Biden Abandons Americans Detained Abroad

Posted on Tuesday, May 14, 2024
by Ben Solis


trump and biden; detained americans

With Election Day fast approaching, the growing number of U.S. citizens detained in foreign countries could become a liability for President Joe Biden’s re-election bid – particularly in light of former President Donald Trump’s strong record of securing the release of Americans jailed abroad.

The most recent headache for the Biden administration is the case of Gordon Black, a U.S. soldier who has been detained in Vladivostok, Russia, following allegations of theft. Although Russian authorities have provided no evidence of his wrongdoing, Black is scheduled to remain in prison until at least July, when he will go on trial before Russia’s notoriously corrupt courts and could receive a long sentence, particularly given heightened tensions as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war.

As the Associated Press reported in March, “arrests of Americans in Russia have become increasingly common.” One of the most high-profile cases is that of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested last year and is being held on espionage charges.

The story of ex-Marine Paul Whelan has also captivated public interest and generated criticism of the Biden administration. In 2020, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years behind bars for espionage after he traveled to Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding. He maintains his innocence, and the Russian government has provided no evidence to back up the charges against him.

Both Gershkovich and Whelan have been designated as wrongfully detained by the U.S. State Department, but the Biden administration has made little progress in securing their release. (Notably, back in 2022, Biden swapped infamous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittany Griner, who had been arrested in Russia for marijuana possession, igniting intense public backlash given that Biden reportedly rejected a plan to trade Bout for Whelan.)

Biden has also drawn criticism for his failure to secure the release of American hostages in Gaza following Hamas’s assault on Israel last year. At least five American citizens are still believed to be captive inside Gaza – along with the bodies of three Americans already murdered by Hamas.

Even when Biden has brought prisoners and hostages home, it has often been through questionable methods, namely releasing dangerous criminals and sending cash to U.S. adversaries. In addition to the controversial decision to trade Bout for Brittany Griner, Biden in 2022 also released $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five prisoners – a move critics slammed as a ransom payment that will only encourage more hostage-taking.

These failures contrast sharply with the Trump administration’s success at securing the release of Americans held abroad. “I brought 58 HOSTAGES home from many different countries, including North Korea, and I never paid anything,” Trump posted on his Truth Social account following the 2022 Iran swap. “They all understood they MUST LET THESE PEOPLE COME HOME! Toward the end, it got so that countries didn’t even start the conversation asking for money, because they knew they would not get it.”

One of Trump’s greatest successes was securing the release of three Americans held prisoner in North Korea in 2018. In an extraordinary middle-of-the-night arrival at Joint Base Andrews, Trump and a crowd of media reporters welcomed the prisoners, Korean-American Christians falsely accused of espionage, home ahead of Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Professor Kai Diefenbach, who advised the German government on North Korean affairs in the late 1980s, told me that North Korea’s decision to release the prisoners “astonished” him, saying he was sure it wouldn’t happen because Trump “punched the regime.”

“We thought soft language and silence would help,” he said. “Trump proved us incorrect.” Diefenbach added that Trump showed strength and exposed the evil nature of the North Korean regime, putting immense pressure on Pyongyang to release the prisoners.

Professor Aurélien Clément Nouvel, who helped negotiate the release of French emissaries detained by Egypt in the 1980s, added that those with experience in hostage negotiations believed what Trump did to be “impossible” and were “surprised by the administration’s success.”

Professor Nouvel, a Catholic, believes that Trump’s moral courage may have convinced the regime that his administration was different. “It had been a while since a U.S. President demonstrated such moral clarity,” he said. “The regime could notice the difference in Washington.”

A former high-ranking Japanese diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous due to his ongoing involvement in prisoner release negotiations, believes that non-allies or even enemies of the U.S. suddenly saw in Trump someone who would respect their sovereignty and be tough, but fair. “It seemed like they understood the depth of America First policies more than even many U.S. allies did,” he said.

Biden, meanwhile, has failed to see even close to the same level of success as Trump. Families of those detained abroad have grown increasingly frustrated with the administration, repeatedly demanding more urgent action. Another Japanese diplomat I spoke with, who also asked to remain anonymous, told me “it is evident to families and observers that President Biden is not directly involved in negotiations, unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump.”

There is perhaps no better demonstration of Trump’s commitment to “America First” principles than his success at securing the release of Americans held in foreign prisons. As Biden faces Trump in a rematch this fall, his failures on this front are all the more glaring.

Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.

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