CNN Exclusive: Biden administration offers convicted Russian arms dealer in exchange for Griner, Whelan

These sources told CNN that Bout’s plan for Whelan and Griner had received backing from President Joe Biden after being in discussion since earlier this year. Biden’s support for the swap trumps opposition from the Justice Department, which is generally against prisoner swaps.

“We have communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,” a senior administration official told CNN on Wednesday. “We communicated this several weeks ago, in June.”

The official declined to comment on details of the “substantial offer”. They said it was up to Russia “to respond to it, but at the same time it does not leave us passive, because we continue to communicate the offer at very high levels”.

“It takes two to tango. We start all negotiations to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with a bad actor on the other side. We start all of this with someone who took an American human being and treated him as a bargaining chip,” the official said. “So in some ways it’s not surprising, even if it’s disheartening, when those same players don’t necessarily directly respond to our offers, don’t engage constructively in negotiations.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Wednesday that the United States presented a “substantial proposal” to Moscow “weeks ago” for Whelan and Griner, who are classified as wrongfully detained. The top US diplomat said he intended to discuss the issue in an expected call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week.

The families of Whelan, detained by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018, and WNBA star Griner, imprisoned in Moscow for drug possession since February, have urged the White House to secure their release, including via a prisoner exchange if necessary.
Griner, who pleaded guilty in early July but said he unwittingly brought cannabis into Russia, testified in a Russian court Wednesday under her ongoing trial for drug trafficking, for which she faces up to 10 years in prison. It is understood that his trial will have to end before a deal is finalized, according to US officials familiar with the Russian legal process and the inner workings of US-Russia negotiations.

During months of internal discussions between US agencies, the Justice Department opposed the Bout deal, according to people briefed on the matter. However, justice officials eventually agreed that a Bout swap would have the backing of senior State Department and White House officials, including Biden himself, sources say.

Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect, arrives at Westchester County Airport in 2010.

The US government has long resisted prisoner swaps, fearing they will incentivize countries to detain Americans so they can be used as bargaining chips. Supporters have questioned those concerns and argued that it is more important that Americans be able to return home.

Among senior Biden administration officials, the idea of ​​prisoner swaps gained further momentum earlier this year after the successful exit of Trevor Reed, a former Marine held captive in Russia for more than two years. Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was then serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for cocaine smuggling conspiracy.

Biden officials feared the decision to trade Reed for Yaroshenko would come under fire from Republicans. Instead, he received bipartisan praise, including from a handful of Republicans who are normally strong critics of the administration. That reception, sources say, led the administration to re-examine all options — including potential trades — to get Whelan and Griner out of Russia.
“Whatever kind of moral indignity they feel in holding back innocent people and trying to snatch someone like Mr. Yaroshenko from us, who is the opposite of that, we are nonetheless so determined to bring our people back to the house that we will make these painful choices under certain circumstances,” the senior administration official told CNN.

Securing their release would also give the White House a much-needed political victory before the midterm elections in November, a point some officials quietly acknowledged in a private interview with CNN. There is also a sense of urgency to bring the two detainees home as the White House faces growing public scrutiny from families of Americans illegally detained abroad.

Biden recently spoke by phone with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth.

This story is broken and will be updated.

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