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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

How Biden Administration Secured Release Of Americans Held In Venezuela; Biden Extends Repayment Freeze As Program Tied Up In Courts; Dr. Fauci On His Legacy: I Never Left Anything On The Field. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired November 23, 2022 - 05:30   ET




WHITNEY WILD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back -- 5:34 past the hour now.

CNN has learned new details about the extensive behind-the-scenes efforts by the Biden administration to secure the release of seven Americans held in Venezuela. It happened back in October. Five oil executives held for nearly five years were freed. Two other Americans wrongly detained were also released as part of a prisoner swap with the Maduro regime.

CNN's Jennifer Hansler is live in our Washington bureau with more. So, Jennifer, how did they pull this off?

JENNIFER HANSLER, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: Well, Whitney, this was really and months and months-long effort that came together about a week before these seven Americans came home, in large part because President Biden signed off on that prisoner swap that you mentioned.

Now, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens, who leads these negotiations, told me he went back and forth with the Venezuelan counterpart in the days leading up to the swap trying to nail down this final deal that would bring these men home. Another source said they even met in person once more before this took place.


Now, it was close to midnight on Thursday when they finally got this deal into place. And Saturday morning, Carstens said, he and his team took off on this mission to bring these guys home.

Now, that Saturday morning, I'm told, the CITGO 5 -- one of them had already gone home -- were woken up early and they were told they were going home, but they were still a little skeptical if home meant the United States. They had been released on house arrest before.

It wasn't until they were brought to the airport they saw two of the other men who would be coming home, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan. They were loaded on a flight to a Caribbean island where the swap would take place. And once that U.S. government plane landed shortly after they did, it started to feel real for them.

Carstens said he went on board to make sure -- do a head count of all seven men -- and he told them that on behalf of the president and the Secretary of State he was bringing them home.

One of the men, Jorge Toledo, said it was like a movie when they crossed the tarmac and got on that plane home. And two of them said it was a magical moment when they finally reunited with their loved ones here on U.S. soil.

WILD: And the sense of relief must have been completely overwhelming.

HANSLER: Yes, absolutely.

WILD: I mean, you dream of that moment for years and years, and then finally it's real.


WILD: But the reality is that there are still several Americans who are detained there, so what is their message?

HANSLER: Well, that's right, Whitney. There are at least four other Americans that we know of that remain detained in Venezuela -- Luke Denman, Airan Berry, Jerrel Kenemore, and Eyvin Hernandez. Kenemore and Hernandez have been declared wrongfully detained by the U.S. State Department.

And Hernandez was actually able to secretly record a message for the president back in August. His family has shared that message with us and I want you to take a listen to part of it.


EYVIN HERNANDEZ, AMERICAN WRONGFULLY DETAINED IN VENEZUELA: I've dedicated myself to public service for over 15 years. I've dedicated myself to helping poor and working-class people on the basis that no matter what mistakes a person makes, they should always be treated fairly, humanely, with dignity and respect. Also, no one should be abandoned at the time of their greatest need or when they're most vulnerable. However, I don't feel like my government feels that way about me.


HANSLER: So for these four Americans who remain in Venezuela and their loved ones, they're really hoping the Biden administration can take urgent action and also bring them home very soon. The administration says this remains a top priority for them -- Whitney.

WILD: Jennifer Hansler live in Washington. Thank you.

Switching gears now. Across the country, retailers are very worried about this threat of a national rail strike. But they want shoppers to know that even though this threat of a strike is looming, the holiday shopping season is not going to be totally canceled, and that's because most of those products that you would buy for holiday shopping, like those that you see on your screen, are either already at distribution centers or are already on store shelves.

The bigger concern here is really for early next again, again, for these regular discretionary purchases. But there is a big problem that's coming up right now and retailers are very concerned about this rail strike impacting the flow of goods of these larger bulky items that rely on trains to get these products to consumers in time for the holidays.

The nation's largest rail union announced Monday that rank-and-file members have rejected a tentative agreement reached in September.

President Biden is extended the freeze on student loan repayments as the program still remains caught up in litigation.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It isn't fair to ask tens of millions of borrowers eligible for relief to resume their student debt payments while the courts consider the lawsuit.


WILD: So here is how it's going to work. Individuals earning less than $125,000 could see up to $20,000 canceled. And just to be clear, that's $20,000 per borrower, so a significant amount of money. Twenty- six million Americans have applied for debt relief. So far, the White House has approved 16 million people's requests.

Moving forward, the Department of Justice again has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the forgiveness program. Right now, borrowers can pause their payments, but the problem is that the debt isn't actually erased until this case is resolved.

Again, the Biden administration looking to the Supreme Court to rule in their favor and get this all wrapped up.

Dr. Anthony Fauci delivered his final White House briefing before retiring next month. Fauci -- you probably recognize his face. I mean, he was the face of, really, leadership as the country went through this coronavirus pandemic. He was a -- he was a revered figure at times. He was a controversial figure at times.

He addressed his legacy after 38 years as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Every day, for all of those years, I've given it everything that I have and I've never left anything on the field. So if they want to remember me, whether they judge rightly or wrongly what I've done, I gave it all I got for many decades.



