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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

WNBA Star Brittney Griner Freed From Russia In Prisoner Swap; House Passes Landmark Civil Rights Bill To Protect Same-Sex, Interracial Marriage; CNN Speaks With Man Behind Twitter Account That's Become Hub For Information & Images On China's Mass Uprising. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired December 08, 2022 - 21:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Want to show you live picture of Kelly Field, in San Antonio, Texas, where Brittney Griner's expected to arrive, tonight.

As we wait, for word on that, after nearly 10 months, in Russian custody, CNN's Alex Marquardt has more, on how all of this prisoner swap came about.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): The dramatic moment of the high-stakes prisoner swap, Brittney Griner, in the red coat, walking towards the American plane. Coming towards them, State Department official, Roger Carstens, accompanying Viktor Bout, who was hugged by a Russian official.

This new video, from Russian state media, shows Griner, leaving Russian detention, and boarding the plane, in the snow. Her passport returned, Griner smiled, knowing she's heading home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you ready for flight?




MARQUARDT (voice-over): Back in the U.S., Griner's wife, Cherelle, was invited to the White House.

C. GRINER: I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions. But the most important emotion that I have, right now, is just sincere gratitude, for President Biden, and his entire administration.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): The release was the culmination of many months of negotiations with Russia.

BIDEN: This work is not easy. Negotiations are always difficult. There are never any guarantees. But it's my job, as President of the United States, to make the hard calls, and protect American citizens, everywhere in the world.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): The WNBA star, who was caught with cannabis oil, entering Russia, spent 10 months, in Russian detention. But now, she's spared, from a brutal nine-year sentence, in a Russian penal colony.

U.S. officials said that the trade, for notorious Russian weapons smuggler, Viktor Bout, was finalized, in the past 48 hours.

Griner was moved from her prison, to Moscow, before being flown to Abu Dhabi, where the exchange took place, on the tarmac of a small private airfield.

BIDEN: I'm glad to be able to say that Brittney's in good spirits. She's relieved to finally be heading home.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): The U.S. wanted to trade Bout, for both, Griner, and American, Paul Whelan. But Russia refused.

In an exclusive interview, from his penal colony, Whelan told CNN, he's surprised he wasn't included.

PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA: I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release. I'm happy that Brittney is going home today and that Trevor went home when he did. But I don't understand why I'm still sitting here. My bags are packed. I'm ready to go home.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): Whelan told CNN that the Russians see him at a higher level than Griner. He's been charged with espionage, and sentenced to 16 years.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none. I wholeheartedly wish that we could have brought Paul home, today, on the same plane, as Brittney.


COOPER: And Alex Marquardt joins us now.

What more do you know, about what's going to happen, once Brittney Griner lands, in San Antonio?

MARQUARDT: Well, Anderson, we are still waiting to get word that that plane has touched down, in San Antonio, and that Griner is back, on U.S. soil. It's been about 13 hours, since we first heard that this exchange had taken place, on that tarmac, in Abu Dhabi.

So, the plane, heading now for San Antonio. Griner is from Texas. But, Anderson, the reason it's going to San Antonio, is because there is a medical treatment facility, there. And there, Griner will be able to get any medical attention that she needs. U.S. officials do believe that she is in pretty good health, but they

don't want to take any chances. How long Griner stays at that medical facility will be up to her -- up to her, and her wife, according to the State Department.

That is the same airport, the same facility that Trevor Reed went to, when he was exchanged, back in April, by the Russians.

Anderson, Viktor Bout, he's already home. He landed back at the Moscow's Vnukovo airport, just a couple hours ago. He was greeted off of the plane by his mother and his wife. That was broadcast on Russian state TV, as so many of today's events were. The Russians clearly see this, as a win, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. Alex Marquardt, appreciate it.

I want to talk to someone, who knows what Griner and her family have ahead of them. He's the father of Trevor Reed, who was detained in Russia, for nearly three years, until his return in April, in a prisoner swap, which like today, only secured his release, his alone.

Trevor Reed's father, Joey, joins us now.

I appreciate you being with us. What is your reaction, particularly Trevor's, to -- and Trevor's, to the news that Brittney Griner was released?

JOEY REED, FATHER OF TREVOR REED: Well, thanks for having me on, Anderson.

We had a lot of mixed emotions, today, the entire family. We're very happy, for Brittney, and her family, and her friends. We know how it feels, to have this day.

But, at the same time, we're heartbroken, we're disenchanted and, to a certain extent, angry that Paul has been left behind, for the third time. And we just we can't get over that. My wife was nauseated. She was sick to her stomach, this morning, when she heard that Paul was left behind.

