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The Morning Dispatch: What's Keeping Brittney Griner in Russia
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The Morning Dispatch: What’s Keeping Brittney Griner in Russia

Russia has hinted it wants a detainee swap to release the WNBA superstar, but U.S. officials are leery of the terms.

Happy Friday! Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin made clear Thursday he won’t vote for Senate Democrats’ proposed climate and tax pl—wait, did people seriously still think that was going to happen? 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A Russian missile strike Thursday killed at least 23 people in a business center and residential buildings in Vinnytsia, a central Ukrainian city far from the front lines. Russia also fired at least ten missiles into the southern city of Mykolayiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the Vinnytsia strike “an audacious act of Russian terror.”

  • Sri Lankan parliamentary speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena confirmed Thursday embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa—who fled the country earlier this week—officially resigned over email yesterday after months and months of public protests. Yapa Abeywardena said the country’s lawmakers will select a new president within a week. 

  • President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a declaration on Thursday that, among other measures, commits to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Lapid pushed at a press conference to establish “a credible military threat” to stop Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons, while Biden stressed that the U.S. will continue pursuing a nuclear agreement with Iran through diplomacy. But, he added, “we are not going to wait forever.”

  • China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported this morning the country’s gross domestic product grew at just a 0.4 percent annual clip in the second quarter, as millions of Chinese people spent much of the past several months locked down in pursuit of Beijing’s COVID-zero policy. The data, if accurate, would make Q2 2022 China’s weakest quarter since the first months of the pandemic more than two years ago. China on Thursday reported its highest number of new COVID-19 cases since late May.

  • The House voted 329-101 on Thursday to pass the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023, okaying $839 billion in spending—$37 billion more than the Biden administration requested. The Senate has yet to vote on its own version of the bill.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday that the Producer Price Index—a measure of what suppliers and wholesalers are charging their customers—increased 1.1 percent in June on a seasonally adjusted basis, up from 0.9 percent in May and 0.4 percent in April. On an annual basis, PPI inflation remained near record highs at 11.3 percent.

  • The Department of Justice announced Thursday that a federal grand jury has indicted the man accused of murdering 10 black people in a Buffalo grocery store in May on hate crimes and firearms violations. If convicted, he could face life in prison or the death penalty. “The Justice Department fully recognizes the threat that white supremacist violence poses to the safety of the American people and American democracy,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. The supermarket is set to reopen today.

  • An armed 48-year-old man was arrested earlier this week after allegedly threatening to kill Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal outside her home in Seattle last Saturday night. Neighbors told police they heard the man yell that Jayapal should “go back to India.” The man was released Wednesday due to insufficient evidence, but an investigation remains ongoing and the Associated Press reported Seattle police obtained a temporary Extreme Risk Protection Order requiring the man to surrender his firearms.

  • Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday sued to block enforcement of the Biden administration’s recent guidance telling health providers that life- or health-saving abortions are protected by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, regardless of state abortion restrictions. The lawsuit alleges the guidance “flagrantly disregard[s] the legislative and democratic process,” and seeks to “transform every emergency room in the country into a walk-in abortion clinic.”

  • The average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States has increased 12 percent over the past two weeks as the Omicron BA.5 subvariant became the dominant strain in the country, while the average number of daily deaths attributed to the virus—a lagging indicator—held more or less steady. About 32,500 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S., up from approximately 27,000 two weeks ago.

  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—increased by 9,000 week-over-week to 244,000 last week, the highest level this year but not far off historic lows.

Griner Trial Continues in Russia

(Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images.)

The U.S. wants Russia to release Brittney Griner, a WNBA star and Olympic medalist currently standing trial outside Moscow for carrying a cannabis derivative in her luggage. Russia wants the U.S. to release Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer serving 25 years in an Illinois prison for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and supporting terrorists.

Russian state media and officials have hinted that the solution is simple—a swap. But while U.S. officials are eager to get Griner home, they’re wary of any such exchange, and especially one that would release a man nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.” 

“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden earlier this month. Griner’s defense team said her latest court hearing Thursday went well, but with U.S.-Russia relations near all-time lows, it could be some time before she’s back on American soil.

Like many WNBA players, Griner—a Baylor University standout who was selected first overall by the Phoenix Mercury nine years ago—supplements her income by joining a team abroad during the off-season. Russian law enforcement detained her at an airport near Moscow February 17—days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began—for having hashish oil in vape cartridges in her luggage. She now stands accused of large scale transportation of drugs—which carries a possible 10-year sentence in Russia—despite having just 0.702 grams of the oil in her luggage, which her lawyers claim was for personal use. Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges last week, likely in a bid for a lighter sentence. Her Russian teammates testified to Griner’s good character at a hearing yesterday, bringing Griner to tears, but less than 1 percent of cases referred to court in Russia end in an acquittal.

Initially, Griner’s relatives avoided press coverage, wary attention could motivate harsher treatment and complicate behind-the-scenes diplomacy. “From the very beginning that someone is taken, that person’s family is immediately in touch with the State Department and the government,” Tara Sonenshine—former State Department and National Security Council official and a professor at Tufts University—told The Dispatch. “At the same time, they’re considering the balance act of, ‘If we go public, will that embarrass the government? Will it make the treatment worse?’” But with little progress to show toward Griner’s release, her wife Cherelle has begun speaking out in recent weeks, thanking the Biden administration for its efforts on Griner’s behalf but pushing officials to do more.

