Biden Administration Offers 'Substantial' Deal to Russia in Exchange for Brittney Griner

"We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday

The Biden administration has offered a "substantial" deal to Russia to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American prisoner, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

Blinken's statement, at a press conference, was the first time a White House official has confirmed negotiations to bring Griner home from Russia, where the WNBA star has been detained since Feb. 17.

Citing sources, CNN also reported Wednesday that the White House offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for a Russian prisoner in the United States, Viktor Bout, who was convicted for arms trafficking and is currently serving 25 years.

Sources told CNN that this plan to swap prisoners was backed by President Joe Biden after being under discussion earlier in the year. With Biden's support, the plan overrides the Department of Justice, which holds a firm stance against prisoner trades.

Blinken said Wednesday that the White House has been in negotiations with Russia on the potential exchange for weeks, and that he intends to discuss the matter further on a call with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Brittney Griner, Joe Biden
Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty; Ting Shen/Bloomberg/Getty

"In the coming days, I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began. I plan to raise an issue that's a top priority for us, the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongly detained and must be allowed to come home," Blinken said.

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"We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release," he added. "Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. I will use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us towards a resolution."

Blinken declined to comment on if Bout, who has been nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," would be involved in the exchange.

A representative from the White House confirmed to PEOPLE Wednesday that the Biden administration had "made a substantial proposal to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home weeks ago."

Brittney Griner smiles inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at the Khimki Court in the town of Khimki outside Moscow on July 15, 2022

Griner last appeared in Russian court earlier on Wednesday, where she testified for the first time about her arrest. The WNBA star, 31, told the court that Russian officials did not read any rights to her when she was arrested at the Moscow airport for possession of cannabis oil in February, according to The Washington Post.

While Griner said a translator at the airport told her where to go, nobody explained to her what was happening, and she described the general translation services offered to her during her months-long detainment in Russia as "inadequate."

"I remember one time there was a stack of papers that [the translator] needed to translate for me. He took a brief look and then said the exact words were, 'Basically you are guilty,' " Griner testified.

During her testimony, the WNBA star told the court via a translator that she was aware she was not allowed to bring cannabis oil into the country and said she still does not "understand how they ended up in her bag."

"I had no intention to break the law," she said, adding that she was stressed and rushed while packing and was recovering from a then-recent COVID-19 diagnosis that required her to take a test before getting on a plane.

RELATED VIDEO: Brittney Griner's Wife, Teammates and Supporters Rally for Her Release From Russia

Griner also testified that upon her arrest, she did not receive access to a lawyer and was made to sign documents without being told what they meant, according to the Associated Press. Griner said that during a Feb. 19 hearing regarding her arrest, she received only a "cursory translation" of the allegations made against her, according to the AP.

Griner's trial in Russia started on July 1. On July 7, the two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to possessing vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Her lawyers told PEOPLE at that time that they expect the trial to last until the beginning of August, when Griner will be sentenced.

During hearings on Tuesday, Griner's lawyers had a narcology expert testify in an effort to explain that medical cannabis "is a popular treatment, specifically among athletes," The New York Times reported.

"With the prescription in place, Brittney may have used it for medical, but not for recreational purposes," said Maria Blagovolina, one of her attorneys.

Earlier this month, Griner's lawyers told the court that the Phoenix Mercury center has a doctor's note approving cannabis for pain treatment.

Brittney Griner enters a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court in the town of Khimki outside Moscow on July 15, 2022

"The attending physician gave Brittney recommendations for the use of medical cannabis. The permission was issued on behalf of the Arizona Department of Health," Blagovolina said during Griner's fourth hearing since her arrest, the Associated Press reported.

The American athlete's defense team also submitted the results of her anti-doping tests, which showed no signs of illegal substances in her system.

Griner testified Wednesday that she had used cannabis oil for medicinal purposes in the United States to treat injuries sustained during her basketball career. One of her attorneys, Alexander Boykov, said Tuesday that the Russian public and court "has to know, that it was not used for recreational purposes in the United States. It was prescribed by a doctor," according to the AP.

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