QUESTION: Thank you. And we go now to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who joins us from the State Department. It’s good to talk to you again. When we last spoke on Sunday, you suggested that the Russians were not yet prepared to release both prisoners, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. You said the other side gets a vote in this. Now that Viktor Bout has been handed over, what leverage does the United States still have?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well first, Margaret, it’s a good day because Brittney Griner’s coming home. I had the chance to be in the Oval Office early this morning with President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife. And to hear the two of them get on the phone and have that conversation – with Brittney free, out of Russia, on her way home – was something I won’t forget. And it’s just a reminder too that so much of what we do every single day it seems like is an abstraction, but it’s a reminder that it’s ultimately about real people, real lives, real futures. And it’s wonderful that Brittney and Cherelle and their families are able to pursue their lives now that she is free and coming home.
But as to going forward, look, I wish that Paul Whelan had been on that plane, too. We’ve been doing everything possible to bring him out. And just as back in April when President Biden’s secured Trevor Reed’s release from Russia, we wanted Brittney and Paul to be on that plane, too. They weren’t, but now Brittney is, and we will not cease until we get Paul home, too.
QUESTION: And Marc Fogel is another American whose wife is saying that she would have liked for him to have been part of a prisoner release. Is there a plan to release more Americans?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’re working around the world, including in Russia, to make sure that any American who is being unjustly detained comes home. And we’ve been doing this day in, day out since the beginning of this administration. The President has made, in many cases, the hard decisions required to bring them home. We’re doing that. I am not going to rest until we get everyone back that we possibly can.
QUESTION: And I know there are people around the world working on just that pursuit of bringing Americans home. What do you think actually changed in the last few weeks? Because you’ve been trying for months to get Brittney Griner released. What changed that made the Russians ready now to broker this deal?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, back in July I shared the fact that we put a significant proposal on the table with the Russians to try to get our people home, to get Paul, to get Brittney home. Ever since then we’ve been engaged with them in one way or another looking at different permutations to try to make that happen, and we got to the point where it was clear that there was an opportunity to bring Brittney back. The choice wasn’t between getting one American or the other back; it was – the choice before us was one or none. And the President decided that it was important to at least bring Brittney home now and continue to work on getting Paul back too.
QUESTION: Is there momentum coming out of this exchange at this particular very tense moment between the U.S. and Russia? Is there an opportunity here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, what we’ve demonstrated all along is that despite the challenges, to say the least, in the larger relationship, despite the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, we are able to work on specific issues, distinct interests that we have, to see if we can – if we can make progress. And so all along we’ve been engaged on trying to get Americans back who are being unjustly detained. There are other aspects of the relationship where we continue to have some contact, for example on arms control, and we’ll continue to do that as necessary to try to advance the American national interest.
QUESTION: But are we correct in understanding that this one-for-one swap was just a single transaction, that there’s not something more tied to it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes, that’s correct. This was about getting Brittney home. This is about getting unjustly detained Americans back to their families. That’s – that was the focus. It’s nothing more. It’s also nothing less.
QUESTION: Viktor Bout, the arms dealer who was swapped for Brittney Griner – and as I’m sure you know, there were federal law enforcement officials very involved with capturing him, with prosecuting him for trying to kill Americans, and then extraditing him from Thailand to the United States to make sure he was kept behind bars in this country – and there is frustration among so many of them as they see him just used in a transaction like this. How do you respond to those officials who worked to put him behind bars?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, it was totally unacceptable that Brittney Griner was behind bars herself and Paul Whelan remains behind bars. And that – my number one focus is on righting that wrong and ending that injustice.
In the case of Viktor Bout, these are hard decisions. And ultimately, those of us working for the President make recommendations, give advice. He’s the one who has to make the hard calls, and he made a hard call. Viktor Bout’s been off the playing field since 2008, which is a very good thing, and he served about half of his sentence. At some point in the years to come he was going to get out, and I’m glad at least that we were able to get Brittney Griner home.
QUESTION: He’s about 15 years into that 25-year sentence. And I know the past three administrations have conducted prisoner swaps, but one of the criticisms here is that Viktor Bout was so high profile and he was clearly of high interest to Russia. Brittney Griner is a celebrity, so she got a lot of attention. In this transaction, did you somehow up the price on the head of another American by showing that a swap like this, that Russia can get something it really wants if it just kidnaps and holds hostage the right American?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Two things, Margaret. First, as you noted at the outset, in any of these situations, unfortunately, the other side gets a vote, the other side gets a veto. And the Russians have used that as we’ve proposed different ways of doing this. Second, we can bring people home, as we did, and yet also work and take action to deter this from happening going forward in the future.
We’ve added new sanctions against those who engage in these kinds of practices, visa bans as well. We’ve put new warnings out to every American as they’re considering travel for specific countries that engage in these practices to try to warn them off. And one of the things that I’m working on is we now have a coalition of 60 countries that are determined to do more to end this practice going forward – that is, basically taking citizens hostage for political purposes, which is the case for both Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner. And that is a coalition that’s coming together and that we’re adding teeth to. So we need to do both at the same time; we are.
QUESTION: I want to make sure I ask you about a conversation Paul Whelan had today with another network, CNN. They spoke to him while he was in that Russian penal colony. He said he’s being treated differently than Brittney Griner and differently than Trevor Reed. Do you believe that Russia is holding on to him until they get a significant concession from the Biden administration?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, I can’t judge what Russia’s specific motives are and how it’s treating Paul Whelan or what it’s trying to do or trying to achieve. I spoke to his sister, Elizabeth Whelan, a short while ago. I have to say the Whelan family is remarkable, starting with Paul and his own courage but also in their incredible graciousness, especially in this time. What I told them and what I can tell you is we will continue to do everything possible to bring Paul Whelan home. We won’t stop until we do.
QUESTION: We will follow that. And I want to make sure I ask you – you brought up that there are dozens of Americans being held around the world. Right now, Emad Shargi, Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz are just some of the Americans being held in Iran. Is a hostage deal with Tehran still possible?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, what I can tell you is this: We are working on every unjustly detained American every single day, and irrespective of the relationship that we may have with the countries in question, irrespective of what’s going on more broadly with those countries, we’re working on these cases, including the cases that you cited. And for me, it’s a number one priority to bring Americans anywhere who are being unjustly detained, to bring them home, to get them back with their families. I have a card that I keep in my pocket. I’ve got the names of those Americans on that card. I’m working it; we’re working it every day.
QUESTION: But just to be clear here, those three that I named to you, those three Americans in Iran, is the deal to get them out dead now that the nuclear deal is frustrated, now that relations between the U.S. and Iran are in a very bad place?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: One of the reasons that we work hard to separate out the efforts to bring Americans home from any other aspect of our relationship is precisely to make sure that even if the other aspect of the relationship is in a bad place, there still may be an opportunity to bring our citizens home.
QUESTION: We’ll continue asking you about their well-being, and I know you’ll continue working on that. Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time today.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Margaret.
QUESTION: And I want to toss it – toss it back to my colleagues Elaine and Tanya in New York.