Trump turned down Paul Whelan and Viktor Bout prisoner swap years ago, John Bolton says

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton has revealed that Donald Trump turned down the chance to secure Paul Whelan’s release two years ago – despite the former president claiming to be outraged over the Biden administration’s deal which freed Brittney Griner but left the US marine in Russian custody.

Mr Bolton, who was the national security adviser under Mr Trump for 17 months from 2018 to 2019, told CBS that the Trump administration had the opportunity to trade Mr Whelan for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in 2018.

“The possibility of a Bout-for-Whelan trade existed back then and it wasn’t made, for very good reasons having to deal with Viktor Bout,” he said.

Mr Whelan - a US, Canadian, British and Irish citizen who served in the US Marines from 2003 to 2008 - was arrested in Russia in December 2018.

Mr Whelan, now 52, was working as a director of global security and investigations for BorgWarner and made many business trips to Russia over the years. At the time of his arrest, he was attending a friend’s wedding.

Russian authorities claimed that Mr Whelan was working as a spy – claims that both Mr Whelan and US authorities have vehemently denied – and he has been held behind bars in Russia ever since.

In 2020, Mr Whelan was convicted of espionage offences and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

For the last four years, his family and advocates have been urging the US to negotiate his release.

While his detention by Russia came during Mr Trump’s presidency, the Republican – who enjoyed a close allegiance with Russian President Vladimir Putin – ignored the matter entirely.

A review of a public database of Mr Trump’s tweets and public remarks by The Independent revealed that he did not utter Mr Whelan’s name even once during the countless public appearances and media availabilities he participated in when his Oval Office workplace was just steps from the White House briefing room.

Mr Trump’s then-national security adviser Mr Bolton eventually took a meeting with Mr Whelan’s sister Elizabeth Whelan approximately six months after his arrest, on 16 June 2019.

Mr Bolton later wrote on Twitter that the meeting had been “productive” and said Russia had “produced no evidence” that the former marine had committed any wrongdoing.

That meeting marked the only public action from the Trump administration.

Even after Mr Whelan begged for help from the then-president in a June 2019 court appearance, Mr Trump continued to stay silent and failed to bring the issue up in a face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin.

Paul Whelan has been held in a Russian prison for four years (Moscow News Agency)
Paul Whelan has been held in a Russian prison for four years (Moscow News Agency)

On Thursday, hopes of Mr Whelan’s imminent release were dashed once again as the US confirmed a prisoner swap had been agreed between Washington and Moscow – exchanging WNBA star Ms Griner for Bout.

Mr Whelan was originally expected to be part of negotiations, with the US seeking to swap both him and Ms Griner for Bout.

But, Russia rejected the deal.

Despite his own refusal to take action to secure Mr Whelan’s freedom, Mr Trump blasted the Biden administration’s deal on his Truth Social platform and questioned why the marine was not part of the deal.

“Why wasn’t former Marine Paul Whelan included in this totally one-sided transaction? He would have been let out for the asking,” he fumed.

“What a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!”

Mr Biden insisted on Thursday that “we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan” and vowed to “never give up” securing his release, as the swap divided opinion across the country.

“Russia is treating Paul’s case differently,” he said, adding that “this was not a choice about which American to release”.

Mr Whelan told CNN he was “greatly disappointed” to learn he was not part of the prisoner swap, saying: “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

US officials announced on Thursday that Ms Griner, 32, was finally free from Russian prison after the Biden administration negotiated a prisoner swap with Moscow for notorious arms dealer Bout.

Brittney Griner is seen smiling on the plane as she heads back to the US (AP)
Brittney Griner is seen smiling on the plane as she heads back to the US (AP)

The WNBA star had spent the last 10 months in prison in Russia after being detained at an airport in February for allegedly carrying illegal cannibas oil in her luggage.

Footage showed the one-for-one exchange of Ms Griner and Bout taking place on the tarmac of a runway in the UAE on Thursday, following weeks of negotiations between Washington and Moscow.

On Friday morning, Ms Griner finally landed back on US soil for the first time in 10 months. A plane carrying the WNBA star landed at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio at around 5.30am ET where she will be examined and receive any necessary medical treatment.

Ms Griner’s ordeal began back on 17 February when she was stopped by Russian customs officials while travelling through the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. The Phoenix Mercury star played basketball in Russia in the WNBA’s off-season.

She was carrying two cartridges for personal use containing just 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil, according to court records.

The basektball star was taken into custody and charged with large-scale transportation of illegal narcotics – a charge that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Her detainment was largely regarded as a political move from Moscow, coming just days before President Vladimir Putin declared a full-scale war on Ukraine.

At her trial in July, Ms Griner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

On 17 November, she was moved to a penal colony in Mordovia.