On Friday, December 2, Elizabeth Whelan was at home on Chappaquiddick, off Massachusetts, when she received a text message from a State Department official—a representative from the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs—asking when she might be available for a visit. He had news concerning her youngest brother, Paul.
“I thought, Okay, this is either one of those routine check-ins or something’s up and it’s probably not good news,” Elizabeth told me. Five days later, the official (whom she declined to name) arrived at her home. “It turned out to be the latter.”
It has been nearly four years since Russian authorities arrested Paul Whelan in Moscow on charges of espionage. Since then, the 52-year-old Michigan native has been held in a Soviet-era prison, battling poor health while pleading his innocence of a crime that Russia has refused to provide evidence he committed. On that Wednesday evening, the State Department official had not come to tell Elizabeth that her brother was finally on his way home. He had come to tell her that in exchange for the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, President Joe Biden had secured the release of Brittney Griner, and that although Biden had pushed for Paul Whelan’s freedom as part of the deal with Russia, only the WNBA star, in just a short time, would be on a plane back to America.
“It’s like you see this tunnel in front of you that has just gotten longer,” Elizabeth said of that moment. “There is still no light at the end of that tunnel. You have no idea where the light is.”
From across the kitchen table, the official answered as many of Elizabeth’s questions as he was able. “There were people at the White House and State Department who were willing to talk to me that evening, you know, to explain further, but I was not up for talking to them,” Elizabeth said. She wanted officials to focus on getting Griner home safely. The next day, after the exchange for Bout on a tarmac in Abu Dhabi, Elizabeth agreed to speak with Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I didn’t want apologies for the situation; I’m looking for plans and actions,” she said of the call.
In announcing Griner’s release, Biden explained that Paul Whelan had not been included because, “sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.” Elizabeth told me she understood the administration’s position; on Thursday, her family put out a statement saying the White House had “made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home.” But naturally, she was frustrated: Griner’s homecoming marks the second time in fewer than three years that the United States has secured the freedom of an American detained in Russia while leaving Paul Whelan behind. In that time, Elizabeth, a portrait artist by trade who, before her brother’s arrest, had not considered herself especially political, has drained her own bank account to travel to and from Washington, demanding answers from lawmakers and administration officials as to when her brother will be free. But this past week, her frustration was compounded by the fact that Paul’s situation, like so much else in American life today, became intensely politicized, especially among Republicans—many of whom, Elizabeth told me, couldn’t be bothered to take her calls when Donald Trump was in the White House.
“It just really is distressing to me that people can’t do the math and realize that Trump was the president when Paul was arrested—and that he was the president for the next two years,” she said.
Such people would appear to include Trump himself: On Thursday, the former president went on Truth Social to blast the exchange of Bout—the “Merchant of Death,” as the arms dealer is nicknamed—for Griner alone as “an unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!” “Why wasn’t former Marine Paul Whelan included in this totally one-sided transaction?” Trump wrote. “He would have been let out for the asking.” At this Elizabeth can’t help but laugh. In all the time her brother was detained while Trump was in office, she said, “I don’t think President Trump ever even said Paul’s name.” (At one point, from inside a glass cage during a court appearance in Moscow, Paul Whelan, a self-professed Trump voter, called on the president to tweet about his case, but Trump never did. Spokespeople for the former president did not answer requests for comment for this article.)
Trump wasn’t the only figure who appeared to take a sudden interest in Paul Whelan following Griner’s release. After years of “begging people” to take notice of him, the Whelans were stunned to find cable news and social media replete with opinions about his plight. Many Republican critics of the Griner-Bout exchange accused Biden of acting under pressure from progressive activists to prioritize the case of a Black, gay woman—an athlete who once protested the national anthem, no less—at the expense of a former Marine. (Griner was detained in February after Russian customs officials found cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage; she was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony outside Moscow on charges of drug smuggling.)
Tucker Carlson built a segment around Griner and Whelan on Thursday evening: “There was only room for one in the lifeboat, and the Marine got left behind,” the Fox News host declared. “Well, why did they make that choice? Well, you should know that Whelan is a Trump voter, and he made the mistake of saying so on social media. He’s paying the price for that now.” In a Newsmax appearance, Representative Troy Nehls of Texas claimed that Trump would’ve had Paul Whelan “home in a week.” Nehls’s colleague Matt Gaetz of Florida tweeted: “I bet when Paul Whelan was learning the skills to be a Marine he never thought that his country would have prioritized him more if he had a jump shot.” Donald Trump Jr. weighed in as well. “The Biden Admin was apparently worried that their [diversity, equity, and inclusion] score would go down if they freed an American Marine,” the former president’s son tweeted on Thursday morning.
