his effort would be put into getting her brother home, she said. 

"I do want his staff to understand that there are many other detainee families who would also like this personal involvement in their cases," Elizabeth Whelan said," and that we can't be expected not to feel concerned when the attention to families is so uneven."

mburke@detroitnews.com