WILD: Dr. Fauci has advised every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan.

Now to dramatic video that shows the moment a U.S. military plane collided midair with a flock of birds. The plane was forced to turn around and go back to Chicago's Midway Airport shortly after takeoff. So you can see in this video that there's a spark coming from the left engine of the C-37 aircraft as it flies into the birds. You just saw it there.

The head of the National Guard, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, was on board. Air crewmen came out immediately after the plane landed safely and parked. Fortunately, no injuries reported.

Still ahead, where you can find the very best Black Friday deals and skip the post-Thanksgiving rush. All that, next.


WILD: Welcome back -- just about 5:45 this morning.


Travel disruptions are expected as 50 million Americans head out for the holiday festivities. Here's the problem. There's a storm system that's going to bring rain to large portions of the south. Another system could bring rain and snow to the northeast.

Let's get right to meteorologist Karen Maginnis. Karen, this is not what we want to hear over Thanksgiving weekend. Nobody wants to sit in an airport when they could be eating turkey. What are they going to do?

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, we do have the problem spots. We start out west and this is where we've got that winter storm that is making its way across the Northern Rockies and interior west. Look for delays there. Also, in the northeast, I think this is not going to be weather-related delays there just yet, but the impact will be just because of the volume of people trying to get someplace.

What happens is there's going to be a developing storm system over the southwestern U.S. And in the Deep South, rainfall could be very heavy -- not necessarily over the next day or so but as we go into the next 48 hours or so. This is what we're looking at. Some pretty heavy rainfall all the way from Dallas into Houston, and right around Jackson, Mississippi, and just to the south of Birmingham.

All right -- for the Thanksgiving Day parade, it looks pretty good. As a matter of fact, temperatures seem to be bumped up a couple of degrees. It's going to be in the low 40s at the start and wind is going to be very conducive to those floats.

All right. Another weather system pushes into the Pacific Northwest, so Sunday, everybody's rushing -- rushing to go to work on Monday, so you're headed home. Yes -- but then there are problems in the northeast and that's that storm system that will keep the delays in places like New York, and Newark, and Boston, Washington, D.C. Also into Baltimore.

Atlanta, you could see some delays there thanks to the volume of travelers. And in Southern California, it looks like a little bit of a wind advisory coming up.

And Whitney, regardless of sitting in the airport, maybe there's a turkey sandwich or two that could be found, but I don't know that I'd give that a try or not.

WILD: OK. Karen Maginnis, thank you.

All right, looking at markets around the world, stocks are up or flat this morning. Looking at Wall Street here, futures are basically flat across the board ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Stocks rose sharply Tuesday. The Dow gaining nearly 400 points. The Nasdaq was up 1.3 percent. The S&P 500 topped 4,000 for the first time since September, so that's good news.

Investors got some confidence after several strong earnings reports. Those included Best Buy, whose stock rose 12.8 percent after the electronics retailer hiked the 2023 fiscal outlook and beat earnings expectations.

Hewlett-Packard, though, announcing plans to lay off up to 6,000 workers over the next three years. Just -- that is really just the latest tech company to significantly downsize staff as the economy, in general, starts to sour. The announcement follows a down earnings report for HP with sales tumbling more than 11 percent compared to the same time period last year.

Facebook parent Meta recently said it was cutting 11,000 jobs. Amazon confirmed last week that widespread layoffs have already started. The tech sector continuing to be hit very hard.

All right. Are you looking for the best Black Friday deals? They are already here.

So let's bring in CNN Business reporter Nathaniel Meyersohn. Nathaniel, so, all right, where do we -- where do we go for the best deals?

NATHANIEL MEYERSOHN, CNN BUSINESS REPORTER: Right. So, you think back to last year. There weren't that many good deals because there were all these supply chain shortages. Stores didn't have enough stuff.

The situation is completely reversed this year. Stores are overstocked. They have too much stuff and so they have to mark it down to clear that stuff off shelves. So you're going to see really good deals on electronics, toys, furniture, clothing.

And so, the CEO of Best Buy said yesterday that "The promotional environment continues to be considerably more intense than last year." So if you're in the -- if you're in the market for new clothing, maybe wait a little bit until after the season. That's when you're going to see the deepest discounts. But if you're looking for TVs, buy on Black Friday. There are going to be some strong discounts.

WILD: OK. That's why my nanny, who is very near and dear to my heart, always gets on my case because she thinks I buy things at the wrong time. She says you should buy your summer clothes in the winter and your winter clothes in the summer. So that's good advice. We'll keep that going.

JCPenney, though, trying to make a comeback. Is that going to work?

MEYERSOHN: Right. So, JCPenney filed for bankruptcy in 2020. They were one of the largest companies to file for bankruptcy during the pandemic. You think about this company -- this is a beloved American retailer. They dressed the middle class during the 20th century but then they fell on hard times.

About a decade ago, they made the decision to cut coupons and that was a disaster. Shoppers were -- really, really liked those coupons and they used them often. But the company cut the coupons -- a huge mistake. They never recovered and so they filed for bankruptcy.


