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Americans Imprisoned In Iran Released In Rare Deal; Former DOJ Official's Attempt To Move Case To Federal Court; Bleak Polls For Trump And President Biden's Potential Rematch Selective Strike By Auto Workers Continues, Potential Economic Impact; Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Killed In Ambush, Arrest Made. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 14:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Finally, free. Smiles and hugs as Americans imprisoned in Iran start the journey back to the United States after years of being wrongfully detained. What we're learning about the deal to free them and what happens when they get home.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Another Trump co-defendant is trying to get his case moved out of Fulton County, Georgia. Former Justice Department official wants his case, like others have tried, to be tried in federal court. We're going to break down his arguments, his chances of winning, from today's hearing.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Plus, two bleak new polls for both Trump and President Biden. How voters feel about a potential rematch in 2024. We are following these major developing stories and many more, all coming in right here to CNN News Central.

SANCHEZ: They are on their way home. Right now, five Americans who were wrongfully detained in Iran for years are in the air en route to the United States. It's the result of a rare deal between Washington and Tehran. On the other end of it, the United States released five Iranian nationals and freed up billions of dollars in Iranian funds strictly for humanitarian use.

But the White House was very quick to note that this deal does not mark a cooling of tensions between the two adversaries. In fact, the Biden administration just announced a new round of sanctions on Tehran. CNN's Natasha Bertrand has been tracking all the latest details. So, Natasha, this was the result of a complicated, multi- year-long effort.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yeah, Boris, the Biden administration has really been trying to get these prisoners released from Iran for the better part of two years. And this deal really started to take shape over the last six to seven months when the U.S. and Iranian delegations began negotiating indirectly in Qatar, using Qataris as an intermediary to discuss the possibility of releasing these five Americans in exchange for the release of five Iranians who are in U.S. prisons, as well as the release of $6 billion in previously restricted Iranian funds that will now be able to be used by Iran for humanitarian goods like medicine, medical supplies, agricultural devices and food.

Now, this is already coming under fire from Republicans who say that this is essentially a ransom payment and that it will only encourage Iran to take more Americans hostage and will it basically encourage bad behavior. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he said earlier in remarks that, look, this is not money that was ever prohibited from being used for humanitarian purposes. The U.S. does not issue sanctions that are designed to hurt the people, the public, the population of the country's governments that they are targeting. Here's what he said.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: From day one, our sanctions have clearly and indeed always exempt the use of resources for humanitarian purposes because our aim is not to harm the Iranian people. Our problem, our profound problem is with the Iranian regime. The funds were moved to another bank where we have absolute oversight of how they're used and they can only be used for humanitarian purposes.


BERTRAND: Now, as you said, Boris, the administration has emphasized that this will not result in a cooling of tensions between the U.S. and Iran. And officials have said don't expect further talks, at least not this week, between the U.S. and Iranian officials here. And in fact, as you noted earlier, the U.S. has actually issued more sanctions on Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Boris.

SANCHEZ: Natasha Bertrand, thanks so much for the update. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, our next guest was wrongfully imprisoned in Iran himself for 544 days, released in 2016. He is Washington Post opinion writer and a good friend. Jason Rezaian. Good to have you on, Jason.

JASON REZAIAN: Thanks for having me, Jim.

SCIUTTO: First, this is fundamentally a personal story. Set aside the politics just for a moment. You were released after 544 days. Several of these prisoners were there for five years or longer. What are the first days, weeks like of freedom?

