Jul 13, 2022

Brittney Griner's imprisonment.

Should we trade Griner for a Russian arms dealer?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

The potential Brittney Griner prisoner swap. Plus, a question about Joe Biden and some very important numbers on inflation and political polling.

WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner. Photo: Laurie Shull / WikiCommons
WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner. Photo: Laurie Shull / WikiCommons 

Quick hits.

  1. Inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index, rose 9.1% from a year ago, more than the 8.8% economists expected. It's the highest rise in annual rate of inflation since 1981, and the index rose 1.3% in the last month. (The numbers)
  2. Twitter has sued Elon Musk in hopes of enforcing his agreement to purchase the company for $44 billion. (The lawsuit)
  3. The Euro and the U.S. dollar reached parity yesterday for the first time in twenty years, meaning the currencies now have equal value after years of the euro being stronger. (The parity)
  4. A new wave of anger is sweeping Uvalde after security footage showed armed police talking, texting and milling around the hallways of Robb Elementary School as the shooter was inside a classroom. (The footage)
  5. In yesterday's January 6 hearing, the committee displayed an unsent draft tweet written before Jan. 6 from Trump, which would have encouraged supporters to march from his morning speech to the Capitol building. The panel claimed this (among other evidence) proves the day's events were not spontaneous. (The hearings)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Brittney Griner. American basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia over four months ago on drug smuggling charges for allegedly possessing cannabis oil in her carry-on luggage. She was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and has been in prison ever since. Last week, the 31-year-old Griner appeared in court and entered a guilty plea. She faces up to 10 years in prison. Her next court appearance is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, July 14. Her detention has already been extended an additional six months to December 20th, though some expect her trial to be completed in August.

Griner, a two-time gold medalist and star of the Phoenix Mercury, has played in Russia for several years during the WNBA off-season, which is common among women's professional players looking to make more money (playing overseas is often more lucrative than in the United States).

Initially, family and supporters avoided drawing attention to her detention, in hopes that it could be resolved quietly. But in May, the State Department reclassified her arrest as a wrongful detention and her case was handed over to a presidential envoy for hostage affairs, the U.S. government's chief negotiator.

“The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner,” Elizabeth Rood, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said. “The practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad.”

Last week, Griner wrote a letter to President Biden pleading for help, saying she was terrified she might be stuck in Russia forever.

The detention comes at an all-time low point for U.S.-Russia relations. In the past, high-profile political prisoners have been held and exchanged in prisoner swaps. Griner's supporters are now hoping one more such swap will take place, and Russian news outlets have speculated she could be handed over in exchange for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, also known as the "Merchant of Death," who is being held on a 25-year prison sentence for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

In response to her story, many have debated how Biden should proceed, including whether the U.S. should work to free Griner through a prisoner swap. Below, we'll take a look at some of those arguments, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left mostly supports a prisoner swap, though some hope the U.S. would get more than just Griner.
  • Many say Biden should do whatever he can to free her.
  • Some say she must be freed, but concede the solutions are not obvious.

In Politico, Douglas Farah, who wrote a book about Viktor Bout (the Merchant of Death) said Joe Biden should take the deal.

"Bout provided tons of guns and ammunition to some of the most vicious warlords in the world and empowered them to carry out unspeakable atrocities," Farah wrote. "He is responsible for enabling murderous groups to kidnap and train thousands of child soldiers; use rape as a systematic method of terror and control; torture through the mass amputations of arms, legs, ears and lips; slaughter civilians, and help the Taliban take power in Afghanistan. Griner may have been carrying vape cartridges that were banned in Russia but not in much of the world.

"There is no parity in the negotiations or symmetry in the lives or actions of the two potential protagonists. But President Joe Biden should take the deal," Farah said. "First, Bout is a spent force who will be out of jail in a few years anyway. His business depended on personal relationships and trust among the parties. After being out of the business for more than a decade, Bout has neither of those left in the shadowy world in which he once operated. Second, Bout needed access to a global network stretching from Afghanistan to Europe, Africa and South America. That network has morphed through several generations of new actors, markets and gatekeepers. Bout has no currency in that world now."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board called for Griner to be freed and criticized the pay gap in U.S. sports that compels our women athletes to work abroad.

