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At This Hour

Brittney Griner Back In U.S. After High-Profile Prisoner Swap; Notorious Arms Dealer Viktor Bout Back In Russia; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema Tells CNN Why She's Leaving Democratic Party. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 09, 2022 - 11:00   ET




BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone, At This Hour, WNBA star Brittney Griner back home in the U.S. ending a 10-month ordeal in Russian custody. Griner's head coach will be joining me live. Senator Kyrsten Sinema announces that she's leaving the Democratic Party becoming an independent. She talks exclusively with CNN. And the World Cup quarterfinals are underway, a member of the U.S. Men's National Team talks about his team's journey. This is what we're watching At This Hour.

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for being here. I'm Bianna Golodryga in for Kate Bolduan. Brittney Griner is back on U.S. soil, returning to her home state of Texas this morning. The WNBA star is expected to undergo a full medical evaluation after spending 10 months in Russian custody. Griner was arrested in February by Russian authorities for carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years, the U.S. and Russia agreeing to a high- profile prisoner swap trading Griner for a notorious Russian arms dealer. CNN's Rosa Flores is live in San Antonio where Griner arrived this morning, a big relief and a big Lone Star State, welcome home for their own Brittney.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're absolutely right, Bianna. I was here when the plane landed. It was still dark, but we could all see it from here. Our cameras were rolling. You can look on your screen and see that moment. There was no big spectacle. There was no big fanfare. What we saw was the plane land. Some officials get on the plane. And then Brittney Griner moments later walk off that plane and get into -- walk into a hangar. Now those were her first steps as a free American on U.S. soil.

Now I just received a statement from Brooke Army Medical Center and they say that the standard protocol was for her to be transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center. So that's most likely what happened right after those shots that you see of Brittney Griner walking into that hangar. Now according to Brooke Army Medical Center, this is a standard protocol for her to go there for a medical evaluation.

And then the statement that we received goes on to say that they don't release any more information because of privacy reasons, which is very understandable. But Bianna, you and I've talked about this. We've talked about it on this show. Trevor Reed went through this process not too long ago. And so and his family has done interviews with CNN. And that's how we know a little more about what actually transpires and the process. And what happens is, according to his family is that the -- they are offered medical treatment, medical attention, and also a program, a gold standard program from the Department of Defense to reinstate people into normal life, into civilian life. So we're expecting her to be offered that, but of course, Bianna, we don't know if indeed she will accept that type of treatment or not. Bianna?

GOLODRYGA: Yes, these families, unfortunately, through what they've gone through have formed a bond and a support system. So I'm sure that if Brittney Griner chooses to reach out there will be those including Trevor Reed's family who are willing to step in and help guide her through this process. Thank you so much Rosa.

Joining me now is Vanessa Nygaard, she is Brittney Griner's WNBA head coach with the Phoenix Mercury. I'm just smiling, looking at you knowing how excited you are that this day finally came after 294 days, the -- you can finally stop counting. How are you feeling? And what are you thinking when you see these pictures of her landing back home in the United States.

VANESSA NYGAARD, HEAD COACH, PHOENIX MERCURY: We are all so happy, the entire WNBA community, our fans, our supporters, and everyone who's been involved. It is just a day of absolute joy yesterday and waking up tomorrow and knowing that BG is not in a Russian prison. We're so happy. And seeing the images that are come out and knowing that she's doing well, we are aesthetic.

GOLODRYGA: As a team, you and other teams in the WNBA have collectively come together and never lost sight of the fact that you want to shine a light on her name, on the cause, on the pressure to bring her home. How are your teammates and how are your players feeling about this specifically now?

NYGAARD: Yes, I think it is really a testament to their hard work, their energy, their commitment to keeping BG's name in the news. And first their commitment to getting her name in the news to getting the attention. And the women of the WNBA are trendsetters. And they use their voice. They amplify from their platform to get attention to things that are important to them. And there's nothing more important than bringing their sister home from her Russian jail. And so they constantly beat the drum, got other people on board, and it is a testament to their power and their voice and a great role models for other Americans of what they can do when they set their mind to it and stick together.


GOLODRYGA: I'm so glad you brought that up because I was struck by something that Dawn Staley, the University of South Carolina women's basketball coach who also coached Brittney at the Olympics had to say about this, and it's in the same vein, she said, women, when we're advocating for something, when we want something to happen, we've got the strength of 10 men. I hope people are watching. What is your reaction to that? Do you agree with that sentiment?

