White House 'not going to apologize' for releasing 'Merchant of Death' as critics rail 'bad deal'

Critics say Viktor Bout was too great a prize to give to Vladimir Putin

President Biden makes "no apologies" for releasing "Merchant of Death" Viktor Bout in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday, despite critics who say it was a poor deal.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the exchange to skeptical reporters during Thursday's briefing, saying the options were to either secure Griner's release or no one's. Critics have argued that Bout remains a dangerous man and was too great a prize to give to Russia.

"This was someone who had conspired to sell AK-47s that he knew would have been used to kill Americans — American drug agents. Law enforcement officials may not be happy with his release. What is the president's message to them and to others who say essentially that this was a bad deal?" a reporter asked.

Jean-Pierre acknowledged that immediate results in prisoner exchanges can feel "unfair or arbitrary" but ultimately defended the White House decision.

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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre holds the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre holds the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki, just outside Moscow, on Aug. 4, 2022.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki, just outside Moscow, on Aug. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

"The president felt a moral obligation to bring Brittney home. There was an opportunity to do that, and it was either Brittney or no one at all, and we are not going to apologize for that," Jean-Pierre said, adding officials would continue to negotiate the release of U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan.

Whelan has been in Russian custody the past four years and has 12 years of hard labor left on his espionage sentence.

Fox News' White House correspondent Peter Doocy later pressed Jean-Pierre on why the deal appeared to be so lopsided in favor of Russia.

"In this prisoner swap, why did Russia get such a better deal?" Doocy asked.

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"Here were our choices. Our choices were Brittney or no one at all — bringing home one American or no American at all," Jean-Pierre said.

"They gave up a professional athlete. We gave up a prolific arms dealer who was convicted of trying to kill Americans, who was called the 'Merchant of Death,'" Doocy countered.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

"The professional athlete is also an American citizen. So let's not forget that," Jean-Pierre responded.

"Paul Whelan is also an American citizen. We can do this all day," Doocy said.

Jean-Pierre said Biden would do everything in his power to secure Whelan's release, though Doocy pressed about how he could do that while refusing to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"We are still working to secure Paul Whelan. At this time, we were not able to make that happen, but that does not stop us. That will not stop us in making sure that Paul returns back home safely to his family," Jean-Pierre said, adding that negotiations take place through "other channels" than Biden himself.

Whelan's brother, David Whelan, congratulated Griner on her release in a statement Thursday but lamented the Biden administration's failure to release his brother.

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"There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen," David Whelan wrote.

"She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage. But how many more times do I need to write that?" he added. "Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated. I can't even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly four years of this injustice."