In May, the State Department declared Griner “wrongfully detained,” a designation that means the U.S. government will work for her release. And there are some reasons to hope American and Russian officials can come to an agreement, despite the war in Ukraine. 

In April, the U.S. released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted of trafficking cocaine into the U.S., in exchange for the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, convicted of endangering Russian police officers while drunk. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson—who negotiates unofficially for the release of American citizens from hostile countries—helped facilitate that exchange, and reportedly plans to visit Russia soon to discuss Griner’s detainment. But Reed had been imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, and Paul Whelan—another former Marine, imprisoned since 2018 on what U.S. officials describe as false charges of espionage—remains in Russian custody. 

Prisoner swaps with Russia go back decades—Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film, Bridge of Spies, tells the story of a lawyer negotiating the release of an Air Force pilot downed over the Soviet Union in 1960—but the U.S. is generally reluctant to make such exchanges, for fear of incentivizing bad actors to use Americans as bargaining chips. But with sanctions against Russia already all but maxed out over the war in Ukraine, administration officials have few remaining options. 

Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and others have opted for public pressure, and on Thursday Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned them to stop. “We call on the U.S. authorities not to speculate on these sensitive matters that touch upon the fates of certain people, and we advise them to give up futile attempts to exert pressure on us,” Zakharova said. “We call on the U.S. to concentrate on practical work through established channels. It simply won’t work otherwise.” 

Zakharova added that until Griner’s trial ends, likely in a few weeks, it’s too soon to discuss options for her return. In her letter to Biden, Griner asked him to keep working for her release regardless. “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees,” Griner wrote. “Please do all you can to bring us home.”

Worth Your Time

  • Set to visit Saudi Arabia today and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Biden is hearing from critics who say he’s backing down from a campaign promise to make the Kingdom a “pariah” on the world stage. Hatice Cengiz—the former fiancé of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi—certainly feels that way. “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing,” she told Associated Press reporters Ayse Wieting and Suzan Fraser. “And Biden will lose his moral authority by putting oil and expediency over principles and values.” The president on Thursday declined to commit to bringing Khashoggi up when meeting with MBS, saying his position on the matter has “been so clear” that anyone who doesn’t know by now hasn’t “been around for a while.” Cengiz found that incredibly frustrating, Wieting and Fraser noted. “One of Biden’s promises [was] being different. It was a very big hope to me to believe, again, that Biden will do something for me and for Jamal,” she said. “Instead of being different now, he’s doing the same and embracing dictators in the region right now. So it’s very disappointing for me.”

  • The White House defends the trip as an opportunity to “reassert” American influence in the Middle East, many see it as an oil negotiation. It doesn’t have to be this way, Kevin Williamson argues in National Review. “The Saudis do not actually have much capacity to increase output and … their doing so would be likely to have only a very small effect on U.S. gasoline prices,” he writes. “There is a country that has the ability to ramp up petroleum production in a way that would be significant for the United States: the United States. … Mohammed bin Salman is not our son of a b—-, and the sooner we recognize that fact, the sooner we’ll be free to deal with our energy problems in a way that is more purposeful and less pathetic.”

  • The internet can be a pretty mean and nasty place, but it still has the ability to delight you every once in a while. Enter the Northwoods Baseball Radio Network, a podcast feed produced by a mysterious “Mr. King” that features nothing other than two-hour-long fictional baseball broadcasts designed to help insomniacs get to sleep. “No yelling, no loud commercials, no weird volume spikes,” the tagline reads. “Fans call it ‘baseball radio ASMR.’” Katy Waldman was entranced. “Time—how it’s apportioned, and the inner experience of it—seems to be the show’s main character. The series could be a sendup of Americana, the aesthetic’s essential boringness, or a love note to memory, with the hazy, preserved glow of a scene unburied from childhood,” she writes in The New Yorker. “The show’s best feature remains the pure sonic contentment it delivers. Real or fantastical, baseball commentary unfolds as metered poetry: ‘IN there for a called STRIKE,’ goes the rising question. ‘It’s OH and ONE,’ goes the falling answer.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • What’s up with the semiconductor shortage, and what’s to be done about it? Klon gets us up to speed in The Current (🔒), explaining why semiconductor supply matters for national security—and the workforce and industrial investments needed to put the U.S. on the cutting edge.

  • In this week’s edition of Stirewaltisms (🔒), Chris reaches straight for the reader mailbag. How is declining religiosity among Americans affecting our politics? Does Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker have too many skeletons in his closet to run for president? And how do you pronounce the Croakano in Holy Croakano?

  • On today’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Jonah, and David discuss this week’s grim inflation news and engage in some exceedingly rank 2024 punditry. Is Biden toast? Is Trump? Plus: How cool are those images from the James Webb Space Telescope?

  • On the site today, Price St. Clair writes about a 2020 election report recently released by a group of prominent conservatives with the purpose of showing people on the right that ongoing conspiracies about the election are baseless, and James Brooke breaks down how U.S. and NATO aid has helped Ukraine go on the counteroffensive against Russia—notably in the recapture of Snake Island in the Black Sea.

Let Us Know

Biden arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia today after a rocky start with the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Do you think that the president can patch up relations with the foremost Arab power and oil producer? Should doing so be a priority?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.