Had the Russians done something to Mr. Whelan? This might have made a swap impossible for Ms Griner, but would also have seemed unlikely given that it was the Russians who now seemed keen to strike a deal. For days, work on the potential deal for Ms Griner stalled as Americans sought to figure out what happened. Authorities eventually determined Mr Whelan had been taken back to jail and he called his family.
At a meeting in the Oval Office early last week, Mr Biden was ready to sign. The Justice Department had weighed in against the deal, communicating its objections through Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. But the department has a policy of opposing all prisoner exchanges, arguing that it undermines the US justice system. The State Department, on the other hand, recommended the deal, as did other officials who concluded that the Russians’ deal was never going to change and therefore it was time to take it. The president accepted.
The painstaking negotiations, however, nearly unraveled days later as Mr Biden hosted French President Emmanuel Macron for a state dinner at the White House. A CBS News reporter contacted the White House to report that the administration was preparing to trade Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout.
Premature disclosure, officials feared, was likely to frustrate the deal. They asked the network to wait. According to CBS, he “accepted a request from the White House to suspend reporting because officials expressed serious concern about the fragility of the then-emerging deal.”
Once that was resolved, officials moved on. Armed with the green light from the president, they pressed their Russian counterparts: are you serious about this? The answer came back faster than expected by American diplomats, and it was more definitive. Yes, they said.
Afraid of undermining the deal, US diplomats carefully made one last appeal to Mr Whelan, asking the Russians if there was anyone other than Mr Krasikov they might want in exchange for Mr Whelan and Mrs. Griner. They got a firm no, but the Russians didn’t use the effort as an excuse to back out of the developing arrangement for Ms Griner.
Within days, plans were made 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 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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