Inside the Prisoner Swap That Freed Brittney Griner


Had the Russians done something to Mr. Whelan? That could have made a trade for Ms. Griner impossible, but also would have seemed unlikely given that it was the Russians who now seemed eager to make a deal. For days, work on the potential deal for Ms. Griner stalled as the Americans worked to figure out what had happened. Officials eventually determined that Mr. Whelan had been taken back to prison, and he called his family.

At a meeting in the Oval Office early last week, Mr. Biden was ready to sign off. The Justice Department had weighed in against the deal, communicating their objections through Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. But the department makes a policy of opposing prisoner trades across the board, arguing that it undercuts the American justice system. The State Department, on the other hand, recommended the deal, as did other officials who concluded that the deal from the Russians was never going to change and so it was time to take it. The president agreed.

The careful negotiations, however, almost unraveled a few days later, as Mr. Biden hosted President Emmanuel Macron of France for a state dinner at the White House. A journalist for CBS News contacted the White House with reporting that the administration was preparing to swap Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout.

Premature disclosure, officials feared, was likely to scuttle the deal. They asked the network to hold off. According to CBS, it “agreed to a White House request to hold the reporting because officials expressed grave concern about the fragility of the then-emerging deal.”

With that resolved, officials moved forward. Armed with the president’s go-ahead, they pressed their Russian counterparts: Are you serious about this? The answer came back more quickly than the American diplomats expected, and it was more definitive. Yes, they said.

Wary of undercutting the deal, the American diplomats carefully made one last appeal for Mr. Whelan, asking the Russians if there was anyone other than Mr. Krasikov whom they might want in exchange for both Mr. Whelan and Ms. Griner. They got a firm no, but the Russians did not use the effort as an excuse to back out of the developing arrangement for Ms. Griner.

Within days, plans were set for two planes to take off — one from Moscow, where Ms. Griner had been transferred, and another from the United States, with Mr. Bout. Still worried that the deal could fall apart at the last minute, Mr. Biden waited to sign Mr. Bout’s clemency until the last minute.

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