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.

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.

Speaking at a press conference at the State Department, Blinken said Biden was “directly involved” and endorsed the proposal. Although Blinken didn’t directly confirm that Bout was part of the deal, saying he “can’t and won’t go into detail about what we’ve been offering the Russians for so many weeks now.” , he said “in terms of the president, of course, he was not only directly involved, he approves of any proposal that we make, and certainly when it comes to Americans who are arbitrarily detained at the foreigner, including in this specific case.

The top US diplomat said he intended to discuss the issue in an expected call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week – his first conversation with his counterpart since the start of the war in Ukraine. – telling reporters, “I hope that by talking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance efforts to bring them home.”

“It is in my mind helpful to deliver clear and direct messages to the Russians on our top priorities. And as I mentioned, that includes securing the return of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” a- he declared.

A senior administration official suggested Moscow had not reacted to the “substantial offer” first presented in June, telling CNN “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 these negotiations with someone who has taken an American human being and treated them 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.”

The administration continues to communicate the offer

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”.

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 an exchange of prisoners if necessary.

National Security Council strategic coordinator for communications John Kirby said Wednesday that a senior administration official spoke with the families before Blinken announced 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 unwittingly smuggled cannabis into Russia, testified in a Russian court on Wednesday in her ongoing drug trafficking trial, 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.

The Russian government frequently presented Bout as the subject of potential trade for a number of Americans.

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

“The Russians over the years have certainly shown an interest in bringing Victor Bout back, but these are, as I learned in my old life, very complicated issues in terms of trying to sort out,” he said. he declared, referring to his long tenure. as a diplomat.

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 release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was 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.

This story has been updated with an additional comment.

CNN’s Michael Conte and Christian Sierra contributed reporting.