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Source Says, Judge Declines To Hold Trump In Contempt Of Court; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) Speaks Out About Switch From Democrat To Independent; WNBA Star Brittney Griner Back In U.S. After Russian Prisoner Swap; U.S. Officials: Russia Demanded A Spy Held In Germany Be Freed In Exchange For Paul Whelan; Iran Hangs Protester In First Known Execution Tied To Protests. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 09, 2022 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Also tonight, we're going insights Senator Kyrsten Sinema's surprise decision to bolt from the Democratic Party and become an independent. She's explaining what she did and what it means in an exclusive new CNN interview.

And new reaction to Brittney Griner's release from Russia and the basketball star's homecoming here in the United States. We're joined this hour by the WNBA commissioner and by the brother of Paul Whelan, who remains in Russian custody.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get straight to the breaking news right now. A legal victory for former President Trump in the Justice Department's investigation into his handling of highly classified documents after leaving office. CNN Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is working the story. Evan, so, what are you hearing tonight, what are you learning?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this was a hearing that happened just a little while ago this afternoon at the federal court here in Washington. Judge Beryl Howell, the chief judge there, Wolf, was hearing a request from the Justice Department to hold the former president in contempt of court for not complying with a subpoena that was issued over the summer to turn over all documents.

At the end of that hearing, she declined, at least for now, to hold the former president in contempt. Instead, what she did was she asked the Justice Department and the Trump team to work harder to come to a resolution, to try to figure out a way to resolve the issues.

We don't know whether this is going to be the final answer to this dispute. Obviously, the problem here is that the Justice Department believes that there are still documents missing, they believe that there's got to be some way that Trump can find those documents and turn them back over to the government.

The other issue, Wolf, is that the Justice Department is asking for someone in Trump's team to serve as the custodian of records and to attest that there are no more records to be turned over. So far, nobody on Trump's team appears to want to do that. It gives you a sense of the level of trust.

Earlier this summer, Wolf, there was another Trump attorney who did sign one of those documents saying that they believe that there were no more documents to be found. Of course, that turned out to not be true. The FBI found hundreds of documents when they conducted a search in August. And that lawyer, Christina Bobb, now has had to seek getting a lawyer as a result of all of this.

BLITZER: They found documents, classified documents not only at Mar- a-Lago, but at a storage facility and elsewhere, Trump facilities as well.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. And, again, part of this dispute has been the Justice Department's insistence that there were additional documents missing. So, in recent weeks, over Thanksgiving, the Trump team did hire their own team to do a search at four additional properties and they did find two additional classified documents at a storage facility.

So, the question is, is this all? Is this all that there is? And the Justice Department seems to believe that it may not be.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, we shall see. Evan, stay with us. I also want to bring in Defense Attorney and former Federal Prosecutor Shan Wu and CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

So, Shan, what's your reaction to this decision not to hold, at least for now, Trump in contempt?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, I really think it puts the Justice Department back in a difficult situation. They can't seem to make up their minds. Are they doing a criminal investigation or is it some kind of civil negotiation?

This has been a failure to comply with a subpoena, an extraordinary -- Wolf, it's extraordinary, they can't even designate a custodian of records. How symbolic, it indicates they don't know what is the status of the custody of the records.

So it's a very odd situation, letting the Trump team do its own search is also very peculiar. It's more like a civil negotiation and they really need to make up their mind, when is enough, enough.

BLITZER: It's big picture, Gloria, this -- it looks like it's at least a win for Trump right now and he's facing enormous other legal issues, as we all know.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, let me say we have no real visibility into what went on in the courtroom because the press was sort of not allowed into the courtroom. So, everyone is talking to their sources right now about what the exact arguments were.

I think -- although, I'm not an attorney, I think it would have been a bit drastic right now to charge Trump with contempt. What the judge seemed to be saying was you guys figure this out. If you want a letter, come back and say you need a letter, you know? You need a letter saying we've done everything we can, we've been completely transparent, we're going to say this is the custodian of record and we've given you everything. I mean, maybe that is something the judge is thinking about.

PEREZ: Well, I mean, that's a great point. And I think if you're the judge, right, you're looking at this Justice Department and you have to think the judge is thinking, look, the Justice Department had a chance here at the beginning to do searches at all of these properties.


Why did they limit themselves to just one property, Mar-a-Lago? They should have -- if they believe that there were additional documents, you know, they could have come back, gone to the judge and got a second search warrant.

Look, that, they could have done that and we know why they didn't do that because of the politics involved and the fact that Republicans were rallying behind the former president and they knew that that would probably be a step too far. But, you know, that is the way that they should have done this if they believed that the documents were missing.

WU: That's exactly right. I mean, how often do you have a suspect who has, let's say, stolen some property or a drug dealer, and you don't search the other residences? They've given so much deference to Trump here to being afraid to do that that it's really put them in an odd position. I can understand Judge Howell saying, look, you work it out. It's your grand jury subpoena Justice Department. You're the ones negotiating and you've already executed a search warrant in the past. You clearly have the tools to compel things.

BORGER: But when they're in a situation where you found some more documents in a storage facility --

WU: Right, GSA one.

BORGER: -- a GSA storage facility, then what do you do? Because you've only asked originally, as you pointed out, Evan, for certain documents. Now you have to go back and say there are these other documents. You won't have anybody saying, I'm responsible, mea culpa, yes, we found a couple more documents, we don't know what it is. And so they go to the judge and the judge says, huh, okay.

I mean, again, we weren't in the courtroom, so we'll have to try to figure, this out but it is a predicament for the Justice Department. And, yes, Wolf, I think that the Trump people should feel pleased by this decision today.

BLITZER: At least now. We'll we see what happens down the road. So, where do things go from here? PEREZ: Well, obviously, this is just one small skirmish in the bigger fight. The Justice Department obviously has a special counsel, Jack Smith, who is doing both the documents investigation and the one related to the effort to overturn the election, the January 6th investigation. And so those two investigations are full speed ahead.

We know that there are witnesses coming into the grand jury, Wolf. We know there's a lot of activity that has picked up since the end of the election. And so I think what we're looking at is, you know, certainly once the January 6th committee wraps up and they can turn over those documents, they're going to be going through those documents and seeing if there's additional grand jury testimony that they need and we're going to see a lot of activity, I expect, after Christmas, into the early part of the year to see whether or not the Justice Department has enough to bring charges and against whom.

WU: Yes, and it's going to be a real test, I think, for Jack Smith to show --

BLITZER: The special counsel.

WU: -- the special counsel, does he have this team in place, because they're really running two major investigations at the same time and we're going to see what they can really handle.

BLITZER: And, Shan, let's not forget, these aren't just classified documents, these are highly classified top secret documents that potentially include sources and all sorts of information that potentially could endanger U.S. national security if released publicly.

WU: Oh, absolutely, they're very sensitive documents. It's very dangerous, and it, again, calls into question what is DOJ's strategy here? Either you're really worried about these documents being on the loose, so you don't know who has custody of them or you're not.

BORGER: This is not about, you know, a letter, a love letter from North Korea, yes. This is not about that, and so it's clearly about something more. Jack Smith has a reputation of being a straight arrow and somebody who goes after something, like a dog with a bone. And he has said he's going to do it quickly. What that means, as the wheels of justice turn, Evan, I don't think we know.

PEREZ: Yes, no, that's exactly right. I mean, I think we do expect some -- they need to have quick some resolutions. I think everyone at the Justice Department understands that, you know, the elections are going to be coming up extremely quickly. You're going to start seeing activity certainly by March, April.

Everything tells us that while the Trump team, I think, believes that there's no reason to indict the former president, remember, there are still a lot of characters involved who the Justice Department has been investigating for months and months, people who were involved in the broader effort to impede the transition of power in 2020. Those are answers that the Justice Department also has to get to.

BLITZER: Yes, these are important issues, indeed. All right Guys, everybody stand by. Thank you very much.

Just ahead, Senator Kyrsten Sinema's exclusive interview with CNN about her decision to leave the Democratic Party and become an independent. We're going to unpack what it all means for the Democrats just days after their big win in the Georgia Senate runoff.



BLITZER: Tonight, Senator Kyrsten Sinema is insisting her decision to switch from Democrat to independent won't change how she does her job.

Let's get some more on Senator Sinema's exclusive interview right now with CNN and what her new status means for the state of play here in Washington.

CNN Congressional Correspondent, Jessica Dean, is joining us live from Capitol Hill. Jessica, a huge curveball from Senator Sinema today.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly was, Wolf. And this has been a big week for Senate Democrats, of course, getting that 51-seat majority on Tuesday, really celebrating. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is so excited to have that majority. And then today, this huge news.


DEAN (voice over): Friday brought a bombshell for Senate Democrats.

SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA (I-AZ): I've registered as an Arizona Independent.

DEAN: Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate who wielded enormous power in the evenly split Senate of the last two years, telling CNN's Jake Tapper she has left the Democratic Party and is now an independent.

SINEMA: I'm just not worried about folks who may not like this approach. What I am worried about is continuing to do what's right for my state.


DEAN: Following her announcement, Sinema talked with reporters at an Arizona food bank on Friday, saying she's not focused on re-election but on her constituents. Her term is up in 2024.

SINEMA: Today's announcement is a reflection of my values and I think the values of most Arizonans who are tired of a political system that pulls people to the edges and really doesn't reflect who we are as a people.

DEAN: Sinema gave the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer advanced warning of her announcement. On Friday, Schumer said in a statement Sinema will keep her committee assignments, adding, quote, I believe she's a good and effective senator and I'm looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate. We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.

Fellow Senate Democrats and the White House echoing that sentiment, saying Sinema's decision won't change much.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): If she were to say, no, I'm going over Republican, I am not voting with them anymore, that's a whole different thing. That is nowhere near what she said. And she has tended not to go to the caucus meeting, something she said, so I'm not telling something out of school, except for rare moments where she's advocating for something she cares about. And that's not going to change either.

DEAN: Practically, Democrats will maintain their Senate majority with three independents now. Plenty of Democrats have sharply criticized the move though. Arizona Representative Ruben Gallego, a potential challenger to Sinema, should she run again in 2024, blasted the move in a statement saying, quote, unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interest ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.


DEAN (on camera): And, again, when it comes to the day-to-day operations of the Senate moving forward in this next session, it's worth underscoring she's keeping those committee assignments. That means the Democrats are going to hold majorities in these committees and still be able to exercise a lot of that power, Wolf, that they were excited to get with that 51-seat majority.

The big questions that are going to begin to bubble up and crop up is what happens in 2024 when she's up for re-election. If she chooses to run again, will Democrats field a candidate against her? What does that look like? That's what we're going to keep our eye on the in the next several months. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, good point. Jessica, stay with us. I also want to bring in CNN's Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly and CNN Political Commentator Michael Smerconish, he's the host of CNN Smerconish.

Phil, the White House is downplaying this decision from Sinema, but behind the scenes, did this take some of the wind out of their sails after they just celebrated big time, the Democrats' two-seat margin, the majority they have in the Senate?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, there's no question it's been a whipsaw of a week based on what happened Tuesday versus what happened today. But one official I spoke to just a short while ago probably captured it best. We he said it could have been worse. And I think that's kind of how White House officials viewed it.

There's no question this was a surprise, there's no question this isn't something that they wanted to hear, and they did hear it directly from Sinema's team. They were informed before the decision was announced. However as, Jess, laid out so well, she is staying on committees at her request, Senator Chuck Schumer saying that would work. She has voted with the president 93 percent of the time over the last two years and there is a very strong view inside the White House that particularly on the issues they feel like they can make a lot of progress on in the next two years with that expanded majority, most notably on nominations, she has proven that she will be there when they need her.

They don't see any change to that at this point in time. However, I do think there's an undercurrent here that will become more apparent in the weeks ahead, and that's kind of the symbolism of a critical moderate in the Democratic caucus deciding to leave that caucus, what that means for the administration, what that means for Democrats heading into a presidential cycle, something they need to grapple with, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. Michael, Senator Sinema says she doesn't fit neatly into either political party's box. Is that something voters out there relate to?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Amen. I mean, there are so many who feel just as she feels. You know, Wolf, I've heard red watched a lot of cynicism today from folks who say, it's only about survival, it's a technique for her to evade a primary in two years and then secure re-election.

My glass is half full. I look at it differently. I think that Senator Sinema chooses to be one among the 35 percent of us who, according to Gallup, and that number has been higher but a plurality of Americans who say I'm not served by the Rs or the Ds, I'm an I. And the number is about the same in Arizona.

To the extent it is a survival technique, well, it says something very sad about close primaries and primaries in general. Look at Jeff Flake now, look at Kyrsten Sinema, the idea that there's no room for nuance and you've got to be far to the left or far to the right and you can't get nominated.

But that's not where most of the country is. Most of the country is somewhere between those polar extremes. So, to the extent she wants to give voice to those of us who are closer to the middle, I'm all for it.

BLITZER: Good point. Jessica, let's turn to the House of Representatives, where Kevin McCarthy's quest to become the next speaker of the house is becoming increasingly tense right now, as you well know.


What sort of concessions is McCarthy considering in order to secure the 218 votes he needs to become the speaker?

DEAN: Well, we know, Wolf, that he is meeting very privately and seriously with a lot of these conservatives who he needs to sway and make sure that he has on his side when this comes to a floor vote in January, when he tries to get to 218 votes. He can only -- he needs to get there. He only has four to spare, so it's not a lot. And he's had five come out and say that they will not vote for him. There's one that says he's a little bit gettable. So, maybe there's some wiggle room there. So, he does have a lot of work to do to get to that number.

And to that end, we know a couple of things. Number one, he has been talking to this group of conservatives about committee assignments on kind of high profile committees, committees like the Rules Committee, which sets the rule for how different legislation will come to the floor. That's pretty powerful. The other thing that they want to be able to drive the legislative process more.

So, it's about trying to negotiate with them and get them on board. The question is, Wolf, can he do that? Is there anything that's enough to get them on his side by January 3rd?

BLITZER: That's a good point. You know, Michael, if the House GOP can't even get on the same page about their leadership, what might this mean for their ability to get things done in the new Congress?

SMERCONISH: There's no doubt that they're trying to herd cats. I mean, it's a mathematical equation, right? He can afford to lose four and thus far it looks like he's going to lose five. If that's the situation, then he's either got to make a deal with the conservative members of the caucus or reach across the aisle and see if there's some room, some wiggle room for negotiation with the Ds.

But in terms of what can be accomplished, let's not forget that Democrats still maintain control of the Senate and the White House. So, there's nothing legislatively that I think is going to come out of the Republican Party. I do believe they'll seek to make life miserable for all things Biden.

BLITZER: Yes, you're probably right. Michael Smerconish, Jessica Dean, Phil Mattingly, guys thank you very, very much.

An important note to our viewers, be sure to watch Smerconish tomorrow morning at 9:00 A.M. Eastern only here on CNN.

Just ahead, we're going to have the latest on how basketball star Brittney Griner is doing now, now that she's back here in the United States and what she went through while being held captive in Russia. And we'll also get reaction to Brittney Griner's safe return from the WNBA Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: In Texas tonight, Brittney Griner is wrapping up her first full day of freedom after release from captivity in Russia. CNN's Rosa Flores has more on Griner's condition and the prisoner swap that allowed her to return to the United States.


NED PRICE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We are absolutely gratified that Brittney Griner is back on American soil.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Welcome news today on Griner's return. We can confirm Brittney Griner arrived at Joint Base San Antonio. Brittney Griner now in her home state after nearly ten months in a Russian prison, most recently serving her nine-year sentence in a Russian penal colony. President Joe Biden's National Security Council spokesperson saying she appears to be in good health.

JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: She was very incredibly gracious and kind and humble on the flight, very, very appreciative of the effort to get her home.

FLORES: Griner is now undergoing a medical evaluation before being reunited with her wife, Cherelle, and the rest of her family.

A senior Biden administration official saying the negotiations to bring Griner home were separate from any talks about Ukraine. The deal came together about one week ago after the U.S. offered to swap convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for both Griner and Paul Whelan.

Whelan was detained in Russia in 2018, convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison, a charged he denies. The Russians rejected that proposal.

KIRBY: It was either make this exchange, get one back, and the only one that they were willing to trade was Brittney.

FLORES: The inner workings of the prisoner swap were discussed only among a tight group of U.S. officials, weighing concerns that releasing the arms dealer could ramp up Russia's efforts to funnel weapons to Ukraine.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): It's made us weaker, it's Putin stronger and it's made Americans more vulnerable.

FLORES: Administration officials saying the president had to make a tough decision.

KIRBY: Nobody is doing back flips that Mr. Bout is back on the street here.

PRICE: These are not decisions that we take lightly. We study all the angles. We do all of the analysis. But at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to Americans.

FLORES: President Biden didn't sign the commutation papers for Bout until Griner was on the ground in Abu Dhabi, in sight of a U.S. delegation. Russian President Vladimir Putin saying the Russian federal security service took charge of the swap, adding there's a possibility for further negotiations, raising hopes that Paul Whelan could be the next American freed.

PRICE: We are committed to seeing to it that Paul Whelan will have the same fate.

FLORES: For now, Griner's family, friends and teammates say they are just happy to have her home.

VINCE KOZAR, PRESIDENT, PHOENIX MERCURY: We're incredibly gratified and thankful she's back.


FLORES (on camera): We are learning more about the conditions that Brittney Griner endured in prison. According to a Russian attorney, she says that Brittney Griner cut her hair about two weeks ago to make it easier on herself during the Russian winter and she also says that in this prison women sowed uniforms.


But Brittney Griner was too tall for the work tables, her hands were too big for the sewing machines. And so, Wolf, this attorney describes that what Brittney Griner's job was to carry fabric all day long. Wolf?

BLITZER: Rosa Flores reporting from San Antonio, thank you very, very much.

And joining us now, the WNBA commissioner, Cathy Engelbert. Commissioner, thank you so much, thanks for all that you're doing.

I know you and your league played a very pivotal role in keeping Brittney Griner's name and her story at the forefront over these last nearly ten months. Can you describe how it feels right now to know she is finally back safely on U.S. soil?

CATHY ENGELBERT, COMMISSIONER, WNBA: Yes. I'd say, Wolf, first, thanks for having me. Second, it's just joy, relief, a lot of relief, a very emotional day yesterday, and then gratitude to the Biden administration, as well as the State Department for the hard work that they did to get this done. And we know it took a lot of courage, we know that hard decisions were made and a lot of gratitude for the hard work of the men and women of the State Department and the administration.

BLITZER: Yes. We are all so happy she's finally back home. I understand, Commissioner, you've exchanged letters with Brittney Griner while she was detained in Russia. If you could tell her something right now, let's say she's watching, what would you say to her?

ENGELBERT: Britney, so many people were rooting for you, so many people were waiting for this moment to celebrate with you. But I would say, you know, rest, spend time with your family. That's a lot of lost time with your loved ones and it's great that you're coming home during the holiday season. And we all want to see her, but, again, we're going to give her time and space and get her medically evaluated, mentally, emotionally and physically.

BLITZER: Yes, that is so, so important.

As you know, Brittney Griner was in Russia playing in the offseason, as so many WNBA players do, to make additional money to help offset the enormous pay disparity between NBA and WNBA stars. You said you're working to try to create more opportunities for the women in your league right now. How exactly, Commissioner, are you going about that?

ENGELBERT: Yes. So, Wolf, just in the last couple of years, we're a fairly young league, 25 years old, just had our 26th season, and compared to the NBA, 75, in their 76th and baseball, football, hockey, over 100 years old.

So, we're working on an economic model to drive higher player pay and benefits. That's what we did when we came through the COVID-19 pandemic. We had a season kind of saved the ability for the league to now thrive. And now it's about bringing in corporate sponsors, getting the revenue model right, getting the valuation model for media rights corrected because for too long, women sports have been undervalued, underinvested in.

We have a lot of an enormous amount of momentum. We had our most (INAUDIBLE) season in 15-plus years last year. And so we've got a lot of -- and a lot of companies have a diversity, equity and inclusion platform. And as they look at their discretionary dollars supporting sports, less than 1 percent, Wolf, of all corporate sponsorship dollars goes to women's sports of the total sports. And the denominator there is huge. And so we're moving that a couple hundred basis points and we're working on a model.

But it is going to take, I call it a three to five-year business transformation, and we'll be able to pay the players more. We put up a half a million dollar price pool for a special season competition we introduced a couple of years ago. We're going to pay ten players not to go overseas and to stay here and pay them about $1.5 million in the offseason. So, we're chipping away as we start to grow and build real momentum as a legitimate sports media and entertainment property.

BLITZER: I know, Commissioner, you told CNN you are never going to say that your athletes can't play abroad. So, what advice do you have for players who are still considering going overseas to earn more money?

ENGELBERT: Yes. I think players will go overseas to earn more money. They also know the average tenure of a WNBA player is five years, so they don't have a lot of time in the league or to play, because their bodies don't hold up. They get hurt, whatever. So, that's why we're not going to preclude them from playing overseas.

But we want to give them more opportunities here. We're working on internship opportunities. We have players like Candace Parker and Chiney Ogwumike who have broadcast careers now. We have players who are doing a lot of different things. They're entrepreneurs. So, we're starting to chip away, finding opportunities to pay them more and also giving them offseason opportunities.

But I will say, as a former college athlete, players want to play. This is their craft. They are professional working women. They're the best at it in the world. And so for some of them, they're going to play. Some of them don't get a lot of playing time in the WNBA on a 12-player roster and they need to play and improve the make that roster the next year as the new crop of rookies come in from the NCAA ranks.

So, there's a lot to unpack there, I know, but we're never going to preclude them from making more money in leagues outside the U.S. during our offseason.


What we want is them to come and play at the highest level once they're back here at home.

BLITZER: Yes, very important. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, thanks so much for joining us, and once again, thanks for all you are doing.

ENGELBERT: Thank you, Wolf. It's a great day today. Thank you so much.

BLITZER: And just ahead, we'll get reaction from a top Senate Democrat to news that colleague Kyrsten Sinema is leaving the party to become an independent. We'll take a closer look at what it could mean for the next Congress.


BLITZER: Tonight, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema says she's leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent, raising questions right now about her political future and what it means potentially for the next Congress.


Let's discuss this and more with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, he's a key member of both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. Senator, thanks so much for joining us. How big of a blow is this to the Democratic Party when Democrats, as you know, already have a razor-thin majority in the Senate?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Well, Wolf, thanks for a chance to be on again. And let's focus on that, we just secured a 51-49 margin, and I don't think we should stop celebrating. I serve on the Judiciary Committee, and moving from a 50/50 Senate to 51-49 is going to make a big difference. We have already gotten 95 Biden nominees confirmed to be federal judges over the past two years. That's a remarkable record. That's more than any president since John F. Kennedy. And I believe Kyrsten Sinema voted for every single one of them.

So, yes, I was surprised she's going to leave the Democratic Party, but we should look at the remarkable accomplishments President Biden has had over the last two years, and Senator Sinema has played a key part in many of them. The infrastructure bill, she was at the center of negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Chips and Science Act, which is going to bring lots of high-skilled manufacturing back to the United States, there was just an announcement of a $40 billion investment to build a new state-of-the- art chips plant in Arizona. The prescription drug price cuts, the progress we're going to make in fighting climate change, the gun background check bill and the mental health investment bill, even the Respect for Marriage Act, which President Biden has just signed into law.

Senator Sinema may have left the Democratic caucus, but we are still going to be a 51-49 majority and she's still going to be serving on our committees and she will continue to support some of the most important parts of the Biden agenda.

BLITZER: Do you expect Senator Sinema will function like the two other independent senators, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, and continue to caucus with your party? Would you welcome that?

COONS: I would welcome that. And as I just said, over the last two years, she's played a critical role in getting some of the biggest accomplishments that the Biden administration moved forward. So, I think before we focus on the negative, we should recognize the positive, which is we've gotten a huge amount done in these last two years and Senator Sinema, a good colleague of mine, has contributed to a fair amount of it.

I understand the concerns a lot of my colleagues are raising, but I think they're premature. We should look at her record of accomplishment and contribution of the last two years and recognize that we have moved from having a 50-50 to a 51-49 margin. And for those of us who serve on the judiciary committee, that's a big deal. And the 95 judges we've gotten confirmed wouldn't have gotten confirmed without her help in the last two years.

Let me also get your thoughts on the release of Brittney Griner from Russia. You said that while this is good news clearly for Brittney Griner and her family, this actually increases the risk that more Americans will be wrongfully detained abroad. So, was it a mistake, Senator, for the Biden administration to agree to this prisoner swap?

COONS: Not at all. Let's recognize that President Biden earlier this year also secured the release of Trevor Reed, a former marine. While many have commented that they were disappointed that Paul Whelan was not also brought home, that wasn't the deal that was on the table. It was a one-for-one swap or nothing. And I think we should be celebrating the return of a great American athlete, an accomplished WNBA star in Brittney Griner, someone who is home with her family in the United States today.

We should focus on the fact that Vladimir Putin is responsible for wrongfully detaining, wrongfully arresting and convicting several Americans. And my comment was simply meant to convey that we should focus on the fact that it's Vladimir Putin who is the risk to Americans and that any American thinking of traveling to Russia should think twice.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Coons, thank you, as usual, for joining us.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the family of Paul Whelan welcomes the release of the WNBA star, Brittney Griner, from Russia, but fears for his future as he serves a 16-year sentence under the Putin regime. We'll talk to his brother, that's coming up next.



BLITZER: Tonight, with Brittney Griner's return to the United States, the Biden administration is sharpening its focus right now on the fate of Paul Whelan, an American who remains in Russian captivity.

Paul Whelan's brother, David, is joining us right now.

David, thank you so much for joining us. First of all, I want to commend you and your family's strength during this time.

Here's what the Biden administration is saying today about their efforts to bring home your brother. Listen to this.


NED PRICE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We send a very simple message to Paul Whelan when we talked to him over the past couple days, keep the faith, don't lose hope. We're coming for you.

It's not often I can say that we actually agree with something President Putin said, but today I can say that because President Putin himself has said that these discussions will continue.


BLITZER: So, what's your reaction, Dave, to that optimistic tone that we're hearing, and has the Biden administration reached out since they told your family the news that Griner would be coming home but he would not be coming with her.


DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF PAUL WHELAN: Yes. Members of the administration have spoken to our family members. And it's been very great to have them do that. I think particularly to have -- to know -- and I didn't know until you just played that clip -- that the White House had communicated that sense of exuberance, shall we say, to Paul. Because I think it's going to be hard, I think, for Paul probably the

last couple of days have been pretty devastating. And how do you survive in the future. But I think that message will resonate.

BLITZER: Let's hope. During these talks, as you know, the Kremlin refused various U.S. offers of other Russian prisoners. You now say Russia may wait until the U.S. captures one of its spies to make a trade for Paul. Has the U.S. run out of options, do you believe, for a possible trade now?

WHELAN: No. And that's my speculation. I think what we have learned over the last four years -- and this is just a law librarian who watches Russian news saying this -- Russia likes parity. They like getting equal things. And it's both when you hit them they want to hit you back, and when you give them something, they want to give you the same thing only.

