Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Protests Secrets Exposed; Soon: Brittney Griner Expected To Land In Home State Of Texas; Whelan's Disappointed About Paul, Pleased Brittney Griner Is Home; Biden To Proudly Sign Bill Protecting Same- Sex Marriage. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 09, 2022 - 05:00   ET





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're flying back home.




CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST: Right now on Early Start, Brittney Griner free from a Russian prison and expected to land any moment in the US. Another crude reality for oil prices and major pipeline through the U.S. shut down right now because of a leak.

He's single-handedly exposed China's protest to the world. Beijing's been looking for him but CNN found him first.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you worried about your own safety?


ROMANS: All right, here we go. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans. She is almost home. Brittney Griner, just freed from a Russian prison is expected to touchdown any moment now in her home state of Texas.

Her feet will step on American soil for the first time in 10 months at the U.S. Army's Joint Base San Antonio Fort Sam Houston. She'll be taken then to Brooke Army Medical Center to be evaluated. The Biden administration working a deal for her release in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. More on that from CNN's Alex Marquardt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The dramatic moment of the high stakes prisoner swap Brittney Griner in the red coat walking towards the American plane. Coming towards them State Department official Roger Carstens accompanying Viktor Bout, who was hugged by a Russian official. This new video from Russian state media shows Griner leaving Russian detention and boarding the plane in the snow. Her passport returned, Griner smiles knowing she's heading home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you ready for flight?




MARQUARDT: Back in the U.S., Griner's wife Cherelle was invited to the White House.

GRINER: Today, I'm just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions. But the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.

MARQUARDT: The release was the culmination of many months of negotiations with Russia.

BIDEN: This work is not easy. Negotiations are always difficult. There are never any guarantees. But it's my job as President of United States to make the hard calls and protect American citizens everywhere in the world.

MARQUARDT: The WNBA star who was caught with cannabis oil entering Russia spent 10 months in Russian detention. But now she's spared from a brutal nine year sentence in a Russian penal colony. U.S. officials said that the trade for notorious Russian weapons smuggler Viktor Bout was finalized in the past 48 hours.

Griner was moved from her prison to Moscow before being flown to Abu Dhabi, where the exchange took place on the tarmac of a small private airfield.

BIDEN: I'm glad to be able to say that Brittney is in good spirits. She - she's relieved to finally be heading home.

MARQUARDT: The U.S. wanted to trade Bout for both Griner and American Paul Whelan. But Russia refused. In an exclusive interview from his penal colony. Whelan told CNN, he's surprised he wasn't included.

PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA (on-the phone): I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release. I'm happy that Brittney is going home today and that Trevor went home when he did, but I don't understand why I'm still sitting here. My bags are packed. I'm ready to go home.

MARQUARDT: Whelan told CNN that the Russians see him at a higher level than Griner. He has been charged with espionage and sentenced to 16 years.

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none. I wholeheartedly wish that we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane as Brittney.

MARQUARDT: The big question now is how to get Paul Whelan home. Who will the Russians want in exchange? And is the U.S. willing to do it? Whelan clearly frustrated told CNN that Russia got the better of Thursday's deal. He said that Griner was traded for what he called a world class felon, and that now Russia is dangling him, Paul Whelan over President Biden's head and will ask for something big. Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.


ROMANS: All right, Alex, thank you for that. Paul Whelan's siblings are speaking out about the release of Brittney Griner and the inability to free their brother from Russian captivity. The Whelans say they're pleased Griner is able to come home, despite their family's disappointment.


DAVID WHELAN, PAUL WHELAN'S BROTHER: Absolutely supportive of it. I think to prolong the punishment of one American in a foreign hostile situation, on the hope that you might be able to bring home two of them is absolutely the wrong call for the U.S. president to make. An American in that situation, who has a possibility of coming home, I think the U.S. president has to bring him home.

And unfortunately for my brother and for our family, it's not our family member, but I think from the perspective of Americans that's the right decision.


ELIZABETH WHELAN, PAUL WHELAN'S SISTER: There should be no American standing against getting home or wrongfully detained American who's being held overseas, because hostile foreign countries are trying to start problems over here. They're trying to create dissension and difficulties. It may be one of the reasons why Brittney was held wrongfully in the first place. So I would urge everyone to, you know, to keep their partisan sniping out of it.

