Why Isn’t Trump Talking About the American Jailed in Russia?
A president who takes pride in freeing U.S. detainees abroad has been strangely silent about Paul Whelan.
President Donald Trump has made a point of trying to get Americans detained abroad returned home to the United States. But with the detention of the former Marine Paul Whelan in Moscow on suspicion of espionage, Trump’s goal of bringing Americans home risks running headfirst into the perception that he will do almost anything to improve relations with Russia.
And strikingly, in the week since Whelan’s detention, neither Trump nor the White House has issued a statement about his arrest and subsequent indictment on espionage charges in Russia.
Former intelligence officials are skeptical that Whelan was in fact spying on behalf of the United States. His lack of diplomatic protection and checkered service record do not line up with American spycraft in Russia, where U.S. intelligence officers are accustomed to taking significant security precautions against that country’s vaunted intelligence apparatus.
But that hasn’t stopped Russian officials from arresting Whelan to use as a likely bargaining chip for a Russian national, Maria Butina, recently prosecuted in the United States for her role in infiltrating U.S. political organizations. A Russian lawyer for Whelan has publicly raised the possibility of a prisoner swap, likely for Butina.
So for now, Whelan remains detained in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison, where spies and dissidents were often imprisoned in Soviet days.
If the Kremlin is playing to Trump’s instincts as a deal-maker and hoping to engineer a swap, it has been slow to develop.
Daniel Fried, who served as the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under George W. Bush, said the silence from the White House was not necessarily indicative of a lack of concern and that there may be dialogue ongoing behind the scenes.
During his first two years in office, Trump has gone to great lengths to secure the release of Americans detained abroad and claims to have had 17 people released under his administration. The president has frequently tied the release of Americans to his diplomatic initiatives. When North Korea released Otto Warmbier in 2017 and three other detained Americans the following year, it served as the beginning of a diplomatic process that would culminate in a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
After Turkish authorities detained the pastor Andrew Brunson, the Trump administration levied harsh sanctions on that country’s steel industry, though the White House insisted it was for unrelated national security reasons.
Indeed, in his approach toward detained individuals, Trump has taken a highly transactional approach toward both Americans detained abroad and foreign nationals swept up in criminal investigations.
“They deserve credit for the people they’ve gotten released,” said James O’Brien, who served as the Obama administration’s special envoy to secure the release of Americans held hostage abroad. “The question I have is whether they’re developing strategies for each of these cases.”
While many presidents would be loath to intervene in judicial processes, Trump has even waded into investigations launched by his own Justice Department. Late last year, Trump told Reuters that he would be willing to intervene in the prosecution of the chief financial officer of Huawei, whom American prosecutors are attempting to extradite from Canada on charges that she defrauded U.S. banks as part of a scheme to sell banned telecom equipment to Iran.
But the Whelan case raises unique challenges for the Trump administration. His arrest came two weeks after Butina, a Russian gun enthusiast, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent, prompting speculation that the Russians may seek to trade Whelan for Butina.
Butina became a cause célèbre in Russia following her arrest, which may have also compelled the Russian authorities to retaliate against the United States.
Butina’s arrest and guilty plea came against the backdrop of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to boost Trump’s candidacy. The growing body of evidence that Russia interfered in American politics now poses a major hurdle for Trump, whose desires to improve relations with Moscow have been undermined by persistent questions about whether that desire is part of a quid pro quo for the assistance he received from Moscow.
A swap for a man thought to be falsely accused of espionage in exchange for a woman who has pleaded guilty to her role in a political conspiracy would inevitably invite charges that Trump has yet again acquiesced to the Kremlin.
U.S. diplomats are now scrambling for information about Whelan’s case. Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, visited the American prisoner this week. Such visits are usually conducted by other consular staff, and a visit by the ambassador has been interpreted as a strong statement by the State Department.
Whelan was a frequent visitor to Russia and was in Moscow to attend the wedding of a friend. He maintained an active presence on the Russian social media site VKontakte and had forged friendships with Russian service members on the platform.
Whelan was discharged from the Marine Corps after he was convicted of attempting to steal more than $10,000 in currency and writing bad checks, the Washington Post reported Friday.
Whelan holds passports from three other countries—Ireland, Canada, and the United Kingdom—extending the international fallout from his arrest. He is reported to have requested diplomatic assistance from all four countries.
Both Britain and Ireland have sought consular access to Whelan, and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said individuals should not be used as “pawns of diplomatic leverage” and added that the United States was leading on the case.
Steven Hall, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia operations, said it was highly unlikely that Whelan was acting on behalf of U.S. intelligence services and that his detention is better characterized as a hostage taking.
Hall noted that diplomacy regarding the detention of Americans abroad is usually dealt with behind closed doors, but he was not convinced that this explained the president’s silence.
“In my opinion, subtlety is not Donald Trump’s forte. And that he’s not saying much because he’s concerned about whatever relationship he has with Vladimir Putin and with Russia,” he said. “What Trump says or doesn’t say about this will greater inform us about his relation with Vladimir Putin.”
In a statement issued on Friday on behalf of the Whelan family, Whelan’s brother, David, said, “We are relieved and very pleased to know that staff of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have been given consular access to Paul and confirmed that he is safe.”
“We urge the U.S. Congress and the State Department to help on Paul’s behalf to secure his release and return him home soon.”
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @EliasGroll