White House says Biden read Brittney Griner's letter from Russia, won't say if he'll meet her family

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(WASHINGTON) — As WNBA star Brittney Griner appeals to Joe Biden for help in getting released from Russian custody, her case is a “top priority” for the president, according to the White House.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday that Biden read Griner’s handwritten letter, which was sent to the White House on Monday, and her note was “very personal” to him.

“I’m not going to share any personal interaction that I had with the president,” Jean-Pierre told ABC News when asked about Biden’s reaction.

“I just wanted to confirm that he did read the letter. And I will say again, this is very personal to him. Especially when someone writes a letter in such a personal way … we have made this a priority,” she added.

Jean-Pierre wouldn’t say whether Biden was going to respond to Griner’s letter.

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Griner personally reached out to Biden, urging him to help get her out of Russia — where she has been held for some five months for allegedly possessing hashish oil — according to her representatives.

In the handwritten letter from Griner, portions of which were made public, she expressed fears she will be held in Russia “forever.”

“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 to the president.

The athlete was visiting Russia to play basketball in the off-season when she was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport on Feb. 17 after being accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in the country.

Griner’s detention was extended repeatedly, most recently through Dec. 20, which is the expected length of her trial. If convicted, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison.

“It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate [the Fourth of July] because freedom means something completely different to me this year,” Griner wrote in her letter to Biden.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, previously told “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts in May that she would like to speak with the president.

“I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She’s a political pawn,” Cherelle Griner said. “So if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”

At Tuesday’s briefing, Jean-Pierre wouldn’t say whether the White House was considering a meeting with Brittney Griner’s family, but she said that both Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan have spoken to Cherelle Griner and the administration will keep “open communication and have very honest conversations with them.”

“I just don’t have anything to share on what communication the president’s going to have with Mrs. Griner and her family,” Jean-Pierre told ABC News when asked about a potential meeting. “All I can confirm is that he’s read the letter, and he’s making this a priority.”

Last Friday marked the first day of Griner’s trial in Russia.

The Phoenix Mercury star appeared in person at a courtroom in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, ABC News reported.

The U.S. government classified Griner’s case on May 3 as “wrongfully detained,” meaning the U.S. will more aggressively work to negotiate her release even as the legal case against her plays out, the State Department has said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began one week after Griner was detained. Some officials are concerned that Americans jailed in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing conflict.

Griner’s family and friends gathered at a vigil outside the Russian consulate in New York City ahead of her trial last week, calling on the U.S. to bring her home. Her next court appearance is on Thursday.

Leaders and players in both the WNBA and the NBA have also called for Griner’s release and raised awareness about her case, as have advocates.

The WNBA, which kicked off its 2022 season on May 6, is honoring Griner with a floor decal bearing her initials and jersey number (42) on the sidelines of all 12 WNBA teams.

The 6-foot-9 center won an NCAA title at Baylor in 2012; a WNBA title with Phoenix, her current team, in 2014; and gold medals with the U.S. women’s team at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton said he wants Biden and Blinken to arrange a trip for faith leaders to see Griner in prison as part of a prayer visit.

“After speaking with her wife last week, I am deeply concerned for Brittney Griner’s physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing,” Sharpton said in a statement on Tuesday.

“She deserves to see the United States is doing something for her, so she can find the strength as this show trial goes on,” he said.

The public campaign to free Griner escalated following the release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed in April, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange. Former Marine Paul Whelan has also been detained in Russia since 2019.

Jean-Pierre on Tuesday said that the Biden administration was working on both Griner and Whelan’s cases just as hard as it done to secure Reed’s freedom.

“We are going to make this happen,” she said.

An international prisoner swap potentially involving Griner, Whelan and convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout has been discussed, according to Russian media reports, but it’s unclear if there has been any substantial movement on the issue. Russian officials have also indicated that they want Griner to stand trial.

Asked about a potential swap, Jean-Pierre said she “cannot speak to any discussions” regarding the process of securing the release of any American detained abroad.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that secrecy is crucial to ensure that efforts to secure the release of Griner and others detained abroad are not jeopardized.

“While we update families — and certainly in broad strokes — on our efforts, it’s not something that we are in a position to speak to publicly in any detail,” Price told reporters on Tuesday.

“We do not want to do anything, we do not want to say anything, that would potentially jeopardize the chances of seeing an American released or that would delay by a single day, a single hour or a single minute the safe return of an American to her his family and loved ones back here,” Price added.

ABC News’ Shannon Crawford, Ben Gittleson, Molly Nagle and Tanya Stukalova contributed to this report.

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