Exclusive: Donald Trump Calls for Evan Gershkovich’s Release

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During the year that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been imprisoned in Russia, one voice has been conspicuously absent in the calls for his release: Donald Trump. Now the former President has become the latest national figure to directly call on Russia to free the journalist. “The reporter should be released and he will be released,” Trump tells TIME in an interview on April 12. “I don’t know if he’s going to be released under Biden,” Trump said, but “I would get him released.”

Gershkovich is one of several Americans who have been wrongfully detained by Russia in recent years. On March 29, 2023, Russian security forces hauled him away while he was meeting a source at a restaurant in Yekaterinburg. The Russians allege that Gershkovich was acting as a spy trying to obtain defense secrets, a claim that both the U.S. government and Wall Street Journal vehemently deny. “Journalism is not a crime, and Evan went to Russia to do his job as a reporter,” President Biden said in March on the anniversary of Gershkovich’s detention, calling his confinement “wholly unjust and illegal.”

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Trump’s call for Gershkovich’s release carries more weight now that the former President is the presumptive Republican nominee. Putin recently said that he is open to a prisoner exchange. “I do not rule out that the person you are referring to, Mr. Gershkovich, may return to his motherland,” Putin said. The Biden administration has engaged in consistent negotiations directly with the Russians, making a “significant proposal” at the end of 2023 that was not accepted, according to a State Department spokesperson. A Russian court extended Gershkovich’s detention was extended this month until at least June 30.

Russia experts remain skeptical of Putin’s sincerity—and his timing. Some suspect that Putin wants Trump to beat President Joe Biden in the November election and won’t send the 32-year-old journalist home before then. “They’re not looking to hand the [Biden] Administration any wins,” a U.S. official told TIME last month.

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It wouldn’t be the first time a foreign power played election politics with a U.S. hostage. In November 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized 66 Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The hostages became a dominant national story and a leading campaign issue that hurt then-President Jimmy Carter’s standing in the polls. Iran released the hostages hours after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as President on Jan. 20, 1981.

Russia has a history of meddling in U.S. elections. U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 vote to boost Trump’s campaign by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers and leaking damaging information against Hillary Clinton. A bipartisan report from the Senate intelligence committee came to the same conclusion in 2020. Some Russia watchers criticize Trump for his cozy relationship with Putin. Trump publicly sided with Putin over the American intelligence community at a 2018 summit in Helsinki. Asked about Russian meddling, Trump said "President Putin says it's not Russia,” while standing next to the Russian leader. “I don't see any reason why it would be.”

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When asked by TIME why he had not called for Gershkovich’s release earlier, Trump says his attention had been elsewhere. “I guess because I have so many other things I’m working on. I have hundreds of things,” Trump said. “And I probably have said very good things about him. Maybe it wasn’t reported. I think he’s a very brave young man.” Trump says that if he were president, Putin would let Gershkovich go. “Here’s the difference between me and Biden: I’ll get him released,” Trump says. “Putin’s going to release him.”

—with reporting by Charlotte Alter

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