Elizabeth Whelan was walking in Manhattan Friday to meet a friend for lunch. The artist was in New York City to deliver a piece she created for the U.S. Coast Guard. Her cell phone rang. She thought it was her friend saying she’d be late.
Instead, it was President Joe Biden, to talk to her about her brother, Paul Whelan, who has been held captive in Russia for more than three years on what the family says are trumped-up espionage charges.
“As I’m walking down this street, it was really loud compared to Chappaquiddick,” she said. “My phone rings, and he introduces himself. I didn’t really comprehend.”
Wait? I asked her. This was President Biden calling her directly — not a secretary or a White House staffer?
“Right, exactly. Often when you talk to the White House, it’s an operator patching you through. That was not the case,” Whelan said. “That really takes one by surprise … I had to get off the noisy road. I just waltzed into a restaurant that was opening up for lunch, sat at a table, and was able to have the rest of the conversation.”
Whelan declined to provide the details of the conversation. She did say she was comforted by the president’s words. “I was struck by his understanding of the situation,” she said. “He knows what’s going on, was compassionate about my family’s concerns, and reassured me that things were ongoing with Paul’s case.”
The call lasted six to seven minutes. “It really did help me,” Whelan said.
So how did this development take place? Well, it was likely prompted by a Twitter dustup that Whelan said she created last week after President Biden shared a well-publicized call with Cherelle Griner, the spouse of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who is being held in a Russian prison after pleading guilty to drug possession. In his conversation with Cherelle Griner, President Biden mentioned Paul Whelan, though to that point he had never spoken to the family about him or that his administration was working to secure his release.
That prompted this Tweet from Elizabeth Whelan: “Still looking for that press release saying @POTUS has spoken to anyone in OUR family about #PaulWhelan, wrongfully detained in #Russia for 3.5 years,” she wrote. “I am crushed. If he wants to talk about securing Paul’s release, he needs to be talking to the Whelans! What are we to think?!”
Later, Whelan tweeted that she has nothing against the Griner family, and hopes that Brittney Griner will be released. She was criticizing the process and the lack of information from the government to families involved, she told The Times.
The tweets got the attention of the press, and Elizabeth Whelan and her brother, David, did some interviews that likely got the White House’s attention.
“Because there’s this narrative that’s spun up that you have to get in front of the president and he waves his magic wand and he suddenly comes home. We know that isn’t how it works,” Elizabeth Whelan said. “Families often get pushed to do that.”
Still, she and the family are appreciative of the president’s attention, but she reiterated that she thinks more needs to be done to keep families informed. There are currently more than 50 Americans being held in 18 countries. “It’s not tenable for us to all line up outside the president’s door,” she said.
The focus should be on those governments, and coming up with a way to prevent U.S. citizens from being wrongly incarcerated. And if they are, there should be a punishment for those governments, she said. She also understands the double-edged sword of negotiating for the release of prisoners, because the government doesn’t want to incentivize hostage-taking.
“I’ve never had any problem with the Griner family. We don’t begrudge their access at all. The fact that Brittney is a celebrity has helped families of detainees overall,” Whelan said. “I wasn’t upset with her specifically … We needed more information provided to families and a quicker way to get Americans home.”
On Tuesday, David Whelan reported that Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and governor of Arizona, has told the family he is traveling to Moscow to attempt to secure Paul and Griner’s release.
“We agreed to work with Gov. Richardson and the Richardson Center staff back in February 2019, when we were at sea about what resources were available to a wrongful detainee’s family,” David Whelan wrote in an email to supporters of his brother. “Gov. Richardson has repeatedly returned to Paul’s case during the past 3 years, including prior to Trevor Reed’s release. We hope this visit will lead to results that have not been possible following his previous interactions with Russian intermediaries.”
David Whelan added that the family is in a tricky position. “The ability to have a third party assist the family can mean forward progress before the U.S. government assigns resources to the detainee’s case,” he wrote. “The work the Richardson Center does is important to families of wrongful detainees.” However, he noted that Richardson has no government mandate. “They are not able to offer or agree to the concessions that are at the heart of the ongoing detention,” he wrote. “Since they operate outside of any government, they may not be aware of discussions that are already underway between the U.S. government and the hostage-taking nation. This means they can both help and hinder a possible resolution of a detainee’s case.”
David Whelan added that he hopes Richardson is able to have conversations with U.S. government officials. “Hopefully, these conversations can create additional shared understandings on which both the U.S. government and Russian government can move closer to resolving Paul’s case,” he wrote. “We wish for his success and a speedy return of Paul to our family.”
Back on Chappy, Elizabeth Whelan appreciates the support she has received from Vineyarders about her family’s plight. “We’re hopeful, very hopeful it won’t be much longer,” she said. “It’s up to the Russians, unfortunately.”
As for her few minutes on the phone with the president, “It was stunning, and I still don’t think I’ve processed the fact that I’ve spoken to the president.”
Updated with Tuesday’s update from David Whelan. –Ed.