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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Five Americans Imprisoned in Iran Expected to Be Freed Today; L.A. Deputy Shot and Killed in His Car; United Auto Workers Strike Against Ford, GM and Stellantis Enters its Fourth Day. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 18, 2023 - 05:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for getting an early start with us, I am Kasie Hunt. And we start this morning with breaking news. We are following this news out of Iran. Five Americans, the U.S. government says have been wrongfully detained there are expected to be released today. That's according to the Iran's foreign ministry.

A Qatari jet is on standby to bring them home. Five Iranians in U.S. custody are also expected to be released. Let's bring in CNN's Natasha Bertrand here in Washington. Natasha, good morning. What do we know about what's happening right now and what brought this deal about?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Kasie, this has been a deal that has been in the works really for the last six to seven months, and it began to crystallize just last month when the Iranians did release five of those Americans into house arrest after they had been imprisoned for several years. And the administration had been working with the Iranians through the Qataris to try to get these American-Iranian dual nationals released from Iranian custody.

And now, we are seeing that according to Iran's foreign ministry, that appears to be moving forward today. We are told that as part of this deal, the U.S. has also agreed to release $6 billion worth of Iranian funds into an account that Qatar will oversee, that Iran can then use for humanitarian purposes. Also as part of this deal, five Iranians will be released from U.S. prison.

And they will be released in exchange, of course, for these five American-Iranians that are being released from Iranian custody. Now, this really ends a long nightmare for these dual Iranian-American citizens, one of them, Siamak Namazi has been in Iranian custody really since 2015. And he has been extremely angry with the Biden administration for what he perceives as a lack of action on their part.

He's also angry, of course, at the Obama administration which negotiated a similar deal with the Iranians back in 2016, that saw Namazi left behind as part of that deal at the time. So, this is a really key moment for the Biden administration, which has made the release, and the bringing home of wrongfully-detained Americans overseas, a central part of its foreign policy.

Now, of course, this has already received a lot of criticism here at home because of that $6 billion that I mentioned earlier. Republicans really seizing on that, saying that it amounts to a ransom payment, but of course, the administration says, look, we see an opportunity here to get these five Iranian-Americans home, back to the U.S., back to their families, and we are going to seize it.

And of course, emphasizing that this is not U.S. taxpayer money, this is Iranian money that will be transferred into accounts overseen by Qatar and by the U.S. Treasury Department for their disbursement, Kasie.

HUNT: Yes, and Natasha, can we talk a little bit about the limitations on that money, because my understanding is that the Iranians can't use the money for just anything?

BERTRAND: Exactly right. So this is going to be used for humanitarian purposes. So things like medicines, medical supplies, food, things that the Iranians have said that they need, and that the administration now is willing to provide, granted, of course, that it is closely watched and closely scrutinized by the Qataris and by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The administration says the Iranians are not going to be able to use this money for just anything. It is not Iranian cash just going into their coffers, and importantly, it's not money that the U.S. is paying to the Iranians, of course, to get these prisoners out. So, all really important points that we should expect if this prisoner deal goes through the administration to continue to emphasize today, Kasie.

HUNT: So Natasha, I know you've been covering this for some time. Can you kind of take us behind the scenes in terms of how the Biden administration has been dealing with this over the last -- I mean, it's been at least 18 months right, that this has been worked on?

BERTRAND: Yes, Kasie, really since the Biden administration came into office over the last two and a half years, they have been trying to work through different channels, through different diplomatic channels to get these prisoners home. Because again, getting the Americans that have been wrongfully-detained around the world, back home, out of prison, safely home, that has been a key pillar of the Biden administration's foreign policy here.

So this really constituted a lot of shuttle diplomacy taking place in Qatar with the Qataris serving as intermediaries, because the Biden administration and Biden officials never actually spoke directly with Iranian officials throughout this entire process.


Remember the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran. So they had to do all of this essentially through the Qataris acting as intermediaries with help from the Omanis and the Swiss. So, a really kind of indirect path here that led to this breakthrough, but the administration says look, if we can get these Americans home, then we're willing to do whatever it takes, Kasie.

HUNT: Right, Natasha Bertrand, standby for us, I'm sure we'll be back to you on this breaking news. But I want to go now to Nic Robertson in London to provide us with a little bit more perspective about what's happening here. He's our CNN international editor. Nic, nice to see you. What created the space for a deal like this to be worked out, obviously, hostilities between the U.S. and Iran are decades long?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think the main motivation here for Iran will be the money. We've seen that in previous deals. We've seen that most recently, perhaps, if you analyze the rapprochement that they've had with Saudi Arabia, and the fact that Iran is longer supporting the Houthis and giving them cruise missiles and other weapons to fire into Saudi Arabia.