REZAIAN: It's the most unbelievable, indescribable mixed bag of emotions. There is relief, there's joy, elation, but also confusion. Being in captivity, having choice, free will stripped from you for so long, it's a very jarring thing to come back to. And then, of course, the reuniting with one's family that you've been envisioning for years in the case of three of these Americans. It's always more complicated than in your dreams. But at the end of the day, it's wonderful that these five families will be reunited. There are two other U.S. nationals still being held in Iran, and that's heartbreaking. So it's just a huge mixed big for everybody

[14:05:21] SCIUTTO: I'm sure. A little bit of survivor's guilt, if that's the right term. Siamak Namazi referred to that in his statement for those that are still held behind. Any hostage deal like this, and they are, in effect, hostages, as you were, involves an exchange. And this one involves not just releasing Iranians from US imprisonment, but also $6 billion. Now, you spoke to Brett McGurk, the State Department official responsible, in part, for these negotiations. He said that for any transactions, funds are used to pay vendors for the humanitarian goods. No funds whatsoever are going to Iran specifically. Are you confident the US can enforce the restrictions around the money involved in this trade?

Rezaian: I think so. And I think the truth is that accounts like the one that was housed in South Korea and that has been moved to Qatar today have existed for several years. Under the Trump administration, there was very little oversight on those accounts. They were spent down to zero. So, the mechanisms that are in place now are actually a lot stronger than the ones that had existed previously.

At the same time, this idea of concessions for hostage taking, I understand that it's a controversial one, something that many people question. I would caution folks to think about it in those terms. We should be thinking about this in terms of what is the US government, what are our allies doing to prevent this kind of behavior? I don't think that Iran, Russia, China need any more incentives than they already have to take hostages. Because the truth is there's really nothing standing in our way.

SCIUTTO: And it's become a lot more common. Siamak Namazi referred to that in his statement this morning. I'm going to quote from it briefly.

"Over the past 43 years, the Iranian regime has mastered the nasty game of caging innocent Americans and other foreign nationals and commercializing their freedom by now if in prison, of course, the notarious prison where you and others were held, is virtually a dystopian United Nations of hostages."

Given that this is, in fact, becoming more common and that the perception is, and with evidence, that Iran, Russia, and China take prisoners so that they could set up an exchange like this, get something in return, what's to stop it? What is to stop it? What policy changes are necessary?

Rezaian: I think you have to look at the motivations for each of the governments that do this. And some of the hostage takings, even by a government like Iran, whether it's a US national, British national, Canadian, some other European national, they take them for different reasons. So you really have to look at the motivations and develop deterrence mechanisms that respond to those motivations. Make it costlier than it is beneficial to them. So in the Iranian sense, it's driving up the financial costs of doing this, but also targeting the officials who are involved in what is really an organized crime.

SCIUTTO: And that's perhaps why you saw the Biden administration impose some new sanctions today in the wake of this deal, including on the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jason Rezaian, we're glad you've been free for some time. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Rezaian: Good to see you, Jim. Thanks.


SANCHEZ: The legal drama continues in the Georgia election subversion case. A federal judge in Atlanta says he will soon decide on whether Jeffrey Clark can move his case to federal court. The former DOJ official was indicted over his efforts to help former President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election results in the Peach State. His legal team is arguing that he was acting on behalf of the federal government. Let's head to Atlanta now, where CNN's Katelyn Polantz is outside the federal courthouse for us.

So, Katelyn, this is the same judge that rejected Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, in his effort to get his case moved to federal court. So what's different about Jeffrey Clark's case?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Boris, he is looking at a different question here today, one that has a lot of importance for the protection around the federal government or the ability of the state to bring this case against someone like Jeffrey Clark or even against Donald Trump himself. This question is, can a state prosecutor reach inside the federal government and determine that there were things that may have happened inside one of those agencies, in this case with Clark, the Justice Department, that the state says was illegal?

And they say that what Jeffrey Clark was doing, it was not part of his job at all. He wanted to use the Justice Department to make false statements to the state of Georgia. And within seconds of voicing this interest, was told, no, you are not allowed to do that, and kept bringing it up. So that is the big question here. Were these even actions of the federal government that Jeffrey Clark was taking after the election on behalf of Donald Trump when he was working within that department to try and give air to these ideas of election fraud? Now, Jeffrey Clark, he wasn't here today in court, but his lawyer, Harry McDougal, was arguing to the judge quite extensively about this.