COOPER: What do you think it's going to take, to get him back?

REED: Well, to be blunt, it's going to take the United States, actually negotiating, to make -- to get his release.

And let me make a point. Initially, the Russians told everyone, in the world basically that they wanted to trade Paul for Viktor Bout, and the United States government wouldn't consider that, or talk about it.

And then there was third-party channels that talked about trading Viktor Bout for both my son and Paul, and the United States government was still opposed to that.


And now, they realize that they've got something else, and they traded Viktor Bout, for Brittney, but not for Paul. And so, they're wanting more.

And, quite frankly, if the United States government doesn't have some Russian spies in their prisons, along with the thousands of other foreigners that we arrest, around the world, then somebody's not doing their job. There's got to be somebody we could trade, or a group of people, we could trade, to bring Paul Whelan, home.

COOPER: The Administration -- I talked to former Admiral, John Kirby, at the White House, in the last hour, who said that, essentially, Russians came back to the Administration, and said, "Look, this isn't a question of Paul Whelan, for Viktor Bout, or Brittney Griner, for Viktor Bout. It's either Griner for Bout or, Whelan's in a different category. And we consider him different."

Do you buy that?

REED: Not really, no, and again, because of what I just said. Originally, there was a lot of talk, by the Russians, of trading Paul for Viktor Bout. And now, not.

Well, what's changed? Well what's changed is the political climate, in the United States, the war, and there's a lot of things that have changed. But they were willing to make that trade at one point. And now, they're not. Now, they want to get more.

And of course, they've asked for Zheleznov (ph), but he's a spy, but he's also convicted of murder. And obviously, that's very difficult, for the United States, to make a trade, like that.


REED: But there's got to be some deal that could be made.

And there's other Americans, in Russia that have not been declared, wrongfully detained, which is that that term is misused all the time. There's hundreds of Americans, around the world that are wrongfully detained, but never declared so, by our government.

COOPER: How is your son, Trevor, doing?

REED: He's -- thank you for asking. He's doing well. He's healthy. He gained back all of his weight, and muscle, within a month or two.


REED: He's enjoying his family and friends. Oh, yes. He's in good shape and, doing a little traveling, and just enjoying being a free person. We hope he's going to be back in college, next year.

COOPER: Did the government provide Trevor, with any supportive services, when he returned home? I mean, what happens to somebody when they return home?

REED: Well, they did. And, like you mentioned earlier, that he landed, at the same airport, I think, that Brittney's arriving at, and then he was taken to a medical facility, there. I don't want to give the name, because I don't want -- I'm sure they

know, but I don't want, to cause any problems, with the media, there.


REED: But -- and then, he was in the hospital for, I think, three days, doing testing, because, again, they thought he had tuberculosis. And then, he was released to Officers' quarters, and then given counseling, by a special team, provided by the DOD. And, I think, the Venezuelan hostages that were returned, many of them went through the same program.

And I hope if Brittney and her family want that, I very encourage -- I encourage them to take them up on it. It's a great deal, and it will help her get back on the road, to being a free person, and enjoying her life.

COOPER: What other advice do you have for Brittney's family, for Griner herself?

REED: Take it all in. And I know it's overwhelming.

My son, just, and speaking to him, the other day, he said that -- of course he -- he and Paul went through some really brutal things, during their time, there that I don't think Brittney has experienced.

But still, Brittney's going to have some issues, to work out. And her family, and friends, and her employers, and her fans, they all need to understand that. And she needs space. She needs love.

And let her do what she wants, at her own pace. And she needs people to encourage her not to take it too fast and, because it'll come back to bite her later, if she tries to jump back into everything, right off the bat. So, she needs to take it easy, and she just needs a lot of love.

COOPER: Yes. Joey Reed, it's really a pleasure to talk to you, tonight. I appreciate. I'm so sorry for what your family has been through, and I'm sorry for what so many families are still going through, tonight, and the hope that they are still waiting to hear. So, thank you.

REED: Thank you, Anderson. And remember, all the other families out there from--


REED: --that are all over the world, Americans that need to be brought home.


REED: And you, the media, are the ones that can do that. So, thank you.

COOPER: Joey Reed, I appreciate your time. Thank you. We touched on Paul Whelan. More now on who he is, how he came to be where he is, and the effort to get him back.

CNN's Jim Sciutto has more.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, CNN CO-ANCHOR, CNN NEWSROOM (voice-over): Paul Whelan's odyssey, in Russia's criminal justice system, began, on December 28, 2018. A former Marine, he was arrested in Moscow, during a trip, for the wedding, of a fellow Marine, to a Russian woman.

DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF PAUL WHELAN, BROTHER PAUL DETAINED IN RUSSIA: He ended up taking a group of them, as part of their tour, through the Kremlin. And then that evening, he disappeared.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Russia's Federal Security Service accused him of being a spy.

Whelan had visited Russia, before, including as early as 2006, while on a two-week leave, from a deployment, to Iraq.


Born in Canada, to British parents, Whelan moved to the U.S., as a child. He has U.S., Canadian, British and Irish citizenship.

Whelan joined the Marine Reserves, in 1994. He did multiple tours in Iraq. And during the 2006 deployment, he was accused by the military, of attempting to steal more than $10,000. He was court-martialed, and discharged for bad conduct, two years later.

After the Military, Whelan worked in corporate security, first as a senior manager, in the global security firm, Kelly Services. And, in 2017, he began working for automotive components supplier, BorgWarner, eventually becoming Director of Global Security.

According to his brother, Whelan was a world traveler, with friends, in Russia. He was also active, on Russian social media.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): After his arrest, Russia claimed, Whelan was caught, quote, "Red-handed," with a flash drive, with State secrets. Whelan maintains he was set up.

D. WHELAN: One of the friends that he had made in Russia visited him the night of the wedding, right before the wedding happened, and gave Paul a USB, just a USB stick, and said that they were photos from a previous trip that they'd been on to another part of Russia.

And as soon as he was given the USB stick, and put it in his pocket, his door was opened, by the FSB, and he was arrested, and that was it.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): On June 15, 2020, Whelan was convicted of espionage, and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor in prison.

In the years since his arrest, the U.S. government has also maintained Whelan's innocence, and made repeated attempts, to secure his release.

Today, CNN's Jennifer Hansler spoke to Whelan, by phone, from the penal colony, where he's being held.

P. WHELAN: I have to say I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release.


P. WHELAN: Especially, as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred. I'm happy that Brittney is going home today, and that Trevor went home when he did. But I don't understand why I'm still sitting here.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Well, it's obviously incredibly difficult day, for the Whelan family.

We're joined now by Paul Whelan's brother, David, who you heard briefly, in Jim Sciutto's report.

David, thank you so much for being here. I'm sorry, it's under these circumstances. How are you? How's your family doing, tonight?

D. WHELAN: Well, I think we're moving on.

We were given the grace, by the White House, of learning the news, a day early. So, we knew, yesterday, and we're able to process it, privately, and go through all the emotions, you can imagine, the many stages of grief, of not having Paul, come home, but at the same time, like Joey said, joyful that any American, who has been detained, gets to go home.

COOPER: I understand that President Biden actually spoke with your sister, Elizabeth, this afternoon. Can you say what that phone call was like?

D. WHELAN: No, I haven't been able to update, with Elizabeth, today.

COOPER: When was the last time you were able to speak with Paul? CNN heard from him? Are you able to actually communicate with him?

D. WHELAN: No. I believe that wasn't an official phone call. I haven't spoken to Paul, since October 2018. And he is only, right now, allowed to speak, to our parents, and the U.S. embassy, and other embassies, in Moscow.

COOPER: I know you -- Paul spoke to CNN, earlier today, expressed some doubt that the Biden administration has a concrete plan, to bring him home. How worried are you about your brother, I mean, not just his physical

health, but just the toll this has taken on him?

D. WHELAN: Yes, in fact, I think you've hit the point which, is, I'm most worried about his mental health. He's been doing this for four years. Doing another 12 years, I think, is hard to ask of anybody.

He has come up with some rituals, things that he does, every day, to try to, I think, survive, things like singing the U.S. National Anthem, every morning, when he gets up, partly, I think, because he wants to sing it, and partly because I think it irritates the guards. But he has been doing these things now for four years. And it's hard to imagine that he's going to have to continue to do it.

And the substantial offer that the U.S. government made, last summer, to bring Paul, and to bring Brittney home, has built some hope. I think that has crashed down, today, for Paul, and it's going to be hard to see him pull that back together.

COOPER: Do you, I mean, do you see a lane, for a new negotiation?

D. WHELAN: Certainly. I think, as Joey said, there are Americans, being wrongfully detained, around the world. And whether it's Paul, in Russia, or Brittney, in Russia, whether it's Majd Kamalmaz, in Syria, or Siamak Namazi, in Iran, or Kai Li and Mark Swidan (ph), in China, each one of those is a separate case. And each one has to be dealt with, with its own particular constraints.

