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Five Americans Freed by Iran En Route to U.S.; Hunter Biden Sues IRS, Claims Private Info Leaked; Fed. Judge Says He'll Decide Soon on Ex-DOJ Official's Attempt to Move GA Election Subversion Case to Federal Court; UN Revises Death Toll to 3,958, as Thousands Are Still Missing. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 15:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: On their way to the U.S. right now, five Americans held hostage in Iran are free after the Biden administration unfreezes $6 billion of Iranian oil money. But the U.S. is imposing new sanctions on Iranian agencies and officials with connections to another detained American. We have all the details.

JIM SCIUTTO: CNN HOST: And Hunter Biden now suing the IRS. The President's son says agents illegally released his personal tax information. He claims the agency failed to protect his private records.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Plus, a former Department of Justice official and Donald Trump ally asking a federal judge to move his Georgia election subversion case to federal court. How the judge is now reacting.

We're following these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

KEILAR: Here in a few hours, five Americans who were wrongfully detained in Iran will be back on U.S. soil for the first time in years. Their plane in the air as we speak. It left from Qatar a short while ago. And President Biden has spoken to each of their families, families that will soon be reunited with their loved ones in Washington after so long.

These are the five U.S. citizens who were freed, two have not been publicly named. And as part of this deal, five Iranian nationals were released by the U.S. and $6 billion in Iranian funds were made available strictly for humanitarian use.

We have CNN's Natasha Bertrand, who's here with us.

All right. Natasha, how did this deal come together?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Really over the course of several years, Brianna, the administration has been trying to get these Americans released from an Iranian prison since really they came into office. Some of these Americans have been held there for over or all of them, I should say, for over five years, one of them for nearly eight years.

So clearly something that was a very high priority for them, but it really started to take shape, the deal itself over the last six-, seven months. That is when the administration began negotiating with the Iranians in Qatar, notably not actually face-to-face. These were indirect talks that the Qataris served as intermediaries for.

And just last month, we saw the beginning of that movement, right, when a couple of those Americans were actually moved to house arrest. And then we saw the Secretary of State issue a waiver that would allow those $6 billion that you mentioned to be transferred to Qatar to then be used for humanitarian purposes as Iran requests those funds.

Now, the Secretary of State, he is already kind of preempting the backlash that we have heard already from Republicans, from critics of this deal by saying that these funds were never meant to exempt, of course, being used for humanitarian purposes.

The U.S. does not levy sanctions to punish the people of the governments under the governments that the U.S. is trying to punish here. So here's what he said in remarks earlier today.


ANTONY BLINKEN, UNITED STATES 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 - how they're used and they can only be used for humanitarian purposes.


BERTRAND: Now, notably, the administration has really tried to emphasize here that the fundamental relationship between the U.S. and Iran has not changed. The U.S. is still going to try to hold the Iranians accountable, and they still consider them a terrorist state.

But it remains to be seen how Iran is going to react following the announcement earlier today of new sanctions targeting Iran's Ministry of Intelligence as well as the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It will likely not take kindly to that, especially after they believe, of course, that these kind of humanitarian gestures between the U.S. and Iran can continue. So we'll have to see how that plays out, Brianna.

KEILAR: I just keep re-watching this video. It's so amazing to think of these people knowing that they are now safe. They're on their way home.

Natasha, thank you so much for that.

[15:05:01] I want to bring in CNN Senior White House Correspondent Kayla Tausche now.

So, Kayla, the administration has been clear today that this does not turn the page on the U.S.-Iran relationship. Case in point, they announced new sanctions.

KAYLA TAUSCHE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Brianna. And in fact, the senior administration officials discussing this deal have said that these will not be the last sanctions under the Levinson Act that the U.S. will be putting on Iran. It raises the question, though, given the fact that this week is the U.N. General Assembly, of whether the U.S. and Iran will be talking this week.

The administration has said in no uncertain terms, absolutely not, noting that any diplomatic discussions would continue to be held through intermediaries like Qatar and like Oman, with the administration giving particular thanks to the sultan of Oman for his role in some of these talks.

Now, of course, the deal is not without its criticism. The fact that there are $6 billion in funds that will be freed up from overseas bank accounts for Iran have drawn the criticism of GOP presidential candidates, like former Vice President Mike Pence, who has said that this will allow Iran to foment terrorism.

But senior administration officials have said that they believe that there are enforcement mechanisms in place and that the risk of diversion for Iran to be using those funds for anything other than humanitarian purposes is low. But they are continuing to keep a very hard line on the country, even as they acknowledge that this deal done through humanitarian challenges is a big win for diplomacy.