One of the things he said was that there was not even an iota of his actions that would be possible if he wasn't a federal official, so that everything Clark did after the election, his lawyer says, was part of his job, was under his office, under his duties. But he also said that Trump was the person that gave him some authority to be able to

do these sorts of things.


Now, the prosecutors say there wasn't any authority that Trump had there, and so if the judge comes back when he does rule on this, if he comes in and weighs in on that, Trump's authority here too, that's going to be a big piece in this case for Donald Trump as well as for Jeffrey Clark.

SANCHEZ: Katelyn Polansky, live outside the federal courthouse in Georgia. Thanks so much, Katelyn. Brianna.

KEILAR: Abortion is front and center on the campaign trail after former President Trump, credited for creating the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade, criticized Ron DeSantis for the six-week abortion ban that he signed as Florida's governor.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: DeSantis was willing to sign a five-week and six-week ban.

UNKNOWN: Would you support that? You think that goes too far?

TRUMP: I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.


KEILAR: So, as Trump takes his huge lead over all of the other Republicans in the polls and makes a play for the general election audiences, former Vice President Mike Pence is slamming him for not being conservative enough on abortion.


MIKE PENCE, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIATE (C): I think we've come to a Republican time for choosing. When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to govern as a conservative. For four years, we did govern as conservatives. But today, Donald Trump makes no such promise. He's embracing the politics of appeasement on the world stage, walking away from our role as leader in the free world. He's willing to ignore the debt crisis facing Americans, and he wants to marginalize the right to life.


KEILAR: Joining us now is CNN political director David Chalian. So, David, Trump's support in 2016 from conservatives, from evangelical voters, it really focused on gaining a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. He got that. That court then overturned Roe during the Biden administration. Can he approach this issue with a general election strategy without turning off the Republican base? What do the polls tell us?

DAVID CHALLIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, we're going to find out is the answer to your question. You'll recall right after the 2022 midterms, Breonna, Donald Trump sort of played political analyst and believed that some of his party's problems in not achieving some of the expected gains was because of their stance on abortion rights or lack thereof in a post-Roe world.

He immediately got backlash from the pro-life community, an activist part of the base inside the Republican Party. And what you've seen since is Donald Trump try to navigate his way through, as you noted, sort of focus more on a general election message, which he hasn't really landed on here, versus just playing primary politics.

If you look at a poll from the summer, New York Times, Siena College had on this issue. You see that Republicans are supportive of a federal 15-week ban. Fifty-eight percent of likely primary voting Republicans support it. A six-week ban in a state, as Ron DeSantis did, which Donald Trump just said was a terrible mistake yesterday, 60% of Republican primary voters there support that. So it is trying to clearly, you see in the former president, you see with Nikki Haley perhaps navigating a position that is more about having longevity in a general election context than just the short-term appeal to the base in the Republican primary.

KEILAR: I do like to go down memory lane with you. So considering what Trump is saying here, let's rewind a little to 2016 when he was speaking about the future of abortion law and whether women who get them should be punished.


TRUMP: This presidential election is going to be very important because when you say what's the law, nobody knows what the law is going to be. It depends on who gets elected because somebody is going to appoint conservative judges and somebody is going to appoint liberal judges depending on who wins.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Do you believe in punishment for abortion? Yes or no, as a principle?

TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.

MATTHEWS: For the woman?

TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form.


KEILAR: Okay, he backpedaled on that. To be clear, that is not the conservative anti-abortion approach there. They are very against talk about punishing women. They do, we see in laws, punish doctors or people they see as abortion -- accomplices. But Trump, again, he weathered that fine. He seems to wiggle out of these moments that maybe tick some people off, David.


CHALLIAN: Yeah, you are right. He walked that back rather quickly after there was a lot of sound and fury around that answer in that town hall back in 2016. You also note that in the Meet the Press interview he did this weekend, he again very firmly stood in support of exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, life of the mother.

