The top US hostage affairs official reflected on the conduct of the prisoner swap that led to the release of Brittney Griner on Sunday, saying the WNBA star immediately thanked the crew who returned her to the United States.
“When she finally got on the American plane, I said, ‘Brittany, you’ve had to go through a lot in the last 10 months. Here’s your seat. Feel free to unpack. We’ll give you your space. “, the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
“And she said, ‘Oh no. I have been in prison for 10 months and I listen to Russian, I want to speak. But first, who are these guys? And she walked right past me and went up to all the members of this crew, looked them in the eye, shook their hands and asked about them and got their names, making a personal connection with them. It was really amazing,” recalls Carstens. “And then later, on an 18 hour flight, she probably spent 12 hours talking and we talked about everything under the sun.”
Carstens, who led the mission to the United Arab Emirates, provided CNN with new details about Griner’s return trip. Griner, whom he described as “a smart, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person, but above all genuine”, appeared healthy and full of energy during the trip.
She was given the feeling, he said, that she would be going home that day, and it felt real to him the moment he was able to board the other plane and tell her that ” On behalf of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I am here to bring you home.
“At this point we have to do a little more choreography to get her on the plane, it usually takes about three minutes,” Carstens said.
Although he said Griner opened up about his ordeal during the trip, he declined to elaborate on specifics.
“It’s humbling. I’m so grateful that President (Joe) Biden gives me the chance to do this job. It’s also hard work. So when you get the chance to shake someone’s hand, it’s one of the few times you can celebrate a win,” Carstens told Bash.
“But know this, even if we welcome someone home, we still have work to do. As I shake Brittney’s hand and we walk to the plane and have this great conversation, my brain is already thinking of Paul Whelan. What can we do to get it back? What is the next step ? What is the strategy? How can we adapt?
The envoy said he spoke with Whelan, an American still detained in Russia, the day after the swap, and reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to bringing him home.
“I said, ‘Paul, you have this president’s commitment. The president is focused, the secretary of state is focused. I’m definitely focused, and we’re going to get you home. And I reminded him, I said, ‘Paul, when you were in the Marines, and I was in the army, they always reminded you to keep the faith’ and I said, ‘Keep the faith. We’re picking you up,” Carstens said.
He said he told Whelan that “it was a case of it being one or none”.
“We weren’t able to get you out of this round. We couldn’t make the deal with the Russians. But if we hadn’t closed the deal, Brittany wouldn’t have come home. There was no possibility of bringing you home at that time,” he told Whelan of the negotiations that led to Griner’s release.
The call between Carstens and Whelan on Friday lasted 30 minutes, a US official told CNN.
Carstens did not provide further details on the negotiation efforts to bring Whelan home, but said “options are still being evaluated.”
“We have to adapt to our times,” he said. “But here’s the thing I would like to leave you, you know, we have a continuous and open dialogue with the Russians. And we have a commitment from this president and my office, certainly, to bring Paul Whelan home.