And I think what we may be realizing now is that Paul's case always had its own particular peculiarities. And so, now, the U.S. government will have to sort of get to grips with what those are.


COOPER: The families of Americans, detained in Russia, have obviously remained very supportive, of one another.

Brittney Griner's wife, spoke at the White House, today, mentioned your brother. I want to play some of that


C. GRINER: B.G.'s not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf, and say that B.G. and I will remain committed, to the work, of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts, today, as we celebrate B.G. being home.


COOPER: I'm wondering what your reaction was when he heard that?

D. WHELAN: Cherelle's very, very gracious. I think -- I think any family, who has been through this, understands the pain of having your loved one, in this position. And some of us still just sort of dream of the day, when we'll be able to experience, what Joey and Paula, and Cherelle have experienced, of their loved one coming home. COOPER: I mean, I cannot imagine. I mean, I've read accounts of penal colonies, in Russia, and the former Soviet Union. But do you know much of what your brother's day-to-day life is like there?

D. WHELAN: Yes, it's brutal, and it's simple, in that they do labor every day.

He's in unheated sort of sewing factory, all day long, six days a week. There's very little food. There's almost no fresh fruits and vegetables. So, I mean, it's about the worst existence, you can think of. As I've said before, it's surviving, but it's not living. And that's going to take a toll, on a person.

He's lost about 20 percent of the weight that he had on December 28, 2018. His hair is going white, which may not be that much of a surprise, to people, of a certain age, like us. But, I mean, he's aging and, at some point, you can imagine that his mental health will deteriorate, and eventually, maybe his health will deteriorate as well.

COOPER: I don't know, if you can say, but I mean, is he in a cell by himself? Or are there others? Or is everybody Russian there? Is there -- are there people he, you know, are there other people he can talk to?

D. WHELAN: Over time, he's been able to build -- friendships, may not be the right word, but people that he can work with, or rely on, who are friendly to him. He still doesn't speak the language. So, he does the best he can.

His prison is a little bit unusual. It's all barracks. There are about 1,000 prisoners, there, or there were, until the Wagner mercenaries persuaded about 100 of them, to go to the war in Ukraine.


D. WHELAN: There are Tajiks. There are two other Americans there. There are other English speakers, a lot of non-ethnic Russians. And I think that that may have actually helped Paul.

COOPER: David Whelan, I so appreciate talking to you. And again, I'm so sorry, it's under these circumstances, and I hope to talk to you under better circumstances soon.

D. WHELAN: Me too. Thanks for having me, Anderson.

COOPER: Joining us now, is someone, who's seen these exchanges, and all that goes into play, with them, in real-time, from the inside. Steve Hall is the former Chief of Rush Operations at the CIA. We're always glad to get his take on things.

I mean, to see that prisoner swap, on the tarmac, in Abu Dhabi, it's like something out of the Cold War. It's extraordinary, to actually see it. How complex are these kinds of negotiations?

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: They're really incredibly complex, Anderson. And that's was one of the things that I was thinking about, as I heard, the family members, talk about their loved ones, who were still in prison.

To get something like this done, the amount of stuff that has to be done, behind-the-scenes, out of the public view, stuff that you and I, even, working for a news organization, probably wouldn't be able to find out about? It's just amazing.

And then, the other problem is, is that the Russians will constantly, constantly change the goalposts.

COOPER: Right.

HALL: So, this is not really a matter of, does this administration, or any other administration, want to get these Americans out? That's job one, as the U.S. government. That's a key role that the government has. It's that the Russians will say one thing, one day, and then choose to say something, the other day.

COOPER: So, they might, to his point that the Russians may have said, earlier on, "Well, look, we'd be willing to exchange Viktor Bout, for Paul Whelan?"

HALL: Yes.

COOPER: They may have said that. They may have also changed their mind?

HALL: Absolutely. I mean, if something bigger, and better, in Vladimir Putin's view, came along, they might say, "Oh, well, let's hold out for just a second." There could be politics. There often are, behind- the-scenes stuff that's going on, where the Russians will say, "Well, why don't you do this and that for us?"

One thing is that -- one of the things that the Russians are extremely serious about, and I've seen a number of persona non grata situations, where diplomats are thrown out, and there's that happens, the Russians are very, very big on reciprocity.

So they're a one-for-one kind of thing. You could throw one of their diplomats out, very low-ranking, and have another very senior guy go out, and they're like, the ranks don't matter. It's person-for-person.

So, I'm sure that we probably made a bid, to try to get both Brittney Griner, as well as Whelan out, and I'm probably virtually sure that the Russians said, "No, it's one-to-one."

