Vittert: Biden, Putin both got win with Griner-Bout swap

On Balance with Leland Vittert

(NewsNation) — International arms dealer Viktor Bout landed in Russia on Thursday, and WNBA player Brittany Griner was expected to touch down in San Antonio, Texas, by the end of the same day.

They crossed on a tarmac in the United Arab Emirates earlier Thursday in a prisoner exchange. The deal brokered by President Joe Biden left behind former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in Russia.

Whelan is still serving a multiyear sentence for spying — something he denies, as does the American government. Remember, he’s an American Marine, left behind.

For Biden, this is a huge win — that may be all you need to know about the Brittney Griner trade. But on its face the swap makes no sense. Why trade an international arms dealer for a WNBA player who smuggled a vape pen? Why give up our only bargaining chip with Russia?

As I said, this is a huge win for Biden whether you agree or disagree with the decision. Agree or disagree, it’s a win for America. Agree or disagree, it’s a fair trade.

This isn’t about Griner and Bout. It’s really about two men, two of the most powerful men on Earth: Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden. They both needed a win, and they both got one.

Look at what happened through that lens, and everything makes sense, including why the White House really doesn’t care about the backlash from leaving a U.S. Marine behind. They don’t. The backlash won’t last long, and the political payoff is huge.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told the truth about the politics.

“Brittney is more than an athlete, more than an Olympian,” Jean-Pierre said. “She is an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particular LGBTQ Americans and women of color.”

In other words, Griner’s intersectional points made her worth more to the Biden administration than the backlash for leaving Whelan behind. In fact, her intersectional points made it worth giving up the last leverage we have over Putin.

Say what you want about Biden’s staff, but they understand their base and what’s important to their base.  That’s not me telling you. Biden made the deal, and actions speak louder than words. 

Back to Putin and Biden. They both have to get something tangible; neither can be seen by his home population as losing.

Lets look at the trade. Here are the facts, which are indisputable.

Griner is a professional basketball player who was charged with drug possession and sentenced to nine years.

Bout is a Russian arms dealer who was charged with conspiracy to kill Americans and conspiracy to sell weapons to terrorists. He was serving a 25-year sentence. The world’s most notorious Russian arms dealer, nicknamed “the merchant of death,” smuggled weapons from eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Again, Putin gets something really huge. Politically, not only does he bring home a Russian folk hero, but, practically, he gets a really good arms dealer. Arms dealers are useful to dictators, especially when they’re at war.

What does Biden get? A celebrity, a political win for his base. He knew it would come at a cost. Russian media released footage of the exchange, and Whelan isn’t in the video. Biden knew Republicans would cry bloody murder about that.

Think about the timing. It was done on a Thursday morning, and the White House didn’t plan a single other event. Plus, they get the Friday news cycle in a shocking turn of events. The president also doesn’t have anything planned tomorrow. Plus, today is the day after Pearl Harbor Day, so they don’t leave Whelan behind on Dec. 7.

Biden knows there won’t be a long-term political cost. Leaving Whelan behind doesn’t appear to be a tough decision, just think about it.

Nobody cared during the midterms that we left people behind in Afghanistan. Even Paul Whelan’s brother appeared to admit defeat.

“Unfortunately for Paul, in the past when there have been spy cases, both sides would then exchange real spies,” Paul Whelan said. “In this case you, have a tourist who isn’t a spy, so it’s a matter then of the American government I guess finding some equivalency.”

If the merchant of death doesn’t qualify as parity wth an accused spy, who does?

America just gave away its best bargaining chip with Russia. Remember, Putin came up through the ranks of the KGB — he’s a spy master. He knew exactly what he was getting and exactly what he was giving Biden.

We report the facts here. Now you decide who got the better deal. Whether it was good for America, or just good for Biden politically.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not of NewsNation.

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