White House distances self from Richardson's trip to Russia, likely to help free Griner, Whelan

Richardson, a former diplomat, has a center that focuses on bringing home U.S. detainees, but the details of his recent mission remain unclear.

Updated: September 16, 2022 - 11:08am

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The Biden administration is distancing itself from former diplomat and New Mexico Democrat Gov. Bill Richardson's recent visit to Russia in a likely attempt to free U.S. detainees Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

An unnamed, senior Biden administration official told CNN about Richardson's trip that anyone "who's going to Russia is going as a private citizen and they don't speak for the U.S. government."

In addition, State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Thursday reiterated the administration's position that Americans should not travel to Russia because of concerns over the country's invasion of Ukraine.

He also said the White House has been in contact with The Richardson Center, which was founded by its namesake, but declined to comment on his travels. One of the stated, primary goals of the center is "negotiating for the release of prisoners and hostages held by hostile regimes or criminal organizations."

Price said that President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have "established an appropriate channel that these issues would be worked through."

"That is the channel that we have been using this time," he said. "Through that channel, as the secretary said, standing here a couple months ago now, we made a significant offer to the Russians. We have followed up on that proposal repeatedly. Those discussions are ongoing."

Price was apparently referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the statement.

A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richardson has previously assisted with negotiations to bring home Americans detained abroad. Earlier this year, he was part of the release of Trevor Reed from Russia. 

Richardson traveled to Moscow with a small team this week to meet with Russian officials, CNN reported. 

Griner, an WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist, was detained in February for traveling into Russia with vape cartridges containing hashish oil. She pleaded guilty in August but insisted she did not intend to break the law. However, she was sentenced to nine months in jail. 

Whelan, a former Marine, has been detained in Russia since 2018 for a 16-year prison sentence over spying charges that he has denied.  

The Biden administration says Griner and Whelan are wrongfully detained. 

 A potential prison swap has reportedly been proposed by the Biden administration.

\The possible exchange included convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan. While officials have confirmed publicly that an exchange was offered, they have not explicitly stated that it included Bout.