If they've got some better ideas on how this administration should be approaching getting people home, then I'm sure that the folks over at the NSC would be happy to hear what those ideas are. We need some unity here. And everybody joined together to help get him - get my brother back.


ROMANS: Elizabeth Whelan tell CNN she does not believe her brother knows the full extent of the efforts to free him and that her family has to be careful what they tell him because they assume Russian authorities are listening in. Before releasing convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner, the Biden administration conducted a security assessment to determine whether the Russian prisoner would pose a threat to the U.S. The conclusion was no. That's when the exchange for Griner got the green light.

Let's bring in CNN Salma Abdelaziz. Salma, Bout is back in Russia this morning. Why was it so important to President Putin to bring him home?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's such a good and important question. Because I think by understanding just the extent of the efforts that the Kremlin made to get Bout out, you begin to get an understanding of just how valuable he is to President Putin.

Remember, Russia spent decades trying to negotiate the release for Bout and if you look at this on paper, the track records of Griner is very different, of course, than the track record of Bout, a man who was called the merchant of death, who is accused of using weapons to fuel conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, and who, of course, was convicted in a U.S. Court of plotting to kill Americans.

In fact, so dangerous did the United States considered Bout that they launched this very complicated sting operation in 2008, that led to his extradition to the United States. And already, of course, Russia celebrating the victory of his return home, he's been featured on Russian state television speaking about his release, take a listen.


VIKTOR BOUT (through translator): In the middle of the night, they simply woke me up and said, get your things together. And that was it. There was no preliminary information.


ABDELAZIZ: Now you're going to see celebrations, of course on the tarmac in San Antonio as Griner lands, but you're also going to see celebrations in Moscow. Both of these people really symbolized Griner and Bout, something to their respective communities. Bout became a sort of embodiment of no man left behind because he was so central to Russia's operations abroad.

Griner, on the other hand, of course, became a symbol who was seen as a political pawn in Russia's game by many of her supporters. And then of course, we have to mention the very important person that was not included in this exchange of course.

Former Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained in 2018 by Russian authorities who is currently serving a long sentence in a penal colony. United States President Biden says he'll continue to make every effort to release him. But for now, you have this very controversial release, this very controversial exchange. Celebrations on both sides and Russia feeling triumphant, that they finally got their man back after decades.

ROMANS: All right. Salma Abdelaziz, thank you so much for that, Salma. All right, right now a 14,000 barrel oil leak in rural Kansas has temporarily shut down the Keystone pipeline from the U.S. to Canada. The flow of more than 600,000 barrels a day halted. That triggered some volatility in the energy market Thursday.

Oil prices surging about 5 percent before retreating. Pipeline officials say they're investigating the cause of the leak as crews work to contain that spill.

First on CNN multiple sources telling us the House January 6 committee is considering making criminal referrals to the Justice Department for former President Trump and at least four of his allies. We get more this morning from CNN, Sara Murray.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A handful of Donald Trump's former aides and advisers -

RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: They cheated with the machines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: State election officials ignored or violated their state law.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How are you? Good morning.

MURRAY: - could face criminal referrals from the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The committee considering referrals for former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, lawyer John Eastman, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark and former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, sources tell CNN.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): We want to make sure no one slips through the cracks. We want to make sure that the key organizers and movers of this attack don't escape the scrutiny of the justice system.


MURRAY: There are still no final decisions on who to refer to the Justice Department and for what offenses. But the committee hopes to make those decisions in a meeting on Sunday.

Do you expect to make a decision about who would be on the list of criminal referrals at this Sunday meeting?

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): That's the plan. Yes.

MURRAY: CNN previously reported the committee is also weighing a referral for former President Trump.

RASKIN: Even though what we're doing is just making a referral of our views, we want to take it very seriously.

MURRAY: The committee aiming to release its final report and its list of criminal referrals on December 21.

THOMPSON: That will be some kind of a public facing. We've not decided exactly what that will look like.

