White House Official Roger Carstens Details Brittney Griner’s First Moments of Freedom

She waited 10 months to see a friendly face. When she finally did, she wanted to talk.

It was the first thing Roger Carstens, the Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, noticed when he arrived in Russia to meet WNBA star Brittney Griner and take her home. “When she finally got onto the U.S. plane, I said: ‘Brittney, you must have been through a lot over the last 10 months. Here’s your seat. Please feel free to decompress. We will give you your space,’” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on State of the Union. “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?”

He described how Griner went to talk to everyone aboard the plane, inquiring about their lives and getting to know them. They then chatted for the entirety of the 10-hour flight, an experience that encapsulated her humanity and was a striking phenomenon to see for someone in captivity for nearly a year, Carstens said.

“I was left with the impression that this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person,” he said. “A patriotic person, but, above all, authentic. I hate the fact that I had to meet her in this manner, but I actually felt blessed having had a chance to get to know her.”

It was the first detailed account of Griner’s release since the historic prisoner swap on Thursday, in which U.S. officials traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the athlete, who was convicted on drug charges for transporting a marijuana vape. The move came after an intense pressure campaign on the White House from activists, politicians, and Griner’s wife to secure her release.

Carstens also noted the dismay at the continued imprisonment of Paul Whelan, a former Marine accused of spying before his arrest in 2018. He was later sentenced to a 16-year prison term in 2020.

He said efforts to secure his release were still ongoing, describing the American approach as “exciting and interesting,” but he refused to explain what the exact approach was.

“We usually have to keep our cards close to our chest,” Carstens said. “But are there cards?” Bash asked, inquiring about the criticism the White House has faced over trading a convicted arms dealer for Griner instead of Whelan.

“There’s always cards. The options are always being evaluated,” He said. “We have to adapt at times. But here’s the thing I’d like to leave you with: We have an ongoing, well, open dialogue with the Russians. And we have the commitment of this president and my office, certainly, to bring Paul Whelan home.”

As for Griner, Carstens said she was undergoing medical evaluation in Houston, but she was otherwise “full of energy” and “looked fantastic.”

He refused to get into what they spoke about, however. “I’d hate to steal her thunder, as it’s her story to tell.”

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