NYGAARD: I absolutely agree with it. Our women in the WNBA had made their voice heard several times this isn't the first time. They had led the way with social protests and making sure that things are said that are important. Many times players on my team have refused to do media after games to make statement about different things, social causes, and things that are important happening in the world. They really use their voice to make a difference. And this is just another example of that. And obviously a very, very close to their, one that's very, very close to their hearts.

GOLODRYGA: And you were very close with Brittney Griner. She was drafted to the team in 2013. We heard from WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, and she said, as much as she would love to reach out and call her and see her now, she wants to respect to this time, as she heals, as she gets the treatment that she needs. Are you going to be following suit and doing the same as her coach?

NYGAARD: Yes, so we're going to respect her process, her family's wishes, and make sure she has all the support. Mental health is very important in our league, as well as maybe the physical condition she's been under. So we want to support her, give her the space she needs, and just make sure she's feeling OK. And I know there's such a community and such a celebration of support. And once she's ready, we're ready to celebrate with her.

GOLODRYGA: This was a trauma not only for the Griner family, but for your team. And I know you had a meeting yesterday, what was that like when you heard that she was going to be coming home?

NYGAARD: It was phenomena, right? You know, it was every day for us for the season. You know, when we went to other arenas, the story of BG was that game. And for us, it was every single day that we thought about her that we missed her. For my players that were teammates with her for a very long time, you know, you go into a city and something would remind them of her, the locker room, maybe a place they go to dinner.

And so every day, they carried that with them. It was an incredible stress on them. And we've tried to provide as much mental health support as we could to them. And so for her return to come tomorrow, and very just sudden and unexpected way, it was a wonderful relief and just total joy for her and for her family.

GOLODRYGA: She's 32 years old. I know first steps first, but she is a star in the WNBA. I'm just curious, are you going to be talking to her when you do finally speak with her after giving her some time about her future plans and whether she wants to return to this game that she loves so much?

NYGAARD: I know she absolutely loves basketball and she's the most dominant player in the world.


NYGAARD: And so, you know, if she chooses to continue to play, we absolutely want to support her. But this isn't really the time for that. We're just so glad she's back. We're just so happy that she's reunited with her family, and that we get to move forward. And her health and her safety is the most important thing.

GOLODRYGA: What is your message to her right now as she is, you know, landing back at home in her home state to a warm welcome from so many Americans that were looking forward to this day, but especially from you, her coach?

NYGAARD: Yes, just BG, we love you. And we were so happy you were home. I burst into tears when I heard that you were returning. And I know so many other people did as well. We're just so touched to have you back. We love you so much. We live in a world that can be divisive. And there's a lot of noise out there. But from us, from the people that are nearest to you, we love you. And we're so happy your home.

GOLODRYGA: I have to ask you, you mentioned the world being divisive. This really shined a light on the disparity that we've seen in professional sports, right between men and women and the income inequality as well. And after Brittney was sentenced, you said very bluntly at the time if this were LeBron, he'd be home. Here we are after nearly 10 months, do you still stand by those words?

NYGAARD: Well, I do think there's a huge disparity in how women are treated in America in the entire world, but especially in sports. Now we have Title Nine, we're celebrating the 50th year of passing a law for equity in women sports but we can't actually say we're enforcing that. And so when we look across the board, we're bringing more attention to it through this situation with BG and hopefully people will start to understand that, you know, media exposure is important. Giving respect to athletes is important and that these women deserve the same love and attention as other athletes. And we're going to continue to press forward and make our voices heard and represent well. You know, I'm just so happy she's home.


GOLODRYGA: Yes. And I just want to say, you know, congratulations to you. This is such wonderful news for you and her teammates, but how thoughtful it was in your statement to still think about those who are not as fortunate who are still wrongfully detained, Paul Whelan and others, so thank you for not forgetting their plight as well as we celebrate this warm welcome news that Brittney is back home. Thank you so much, coach. We appreciate your time.

NYGAARD: Thank you. Appreciate it.

GOLODRYGA: Well, Russian President Vladimir Putin says other prisoner swaps with the U.S. are quote possible after a Griner was exchanged with notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bout is now back in Russia after spending 14 years behind bars in the U.S. Frederik Pleitgen is live in Germany with more. So Fred, I know that Bout has given an interview to state media there in Russia, and we've heard from Vladimir Putin too. What did he say? FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, we've heard from both of them. And I think one of the things that we can ascertain, Bianna, is that the Russians certainly think that they definitely got a good deal out of this. For them, Viktor Bout was obviously very important, that high profile arms dealer convicted in the United States and someone who, over the past couple of months, the Russians had said that they certainly want back.

