Three University of California at Los Angeles basketball players are back home in the United States today after being detained for about a week in China for alleged shoplifting. President Donald Trump’s intervention on their behalf with Chinese President Xi Jinping led to their release.
Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, and LiAngelo Ball, the younger brother of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, were facing the Chinese legal system and the possibility of several years in prison after being charged with shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store during a team trip to China. The three men were released from jail and detained in their Hangzhou hotel in what some saw as a goodwill gesture as Trump arrived. They were back home Tuesday after Trump and Xi had what the president called a “great conversation.”
This story was not afforded the ESPN and national news orgy of congratulations it would have occasioned had President Obama gotten three basketball players out of an authoritarian state with relative ease. Trump tweeted wondering if the players would thank him, leading to a lot of coverage of the tone of his tweet, perhaps more coverage than the fact he had indeed personally intervened to get three Americans home safely.
“I would like to thank President Trump and the United States government for the help they provided. I am grateful to be back home and I will never make a mistake like this again. I am extremely sorry for those that I let down,” said Ball, reading a prepared statement.
I’m grateful they’re back home, too. They are suspended from the basketball team indefinitely, and Trump has tweeted his hopes they live “a great life.” Somewhere between President Harry S. Truman’s admonition about how much you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit and Trump’s tweeting for thanks probably lies a reasonable presidential posture, but Trump does deserve credit.
It’s not the first time Trump has taken an active role in the release of American prisoners overseas during his first year as president. In fact, his record on this front reflects a string of overlooked or lightly covered victories, and highlights a difference in approach and results from the Obama presidency before his. Known for his “America First” rhetoric, Trump’s administration seems to take a genuine interest in “Americans First” on human-rights issues and prisoners.
In April, the administration secured the release of Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi, 30, from an Egyptian prison where she had been held on widely discredited charges since 2014. Hijazi and her Egyptian husband ran a charity that rehabilitated and housed Cairo’s homeless street children, and their imprisonment along with four coworkers became a symbol of the Egyptian government’s crackdown.
They bounced around the Egyptian legal system for three years and human-rights workers alleged they were abused in jail. Despite pleas from the Obama administration, it was “months of backroom negotiations between the Trump administration and representatives of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi” that spurred her eventual acquittal and return to the United States.
The change was likely spurred by Trump’s change in tone to al-Sissi, whom he welcomed to White House in early April. It was a shift from the Obama administration’s approach, which was to keep the former military leader at arm’s length after he executed a military coup in 2013 to overthrow Mohamed Morsi. Despite many human-rights abuses, Trump made the decision to embrace the leader as a strategic partner in fighting terror, and said al-Sissi was doing a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
The administration said there was no quid pro quo for Hijazi’s release, and Trump personally oversaw her trip back to the United States, sending his military aide and Egyptian-born deputy national security adviser Dina Powell to escort the party home, then welcoming them to the Oval Office.
Also in April, Sandy Phan-Gillis, an American citizen held in China on espionage charges without a trial for two years was deported back to the United States. Negotiations for her release had picked up during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beijing in March. Phan-Gillis had been accused of helping the FBI capture Chinese spies, a story her husband Jeff Gillis called “ridiculous,” and she was held in secret locations and solitary confinement during her detention, according to human-rights watchers.
Again, the release of the prisoner followed a warming in relations between Trump and an authoritarian leader—Xi Jinping, whom he had welcomed to Mar-a-Lago in Florida in April, calling him a “very good man” he believed was “trying very hard.” Sen. Ted Cruz praised Trump’s “leadership” on behalf of Phan-Gillis, whose husband fought for her release from their home in Houston, Texas.
At the time of those releases, critics fretted over what Trump was giving away in American moral clarity to achieve them. Others warned that this might work with countries Trump was courting, but not those subjected to his “chest-thumping ‘America first'” treatment.
Trump scored an early success in securing the release of American charity worker Aya Hijazi, who was acquitted by an Egyptian court of child abuse and human trafficking charges after around three years in custody. But her case may prove a relatively easy one given Trump’s eagerness to mend U.S.-Egypt ties, which frayed under former President Barack Obama.
But then, it did work with a country subjected to perhaps Trump’s most bellicose treatment.
In June 2017, the administration secured the release of American student Otto Warmbier from North Korea after 18 months of detention. Warmbier, released on humanitarian grounds, arrived home in a coma and died days later. Trump said “he should have been brought home a long time ago,” and suggested he might have lived if he had been. Obama administration veterans defended Obama’s efforts, but Warmbier’s father, Fred, seemed to take issue with them.
“The question is, ‘Do I think the past administration could have done more?’ I think the results speak for themselves,” he told press. He said he and his wife had been told to keep a low profile by the Obama administration instead of publicizing their son’s plight. When Trump became president, Fred Warmbier pointedly said they’d decided the time for “strategic patience” was over, using Obama’s own diplomatic term for his approach to the Hermit Kingdom.
