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Russian Court Sentences Brittney Griner To 9 Years In prison; Griner's Lawyers: We Will Appeal Griner's Drug Conviction; Biden Calls On Russia To Release Griner "Immediately"; U.S. Official On Griner Swap: "Ball Is In Russia's Court"; Election Deniers Lead GOP Primaries In Battleground States; Dem Ad Attacks MI GOP Gov Nominee For Abortion Views. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 04, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing a very, very busy breaking news day with us. Up first, courtroom drama in Moscow, with major international ramifications today. A Russian judge finding Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling, criminal intent in that drug smuggling and sentencing the WNBA superstar to nine years in Russian prison.

The verdict coming in little more than an hour ago. You see Brittney Griner in her cell there. In the courtroom, the judge ruling, she acted deliberately when she tried to carry cannabis cartridges into the country. The verdict follows an emotional mourning in court, where the WNBA star gave a heartfelt apology.


BRITTNEY GRINER, WNBA SUPERSTAR (translated): I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Inaudible) for my mistake that I made and embarrassment that I brought.


KING: This very stiff sentence now adds more urgency to a diplomatic stalemate between Washington and Moscow over a potential prisoner trade. Griner in the form of marine Paul Whelan for the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. CNN is monitoring this story from around the globe. CNN's Kylie Atwood is at the State Department, Jeremy Diamond is at the White House.

Let's begin just outside Moscow with CNN's Fred Pleitgen. Fred, I understand Griner's attorneys are speaking right now. Let's take that. Let's listen to them first. I'll come back to you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated): Does not correspond to what was happening and what happened?

MARIA BLAGOVOLINA, ATTORNEY FOR BRITTNEY GRINER (translated): And it's totally going against the actual part of the Russian penal code where we will appeal and we're very disappointed and surprised by this decision.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated): How's Brittney feeling?

BLAGOVOLINA (translated): She feels bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated): Any possible news on the exchange?

BLAGOVOLINA (translated): No. Nobody's discussing it with us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated): Before you appeal the exchange is impossible.

BLAGOVOLINA (translated): It's not to us. It's question to (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated): If appeal will not be granted? Do you think you can write to the president for the presidential pardon?

BLAGOVOLINA (translated): We will do everything in our - everything in order to free her. She doesn't have to stay behind bars for nine years. We have 10 days for our appeals. It's Moscow regionals court.

ALEXANDER BOYKOV, ATTORNEY FOR BRITTNEY GRINER (translated): If appeal is totally appropriate if the verdict goes against the actual text of the Russian penal code. And if you see similar cases, everyone gets a much more lenient sentence. We we'll see. It depends on certain established by a court, a type of penal colony.

BLAGOVOLINA (translated): The journalists show her reaction who was in the courtroom. She's very upset.

BOYKOV (translated): It's difficult to talk to her. She obviously passed on her message to her family, which we will not reveal clearly to the press.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (translated): Of course, we will visit her.

KING: You're listening here to Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina, those are Brittney Griner's lawyers, speaking outside of the courthouse. Fred Pleitgen is back with us. Fred, they say she feels bad. She's very upset. They say they have 10 days to file the appeal and they will do so. Add your context on the likelihood of success or the unlikelihood of success of that appeal and bring us the headlines from earlier today as well.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, I think an appeal would be very difficult to have success. I mean, we've already talked about the conviction rates in Russian courts, and that they are well into the 90s, around 99 percent in fact, in appeals obviously also very difficult as well. But I think that you can really see that these two lawyers who fought very hard, I was monitoring this trial as it was going on to try and get a lesser sentence for Brittney Griner and they felt that they were on a much better track than what we saw in this verdict today. They said, look, Brittney Griner admitted to the crime she pleaded guilty. They had character witnesses on testifying to the fact that she was very important to her team in Yekaterinburg, and that she had also won over a lot of the fans in the community there as well, and in fact, was doing a lot for basketball in Russia.

And they also said - and they also called into question, some of the original that forensics that took place on those vaping cartridges that were found on Brittney Griner as she tried to enter Moscow's airport in Sheremetyevo on February 17.

