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Americans Leave Tehran; New Sanctions Against Iran; Clark Seeks to Move Trial; Gene Rossi is Interviewed about the Clark Case. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 09:00   ET



SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with breaking news. A homecoming more than five years in the making. Five Americans, wrongfully detained in Iran, are now on a plane that has just taken off from Tehran, on their way to freedom. We're there headed just next. Details on all of this and the deal that was made that led to their release.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Also this hour, one of Donald Trump's codefendants heads to court. Jeffrey Clark, the former Justice Department official, now arguing why his case should move out of Georgia and into federal court.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A sheriff's deputy ambushed and killed. A reward now being offered to help find the suspect as a clue emerges they hope will lead to an arrest.

I'm John Berman, with Sara Sidner and Kate Bolduan. This is CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SIDNER: Just moments ago, a Qatari jet carrying five Americans imprisoned in Iran took off from Tehran and is set to arrive in Doha, Qatar. Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Murad Tahbaz have all been imprisoned for more than five years. The identities of two other Americans in the deal have not yet been released. It's all part of a complex U.S./Iran deal involving the release of $6 billion in previously frozen Iranian funds.

The money was held in restricted accounts in South Korea and transferred to restricted accounts in Qatar. Sources tell us the funds come from oil sales that were allowed and placed into accounts set up under the Trump administration.

Biden administration officials say that Iran will only be able to use that money on humanitarian purchases and that every transaction made will be monitored by the U.S. Treasury Department. The deal also includes the release of five Iranian nationals who have been in U.S. custody.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand is in Washington for us, but we want to start with our Becky Anderson, who is in Doha, Qatar.

Becky, first of all, do we have a sense of the timing of when these five Americans are going to land there in Doha, being that they have just, we now learned, left Tehran?

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: That's right. We just have the first official confirmation, both from the Qatari side and indeed the U.S. side that those five U.S. detainees, plus two family members, are wheels up in the air and out of Tehran airport, inbound for Doha. This airport in Doha.

The tarmac is just behind me here. And they will be expected within the next couple of hours. The flight time generally within about two hours. They will be met by an American delegation, the delegation which has been working with the Qataris indirectly of course with the Iranians. The U.S. and Iran obviously not in direct negotiations, but the Qataris have mediated these negotiations and the Americans who will be here on the ground to welcome those five wrongly detained American citizens will be here on the ground in about a couple of hours from now.

And this is, I think we can genuinely say with our hands on our hearts, assuming nothing else goes wrong, this is the beginning of the end of what has been a years-long nightmare, not least for Siamak Namazi, the first name that you described, Sara, just at the top of this show.

He's been detained since 2015, when he was first picked up by the Iranian authorities, charged in 2016 of colluding with a hostile government and has been inside in Evin Prison, a notorious Iranian prison in Tehran, since then. He would be today the longest serving or the longest held American prisoner in Iran. Thankfully, along, as we understand it, with his mother, he is now wheels up in the air on his way to Doha here.

Not clear how long the detainees, the former detainees now, will be on the ground here. One assumes the Americans will get them processed here and out the door as quickly as possible because there will, of course, be family who cannot wait to see them stateside.


The end of -- it seems the end of what has been a physical and mental anguish for years for these people. Two remain unidentified as of yet. Their names, as we understand it, withheld by their families.


SIDNER: There is a great deal of excitement and hope on the part of the families. I know you're going to be there throughout and we expect that they will land during our show. So, we will be checking in with you Becky. Thank you so much for your reporting on this.

I want to go now to Natasha Bertrand.

Can you give us some sense of how the deal all came together because, you know, Siamak has been in prison for eight years, some of the others for more than five years. How did this all happen?

NATASHA BERTRAND, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Sara, so this is a deal that the administration has been pursuing for over two years now. A deal to get those Americans out of prison in Iran. And the contours of this deal really started taking shape about six to seven months ago. That is when negotiations really began in earnest in Qatar between the U.S. and Iran, but, importantly, not directly. Not face- to-face.