MURRAY: And sources are telling CNN that the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to hold Donald Trump in contempt, saying that he did not comply with the subpoena he received over the summer to hand over all documents marked classified. All of this is playing out in secret court proceedings. But we are expecting a hearing on that matter on Friday.

If the judge decides to hold Donald Trump or his post presidency office in criminal contempt, they could face fines. Sara Murray, CNN, Washington.


ROMANS: All right, hospitals in the U.S. are closer to capacity now than they've been since the start of the pandemic. According to a CNN analysis, more than 80 percent of U.S. hospital beds are currently in use. That's up 8 percent in just the last two weeks, and it's more than just COVID filling up these beds. Respiratory viruses are putting a lot of stress on healthcare systems.

All but six states are experiencing high or very high respiratory virus cases. And seasonal flu activity doubled in one week over Thanksgiving.

A landmark bill to protect same sex and interracial marriage is headed to the President's desk after its final passage in Congress.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): On this vote, the yays are 258, the nays are 169. Present one. The motion is adopted.


ROMANS: 39 House Republicans joined Democrats and getting the Respect for Marriage Act passed. The bill also received bipartisan support in the Senate. It requires every state to recognize illegal same sex marriage from another state. President Biden says he will promptly and proudly sign the bill into law.

Right ahead, the search for a mystery car near an Idaho college. What could it reveal about the murder of four students?

Plus a big change in the lava flow that was threatening a major highway on Hawaii's Big Island. And the man traded for Brittney Griner. The story behind the international arms dealer known to some as the Merchant of Death.


[05:15:00] ROMANS: WNBA star Brittany grinders release came in exchange for the highest profile Russian in U.S. custody Viktor Bout is believed to be an almost mythical player in the world of arms dealing. CNNs Brian Todd has more.


BRIA TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: than Viktor Bout is believed to have cut a figure so legendary in the arms trafficking underworld that he's widely acknowledged as the inspiration for Nicolas Cage's character in the movie Lord of War.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The arms bazar was open. Guided missiles, unguided missiles, mortars, mines, armored personnel carriers, whole tank divisions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's notoriously made a movie about him, and he provided arms to all parts of the world in contravention of international law.

TODD: Now the man nicknamed the Merchant of Death is back in Russia. His 25-year prison sentence cut very short in a prisoner swap for Brittney Griner. Bout always denied breaking any laws, but before being apprehended in an elaborate sting in Thailand in 2008, he was believed to have funneled weapons to war zones from Africa to Afghanistan.

Douglas Farah, co-author of a book on Viktor Bout says he was known as a charismatic figure, a devoted family man, but also as a bully who'd barge in on government meetings.

DOUGLAS FARAH, CO-AUTHOR, MERCHANT OF DEATH: If you look at the wars that were directly impacted by his weapons deliveries, you can see, they escalate directly in proportion to the amount of weapons arriving. So I would say certainly, you know, 10s of 1000s of people suffered if not hundreds of 1000s of people because of the weapons he was able to deliver.

TODD: Former CNN Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty interviewed Bout in Moscow in 2002. At that time, he denied accusations that he had sold weapons to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

JILL DOUGHERTY, FMR. CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Did you ever meet Osama bin Laden?

BOUT: Unfortunately, I don't have a chance to meet them. Maybe if I would on this position to meet them somewhere, maybe on that period, I would decide to do something to prevent what happened.

TODD: I asked Jill if Bout struck her as fearsome.

DOUGHERTY: You know, at that point, he really didn't. He's kind of like a big, goofy - goofy guy. I did not get any vibes. You know, I guess you could expect somebody with the rap like that to be kind of scary and fearsome. But he wasn't. TODD: Western intelligence official said there was evidence Bout shipped arms to fighters in Africa in exchange for blood diamonds. He denied it. But U.S. officials say he routinely dealt with people like ex-Liberian President and convicted warlord Charles Taylor.

We interviewed a former DEA official who took part in Bouts arrest in Thailand, who says there was no weapon, big or small that Viktor Bout wouldn't sell to you for the right price.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A wide variety of weapons ranging from anti North aircraft to air and ground missiles to AR-15s to a number of different military grade weapons that he intended to supply to the (inaudible) a terrorist organization for the purpose of killing Americans.