"We don’t know if Griner brought contraband into Russia or if she’s being framed by an adversarial government with an unjust legal system," the board wrote. "At this point, it really doesn’t matter. This punishment does not fit the alleged crime, and it’s clear that Griner is essentially a political hostage. She must be freed. The U.S. State Department has deemed Griner 'wrongfully detained,' an official designation that means the government will work for her to be released rather than wait for her case to play out in the Russian legal system. The federal government uses the term when it has information indicating that an American’s arrest overseas was invalid or that they will be treated unfairly in a foreign justice system.

"And there is plenty of reason to fear that Griner will not be treated fairly," they added. "She is a lesbian in a country with an anti-LGBTQ government. She faces trial in a legal system where prosecutions almost always end in conviction. She is an American in a country the United States is punishing with economic sanctions for its brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine. Negotiating her release, though, is far from simple. Conceding to Russian demands risks the possibility that more Americans could be taken hostage. Not conceding leaves Griner suffering in a Russian prison... It’s understandable that the U.S. government would want to minimize publicity to gain a stronger hand in negotiations with Russia... What’s not understandable is that pay for professional athletes in this nation is so lopsided that it has driven women to seek opportunities in dangerous corners of the world."

In Slate, Fred Kaplan said the exchange would be far from equal, but it might still make sense.

"The last few paragraphs of a long story about Griner’s plight in Sunday’s New York Times suggest that an exchange wouldn’t be so improper or improbable after all," Kaplan wrote. "The article quotes Shira Scheindlin, the former judge who presided over the Bout trial, as saying that a swap might not be a bad idea—as long as Russia freed not only Griner but also Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested on espionage charges in 2018... Bout himself 'was not a terrorist in my opinion,' Scheindlin said— 'he was a businessman.' But under U.S. law, 25 years was the minimum sentence for someone convicted of selling arms to terrorists, so she had no choice.

"Scheindlin’s view is notable: If the judge who sentenced Bout now believes that it wouldn’t endanger national security to let him go after 11 years of time served, that could give Biden more political leeway to trade his freedom for Griner’s, whose plight has become a major priority for the administration," Kaplan said. "Biden and Putin have a deeper interest in getting these prisoners released—which may prompt one or the other, or both, to raise the price for their hostages. The makings of a trade are here and plausible. Whether it happens is another matter."

What the right is saying.

  • The right is mostly opposed to swapping Griner for Bout, arguing that we shouldn't reward Russia for her detention.
  • Some say Griner bears some responsibility for breaking Russia's laws.
  • Others on the right say Biden should work to free her, and it's a sign of weakness that he hasn't been able to.

The Washington Examiner editorial board said "don't dance to Russia's hostage waltz."

"Russia is using American detainees, many of them innocent, as hostages — bargaining chips to release convicted criminals and spies in U.S. prisons," the board wrote. "Washington should adopt the same approach it applies to terrorist groups who take Americans hostage: When faced with aggression, exert increased pressure... Americans are being detained and given long, punishing sentences not because they committed serious crimes but because Putin's government views them as useful bargaining chips... Putin's regime views Griner, a high-profile athlete who is both black and openly lesbian, as a valuable foreign policy asset. Russian officials can demean Griner for her race and sexuality without significant domestic backlash while putting extra pressure on the Biden administration to make concessions to secure her release in a prisoner exchange.

"Biden must also not allow Russia to believe that a trade for Bout or any other Russian is on the table," the board said. "Instead, the president should employ the same strategy he has applied in response to Russian aggression in other domains, such as cyberwarfare and Ukraine. Washington should seize more Russian government- and oligarch-affiliated funds. It should also increase sanctions on all those affiliated with the Russian criminal justice system. If even mid ranking officials, prosecutors, and judges from the Russian courts, Investigative Committee of Russia (its federal prosecution agency), and Ministry of Internal Affairs cannot easily vacation abroad or move money around foreign accounts, then the Kremlin's appetite for hostage taking will wane. The key is to make the Kremlin pay for its gamble in a manner that incurs direct pain instead of creating a political benefit."