COOPER: There's been criticism, from Republicans, and Democrats, in Congress that this makes things more dangerous, for Americans, overseas, that other countries are -- and Russia, and others, will decide to grab Americans, as potential bargaining chips, down the road.

You think that's true?


HALL: It's one of these -- it's one of these issues that we have, in open societies. So, we're Americans. We want to be able to travel, wherever we want to do, pretty much whatever we want to do.

And sometimes, we'll go to places, where there is no rule of law, like Russia. And so, when you are arrested, as an American, in a country that doesn't have rule of law, it's extremely -- you can't build, a legal argument, in a legal system doesn't exist. So, it's up to the U.S. government to try to do that.

I don't see how we could ban Americans from really going anywhere. So, what happens is, is we let Americans have freedom of travel. But then we got to do the best, we can, when they run into trouble, to get them out of that trouble. And that's what we do.

COOPER: You do see the limits of the power, of a country, when their citizens are being held overseas? I mean, there is--

HALL: Yes.

COOPER: --there is only so much at some point you can do. What does the negotiation actually look like? I mean, who is doing it? And, I mean, is it just on the phone, daily? Is it what -- how do you do it?

HALL: A lot of it depends on the circumstances. For example, when we had, back in 2010, we had that big spy swap, between the Russians that had been prisoned, in Russia, and then the illegals that were found here. Because, that was an Intelligence matter, the Intelligence services were talking a lot to each other. In this particular circumstance, the State Department probably has a lot to do.

But it is all of, a whole-of-government approach, on the American side. And, of course, in Russia, everything's a whole-of-government approach. There's one guy, who says "Hear (ph)," and that's Vladimir Putin.

COOPER: And that's what these -- on the Russian side, that's what it comes down to? What Vladimir Putin wants?

HALL: At the end of the day, yes. I mean, there's nobody who can make a deal without his approval.


HALL: Now, he's probably not sitting at the table doing the negotiations.

COOPER: Right.

HALL: But yes, at the end of the day, he's the guy, who gives the thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

COOPER: Wow! Steve Hall, appreciate it. Thanks to you.

HALL: Always. COOPER: Up next, we'll talk with childhood friend, and fellow player, about today's news, and the homecoming, ahead.

And later, a true landmark day, in Washington, as Congress sets marriage rights, for all, into federal law. I'll speak with one of the sponsors of it, ahead, on 360.



COOPER: As we wait for Brittney Griner's arrival time, in San Antonio, some reaction to her newfound freedom.

Former President Obama, tweeting, "Grateful for the long-overdue release of Brittney Griner today from Russian custody. Kudos to POTUS and his administration for the difficult diplomatic work involved to make it happen. We're looking forward to having Brittney back home."

And here's Terri Jackson, the Executive Director of Women's National Basketball Players Association, talking earlier, with CNN's Jake Tapper.


TERRI JACKSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WOMEN'S NATIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION: I go to bed, every night, saying "Brittney's coming home, tomorrow." So, I was anxiously anticipating, this morning.

I thought I was just going to be happy, happy, happy, and I was. But hearing the news just released the gates of emotion. I sobbed like I haven't sobbed in quite a long time. But it was all tears of joy.


JACKSON: Pure joy.


COOPER: Well more now, from someone, who's known Brittney Griner, since childhood, friend and fellow player, Chiney Ogwumike.

Chiney, I know this has been a day of celebration, for you, and everyone that has been working with Brittney Griner, and working to get her home. How did you first hear the news?

CHINEY OGWUMIKE, WNBA ALL-STAR, VP, WOMEN'S NATIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, ESPN BROADCASTER: Oh, my goodness, you're absolutely correct. This is a huge moment, for everyone, who has followed B.G.'s story, our sister, in the WNBA, over the last 294 days, since she was wrongfully detained.

And we all woke up, today, with the best news imaginable. It was actually a text, from my big sister, Nneka, who is the President of the WNBA Players Association. I'm VP. And she gave me a heads-up, because I'm on the West Coast.

And what an amazing start, and also the powerful visuals that we got, from the White House, to really commemorate this occasion!

COOPER: When you get to speak to her, for the first time, what are you going to say?

OGWUMIKE: Say or do? Give her a big hug! And then, just say, "We love you and we are here for you."

We know that the journey that she has just experienced was a very difficult one. But we're here to walk with her step-by-step, foot-by- foot, with whatever, her next chapter is.

And so, we've missed her, and we have said her name, and we're so happy she's back. And we most importantly love her, and everything that she represents to us.

