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American Wrongfully Detained In Iran Goes On Hunger Strike; U.S. To Hit Debt Limit This Week, Could Default By June; Mccarthy Faces Debt Ceiling Fight As GOP Urges Spending Cuts; GOP House Oversight Chairman: Rep. Santos Is "A Bad Guy"; NTSB Investigating Near Collision On Runway At JFK Airport; Pilot Asked To Change Landing Runway In Nepal Minutes Before Yeti Flight Crashed; CDC Identifies Possible Safety Issue With Pfizer COVID Vaccine. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired January 16, 2023 - 13:30   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: CNN's Kylie Atwood joining us now from the State Department with more.

There's this impassioned plea and appeal to the president. What more is he saying, and what's the response?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, listen, he wrote a pretty moving letter to President Biden, Erica. In part of that letter, he describes just how challenging it has been for him to be in Iranian prison for more than seven years now.

Saying one of the hardest questions for him to answer is, how is he doing.

Because he says, how is he supposed to tell people how he's doing when he has been left behind, left in Iran when other Americans have been detained and then been released as part of prisoner swaps and other efforts by the U.S. government?

And this week marks seven years since there were five Americans who were freed from Iranian detention. And he was in Iranian prison at the time, and he was left behind.

So he is reminding President Biden of that awful anniversary for him. Biden was then-vice president during the Obama administration.

What he's asking Biden to do is spend one moment every single day to remember him and the fact that he has been in Iranian prison. He has been interrogated in Iranian prison for the last seven years.

Of course, we have seen other Americans who have been wrongfully detained abroad and their family members trying to attract the attention of the president because they believe that he is the person, the key person to be able to kind of secure their release.

They think if he put some personal attention on it, then they have a higher likelihood of getting out. Now the National Security Council told us that they are intensely

focused on trying to secure Siamak Namazi's release and the two other Americans who are still wrongfully detained in Iran.

But we should note that U.S.-Iran relations are quite hostile right now. Of course, we haven't had diplomatic relations with Iran in decades now.

But just the general tone of the relationship, given the fact that there are no current talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal -- those efforts are on the back burner.

Given the fact that the U.S. has been very critical of the Iranian regime's crackdown on protesters in the country, things just aren't great right now -- Erica?

HILL: That is for sure.

Kylie Atwood, appreciate the update. Thank you.

It could spark a series of catastrophic, catastrophic events for the American economy, and it could happen as soon as Thursday. Yes, we're talking about the debt ceiling and the very real consequences hitting it could have for all of us. That's next.



HILL: The U.S. now just days away from hitting the nation's debt limit. If Congress doesn't act, the nation is expected to reach that limit on Thursday. As in this Thursday.

If that happens, the Biden administration would have to take what are known as extraordinary measures, immediate action to avert a full- blown economic disaster.

Let's bring in CNN's Richard Quest and Melanie Zanona. Melanie on Capitol Hill.

Richard, first to you.

First the word "debt ceiling, I think for a lot of this makes eyes glaze over.

This is a big deal. Remind us what the debt ceiling is and what could potentially happen if we hit that limit. What could happen on Thursday?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN BUSINESS EDITOR-AT-LARGE & CNN ANCHOR, "QUEST MEANS BUSINESS": Sure. Absolutely. The debt ceiling is nothing more than your overdraft. You can write it big and small. You can make it as complicated as you like. But the truth is the U.S. federal government has a debt ceiling, has an overdraft of $31.4 trillion.

It's used to pay for debt interest, for the military, for -- there's all sorts of things that it's paying for. But it is nothing more exciting than the federal government's overdraft to pay for things that Congress has already approved.

It's really important to remember that. This isn't new spending. This is spending that the government and Congress has already approved.

So the debt ceiling has been -- the overdraft -- let's keep it in nice language. The overdraft has been raised by 78 times. Even stevens between Republicans and Democrats, 29 by the Democrats, set 49 by the Republicans.

But as you get closer and once you hit your overdraft, then you have these extraordinary measures.

Again, let me simplify. It's nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul. You are doing literally where's the money.

The treasury, Janet Yellen, I won't pay that there, pay this here, and this pension fund won't get paid now and we'll pay more in a week or three's time. Everybody gets paid in the end.

But you do have to move the money around because you can't borrow more. If there's no deal by June, god help us. Because if there's no deal by June, you are looking at Janet Yellen running out of robbing Peter to pay Paul. You're running out of the ability to move the money.

And then you have just one simple option -- default. You don't pay a bill. That is so horrific to think about that the U.S. government would default that nobody wants to go there, not yet.

