WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden spoke by phone Wednesday with Cherelle Griner, the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, and read her a letter that he plans to send the basketball player while she remains detained in Russia.
“The president called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible,” the White House said in a statement that also singled out Biden’s efforts to bring home Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals “wrongfully detained or held hostage” in Russia. “He also read her a draft of the letter the president is sending to Brittney Griner today.”
The White House would not disclose what Biden’s letter says. Biden was joined in the call by Vice President Kamala Harris. Whelan, a former Marine and security director, who is also detained in Russia, is serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction.
More:‘He takes this to heart’: Biden has read Brittney Griner’s letter, White House says
The president “offered his support to Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and he committed to ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to bring Brittney home,” the White House said.
Biden is facing increasing pressure to help Griner, who has been held in custody in Russia for 139 days following an arrest on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team. Nearly 1,200 prominent Black women signed a letter this week urging Biden to “make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely and to meet with Brittney’s wife Cherelle immediately.”
Biden’s letter is in response to a hand-written letter from Brittney Griner’s representatives that was passed on to the White House Monday expressing fear that she might stay in prison in Russia forever. In her letter, she called on Biden to get her and others who are detained in Russia home.
″As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote. “Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore.”
The 31-year-old Griner – a 6-foot-9, two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury – has been detained in Russian prison since Feb. 17, when authorities apprehended her at an airport near Moscow and accused her of carrying hashish oil in vape cartridges. Her arrest came one week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Griner’s trial started last Friday, and her detention was extended another six months to Dec. 20. A guilty verdict could carry a sentence of 10 years. Fewer than 1% of Russian defendants are acquitted, according to the Associated Press.
More:Phoenix Mercury coach says Brittney Griner’s detainment would be resolved ‘if it was LeBron’
Cherelle Griner, in a Tuesday interview on CBS, said it was “very disheartening” that Biden had not yet responded to Griner’s letter. “I will not be quiet anymore,” she said.
Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard has criticized the U.S. response to Griner’s detainment, arguing if Griner were a male athlete like NBA star LeBron James, she would be back home. Nygaard said Biden calling Cherelle Griner was “fantastic news” in an interview on MSNBC.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the president read Griner’s letter and “takes this to heart.”
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have had previous other calls with Cherelle Griner including this past weekend. Biden has directed his national security team to remain in regular contact with the Griner family, according to the White House, to provide updates on efforts to secure Brittney Griney’s release “as quickly as possible.”
Contributing: Rebecca Morin, Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison