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Five Americans Freed After Being Wrongfully Detained in Iran; Trump Co-Defendant Hearing in Georgia Case to Federal Court; Hunter Biden Sues IRS, Says Agents Illegally Released Tax Info. Aired 10- 10:30a ET
Aired September 18, 2023 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning, five Americans are on a plane, one step closer to their freedom after being wrongfully detained for years in Iran. We're live in Qatar, where, which is their first stop and where they're expected to touch down any moment.
SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now in Georgia, a hearing is underway for one of Donald Trump's co-defendants, former DOJ official Jeffrey Clark's legal team is asking a judge to move his case out of the Georgia State Court and into a federal courtroom. Will it fail like Mark Meadows' request? We'll have the details.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And new this morning, Hunter Biden suing the IRS, how he says they failed to protect his rights.
I'm John Berman with Sarah Sidner and Kate Bolduan. This is CNN News Central.
BOLDUAN: We have this new video we want to show you, showing the moment five Americans imprisoned in Iran for years wrongfully detained there, were finally allowed to board a plane headed out of Tehran. The jet is expected to arrive in Qatar sometime in this next hour, talking about Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz, they are headed home. The identities of two other Americans that are being released along with them right now, their names are being held. After stopping in Qatar, they will travel on to the Washington area to be reunited with families and then home.
As part of this release, $6 billion of previously restricted Iranian funds will now be accessible to Iran for humanitarian purposes. As also part of the deal, the United States has released five Iranian nationals who have been in U.S. custody.
CNN's Natasha Bertrand is in Washington. We also -- CNN's Becky Anderson is in Doha.
Becky, let me start with you. What's the very latest you're hearing from there and what are these next steps going to look like? BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, within the hour, the flight, the Qatar Airways flight carrying those five American citizens, Siamak's wife and -- sorry, Siamak's mom and Morad's wife, also on the plane, will land here at an airport in Doha. They will be processed here, greeted by the Americans who have been part of this indirect negotiation and then headed home free at last.
And what a feeling that must be after what has been years-long incarceration, wrongfully detained in Iran for so long. Siamak Namazi detained in prison, in the notorious Evin prison, for nearly eight years on charges that he colluded with a hostile government, charges America and these Americans say are simply untrue.
So, in the air, they've cleared Iranian airspace and they are due, as I say, here within the hour.
Qatar, the mediation country here working tirelessly behind the scenes for the last 18 months, eight rounds of talks, we are told by sources who are familiar with the situation here, sorted the logistics. The Qatari ambassador took the Americans to the airport just about an hour and a half ago, boarded the plane with them and also organizing for the $6 billion dollars worth of Iranian assets that have been transferred from a South Korean bank via Switzerland to Doha banks here. That cash will be available to the Iranian authorities to spend on humanitarian goods.
So, that is the story. That's the very latest from here. Bottom line, we should see that Qatar Airways plane arriving at this airport on the tarmac behind me within the hour. Kate?
BOLDUAN: It's great to have you there, Becky.
And, Natasha, we just had John Kirby from the White House on who says when they do land in Qatar, that is going to be the moment that they're going to really have a sense and to get first eyes and first conversations with all five of these Americans when they land there, Kirby also saying that this is a great day for everyone to see this happening.
But talk to me about the contours of how this all came about the months and months of negotiation.
NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Kate. So, as you said, this played out over the last six to seven months. The administration has been pursuing this kind of deal to get these American prisoners released really since coming into office. But the contours really began to take shape of this deal about seven months ago.
And, importantly, the administration and U.S. officials never actually spoke to Iranian officials face-to-face. The U.S. and Iran, they don't have diplomatic relations. And everything with regard to these negotiations was taking place through intermediaries in Qatar. The Qataris were a very key part of having this deal kind of take shape with regard to the release of the American prisoners from Tehran and, of course, the release of Iranian prisoners who have been held in the U.S., the $6 billion in funds also being released, a key part of this deal as well.
