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Top Senate Democrat blasts 'deeply disturbing' prisoner swap that released prolific arms dealer

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

A top Democratic senator and members of the Biden administration are speaking out about President Joe Biden's controversial decision to swap Viktor "Merchant of Death" Bout for Brittney Griner.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Biden's decision to give up Bout "deeply disturbing."

"The Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equivalence between the Brittney Griners of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘Merchant of Death,'" he said in a statement. "Nothing could be further from the truth, and we cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision."

"This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognize we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans," he also said.

What is the backstory?

Senior Biden administration officials who spoke with Politico disclosed that Russia refused the U.S. proposal to release both Griner and Paul Whelan in exchange for Bout.

The only way Russia would release both Americans is if the U.S. government released Bout and secured the release of Vadim Krasikov, a former KGB colonel and convicted murderer, a proposal that had been previously reported.

Politico explained:

The two-for-one push by Washington made sense since some U.S. officials questioned the wisdom of giving up a man who enabled the use of child soldiers, torture, amputations and aided the Taliban in Afghanistan for a basketball player, no matter how just her cause. Bringing home Griner and Whelan for Bout was a fairer swap, U.S. officials assessed.

"Due to the nature of the sham espionage charges Russia levied against Paul, the Russians have continued to treat his situation differently from Brittney’s and rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release," an administration official told Politico.

"It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none," the official said. "He made the very painful decision to provide the clemency necessary to get this done and, indeed, to get it done."

American officials, meanwhile, insist they will continue negotiating for Whelan's release.

It's not clear, however, what leverage the U.S. now holds to secure Whelan's freedom without Bout, whom American officials fear will return to his old way of life.

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