KEILAR: So Biden, of course, is there in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. Could this come up? Could we see him laying out a strategy going forward when it comes to confronting hostage diplomacy or is that entirely going to need to be something part of a bigger approach to Iran?

TAUSCHE: Well, I think it will need to be part of a bigger approach, but it remains unclear exactly what that bigger approach is. The U.S. has very clearly batted down the idea that any talks with Iran, whose president and other officials will be at UNGA this week in New York.

They've said that those talks will not be taking place and so that is an important detail to keep in mind here. Now, could the U.S. choose to use this moment to highlight again the case of Evan Gershkovich, The Wall Street Journal reporter who remains detained in Russia? Perhaps.

We simply don't know and we know that President Biden, who will be giving an address tomorrow, has a lot of other foreign policy goals that he'll want to elevate. Brianna?

KEILAR: All right. We'll be watching. Kayla Tausche live for us from New York, thank you. Jim?

SCIUTTO: A "assault on his rights." That is what Hunter Biden is accusing the IRS of doing to him. He's now suing the agency, claiming that two of its whistleblowers leaked his confidential tax information to the public and that he has suffered, staggering harm as a result. This lawsuit comes just days after the President's son was indicted on three felony gun charges.

CNN's Kara Scannell has been following this.

So, Kara, tell us exactly what this law lawsuit claims and who it targets.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Jim. So Hunter Biden is suing the IRS today for the actions of two of its agents, those whistleblowers, Gary Shapley and Joseph Ziegler. And what they're alleging is that they went beyond what is permitted under the whistleblower laws and they disclosed some confidential information on Hunter Biden's tax returns and disclosing confidential information is illegal. It's a very highly protected part of the U.S. law and when people are not allowed to learn other people's tax information.

So they're saying that they went beyond what was permitted by giving a series of media interviews. And in one of those interviews to CBS over the summer, Gary Shapley is discussing with the reporter how Hunter Biden allegedly used some of his personal expenses as business expenses on his tax return, take a listen.


GARY SHAPLEY, IRS WHISTLEBLOWER: There were personal expenses that were taken as business expenses, prostitutes, sex club memberships, hotel rooms for purported drug dealers.


SCANNELL: And in that same interview, Shapley also says that Hunter Biden owed the IRS $2.2 million in taxes. That is what Biden's team is suing over there, saying that this information was confidential and should never have been disclosed. Now, Shapley and Ziegler's attorneys have said that this is a frivolous sham, that this is a smear campaign, and that they did not go beyond what was permitted as whistleblowers.

So they're both pushing back on that and the IRS says that they will not comment on pending litigation, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So what exactly is he suing for here?

SCANNELL: So Biden is suing for damages and he's asking for $1,000 for every disclosure of confidential information. They are also asking for attorney's fees, and they want documents and records relating to the transmission and the release of any of his confidential information.

[15:10:00] So looking here, they're looking to get a little bit inside what was going on inside the IRS, what safeguards were around these documents, and who asked for them, and how this was disseminated within the agency, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Kara Scannell, thanks so much. Boris?

SANCHEZ: In the Georgia election subversion case, a federal judge in Atlanta said today he will decide soon whether Jeffrey Clark can move his case from state to federal court. The former DOJ official was indicted over his efforts to help former president, Trump, overturn the 2020 elections in Georgia. Clark's attorneys argue that he was acting on behalf of the federal government.

CNN's Katelyn Polantz is live for us outside the federal courthouse in Atlanta.

So Katelyn, did the judge give any indication as to where he will side?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: He didn't, although he had very tough questions for Jeffrey Clark and his attorney. And one of the things that happened today that was so crucial in this hearing and may be very crucial whenever the judge does rule here is that Jeffrey Clark, he wasn't here. He had tried to submit a declaration of what his role was at the Justice Department for Donald Trump after the election, and that was not accepted by the judge. That's a bad sign for Jeffrey Clark, because it was on him and his team to prove that what he was doing for Donald Trump after the election, wanting the Justice Department to send a draft letter to the state of Georgia that prosecutors say had factual inconsistencies in it and was totally outside of his authority. He was going to have to prove that that was something that was in his responsibilities as the acting head of the civil division at this time.

He doesn't have that sort of evidence that he's able to submit now. And so instead we heard from Jody Hunt, someone who had served in that role in the Trump administration before, who testified that, no, this wasn't part of his job to talk about the oversight of the election and to even work with the President. And one really interesting thing that came up in this hearing is that Clark's attorney, Harry MacDougald, he argued that not even an iota of Jeffrey Clark's actions would be possible if he wasn't a federal official. And moreover, not just that he was a federal official, but that Donald Trump was directing to do - him to do the things he was doing after the election and gave him authority at the Justice Department.