They are extremely disappointed also, John, because when you look at the verdict closely, it's basically exactly what the prosecution wanted. They gave her nine years in jail. We have to keep in mind, she's already been in jail for about five months. And so, it is about nine months - nine years and five months in total. And the prosecution, of course asked for nine and a half years, and the fine is pretty much also what the prosecution asked for as well. So, you can see why the defense would be very angry and disappointed by this verdict, and certainly saying that saying they are going to launch that appeal.

Also, our folks who are inside the courtroom, they did see Brittney Griner as she was being led out of the courtroom and sort of, you know, asked her how she was feeling and all she said there was, I love my family. So, Brittney Griner there obviously very emotional, very down also, as the - as her attorneys just pointed out in that press conference, after this very harsh verdict to came down.

But at the same time, of course, in a fighting mood, as well as saying that they are going to launch that appeal, while at the same time. We always have to mention the fact that you do have this political process going on with the US has said that it is trying to bring both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, the former marine, who is of course, currently serving a 16-year sentence for alleged espionage which he says, he didn't commit, trying to bring them home and a prisoner swap, John?

KING: And, Fred, before I let you go, it's very different court system, obviously in Russia than here in the United States. You see the defendant there in a jail cell in the courtroom. We don't do that here in the United States, except in the most violent cases, you'll see somebody who might be handcuffed or shackled in a courthouse. What do we know now about the prison or penal colony? Will Brittany Garner will go next?

PLEITGEN: Yes. That's a really good question, because she was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. And those penal colonies usually are very, very far away from the Russian capital, at least several hours, they usually in very small villages, hard to get to. And they can be pretty harsh. Quite frankly, you know, this Alexei Navalny, for instance, he talked about the penal colony that he was supposed to go into and how it has a reputation for being harsh, how people get sick sometimes in these places.

Trevor Reed, of course, talked about it after he was released as well. The understanding that we have and sort of what we're hearing is that, for the time being, Brittney Griner, is not going to be placed in a penal colony, but she is going to be placed in the same detention facility that she has been in so far. It's also a little bit outside of Moscow.

But certainly, the conditions there, probably not quite as harsh as in one of those main penal colonies, that prisoners who are in jail for a very long time get placed into this at least, as long as her appeal is being handled. So at least for the time of the appeal, she is not going to be going into a penal colony is our understanding. But it's going to remain in that detention facility, and then obviously be headed to court as those appeals hearings will then take place if indeed the appeal is accepted. John?

KING: Fred Pleitgen for us is outside of Moscow. Just outside, Fred, thanks so much. Let's go to the State Department now. Kylie Atwood. Kylie, that period, 10 days to file an appeal as Fred notes Brittney Griner to be held in a different detention center, a less harsh Detention Center during that 10 days, I would certainly seem to increase the urgency at the State Department to see if possible if they can arrange this prisoner swap.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. In fact, State Department officials have been so focused on this case, and they have really been waiting for this day, John, because the expectation was that this prisoner swap that the Biden administration put on the table. The proposal back in June, U.S. officials didn't really think that it would actually go anywhere until after Brittney Griner had pled guilty, which he did until after their sentencing.

We now have this nine-year sentence. So, this is a very key moment as these back channel quiet conversations are happening. But I also think that it is important to note that last week, the secretary of state came out and spoke publicly about this offer that the Biden administration had put on the table for this prisoner swap.

And the response that they got from the Russians was essentially that they wanted to return to quiet diplomacy. They didn't want to have this public pressure. Now there are reasons that the Biden administration spoke publicly to the fact that they had put this on the table. They're getting a lot of pressure domestically in the case of Brittney Griner to show that they're working to get her home.


But the statement that we got from President Biden today may indicate that they're headed back towards quiet diplomacy. And the reason that I say that is because he didn't say in that that he's urging Russia to accept the offer on the table. He just spoke to the ongoing efforts underway to get Brittney Griner home. John?

KING: Kylie Atwood, thank you. And if your video were showing you here this is after the sentencing was handed down. This is Brittney Griner being escorted just moments ago. You see the security detail as she heads up the stairs there that just after the sentencing. And to that point, Jeremy Diamond at the White House, the president took a gamble here from a public relations standpoint, a diplomatic standpoint wanted to put the pressure on Vladimir Putin saying, I've made you an offer except it and let's end thi.s what now?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And I think to Kylie's point, the domestic pressure that this White House has been facing that this President has been facing as it relates to cases of wrongfully detained Americans in particular, Brittany grinders case cannot be understated and so much of that is certainly driving some of the response that we're seeing from the White House here.