In The American Conservative, Micah Veillon said Griner’s imprisonment should inspire newfound appreciation for American government.

"Bout received his 25-year sentence in 2012, where prosecutors described him as 'among the world’s most successful and sophisticated arms traffickers' who delivered weapons to groups he suspected were going to kill Americans. Trading Viktor Bout, 'Merchant of Death,' for Brittney Griner, WNBA player, seems like a lopsided deal. That’s not just my opinion, but the opinion held by some DOJ officials as well," Veillon wrote. "Those advocating for Griner’s release have made some rather preposterous claims. Take, for instance, Cari Champion at CNN who said, 'If she’s not free, we’re all not free. It’s everyone’s responsibility.'

"Excuse me, what? We’re all not breaking Russian laws right now. Whether or not her potential sentence is “just,” she did break the law in Russia. Further, that conception of just is our conception of just, not Russia’s. Which brings me to my last point: Brittney Griner protested the national anthem in 2020, claiming 'I personally don’t think it belongs in sports,' and that it is 'a song that didn’t represent all Americans when it was first made.' ... Perhaps Griner’s time in Russian jail will inspire a newfound gratitude for our government, our national anthem, and our Anglo-American heritage, which provide her the freedoms she now no longer enjoys. Hopefully it will make her rethink breaking Russian laws, too."

In National Review, Jack Wolfsohn said Biden's failure to release Griner is another sign of weakness.

"According to the White House Press Office, Biden told Cherelle [Griner's wife] that he is 'working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible.' The president read Cherelle a draft of his letter to Brittney, which he plans to send today," Wolfsohn wrote. "While it is good that Biden is finally taking steps to secure Griner’s release, he should have taken action long ago. Speaking to the media on Monday, Griner’s coach made a good point: 'If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?'

"Griner, who says she voted for Biden, should have been home by now," Wolfsohn said. "Biden’s record of freeing Americans detained abroad falls far short of Trump’s. During his time in office, Trump brought home more than 50 Americans from 22 countries. Today, 55 Americans are being detained abroad. Representative Jim Jordan (R., Oh.) tweeted in mid-June, 'Everyone knows President Trump would have negotiated Brittney Griner’s release by now.' Jordan may or may not be right, but whether it’s Americans stuck in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal or detainees in Russia, it appears President Biden cannot be relied on to perform this most essential mission: bringing Americans home."

My take.

This is one of those days where I'm very, very glad I'm not the president.

A prisoner exchange is one of the most difficult calculations I can imagine having to make as the leader of a country like ours. You literally have to weigh the value of one person's freedom against another’s, and you have to do it knowing such a valuation could have long-lasting ripple effects.

In this case, I actually don't think the question of releasing Bout is that complicated. Most of the people closest to his case — from the judge who prosecuted him to the author who spent years writing about him — seem to believe he's been rendered toothless, and that releasing him is rather low risk. Bout's power as an arms dealer was in his connections, his ability to travel the globe freely and to do so without recognition. If he were released from U.S. custody, he would never have any of those things again, and he'd be a fool to even try to resume his former life.

More concerning to me is the precedent it would set. Perhaps we're already there, given Griner's detention, but the last thing we want is for Russia to believe every high-profile American it detains can be traded for a criminal of their own. As many have pointed out, we still don't even know if Griner actually possessed any drugs — we just know that it is smart for her to plead guilty since that usually helps people like her get out of jail more quickly in Russia.

Still, my view is that a simple swap of Griner for Bout would be an abject failure of the Biden administration’s negotiating team. It's okay to do everything we can to get her home, and we should, but the fact Russian media (and now U.S. media) are trumpeting the potential release of Bout is an opportunity to get more. We should let him go, but we should do it for the best possible deal in return. Hopefully, that means Paul Whelan, an American wrongfully detained on bogus espionage charges in Russia since 2018, comes home with her.