COOPER: You and your sister, who also plays in the WNBA, I know you first met, Brittney, when you were growing up, in Houston. Can you just tell us what she's like?

OGWUMIKE: Oh, my goodness! If you know Brittney Griner, you know she brings joy, wherever she goes. She's always good to put a smile, on someone's face.

And talking about our journey, and getting to know B.G., if you know Women's Hoops, you know, it's a sisterhood. But that's like literal, for me.

I will never forget around the time that my big sis, Nneka, and I, we picked up a basketball back home, in Houston, Texas, for the first time. We watched the local news, one night, and there was a report, of a 6-6 high school girls' basketball player that could dunk. And I'm not talking about like "Oh cute dunks," like, hang on the rim dunk! That was Brittney.

And since that time, our journey has been tied. We played against her in high school, and AAU, and college, and the pros. We've literally lived out our wildest dreams.

And now, the world, they know her as a dominant basketball player. But we know B.G., as a friend, as an amazing teammate, as a real compassionate human. So, to be able to say that, right now, she's coming home? Her family, her extended hoops family, like my sisters included, we're thrilled.

COOPER: Yes. Chiney, it's such a pleasure to talk to you. And I'm so glad it's under these happy circumstances, for you, and all who know, and love Brittney. Thanks so much.


COOPER: Just ahead, I'm going to speak with one of the members of Congress, who today, helped bring about a truly memorable moment, for civil rights, in this country. Rhode Island's David Cicilline, on the Respect for Marriage Act, next.



COOPER: Today, the House passed a landmark civil rights bill that protects same-sex and interracial marriage.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): The motion is adopted.




COOPER: President Biden is expected to sign into law, soon. It requires individual states, to recognize another state's legal marriage. And to put it bluntly, it's a big deal.


PELOSI: The Respect for Marriage Act takes key steps to uphold marriage equality under federal law. This is what we're celebrating. Tearing down the Defense of Marriage Act, taking it off the books for good.



COOPER: Not only does the law return the Defense of Marriage Act, paused more than 16 -- passed, I should say, more than 16 years ago. It does so, in the words of my next guest, with strong bipartisan votes, in both chambers.

Joined now, by Democratic congressman, David Cicilline, Chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, who co-sponsored, the bill.

Congressman, I appreciate you joining us.

The bill was bipartisan effort, in both the House and the Senate. How important was that? And how important was it to get this bill done, now, given Republicans will control the House, starting, next month?


REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI): Well, that was very important to get it done now, because we had a Speaker of the House, and a Senate Majority Leader, who were committed to bringing this bill, to the floor, for a vote.

It was important that it be bipartisan, to reflect this overwhelming support of marriage equality, by the American people. The only place this remains controversial is in some areas of the Republican caucus, because, in every state, in the country, majority of voters support marriage equality.

But this was an important bill, because when the Supreme Court of the United States reversed Roe versus Wade, and the Dobbs decision, and in a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas made reference to the, you know, urging the Court that they ought to look at some other cases that found freedoms, like the freedom to marry, and specifically cited Obergefell, in order to revisit that as well.

So, this was urgent that we get it done, before the Court reverses decision, before the Republicans took over, and then it would not have been brought to the floor.

COOPER: I heard one member -- a Republican member of Congress, speaking out, against this bill, today, on the floor, of the House, crying, denigrating the marriages that same-sex couples have, as somehow less than the marriages that heterosexual couples have. And I just don't -- it just was surprising to me, to hear that viewpoint.

I understand the idea that biblically-based, maybe people don't agree, with the idea. But somehow that the marriages are less than or less legitimate than heterosexual marriages, just seems very antiquated.

CICILLINE: Yes, I mean, it was really hard to listen to. I was on the floor, when those comments were made.

It fundamentally doesn't recognize LGBTQ people, as people, who have a right, to access marriage, like everyone else did. The same reason people in the LGBTQ+ community marry, the same reason straight people marry. They want to spend their lives, with someone they love, and build a family, and build a future.

And to hear someone say, "My marriage and heterosexual marriage is valued, and you, others, shouldn't have access to the same institution," was really pretty horrific to listen to.

The Speaker reminded us, we all have a spark of divinity. We're all God's children. We're all entitled to be treated equally under the law.

And this legislation, today, that we passed, and the President will sign, will ensure that for federal purposes, if you are married, lawfully, any state in the country, every other state must recognize that. For federal purposes, marriage between individuals of the same- sex will be determined, to be valid, if it was valid in the state it was performed. And it repeals DOMA, this really homophobic law that defined marriage between a man and a woman.