That too, Boris, did not result in any evidence coming into court today. So we're now just going to have to wait and see what the judge does with what was argued today.

SANCHEZ: Katelyn Polantz, we know you'll keep us posted. Thanks so much. Jim?

SCIUTTO: All right. So let's dig in with Jameel Jaffer, former associate counsel to President George W. Bush. Good to have you. JAMEEL JAFFER, FORMER COUNSEL TO THE ASSISTANT AG FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey Clark attempting to move his case to federal court from state court. The judge has already rejected Mark Meadows' attempt to do so. Does Clark have any additional chance of getting this successfully moved?

JAFFER: Well, I mean, look, his argument is that this was an issue right before the Justice Department, the question of whether federal election law was complied with by the states in certifying these elections. So he's trying to make the case that this was part of his job.

The problem, of course, is he was the acting head of the civil division, which has almost nothing to do with election rights cases. Maybe the civil rights division, maybe the criminal division, very unusual for the civil rights - for the civil division itself, which handles lawsuits against the U.S. typically to be involved in such a matter, hard argument for him to make.

SCIUTTO: Former Justice Department official Jody Hunt made exactly that point. And Hunt was the head of the civil division under Trump before Clark took it over. Would - I assume that testimony might be somewhat influential.

JAFFER: Right. I mean, Jody Hunt would know. Jody Hunt's been the head of the civil division, chief of staff of the attorney general, right? This is somebody who knows, been around the building a long time, I think that's going to carry a lot of weight with the judge as to whether Jeffrey Clark was acting in his official capacity.

SCIUTTO: Okay. Let's talk for a moment about the principal co- defendant in all this, the former President Trump. He gave quite a wide-ranging interview to NBC over the weekend, of course, as he often does, commented on the case underway. He said, in his words, it was his decision to believe that the 2020 election was rigged.

Now, my understanding of his defense was, in part, that he was just listening to his lawyer's advice. By saying it was his decision it was rigged and we have to pursue this, does that threaten that defense?

JAFFER: Jim, this is a great example of why lawyers tell their clients don't talk to the press, don't go out there. Donald Trump doesn't listen to his lawyer's advice. Look, he's getting himself into trouble because what he said was, I listened to a lot of people, but I decided it.

So he's trying to make his lawyer - defensive counsel argument, but he's doing it in a way that could cause him problems down the road. This is not a good look for his - for him as the client, as a defendant. This is why you want your client to stay off of television. Donald Trump can't help himself.

SCIUTTO: And can that affect his case in court, right? Beyond us getting a sense of how he's going to try to defend himself here. JAFFER: Yes, I mean, look, it's a statement against interest by a defendant in a criminal case. It can be brought in. It's not going to be - here's what it's like.


JAFFER: His - it's himself, it's him saying it himself in public on television, hard to know how this plays out. Generally, not good for your clients out there on TV, talk about a case that's happening.

SCIUTTO: Right. Jameel Jaffer, thanks so much.

JAFFER: Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: As always. Brianna?

KEILAR: Coming up, rescue operations continue after devastating flood waters ravaged Libya. Close to 4,000 people now dead, more than 9,000 still missing. We're going to take you there live.

Plus, anyone seen a jet that looks like this one here? The U.S. military asking for the public's help to find an F-35 fighter jet in South Carolina. This plane went missing after the pilot ejected from it safely.

We'll have those stories and much more on CNN NEWS CENTRAL.


SANCHEZ: The United Nations is revising its estimated death toll from the catastrophic floods in Libya. It is now believed that just under 4,000 people were killed nationwide. That's a major drop from a previous report on Saturday that put the death toll in more than 11,000 in the city of Derna alone. Obviously, it is still a very large death toll.


The revised estimate also says more than 9,000 people are still missing, and that is a huge number as well. This is coming as the International Rescue Committee is warning of a rapidly escalating health crisis in Libya with contaminated water and sewage exposing residents to serious risks.

We have CNN's Jomana Karadsheh joining us now live from Libya.

Jomana, what can you tell us about the ongoing search for the missing and the conditions that the living are facing right now?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, more than a week since that catastrophic event hit the city of Derna, and you still have thousands of men, women and children who are unaccounted for right now, and you have the survivors, their families, who are really unable to process what they have gone through, to think about what is going to happen to them next, displaced right now, living in miserable conditions, and, as you mentioned, facing a potential health crisis that is looming right now.

