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Iranian Delegation Indicates No Deal Today; Killer Drug Lord Escapes Prison Through Tunnel; Trump Campaign Contacts FBI Over Allege "El Chapo" Tweets. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired July 13, 2015 - 16:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN GUEST HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

On November 10, 2015, 46 people will get a second chance, Douglas Lindsay, Talisha Watkins (ph), the two of them and 44 more convicts are having their prison sentences commuted, because President Obama says they would have already finished serving their time had they been convicted of the same nonviolent drug offenses today.

Let's get to the White House and Jim Acosta.

Jim, this is a big day, not just for these 46 people who will get out of prison much more quickly than they had ever imagined, but it's big because it signifies what the president is going to focus on or one of the key things he will focus on the rest of his presidency.


All week long, President Obama will be trying to jump-start this debate over criminal justice reform. He got the conversation going today by issuing the order to effectively free dozens of prison inmates who the White House says are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.


ACOSTA (voice-over): With the stroke of a pen, President Obama cut short the prison sentences for 46 federal inmates across the country, making the case that their harsh punishments never fit their crimes.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe that, at its heart, America is a nation of second chances. And I believe these folks deserve their second chance. I also believe there's a lot more we can do to restore the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system.

ACOSTA: The president sent each of the prisoners a letter informing them of their commutation.

In one such message to inmate Jerry Allen Bailey (ph) at a federal prison in Georgia, the president wrote: "I'm granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it's up to you to make the most of this opportunity."

The White House says the president has now commuted the most prison sentences since LBJ. All of the inmates are drug offenders, many dealt sentences longer than what they would have received under today's guidelines. Thirteen were serving life in prison. It's the biggest move yet in the administration's push for criminal justice reform.

JAMES COLE, DEPUTY U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We still think there's a need for Congress to act. We're just using the president's power right now at his direction to try and do what we can at the present time to alleviate what we think is a situation that needs to be changed.

ACOSTA: The president cited the issue as a top priority for his remaining time in office.

OBAMA: I am really interested in the possibilities, the prospect of a bipartisan legislation around the criminal justice system. And we have seen some really interesting leadership from some unlikely Republican legislators.

ACOSTA: GOP lawmakers like Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I think there still is a problem, and you shouldn't be using illegal drugs. However, I am for a much more humane response to this, and giving people a second chance.

ACOSTA: The president is well ahead of his predecessors in commuting sentences, though he's still way behind on presidential pardons.

JULIE STEWART, FAMILIES AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUMS: This is such a tip of the iceberg. These 46 people are lucky, but there are literally over 2,000 people in federal prison serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses. I doubt the president is going to get to each one of them before he leaves office.


ACOSTA: Now, tomorrow, the president will continue speaking out on criminal justice reform before the NAACP in Philadelphia.


Later this week, he will travel to Oklahoma, where, get this, he will become the first president to visit a federal prison. That's where he will again take on this topic of criminal justice reform, and, John, he will actually meet some of the inmates there at the prison. The White House says they are taking what they're calling unique steps to make sure the president is safe -- John.

BERMAN: As you said, Jim, that will be historic. Jim Acosta for us at the White House, thanks so much.

In the world lead, negotiators now on the brink of a deal with Iran. But CNN sources say big sticking points are in the way right now of a compromise. Can they be resolved and keep a potential nuclear bomb out of Iran's hands? One senator is very critical of the deal. We will get his take on what is happening in Vienna next on THE LEAD.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper.

Its advocates say a deal would keep Iran from obtaining the most destructive weapon on the planet, for a while, at least. Its opponents say a deal would push the world that much closer to destruction.


An Iranian nuclear deal could finally, after moving deadlines and shifting goalposts for months, it could come together at any moment.

I want to bring in CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott, Elise trying to following the bouncing ball on this deal.

What is holding it up right now?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif just recently described the mood of the negotiators as sleepy and overworked. They have been going at this for 2.5 weeks. They seem to be at the finish line, but faced an abrupt turnaround after last-minute hurdles got in the way of a deal.


LABOTT (voice-over): Grim faces among world powers as nuclear talks hit a snag. After 18 days of marathon negotiations, world powers had hoped to announce the deal Monday. Secretary Kerry predicted the endgame.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I think we're getting to some real decisions. So, I will say, even as we have a few tough things to do, I remain hopeful.

