The Lord of War ‘has served most of time’: Pelosi defends releasing ‘Merchant of Death’ – who tried to arm the Taliban and sell missiles to down to US passenger jets – to bring Griner home and hints it’s the only ‘leverage’ Biden had
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrated the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russian detention during her weekly press conference
- Griner was swapped for ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer
- Bout was snared by the DEA in 2008 sting operation in which he thought he was selling arms to the FARC – Colombian rebels – to shoot down US passenger jets
- Pelosi defended the trade and said Bout was almost at the end of his sentence
- Before the swap he was due to be released from prison in August 2029
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has defended the Biden administration for exchanging notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner in a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia that left Marine veteran Paul Whelan languishing in a Russian jail.
In one of her last press conferences as Speaker of the House, Pelosi suggested that the White House had no other choice. The administration faces criticism for swapping the WNBA star for the former KGB agent who tried to arm the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Griner has been detained by Moscow since February on marijuana-linked drug charges, and was recently sentenced to nine years of grueling labor in a Russian penal colony.
Bout, 55, was snared by the DEA in a devilishly complicated sting operation in 2008 in which he thought he was selling arms to the FARC – Colombian rebels – to shoot down US passenger jets. He was the inspiration for the lead character played by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War.
The Biden administration had been under intense public pressure to get the celebrity basketball player out, against the backdrop of the worst diplomatic relations between the White House and the Kremlin since the Cold War.
Pelosi suggested at her weekly press conference that Bout, once nicknamed the ‘merchant of death,’ was the administration’s only ‘leverage’ to free her.
Biden has been put under scrutiny for his failure to secure the release of Whelan and other Americans including Marc Fogel.
The criticism was compounded by anger over Bout’s return to Moscow authorities. Republicans have attacked Biden for what they call a one-sided deal that has the potential of emboldening Vladimir Putin.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the U.S. government’s prisoner swap with Russia during her weekly press conference on Thursday
Asked about the GOP criticism at her weekly press conference on Thursday, Pelosi conceded Bout’s hostile reputation but claimed his American prison sentence was almost up.
‘Well, he has served most of his term is my understanding, the majority of his term,’ Pelosi said.
‘I agree with their characterization of who he is, he is bad guy. But the fact is that we wanted Brittney Griner freed and that’s the leverage that we had, to do just that.’
Bout was convicted of terrorism-related charges – including conspiring to kill Americans – in November 2011. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison the following April.
The arms trafficker’s release date was not meant to come until August 2029, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
As for Whelan, Pelosi said his continued detention was ‘of equal concern’ to the United States but defended the president by pointing to statements from the former Marine’s family that the administration made ‘the right decision.’
‘Everyone is fully committed’ to securing Whelan’s release, the House Speaker said.
‘Brittney [Griner] being a basketball star, and that her name was more famous to everyday Americans, but Paul Whelan is of at least equal concern to us – to have his freedom.’
She added that Whelan is now an ‘even larger priority.’
Biden confirmed Griner’s release via social media early on Thursday morning, sharing photos of the basketball player’s wife Cherelle inside the Oval Office.
The president said at the time that he’d spoken to Griner by phone and she was on a plane back to the U.S.
Griner, 32, was flown from Moscow to Abu Dhabi, where she and Bout were made to literally cross paths on an airport tarmac to rejoin their relevant delegations.
A senior administration official said Griner was ‘all smiles’ when she reached the Americans.
Whelan’s family said shortly before Biden delivered remarks on the prisoner swap that they are ‘glad’ for Griner’s freedom but that his continued detention is a ‘catastrophe.’
Indirectly addressing their concern, the president said from the podium: ‘This was not a choice of which American to bring home.’
‘We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,’ Biden said. ‘Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.’
‘And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.’
Biden said the White House remains ‘in close touch’ with Whelan’s family and commiserated with their ‘mixed emotions’ over Griner’s homecoming.
‘We’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release – I guarantee that. I say that to the family. I guarantee you,’ the president said.
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