National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby defended the Biden administration’s prisoner swap of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for American WNBA player Brittney Griner.
Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” with host Martha Raddatz, Kirby responded to bipartisan criticism of the exchange, specifically reacting to Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) remarks calling it a “deeply disturbing decision.”
“He would have gone free anyway in 2029,” Kirby said in response. “He wasn’t serving a life sentence.”
Raddatz pushed back on his statement, saying, “that’s a long way away.”
“It’s six years away,” Kirby replied. “And nobody’s doing backflips over there about the fact that Mr. Bout is a free man six years earlier than he would have been.”
"Nobody’s doing back flips over there about the fact” Viktor Bout was released early, WH's John Kirby tells @MarthaRaddatz.
“If Mr. Bout decides to go back to his previous line of work, then we’re going to do what we need to do to hold him accountable.” https://t.co/vY0BbWFHCJ pic.twitter.com/lNl9HSBVv2
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) December 11, 2022
Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport after being caught with marijuana vaping materials and sentenced to nine years in prison in August. Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to a designated foreign terrorist group to be used to kill Americans.
Kirby insisted, “we’re going to protect our national security” while Bout is free.
“If Mr. Bout goes back to his previous line of work, then we’re going to do what we need to do to hold him accountable and protect our interests.”
President Joe Biden has been slammed for the deal as many Americans are upset that former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan remains detained in Russia. Whelan has been jailed since 2018 on espionage charges that the U.S. government says are baseless.
Sen. Menendez released a statement last week saying, “The Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equivalence between the Brittney Griners of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘Merchant of Death.’”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) called the one-for-one exchange a “big win for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin” and said that Biden “left a Marine behind.”
Raddatz pressed Kirby on critics who said American negotiators weren’t “tough enough.” Kirby responded, “They weren’t in the room. They weren’t on the phone,” and added that negotiators pushed for the release of both Griner and Whelan.