The top U.S. hostage affairs official reflected on Sunday about executing the prisoner swap that led to Brittney Griner’s release, saying the WNBA star immediately thanked the crew who brought her back to the United States.
“When she finally got on the American plane, I said, ‘Brittney, you must have been through a lot in the last 10 months. Here’s your place. Feel free to decompress. We’ll give you your space,” Roger Carstens, presidential special envoy for hostage affairs, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
“And she said, ‘Oh no. I have been in prison for 10 months now, listening to Russian, I want to talk. But first of all, who are these guys?’ And she went right past me and went to every member of that crew, looked them in the eye, shook their hands, and asked about them, and got their names, and made a personal connection with them. It was really great,” recalls Carstens. “And later, on an 18-hour flight, she probably spent 12 hours just talking and we talked about everything under the sun.”
Carstens, who led the mission to the UAE, gave CNN new details about Griner’s journey home. Griner, whom he described as “an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person, but above all, authentic,” appeared healthy and full of energy during the trip.
She got the feeling, he said, that she was going home that day, and it felt real when 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’m here to take you home.”
“At that point we have to go through a bit more of the choreography to get her on the plane. It usually takes about three minutes,” Carstens said.
While saying that Griner talked about her ordeal during the trip, he declined to go into details.
“It’s humiliating. I am very grateful that President (Joe) Biden gives me the opportunity to do this work. It’s also a painful job. So when you get the chance to shake hands with someone, it’s one of those rare moments when you can celebrate a win,” Carstens told Bash.
“But know this, even though we welcome someone home, we still have work to do. So as I shake Brittney’s hand and we go to the plane and have this great conversation, my brain is already thinking about Paul Whelan. What can we do to get him back? What is the next step? What’s the strategy? How can we adapt?”
The envoy said he spoke to Whelan, an American still trapped in Russia, the day after the swap, and reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to bring 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’ll 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 believing. We’re coming to get you,” said Carstens.
He said he told Whelan that “this was a case where it was one or none.”
“We couldn’t get you out of this round. We couldn’t close the deal with the Russians. But if we hadn’t made the deal, Brittney wouldn’t have come home. There was no way to take you home right now,” he told Whelan of the negotiations that led to Griner’s release.
The conversation between Carstens and Whelan on Friday lasted 30 minutes, a US official told CNN.
Carstens did not provide additional details about the negotiation efforts to bring Whelan home, but said “the options are always being evaluated.”
“We have to adapt to the times,” he said. “But here’s what I’d like to give you, you know, we have an ongoing, open dialogue with the Russians. And we have the commitment from this president and my office, sure, to bring home Paul Whelan.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Brittney Griner’s first name in two instances.