WASHINGTON — It was days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Paula and Joey Reed were losing hope of seeing their son, Trevor, freed from a Russian prison. Then a call came from an aide to Bill Richardson.
The aide said that Mr. Richardson, a former New Mexico politician known for striking deals with foreign strongmen to free American prisoners, was headed to Moscow to negotiate Trevor’s release.
“I said, What about the State Department?” Joey Reed recalled in an interview. The aide, Mickey Bergman, replied that the department’s attitude had been, “butt out of this,” according to Mr. Reed, and that the trip was “basically a guerrilla operation.”
Two months later, Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, was free. After more than two years behind bars on charges that he had assaulted two police officers, he was released on April 27 in a prisoner exchange between the Kremlin and the Biden administration.
“I really feel that if Richardson hadn’t gotten involved,” Trevor would still be there, Ms. Reed said.
Whether that is true, however, is hard to say. U.S. officials have never credited Mr. Richardson with any significant role in the release, instead describing their own urgent work to free Mr. Reed once his health began to fail. And after Mr. Richardson traveled to Moscow again in September, this time trying to win the release of the jailed Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, the Biden administration signaled that his help was not welcome.
“Our concern is that private citizens attempting to broker a deal do not and cannot speak for the U.S. government,” the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said at a Sept. 14 briefing. Freelance diplomacy, he warned, was “likely to hinder” efforts to free Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan. He noted that Mr. Richardson’s trip had not been coordinated with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
Asked about Mr. Richardson later that day, a National Security Council spokesman, John F. Kirby, told CNN that “private citizens should not be in Moscow at all right now.”
In an interview, Mr. Richardson said he was still on the case and sought to downplay any disagreements.
“In these hostage relationships between government and private efforts, sometimes friction and tensions emerge,” he said. “On the Whelan-Griner case, we are working together and coordinating our efforts.”
“But,” he added, “my first responsibility is to the American hostages and their families, and not to the government.”
For decades in politics and as a private citizen, Mr. Richardson has specialized in helping to win the release of Americans detained overseas, traveling to danger zones like North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and producing miracles that the U.S. government alone could not.
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Now the families of Mr. Whelan and Ms. Griner — whose appeal of a nine-year sentence on drug smuggling charges was denied by a Russian court last week — are hoping that Mr. Richardson can deliver again.
But several people who have worked with Mr. Richardson or followed his efforts closely are uneasy. They describe him as a rogue publicity hound who risks complicating the Biden administration’s delicate talks with Russia — and who may even be playing into the Kremlin’s hands.
The Biden administration’s warnings about Mr. Richardson’s efforts follow other disputes in recent years over his role in prisoner exchanges and reflect the pressures of dealing with foreign governments that turn American prisoners into bargaining chips.
“There are some clear benefits but also some real risks” that come with the involvement of an outsider like Mr. Richardson, said Danielle Gilbert, a specialist in prisoner negotiations at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Ms. Gilbert praised Mr. Richardson’s past successes and said he can play a valuable role by meeting with unsavory actors and brainstorming ideas that would be off limits to American officials.
The danger, she said, is that a freelance diplomat could wind up working at cross purposes with the U.S. government, potentially “putting deals in jeopardy.”
During his long political career, Mr. Richardson, 74, was known for his folksy, unpretentious style and self-promotional skill.
After eight years as New Mexico’s governor and a failed 2008 Democratic presidential bid, his political career ended when his nomination to be President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary was withdrawn amid a federal investigation into state contracting while he was governor. The case was dropped.
Before that he served as a New Mexico congressman, as well as energy secretary and United Nations ambassador under President Bill Clinton. As a young member of the House Intelligence Committee in the 1980s, he developed a flair for secretive back-channel diplomacy, and Mr. Clinton dispatched him on sensitive missions to places like Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan and Sudan.
Mr. Richardson once wrote a book titled “How to Sweet-Talk a Shark” and has shared such maxims as: “Respect the other side. Try to connect personally. Use sense of humor. Let the other side save face.”
Today he runs the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which says it “promotes global peace and dialogue.” Based in a Santa Fe office building, the center has just two full-time employees: Mr. Richardson and Mr. Bergman, a former Israel Defense Forces paratrooper who specializes in what he calls “fringe diplomacy.”
Mr. Richardson says the families of prisoners do not pay him. He never represents himself as working on behalf of the U.S. government, he says, but keeps U.S. officials briefed on his efforts.
He is now assisting several Americans held in Russia, he says, along with an American prisoner of war held by Russians in eastern Ukraine. But most prominent among them are Ms. Griner, a W.N.B.A. star arrested in mid-February when authorities at a Moscow airport found hash oil in her luggage, and Mr. Whelan, a security consultant arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and convicted of espionage.