Part of that deal which called for, you know, an end to those particular tensions foresaw better economic and business relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So Iran is desperately short of money. The leadership there knows that it has weakened because it isn't delivering to the people on many fronts, not just on the sort of economic front, but on a human rights front as well.

So the leadership there is under pressure, and the deal that's been struck here is going to be a tough sell for both the Iranians as it is for the Biden administration showing that there are controls and constraints on this money that was Iranian money, not money that's being gifted from the United States taxpayer.

And on the -- on the Iranian front, we've heard from both the foreign minister today and the president over the past couple of days, saying that this essentially, we will use this money as we see fit in proportion to our requirements is how the foreign minister put it or how the president put it.

He said it's up to our government how to spend that money. And I think for those who analyze what Iran does with its finances will recognize that if Iran puts its hand into this bank account and withdraws money for humanitarian goods, be it food, be it medicine, whatever it is for the well-being of its people, it takes some pressure off the people.

But it also takes financial pressure off the Iranian leadership to perhaps spend those moneys that they were going to spend on their own people, spend those monies equivalent on other developments, be it nuclear, be it weapons, whatever. So that raises concerns and anxiety.

HUNT: Yes, it certainly does. And Nic, what can you tell us about the domestic political situation on the ground in Iran that can help us understand this deal better?

ROBERTSON: Yes, I think the very fact that the Iranian population is prepared to go out and protest on the streets, and many hundreds of people died in the protests over the past year since the death of that Iranian protester, and the fact that her father was arrested at the anniversary of her death just over the weekend. All of that speaks to the pressures that the human rights pressures and expectations from the population. The discontent, particularly with the younger population, against his

older leadership. The economic hardships facing the country that were witnessed by citizens, perhaps most acutely during the COVID epidemic, because there were -- people were dying in droves in Iran because there wasn't enough medical support.

All of these issues are brought into focus for the Iranian leadership. They -- if they're going to hold on to power, they need to have more money at their disposal. Now, they are and do have some economic deals and are perhaps seeing that they're getting some political or diplomatic leverage -- we again, going back to that Saudi-Iran deal that was brokered by China recently, and the economic deals that are being done between China and Iran at the moment.

All of those give the Iranian leadership a reason to believe that they can alleviate some of the tensions on them by having more money in their -- in their own pocket.

HUNT: Very interesting. All right, Nic Robertson, thanks very much for giving us an update there. This is going to be breaking throughout the morning, so we may see you again, sir. Thanks very much. Global leaders including Presidents Biden and Zelenskyy in New York this week. We're going to tell you what's at stake at the U.N. General Assembly.

Plus, the calls are coming from inside the house. Speaker McCarthy is under pressure as lawmakers in his own party target his job. And Donald Trump who's ridiculed President Biden for being too old is now being mocked for his own word salad.



HUNT: Welcome back. We are following breaking news this morning. Five Americans that the U.S. government says have been wrongfully detained in Iran are expected to be released today. That's according to Iran's foreign ministry. Qatari jet is on standby to bring them home. Five Iranians in U.S. custody are also expected to be released. CNN's Becky Anderson joins us now live from Doha, Qatar.

Becky, thank you so much for being here. Walk us through where you are, what we are seeing behind you, and walk us through why this deal seems to be controversial this morning.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, we are at the airport in Doha. We are awaiting the arrival of a Qatari jet which will pull up just behind me here, and these steps are the steps down -- five wrongfully-detained American citizens to walk when they arrive here a couple of hours from now, as we understand it.

The Qatari jet is on the tarmac in Tehran at present, we haven't been notified as of yet that, that jet is wheels up. And it's a two-hour flight from Tehran to Doha here in Qatar. So, we are a couple of hours, at least, away from their arrival. When they get here, they will be greeted by the American negotiators who have been in indirect talks with the Iranians through Qatar, as mediators.


Now, for some 18 months, and the momentum for this deal, coincidentally picked up during the United Nations General Assembly in September last year when one of the prisoners, Siamak Namazi who has been wrongfully-detained, a hostage in Tehran for nearly eight years when his father was actually released from detention in Iran. And that was a year ago this week.

The U.N. General Assembly, of course, will start again this weekend -- this week in New York, and clearly, one assumes that the negotiators on this deal wanted some action ahead of the Iranian president, for example, arriving in New York this week. So, five Americans, three, whose names we know, two, whose names are still being withheld, should arrive here in Doha, in the next couple of hours or so. The controversy around this, well --

HUNT: Yes --

ANDERSON: This deal has been negotiated for -- the release -- prisoners imprisoned in the United States. And the release of $6 billion worth of frozen funds which up until now been sitting in a South Korean bank account. Those funds will be transferred to a bank account here in Qatar and the Qataris will act as guarantees or guarantors on how that money is spent. The Americans say it must only be spent --

HUNT: Yes --

ANDERSON: For humanitarian needs. Back to you.

