Ex-national security adviser says Russians were willing to free Paul Whelan under Trump

Former President Trump’s ex-national security adviser said the Russians appeared committed to releasing Paul Whelan and another imprisoned American to improve relations between Washington and Moscow following a meeting in October 2020.

Robert O’Brien, former national security adviser under Trump, told The Hill that the Russians reneged on the deal that would have freed Whelan and Trevor Reed after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. 

“Once we lost the election, the Russians lost all interest” in talking with the Trump administration, O’Brien said. 

Biden last week announced a prisoner swap freeing WNBA star Brittney Griner in exchange for infamous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, but the administration insists Moscow has treated the case of Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who has been held in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges he vehemently denies, differently.

Republicans heavily criticized Biden for not securing Whelan’s release, but Trump said on Sunday he turned down a deal while in the White House to release Whelan for Bout, widely known as “The Merchant of Death,” saying he wouldn’t have freed Bout for “a hundred people.”

Elizabeth Whelan told The Hill that Trump’s statement “was a surprise and not a welcome one” and that the Whelan family was unable to have meaningful contact with Trump’s National Security Council after O’Brien’s predecessor, John Bolton, left his position. 

O’Brien said that he felt he secured a commitment from Russian National Security Adviser Nikolai Patrushev to release Whelan and Reed, a former U.S. Marine arrested in Russia about a half-year after Whelan, in exchange for scheduling summits between Washington and Moscow that the Kremlin sought. 

Patrushev had met with O’Brien in early October 2020 in Geneva, but O’Brien said there was no discussion of a prisoner swap or the release of Bout. 

“Without getting into the details, there were further summit meetings the Russians wanted to have that would have required improvement in relations,” O’Brien said. “And my position was, if you want to improve relations with us, you cannot keep Whelan and Reed.”

Russian authorities detained Reed in 2019 for allegedly assaulting a police officer during a drunken incident that he says he doesn’t remember. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Reed was ultimately released in a prisoner swap in April of this year in exchange for a Russian citizen, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been serving out a 20-year sentence on drug charges. 

Zach Schonfeld contributed to this report.

Tags Brittney Griner Donald Trump Joe Biden Nikolai Patrushev Paul Whelan Paul Whelan Robert O'Brien Russia Trevor Reed Viktor Bout Vladimir Putin

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