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Five Americans Freed By Iran In Deal With U.S. Are Flying Home; Zelenskyy In U.S. For Critical Talks At U.N. And In Washington; New Bid To Derail Georgia As Trump Takes Credit For Election Lies; United Auto Workers Strike Enters Fourth Day. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired September 18, 2023 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, a flight to freedom as five Americans released by Iran are now on their way home to the United States. We'll discuss the terms of the deal that ended their wrongful imprisonment with the top national security adviser to President Biden, Jonathan Finer.
Also tonight, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is now in the United States for critical meetings over at the United Nations and here in Washington. We'll preview his plea for more global support as Ukraine's counteroffensive against Russia drags on.
And another Trump co-defendant attempts to move the Georgia election interference case to federal court, this as the former president is taking credit for efforts to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election, declaring it was his decision.
Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.
We begin this hour with the release of five Americans wrongfully imprisoned in Iran and the deal that made it possible.
CNN's Becky Anderson is covering it all for us. She's joining us now live from Doha, Qatar. Becky, you were on the scene as the freed Americans landed in Doha before heading to the United States. Give us the latest on their journey to freedom.
BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Yes, this has been deal more than 18 months in the making, involving U.S. partners South Korea, Switzerland, Oman and very specifically Qatar here where I am, which has been very much involved in as much as eight rounds of negotiations to get to this point today, putting an end to what has been a years- long nightmare for these five detainees in Iran who arrived at the airport behind me at late afternoon local time here partway through their journey back to the United States. They are on that last leg and homeward bound as we speak.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ANDERSON (voice over): Smiles, hugs and tears as five Americans detained inside Iran for years are finally freed and on their way home. Among them, Siamak Namazi. He was arrested in 2015 while on a business trip to Iran and charged with having relations with a hostile state.
After nearly eight years in prison, Namazi was Iran's longest-held American prisoner. Feeling abandoned by the U.S., earlier this year, he appealed directly to President Biden in an unprecedented interview with CNN from inside the notorious Evin Prison.
SIAMAK NAMAZI, EVIN PRISON, IRAN: Honestly, the other hostages and I desperately need President Biden to finally hear us out, to finally hear our cry for help and bring us home.
ANDERSON: Also freed, dual Iranian-American citizens Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi. Tahbaz, an environmentalist, was arrested while on a trip to Iran in 2018. Shargi, a businessman who moved with his wife to Iran from the U.S. in 2017, was also detained in 2018 on similar charges to that of Namazi.
For years, their fate tied to tensions between the two countries. But with the help of a common friend in Qatar, breakthrough diplomacy brought us to this very moment.
Iran freed the dual citizens in a deal to release five Iranians held in U.S. prisons and to unblock $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds from South Korea. That cash moving from Seoul to Switzerland before being transferred to Doha after the Biden administration last week issued a sanctions waiver clearing the way for the money to move.
The role of Qatar now changing from mediator to guarantor, ensuring Washington's demands that Iran's billions are strictly controlled and spent only on humanitarian goods, like food and medicine.
But critics worry even with Doha's oversight, the monies could be spent, however, Tehran decides.
There's also concern this latest deal enables what many critics have dubbed Tehran's hostage diplomacy. But for the freed Americans, today at least, politics will likely be a secondary concern as they finally get to go home after years of mental and physical anguish.
ANDERSON (on camera): And those detainees should be on the ground in Washington at a military airport by just before 5:00 in the morning. The Biden administration says their attitude towards Iran has not changed on the back of this. They remain an adversary and are considered a state sponsor of terror. Wolf?
BLITZER: Becky Anderson reporting live from Doha, Qatar, thank you very much. Jonathan Finer, he's the principal deputy national security adviser over at the White House, he's now at the United Nations, where President Biden addresses the General Assembly tomorrow. John, thanks so much for joining us.
How are these five Americans and their families doing right now? What updates can you give us, first of all, on their condition?
JONATHAN FINER, PRINCIPAL DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, Wolf, what I can say, respectful of their privacy, is that we're very glad that they are en route back home and will be reunited with their families very shortly. The president had the opportunity to speak with their families earlier today to express how happy he was about their ability to reunite with their loved ones.
And the truth is, that's what today is all about. As you know, they have been held for varying durations, some for many years, some for a shorter amount of time. But the most important thing is that they will be offered a number of services to help them re-acclimate to regular life and they will be returned to their families in short order.
