There was a time when the release of American citizens who had been unjustly imprisoned by a foreign adversary was a moment for bipartisan relief and celebration: the 2018 return of three men from North Korea, secured by President Donald J. Trump, or the 1991 freeing of Terry Anderson, an American journalist, after years of captivity in Lebanon.
Those moments felt like sepia-toned artifacts on Friday as Brittney Griner, the women’s basketball star, slipped quietly into a military base in Texas for evaluation following her release from Russia, while a Fox News reporter peppered the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, with pointed questions about an exchange that he said had sent the “Merchant of Death” to Russia for a “professional athlete.”
Within hours of Ms. Griner’s release, much of the right wing was in full outrage mode, seizing upon both the man Ms. Griner had been exchanged for — Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms merchant serving time, in part, for endangering American lives — and the Biden administration’s failure to secure the release as well, or instead, of a former Marine, Paul Whelan, who has languished in a Russian prison since his 2018 arrest on espionage charges.
A considerable amount of attention was also paid to who Ms. Griner is: a Black woman, a celebrity, a married lesbian and, though it had gone largely unnoticed until now, an assertive liberal — one who, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, called to stop playing the national anthem at her team’s basketball games.
From the early days of the Cold War through the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, hostage releases have carried political risks, especially when they involve prisoner exchanges, said Danielle Gilbert of Dartmouth College, an expert on such deals. The scenes of joy and the human drama of a return to freedom must be tempered by the knowledge that victory was attained through a deal with an adversary — almost always involving a concession that the adversary dearly wanted.
And, of course, legitimate questions can be raised about these swaps, including whether they encourage still more hostage-taking or could endanger Americans, like Mr. Whelan, who are left behind.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who hopes to be speaker in the Republican-controlled House next year, touched on that when he appeared on Fox News to condemn the “trumped-up charge” against Ms. Griner but to say that the exchange with Mr. Bout had “made us weaker.” He added, “It’s made Putin stronger, and it’s made Americans more vulnerable.”
But Ms. Griner’s case has gone beyond such calculations, into the fraught arenas of race, gender and sexual orientation, and at a time of make-no-concessions partisanship, when large swaths of the American public are steeped in the grievance politics and adversary demonization of Mr. Trump and his acolytes.
The former president’s son Donald Jr. swiped at Ms. Griner’s identity when he wrote that the Biden administration “was apparently worried that their DEI score would go down if they freed an American Marine,” using the corporate-world acronym for diversity, equity and inclusion.
The Biden Presidency
Here’s where the president stands after the midterm elections.
His father, the former president, took issue with Ms. Griner’s political views, declaring that she “openly hated our Country.” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia called the prisoner swap “another reason to impeach Biden.”
And those were among the more tame comments from the Trump-dominated right.
“There’s that underlying sense that this is part of the Democrats’ focusing on someone who is sympathetic to them and leaving a Marine behind,” said David Silbey, a military historian at Cornell University. “It fits nicely in the narrative that a lot of the right is telling America, about who gets the privilege in Biden’s America.”
Prisoner exchanges have long been politically difficult, especially for Democratic presidents. Mr. Whelan was taken prisoner when Mr. Trump was in the White House, and his sister, Elizabeth Whelan, a supporter of Mr. Trump, pleaded with officials close to the president to try to win his release. In the summer of 2019, Mr. Whelan begged Mr. Trump for his assistance — “Tweet your intentions,” he shouted to reporters from inside a glass cage at the Moscow City Court — to no avail.
Yet it is Mr. Trump’s successor who is taking the heat.
There are plenty of historical precedents. When Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and America’s sympathies lay with the pilot, seen as an innocent victim in the secret Cold War spy game.
But when John F. Kennedy engineered Mr. Powers’s release in exchange for a K.G.B. colonel, sympathies quickly shifted, with some Republicans accusing the administration of releasing a Soviet “spymaster” for a coward who should have swallowed a C.I.A.-issued “suicide pill.”
President Barack Obama faced similar blowback in 2014 when his administration engineered the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier held captive by the Taliban, in exchange for five Taliban detainees from the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Mr. Bergdahl had wandered off his base, prompting accusations that he had gotten what was coming to him, just as Ms. Griner’s possession of cannabis residue prompted critics to suggest she had brought her punishment upon herself, Ms. Gilbert said.
The Bergdahl blowback led the Republican-led House to pass a resolution condemning Mr. Obama for making the deal without notifying Congress ahead of time, claiming that “these actions have burdened unnecessarily the trust and confidence in the commitment and ability of the Obama administration to constructively engage and work with Congress.”
But while the Bergdahl exchange at least involved combatants on both sides, historians could think of no parallel for the exchange of an American basketball star for a Russian arms merchant in the 14th year of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans.
Mr. Bout, immortalized by Hollywood in the film “Lord of War,” was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials with his indiscriminate arms sales, which armed both anti-American terrorist organizations and pro-American insurgents like Angola’s UNITA. He fueled the brutal war against civilians in Liberia waged by the warlord Charles Taylor, in which an estimated 300,000 people lost their lives. Mr. Bout would not have been eligible for release until 2029.
Many Americans saw the exchange as their government’s freeing a coldblooded killer, with the deaths of thousands on his hands, for a member of the liberal elite.
“The Biden administration showed the world what privilege really looks like,” wrote Rick Manning, president of the pro-Trump Americans for Limited Government.
Ms. Griner’s politics have indeed come from the left. The liberal-leaning Black publication The Root named her one of the most influential African Americans of 2020 after she told The Arizona Republic at the height of the George Floyd protests, “I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season.”
Ms. Gilbert said she had gotten a trickle of emails for months — many of them racist and homophobic — questioning why Ms. Griner should be released at all. On Friday, they became a torrent.
Still, Colin Kaepernick Ms. Griner is not. Her politics were unknown to most Americans beyond the fringe right and the ardent left until her release, when prominent voices on the right seized on them. Tucker Carlson led his top-rated Fox News show on Thursday night with a diatribe, accusing Ms. Griner of being unpatriotic and suggesting that Mr. Whelan had been left behind because of his politics.
“Whelan is a Trump voter, and he made the mistake of saying so on social media,” Mr. Carlson said in his monologue. “He’s paying the price now. Brittney Griner is not. She has very different politics. Brittney Griner despises the United States.”
And Mr. Carlson was explicit about her identity — “which,” he said, “is central to equity.” He continued, “Brittney Griner is not white, and she’s a lesbian.”
As much as her fame and prominence made her incarceration intolerable to some Americans, Ms. Griner’s gender may be coloring the exchange in the eyes of some critics, Professor Silbey suggested.
In women’s professional basketball, Ms. Griner is a superstar: an Olympic gold medalist, a national champion with the Phoenix Mercury, a six-time all-star and the only true center to lead the W.N.B.A. in scoring.
The response to her arrest in Moscow on extremely minor drug charges — and especially to her release — would have been wildly different if they had happened to her male equivalent, he said.
“If LeBron James had been grabbed by Russia at an airport and sent to a prison camp,” Professor Silbey said, “imagine the level of hysteria that would have caused.”