Now, that is the part of this negotiation that has sparked a lot of backlash by Republicans who have criticized the administration for releasing those funds, which are Iranian funds, for Iran to use for humanitarian purposes.
The administration, though, pushing back and saying, look, this is not going to fundamentally change our relationship with Iran. They said in a statement, quote, Iran is an adversary and state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold them accountable wherever possible. But it goes without saying that when we have an opportunity to bring American citizens home, we do seek to seize it, and that's what we are doing here.
So, the Biden administration also today is going to issue new sanctions against Iran that are going to target Iran's Ministry of Intelligence as well as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And so you're seeing this contrast, of course, between the administration pursuing this deal to get these Americans out, but also they're trying to convey that they are still being tough on Iran in issuing sanctions where necessary, Kate.
But expect this to still receive a lot of scrutiny and a lot of backlash from Republicans in the coming weeks.
BOLDUAN: Natasha Bertrand, great to see you, Becky Anderson in Doha for us. much more to come this hour sir.
SIDNER: All right. Joining us now CNN Chief International Correspondent and Anchor Christiane Amanpour. Thank you so much for being here.
You have been covering this for decades, not just this case but many, many, many cases where we have seen Americans detained and then eventually released I want to first get to what the reasons were that Iran detained some of these people, these men in the first place?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL AND ANCHOR: Through their own words. And I spoke to Siamak Namazi, the one who's been held the longest, eight years in October, it will be eight years. And he made a very daring phone call out of Evin, that notorious prison.
And when I asked him and I actually put the charges that the Iranian regime put against them, he said hold on, hold on, hold on, we have all been basically charged with the idea of being you know connected to a hostile government. Well, hold on, we are Americans, so I don't know how you make that up.
But the truth of the matter is, as he said very clearly, the only reason they were taken and Americans before them is because they're Americans. That's it, just because they're Americans. They are taken and used as pawns in this political, horrible game between the United States and Iran that's lasted since 1979. They were the hostages that were taken at the very beginning of the revolution. Siamak has been held six times as long as those.
So, that's all it is. It's for Iran to get back what it considers its own money, which it is, and this is the way they do it. And individuals pay the price.
SIDNER: I want to talk to you about Siamak Namazi, because you did have this incredible interview that really could have put him in quite a bit of danger because he was speaking out, talking to someone who was going to broadcast this across the world. Let's listen to a little bit of your conversation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SIAMAK NAMAZI, EVIN PRISON, IRAN: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SIDNER: I mean, he sounds extremely nervous. He sounds frightened and he doesn't sound well as he is sitting in this notoriously dangerous prison. Do you think that that conversation may have moved the needle?
AMANPOUR: I do. I actually do. When somebody like that in prison without being free, without having all that's available to us standing here right now and takes that decision to put his life at risk to make a desperate plea to his President Biden and to everybody, including the Iranian government, who's responsible for holding him, to please get this sorted, I think that it's a huge, huge, huge step of courage.
And, yes, he was nervous and he did even get emotional during this interview. He spoke on behalf of himself and of Emad Shaghri and Morad Tahbaz, and then we learned about two others who'd been there for much, much less time, you know, saying that they deserve to be treated as human beings.
They had done nothing wrong. He said to me, and these were his words, we haven't so much as jaywalked. We haven't so much as jaywalked. This is because we're American citizens and we are pawns in this game.
And I'll say that he talked to me about -- he wouldn't go into a lot of detail. He's under Iranian guard, obviously. But of the indignities that he and the others faced, certainly himself, in the first two-plus years, solitary confinement, being fed, as he said, like a dog, you know, through the underneath of the prison door, et cetera.
And, you know, he just took this step. And I hope that it did rattle some cages everywhere, including in the U.S. administration, to finally get serious about these negotiations. SIDNER: We know that family members have been coming on all over the world trying to get people listening, but I do want to ask you, you talk about them being used as pawns, and we've seen this before. You've reported on this many times before.