So, this was a great victory, for our community, and a great victory, in our long fight, for full equality, in this country. It's still the case that in a majority of states, in America, members of the LGBTQ+ community can face legal discrimination. So, we have more work to do, like passing the Equality Act. But today was a great day, made a real difference, for millions of people, all across this country.

COOPER: Yes. Congressman David Cicilline, I really appreciate your time, tonight. Thanks so much for joining us.

CICILLINE: Thanks for having me.

COOPER: Just ahead, Vladimir Putin admits Russia is attacking Ukraine's energy infrastructure, but says he didn't start it. CNN's Sam Kiley's in Ukraine, with a report, on the attacks, next.



COOPER: In a rare public comment, of the war, in Ukraine, Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, today, admitted to attacking Ukraine's power infrastructure. While he was clutching at a champagne glass, in an award ceremony, he said "Yes, we're doing it. But who started it?" And he blamed the Ukrainians.

On Wednesday, at least 10 civilians were killed, after Russian rocket attack, in the Donetsk region, which has come under heavy fire. Ukraine's President Zelenskyy said, the attacks were aimed, quote, "Precisely at civilians."

I'm joined now by our Senior International Correspondent, Sam Kiley, who's in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine.

So, you're in the Donetsk region, Sam, where the Ukrainian military, today, said it's coming under heavy fire, from Russians. What's the latest on the ground you're seeing?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, that killing for 10 civilians there, on Wednesday, not tragically an unusual event, here, in Donetsk.

That was President Zelenskyy said is a result of a deliberate targeting of civilians, in several locations, in other words, the use of multiple rocket or artillery systems to take out and attack civilian targets. Now, more widely here, in Donetsk, the fighting around Bakhmut, Anderson, remains intense. It has been a ferocious battle. It's raining now. It had been freezing.

Certainly, Ukrainian troops have bogged down, quite literally, in trenches. Armor is difficult to move around. Neither side can really prevail under these conditions. And it's likely to get worse actually, when the ground freezes, and armor and mobile artillery can start moving around.

There are also reports that the Russians are heavily reinforcing, with yet more troops, on that front. So, there's no sign of a letup, over winter. Rather that this area is becoming a real focus, of Russian violence, as Putin, in the view of Ukrainians, desperately seeks to get some kind of a victory, Anderson, after months of defeat, particularly in the north and the south of the country.

COOPER: Yes. This week, Putin has said that the conflict is going to take a while. He warned, he says the increasing threat of nuclear war. What's the view from Ukraine? KILEY: Well, the Ukrainians, and many, in the international community, are extremely concerned, about previous threats, made by the Kremlin, and particularly Vladimir Putin that there might be some use of a nuclear weapon, albeit a tactical nuclear weapon, in other words, a relatively small device that could be used on a battlefield. Not only would it be of course, catastrophic, but it could unleash something much more terrible, in the opposite direction.


Now, according to Olaf Scholz, though, the chances of such a conflict, he's the German Chancellor, has gone down, he says, as a result of communications, with Vladimir Putin, about the international community's red lines.

And certainly, it has been a message coming from the White House, and others, around Europe that any use of even a limited nuclear device will be met with a ferocious response, from the international community.

But Vladimir Putin saying that they wouldn't come from them, first, is saying that "We're not mad," in his words, and that, Russia isn't going around the world, holding the nuclear knife, to people's throats. Of course, that is exactly what the Kremlin has done, in previous threats, made over this conflict.


COOPER: Yes. Sam Kiley, thank you. Appreciate it. Stay safe.

We are just getting word, about the first-known execution, in Iran, of a protester, the first person we know that was killed, by the Iranian regime, because they spoke out.

News outlets in Iran say the protestor was executed by hanging this morning. His name was Mohsen Shekari. According to "The New York Times," he was 23-years-old.

"The Times" also reports that a protester, who says he met Mr. Shekari, in prison, said he, quote, "Loved life" that he was waiting for his freedom, and had been working at a cafe, in Tehran, when he decided to join the protests.

According to Iranian authorities, he was convicted of what they said was waging war against God, for attacking a member of the paramilitary force, in Tehran, in September. He was sentenced that same month.

The protests, as you know, were sparked, after a 22-year-old woman was apprehended, by the State's Morality Police, allegedly, for not wearing a hijab. She later died in custody.

According to Amnesty International, as of November, Iranian authorities are seeking the death penalty, for at least 21 people, in connection with the protests.

An uprising, across China, now, leading to a drastic reversal of COVID restrictions, but one man in another country can also take credit. He helped bring those protests to light, to the entire world. And you're going to meet him. CNN Exclusive, next.



