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Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan: Biden administration offers convicted Russian arms dealer in exchange for detained Americans

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These sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner had the backing of President Joe Biden after it had been under discussion since earlier this year. Biden’s support for the swap has surpassed opposition from the Justice Department, which is generally against the trade of prisoners.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Wednesday that “weeks ago” the US submitted a “substantial proposal” to Moscow for Whelan and Griner, who have been classified as wrongly detained.

During a press conference at the State Department, Blinken said Biden was “directly involved” and signed the proposal. While Blinken did not directly confirm that Bout was part of the deal, he said he “cannot and will not go into the details of what we have proposed to the Russians over so many weeks,” he said “in terms of the president, Of course, not only was he directly involved, he’s signing every proposal we make, especially when it comes to Americans arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this particular case.”

The top US diplomat said he planned to discuss the matter during an expected meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week — his first meeting with his counterpart since the Ukraine war began — and told reporters: “I hope that while speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can continue efforts to bring them home.”

“I think it’s helpful to get clear, direct messages to the Russians about the most important priorities for us. And as I said, these include securing the return home of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” he said. .

A senior government official suggested Moscow has not responded to the “substantial offer” first presented in June, telling CNN “it takes two to tango.”

“We are starting all negotiations to bring home Americans who are being held hostage or wrongly held with a bad actor on the other side. We are starting all these negotiations with someone who has taken a human American and treated them like a bargaining chip,” the official said. . “So in some ways it’s not surprising, even if it’s discouraging, when those same actors don’t necessarily respond directly to our offers, don’t participate constructively in negotiations.”

Administration continues to communicate offer

The official declined to comment on the details of the “substantial offer.” They said it is in the Russian court to respond to it, but at the same time that does not leave us passive as we continue to communicate the offer at a very high level.

The families of Whelan, who has been detained by Russia since 2018 for alleged espionage, and WNBA star Griner, who has been detained in Moscow for drug possession since February, have urged the White House to secure their release, including through a prisoner swap if necessary. .

The National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, John Kirby, said on Wednesday that a senior government official met with the families ahead of Blinken’s announcement about the “substantial proposal.” Biden recently spoke by phone with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth.

Griner, who pleaded guilty in early July but said she inadvertently brought cannabis to Russia, testified in a Russian courtroom on Wednesday as part of her ongoing drug charges trial, which could face up to 10 years in prison. It is clear that her process needs to be finalized before any deal is finalized, according to US officials familiar with the Russian legal process and the inner workings of the US-Russia negotiations.

During months of internal discussions between US agencies, the Justice Department opposed the trade in Bout, people who have been briefed on the matter say. However, Justice officials eventually accepted that a Bolt trade has the support of top State Department and White House officials, including Biden himself, sources say.

The Russian government has often cited Bout as the subject of a potential trade for some Americans.

When asked at the Aspen Security Forum last week why Moscow is so interested in getting Bout back, CIA Director Bill Burns replied: “That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout is a creep.”

“The Russians have certainly expressed an interest in Victor Bout’s return over the years, but those are, as I learned in my old life, very complicated problems in terms of trying to solve them,” he said, referring to his long tenure as a diplomat.

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

The US government has long opposed prisoner swaps, claiming that they only encourage countries to detain Americans so they can be used as bargaining chips. Lawyers have questioned these concerns, arguing that it is more important for Americans to be able to come home.

Among senior officials in the Biden administration, the idea of ​​prisoner swapping received new impetus earlier this year after the successful release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine held captive in Russia for more than two years. Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot then serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.

Biden officials feared the decision to trade Reed for Yaroshenko would be criticized by Republicans. Instead, it received two-pronged praise, including from a handful of Republicans who are normally sharp critics of the administration. That reception, sources say, prompted the government to re-examine all options — including possible trades — to get Whelan and Griner out of Russia.

“Whatever moral humiliation it is that they hold innocent people and try to take someone like Mr. Yaroshenko, who is the opposite of that, out of us, we are nevertheless so committed to bringing our people home that we cannot make those painful choices in certain areas. circumstances,” the senior government official told CNN.

Securing their release would also give the White House a much-needed political victory in the run-up to the November midterm elections, a point some officials quietly acknowledged when speaking to CNN privately. There is also a sense of urgency to bring the two detainees home as the White House faces increasing public criticism from the families of Americans unlawfully detained abroad.

This story has been updated with additional comments.

CNN’s Michael Conte and Christian Sierra reported.

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