Republicans and right-wing media figures have found a litany of reasons to be mad about the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was freed in a prisoner swap Thursday after nearly a year in the Kremlin’s clutches.
Much of their rhetoric centers on the bigoted assertion that Griner ― a Black, gay athlete who has been vocal about police brutality and racial justice ― is anti-American for being outspoken in politics, and therefore unworthy of rescue by the Biden administration.
Ex-President Donald Trump had one of the most aggressive attacks Thursday, writing on his social media platform Truth Social that Griner is “a basketball player who openly hates our Country” and that it was a “‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA” to free her in exchange for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer.
His comments were a not-so-subtle reference to Griner’s participation in protests against police brutality. Following the 2020 police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, joined many professional athletes in calling attention to their deaths by refusing to stand for the national anthem during games and calling for the anthem not to be played at all.
Trump wasn’t the only GOP figure to harp on Griner’s protests Thursday.
“I sure hope she’ll stand for the national anthem,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) told reporters.
“I wonder if Brittney Griner will sing and stand for the National Anthem now that the United States has compromised national security to free her?” Tomi Lahren, a prominent Fox News personality, tweeted, adding in a bizarre jab about women’s athletics: “I guess it pays to be a whiny celebrity who plays sports (even if no one watches).”
Others suggested Griner was less worthy of release than Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018 on accusations of being a spy. The Russians, U.S. officials explained Thursday, were unwilling to negotiate on Whelan, whom they consider to be a more important prisoner. President Joe Biden said Thursday that Russia’s reasoning is “totally illegitimate” and that efforts to free Whelan are continuing.
But none of the GOP figures complaining about Griner’s release acknowledged those nuances.
“Where is U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly held by Russia for far longer?” Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) tweeted. “Celebrities over veterans?”
“Why wasn’t former Marine Paul Whelan included in this totally one-sided transaction? He would have been let out for the asking,” insisted Trump, who stayed silent on Whelan throughout his presidency.
“So [Biden] just traded an enemy who smuggles guns and helps shoot Americans for an American who smuggles drugs and shoots basketballs, all while a former US Marine, Paul Whelan, rots in a Russian prison,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) tweeted. “Let that sink in.”
The barb he snuck in calling Griner a drug smuggler is excessive and misleading. Griner was detained at a Russian airport in February for carrying vaporizer cartridges containing less than a gram of hash oil, not for operating some sort of international drug-running scheme.
Whelan and his family said Thursday they were surprised and disappointed U.S. officials weren’t able to secure his release alongside Griner’s, but they did so without attacking her or making unfair comparisons.
“I was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon,” Whelan, who is four years into a 16-year sentence for espionage, told CNN. He also acknowledged that Russia is treating him differently than Griner and put him “at a level higher” in negotiations.
His family also gave a statement to Fox News, which ran a lengthy opinion story demanding Griner start standing for the national anthem, saying they applaud the Biden administration for making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
Some GOP leaders HuffPost spoke to Thursday pushed back on their colleagues’ rhetoric.
“Very pleased she’s coming home. Pleased for her, her family, our country,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “They’d like to bring home an arms dealer. It’s symbolic of their country that that’s what they consider important to return.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also praised Biden’s decision and acknowledged Whelan’s return as a separate matter.
Ernst said: “I’m very thankful that she’s coming home. Any time we can get an American home, that’s good. We paid a very heavy price to get her released, and there’s still no path forward on Paul Whelan.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.