BLITZER: We're so happy they're on their way back to the United States to be reunited with their families right now.
As you know, Jon, the Biden administration has insisted that this negotiation to get their release is separate from nuclear talks with Iran. But are you concerned these funds that are now being freed up could bolster Iran's nuclear program?
FINER: Wolf, as you say, this is an entirely separate conversation with the Iranians from anything related to national security issues, like Iran's nuclear program. This was about the merits of bringing five Americans back home and into their loved ones.
And as for the funds that are involved, as you know, they will be moving from one restricted account in South Korea to another restricted account in Qatar. And the Iranians will only be allowed to use those funds for authorized purposes, including things like food and medicine and agricultural products and medical devices. And that will be very closely monitored. And if there is any deviation from those accepted uses, the funds can be refrozen.
And we expect, frankly, that these funds will only be spent on the nuclear program spent over a long period of time, probably measured in years. So, we feel very comfortable that the funds will be used for the purpose for which they're intended.
BLITZER: But, Jon, even with all this U.S. oversight, once these funds are accessed by Iran, how can the U.S. actually guarantee that they'll only be used for these humanitarian purposes?
FINER: So, I think the keyword that you just used, Wolf, is accessed. These funds are not actually going to be returned to Iran, even though these are actually Iranian funds that were in the South Korean account. They never actually go back into Iran. They will be transferred to Iranian accounts in Qatar. And then each transaction from Qatar can be monitored. So, as the Iranians use them to purchase things like, as I said, food, medicine, medical devices, agricultural products, we can monitor them transaction by transaction and make sure that there is no deviation.
As you know, we have extraordinary reach in terms of our visibility, in terms of our intelligence, in terms of our ability to monitor the financial system. That's how we have identified illicit Iranian transactions in the past that resulted in sanctions, extensive sanctions, by the way, 400 sanctions designations in this administration alone. So, we feel comfortable with our ability to monitor and make sure that these funds are used the way that they are supposed to be.
BLITZER: And the U.S. announced new additional sanctions targeting Iran today. But beyond that, Jon, what more can be done to stop adversaries from detaining American citizens for political gain?
FINER: Well, Wolf, I would direct you to a couple of lines in the president's statement today and to some language that the State Department has used in particular about the travel of American citizens to Iran. We strongly discourage Americans from doing that for any reason. And we know the number of Americans do travel to Iran, including some dual nationals, some people who are citizens of both Iran and the United States.
The problem is that Iran will treat Americans potentially as an opportunity and treat Iranian-Americans as subject to Iranian laws in ways that can compromise their safety and security.
So, the president has been very firm, very clear, as has Secretary of State Tony Blinken, that Americans should not travel to Iran and that we cannot guarantee their safety certainly while they're in Iran or that if they fall victim to one of these same situations that led to these five Americans being held that we will be able to necessarily secure their release. So, we've been quite clear and firm about that, and we urge people to follow that advice.
You're just basically telling Americans, American citizens, whether they're dual citizens or not, don't go to Iran right now and some other countries as well.
What message does this send that this deal is falling around the anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police?
FINER: Well, look, Wolf, you know as well as I do, this is an Iranian government that does not respect human rights, whether they are the human rights of Americans who happen to be traveling in Iran or the human rights of Iran's own citizens. The United States has been quite firm in response to the crackdown that has taken place against Iranian demonstrators. We've done a number of sanctions, designations in response to that situation, including some quite recently around this anniversary. And the question really should go back to the Iranian government. They should not undertake these sorts of activities against their people, against citizens of foreign countries. So, it's not just the United States, who they have detained, who they have imprisoned, and in some cases who they continue to imprison, which is why we've been so firm in urging people not to travel there.
BLITZER: Jonathan Finer, the White House principal deputy national security adviser, thanks so much for joining us.
FINER: Thanks very much for having me.
BLITZER: And just ahead, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has just arrived in the United States ahead of crucial meetings here in Washington as well as over at the United Nations.
BLITZER: A federal judge says he'll decide soon on Jeffrey Clark's bid to move his Georgia criminal case to federal court. Clark is a former senior Trump Justice Department official and one of the ex-president's 18 co-defendants Indicted for allegedly trying to subvert the state's 2020 presidential election results.
CNN's Sara Murray is following the proceedings for us. She's joining us right now. Did the judge seem inclined, Sara, based on what you saw and heard to actually go ahead and move this case?