I want to read you that statement from President Biden, that Kylie mentioned there were President Biden calls for Griner's immediate release. And this is what he says, he says today American citizen Brittney Griner, received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already New Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittany.

It's unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved one's friends and teammates. He says my administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittany and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible. We know that of course, the U.S. has been attending several of the hearings, including today being in the courtroom for that sentencing.

And listen, I think this harsh prison sentence was not a surprise to the White House to this administration. But as kylie said, the fact that the sentencing has now happened can allow for this process to perhaps move forward. US officials here saying that look, the ball is in Russia's court, the U.S. has made this offer.

Yes, Russia did make that counteroffer that we learned of that involved a convicted murderer in Germany. The U.S. doesn't consider that a serious counterproposal, instead the view that perhaps is a stalling tactic by Russia, but certainly there is hope here, that more serious discussions can now begin.

KING: Jeremy Diamond, diamond for us at the White House. Our thanks to Kylie,, with the State Department, Fred pike and just outside Moscow as well come back to us if more news comes in. Let's get some important perspective. Now from somebody who understands the delicate nature of this, the former Moscow CIA station chief Steve Hall, joins our conversation.

Steve, you heard Jeremy diamond laying out there the perspective from the White House. So, what is the thinking of you believe in the Kremlin today? And now that Vladimir Putin got what he wanted, a stiff sentence here nine years for Brittney Griner. Does that give Putin more leverage in these negotiations with the White House?

STEVE HALL, FORMER CA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: Yes, absolutely. It does shine. I mean, this is really the best way to think about this is not in terms of a trial not in terms of, you know, viewers need to understand we're using a lot of terms that sound normal to them judges, juries' appeals. This is all performance in Russia. There was never any doubt as to what was going to happen. And what Vladimir Putin is trying to do is basically drive up the bargaining price of Ms. Greiner. He's trying to get that price as high as possible. So that when the real negotiation starts behind the scenes in terms of who's going to get released in return for Greiner, and perhaps Paul Whelan, is you know, how much are they worth.

And that's what he's doing. He's driving it up, because he knows that when the American public hears something like you're essentially going to the Gulag for nine years, the pressure on this administration in this government is going to be significant. And that was precisely Vladimir Putin's goals, and why he had the outcome happen as it did.

KING: And so, to that point, I want you to listen to Brittney Griner in court today, her defense put on. They tried to put on an effective defense saying, this was an accident. She packed in a hurry. They brought in character witness they talked about her dedication, not only to her team here in the United States, but to the team she plays for in Russia. And then Brittney Griner making a direct appeal for leniency today saying, I'm sorry, and I did not mean to do this. Listen?


GRINER: I have no intent on breaking in Russian law. I had no intent I did not conspire or plan to commit to try. And I want to apologize to my teammates and organization. Again, for any damage that I may have done to them, I never intended on hurting him. This is my second home. And all I wanted to do was just win championships and make them proud.


KING: If you saw that play out in a courtroom in the United States, you might see a judge have some sympathy and say two years or three years. Instead, this judge gave the prosecution exactly what they asked for. You say the books are cooked essentially.

HALL: Yes, absolutely. And it's heartbreaking to see Griner make that statement because it's, you know, it's similar to a prisoner of war being filmed, you know, by opposing forces by the enemy, you know, where they hold up a sign or a newspaper, saying this is the day it is, and you know, it's all and they're blinking to try to send out, you know, messages. That's actually what is happening here.


If Griner knew what she had to say because she didn't want to look at a 20-year sentence. And her defense lawyers such as they are, they all know what their role is, you know, their role is to make it look like that somehow there is some sort of fair rule of law justice system in Russia, which is the farthest thing from the truth. It's all a performance act.