HILL: They may not want to.

But, boy, Melanie, do they love just creeping right up to the edge.

So in terms of these talks, where do we stand today? What are the sticking points?


MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITAL HILL REPORTER: This fight boils down to whether or not Congress is going to just simply raise the debt ceiling or whether they're going to put any conditions on it.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy in his bid to become speaker promised to tie the debt ceiling to spending cuts, which potentially means cuts or reforms to Social Security and Medicare, which is a hard line for Democrats.

In fact, Democratic leaders are calling for a clean debt ceiling hike, noting that Republicans raised the debt ceiling multiple times under former President Donald Trump and didn't put any conditions on it.

So this is really shaping up to be a massive showdown on Capitol Hill.

Now, McCarthy said he wants to sit down and meet with President Biden and to start those sorts of negotiations and figure out a path forward. That hasn't happened yet.

But in the meantime, Republicans are preparing emergency contingency plans. Sources tell me that House Republicans are preparing to pass a proposal that would direct the Treasury Department over which payments to prioritize in case the nation does default on its debt.

So it's really a sign of how serious and real this threat has become -- Erica?

HILL: So, Richard, I'm curious, you're at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Is this a topic of discussion among world leaders, among business leaders? Are they looking at the U.S. and going, "Here we go again"?

QUEST: They're certainly saying here we go again. It's not a topic of discussion or debate because nobody believes that the U.S. in their right mind would ever play ducks and drakes with the federal deficit. So, no. Nobody's worried about it.

Here they're worried about Ukraine, oil. They're worried about all sorts of -- the global recession, inflation, the cost of living. If I want a chicken Caesar salad here with a Coke, it's going to cost me the best part of $35.

HILL: I'm going to let that sink in because you left me speechless. I thought prices in New York were bad. You win, and not in a good way.

Richard Quest, Melanie Zanona, I appreciate it. Thank you both.

To the latest now in embattled Congressman George Santos. The words frankly no one would like to hear from their new co-worker --


REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): He's a bad guy. This is something that, you know, it's really bad.

He's going to be under strict ethics investigations, not necessarily for lying but for his campaign finance, potential violations.


HILL: Not for the lying but at least for the campaign finance.

CNN's Eva McKend is joining us now.

Of course, that was not just any co-worker. That is the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, James Comer.

Is there any indication, though, this afternoon even that anything is going to change on the Hill for Santos right now? Let's be honest, a lot of it comes down to the votes. And Republicans want to keep his right there.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: In answer to your question, Erica, not in the immediate sense. What it does illustrate is some House Republicans, like Congressman Comer, who we heard there, are clearly trying to keep their distance.

Even those lawmakers who aren't explicitly calling for Santos to resign suggest they have very little appetite to work with him.

And the Hill, it's a collaborative place. It calls into question how effective he can be as a member of Congress.

Here are what some other House Republicans are saying:


REP. CHRIS STEWART (R-UT): It's pretty hard not to conclude he's a bit of a goofball. He clearly lied to his constituents.

And to your point, as well, it's going to be very, very difficult for him to gain the trust of his colleagues.

And I don't know what he's going to do. I mean, the reality is you can't expel a member of Congress at the end of the day, it really is up to the voters in Nassau County.

REP. DON BACON (R-NE): If it was me, I would resign. I wouldn't be able to face my voters after having gone through that. But this is between him and his constituents.


MCKEND: By now, many of are you familiar with the litany of lies that he has told on everything from his college resume to working at Goldman Sachs to having grandparents that survived the Holocaust.

But there are new questions about who knew what when. Democrats have called on GOP leadership to cooperate with any potential forthcoming House Ethics Committee investigation.

New York Congressman Dan Goldman and Ritchie Torres, they sent a letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP chair, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the CLF. That's a super PAC affiliated with the House GOP.

And in the letter, they cited new reporting indicating they had at least some knowledge of the lies Santos used to deceive his voters.

Now CNN has reported the president of CLF expressed concerns about Santos' background prior to the election and contacted lawmakers and donors with those concerns.

Congressman Torres, for his part, he'll be in Santos' district tomorrow holding an event with his constituents in Great Neck -- Erica?

HILL: Eva McKend, appreciate it. Thank you.

Collision averted, but, man, was this one close. A fast-acting air traffic controller preventing disaster at JFK Airport. And now the FAA wants some answers. [13:45:06]

Plus, the CDC identifying a possible safety issue with Pfizer's updated COVID vaccine. How big is the risk here?


