By Abby Phillip and Steve Almasy, CNN
Cherelle Griner, the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, told CNN on Thursday she wants US officials to do whatever they have to do to bring the basketball legend home — and she needs to see them do more.
In the only interview she is giving on the eve of her wife’s trial in Russia, Cherelle Griner sat in the Phoenix Mercury locker room and called for more action.
“It’s really, really difficult. This is not a situation where the rhetoric is matching the action,” she said. “I do have to unfortunately push people to make sure that the things they’re telling me is also matching their actions and so it’s been the hardest thing to balance because I can’t let up. It’s over 130 days and BG’s still not back.”
Brittney Griner, 31, who has played in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason, was arrested February 17 at a Moscow airport. Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Earlier this week, a Russian court scheduled her trial to start Friday, according to her lawyer, and ruled her detention be extended six months pending its outcome. The US Embassy in Moscow will send a diplomat to Friday’s hearing, a US official has told CNN.
Cherelle Griner told CNN she wants to see more from US officials and meet with them to be reassured that they are “at that phase where you’re actually doing everything in your power to bring her home,” she said.
Right now, Cherelle said that what the US government is saying isn’t matching their actions. She referred to a day when she was supposed to speak to her wife and Brittney called the embassy in Moscow 11 times but wasn’t connected with Cherelle. The State Department blamed the mistake on staffing restrictions imposed by Russian officials.
“You don’t have my trust at that point until I see actions that are in BG’s best interest,” Cherelle said.
She also said she would “absolutely” like to meet with President Joe Biden and humanize Brittney to him so he can “see BG as we see BG.”
“While everyone wants to tell me they care, I’d love for him to tell me he cares,” she added.
State Department says it is ‘actively engaged’
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Cherelle this week, Sullivan told reporters Tuesday aboard Air Force One.
“Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, unjustly detained and we have made that clear as an official determination of the US government. Second, the Russian government should release her and allow her to be returned and reunited with her family and come home safe and sound,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan declined to detail US efforts to resolve Griner’s case, citing the “sensitive matter,” but maintained that the Biden administration is “actively engaged.”
‘Don’t be quiet,’ families of other detained Americans told her
While Cherelle has not been able to speak to Brittney, the couple writes each other letters. Cherelle said Brittney recently reassured her that her time in detention hasn’t driven her crazy after photos from Brittney’s court appearance left her wife disheartened. Brittany wrote that she is exhausted and it was disconcerting to emerge into a courtroom where there were 100 or so media members and cameras, Cherelle said.
A photo from Kirill Kudryavstev of Agence France-Presse shows Brittney at her preliminary hearing Monday, arriving at court handcuffed and flanked by guards in black vests.
Cherelle noted her wife, who is 6-foot-9, has a five-hour round-trip drive on court days, and when she is moved, she is in a “very, very, very tiny cage” with her long legs bent at the knee.
Cherelle said she’s also met with families of people who have been or remain detained in Russia and other countries. She described the families are loving, genuine and broken people. “And the first thing they said was, you know, ‘Do not be quiet about this. Do not let them forget about your loved one,'” she said.
It blew her mind when she learned that for some of those families it has been a three- or four-year ordeal, she added.
“My heart was breaking hearing it because I, I pray to God, you know, three years does not pass by and BG is still wrongfully detained in Russia,” she said.
Make a trade if that is what’s necessary, wife says
At first, it was hard for her to imagine that her wife could be used as a pawn, Cherelle told CNN. But she said realizes the answer to the question whether it is possible is “Yes.” She said she thinks Russia can get something in return for letting Brittney go
“And at this point, I want them to. Whatever you want, please ask,” she said with a laugh.
She said she hasn’t listened much to what the measures are that are being contemplated to bring her wife home.
But if a prisoner swap is what’s necessary then, “Yes, do it.”
Mercury coach wants Griner to be a priority for Washington
In a pregame news conference Wednesday, Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said, “We’ve been hearing some more noise from the Biden administration that there is — they’re supporting us and they know this is a priority. Well, let’s make it a priority. I know our Phoenix community feels deeply. Everywhere I go in Phoenix, everyone asks me about BG. … We just need our government and everybody in power to really push for that (release).”
Nygaard also said that the team will be having a rally for Griner next week.
Griner is one of the best basketball players in the world. The center has won two Olympic gold medals and one WNBA title. She has been a six-time WNBA All-Star, three times as a starter. This season she will be honored as a starter in the All-Star game, scheduled for July 10.
Last season, she averaged a sterling 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
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CNN’s Abby Phillip reported from Phoenix and Steve Almasy reported and wrote in Atlanta. Betsy Klein, Kylie Atwood, Jacob Lev, Dakin Andone and Anna Chernova contributed to this report.