The State Department considers them both “wrongfully detained” and is treating them as hostages. Under growing pressure to act, the Biden administration offered in June to trade Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a long federal prison sentence, for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan. Russia has not publicly responded.
Mr. Richardson would not describe his contacts but often notes that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, served as his counterpart when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
According to Paula Reed, Mr. Richardson approached Mr. Lavrov about her son’s case and the Russian diplomat directed Mr. Richardson to “a wealthy third party.”
After Trevor Reed was freed in April, in exchange for the release of a Russian pilot convicted in a U.S. court of drug smuggling, Mr. Richardson publicly thanked a man named Ara Abramyan.
An Armenian businessman who lives in Moscow, Mr. Abramyan boasts of his close ties to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, who has awarded him Russia’s prestigious Order for Merit to the Fatherland.
Mr. Putin “gives instructions, and I fulfill them,” Mr. Abramyan said in 2015.
While U.S. officials are studiously tight-lipped about the prospects of freeing Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, Mr. Richardson is willing to prognosticate.
“I remain cautiously positive about my prediction that a deal can be reached before the end of the year to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” he said. “From my experience, once the legal process concludes, there is an opportunity to make a deal.”
He warned of “a few bumps in the road nonetheless” but said “the White House strategy is sound and realistic.” He told CNN in early October that he expects a “two-for-two” swap, returning two Russians for the pair of Americans.
U.S. officials have set no such timeline for a deal, however, nor is there evidence that the Biden administration is willing to sweeten its known offer to return Mr. Bout, who was convicted in federal court in 2011 of conspiring to kill Americans.
There is evidence that Moscow welcomes Mr. Richardson’s role. On July 8, Russia’s state-run news service Tass quoted the country’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey A. Ryabkov, as saying that “the aspiration of such a respected figure to aid his compatriots is praiseworthy.”
Speaking on CNN, Mr. Richardson was less politic about his dealings with Biden administration officials.
“There are a lot of nervous Nellies in the government that think they could know it all, and that’s not the case,” he said. “Look at my track record over 30 years.”
In recent years, friction with U.S. officials has been a recurring theme in Mr. Richardson’s work.
During the Trump administration, Mr. Richardson tangled with officials over tactics and credit in the release of Xiyue Wang, an American graduate student imprisoned in Tehran.
Last November, when Mr. Richardson brought home the American journalist Danny Fenster on a chartered flight from Myanmar, the Biden administration’s special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, thanked him for “securing the release.”
“Sometimes it takes an unconventional approach, and it can’t be the government,” Mr. Carstens added.
But when Rolling Stone magazine recently wrote about the case, a White House spokesperson corrected Mr. Carstens’s account, saying: “The government secured Fenster’s release.”
The White House declined to comment for this story.
Last month, after President Biden approved a prisoner exchange with Venezuela that freed seven Americans, the Richardson Center released a statement citing Mr. Richardson’s many efforts on their behalf.
In a background briefing for reporters detailing the release, however, a senior administration official did not mention Mr. Richardson at all but noted that only the U.S. president can grant clemency and therefore only the U.S. government can negotiate a prisoner exchange.
Similarly, U.S. officials have not described Mr. Richardson as key to Trevor Reed’s release.
In a July email to supporters, Paul Whelan’s brother, David, wrote that his family had contacted Mr. Richardson in early 2019 “when we were at sea” about how to help Paul. But he acknowledged the limits of a freelance negotiator who cannot bargain on behalf of the U.S. government and might be unaware of official efforts.
“This means they can both help and hinder a possible resolution of a detainee’s case,” Mr. Whelan added.
Paula Reed is sure that Mr. Richardson helped.
When Mr. Richardson flew to Moscow in February — on a private jet borrowed from the FedEx founder Fred Smith — he was told by his intermediary that Mr. Putin had personally approved trading Mr. Reed for the jailed Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, she said.
During a March 30 meeting in the Oval Office, Paula and Joey Reed said, they told Mr. Biden that they were aware of Mr. Putin’s offer. That made it nearly impossible, in their telling, for Mr. Biden not to act.
Mr. Richardson’s visit to Moscow “was critical,” Paula Reed said. “We could go in there saying, ‘We know there’s a deal on the table.’”
U.S. officials have not pointed to that meeting as decisive, however. And experts note that Mr. Biden has approved exchanges for other American prisoners without first meeting their families.
Paula Reed thinks Mr. Richardson deserves more credit from the Biden administration. But she understands its frustration.
“With Bill Richardson inserting himself, and then to take credit with these hostage returns, is kind of a negative deal” for U.S. officials, she said. “That’s all Richardson’s looking for: ‘Hey, thank you, we appreciate it.’”