In the cases of ISIS captives James Foley and Kayla Mueller, the families of the prisoners got worse than inaction. They were threatened with prosecution by the Obama Department of Justice for attempting to get their loved ones back by raising money for possible ransom. Both of those young Americans were killed by ISIS.
Then, in October, there was another victory in a country on which Trump had been tough—Pakistan. American Caitlan Coleman and her family were rescued from Taliban captivity by Pakistani forces on the strength of U.S. intelligence. She and her Canadian husband had been captured while backbacking in Afghanistan in 2012. She was pregnant at the time of her capture and she and her husband Joshua Boyle, who is Canadian, had two more children while imprisoned.
“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wish that it do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said. “I want to thank Pakistan. They worked very hard on this and I believe they are starting to respect the United States again.”
Critics rightly point out that Trump’s avid interest in Americans held overseas sometimes stands in contrast to his seeming lack of interest in broader human-rights issues. He often chooses public reticence about such issues in places like Saudi Arabia or even offers praise to violent strong men like Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillippines.
Yet the president has been willing to lean on countries when it comes to the treatment of Americans held in jails overseas. Even then, however, White House officials say such requests are better made quietly and in private.
‘The previous administration spent a lot of time beating people up,’ one administration official said. Trump has taken a different approach, advocating in private in the hope of developing closer relationships with world leaders that can ‘get us more leverage at the table,’ the official said.
It is not surprising Trump would be driven more by personal stories and opportunities for obvious “wins” as opposed to a broader philosophy. It’s in line with his personality and approach in other areas— for instance, doing one-off economic deals with companies like Carrier to stay in the United States versus broader trade deals and changes. It’s in those personal deal-making settings where this president’s skills are most successful.
When the story compels him, his interest extends beyond Americans and can be a bridge to broader public policy changes, as Sen. Marco Rubio found out when he was able to tell Trump about Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez. Rubio brought Lopez’s wife, Lillian Tintori, to the Oval Office early in the Trump administration. After their conversation, the group took a picture with the president, and he promptly tweeted it, asking Venezuela’s Maduro regime to release Lopez. It was a harsher stance than the Obama administration, which had never granted a meeting with Tintori despite her attempts, had ever taken.
“This administration has been really receptive to things like this,” said Rubio spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas, adding that the senator’s relationship with Trump means he “has his ear” in a way he didn’t with the last president. Since then, Lopez has been transferred to house arrest from prison, but is still detained.
By contrast, the more clinical and professorial Obama took the opposite approach, and in his most high-profile deals to get Americans back, got completely hosed in the trades. For all the complaining about Trump’s symbolic giveaways of American approval to unsavory regimes, which is a real concern, no deal for American prisoners he’s made has required the material giveaways Obama allowed.
For the return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, praised by the Obama administration as serving with “honor and distinction,” Obama released five Taliban operatives, all considered high-risk for return to terror activities. Bergdahl has since been dishonorably discharged after being courtmartialed on charges of desertion and endangering troops.
Americans held in Iran, a pastor and journalist among them, were famously not part of the official deal-making with Iran on its nuclear program, subordinated as so many American priorities were to keep the regime at the negotiating table. Instead, the administration did a secret deal with Iran to release Americans, which ended with the administration unloading pallets of cash for the Iranians at the precise moment Americans were released and laughably claiming it was not a ransom.
The administration also released seven Iranian-Americans and dropped charges against 21 other fugitives as part of the prisoner swap that accompanied the cash payment, kneecapping its own Department of Justice’s National Counterproliferation Initiative by hampering and slow-walking ongoing investigations without informing those in charge of the investigations.
But key enforcement efforts are in limbo as the result of stalled or stymied investigations and prosecutions, and the trail of some high-value targets has gone cold, numerous participants said.
At least six times in the run-up to the nuclear deal, federal investigators scrambled to get Justice and State Department approval to lure top Iranian targets into traveling internationally in order to arrest them, according to one top Obama administration Justice Department official and other participants. But the requests weren’t approved and the targets vanished, depriving the U.S. of some of its best opportunities to gain insight into the workings of Tehran’s nuclear, missile and military programs, the sources said.
Alan Gross, held prisoner in Cuba from for five years, was released in 2014 in conjunction with the release of several Cuban nationals held in America—yet another strange coincidence the Obama administration claimed was not exactly what it looked like.
In the wake of Warmbier’s release, two former Obama administration officials who oversaw efforts to get American prisoners home from 2014 to 2017 praised Trump’s efforts and his adoption of some of the previous administration’s practices.
Bringing home Americans held hostage is difficult for any administration. In our experience, the government can accomplish even the hardest of objectives — but only when there is priority placed on doing so. And, at the end of the day, priority comes from only one place: the White House.
There remain Americans imprisoned overseas, in North Korea, Afghanistan, and Syria. But Trump’s record shows they are a priority for him, and I’d take him at the negotiating table on their behalf over Obama any day.