So it's a very careful and parsimonious view of the world. They have labeled Paul as a spy. I think it now may be that they are waiting to get a spy back and waiting for a Russian spy to be arrested somewhere else in the world, and then use Paul for that purpose.

So, it may be that that's what we're waiting for. But I think the U.S. government has shown that it has been creative and will be creative going forward.

BLITZER: Let's hope it is.

CNN had a chance to speak to your brother Paul yesterday. And he expressed fear that he may never see your parents or his dog again. How are you and your family holding up during such a very, very difficult time?

WHELAN: Well, as you say, it's very difficult. It is hard to keep your own morale up. You want to support Paul and keep his morale up. But you know that really each day is the clock ticking away. My parents are now in their mid-80s.

We hope that they will be as long lived as other members of our family. If Paul actually has the worst-case scenario of spending the next 12 years in the labor colony, I think the chance that he will see his parents again is very slim. I don't think that any parent should be put in that position to not see their son.

BLITZER: Well, we all hope he comes home very, very soon.

Brittney Griner is now going through the emotional process of coming home. But when the moment is right, David, is your family planning to connect with her and her family?

WHELAN: Well, my sister, I think she would be open to having those sorts of interactions and to share any information we can and to know that Brittney is back home and healthy and whole and recovering. I've already sort of envisioned her riding around on her ATVs. And I hope that that day comes really quickly and that she is able to get back to enjoying life, probably. BLITZER: We all hope so. David Whelan, thank you very, very much.

Good luck to you and the family.

Just ahead, a horrific execution in Iran as punishment for protesting the regime and the fears of who may be next.



BLITZER: We're following a chilling escalation in Iran's crackdown on anti-regime demonstrations. A protester has been executed in the first known death penalty carried out by Tehran.

CNN's Melissa Bell is following all these developments for us.

Melissa, what more are you learning about this execution?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, before we go any further, I'd love you to listen to this. This was the moment when the relatives of Mohsen Shekari learned that he'd been hanged in the early hours of Thursday morning. Have a listen.




BELL: That sound is the point. Mohsen Shekari we're hearing from activists, the function outside of Iran, wasn't one of the terribly known head figures at the helm of this movement that has now lasted for nearly three months since the death of Mahsa Amini. And that is why they say he was chosen. He was 23 years old. He was someone who'd gone out to fight for human rights on the streets of Tehran. He was taken in by police and 75 days after his arrest was hanged.

The fear, Wolf, is that he will be the first of many more to come.

BLITZER: Is Iran signaling, Melissa, that this is just the start of executions meant to try to silence all the protesters?

BELL: That is the feeling that we're talking about the Iranian regime that, of course, has the power to carry out these executions and that this is only just the start. We've been hearing from the head of Iran's parliamentary judiciary committee saying this was the first execution to bring the rioters, as the Iranian regime describes them, to justice. Everyone needs to pay attention, essentially.

The Iranian people need to listen to what's happened and be careful over the coming days. Of course what you're talking about is a balance of power. The Iranian regime that is showing that with the beginning of this series of judicial killings, it can put the fear of god into the protesters.

Bear in mind that we're talking about a regime that has in its hands 11 more people that have been sentenced to death since those protests began under Iran's draconian laws. There are many tens of thousands that are now in Iranian detention. And that is the message that's being sent to the protesters, you need to back down now before this spate of killings continue.

Of course, they have no way of preventing it. They have no way of knowing it. It has now been nearly three months. Next Friday will be the third month anniversary of the killing of Mahsa Amini. And there is no sign for the time being of these protests ending, Wolf.

BLITZER: Melissa Bell, thank you very, very much.

Finally tonight, the human toll of Russia's was are on Ukraine now overwhelming Pope Francis with emotion. The pope breaking down in tears during a prayer service in Rome while talking about the suffering of the Ukrainian people, the pontiff praying for peace in Ukraine as so many people are doing around the world.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.