HILL: A tragedy barely averted at JFK Airport in New York when two passenger jets came within 1,000 feet of hitting each other on the runway. The NTSB is investigating this close call.


CNN aviation correspondent, Pete Muntean, is with us.

A thousand feet to me, when we're talking about planes, seems a little too close.

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: It's very close, Erica. We're talking about three football fields, which, in aviation terms, is not that much when you consider these airplanes are hundreds of feet long.

The good news is here we were narrowly avoiding disaster. But the emphases is narrowly avoiding disaster, according to aviation experts.

This is the animation from Flight Radar 24. That's a Delta Airlines 737 on runway four left at JFK on Friday. The other airplane is an American Airlines 777. It crossed the runway as the Delta flight was accelerating for takeoff.

Listen to the air traffic control audio from You get to hear the urgency in the controller's voice as he realized what was developing in front of him.


UNIDENTIFIED AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: {EXPLETIVE DELETED) Delta 1943 cancel takeoff plans. Delta 1943 cancel takeoff plans.



MUNTEAN: A rejected takeoff, something that pilots practice all the time in the simulator. Pretty rare in real life.

Now the FAA and the NTSB are investigating this. They'll have questions for the pilots of both airplanes, also the controller involved as to how this really took place in the first place.

It's something called a runway incursion, in official terms, Erica. It happens all the time, 1,600 times, according to the FAA in 2022, but rarely this dramatic.

Although we have seen the consequences, the disaster of 1977 when two 747s hit each other on the runway there, 580 people killed.

Aviation experts I've been talking to say this is very, very similar. Eerily close.

HILL: Way too close for comfort.

Meantime, I do want your take on this. We just got some more information about that plane crash in Nepal, the worst in that country in 30 learning years. Learning now that the pilot had asked to change the landing runway just minutes before the crash.

You're not just our correspondent here. I know you're a pilot. You're a flight instructor. What do you make of that information and this sudden change even?

MUNTEAN: It's something that no doubt investigators will be looking into, why the pilots requested to land on a different runway. Although the video we've seen surfacing online shows the plane in clear air, no visible damage or problems to the airplane.

Just you can see the wing drop there, the left wing drop and the airplane roll into the ground. It's riveting video and really hard to watch.

Whether or not they changed runways and whether or not that impacted the outcome of the crash, we will have to see.

French investigators are now on the way. They'll be lending a hand here. We'll see if American investigators get involved.

We know 72 people have likely been killed in this accident. A very horrible turn of events, this Yeti Airlines flight.

That airport just opened two weeks before, Erica. That will also be something that investigators look at as well because it may be something that the pilots were unfamiliar with.

HILL: It is just a terrible tragedy.

Pete, always appreciate your expertise. Thank you.

This afternoon, there's some new questions about the safety of Pfizer's COVID vaccine when it comes to some people, not all, but for some people. A CDC monitoring system depicting a possible increase in a certain type of stroke for people 65 and older.

CNN senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, joining us now.

I can understand why the headline here would be cause for concern for people. Let's be clear, is Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine causing strokes in people?

DR. ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We would never use the word causing. This is not one of those things where you say goodness, we think this is causing this. Instead, here's how it works. The FDA and the CDC have these very

sensitive systems for looking at side effects to vaccines, as they should. You're giving them to lots of people. You want to see if there are side effects.

One system said we think we might be seeing that when seniors are getting the Pfizer COVID shot, that they're seeing an increase in strokes. Then they checked with other systems that they have.

They checked with other systems they have, they checked with Medicare and with the Veterans Administration, and they didn't see that same association.

Here's the bottom line from the CDC and the FDA, according to a statement they put out.

They said, "The totality of the data currently suggests it's very unlikely" -- think about those words -- "very unlikely that the signal in the database represents a true clinical risk."

That is a fancy way of saying we saw this kind of blip, but we checked it out, we think it's very unlikely to be real.

So, the bottom line is that senior citizens should get their COVID boosters. This is the one available since September, which covers not just the original strain but also the Omicron strain -- Erica?


HILL: And are people getting that shot, Elizabeth?

COHEN: You know what, Erica, not so much. If you look at the latest CDC data, what you see is that about 40 percent of seniors have chosen to get the shot. Again, available since September 1st.

And also about 16 percent of people over the age of 5. So 16 percent of people over the age of 5 getting the shot, that's not a great statistic.

HILL: Yes. Elizabeth Cohen, do we know -- we'll have to leave it there. Sorry. We're out of time.

Appreciate the update.

That will do it for me this hour.

Stay tuned. Much more news coming your way right after this with Victor Blackwell. Stick around.