Biden supporters, in turn, were quick to highlight the unsavory particulars of Paul Whelan’s military career, which culminated in a bad-conduct discharge (one-step less serious than a dishonorable discharge) after he received a court-martial conviction on charges “related to larceny.” Across the internet, Griner’s newfound freedom was crudely recast as a referendum on another man’s soul. And this “broke my heart,” Elizabeth told me. But it was the “armchair quarterbacking” by prominent Republican lawmakers and pundits that made her angry.
For the Whelans, the time between Paul’s arrest and the end of Trump’s presidency was marked largely by hopelessness, confusion, and false starts. According to Elizabeth, after Paul was detained in December 2018, no one from the administration reached out to the family with guidance; by early 2019, only Jon Huntsman, then the U.S. ambassador to Russia, and career officials at the embassy in Moscow had communicated a commitment to securing Paul’s release. Back in Washington, it had essentially been on Elizabeth—who, in her 57 years, had yet to dabble in statecraft—to convince her government to care. Her obstacles, she discovered, were twofold: One, as I wrote in the fall of 2019, Paul Whelan, with his shoddy military record and citizenship in four countries (the U.S., U.K., Ireland, and Canada), was not the quintessential all-American victim. The circumstances of his arrest, moreover—he had been at a hotel in Moscow for an American friend’s wedding when, as the FSB would allege, a Russian citizen handed him a USB drive containing classified information—left many on Capitol Hill wondering if Paul Whelan in fact was a spy. (He and the U.S. government, including the CIA, have consistently denied these charges.)
What quickly became clear, however—both to the Whelans and to Ryan Fayhee, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s counterespionage division who had begun representing the family pro bono—was that the “spy question” masked a possibly deeper logic behind the stonewalling. As a senior congressional official told me at the time, the “whole circus with Russia” that had characterized the 45th presidency from the start had caused lawmakers, political appointees, and even career officials “to say, ‘I’ve got enough problems. I don’t want to be out there exposed on this.’”
It was for this reason that Elizabeth decided, in the fall of 2019, to bring on David Urban, a corporate lobbyist who had managed Trump’s successful 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania and counted a number of powerful administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a fellow West Point graduate, as close friends. “Dave was able to shepherd Paul’s name into halls of power that I could never have accessed,” Elizabeth told me. Nevertheless, except for a June 2020 statement denouncing Paul’s conviction, Pompeo rarely referenced Paul publicly, and privately, the Cabinet official “never engaged with us in any way whatsoever,” Elizabeth said. (Pompeo did not respond to requests for comment sent to a press account for his Champion American Values PAC.)
Ultimately, other than Huntsman (who resigned in 2019) and the former national-security adviser John Bolton (whom Trump fired around the same time), Elizabeth said, “we never got a sense that anybody was fired up to get Paul home.” Bolton told CBS this week that Trump had in fact rejected an opportunity to exchange Paul for Bout, “for very good reasons having to deal with Viktor Bout.”
This is not to say that Elizabeth—or her brother—are at all satisfied with where things currently stand. “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release,” Paul Whelan told CNN on Thursday. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.” And Elizabeth told me she and her family had felt nothing short of “betrayed” by the U.S. government this past spring, when Biden officials had given them “only a few minutes’” advance notice of a prisoner swap for Trevor Reed, another American citizen and former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019. She learned the news at the same time as the rest of the country, more or less, with no quiet interval to process that Paul, as his family understood it, had never even been part of the negotiations. “I had a very, very low time after that,” Elizabeth admitted. (A State Department spokesperson said at the time that the government was in “regular contact” with the Whelans and would continue to work on Paul’s case. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.) “I went to the U.S. government at every level after that and said, ‘Please, don’t do that again. We deserve being called.’ And evidently, this time, there was no question.”
Overall, she feels the current administration’s approach—to Paul, to Russia relations more broadly—has been a change for the better. It was early on in Biden’s term that Blinken, for example, began publicly discussing Paul’s case. And for Elizabeth, Reed’s release served to confirm that the president was taking seriously the cause of American citizens imprisoned in Russia. “We have battled our own government as much as we have battled the Russian government over the years,” she said. “And it has been a relief, more recently, to be doing less battling on the homefront and more battling against Russia.” On Thursday, Biden said his administration was “not giving up” in securing Paul’s freedom.
Emotionally, physically, financially: “What does one compare it to?” Elizabeth mused of the past four years. But then there is Paul, of course, the one halfway around the world, behind bars, still waiting. She takes some solace in how, after this week, more Americans than ever seem to know her brother’s name. She just hopes they continue to say it.