The Qataris were really key intermediaries between the U.S. and the Iranians throughout this period because, obviously, the U.S. and Iran don't have direct diplomatic relations. So, a lot of back channeling, a lot of the use of intermediaries here, kind of culminated in this deal, the first movement of which we saw last month when Iran moved to move - to move four of those Americans out of prison and into house arrest. One of them had already been on house arrest. And then, of course, we saw the secretary of state issue a waiver to allow those $6 billion funds in Iranian frozen funds to be transferred to a Qatari bank that Iran could then use for humanitarian purposes, all in service of this larger deal.

But, look, the administration has received a lot of backlash already for the deal that they have made with the Iranians, particularly when it comes to that $6 billion. Republicans have really seized on that, equating it to a ransom payment. I just want to read you a quote from Senator Lindsey Graham who said, quote, "I am always glad when Americans are released from captivity. However, this agreement will entice rogue regimes like Iran to take even more Americans hostage. The ayatollah and his henchmen are terrorists and truly represent a terrorist state."

So, the Republicans seizing on this, saying that this is only going to encourage Iran to take more Americans prisoner, more Americans hostage.

But look, the administration telling reporters just last night, previewing this, that this is not going to change fundamentally the U.S. relationship with Iran. They said, quote, "Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism and we will hold them accountable wherever possible."


SIDNER: All right, Natasha Bertrand, thank you so much. And also thank you to our Becky Anderson.

Kate, I know you spoke to a couple of the daughters of one of the detainees and they just were begging that the United States do something today. It's finally happened.

BOLDUAN: Yes, the daughters of these Americans wrongfully held, the sisters. I mean these families have been fighting for years and years to have their voices heard. Today is a very, very important day.

As Sara was just discussing, the identities of two of the Americans expected to be - be released, they are not yet clear. We do know quite a bit, though, and have learned quite a bit about three of them.

Siamak Namazi is Iran's longest held American prisoner, wrongfully detained now for more than eight years. Namazi was first arrested in 2015 while on a business trip to Iran. And at the time the U.N. called his arrest an arbitrary detention.

In June of last year, you may remember, he wrote an opinion piece for "The New York Times" describing his life behind bars, inside the notorious Evin Prison, saying that he was kept in solitary confinement for the first 27 months of his sentence and also describing it this way, "often kept in a bare closet-size room, I slept on the floor, received food from under the dog like a dog. I endured unutterable indignities" during that time. And just a few months ago he took the unprecedented step of speaking to CNN from inside Evin.


SIAMAK NAMAZI: Honestly, the other hostages and I desperately need President Biden to finally hear us out, to finally hear our cry for help and bring us home. And I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures. So, this is a desperate measure. I'm clearly nervous.


BOLDUAN: And for a time it wasn't just Siamak Namazi. Namazi's father was also arrested in Iran in 2015 after flying there to advocate for his son's release. He was eventually set free about a year ago due to medical concerns. Also held in Evin for years alongside Namazi are U.S. citizens businessman Emad Shargi and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz. Both of them arrested in 2018.

Shargi, whose story I have been following for years now, he was traveling with his wife at the time that he was taken. Two years later, without trial, he's convicted of espionage. And the U.S. then declared him wrongfully detained at the time. His wife was able to make it home, and since then, along with their two daughters and his sister, they have been fighting for Emad's release ever since.


Morad Tahbaz, he was also convicted of espionage without evidence. His daughter says that he's been through cancer, he's had Covid three sometimes while suffering inside the Iranian prison, and she spoke with me just last month.


TARA TAHBAZ, FATHER HAS BEEN DETAINED IN IRAN SINCE 2018: There's a human on the other side. This is a father, a brother, they're sons, you know, they're husbands, and it's been years, six years -- almost six years for us that we haven't seen them. And it's so important, aside of all the speculations, to remember they're human beings and their families are waiting for them.