Now Viktor Bout is all over Russian state media. His arrival was all over Russian state media. And he said something that is very good for Vladimir Putin. He said that he has found that the Russians do not leave their own behind. So he's certainly going along with that narrative from the Russian president of being someone who gets the Russians back if they are in custody abroad. He also said in an interview, that he had absolutely no idea that this swap was about to happen. Let's listen to what he had to say.


VIKTOR BOUT, RUSSIAN ARMS DEALER (through translator): In the middle of the night, they simply woke me up and said, get your things together. And that was it. There was no preliminary information.


PLEITGEN: That's Viktor Bout there after arriving back in Moscow. He's already given one high profile interviews since going on the ground there. But I think, Bianna, one of the things that we saw that's really very important also for Paul Whelan's case because, of course, we've been reporting so much about that, as well, was, indeed Vladimir Putin saying that the Russians are open to further prisoner exchanges, Vladimir Putin saying in this case, it was the FSB, the intelligence service that negotiated on the part of the Russians. But they say though, Putin says that further exchanges could be possible in the future, and it's certainly something he's not ruling out, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, the FSB may have been negotiating, but as we know, this is not something that would have happened without Putin's green light and go ahead. Fred Pleitgen. Thank you.


Well, Senator Kyrsten Sinema is leaving the Democratic Party. She talks exclusively to CNN about her decision to now be an Independent. What it means for Democrats and narrow majority in the Senate. That's up next.


GOLODRYGA: Well, now to that big shocker in Congress. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announcing that she is leaving the Democratic Party opting instead to serve as an Independent. She talks exclusively about her decision with CNN's Jake Tapper. Lauren Fox is live on Capitol Hill. So Lauren, we'll hear more about her conversation with Jake in just a moment. But listen, on the one hand, this is surprising, on the other, given her recent history, not so much. But what did she have to say and why now?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, she really did address the fact that for some Arizonans, this might come as a surprise. But she was clear. And we should remember her history up here on Capitol Hill. She has worked across the aisle with Republicans from gun control to infrastructure reform. And that has really been her reputation. She's also a little bit of an enigma up here, Democrats often complaining, they're not sure where she stands until it's go time on any one issue. But here's what she told our Jake Tapper.


SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA (I-AZ): I've registered as an Arizona Independent. I know some people might be a little bit surprised by this. But actually, I think it makes a lot of sense, you know, a growing number of Arizonans and people like me, just don't feel like we fit neatly into one party's box or the other. And so like many across the state in the nation, I've decided to leave that partisan process and really just focus on the work that I think matters to Arizona and to our country, which is solving problems and getting things done.

What I think is important about this decision and this move is that I'll be able to show up to work every day as an independent and not be, you know, stuck into one party's demands of following without thinking. And as we've seen in recent years, both parties have created this kind of requirements or a pull towards the edges, that you just unthinkingly support all of one party's viewpoints. It's made it difficult to find folks who are willing to work together and solve problems.

Now, as you know, Jake, we've been able to do a lot of bipartisan work over the last couple of years. And I'm incredibly proud of that. And I think it's important for folks across my state, and frankly, across the country, to say, yes, there's someone that's kind of like me, doesn't fit neatly into one box or the other but is standing up for their values for what they believe in and is doing it without trying to get one over on the other party or beat the other guy.



FOX: And she's going to go ahead and keep her committee assignments which are handed out from the Democrats. So that is not going to change anything practically speaking, and how the Democrats are looking at their majority going into the next Congress. The Committees are still going to have a majority of Democrats on them. And then they will still be able to issue subpoenas as well as move nominees more quickly. But obviously, this is a big symbolic change.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, it is, indeed. How is the White House responding to it?

FOX: Well, she did give the White House a heads up as well as Schumer's office, according to sources were talking to. This is what the White House said in his statement, though, we understand that her decision to register as an Independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate. And we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her. We should note, of course, that through the bipartisan negotiations that she's led and been a part of, she's probably talked to the President, more than most other Democrats in the caucus.

And so that, of course, is going to continue to be a working relationship. And she made it very clear in her interview with Jake, that she wants to keep working on big issues. She doesn't want that to stop and she's going to need the White House to do it. Bianna?

