Transcript for ABC News Live: Brittany Griner returning home from Russian penal colony
- Hi. I'm Diane Macedo. Today on "ABC News Live," we have breaking news.
After nearly 300 days in a Russian prison, Brittney Griner is free. The President announced he's agreed to swap the WNBA star with convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Hear how the deal came together and what it means for American Paul Whelan, still detained in Russia. The House vote on legislation to protect same sex and interracial marriage-- what this could mean for millions of Americans.
And gunfire at an energy facility in South Carolina. It comes after a weekend attack on two substations in North Carolina. Authorities are now seeking federal search warrants as we learn of several other recent attacks across the country.
But we begin with Brittney Griner, freed from a Russian penal colony. The US and Russia struck a deal exchanging the WNBA star's release for that of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. President Biden says she will be back home soon and is vowing to continue fighting for the release of American prisoner Paul Whelan. Chief White House correspondent Cecilia Vega has the latest.
CECILIA VEGA: This morning, WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way home to the United States.
- She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home.
CECILIA VEGA: Griner released as part of a one for one prisoner swap with Russian Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer with suspected ties to Russian intelligence who was serving a 25 year sentence in the US. President Biden tweeting out these photos with Griner's wife, Cherelle, and Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken there in the Oval Office as they spoke to Griner on the phone. Just moments ago, President Biden addressing the nation.
- I'm glad to be able to say that Britney is in good spirits. She's relieved to finally be heading home.
CECILIA VEGA: Cherelle also joining the president at the podium.
- Today is just a happy day for me and my family. So I'm going to smile right now.
CECILIA VEGA: Nine months ago, Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport for carrying vape cartridges containing hash oil. The seven time all-Star admitted to mistakenly putting two cartridges in her luggage but also providing documents showing she had a prescription from an American doctor. A Russian court sentencing her to nine years, and she was recently transferred to a Russian penal colony. In May, Cherelle Griner opened up to Robin about the moment she learned her wife was detained.
- This is my wife, you know? So as much as I want to go in that bed or lay on this couch--
- --because the first week, I laid on this couch and cry my eyeballs out, you know? I was numb. I couldn't move. And then I said, you got to get up now.
CECILIA VEGA: Cherelle never giving up hope in the fight for Britney's freedom.
- Has it been comforting to see all the WNBA courts with BG 42?
- Yes, but I think more specifically, it comforts BG, lets her know she's not forgotten, and like, obviously, you know, when you're sitting over there, and your country haven't-- they haven't come to your rescue yet, I know that it makes her feel good, you know, because she doesn't want to be forgotten, you know? And those small moments, like, I know give her some type of hope.
- Our thanks to Cecilia Vega for that report. I want to bring in White House correspondent Karen Travers now along with ABC News national security and defense analyst Mick Mulroy for more on this. Karen, a senior Biden administration official is saying no surprise here that Griner's all smiles and in an extremely upbeat mood. What can you tell us about what she's coming from and how severely her outlook has changed from a month ago when she was sentenced to spend years in a Russian penal colony?
- Yeah, I mean, you heard from the President there, saying that she is safe. She is on her way home and senior officials say she is all smiles and that she's doing well, all things considered. She's on her way back after landing in the UAE where the President did have the chance to speak to her by phone today. But it was notable, Diane, that the president did say that, you know, despite all of that, she has gone through some significant trauma in the past couple of months, that she's lost significant amount of time in her life, and it's going to take her some time to heal and get back that time with her family and her loved ones and friends. But she will have that happy reunion with her family in just a couple of hours.
DIANE MERCADO: And we heard her wife there saying before the country today, my family is whole. And there's a statement from President Biden writing on Twitter that he spoke to Brittney Griner's that she's safe. She's on a plane.
She's on her way home. Mick, Brittney was arrested in February, and these negotiations started almost immediately. So why now?
MICK MULROY: So I think it was a. Combination we're seeing other countries announce that they've played a role in this during their engagements with the highest level of Russian leadership, including President Putin. I think it was finally a decision where we went with the ability to get Brittney Griner home without insisting that Paul Whelan be a part of it because it simply wasn't going to happen. I'm sure the US did everything they could to try to get him as part of this deal, but the Russians just were not going for that. So I think they made the right decision in bringing home Brittney because that's what the opportunity was. But you can see, there's a lot of things going on with Russia right now in Ukraine.
They are losing strategically. They are losing operationally. There's a lot of pressure on President Putin. Perhaps he hopes that this would get him some sanction relief or some form of positive news for him, both with his people and any negotiations that he might want to have.
