White House casts doubt on claims that Trump administration tried to free Paul Whelan

The Biden administration is pushing back on claims by ex-Trump administration figures who have suggested Russia was willing to release former US Marine Paul Whelan before President Joe Biden was elected in 2020.

Mr Whelan has been held captive by Russia since 28 December 2018, when he was arrested on what officials there said were charges of espionage. Although members of Mr Whelan’s family were able to secure at least one meeting with Mr Trump’s then-national security adviser, John Bolton, in mid-2019, the former president never once mentioned Mr Whelan’s name during his time in office and Trump administration officials never made any concerted public push to draw attention to Mr Whelan’s plight or call for him to be freed.

The inaction by the ex-president and his administration has been given new attention in the days since the Biden administration successfully negotiated for WNBA star Brittney Griner to be freed in exchange for a Russian-born convicted arms trafficker, Viktor Bout. Republicans have suggested that Ms Griner was undeserving of being freed before Mr Whelan because he served in the US Marine Corps, and because she was held there on drug possession charges even though the US State Department described her as having been “wrongfully detained”.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump’s final national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told The Hill that his Russian counterpart had committed to freeing Mr Whelan and another US Marine Corps veteran held in Russia, Trevor Reed, in exchange for arranging a summit between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He further claimed that the offer was rescinded after Mr Trump lost the 2020 election to Mr Biden.

Mr Trump himself has also claimed that he rejected an offer to exchange Mr Whelan for Bout.

Asked about those claims by The Independent, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said he had no “visibility” into conversations between Moscow and the previous administration, but said the Biden administration had never had any indication that freeing Mr Whelan had ever been on the table.

“What I can tell you is that Mr Whelan was imprisoned under unjust false charges in 2018 during the previous administration, and ... since coming into office, we have made it a priority to secure his release. At no time in our efforts to get Mr Whelan released was it apparent to us that there was any flexibility by the Russians to trade Mr Bout for him,” Mr Kirby said.

The NSC spokesperson added that the Biden administration had tried “all kinds of different permutations” to make a prisoner swap for Ms Griner and Mr Whelan palatable to Moscow, but stressed that Russian officials have “made clear” that they consider Mr Whelan to be “in a different category” from Ms Griner because of the espionage charges they have held him on.