GOLODRYGA: Yes, some of that support was easier for the White House to get than others as you know. Thank you so much, Lauren Fox. Well, joining me now is CNN's CHIEF political analyst and Gloria Borger. So Gloria, so much for quiet way to end the week, what do you make of what we just heard from Kyrsten Sinema?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It was surprising, but not surprising. This is a Senator who has actually voted with Biden about 93 percent of the time, but on the issues where she's differed with the administration, they've been big ones, and you talk about Build Back Better, where she differed from them on what should be done with corporate taxes and other sort of financial issues. So here's a person who's more liberal on social issues, more conservative on financial issues.

And so it won't make that huge difference at all in the way the Senate operates. She doesn't go to caucus meetings with the Democrats much anyway. But you got to wonder what it's -- how it's going to be received in the state of Arizona?

GOLODRYGA: Well, that is the big question. And as we know, looking at the calendar, she's up for reelection in 2024. And Congressman Ruben Gallego has said that he has heard and we have heard as well, Democratic senators urging him to primary her. And he just put out a statement saying that Sinema, in his words, is putting her own interests first. That's not what she said in that conversation with Jake. But that's one way, yes, that's one way to interpret this. So could this be what this is all about?

BORGER: I think partly, look, she would have had a difficult primary if she decides to run. We don't know whether she will or won't, would have had a difficult primary against a liberal Democrat. The state Democratic Party issued a statement basically kicking her out the door saying, you know, fine with us, we care more about prescription drug benefits and less about corporations than you do. So it's been uh, you know, get the Democrats are saying, you know, the ones in the state go away, she could find herself if she runs between a liberal Democrat and a Trumpy Republican. And right now, a lot of pro Trump Republicans are popular in the state.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, as we saw from the midterms, I'm just curious, the timing there. What are the potential national implications from what she's about to do? BORGER: I think this is something we really ought to be looking at carefully. Because what we've heard from a lot of voters is this sort of proposition that they're tired of both parties. And that they, you know, they look at candidates, we individually, and we saw that in the midterm election, right? So I think the question is, is this going to be a test case for the proposition that voters are actually now willing to take a look at someone who is independent in Arizona, for example, conservative Republicans have kicked sort of the memory of John McCain, the independent Maverick, Republican out the door.

And the question is, whether there are enough people in that state who say, no, you know, I disagree with that. I'm not happy that the Republican Party has done that. And I'm finally willing to vote for an independent and whether there are enough Democrats who believe that the party has become too liberal for them. And so they're willing to take another look, but we don't know the answer to that. So this is going to be a very important race to watch if she runs.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, and we should note you would not be the only independent in the Senate, the caucus with the Democrats, you have Bernie Sanders, you have Angus King as well but this is something definitely worth watching. Gloria Borger, thank you.



GOLODRYGA: Well sources are telling CNN, the Justice Department is asking a federal judge to hold Donald Trump in contempt for failing to comply with the subpoena ordering him to turn over records marked as classified. It comes as a January 6th Committee considers criminal referrals for at least four Trump associates. Sara Murray is live in Washington with more, so what are you learning here, Sara?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, we're expecting a hearing in a sealed proceeding to happen on this contempt issue later today. Essentially what the Justice Department is saying to this judge is look, the Trump team never really complied with the subpoena we sent over the summer to return all documents with classified markings. Obviously, we know what happened, when the FBI searched Mar- a-Lago, they found a whole mess of documents. The Trump team then did their own search and found two more documents with classified markings at a storage unit.

The Justice Department is also concerned that the Trump team won't name a custodian, a Custodian of Records to sign an attestation saying, we've looked we've handed over everything with classified marking so that is all going to be an issue in a secret court proceeding before a judge today. And if held in contempt, Trump or as post presidency office could face fines. Now all of this comes as we are waiting for the January 6th Committee to formally issue their criminal referrals.

We know they've been weighing whether to issue a criminal referral for Donald Trump. But sources are also telling my colleagues, Zach Cohen and Annie Grayer and Pam Brown, that they're also looking at potential referrals from Mark Meadows, who is Trump's White House Chief of Staff, Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, who are both attorneys as well as Jeffrey Clark, who is a former Justice Department official. The Committee is going to be meeting on Sunday to talk about this, but they're going to try to hold off on issuing any other public comments until December 21st.

GOLODRYGA: Well, if they do, you'll let us know. Sara Murray, thank you.

MURRAY: Of course, we're going to try to get the answers here about that.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, of course you are. Thank you so much. Have a great weekend, Sara.

Well, coming up, Wall Street reacting to another hot inflation report and new consumer confidence numbers. We'll bring them to you straight ahead.