You have people who are going around to morgues, to hospitals, sitting by the sea, looking for their loved ones, hoping that the waves will wash back the bodies of their loved ones, because people are telling us all they want right now is those bodies, so they can at least bury them, because those thousands are now presumed dead.

And it's not an easy task to try and recover these bodies. We have been speaking to rescue teams here on the ground in the city. You have had teams that have been working on these different sites that really look like bomb sites, the aftermath of an earthquake, as you have seen in these pictures. And you've got these search-and-rescue teams, some international teams, nowhere near enough to deal with a disaster on this scale.

And you also have Libyan volunteers using everything from their bare hands to shovels trying to go through the muddy rubble of these homes to try and find bodies. But what officials are telling us, Brianna, is that the majority of these bodies, the thousands, have ended up in the Mediterranean when that ferocious flood washed their homes, their cars into the sea.

And the rescue teams, the international teams that we have been speaking to say it is such a challenging task for them that this is something they have never dealt with before. They say that there were - they believe there are thousands of bodies in the sea, but they have not had enough manpower, enough equipment to deal with the - with a recovery effort on this scale.

And it is very difficult to navigate the waters around the shores here of Derna. They tell (inaudible) one team said that they did spot 300 bodies just a few days ago, but they were not able to recover them. And they say, right now, these bodies are disintegrated remains that they won't be able to recover.

So you can imagine how devastating this is for the families who just want those bodies to bury, just a final farewell for their loved ones that they might not be able to get right now. And what we're seeing tonight as well is that grief, that shock turning into anger as well.

We've seen hundreds of Derna residents protesting in the heart of the city in one of the most devastated neighborhoods there. That's the Derna valley, where you saw those floods over a week ago.

They are demanding accountability. They are saying they want officials held accountable for what happened, because they say this is not just a natural disaster. This was compounded by years of negligence, neglect, corruption and mismanagement. And they want officials held accountable for what happened. So we certainly are beginning to see the anger. Brianna?

KEILAR: Yes. This, of course, was precipitated by dams collapsing and collapsing into heavily populated areas where perhaps people should not have been living or they certainly should not have been living. The scale of this, Jomana, and you are one of the few journalists for a western outlet who is there covering this from the ground. How far reaching is this in terms of - I mean, everyone in Derna, I imagine entire families obviously were swept out to sea, but everyone must know someone. This is touching everyone in this city.

KARADSHEH: And it's not just Derna, Brianna, it's Libya. This is a - it's a large country, but it is a very small population, a very interlinked population. A lot of people have family from Derna. They feel linked to this city and it has been something that has hit the entire country so hard.


And we're talking about a country for the past 10 years that has been divided between east and west, a civil war, where you had city fighting city. And what we have seen since is you have this outpouring of support for the city, cars coming in, volunteers from different parts of the country, putting their differences aside, coming together, united in their grief and their attempts to try and help the people of Derna in the absence of real functioning state here.

People feel that it is their obligation to try and do whatever they can to assist this devastated city and its population. The human suffering here is just unimaginable. I mean, you're talking about a third of the city, according to estimates that has been destroyed. And we're talking about erased. We're talking about historic old neighborhoods.

As you mentioned, entire homes with the families in them washed into the sea. This is - this level of devastation is just so - you look at it, and for me, I've covered wars and natural disasters before. I still find this incredibly shocking to look at. And the human suffering, the people, they don't even know how they are going to recover from this, Brianna, when you look at the state of Libya right now.

And we would be out filming and you just look at people's faces, and you can see they're still shell-shocked. You have this - people walking around the streets, walking past you, sobbing, carrying whatever they could salvage of their belongings if they were able to get into what's left of their homes.

And you have people who are still searching for their missing. We've spoken with people who have lost their entire family, men who have lost their wives, their children, their brothers. I mean, you talk to people, and they list the number of people they've lost, and it's usually 20 and 25. And now they just don't know what they do next, how do they find them.

Some people were still holding on to the hope that they might be alive. But right now, that hope is fading. And as we are hearing from officials, as we're hearing from rescuers, those thousands of missing men, women and children up to 10,000 are right now presumed missing. Absolutely devastating.

KEILAR: Yes, those numbers, the magnitude of the loss for Derna and for the country of Libya is just astounding. Jomana, thank you so much. It's rare that we get to talk to you live and we're so appreciative that you can tell us what is happening there on the ground. We'll continue to watch this story.

Jomana Karadsheh live for us from Derna, Libya.

Stay with CNN NEWS CENTRAL, we'll be right back.