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Hostage families' mission to meet the president – Axios

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Relatives of American hostages and political prisoners held overseas are increasingly impatient for a meeting with President Biden.
Driving the news: Last week's release of a U.S. journalist held in Myanmar has elevated some expectations. So, too, did four years of Donald Trump's unusually public enthusiasm for and prioritization of hostage negotiations — with some notable successes.
Fenster's release came after an Oct. 25 open letter in which more than two dozen families called on the Biden administration to do more to secure the release of their loved ones. They expressed frustration that they had not been able to meet with Biden or his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
Why it matters: Hostage crises are among the most emotionally excruciating issues any president deals with. Every administration must strike a balance between prioritizing the freedom of detainees, easing the suffering of families, and managing thorny bilateral issues with foreign governments.
Behind the scenes: In half a century in politics, Biden has long worn his empathy on his sleeve. Multiple hostage advocates told Axios they believe the president's key advisers are deliberately shielding him from the personal agony of these stories to minimize the potential for emotional decision-making.
A senior Biden administration official told Axios that while the government does view these cases as difficult, Sullivan treats them with the highest priority and consistently raises them in conversations with foreign counterparts.
How it works: The SPEHA office was created by the Obama administration in 2015 to break hostage advocacy out of the lengthy list of bilateral issues the U.S. must address with unfriendly governments like Russia or Venezuela.
Zoom in: Trevor Reed's parents say they have weekly engagements with Carstens and the State Department.
The other side: Trump — for better or for worse — relished the idea of a deal-making role for himself and embraced the optics of a high-profile release, like American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was freed from Turkey in 2018.
Yes, but: Both administrations have at times struck deals at the expense of Americans held abroad, demonstrating how fraught the issue can be in the context of broader U.S. foreign policy.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Biden administration is pushing to get Congress, Europe and Ukraine on the same page as it tries to deter Russia from invading Ukraine — all while knowing that the decisive factor will ultimately be the whims of Vladimir Putin.
Why it matters: Officials from virtually all sides are warning that the risk of a large-scale, conventional war on the European continent is greater than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Few agree on how to stop it.
Photo: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Human Rights Watch criticized President Biden and other leaders of democratic nations for sending "mixed signals" on human rights in its annual World Report published on Thursday, saying they "are not meeting the challenges before them."
Why it matters: Though Biden pledged to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote that weapon sales to repressive governments and public reticence on certain human rights violations place those promises in question.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios
Searching for a strategy to avoid a 2022 midterm disaster, advisers to President Biden have discussed elevating a unifying Republican foil not named Donald Trump.
Why it matters: Biden confidants worry that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is too unknown, that Biden won't demonize Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell because of their longstanding and collegial relationship and that elevating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could backfire.

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