HUNT: All right, Becky Anderson for us, thank you very much for that report and we will be coming back to her as this news unfolds. But up next, an L.A. deputy shot and killed in his car, investigators say he was targeted. Now, the reward for the tip announced(ph) as killer has snowballed. And on strike for a fourth day, where the UAW talks stand with the big three.



HUNT: Welcome back. Donald Trump now claiming that he kept trying to overturn the 2020 election results because he didn't listen to the lawyers who told him that he lost.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And you hire them, you never met these people and you get a recommendation, they turn out to be rhinos or they turn out to be not so good. In many cases, I didn't respect them, but I did respect others, I respected many others that said the election was rigged.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HUNT: So why does this matter? Trump has been indicted for his

efforts to subvert the election, and a central premise of special counsel Jack Smith's case is that Trump knew, that he knew his election claims were false because people around him told him that he had lost the election. He also made comments that seemed like they could undermine his current lawyers if they try to argue in court that Trump did what he did because he was listening to a contingent of lawyers who were willing to tell him what he wanted to hear.


TRUMP: You know who I listened to, myself, I saw what happened. I watched that election and I thought the election was over at 10 O'clock in the evening. I was listening to different people, and when I added it all up, the election was rigged.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Were you calling the shots though, Mr. President, ultimately?

TRUMP: As to whether or not I believed it was rigged? Oh, sure --


TRUMP: I -- it was my decision, but I listened to some people. Some people said that --


HUNT: Oh, boy. Joining us now is CNN's Marshall Cohen live for us in Atlanta. Marshall, thank you so much for being here. My central question here is whether Trump's comments in this interview are going to make a difference in the Jack Smith case, and how much did he hurt himself, if at all?

MARSHALL COHEN, CNN REPORTER: It could have an impact, and it could influence the jury if special counsel Jack Smith decides to present clips of that interview to them. And he might just do that for the reasons that you just explained. It undercuts a key potential defense for the former president. Over the past few months, we have been wondering how is he going to try to defend himself in this case?

And a good defense that he had at his disposal was that don't blame me, blame my attorneys, I was just listening to what seasoned veteran attorneys were telling me to do. And he would be somewhat telling the truth there, Kasie. There were people, attorneys like Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman and others, encouraging him to contest the election and to try to overturn the election.

They told him it was legal, they told him there was precedent and he listened, or maybe not, according to this interview, he says it was all his idea. So if this impacts the trial, it could. But we're still pretty far away from that, Kasie. And of course, if Jack Smith doesn't show the jury that interview clip, then it's something they really shouldn't be considering.

HUNT: Very interesting. So Marshall, you are outside this courthouse in Atlanta today for a reason. Former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark was indicted in the Georgia subversion case. There's a hearing today about moving his case from state to federal court. What's the latest? What can you tell us about it?

COHEN: A major hearing, that's right, in the federal courthouse right behind me for the former Trump-era Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark. Remember, he coordinated with Donald Trump directly to try to harness the powers of DOJ to help Trump's campaign and overturn the election. He's been charged here in Georgia, he and his attorney will be arguing today to try to get that case moved from state court to federal court.

They want his case to be in this courthouse right behind me, because if he does get the charges moved, he might be able to get them dropped altogether. There are immunity protections for federal officials, that he is trying to invoke, that could get the case dropped.


If he doesn't succeed in that, he could also go to trial in this courthouse with a better jury pool. But it will be up to a judge to decide whether to move the charges, whether to move the case, and Kasie, it's the same judge who just two weeks ago ruled against Trump's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, when he was making a similar bid. The hearing here starts at 10:00 a.m., Kasie?

HUNT: All right, Marshall Cohen, thank you for getting up well ahead of that hearing to bring us this news, I really appreciate it. And we are also following breaking news right now. Five Americans detained in Iran are expected to be released today, that's according to the Iran's Foreign Ministry. CNN is live as you can see on the tarmac in Doha waiting for their arrival.

And still ahead here, Kevin McCarthy's escalating feud with Matt Gaetz, no more F bombs that we're aware of any way over the weekend as the speaker fights to keep his job.


HUNT: Good morning, thanks for getting up early with us, I'm Kasie Hunt, it's a few seconds before 5:30 here on the east coast. But we have breaking news overseas.