DIANE MERCADO: And we're getting a statement and now from the WNBA commissioner calling this a collective wave of joy and relief, saying that Brittney Griner-- BG, as they call her-- has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity. They're expressing their gratitude to President Biden and others involved in this deal and expressing also their hope that Paul Whelan and every wrongfully detained American will be returned home safely as soon as possible. Karen, what goes into that aspect of this now?
President Biden made clear that this wasn't a choice between Brittney Griner or Paul Whelan. They faced very different accusations. Brittney Griner had a small amount of hashish oil in her luggage in a Moscow airport.
Paul Whelan is accused of spying, something the US denies and says are bogus. But still, very different charges. So what happens now for Paul Whelan?
KAREN TRAVERS: And you know, he said-- the President said that Russia is treating Paul Whelan's case very differently than they're treating Brittney Griner's case, which makes negotiations much more difficult. The President said today that they are not going to give up on trying to secure Paul Whelan's release, that his administration will continue to try and negotiate with Russia in good faith to bring Paul Whelan home. But that, of course, is going to be complicated. And Paul Whelan's family expressing their sadness, their disappointment, their frustration, frankly, that Whelan was not a part of this agreement today with Russia, that it was a one for one deal, Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout, as part of that prisoner exchange.
You know, Diane, this summer, the Biden administration went to that unusual length to announce that they had made a substantial offer on the table for the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. A lot of these negotiations take place behind the scenes. So it was notable that they said they had made this offer to Russia.
And it was clear in the subsequent weeks and months that Russia was not engaging with the administration. We heard that from senior officials in the briefing room that Russia was not responding. They had essentially hit a stalemate. The day after the midterm elections, the President had a press conference here at the White House, and I asked him if there was an update on Griner's condition after she had been sent to a penal colony and whether that maybe changed the phase of negotiations with Russia. And Diane, the president said he felt that because the United States had gotten past the elections, that maybe then there was hope that Vladimir Putin and Russia would negotiate more seriously. Now here we are just a couple of weeks later with Brittney Griner coming home.
DIANE MERCADO: All right. Karen, Mick, thank you both. And Arizona Congressman Greg Stanton is one of many lawmakers who worked to bring Brittany Griner home. He joins me live now for more on this. Congressman, thanks for being on.
- Thank you.
- When did you learn that this exchange was going to happen and what was your reaction?
- Well I learned early this morning when I received a message from my team. But I did have a chance to travel with the president on Air Force One earlier this week when he visited Phoenix for a major economic development announcement. I did have a chance to talk to him about Brittney Griner and thank him for his advocacy and push him a little bit to continue that.
But he did indicate at that time that he thought there may be some pretty good news in the near future. And I'm really just-- today's a beautiful day for Brittney Griner, for Charelle, for the Phoenix community, and all of the United States of America. Anytime we can bring one of our fellow Americans home who's been wrongfully detained, a great day for our country.
DIANE MERCADO: So, what can you tell us about how this agreement came together?
GREG STANTON: Well, I've had many classified briefings on it and I can't talk about what goes on in the classified briefings. All I can tell you is that we did pass a bipartisan resolution in the United States Congress specifically demanding the release of Brittney Griner and showing that we had the president's back. We knew that the President was going to have a tough decision to make, a tough decision about-- to do whatever needed to be done to bring home our fellow American.
And I'm sure there'll be critics of the decision that was made. But as a member of Congress and as an American, any time we have an American wrongfully detained, we need to show support for our President to bring our fellow American home. And obviously, the graciousness that Paul Whelan's family has shown indicating that, though, they're heartbroken that Paul is not being brought home, but they do support this decision, I just think is a great moment for this country.
- And President Biden has promised that he is still working on bringing Paul Whelan home. Would that entail another prisoner swap, or are there other options to reach a deal there?
- I think they should have all options on the table in order to bring our fellow American home. And just like I was the lead Congressman on the issue of putting together a resolution, a bipartisan resolution-- that's really important-- a bipartisan resolution supporting this president in doing what it takes to bring Brittany Griner home, we need to do the exact same thing for Paul Whelan and other Americans that are wrongfully detained around this globe. This is not an easy business.
It's difficult. It's tough. You have to make tough decisions. You're subject to much criticism. But it's in service of our fellow Americans, and if I or anyone else watching this was wrongfully detained, we would want the President and Congress to do the exact same thing for us.
- And Paul Whelan's family, for what it's worth, did come out early with a statement saying that as disappointing as it is, they did know that the White House did give them a heads up that Paul Whelan was not on the table in terms of being part of this prisoner exchange. But of course, they want to see their family member come home too. So what's your message to Paul Whelan's family today?
- Look. There are two real heroes in this terrible situation-- first, Cherelle Griner, who I've gotten to know and is just a person of grace and courage and strength to support Brittney and to be her advocate here in America, to make sure that we never forgot Brittney, that there was an active effort to raise awareness, both among the political leaders but the community at large, our country at large. She is a hero, as well as Paul Whelan's family.