And they're trying to make a comeback. They have a new CEO, a new strategy. They've closed about 200 stores. And they're targeting working-class families. The company said that about 30 percent of its customers are people of color. And they're targeting these new -- these customers with new brands. They have a new beauty experience in their stores.

The question is, though, will it work? Department stores are getting squeezed. JCPenney is stuck in the middle. There's so much competition. You have Amazon, Walmart, Target -- discount stores like TJ Maxx. And so, it's an open question whether this company can survive in the long run.

WILD: All right. We'll keep watching that.

So, some stores are going to be closed on Thanksgiving. Why is that?

MEYERSOHN: Right. So, Thanksgiving shopping is becoming a thing of the past. The largest stores in this country are closed on Thanksgiving -- Walmart, Target, Costco, Best Buy, Kohl's. This started in 2020 during the pandemic as a safety measure to prevent overcrowding in stores and it's continued the last couple of years.

The retailers have realized they don't need these major shopping holidays to make their sales numbers during the period. They've extended the holiday shopping season. People can just buy online anytime so they're not as reliant on these -- on these big days.

Plus, it's really hard to get retail workers to want to work on Thanksgiving. They want to be with their families, rightly so. And so, stores have -- there's been a lot of outcry from workers in unions and stores have relented. They've given -- they've given workers the holiday off. And this is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

WILD: OK, Nathaniel Meyersohn. Thank you.

All right, switching gears now. Coming up, still ahead, a hockey -- college hockey controversy. A Michigan State player accusing an Ohio State player of using a racial slur during a game. Hear how Ohio State is responding.



WILD: Welcome back.

We're still monitoring the breaking news out of Chesapeake, Virginia, where a gunman opened fire on employees inside a Walmart break room. Police say at least six people are now dead and several others are wounded.

A law enforcement source tells CNN the unidentified gunman is believed to be either an employee or a former employee and was found dead at the scene.

The shooting happening just two days before Thanksgiving.

The incident comes three days after a person opened fire at a gay club in Colorado, killing five people and wounding 17 more people. This morning, the suspect in that case will make their first court appearance.

All right, switching to sports now. Nets forward Ben Simmons returning to Philadelphia after a long time -- returning for the first time. And Andy Scholes is going to explain to us how there is just a little hostility among the crowd out there -- Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, Whitney. It didn't end well for Ben Simmons there in Philly. He demanded that trade after the fans turned on him after that brutal playoff performance in 2021. And last night was the first time he played against his former team back in Philadelphia.


ANNOUNCER: At 6-10 from LSU, number 10, Ben Simmons.

CROWD: (Booing).


SCHOLES: Yes, so Simmons hearing the boos before the game and every time he touched the ball. He finished with 11 points and 11 assists. But the 76ers were playing without their best three players -- Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and James Harden -- but they still beat the Nets 115-106. And Simmons, afterwards, taking one more shot at those Philly fans.


REPORTER: Were you expecting it to be words or --

BEN SIMMONS, BROOKLYN NETS FORWARD: I thought it was going be louder -- yes.

REPORTER: You thought it was going to be louder?

SIMMONS: Yes. I mean, I feel like I'm in a good place -- you know, for me to come in here and just play basketball. I'm happy and I'm doing what I love, so to be out there and have that experience was amazing. Obviously, it wasn't the result we wanted and it's frustrating to lose a game like that, but I think it's a good step forward.


SCHOLES: And Ohio State, meanwhile, is apologizing this morning to Michigan State hockey player Jagger Joshua after he alleged a Buckeyes player directed a racial slur at him multiple times during a game earlier this month. Now, Joshua, who is Black, detailed what happened on Instagram and said an official heard what the OSU player said and gave him a misconduct penalty.

And Joshua says, though, the Big 10 started an investigation but no action was ever taken by it or Ohio State. After reviewing the incident, OSU athletic director Gene Smith issued a statement last night apologizing to Joshua and said for now, that player is no longer with the team.

The latest college football playoff rankings were released last night and the undefeated top four remaining the same -- Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, and TCU.

LSU now at number five. And if they beat Texas A&M this Saturday and then Georgia in the SEC Championship next weekend, they will likely become the first-ever 2-loss team to ever make the playoff. And that's possible because number two Ohio State and number three Michigan -- they're squaring off this weekend in Columbus. It's going to be just the fourth time in 117 meetings that both the Wolverines and Buckeyes are perfect heading into their big rivalry game.

And check this out. The youngest Buckeye fans -- they're certainly ready to go. Newborns at the Wexner Medical Center in Columbus are swaddled in red with the phrase "Beat Michigan." But, of course, no m's this week so it's just ichigan.

But always cool to see the fans gearing up for the big game this Saturday.

WILD: You know, Andy Scholes, I grew up in Ann Arbor. I went to Michigan.


WILD: I've got one thing to say. Hail to the victors.

SCHOLES: Yes. I'm sure the babies there are cute in Ann Arbor as well, right now getting ready for the game.

WILD: Yes.

SCHOLES: Good luck.

WILD: Our babies are way cuter at University of Michigan Hospital.

Andy Scholes, thank you.

SCHOLES: All right.

WILD: And thank you for joining us. I'm Whitney Wild. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.