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he seemed pretty skeptical of the arguments from Jeff Clark's team, which again had to make the case that everything Clark was doing was related to his role as a Justice Department official at the time. You know, he challenged Clark's attorney on why Clark was still circulating these claims of election fraud that his bosses had said were bogus in these draft memos to Georgia officials.
It may have also, frankly, hurt Clark that he didn't show up in person for this hearing. He submitted a sworn statement that the judge refused to accept into evidence because, of course, prosecutors can't cross a sworn statement, so that came up.
Look, this is interesting to see what happens for Jeff Clark, but it's also interesting because we want to know what's going to happen to Donald Trump in this case. And Trump's attorneys have signaled that it's possible they will try to move his case to federal court as well.
They haven't done that yet, but we know that they've been watching this closely. They were in the courtroom again today. At one point, our team that was in the courtroom even overheard one of Trump's attorneys seeming to opine that things were not going well for Jeffrey Clark.
So, it's clear they want to learn what they can and then from the Trump co-defendants before they make their own move to try to move to federal court, if they do that. So, we'll see if Clark prevails and we'll see what happens with Trump.
BLITZER: The process continues. Sara, thank you very much for that report.
For more right now, I'm joined by our Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig and CNN Senior Law Enforcement Analyst Andrew McCabe.
Elie, Donald Trump gave an interview to NBC News yesterday where he was very revealing about the decision to falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen. Watch this and listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Were you listening to your lawyer's advice or were you listening to your own instincts?
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I was listening to different people, and when I added it all up, the election was rigged.
WELKER: Were you calling the shots though, Mr. President, ultimately?
TRUMP: As to whether or not I believed it was rigged, oh, sure. It was my decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, is this a statement from Trump something that potentially could be very useful to prosecutors?
ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure, Wolf. I think Donald Trump makes some fundamental concessions here, the prosecutors are going to be very interested in. In that clip, he acknowledges, first of all, that it was his decision to move forward with this, and, second of all, that his intent was actually to overturn the results of the election.
Now, the rest of this is sort of consistent with what we expect to see in terms of Donald Trump's defense. He says, look, I was getting certain piece of advice from some advisers, contradictory advice from other advisers. Ultimately, I relied on my gut. But every time Donald Trump speaks in public, that's fair game for prosecutors. I guarantee you they're watching and taking notes.
BLITZER: I suspect you're absolutely right. Andrew, do you see this as potentially an admission from Trump?
ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I don't know if it's an admission of any specific illegal act but it certainly goes to his acceptance of responsibility for making the decisions that ultimately led to this effort to try to overturn the election. It's also kind of consistent with the defense that we've heard his team float in the past which is basically the, I meant well defense, I really believed it and therefore I was doing all these things under pursuant to my genuine belief that the election had been stolen. However, we know that that's not actually a legal defense if you commit violations of criminal law with the best intention, there're still violations of criminal law. So, all he had to intend that mental state that the prosecutors have to prove is that he intended to do these acts. And I think this statement certainly adds to that argument.
BLITZER: Yes, I suspect you're right as well. Elie, Mark Meadows, who was Trump's White House chief of staff, already lost his attempt to move his case to federal court.
Given that, does Jeffrey Clark have a realistic chance of getting his case moved from state to federal court?
HONIG: Well, Wolf, I think Jeffrey Clark has an extraordinarily weak and problematic argument here. Essentially, Jeffrey Clark has to prove that he was acting within his scope as a senior DOJ official. But the job of any DOJ official is to investigate in good faith, find facts and act accordingly.
What Jeffrey Clark did is the opposite of that. He drafted a letter that he wanted DOJ to send out to various states saying, we found evidence of substantial fraud. That is a complete fabrication by Jeffrey Clark. So, if indeed he was acting within his scope when he made up those facts and tried to get states to act on it, then that's a very dark day for DOJ, and heaven help us all, and I think Jeffrey Clark is going to lose this motion.
BLITZER: In a related development, Andrew, the judge in the federal election subversion case is weighing, placing a limited gag order on Trump. Trump posted in response, and I'm quoting him now, I'm campaigning for president against an incompetent person who has weaponized the Department of Justice and FBI to go after his political opponent and I am not allowed to comment? They leak, lie, and sue, and they won't allow me to speak.
Andrew, how does the judge weigh these competing concerns?
