Exclusive: Donald Trump Calls for Release of Evan Gershkovich

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During the year that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been detained in Russia, one voice has been notably absent in calls for his release: Donald Trump. Now the former President has become the latest prominent figure to directly appeal to Russia to free the journalist. “The reporter should be let go and he will be let go,” 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 wrongfully been held by Russia in recent years. On March 29, 2023, Russian security forces took 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 strongly 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.”

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.

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