BOLDUAN: Wrongfully detained Americans, John, wrapped up in horrible politics. Geopolitics. And these families now on the precipice of the biggest day of their lives.

BERMAN: It means so much to these families. There is no debate there.

Thank you so much, Kate.

With me now, CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger and CNN's Nic Robertson is with us as well.

David, what should we read into the timing of this? Why now?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's a great question. And it's not entirely clear because it's not as if there are other diplomatic breakthroughs about to go happen with Iran. In fact, we've been told that this is not one of those cases where releasing prisoners is a confidence building measure to something else.

But the Iranians are in desperate economic shape these days. And so the prospect that they would get this $6 billion, which was being held in South Korea from funds from South Korean purchases of Iranian oil years ago I think was very attractive to them.

It also is the necessary thing to get out of the way if there is to be a bigger relationship. But you know what worries me about this, as wonderful as this human story is, and, boy, what a relief to have them coming out and we just all have to pray that this all works today and all of the choreographed elements of it have them back in the United States, maybe by tonight.

The reality is that the Iranian nuclear program, since President Trump pulled out of it, is now bigger and closer to a weapon than it has ever been. It's turning out that the president -- President Trump's view that pulling out of this would make the Iranians, you know, negotiate something better never came to pass.

So, now the question is, can you have any kind of an opening?

BERMAN: So, Nic, let's continue on that point for a second here because we just did learn from the Biden administration that they are imposing new sanctions on Iran. So, as soon as they got word, basically, that these five prisoners were on the plane, on the way out, they issued an announcement that new sanctions - in this case it's on the ministry of intelligence and former Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there are some new sanctions there. So, given that announcement and the clear desire to seem publicly tough on Iran, what do you read in to the greater U.S./Iranian relationship?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think it's exactly as David describes it, there are still huge issues. And these new sanctions announced today, they're not out of the blue. This is not -- this is not to - this is not to have on the one hand the release and then these sanctions. Just last week more sanctions - the United States put sanctions on 25 Iranian individuals from the IRGC, from the law enforcement, the head of prisons as well. So, there's been a very public, you know, sound from the west, from the United States and from others, that Iran is still far from working its way into the good books.

And indeed, to David's point about the nuclear arms inspectors, we had the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, just at the end of the last week, go very publicly with very tough diplomatic language, saying, one-third of all his inspectors are effectively been banned from Iran. His most experienced inspectors in Iran banned from going to Iran to do their job. So, Iran is clearly way outside of compliance on the original nuclear deal, as David lays out. And indeed is making the situation only worse. So, this is a good day for those prisoners being released, but it is not a new day in the relationship with Iran whatsoever.

BERMAN: Where does Iran want to be, David, on the world stage? And how is that different perhaps than what their desires were two, three, four years ago?

SANGER: You know, back in the previous administration that came in that negotiated the 2015 deal, I think that there were members of that Iranian regime that saw an opportunity to restore Iran to what they view as their rightful place as the biggest regional player in the gulf and to its historic place there.

I don't see that - that aspiration in the current government.


Now, President Raisi is here in New York today. He's beginning to see people whenever he comes to this U.N. thing. He has this procession of reporters, columnists, think tankers who come in, but he has yet to sort of lay out a real vision of where he wants to go take Iran. And, frankly, the kind of build-up they're doing on the nuclear program, throwing out or barring these inspectors from coming in, doesn't seem to me like somebody who's got a plan to go get these issues solved.

BERMAN: And, obviously, providing arms, drones to Russia, in their effort over Ukraine doesn't play well on the world stage either.

SANGER: Absolutely. And they may well think that Russia's their answer out of this.

BERMAN: David Sanger, Nic Robertson, our thanks to both of you.


BOLDUAN: All right, as we can tell, there are a lot of moving parts right now. We're going to be hearing for - hearing from the White House later this hour. We're expected we're going to hear from John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, he's National Security Council coordinator. We're going to hear from him. He's been front and center on this issue of the negotiations over these wrongfully detained Americans.