Even in a world where Griner was in possession of cannabis oil, she should be freed. She's been playing in Russia for years, helping elevate the women's game there, getting paid handsomely, and melding two worlds that could really use it right now. Russia also has an opportunity here to show the world that it isn't the draconian place many critics say it is, and that they wouldn't imprison an American star who has embraced their own leagues for a "crime" that amounts to a misdemeanor in most places in America (and the world).

Whether they do or don't, the months in prison and the use of Griner as a pawn should push other athletes (and actors) to reconsider the merits of cultural or athletic engagement with authoritarian regimes like Russia.

In many ways, sending our stars to Russia or China is a great way to spread the best of American values — those of democracy or individual liberty. But the risks, as we can see now, are also monumental. Alyssa Rosenberg made this argument well, writing that we don't just risk the literal lives of our stars — we also see too many having to compromise their integrity and dignity for a paycheck.

"If the optimistic logic of American cultural exports held true, Griner’s Americanness and star status should have protected her," Rosenberg said. "But the Russian government’s decision to arrest and prosecute Griner reveals a blunt calculation: Americans value Griner more than Russians ever could. And the Putin regime can use her as leverage in its showdown with the United States without provoking domestic disgruntlement."

It's a realistic assessment of where things stand. And we should all take it to heart.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You don't have to agree — just reply to this email and write in. If you're a paid subscriber, you can leave a comment.

Your questions, answered.

Q: So what can we do about Biden’s age and his declining functionality? We don’t want Kamala to move up [to] the Presidency (I believe most people would agree with me). Do we have any reasonable path forward?

— Craig, Plano, Texas

Tangle: Even if you believe Biden is "declining," I don't really think there is much to do. There will be another election in two years, and based on everything his staff says, there seems to be a consensus that he has what it takes to serve right now. If that changes, I'm sure their tunes will change, but I wholly expect Biden to finish his term.

As I said yesterday, I think there is a middle ground here. One can hold that Biden has what it takes to be president today and to complete this term, while also believing it’s apparent he should not run again in 2024. I happen to be one of those people. If that changes, given how much this administration has leaked to the press, I'm sure we'll hear about it.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

We're witnessing a political realignment in real time, Axios's Josh Kraushaar writes. According to new polling from Siena College, Democrats now have a bigger advantage among white college graduates than they do with nonwhite voters. Republicans, meanwhile, are building an increasingly multiracial coalition of working class voters, using inflation as an appeal. For instance, Democrats hold a 20-point advantage over Republicans among white, college-educated voters, but are statistically tied among Hispanics. Republicans are also boasting their most diverse class of candidates ever for the 2022 midterms. President Biden's approval rating sank to 33% in the poll. Axios has the story.


  • 34%. In May, the percentage of Americans who said they had heard "nothing at all" about Brittney Griner's detainment.
  • 60. The number of Americans detained wrongfully abroad, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.
  • 29 of 75. The number of Republican House targets that have a Hispanic population above 15%.
  • 11.2%. The increase in gas prices in June, before declining over the last few weeks.
  • 15%. The increase in superbug infections in U.S. hospitals during the pandemic, according to a new CDC report.

Have a nice day.

A single mom in Texas received an unexpected $4,000 tip from a good Samaritan who had just had some luck of her own last week. Chelsea Bell Lantrip said she was bartending at Chances Dance Hall in Cleburne when two women she'd never seen came into the bar and ordered the whole house a round of drinks. What Bell thought was a normal transaction turned into something quite different when the woman paying tipped her $1,000, which left Bell in tears. When the woman saw her reaction she raised the tip to $2,000, and ultimately left her a $4,000 tip. "I didn't believe it until it went through the credit card machine, I still didn't believe it until it hit the bank," Bell said. NBC News has the story, including how Bell plans to use the money to support her son who is starting college in the fall.

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