MCCABE: Well, I've often said that Donald Trump is a guy who never met a line that he didn't cross. And here, we have yet another example of Trump's public statements basically doing exactly what the prosecutors were complaining about in their motion requesting that limited gag order, as it's been referred to.
So, I really think that he's pushing the resolution of this motion in a very dangerous direction for him. I think it's likely that the judge is going to impose some restrictions on his public speech and then he'll run right past that once again.
BLITZER: Andrew McCabe and Elie Honig, gentlemen, thank you very much.
Coming up, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits Ukrainian soldiers being treated at a New York hospital. Where else he is heading during his visit to the United States, we have new information.
Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.
BLITZER: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has just arrived here in the United States taking some time ahead of critical meetings this week to meet with Ukrainian soldiers at a hospital in New York City.
For more on the story, I'm joined now by CNN Military Analyst, retired General Wesley Clark and CNN Contributor Jill Dougherty.
General Clark, how urgent is Zelenskyy's trip right now as winter conditions are about to make Ukraine's counteroffensive even more grueling?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think it's a very important trip. It's very timely. He's in New York. He's got a lot of role leaders here. He's got a strong case to present. And I think he's going to have a chance to see President Biden as well. So, yes, this is a very important, very timely visit, and Ukraine urgently needs more military assistance as well as other things.
BLITZER: Yes, you're absolutely right. Jill, what do you think Putin will be watching for as Zelenskyy appeals for more funding and weapons?
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, RUSSIAN AFFAIRS: Well, I mean, Zelenskyy really has a task ahead of him because he has to ask for more and he had both weapons and support. And then he also has to show that he is not -- that he is cracking down on corruption. And that is a really crucial, crucial message, but it's a difficult one to deliver, as you can imagine.
So, I think it's significant that we've just learned that six deputy defense ministers have been removed from their positions, and that is in line with this anti-corruption drive.
And then I also think, if you watch what Zelenskyy has been saying, he's saying now that Ukraine has a moral right, as you've heard it, to strike back at Russia. And that could mean more drone attacks on Russia.
BLITZER: Yes, that's important, indeed. General Clark, how significant is this shakeup that's going on in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry?
WESLEY: Well, I think it is very significant because it shows a very serious intent on the part of President Zelenskyy to eliminate corruption. There have been many, many rumors about corruption at all different angles and stories of money put out, stuff not delivered, stuff delivered, excess price, stuff not delivered at all. It's just a lot of problems there. And, you know, Wolf, they're now in a much different situation than they were when he formed that defense ministry when he became president. So, this is war. There's a lot of talent in Ukraine. He needs to put that talent to work here on this very important issue in his ministry of defense.
BLITZER: It's interesting, Jill, that Kim Jong-un of North Korea just left his extended visit to Russia with parting gifts from the Russians of body armor and drones. What was behind Putin's red carpet treatment of Kim?
DOUGHERTY: Well, interestingly, they're not saying that they had any deal at all, which is quite surprising because, of course, the United States and other countries in the west believe that, indeed, Kim was there to provide ammunition for Putin and, you know, Putin gives other things to North Korea that they need extremely good technology, let's put it that way.
But I think what's notable for me, Wolf, was the press covered in Russia on this.
And I think what they were trying to do, state media, was kind of troll the west and say, oh, look, oh, no, Kim Jong-un, who's very unpredictable, who has missiles, is now in Russia. They gave it a lot of coverage, and a lot of it was this kind of snarky America and the west are scared of Russia and North Korea.
BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, Wesley Clark, to both of you, thank you very much.
This note to our viewers, it's important, be sure to join me tomorrow for my sit-down interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, fresh off his speech over at the United Nations General Assembly. That's tomorrow, 6:00 P.M. Eastern, right here in The Situation Room.
Now to the infamous Wagner Mercenary Group, there have been many questions since the Wagner chief's fiery death, including if the group would be able to continue without him.
CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward traced Yevgeny Prigozhin's steps to find out. Clarissa, what can you tell us about your reporting?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Wolf, there has been a lot of speculation as to what will happen to the empire that Prigozhin built in Africa. The Central African Republic, is very much at the center of that.
And I should add, this isn't just about mercenaries or manpower. This is a very lucrative commercial enterprise, which comprises diamonds, gold, timber, even alcohol. And what's fascinating is that the nerve center for that commercial enterprise is somewhere you probably wouldn't expect.