LABOTT: Europe's top diplomat gave the thumbs up, as Iran's president praised his negotiators for reaching the peak of victory, even posting a tweet suggesting the deal was done, but he suddenly deleted it, and tweeted again, adding an if. And his foreign minister signaled no deal when new hurdles put the agreement just out of reach.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: This is a detailed 100-page documents. And the sequencing and the particulars of how the work is done is very important at this point. While they're making history, they don't want to make any mistakes.

LABOTT: Still on the table, how much access inspectors will have to Iranian military bases, to answer questions about Iran's efforts to build a bomb, how much advanced nuclear research Iran can continue to do while the deal is in effect, and Iran's demands to lift a U.N. arms embargo, including restrictions on ballistic missiles, a move Russia, an arms supplier of Iran, but one the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called a red line.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.

LABOTT: Even as Iran marches towards a deal, on the streets of Tehran, the chants were death to America and Israel.

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu slammed what he called the -- quote -- "procession of concessions" to Iran in Vienna.


LABOTT: And while hundreds of journalists are waiting with bated breath for a possible announcement later tonight or tomorrow, "The Washington Post"'s Jason Rezaian appeared in court today on Iran. He's on trial behind closed doors on spy charges the U.S. has called a sham.

For the past 10 years, Rezaian has reported on the daily life of the Iranian people. Undoubtedly, he would be covering how this historic agreement would be affecting the Iranians. Instead, today, his family once again is saying the charges are baseless and calling for his release -- John.

BERMAN: He is in prison. The says it continues to discuss it on the sidelines, but it's not a central part of these discussions.

Elise Labott, thanks so much.

I want to talk about the Iran nuclear deal and what it means for U.S. national security with Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thank you so much for being here.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: It's good to be with you, John.

BERMAN: Senator, one of the holdups in the negotiations right now, perhaps the very holdup that kept it from being announced today, was this demand by the Iranians to lift the U.N. arms embargo.

Now, we don't know where the situation stands right now, but you, as a U.S. senator who will get to weigh in on this deal, could you ever support an agreement that lifted that embargo?

MENENDEZ: Well, absolutely not. I think General Dempsey was right on. Iran is one of the major sponsors of state terrorism in Iraq, in Syria, with Assad, in Yemen with the Houthis, in Lebanon with Hezbollah.

And the last thing we need to do is to legitimize their ability to move arms throughout the region and beyond. And there's a lot more here than meets the eye. Iran, obviously, wants the arms embargo lifted, because that would make the sale of the S-300, which is a sophisticated Russian anti-missile defense system, much more desirable for them, and would make it much harder if Iran cheats in the future for any possible attack against their nuclear facilities.

BERMAN: Do you get the sense that the administration, that Secretary Kerry in these negotiations right now will hold as firm of a line as you would like on this U.N. arms embargo?

MENENDEZ: I certainly hope so.

We have seen a lot of our red lines become green lights. This is not one that can afford to do that, for all the reasons I mentioned before. You can't have Iranians getting more sophisticated defense mechanisms that will make it even bolder for them to break out if they want to, knowing that the attack against them will be more difficult.

You can't give them greater access to weapons that they can promote throughout the region especially when we're looking at anywhere between 100 billion to $150 billion of relief, where they can play a lot of mischievousness beyond what they already do in the region.

BERMAN: It strike mess since you have the Russians who basically say to an extent they want this embargo lifted or they may want to lift it before we do because they want to sell weapons to Iran, that it just goes to show how difficult keeping the status quo in place might be.

There are people who say that no deal is better than a bad deal, but if there is no deal, how much longer can current situation hang on? How much longer could sanctions last if Russia is getting shaky?

MENENDEZ: Well, you know, the administration itself, the president himself has made many times no deal is better than a bad deal. Why? If you have an Iran that has another 100 billion, $150 billion, that has more sophisticated defense systems, that ultimately will have a stronger standing in the future, and they break out then.

Then your choices will be against a much more powerful opposition than it is right now and that's part of what you have to consider because this deal, we're not rolling back sanctions for rolling back the nuclear infrastructure. We're rolling back sanctions for notification. That's a big difference and that's a big risk.

