Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is planning to travel to Russia in the near future for talks aimed at finding a deal to free the detained WNBA star Brittney Griner, a source with knowledge of the proposed trip told ABC News.
Richardson, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary in the Clinton administration, played a role in achieving a prisoner exchange in April that saw Russia release former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed after nearly two and a half years in captivity.
He is expected to go to Moscow in the next couple of weeks, according to the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Russia has repeatedly suggested it’s interested in trading Griner for Russians held in U.S. prisons. The new trip appears aimed at seeing if a similar deal to the one that freed Reed could be produced for Griner.
Richardson’s office did not confirm the potential visit, telling ABC News “we are unable to comment on this at the moment.”
“What I can say (and is publicly known) is both the Whelan and Griner families have asked us to help with the release of their loved ones,” Mickey Bergman, executive director at the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, told ABC News in an email.
Richardson is currently representing the Griner family as well as the family of Paul Whelan, the other former Marine held by Russia for three and a half years.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in basketball, has been in detention in Russia since mid-February after she was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and accused by Russian authorities of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
This week, Griner told a Moscow court she would like to plead guilty to the charges, saying she had brought the vape cartridges into Russia unintentionally, explaining she had not meant to leave them in her bag.
The Biden administration has classified Griner as “wrongfully detained” and American officials believe Russia seized her, like Whelan and Reed, to use as bargaining chips with the U.S.
Richardson’s possible trip comes amid speculation whether the U.S. would be willing to make another prisoner swap to free Griner. The Biden administration has said it is committed to negotiating with Russia for Griner’s release but it has refused to comment on whether it is considering any trade.
Asked to comment on Richardson’s potential visit, the White House National Security Council told ABC it was in contact with Richardson and valued his efforts, but declined to say more.
“NSC leadership are in touch with Bill Richardson. We appreciate his commitment to getting Americans home and are pursuing the release of Brittney and Paul through government channels,” NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, said she had requested Richardson’s team’s help and would support a trip if it took place.
“We asked the Richardson Center to help and I’m encouraged that he might be going,” Cherelle Griner said in a statement to ABC through Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas.
Richardson has a long history of working to free Americans wrongfully detained overseas. Through his nonprofit, the Richardson Center, he has helped return U.S. citizens imprisoned in Iran and North Korea among others.
His team represented Trevor Reed’s family and spent months engaged in shuttle diplomacy trying to outline a possible deal to free him.
Richardson even flew to Moscow on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a last ditch effort to persuade Russia to make a trade.
Richardson does not represent the White House. In Reed’s case, he approached Russia’s government and the Biden administration separately to try to feel out what both sides might accept as any possible deal. He then relayed what he had heard back to both sides.
In the end, the prisoner trade the White House made for Reed was the same one Richardson had been advocating for: releasing Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a U.S. prison sentence for drug smuggling.
Richardson has since encouraged the Biden administration to consider making similar deals for Griner and Paul Whelan.
Following Griner’s court appearance on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it was “going to do everything that we can to bring home Brittney Griner safely, and to also make sure that we bring Paul Whelan back home as well.” Jean-Pierre said Griner’s guilty plea would have “no impact” on the efforts to negotiate her release.
Russian state media and officials have repeatedly floated trading Griner or Whelan for Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer, dubbed “the Merchant of Death” in the media and who is currently serving a 25 year sentence on narco-terrorism charges.
Trevor Reed and his family have called on the Biden administration to exchange Bout if it would free Whelan and Griner.
Speaking to ABC News this week, Reed urged President Joe Biden to do more.
“I hope that President Biden and his administration will do everything possible to get both, you know, Brittney and Paul out of Russia, and that they will do that immediately,” he told ABC News. “Because every day that, you know, they sit here and wait to make a decision is one more day that, you know, Paul and Brittney are suffering.”