We actually visited, it's a cultural center in the capital in Bangui. Take a look.
WARD (voice over): This is one of the last places that Prigozhin was seen alive during his final tour across Africa. It's called the Russian Cultural Center. Only it has no connection to Russia's official cultural agency and was run until recently by Prigozhin's closest associate here. Photographs taken on that visit show a new face, a woman known as Nafisa Kiryanova.
After days of asking for permission to visit, we decide to film covertly.
So, but you were here then when Yevgeny Prigozhin, when he was here, in the photographs? There's the photographs of you with Prigozhin together.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God, can you show me that?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, yes. I think it was just over in that corner.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here you are.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Okay, that's good.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this is Mr. Prigozhin, no?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How was he?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know.
WARD: Do you think he knew they were going to kill him?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My gosh, what is the question there? Who knows such things?
WARD: What does it mean for your work here? Does it change anything?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does it change anything if, I don't know, the president of the country dies? Does it mean that country stops to exist?
WARD: She shows us one of their daily Russian classes. As we step back outside, we see a Wagner fighter.
Hi. How are you?
You can just make him out retreating to the back of the center, where, according to the investigative group, The Sentry, Wagner sells its gold and diamonds to VIPs and manages its timber and alcohol operations.
WARD: Who is that?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A personnel.
WARD: A person?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE).
WARD: Can we see what's there? That's weird.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Actually, well, what are you going to see there?
WARD: Like most of Wagner's activities here, it's clear there is still so much that is hidden from view. We've pushed the visit far enough. It's time to go.
WARD (on camera): Now, Wolf, we understand that the mercenaries have now signed contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense, but there is still a question mark as to who will take over all those various commercial enterprises and how they will continue to be run without the leadership of the Yevgeny Prigozhin.
But on the ground, when you talk quietly to Wagner fighters, they will tell you the mission doesn't change. They work for Russia and they will continue to serve Russia, Wolf.
BLITZER: Excellent reporting, Clarissa. Thank you very much.
And to our viewers, you can see Clarissa's full report later tonight on Anderson Cooper 360 at 8:00 P.M. Eastern.
Just ahead, brutal Republican infighting could be putting Kevin McCarthy's speakership in jeopardy as the House GOP barrels towards a government shutdown.
BLITZER: Tonight, the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is desperately trying to wrangle his unruly Republican majority as the clock ticks toward a government shutdown. But nasty, very public infighting inside the House GOP could be putting his entire speakership in jeopardy right now.
CNN's Melanie Zanona is joining us from Capitol Hill. She's got details. Melanie, give us the latest on this rather bitter feud playing out right now.
MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, the tensions have been simmering since last week when Kevin McCarthy during a closed door meeting used the F word in response to some of his critics' threats to try to oust him. But now, it really feels like the House GOP is in open warfare. Congresswoman Victoria Spartz was the latest to jump into the fray. She put out a statement today saying Kevin McCarthy is a weak speaker and that they need leadership that's going to fight for the country and not just fight for power in a picture on a wall. And then McCarthy, in response, told reporters that she is the one who is essentially giving up the fight because she has decided to not seek re-election.
But a lot of this drama has really centered on the House GOP plan to fund the government.
And a number of conservatives who helped broker that deal are now openly pushing back on some of their colleagues who plan to oppose that proposal. Congresswoman Byron Donalds is one of them. He went on social media and said Marjorie Taylor Greene is wrong and Matt Gaetz needs more than just tweets and hot takes to solve this plan.
And then there's Congressman Dave Joyce, who Matt Gaetz also recently attacked on Twitter. He told us moments ago that all Matt Gaetz has done in his congressional career is run his mouth.
So, this messy infighting really just shows the challenge that Kevin McCarthy is facing as he tries to fund the government, save his speakership and control his increasingly unruly conference, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Melanie Zanona up on Capitol Hill with the latest, thank you very, very much.
Let's get some analysis right now from our political experts who are joining us. And, Ron Brownstein, let me start with you. This infighting among House Republicans right now is growing increasingly nasty. What's your thought? It's nasty not to mention a bill that has little of any chance of passing the Senate.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, they're fighting, you know, hammer and tongue over a bill that would be instantly dead as soon as it passed the House. I'm just thinking that Kevin McCarthy may have, you know, kind of new empathy for John Boehner and Paul Ryan, each of whom were ultimately consumed by these same dynamics, their speakership. There is a portion of the Republican conference in the House that simply has to be seen as saying no to whatever the option is.