Are you concerned and should there be concern about making these deals, the $6 billion? I get it. It is going to be in a separate thing, and the United States is only going to release it for humanitarian reasons, but they're also getting prisoners from the United States as well. Is this a problematic relationship?
AMANPOUR: The entire thing is unacceptable. It means hostages are used instead of policy, you know? And, look, President Biden went into a similar kind of deal with Russia, with whom the United States is basically in a proxy war right now, to get out Brittney Griner. We've got our colleague, Evan Gershkovitz, in there. We've got Paul Whelan in there, in Russia.
The most terrible regime in Moscow, they're dealing with. Previous presidents, President Trump, dealt with the Iranians to get two Americans out, left Siamak behind. This is not just a current issue, and it needs to be dealt with, hopefully, in the end, if they can come up with some global anti-hostage-taking plan that the whole world can, you know, be on the same side. But every country has their issues, and every country has gone into these kinds of deals, in the end, including the Brits, many allies of the U.S.
SIDNER: I think that's a really good point. It's not just what's happening right now. We've seen this in administration after administration and Americans are being used as pawns.
Christiane Amanpour, I'm very lucky to have you here this morning. Thank you.
AMANPOUR: Thank you, Sara.
BERMAN: Donald Trump says it was ultimately his decision to try to overturn the 2020 election results. Remember, everything he says now can be used in court.
Hunter Biden is suing the IRS, saying agents illegally released his tax information. This is a new twist in that legal standoff.
BERMAN: Happening at this moment in Georgia, a hearing for former Trump Justice Department Official and current Trump co-defendant Jeffrey Clark, as he seeks to get his election subversion charges moved out of state and into federal court.
A lawyer for Clark is making the case before the same judge who rejected a similar request made by Mark Meadows. A lawyer for Donald Trump is also inside.
CNN's Katelyn Polantz just stepped out of the courtroom. Katelyn, what are you seeing?
KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jeffrey Clark himself, he's not here. So, he's not going to be testifying today, John. We didn't expect him to necessarily because he has already submitted a sworn statement to the court about what he was doing after the election saying it was all part of his job. He was never doing anything on Donald Trump's behalf personally.
But this is a really important hearing today. We were through this once before with Mark Meadows. Ultimately, that claim is rejected and is going up to the appeals court on whether he can move his case. But that was about the politics versus the role of the White House. This is a bigger question even today and one that may be even harder for this judge, Judge Jones. A federal judge here in the northern district of Georgia, to look at.
And the question is whether the state prosecutors can look into what the Justice Department was doing at the time after the election. Jeffrey Clark was serving as the head of the Civil Division of the Justice Department, a pretty prominent role in that entity, in that agency. But he was in touch with Donald Trump himself, something he wasn't authorized to do in that position.
And he also wanted to send on Justice Department letterhead a letter to the state of Georgia, essentially giving them cover to look into election fraud when the Justice Department knew that there wasn't a reason for them to be looking into this, that there wasn't widespread fraud, that the federal government was very firm in that. And they were telling Jeffrey Clark, don't do this, don't do this.
Now, we do have Jeffrey Clark's lawyer, Harry McDougald. He's arguing to the judge just now. One of the things he was saying was that that draft letter that Jeffrey Clark prepared on behalf of the Justice Department that was never sent, that it never left the office at the Justice Department.
If that can be part of the state's case against him is a really big question. It could have a lot of implications for Donald Trump himself. Trump's attorneys are here watching how this proceeding goes. And it's all going to come down to how much protection people like Jeffrey Clark, even Trump, may get because they were serving as federal officials after the 2020 election on those things that they were doing that they're now accused were crimes in the state of Georgia. John?
BERMAN: All right. Katelyn Polantz with almost real time updates from inside that courtroom, Katelyn, thank you so much. Keep us posted. Kate?
BOLDUAN: Also this morning, did Donald Trump just complicate matters even more for all of the defendants?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The most senior lawyers in your own administration and on your campaign told you that after you'd lost more than 60 legal challenges that it was over. Why did you ignore them and decide to listen to a new outside group?