COOPER: Major changes are happening, in China, where the people have risen up, in ways you hardly ever see there. The country is finally easing some of its strictest zero-COVID policies, after mass protests swept the nation, lifting certain testing and lockdown rules, have crippled society for years.

There's one man, who can take credit, for helping bring those protests, and information, to light, risking his own life, by doing so. He spoke exclusively, to our Selina Wang.



SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Video after video, of historic anti-zero-COVID protests, in China, broadcast on the world's television screens, everywhere, but inside China, where authorities censored all evidence, of the protests.

So, how did these images manage to get beyond China's controlled internet? Newsrooms, around the world, including CNN, have been relying, on information, from this Twitter account. And there's only one man behind it, Li, a Chinese painter, in Italy, whose identity we're hiding, for security reasons.

MR. LI, OWNER OF TWITTER ACCOUNT @WHYYOUTOUZHELE (through translator): This account may become a symbol that Chinese people are still pursuing freedom of speech. When you post something, within China, it will quickly disappear. This account can document all these historical events that cannot be saved inside the country.

WANG (voice-over): His account quickly turned into one of the world's key sources, for protest information. Li says he received thousands of submissions per day, as the demonstrations unfolded.

Apps, like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, are banned, in China. But people used Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, which are prohibited in China, to access Twitter, and send their videos to Li.

WANG (on camera): What's the motivation behind all the work you do?

LI (through translator): It's to let people inside of China, climb out of the Great Firewall, to see what's happening, at this very moment.

WANG (voice-over): But that's exactly what authorities want to prevent.

Here's what happens, if you search for information, about any of the protests, on Chinese social media. You get a notice that says, "Sorry. No relevant results are found."

Meanwhile, on Li's Twitter account, he was rapidly uploading videos of demonstrations, across China, from Marunouchi (ph), Neijiang (ph), Chengdu (ph).


WANG (voice-over): To Shanghai, where protesters chanted, for Xi Jinping, to step down, calling for freedom, and an end to zero-COVID.

And researchers say the Chinese government is even trying to bury information, about the protests, from social media users, abroad.

Search on Twitter, and Chinese characters, for cities that had protests? And you get this, a flood of spam and porn advertisements. The spam campaign researchers say, appears to be the work of Chinese authorities. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

WANG (on camera): Are you worried about your own safety?

LI (through translator): Of course, I'm very worried. I get a lot of anonymous harassment, saying "I know who you are, where you live, and I will kill you."

WANG (voice-over): His parents frequently call him, in fear, he says, and the Chinese authorities have been harassing them too, making midnight visits, to their home, in China.

WANG (on camera): What price do you think you have to pay for the work that you do?

LI (through translator): This account is more important than my life. I will not shut it down. I've arranged for someone else to take over, if something bad happens to me. I'm mentally prepared, even if authorities won't let me see my parents again.

WANG (voice-over): Authorities in China try to keep the country in a parallel universe. But Li is playing a pivotal role, in breaking that bubble.

Li spends hours a day, on the account, only taking breaks to feed his cat, and barely slept, during the peak of protests, as he sorted and verified the endless stream of video submissions, each one urgent and historic. He's doing the work that he hopes one day Chinese journalists, and Chinese citizens, from within China, will be able to do without fear.


COOPER: Selina Wang joins us now, from Beijing.

Selina, the authorities have cracked down on the protests. We aren't seeing major demonstrations. So, is Li still busy, with the Twitter account?

[21:55:00] WANG: Yes, Anderson. I mean, Li told me that every day he's still going through hundreds of submissions, and spending six hours to seven hours, on the account every day. He's getting messages from people about all sorts of challenges, across the country, including the continued COVID chaos, and restrictions, despite the recent easing of rules.

Now, he started using Twitter just as a personal outlet, because all of his accounts on Chinese social media kept on getting banned. And he said he never expected to become this influential. And he told me that he hopes that one day he isn't needed anymore. Because what he said is that it's sad and ridiculous that you have a painter, in Italy, anonymously collecting all the footage, from brave people, in China.

But as people in China try to find ways to get around censorship, the authorities are cracking down even harder. The government recently announced that internet users, in China, could be punished, for even just liking posts that authorities consider illegal or harmful.


WANG: So, the space for people inside China's Great Firewall, to express, themselves, Anderson, is just getting smaller and smaller.

COOPER: Right. That's more heroic.

Selina Wang, thank you. Appreciate it.

The news continues. "CNN TONIGHT" with Laura Coates, and Alisyn Camerota, is next, right after a short break.