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State Dept spokesperson on the prisoner exchange that returned Marine vet Trevor Reed

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK, staying with developments from Russia, let's turn to this one. Today at an airport in Turkey, a Russian plane pulled up next to an American one. From each plane, a prisoner emerged and walked across to the other. The U.S. returned to Russia a pilot convicted of drug smuggling charges, sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Russia returned to the U.S. 30-year-old former Marine Trevor Reed, who was serving time for assaulting a police officer. He has maintained his innocence. And this was a remarkable prisoner swap for any moment, but especially during this time of war in Ukraine.

With us now, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price. Hey, Ned.

NED PRICE: Hey, Mary Louise. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: The U.S. has been trying to get Trevor Reed home the whole time he's been detained there, nearly three years. What was the breakthrough?

PRICE: Well, I can only speak to this administration, and the release of Trevor Reed and the return of him to his family has been a top priority ever since we came into office in January of last year. And today, once again, we made good on our commitment to bring home an American who's detained unjustly around the world. We've done that in places like Haiti and Burma and Afghanistan and Venezuela and now, today, Russia.

And so the news we received and confirmed this morning was really the result of months of concerted effort across this department on the part of our special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, and his team, on the part of the White House, on the part of our embassy in Moscow and our ambassador, John Sullivan, and many others across this government.

KELLY: And again, can you share any details in terms of what it was that broke the logjam?

PRICE: Well, again, this was the result of months of discussions with the Russians. The president ultimately had to make a very tough decision, but he made the decision to bring home an American whose health was a concern of ours. It was a source of intense concern. And he made the decision to deliver on that very commitment to resolve these cases and to reunite Americans with their loved ones.

And so what I can tell you right now is that Trevor Reed is on a plane on his way home. He's accompanied by our special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and he'll be back in the United States later today.

KELLY: And what is his health condition? How's he doing?

PRICE: Well, he's in good spirits. As you might imagine, he's relieved. He was able to speak to his family as soon as he boarded the plane. I know that he's looking forward to speaking to them. I think as you saw, he was able to walk himself onto the plane, and he'll receive the care he needs when he lands in the United States.

KELLY: You described this as a tough decision for the president. And I'm curious why. Was the sense was that the U.S. would have liked a better deal, would have liked Russia to release more Americans?

PRICE: Well, of course, we're always trying to see the release of Americans who are unjustly detained. And there is another American who's unjustly detained in Russia, Paul Whelan. We're working tirelessly on his case. We're working tirelessly to support Brittney Griner, other Americans who are detained in Russia and elsewhere around the world. Ultimately, this was a decision that was predicated on the fact that, again, this is someone who had been unjustly detained for nearly two years, whose health was in poor...

KELLY: Nearly three if I'm not mistaken.

PRICE: ...Condition. Right, for more than two years - whose health was in poor condition. And ultimately, the president did make the decision to commute the sentence of a Russian smuggler who had served the majority of his sentence...

KELLY: Yeah.

PRICE: ...For a nonviolent drug crime. He commuted it. And that in no way diminishes the import of the finding of his guilt.

KELLY: Since you brought up the other Americans being detained in Russia, Paul Whelan - and I heard you say the U.S. is working tirelessly to get him out because he's being unjustly held. You also mentioned WNBA star Brittney Griner. Secretary Blinken did not mention her in his statement. Is the U.S. view that she is also being unjustly held in Russia?

PRICE: Well, Mary Louise, each case is unique. And in the case of Brittney Griner, it is distinct from Paul Whelan. It's distinct from the from the case of Trevor Reed, really from any other case. Brittney Griner is a case we've been working on ever since we learned of her detention earlier this year. We've been working through our embassy in Moscow to secure consular access. A member of our embassy team was able to visit with her recently. We're continuing to press the Russian government for consistent access to her, so that we can check on her condition. We do understand she's been consistently able to see her legal team, but we in turn are in close contact.

KELLY: So the U.S. is working is working to support her, but you're not going to wade into the waters of whether the U.S. believes she's being unjustly held.

PRICE: Absolutely working to support her. We're in regular contact with her legal representation, with her broader network as well, to provide her with what she needs.

KELLY: OK. Just very briefly, does this signal any softening in the relationship, any goodwill?

PRICE: I wouldn't say that at all. This was about one thing and one thing only - it was the release of Trevor Reed. As I said before, this was a deal that was orchestrated by our special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. That's the key word in his title - hostage. And that's what this was about.

KELLY: We've been talking with Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department. Thank you.

PRICE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.