TODD: Viktor Bout's lawyer told CNN in a statement that the prisoner swap between his client and Brittney Griner is quote fair. The attorney said that since Russia's ambassador to the U.S. visited Bout in October at the prison in Marion, Illinois, where he was serving his sentence, that Bout had been very confident he would be released. Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


ROMANS: All right, Brian, thanks for that. Let's bring in CNN Global Affairs analyst Kim Dozier. Kim, so nice to see you this morning



ROMANS: So both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the swap. Listen.


SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): The more we engage in such exchanges, the more Americans are at risk of being scooped up and held as leverage to try and secure the release of folks who we would rather not have to release.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): We have to recognize even if we're happy an American's coming home, it does incentivize the taking of more Americans around the world.


ROMANS: Are they right on that front?

DOZIER: Look, the fact of the matter is, when you have Americans in a foreign country's custody, going back to the hostages who were seized in the Iran crisis in 1979, you're not going to stop hostage taking by not negotiating for hostages. It's just a fact of life. But I do think that the Russian government in this situation saw an opportunity to embarrass the Biden administration by releasing Griner but keeping former Marine Dave Whelan in captivity. Before Griner had been seized. All of the talks had been about a Bout - David Whelan exchange. And then once she was arrested right on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, it became an another opportunity for Moscow to exploit now right ahead of the holidays, they can look good to their own population by getting a national hero back, releasing Griner, but still saying David Whelan is a spy. That's what they allege.

And now they can hold out for somebody else in U.S. prison.

ROMANS: Yes, the Biden ministration. Officials say they have new forms of offers to free Paul Whelan. What - what could that be? I mean, they've - they've given up their biggest leverage, which is Viktor Bout. So what could these new offers be, do you think?

DOZIER: Well, look, we've identified him publicly as the most prominent Russian in U.S. custody. There are various Russians, who the public wouldn't recognize their name, who were swept up in spying operations, etc. in U.S. custody, that Moscow will want out of prison.

So this is just another way to drag this out, a little bit like Moscow's overall strategy that's unfolding with the Ukraine war. Just keep a war of attrition going, run out a clock, see if you can outlast the other side, and see how much you can get for it. So this keeps the David Whelan thing hanging over the Biden administration, which gives the Republicans something more to criticize Biden over. And it also means now the Russians can say, OK, you're offering us this person. We also want this, this and this person. All right. Kim Dozier, nice to see you. Thank you so much.

DOZIER: Thank you.

ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America right now. Idaho police are searching for at least one person they say was inside a white Hyundai Elantra. It was spotted near an off campus house around the time four University of Idaho students were killed last month. An explosion and fire at an Iowa biofuel plant, multiple people hurt no one killed. All 30 people inside the plant have been accounted for.

The lava flow from Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano has stalled less than two miles from a major highway on the Big Island. Visuals say the amount of lava is reduced and no longer threatens the roadway.

Coming up, a prince arrested in a plot to overthrow the German government plus a reporter questions King Charles about the Harry and Megan documentary.



ROMANS: All right this morning Ukrainian officials say the Eastern Donetsk and Kharkiv regions are coming under heavy fire as Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts the targeted infrastructure strikes in Ukraine asking who started it.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Right now there has been a lot of uproar about our attacks on the energy infrastructure of our neighboring country. Yes, we're doing it. But who started it? Who hit the Crimean bridge? Who blew up the power lines from the Kursk nuclear power plant? Who isn't supplying water to Donetsk? Not supplying water to a city with more than a million people is an act of genocide. No one has ever said a word about that, total silence. But as soon as we move and do something in response, they scream and shout to the whole universe.

This will not interfere with our combat missions.


ROMANS: Will Ripley live in Kyiv, Ukraine. Who started it? A remarkable comment delivered casually in that grand opulent room with a glass of champagne in hand. What do you make of it?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look, this is typical Putin, Christine. He has an echo chamber of yes men around him who have basically enabled his justification of this brutal and unprovoked war, which began with his invasion of Ukraine, for the pure reason that he was concerned about the expansion of NATO.

Ukraine is not anywhere near becoming a part of NATO. There are many hurdles that this country - before the war had to overcome, in order for that to even be considered. And yet, look, he illegally annexed Crimea back in 2014.