And also, as just mentioned, the Biden administration is issuing new sanctions against Iran following this big day with the release of five Americans who have been detained for years now in Iran.

CNN's Arlette Saenz, she's got more details on this.

Arlette, what are you learning about these new sanctions?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, I just want to note, President Biden is currently in New York City where he will be attending the U.N. General Assembly meetings a bit later this week. But we are waiting to see what kind of reaction we might get from President Biden himself.

Of course, this release of these Americans from Iran comes after months of painstaking negotiations to try to secure their release. The senior administration official has confirmed that those five Americans that have been freed, as well as two American family members, are on a plane back here to -- back to Doha at this moment. So, they eventually will be traveling on from there, here to the United States.

But this comes at a time, as the Biden administration has really placed a high priority in trying to get detained Americans across the world back here home. Think about the releases that they've coordinated with Venezuela and also some with Russia. Of course, there are still some American citizens who remain in Russia at this moment.

But this deal is already earning some criticism from GOP lawmakers and a 2024 presidential candidate. They have likened this payment to Iran as a ransom payment. Of course, the administration has pushed back on those critics saying that these are funds that will only be used for humanitarian purposes. That they will be monitored by the Treasury Department.

Now, additionally, the U.S. is issuing those new sanctions on Iran today. A few of those details include that they will be on former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the intelligence service of Iran.

But the White House, at this time, we are still waiting to get that confirmation from President Biden, but this is a hopeful step for those families who have seen their loved ones detained in Iran now, some of them, for eight years.

BOLDUAN: Arlette Saenz, at the White House, thank you.


SIDNER: All right, just minutes from now, one of Donald Trump's co- defendants in the Georgia election case, former DOJ attorney Jeffrey Clark will argue that he should have his case moved to federal court. An argument that has been made by Mark Meadows and lost. We will take you there live to see what happens.

Plus, former President Trump speaks out on the national abortion debate as he gets new criticism from some of his 2024 rivals.

All of that's ahead.



BOLDUAN: We're standing by for a big moment in Georgia where another one of Donald Trump's co-defendants will be trying to move their case out of Georgia and into federal court. Jeffrey Clark is who we're talking about. He was a Justice Department official who's accused of trying to help Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 presidential election despite the direct objections of his bosses at DOJ.

Now, while Clark makes his case to a federal judge today, did Donald Trump just make everyone's legal argument that much more difficult? Here's what Donald Trump told NBC in a new interview.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The most senior lawyers in your own administration, and on your campaign, told you that after you had lost more than 60 legal challenges that it was over. Why did you ignore them and decide to listen to a new outside group (INAUDIBLE)?

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Because I didn't respect them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Were you calling the shots then, Mr. President, ultimately?

TRUMP: As to whether or not I believed it was rigged, oh, sure. I -


TRUMP: It was my decision. But I listened to some people. Some people said that.


BOLDUAN: Let's get over to CNN's Katelyn Polantz in Atlanta for us.

Katelyn, let's talk about Jeffrey Clark and the case he's going to be trying to make - his legal team will be trying to make today. What are you expecting?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a case to watch. This is the second time we're having a hearing like this before Judge Jones at the federal courthouse in Atlanta. And all of the questions around this particular case for Jeffrey Clark, as well as for Mark Meadows and for others, are about how much protection federal officials can have whenever a state chooses to bring charges against them.

So, in this case, Jeffrey Clark is charged along with 18 others including Donald Trump. It's very, very likely Donald Trump would be filing something very similar to this, trying to get his case moved from state court to federal court. And when we were here before, the question was about, is -- are the actions after the 2020 election about politics or are they about official duties. The question today for Jeffrey Clark is a little bit different.