BERMAN: Senator, you're a skeptic. I think that's probably putting it lightly at this point. There are a lot of people who agree with you in the U.S. Congress, the Senate. Congress will get a chance to look at this for 60 days if a deal is reached tomorrow. Do you think there's any way that the White House can convince skeptics like you in Congress to go along with this deal?

MENENDEZ: Well, John, I'm going to look at the totality of the agreement. Maybe they ended up a lot better than I think they did, but at the end of the day, I'm concerned about, do we have anytime anywhere inspections? What's the pace of sanctions relief?

How do we ensure that if there's a violation? It seems to me that regardless of the deal there are two things that must happen, and that might elicit my support.

Number one, the president has to say unequivocally Iran will never have a nuclear weapon. We will deal with it however we have to. It has to be more than all options are on the table. Nobody believes that today.

Secondly you have to have defined sanctions for violations of the agreement. So that the Iranians know the consequences, and we don't have to go negotiate it out. If some of those limits are there, it would make it far more palatable. We'll have to see what the agreement actually is.

BERMAN: We have to see and we could find out within the next 12 to 24 hours. Senator Menendez, come back and discuss it when we do have the details. Thank you so much.

All right, he broke out of a prison once before and evaded police for 13 years before authorities finally locked him up. So how did one of the world's most powerful drug lords escape from prison again?



BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake Tapper today. He might now be the most wanted man on earth. A huge manhunt under way for a notorious drug kingpin, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was arrested in February of last year. He is the head of the violent Sinaloa cartel.

He escaped Saturday from a maximum security prison about 55 miles west of Mexico City. El Chapo faces multiple drug trafficking and organized crime charges in both the United States and Mexico. This is the second time he's escaped from prison in Mexico.

I want to bring in CNN correspondent, Polo Sandoval, who is at the prison. Polo, this is a man with a history of expertise in tunnels. This is a man who has broken out of the prison before. This is a very type of man you would watch very closely to make sure he did not tunnel out of a prison, yet he did it again.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, that's why there is just so much concern in this community, a very small town that's into the shadow of this prison where Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was able to escape from Saturday into Sunday.

And since he eluded authorities for 13 years after that initial escape, there is major concern that he's potentially even slipped away, John. A few moments ago I had a sit-down with some of the federal police officers, that one of hundreds of federal police officers that are patrolling this tiny town.

You can clearly see the expression and hear it in his voice. They are quite disappointed and feeling quite discouraged that they may not be able to track him down at least here so as a result, they really have expanded the search here.

The center of it, though, seems to be here because it truly is an incredible escape. In a quick nutshell, basically tunneled through his cell for about a mile stretch under the fence you see behind me and eventually emerged at a cinderblock home under construction.

That leads me to the next issue too, John, the construction is also being looked at to see some of these potential accomplices likely helped Guzman tunnel his way out. The main question is how did they dig out so much dirt and of course, relocate that.

We are continuing to see these dump trucks go in and out working on this actual project in and around the jail itself. So the main question here, did he get help from the outside?

BERMAN: One of most bizarre twists in this whole thing is Donald Trump reporting to federal authorities that a Twitter account associated perhaps with El Chapo, was making threats against Donald Trump. Does that seem at all plausible, Polo?

SANDOVAL: It could be possible. We know that the Trump campaign noticed those tweets from an unverified Twitter account that may have ties to Guzman, or may not have ties to this individual. We are told that they quickly reported it to the FBI. Federal agents now are on the case trying to, A, verify this account and B, to see if they do qualify as actual threats? So many twists and turns in this quite bizarre story -- John.

[16:55:02] BERMAN: Now he'd be on Twitter right after breaking out of prison, but we will see. Polo Sandoval, thanks so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD, a NASA probe just hours away from Pluto, a place where we all could be younger than we are right now. Scientists are already making some discoveries.



BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Time now for the Pop Lead, in an update to a story about a farm, a celebrity, and his water that we brought you last week in THE LEAD, a water district sued Tom Selleck accusing the "Magnum PI" star of stealing city hydrant water for his avocado farm.

Now, a public works director says the water taken from the hydrants was legally purchased by a company with a permit. It's still unclear whether Selleck obtained the water from that company or another source. The district has since settled that lawsuit.

That is it for THE LEAD right now. I'm John Berman. We turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."