Report: Trump Sees “No Political Benefit” In Helping American Prisoner In Russia
President Donald Trump has shown little interest in working to free a Canadian-born American citizen who was detained in Russia in 2018 over allegations that he was a spy.
Paul Whelan eventually was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison colony, The New Yorker reported, but the president did not begin urging Russian President Vladimir Putin for his release until late last year.
According to the report, because Whelan “has no political constituency,” Trump has seen no “political benefit" to securing his release.
The New Yorker reports:
During the Republican National Convention, Trump touted his role in freeing Americans unjustly held overseas, boasting of having brought home more than fifty people from places such as Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela. The President aired a video filmed in the Diplomatic Reception Room of six former hostages and detainees thanking him. “We got you all back,” Trump said. Several in the group were Christian pastors or missionaries, including Andrew Brunson, who was released from Turkish custody in 2018, after Trump repeatedly pushed the country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to let him go. “If there’s a political benefit in it for him, he would go for it,” a former senior Trump Administration official said. In the case of Whelan, who has no political constituency, however, Trump and officials across the government have been slower to act—and so far unable to free him.
However Whelan was to be freed, it was clear that any deal would require attention at the highest levels of the White House and the State Department. But that was not forthcoming. Shortly after Whelan was arrested, then national-security adviser John Bolton brought his case to Trump’s attention. “Trump clearly had no interest in doing anything,” a former senior U.S. official said.
Unlike Brunson’s release, which could help Trump with his evangelical base, “there was no constituency for Whelan” that had Trump’s ear, the former Administration official said.
The report also notes that Whelan personally made appeals to the president, to no avail.
Whelan also used the hearings to make public appeals to Trump. “Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect and defend American citizens wherever they are in the world,” he said, reading from a statement he had prepared ahead of time. “Tweet your intentions,” he pleaded. Trump did not.
While lower-level administration officials continued working toward Whelan’s release, it would not be until late 2019 that Trump himself would meaningfully enter the mix.
Under [Robert] O’Brien, who in September, 2019, succeeded Bolton as national-security adviser, Trump himself had become involved in Whelan’s case. N.S.C. staff, concerned about a lack of action from the State Department, decided to make the case to Trump that he should voice concerns about the detentions of Whelan and two other Americans in phone calls with Putin.
Trump has raised Whelan’s detention with Putin in recent months, according to the report, along with two other Americans being held in Russia. Though he has “urged Putin to free the three Americans,” The New Yorker wrote, he “has not expressed any willingness to give in to Russia’s demands for the release” of “Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot serving a twenty-year federal sentence for a drug-smuggling plot,” or “Viktor Bout, a notoriously prolific arms trader who was apprehended in a sting operation in Thailand, in 2008, and convicted by a U.S. court three years later.”