Wanting to -- He believes you must have exceptions in place and that has not always been the Republican platform, the Republican Party platform, and yet that is where Donald Trump is here and many Republicans are for including those exceptions. But he understands, as he did at that town in the immediate aftermath of that 2016 town hall, this is an issue after you wipe away 50 years of precedent of Roe versus Wade, you now have to grapple with how you move forward in a post-Roe world. And clearly he's not willing to be pinned down yet on exactly how he sees the path forward on this issue.

KEILAR: I also want to ask you about a new CBS YouGov poll with a pretty bleak outlook on how voters look at President Biden. Only 34% think he would finish a second term if he's reelected, 34% here. That's got to be alarming for folks in his campaign.

CHALLIAN: Yeah, I mean, I feel like every day now there's another poll about concerns that voters are expressing about Joe Biden's stamina or fortitude to finish out a second term. He's already the oldest person serving in the job. We see the real concern unprompted. Just asking people open-ended, sort of, what is your greatest concern about his candidacy? Overwhelmingly, people say his age. And that's why you see his campaign pushing back on that on a daily basis.

A, they say that experience and wisdom comes with age. B, they're doing this advertising campaign trying to show him on these foreign trips, like the trip to Ukraine, what have you, that he does have the stamina and fortitude. But this is something he's going to have to show every day from now through Election Day next year. Because one thing we know is absolutely true, he won't be getting younger during that process, Brianna.

KEILAR: That is absolutely true, no matter how hard we try. David Challian, thank you so much. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Brianna and I, we're getting younger, no problem. Well, Congress is running out of time to reach a deal to fund the government, yet Republicans are struggling to reach a deal even among themselves. We're going to be live on Capitol Hill with the pressure that Speaker Kevin McCarthy is now facing, plus day four of the autoworkers strike. Are they any closer to a deal? And later, as COVID cases go up, some are becoming fed up with COVID test kits. Why many at-home versions come back negative even when a person is certain they caught the virus. That's coming up on CNN News Central.



SCIUTTO: Just 12 days. That's how long Congress has to reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown. Over the weekend, six House Republicans laid out a tentative short-term funding plan, but it is already hitting a wall. That sets up yet another test for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's leadership. Let's take you now live to Capitol Hill with CNN's Manu Raju. So, Manu, you just spoke with the House Speaker. What did he tell you?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he still believes, Boris, that he can get the votes within the House Republican Conference to get this bill through. Remember, there are several steps here in this process. A bill has to pass the House, a bill has to pass the Senate, it has to be signed into law by the president. We're only talking about the first step, and that is becoming a major challenge for Speaker McCarthy because of a revolt among his right flank, members who do not like the deal that a handful of Republican members had cut to try to avoid a government shutdown by the end of the month. The ones on the right want more demands, deeper spending cuts, other

provisions, such as going after the special counsel's investigation into Donald Trump. All those issues are now on the table, and Kevin McCarthy simply has a math problem. He can't get the votes to get Republicans in line. Democrats don't like how far he is going on this, and they want him to come towards them. And if he goes towards Democrats, there's a new problem for Kevin McCarthy. A vote could be pushed by members on the far right trying to oust him from the speakership, a threat that is very real at this moment.

Now, in speaking to McCarthy just moments ago, he downplayed all those concerns, and he's not worried about threats to his speakership, and he also indicated that he is not at the moment planning to work with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown. He believes the votes could come within his conference.


RAJU: Is it time to work with Democrats on this, given that they have all this opposition from the right flank on this CR? How to deal with Democrats --



RAJU: -- to get this passed?

MCCARTHY: I've been, this isn't the 30th. We've got a long ways to go. We've got a lot of different ideas. I credit our members over the weekend working together from the Freedom Caucus to the --Main Street. They put up with an idea. I'm for a lot of different ideas. Whatever gets us to be able to get through, and I'll continue to put more ideas on the floor.


RAJU: But with a razor-thin Republican majority, he can only afford to lose four Republican votes, assuming all Democrats vote against it.