Again, the grace note that they hit today-- again, of course, they're disappointed that their loved one wasn't able to come home. But to say they support this agreement, they support bringing home Brittney Griner, amazing level of strength and courage on behalf of Paul Whalen's family. And as a fellow American, I'm just blown away by the strength of that family, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
DIANE MERCADO: All right, Congressman Greg Stanton. We appreciate your time today and the work you did here. Thank you.
- Thank you.
- And the House is voting today on the Respect for Marriage Act. The act enshrines into federal law marriage equality for same sex and interracial couples. I want to bring in ABC News senior policy reporter Anne Flaherty as well as Jay O'Brien on Capitol Hill for more on that. And what has the process been like getting this legislation passed?
- Well, Diane, this is a remarkably clean process. The House brought up this bill last July, and it's only taken four months for one of the most contentious debates that this country has ever had, which is a federal right for same sex marriage. I think what's remarkable that I found in some of my reporting was how this came together in the Senate.
So this is a much tougher Hill to climb with those required 60 votes. And we learned that GOP donors were among those who picked up the phone and urged lawmakers to pass this bill. They want this off the table of 2024.
We also heard about unexpected alliances. We had Kyrsten Sinema, who is the first openly bisexual senator. She formed an alliance with the Church of Latter Day-- of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church. And they hashed out a compromise on how to protect religious liberty-- really unprecedented here.
- So Jay, talk to us about the protections in this bill. What specifically does this legislation do?
- Yeah, so the motivation for this legislation, at least in the near term, came out of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade and that dissenting opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas that singled out other constitutional rights that were granted via Supreme Court decision. One was Obergefell v Hodges, which was the right to same sex marriage. The other was the right to interracial marriage.
So that's where this Respect for Marriage Act comes from. It obviously gets introduced in the House, and then it goes to the Senate, has those changes that Anne talked about. Now it's back in the House for the vote this morning.
Now, what the law does or what the bill does is it doesn't necessarily codify that Supreme Court decision. But what it does do and what it accomplishes through doing this is it makes sure that states have to respect other same sex marriages in other states. And that's how it essentially, as you hear talk, codifies same sex marriage into federal law, which Anne pointed out has been a contentious issue for decades.
- Now, Anne, you say lobbyists and Hill staffers are calling this one of the biggest civil rights deals to pass Congress in years. How significant is this? Are we witnessing history right now?
- I think absolutely. I mean, I asked, you know, some experts, would you consider this a civil rights bill? And they said, this protects both the religious liberty rights of churches-- it preserves their tax exempt status. It says that they don't have to recognize same sex marriage.
And at the same time, it protects the rights of LGBTQ Americans to have this federally recognized right to marry. Now, as Jay noted, it is very narrow. It doesn't resolve these issues that we have with private industry and whether or not they can refuse service to somebody.
But I think that's how the bipartisan compromise was able to get done. Now, I've asked many people, is it possible that this could be a template for other bipartisan compromises such as abortion rights? They said that's a little bit too soon at this point. So Jay, what are the next steps with this legislation?
- Well, once it passes the House, as it is very much expected to do, it goes to a ceremony that Speaker Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will hold in a room that's actually not far from me here. It will be signed by Pelosi, by Schumer, and hten it will go to the White House where President Biden is obviously very much expected to sign it. Speaker Pelosi made the point to say that she is particularly happy.
That was her quote. Forgive me. It looks like we've just got passage.
And the reason I know that is, A, because I'm hearing it from the control room, but B, you can hear the cheers from the House chamber, which is not far from me here. You hear applauding and clapping now. It's echoing all the way out here.
And there's the chamber there. So you're seeing it in front of you. You see lawmakers applauding.
I don't have my glasses on. I can't quite see who it is because I'm trying to look through the door. That's not far from me here. But again, passage, a historic moment, something that at one point in this country was considered an extremely contentious issue, passing with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. And that just happened, Diane.
DIANE MERCADO: Definitely a celebratory tone there on the House floor. Applause, as you said, Jay, and even some looked like they were raising the roof to mark this occasion. And big picture-- what does this mean?
- You know, so I think this is a significant step forward for LGBTQ rights. This is an acknowledgment that most public opinion, it's really turned on its head. We had surveys from 1996 where only a quarter of Americans supported same sex marriage.
Now you're looking at 70 plus percent of Americans support this. And you know, Diane, I also want to note we've gotten word that Congressman-- former Congressman Barney Frank was on that floor. He was one of the first openly gay members of Congress.
He's really paved the way for this. He fought for marriage equality for many, many years. So, notable that he's on the floor right now.