[09:25:00] It's about how far state prosecutors can look under the hood of what a federal agency is doing and what its employees are doing, and can they bring charges around what Jeffrey Clark was doing at the time after the election he was trying to get his superiors to write a letter to the state of Georgia, to send the letter to Georgia, to essentially kick up this idea of election fraud that just wasn't founded at that time. And the prosecutors here in Georgia, they say that he didn't have the facts to support that. He was being told within the Department of Justice he shouldn't be doing that and he was having unauthorized contact, even though he was an official in the Trump administration, he was talking to Trump and others directly whom he shouldn't have. So, all of that is going to be on the table today.

But there is a really big question here, not just for Clark, but for Trump, on how much there is a divide between a state case like this and the federal government. One person who has stuck up for Jeffrey Clark so far, Ed Meese, a Reagan era attorney general. He wrote to the court already and he wrote, "the prosecution of the president and an AAG, assistant attorney general, that's Clark, is a major affront to federal supremacy never before seen in the history of our country," invoking part of the Constitution called the Supremacy Clause that gives the federal government a lot of authority and protection from states.

And, you know, the other thing that's on -- on the docket today is, there's a question of whether Jeffrey Clark will testify. The last time we were here, Mark Meadows, he testified under oath about what his role was as the chief of staff at the White House after the 2020 election. Clark, we're not sure if he's going to testify. I did see his attorney walking into the courthouse. I asked him if Clark would take the stand. He said that's for me to know and for you to find out. The hearing's going to be starting in just a couple minutes.

BOLDUAN: Glad you're there, though, Katelyn. It's good to see you. Thank you so much. We'll be following up with Katelyn as this plays out today.


SIDNER: All right, joining us now, Gene Rossi, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Thank you, sir, for being here.

I want to start with what we heard from Donald Trump. Everybody's talking about it. He says he doesn't respect the attorneys that were telling him he lost, and that it was his decision to go forward with this idea that the 2020 election was stolen. If you were prosecuting this case, how do you use those comments? And will they hurt him in his defense?

GENE ROSSI, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA: Well, number one, I would use him if I were a prosecutor in my case in chief.

Number two, they do hurt him. And here's why, Sara. When you are putting forth a reliance on counsel defense, whether it's a criminal tax case or statute that involves willfulness and you are talking to your lawyers about whether a statute applies to you or whether your conduct is appropriate, you can rely on counsel. And that is an excellent defense in front of a jury. At least could get one juror to say not guilty.

But what Mr. Trump did yesterday in that interview is he didn't just shoot one foot, he shot both feet. He just destroyed any argument that he could say, I relied on attorneys. What he was doing, this is what I would argue as a prosecutor, he was forum shopping. He was trying to find the attorney that would agree with his perverted view of the big lie. And you had Attorney General Barr said no fraud. You had Rosen, the acting AG, no fraud. Donohue, the deputy attorney general, all these brilliant guys saying there's nothing there, Mr. President. And he was looking for, I hate to say it, he was looking for the sycophant, Jeffrey Clark, who desperately wanted to be acting attorney general in the last ten days of the administration.

SIDNER: Yes, it's really interesting the way that you put it, that he shot himself, in your view, in both feet.

I want to move on to another case that we are seeing play out in court today in Georgia. Former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows lost his case in the same vein to try to get his trial in Georgia moved to federal court. Now, Jeffrey Clark is trying to do the same thing. Can we just make the assumption that there's going to be the similar result where the judge will say, no, this has to stay in state court, or is this different? Will the judge look at all of the facts of that case and decide differently?

ROSSI: Sara, to me, Jeffrey Clark's argument is worse. Mark Meadows had some argument, a little bit, not a lot. But what Jeffrey Clark did was way beyond his role as acting attorney general of the civil division. I worked at main justice. They have assistant attorney generals that are like cardinals in the papacy. They are big fishes. He was an acting attorney general for the civil division. Stay in your lane, dude. You can't go writing letters to state officials about something that isn't occurring.

And here's what really offends me, Sara. The first paragraph of this letter that they wanted to send to Governor Kemp, the speaker of the house, and the senate pro-temp of the senate, it starts off with a big lie.


And the big lie is this, the DOJ is investigating voter fraud.