And the same goes to maintain the speakership. If there are more than four Republicans voting to oust him, Democrats vote to oust him, Kevin McCarthy is out of a job. And in a warning sign today, one member, Victoria Spartz, a Republican member of his conference, wrote a scathing statement about the speaker, saying, "Unfortunately, real leadership takes courage and willingness to fight for the country, not for power and a picture on a wall. It is a shame that our weak speaker cannot even commit to having commission to discuss our looming fiscal catastrophe". McCarthy was just asked about those comments, too. He again downplayed it and contended he'll be able to fight these issues, fight these people who are trying to battle him and try to get the bill to avoid a shutdown done by the end of the month.

SANCHEZ: Some difficult math there for McCarthy. Manu Raju, thanks so much. Brianna. KEILAR: Well, today is the fourth day of the historic United Auto Workers' selective strike.For the first time, union members are picketing all three of the big pardon me, they're picketing all of the big three U.S. carmakers at the same time. But there's just 12,700 members who are picketing right now. And the UAW says if the strike goes on, the rest of the full force of the 145,000 members could join them.


Today, Moody's economist Mark Zandi said a prolonged work stoppage like that would bring U.S. economic growth to a quote virtual standstill. We have CNN's Gabe Cohen, who is in Toledo, where you see striking auto workers behind him. Gabe, how long are people there preparing to be on the picket lines?

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, the answer I hear from worker after worker over the past few days since I've been talking to them is they're ready to strike for as long as it takes. That's what they keep saying. And look, you mentioned the impact nationally to the economy. Well, these 5,800 workers here in Toledo, the nearly 13,000 across the country, they're now getting strike pay, $500 a week, far less, of course, than they would be making.

They don't have a salary, though, right now. They're just making that money from the union. They -- We right now are on the picket line right outside this Stellantis Jeep factory. And look, we've talked about this range of issues that workers have been asking for as part of this contract. One of the biggest issues for Stellantis UAW workers is tiered pay. That people on the same line doing basically the same job are making different amounts of money. I want to bring in one of the workers, Tim, if I can bring you in here. This is Tim. Tim, we were talking before. You were saying you're one of those temporary workers. You are already capped out at $19 an hour. Is that right?


COHEN: Okay. And so for you, what are the biggest issues and how are you feeling on day four of the strike?

MILLS II: One of the biggest issues is just the path to full time because right now I'm capped out and there's no promise of them to hire me. So I'm kind of just stuck in a limbo of kind of being grateful that I have a job with no real level of improvement to go up at any level.

COHEN: And you were telling me you actually started a business to supplement your income. This is a detailing business. Is that right?

MILLS II: Correct.

COHEN: And that's your truck right over there.

MILLS II: Yeah, right there. Yeah. I wanted to get as close to the strike line as I could just to let everyone know that local businesses are behind this because this economy affects almost all parts of Toledo.

COHEN: And why did you start that business?

MILLS II: Mainly because the economy inside of Jeep was just one day we'll have their masonry nuts take 70 hours and the next week we're only allowed 20. So one day we have to come in seven days a week and the next day they tell us, hey, you're only allowed to work one day next week because that's all that we need you.

COHEN: How prepared are you for this to last potentially weeks?

MILLS II: I'm uniquely prepared because I did start my own business and I kind of have another job to go to, but a lot of people are not as unique as me and didn't start their own business on the side. They, you know, they kind of rely on Jeep to give them their entire income. And about a year ago, I realized that's not really where this was going because of the economy inside Jeep, because like I said, the hours are so unregulated.

COHEN: Well, well, Tim, thank you so much for your time. Good luck out here.

MILLS II: Thank you so much:

COHEN: And Brianna, we know again, thousands of these workers on strike, these picket lines going 24-7 right now.

KEILAR: Yeah, really interesting. Tim saw this coming, deciding to make a decision there for himself. Gabe Cohen, great report. Thank you. Jim.

SCIUTTO: A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy killed in his patrol car in what officials say was an ambush. What we're learning about an arrest in the case that's coming up.