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Because I didn't respect them.
WELKER: Were you calling the shots, though, Mr. President, ultimately?
TRUMP: As to whether or not I believed it was rigged, oh, sure. It was my decision. But I listened to some people. Some people said that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: Joining us now is CNN Senior Legal Analyst, Elie Honig. Elie, on that, do you think the comments from Donald Trump in this new interview with Kristen Welker, do you think they are going to be a problem in court?
ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's a helpful piece of tape for prosecutors. Because, here, you have Donald Trump acknowledging, this was my intent here to try to reverse the results of the election, and I was the one calling the shots. I don't think that was -- Jack Smith was going to have any problem establishing that, but it's nice to have him staring into the camera and saying it point blank.
Overall, Kate, this is a preview of what Donald Trump's defense is going to be. He has argued and will argue, I'm getting different advice from different advisers. Some are telling me there's no evidence of fraud, others are telling me you won and you should fight this, and I made the decision to press forward.
So, it's a useful piece of evidence, I think, for prosecutors on the whole.
BOLDUAN: On the whole. On Jeffrey Clark, first and foremost, him not going to court today, if we just put this -- you know, split screen this with the last request coming from Mark Meadows, Mark Meadows testified, maybe took the risky move of testifying. It didn't work out for him. Why would Jeffrey Clark not want to testify?
HONIG: I think Mark Meadows' testimony a couple of weeks ago is Exhibit A for why Jeffrey Clark is not testifying today. Look, Jeffrey Clark is a lawyer. He has his own lawyers. I'm sure they told him, you don't want to be anywhere near that courthouse. You don't want to be in the state of Georgia.
Now, if you're making the motion that Jeffrey Clark is making, where he says, I want to take my case out of state court over to federal court, you have the burden. You have to show that what you were doing was within the scope of your job. One way he could have done that is taking the stand, inherent risks there. What he's trying to do instead is he submitted a written affidavit from this former United States attorney general, Edwin Meese, and I think he's going to point to that and say, that affidavit makes the showing without having to take the risk of testifying.
BOLDUAN: How strong of a case do you think Clark has to have his charges moved from state court to federal?
HONIG: So, we're in a bit of untrod territory here. It's a little tough to make predictions. I think he has a weaker case than Mark Meadows. Yes, because Jeffrey Clark was a DOJ official. I didn't have the exact same job, but I have a good familiarity within DOJ of what you're supposed to do there.
What Jeffrey Clark did is he drafted a memo, a letter from the United States Justice Department to Georgia and other states saying, we DOJ have found substantial evidence of fraud. That itself is a fraud. That is false. That is the opposite of what you're supposed to do with the Justice Department. You're supposed to investigate in good faith. You're supposed to report the findings of those investigations truthfully. He did the opposite.
So, I'm not seeing an argument here that anything Jeffrey Clark did was within his scope as a DOJ official.
BOLDUAN: But what we're hearing from Katelyn Polantz in court, as we speak, his attorney is trying to make the case that this draft letter that he put together and was, you know, slapped down by his superiors at DOJ, that it never actually left the office, it never left the Justice Department. So, why should state prosecutors be able to look into something that never left the office? Do you see how is this different, if at all, from Mark Meadows in terms of what their actual jobs and roles were within the federal government?
HONIG: Yes. So, it's an interesting argument by Jeffrey Clark. If the argument was, I just drafted this and was going to save it on my computer in case we found some kind of fraud. That would be one thing. But the facts here are Jeffrey Clark wanted to get this letter actually sent out of the building. His superiors at DOJ said no way.
But it's important to keep in mind in the judge in the Mark Meadows case, same judge here, said each of these motions, and we may see one from Donald Trump, is going to have to be evaluated on its own merits. It's not a good sign for Jeffrey Clark and maybe Donald Trump that Mark Meadows lost but the judge said everyone has a different scope, everyone had a different job, everyone is going to be evaluated separately.
BOLDUAN: On Donald Trump, why he hasn't filed this same request to get his case moved into federal court, why wouldn't he have done it by now?
