The top U.S. hostage official reflected on the prisoner swap that led to Britney Griner’s release Sunday, saying the WNBA star immediately thanked the crew for returning her to the United States.
“When she finally boarded the US plane, I said, ‘Brittany, you must have been through a lot in the past 10 months. This is your seat. Please relax. We’ll give you space,'” responsible Roger Carstens, the presidential special envoy for hostage affairs, told CNN’s Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“She said, ‘Oh no. I’ve been in jail for 10 months and I’m listening to Russian now and I want to talk. But first, who are these people? Then she walked past me to every member of the crew. In front of the members, looking them in the eye, shaking hands, asking how they were doing, getting their names, making a personal connection with them. It was amazing,” recalls Carstens. “Later, she spent maybe 12 hours of the 18-hour flight just talking and we talked about everything under the sun.”
Carstens, who led the delegation to the UAE, gave CNN new details about Greiner’s journey home. Greener, whom he describes as “a smart, warm, compassionate, humble, funny man, a man who is patriotic, but above all, authentic,” looks healthy and full of life on the road.
He said she had a feeling she was going home that day when he boarded another plane and told her “On behalf of President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I’m here to take you home.” .”
“At that point, we had to do a little more choreography to get her on the plane, which usually took about three minutes,” Carstens said.
While he said Griner spoke of her ordeal during the trip, he declined to elaborate on the details.
“It’s humbling. I’m very grateful to President (Joe) Biden for giving me the opportunity to do this job. It’s also a painful job. So when you get the chance to shake someone’s hand, it’s you celebrating a victory One of those rare moments,” Carstens told Bash.
“But know that even when we welcome someone home, we still have work to do. So when I shake hands with Britney and we’re going to have this great conversation on the plane, my brain is already thinking about Paul Wye. Ran. What can we do to bring him back? What’s the next step? What’s the strategy? How do we adapt?”
The envoy said he spoke with Whelan, an American still detained in Russia, the day after the exchange and reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to bring him home.
“I said, ‘Paul, you’ve got this president’s commitment. The president’s focus, the secretary of state’s focus. Of course I’m focused, and we’re going to bring you home. I reminded him, and I said, ‘Paul, when you’re in the Navy Marines, when I was in the Army, they always reminded you to keep the faith,’ and I said, ‘Keep the faith. We’re coming for you,'” Carstens recalled.
He said he told Whelan, “It’s an all-or-nothing case.”
“We can’t get you out of this round. We can’t make a deal with the Russians. But if we don’t make a deal, Brittany isn’t coming home. There’s no chance to take you home at this point,” he told Whelan about the resulting Negotiations for Griner’s release.
A U.S. official told CNN that the Friday call between Carstens and Whelan lasted 30 minutes.
Carstens did not provide further details on negotiating efforts to bring Whelan home, but said “alternative options have been evaluated.”
“We have to adapt to the times,” he said. “But this is what I want to leave you with, you know, an ongoing, open dialogue that we have with the Russians. We have a commitment from this president and my office to, of course, bring home Paul Whelan .”