KING: So then, help me through the calculation now. President Biden has put on the table, you said Brittney Griner back to the United States, you send Paul Whelan back to the United States, and I will return to you Viktor Bout. Viktor Bout is a convicted Russian arms dealer. He's noticed the merchant of death. He's been in U.S. prison going on 10 years now. From your perspective, is there any way Putin takes that two for one deal? Or does the Biden White House now have to think about what more Are we willing to give?

HALL: So, the Russians will almost certainly, John, go for a maximalist position. So, they will say, wait a minute, you know, we have two years or how many, so we need at least, you know, to back because they're big into this reciprocity thing. But there is room for negotiation here because obviously, to you know, to the western world and any just thinking individual Viktor Bout, you know, who is, you know, a massive arms trafficker responsible for God knows how many deaths to include Americans, compared to you know, a professional athlete, there is no comparison.

And of course, the accusations against Paul Whelan of espionage are absolutely ludicrous and ridiculous, too. So, the Russians are going to go for as much as they can possibly get. But of course, the American side and the western side if the Germans get involved, we'll be pushing for something more reasonable. So, we'll see what happens after that information comes out from what I expect to be very much behind the scenes negotiations.

KING: It is both a fascinating and incredibly sad moment. Steve Hall grateful for your insights, as we watch how this plays out from here. We'll stay on top of it. Up next for us, though vote counts continuing in Arizona and Washington State, but one trend from this week's primaries crystal clear. Republican election deniers are racking up wins.




KING: They're still counting votes from some of Tuesday's big primary contests including in this race. The Arizona Republican primary for Governor Kari Lake is leading. We've yet to call this race though. They're still counting votes. Kari Lake leading though over Karrin Taylor Robson. It's a close race there but that lead has held up, we'll see where the vote count goes today. But Arizona one of the states where we are seeing a very clear pattern. Republican voters supporting Republican candidates who continue to deny the 2020 election results.

Kari Lake again, not to declared candidate yet, but she is leading is an election denier. Their Senate Republican nominee in Arizona Blake Masters is an election denier. You move on to other races in the state including, as I walked out here, the secretary of state candidate is an election denier. Get that, the person who will count the votes, if he wins the election in November. Mark Finchem is someone who still disputes the 2020 election results. And it's not just in Arizona, Finchem there elsewhere around the country. Republican candidates running still, saying Donald Trump won two years ago.

(Playing video) KING: When me now to share their reporting and their insights, Alex burns at the New York Times, NPRs Asma Khalid, and Nicholas Wu of Politico. They won't let it go. The question is, does it matter? Can Democrats on that issue alone? The Democrats think you can beat these Republican candidates? Or are we going to see if voters statewide will put election deniers in the governor's office in the United States Senate and I think probably most troubling in the office is to count the votes secretary of state.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Look, I think that the secretary of state races are sort of in their own category, because campaigning on election administration issues and election administration is a totally illogical thing to do. That is what voters should be thinking about. When they make up their minds.

They're talking to Democratic strategists about a governor's races and Senate races. They do think that they can use election denying against those candidates, but they think it has to be part of a bigger package of issues that the message isn't just, you know, Kari Lake is denying the results of the 2020 election.

The message to be a sort of accrued about it is Kari Lake is crazy, right? That what she thinks about the election? What do you think about abortion, which he says about President Trump and a suite of other issues that you can't trust this person, as the governor?

You're going to see it in state after state after state doesn't mean that voters are going to be motivated necessarily to go out and repudiate election lies in 2020. But the hope among Democrats is that they'll be motivated to go out and block candidates they see as just wildly extreme.

ASMA KHALID, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NPR: In the secretary of state's racist, I do really think are phenomenally interesting is not just Arizona, my colleague, miles Parks has been covering voting for the last couple of years has been his count five or six states, Indiana, my home state included, where you have secretary of state candidates that Republicans have nominated, who denied the results of the 2020 election and this has been systematically to on and I would argue it's part of what we're seeing, a sort of a campaign strategy nationally by the Republican Party, right to support candidates.

KING: Forgive me for interrupting. To your point we just show you in Arizona, in Nevada, in Michigan, and in Pennsylvania, because that's flipped to the secretary of state graphic, please. This is the governor of Pennsylvania oversees picks the Secretary of State there, Doug Mastriano on election tonight. He would (Inaudible).