HONIG: So, under the rules, you have 30 days from your arraignment. So, Trump is about two-plus weeks into that time, so he has a little less than two weeks left if he's going to do it. I think he's sitting back and watching at this point. I think he's trying to gather all the information, all the intelligence he can get.
Look, he's already seen Mark Meadows take the stand, or his lawyers saw it. He already saw a written ruling, a detailed ruling from the judge, rejecting Mark Meadows. And so if I'm Trump's lawyer, going through that ruling, sort of point by point saying, well, where did Mark Meadows fall short and how can we address it?
So, I still do think Trump is going to make this motion. There's too much for him to be gained by possibly getting over to federal court, but I think he's going to try to gather as much information as he can.
BOLDUAN: Is it surprising or unusual at all that, as Katelyn was saying, one of his attorneys is in this hearing of Clark's right now?
HONIG: No, not surprising at all. Anytime you have a multi-defendant case, in this case, 19 defendants, I expect all the defense lawyers to either be at the table, or if it's not their motion, be sitting in the back watching. That's fair game. They're trying to learn as much as they can. They're trying to learn about the judge's approach. They're trying to learn about the prosecution's tactics, trying to see what works and what doesn't work.
It's one of the maybe advantages of being one of many defendants in a case.
BOLDUAN: Maybe one of a few. It's good to see you. Thank you so much, Ellie. Sara?
SIDNER: All right. We have some breaking news for you. At this hour, this moment, the five Americans that were detained in Iran for more than five years are finally out of Iranian airspace. We watched them get on a plane. We now know that seven total people have made their way out of Iranian airspace. And we are expecting to see them arrive in Qatar very shortly. We will bring that to you live as soon as we get it.
Now, new this morning, Hunter Biden is suing the IRS, saying the agency unlawfully disclosed his tax information and failed to protect his private records. This has been filed days after Biden was indicted on a three-felony gun charge. And we've also learned he also faces a potential tax charge again as well.
CNN's Kara Scannell joins me now with the very latest. Do we have any sense of why Biden is suing now over this? There was a plea deal involving the money he owed for taxes, but now he's suing the IRS.
KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, this is part of a bolder legal strategy by the Biden defense team. And they're filing this lawsuit against the IRS, saying that, through their agency, there's the two whistleblowers, Gary Shapley and Joseph Ziegler, that they disclosed private information and that the IRS didn't do a good job of safeguarding that information.
And what they're alleging here is that the whistleblowers went beyond what is accepted under the statute that protects a whistleblower from going forward. So, in their lawsuit, they allege these agents, putative whistleblower status, cannot and does not shield them from their wrongful conduct in making unauthorized public disclosures that are not permitted by the whistleblower process. In fact, a whistleblower is supposed to uncover government misconduct, not the details of that employee's opinion about the alleged wrongdoing of a private person.
So, in this lawsuit, they point to a number of public appearances by the whistleblowers and their attorneys where -- including on CNN, where they're talking about their thoughts about this investigation that Hunter Biden had received favorable treatment. They also specifically talk about what they say Hunter Biden had in his tax returns, that was that he was taking as personal expenses but marking them as business expenses, including expenses for prostitutes, for sex club memberships and for hotel rooms for purported drug deals.
One of the agents also disclosed in an interview that Hunter Biden owed more than $2 .2 million in unpaid taxes, and that is what Hunter Biden's attorneys are saying was the unauthorized disclosure here.
Now I just got comments in from Shapley's attorney, one of those whistleblowers. They're calling this lawsuit a frivolous smear by the Biden family attorneys, and they said that they didn't overstep their boundaries in the whistleblower protections. The IRS just got back to me, they're saying that they do not comment on pending litigations. Sara?
SIDNER: All right. Kara Scannell, I know you'll be watching this as this unfolds further. We appreciate you. John?
BERMAN: All right. Five Americans wrongfully detained in Iran on a plane at this moment coming home. They're going to touch down any minute now and we will bring that to you live.