I just think that this is something that people will look back on. It's something that you can't erase. And I think that's very important to the 700,000 same sex couples that are married right now.
- Jay, any more legislation planned in this direction, or does this feel like a watershed moment, and they're moving on from this, at least for the time being?
- Well, it's absolutely a watershed moment, Diane, and it was legislation that Democrats wanted to get done in the lame duck Congress. They wanted to get it done before Republicans took control of the House come January. And so the notion that other things coming down the pike is somewhat unclear because this is something that Democrats put a lot of energy into to get it done, as Anne said earlier, within what is for legislation like this a relatively tight window and particularly to get it done before Republicans take control of the House come January. And so this was something that, again, Speaker Pelosi said was a priority for her, one of the last pieces of legislation that she will see to the president's desk, which is where it's headed next. Diane
- All right. Jay O'Brien, Anne Flaherty, thank you both. Coming up, new gunfire at an energy facility in South Carolina amid the investigation into the power grid sabotage in North Carolina. Hear what we're learning now about some other attacks as well when we come back.
Welcome back. We're learning new details about a shooting near a Duke Energy facility in South Carolina. It comes just days after attack on two Duke Energy substations in North Carolina. Investigators have now filed for federal search warrants in the North Carolina shooting, and now power stations in other states are reporting recent attacks. ABC News Mona Kosar Abdi is in Carthage, North Carolina, with the latest.
MONA KOSAR ABDI: Authorities in South Carolina confirming they're investigating new gunfire near an energy facility. Law enforcement sources confirming to ABC News a person opened fire near a Duke Energy hydropower plant. Authorities saying the individual pulled up in a truck and fired what appear to be a long gun before speeding away. No one was injured, and there is no damage to the station at this time. It comes as authorities in North Carolina ramp up their investigation into the attack on two Duke Energy substations last Saturday, which left entire towns in Moore County without power.
- You think nothing of when you turn on a light switch. But whenever you haven't had power for a few days, you turn on a light switch, it means-- it's just everything.
MONA KOSAR ABDI: Authorities now seeking federal search warrants in that case and issuing a $75,000 reward for information.
- I think we're just days and moments and hours away from catching the culprit that did this tragedy.
MONA KOSAR ABDI: More power companies reporting physical attacks on electric grids to the FBI. Multiple power substations reportedly attacked in Oregon and Washington last month. The power companies are not saying how the attacks were carried out, but one briefly cut electricity to customers outside Portland according to our station, KATU.
- And we have confirmed that this was malicious intent. This was no accident.
- Our thanks to Mona Kosar Abdi for that report. Coming up, Celine Dion is revealing new details about a neurological condition that has kept her off the stage. What it means for her future after this.
Welcome back. Celine Dion is revealing she has been diagnosed with a rare neurological condition. The singer announced on Instagram that she has a rare autoimmune disorder that affects her ability to perform. Lara Spencer has more.
[MUSIC - CELINE DION, "IT'S ALL COMING BACK TO ME NOW"]
- (SINGING) He was gone with the wind, but it's all coming back to me.
LARA SPENCER: Celine Dion making a stunning admission about her health.
- As you know, I've always been an open book. And I wasn't ready to say anything before. But I'm ready now. I've been dealing with problems with my health for a long time. And it's been really difficult for me to face these challenges and to talk about everything that I've been going through.
[MUSIC - CELINE DION, "ALL BY MYSELF"]
- (SINGING) All by myself.
LARA SPENCER: The superstar postponing her 2023 tour after being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called Stiff Person Syndrome.
CELINE DION: We now know this is what's been causing all of the spasms that I've been having. Unfortunately, these spasms affect every aspect of my daily life, sometimes causing difficulties when I walk and not allowing me to use my vocal chords to sing the way I'm used to.
It hurts me to tell you today, this means I won't be ready to restart my tour in Europe in February.
[MUSIC - CELINE DION, "POWER OF LOVE"]
- (SINGING) The power of love.
LARA SPENCER: It was just this past October when Celine was forced to cancel the remaining dates of her North American tour citing a health issue.
You were my friend.
LARA SPENCER: And in 2021, the Canadian diva canceling a return to her Las Vegas residency after severe and persistent muscle spasms prevented her from performing.
[MUSIC - CELINE DION, "MY HEART WILL GO ON"]
- (SINGING) My heart will go on and on.
LARA SPENCER: Celine closing her heartfelt message out with a goodbye for now to the stage.
- All I know is singing. It's what I've done all my life. And it's what I love to do the most. I miss you so much. I miss seeing all of you, being on the stage.
- Thanks to Lara Spencer. Wishing Celine Dion a recovery from this. I'm Diane Macedo. We'll be right back.
This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.