It is a remarkable pattern in that here we are here, a halfway through 2022. And you have and that's just four people. We could give you a much longer list of Republicans who have been incredibly important positions who continue with no facts to support them to say Donald Trump won and or elections are rigged.

NICHOLAS WU, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Exactly. And we see this, you know, bringing attention to the - would otherwise be these relatively under the radar racist? I mean, how many times before this, would you hear and this many gubernatorial or secretary of state races, you know, discussed at this level? It's just kind of the times we live in here at the same time, you know Democrats are able to use this really turbocharged fundraising for why these races since it is a very effective appeal among Democratic base voters will get my home state of Michigan for example.


The Democratic Secretary of State there Jocelyn Benson, has been quite a good fundraiser, in part because of all the attention that's on this race. The real danger is, is here though, is like you mentioned, look what we saw with a Brad Raffensperger in Georgia after the 2020 election, he stood up to efforts to influence the election. But what if in the future, someone like Brad Raffensperger wasn't in that position?

KING: Right. And in Georgia Republicans said, we like what we got. In other states, that's an interesting break of the Republican Party. Georgia Republican said sorry. We'll vote for the guys, Governor Kemp, Secretary of State Raffensperger, who stood up to Donald Trump.

And these other states you're seeing it, but you mentioned the abortion issue. Our Democrats believed especially after the Kansas vote, that they were right. They believe that they were right and that this will help them gin up turnout and help them maybe convince a moderate Republicans to not go away, not leave.

People who might have voted for Joe Biden did not leave Joe Biden. Abortion is on the ballot in Michigan. Nicholas, you said, state in California in Vermont. There's also a ballot measure in Kentucky. The Michigan governor's race Gretchen Whitmer. Obviously on the ballot, she was governor during COVID. Those are going to be issues, but abortion is a huge issue the Democratic Governors Association already going after her Republican opponent.

(Playing video)

KING: Is the democratic thinking this helps us mostly in governor's races or helps us across the board.

Burns: I think the Democrats believe that they can boost turnout and energy on their side across the board and really appeal to independent women who generally supported Democrats in 2020 but have sort of wavered somewhat since then.

But there's no question that governor's races are where it hits harvest that, you know, the governor, particularly in a place like Michigan where the only thing between a Republican legislature and passing or whatever kinds of abortion laws they want right now is a Democratic governor.

That could change obviously, if they passed this constitutional amendment, as well. But you know, the position that Dixon has taken in that race is just it's out of step with voters and basically any state in the country voters in Kansas to say nothing of voters in Michigan.

KING: So, Arizona, another state race. Again, we have not called the race for Kari Lake yet, but she is leading in the race for governor there. I want you to listen. First comment goes back a couple of months. The second comment is yesterday. See if you notice a shift.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voiceover): Is there a scenario where there will be some abortions that would be allowed or is abortion just going to be illegal in Arizona if that piece of legislation gets to your desk?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voiceover): I think it would have to come to the legislature. I personally do not - I believe that abortion is the ultimate sin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A question about, whether or not you'll advocate for more restrictive abortion laws as governor?

KARI LAKE, ARIZONA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: We have great laws on the books and we're going to work with those.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you OK with those lays?

LAKE: We already had one, you already had one, who has not had one?


KING: That seems to be, I don't want to talk about this after Kansas.

KHALID: after Kansas, right. I mean, Kansas is a Republican conservative state by most voters. When you look at how its voted in presidential elections going back decades. I do think that if we look at the turnout, you had turnout, that was essentially double what it was during the 2018 primary. But I do think John, to me, there's this this distinction. And this is where I think it's very unclear as to how this will play out in November.

When voters are tangibly voting for a policy change as they did in Kansas, as opposed to when they're voting for a lawmaker who they are believing may or may not have their best interest in mind when it comes to reproductive rights. And that is a distinction that I think is hard to really relate to voters. And you know, Michigan, you mentioned. Michigan, it's on the ballot. Will it be in voters' minds on the ballot when they're looking at their senator?

KING: It's a fascinating question. One of the things we will study and what do we have 96 days, I believe, 96 days until we get to November vote. Up next for us. News you'll hear first right here on CNN, the Department of Homeland Security taking action now in the wake of text messages going missing including, from the Secret Service.