The U.S. government on Monday strongly discouraged former NBA player Dennis Rodman from traveling to Russia to help secure the release of detained WNBA star Brittney Griner — a trip that Rodman himself separately clarified is not in the works. which reverses an earlier comment.
The back-and-forth stems from Rodman, a five-time NBA champion who initially announced last weekend that he planned to travel to Russia, according to comments he made to NBC News while dining at a restaurant in Washington, DC
“I got permission to go to Russia to help that girl,” Rodman told NBC News on Saturday. “I’m trying to leave this week.”
Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February 17, pleaded guilty to drug charges earlier this month and was sentenced to nine years in prison after vape cartridges containing hashish oil – an illegal drug in Russia – were found in her luggage. at the airport.
A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told ABC News during a press briefing Monday that if Rodman traveled to Russia, “he would not be traveling on behalf of the United States government.”
“We believe that anything other than negotiating through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder these release efforts,” Price added.
Amid scrutiny of his comments, Rodman told ABC News on Monday that he currently has no plans to travel to Russia.
Rodman previously tried to influence US foreign policy as a kind of informal diplomat amid heated relations between the US and North Korea.
Rodman traveled to Singapore in June 2018 ahead of then-President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is a big Chicago Bulls fan.
Although Rodman did not meet with the dictator, whom he said he considers a “friend”, he was one of the few Westerners who had met him in Pyongyang previously.
Rodman does not need permission from the United States to travel to Russia, but does require a visa from Moscow to travel to the country.
However, the State Department strongly discourages US citizens from traveling to Russia amid the war in Ukraine and is issuing a “Level 4-Do Not Travel” advisory, which was last updated on August 15.
“We have also given very clear guidance to American citizens — because of a number of threats, not least the threat of wrongful detention — that Americans should not travel to Russia,” Price said Monday. “That has been our message to private Americans across the board.”
Price’s warning came after a senior Biden administration official advised Rodman against traveling to Russia in a statement provided to ABC News on Sunday, citing the U.S. travel advisory.
At her trial, which began in July, Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she did not intend to break Russian law but that the cartridges were left in her bag by accident.
The United States classified Griner’s case as “wrongfully detained” in Russia in May, and the Biden administration has been working to negotiate the WNBA star’s release, as well as the release of American citizen Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2019.
On July 29, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that he had a “frank and direct conversation” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about a U.S. proposal to exchange convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan.
Earlier this month, Russian officials confirmed that these talks have taken place.
Asked about the status of the talks, Price said U.S. interests are “best served if these discussions take place in private,” but stressed that this is “something we continue to work on with the utmost urgency.”
“I said last week that we had begun discussions with Russian counterparts about this. Those discussions are ongoing,” Price added. “We have made very clear, as we have done publicly, that we proposed a substantial motion, we called it, for the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”
ABC News’ Katie Conway and Tanya Stukalova contributed to this report.