And I have felt from the moment that McCarthy was able to, in fact, cobble together a deal on avoiding default on the debt, which was the more consequential moment, that it was almost inevitable that he would have to shut down the government later in order to satisfy those voices in the caucus, in the conference, who feel they have to be seen as using any tool available to fight the left.
BLITZER: You know, Alice, let me -- we're just getting this statement in and I want to get your thoughts of the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who's running for the Republican presidential nomination. He reacted to Trump's latest statements on abortion saying this, telling a radio station in Iowa. I think all pro-lifers should know he, referring to Trump, he's preparing to sell you out. The governor issued this blistering reaction to Trump's statements. He's changing in a way that is not consistent with the values of the people in Iowa. What's your reaction to that?
ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Bravo for Governor DeSantis, because that is what many pro-life Republicans feel. That's what those that really supported Donald Trump in 2016. That's the way they feel.
To refresh everyone's memory, over the weekend, the president said that we really need to tweak the message on abortion. Donald Trump right now is running a general election campaign. The problem is he has to win the primary first. And what got him into office in large part in winning the 2016 campaign was his commitment to being the most pro-life Republican out there.
And he's banking on the fact that he got three conservative justices on the Supreme Court, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, as well as Amy Coney Barrett. And he's thinking that's going to continue to win over these pro-life Republicans.
I've spoken with the pro-life community in Iowa, Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader. They're saying, you can't play let's make a deal on the pro-life issue. And there's a national group, the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, they are fed up. They want Donald Trump to retract his statement and want him to get out of the way of states that are making pro-life legislation. Let them do that because that was the whole sole focus of what we fight.
BLITZER: Karen, I want to get your thoughts, but let me play the clip. Here's Trump, what he had to say on NBC News, on Meet the Press yesterday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: DeSantis is willing to sign a five-week and six-week ban.
WELKER: Would you support that? Do you think that goes too far?
TRUMP: I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.
Other than certain parts of the country, you can't -- you're not going to win on this issue. But you will win on this issue when you come up with the right number of weeks.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, ironically DeSantis' statement is actually helping Trump because it is not acknowledging that Trump was lying through his teeth right there. Just weeks ago, he was out there touting the fact that he put on the court the three justices who took out Roe v. Wade, that he was responsible for killing Roe v. Wade and that he's the reason that you're getting these six-week bans. What Trump is doing is very dangerous, and we have to all be very
careful not to get manipulated by it, because I surely saw it up front and in person in 2016. He has a record now. He was president for four years. If he was going to try to do some kind of deal, okay, why didn't you? There was a bill actually in the Congress during his tenure, the Women's Health Protection Act. He could have said, let's pass that and protect Roe v. Wade. Let's find a compromise. He didn't.
He's now trying to have it both ways. This is how he manipulates the media, the social media as well, to try to get people to hear what they want to hear so that nobody is really quite sure where he is, but we do know where he is.
BROWNSTEIN: I really feel like a lot of the coverage is mischaracterizing what Trump is saying, because even in that clip, he is saying, you are going to come up with a number of weeks.
In fact, another quote in that interview, you're going to come up with a number of weeks or months. He will sign a national ban on abortion.
FINNEY: Of course, he will.
BROWNSTEIN: It is not whether, it is how many weeks. And so when people say he is waffling on whether there should be a national ban on abortion, both in the "Meet the Press" interview and in the CNN town hall in New Hampshire, I think he made very clear that he would sign a national ban, and the only issue, at what point there would be a cutoff.
In fact, in the CNN town hall, he said it was any ending Roe v. Wade after 50 years that gave the pro-life community the leverage to achieve the best possible deal.
So there should be no confusion about this. I mean, certainly, he's going -- he's criticizing DeSantis in the context of a Republican primary. In a general election, he is still very clearly on the side of a national ban on abortion. The only issue is how many weeks.
FINNEY: I think you're going to see him do this on a number of issues because he now recognizes that the country is in a different place on abortion, so he needs to try to have it both ways, I think we've got to hold his feet to the fire and hold him accountable for his actual record.
BLITZER: All right. Guys, thank you very much.
He did say he wants to bring both sides on the abortion issue together and negotiate some sort of deal. We'll see if that happens.
BLITZER: All right. Coming up, how President Biden is following in the foot steps of past U.S. commanders in chief by striking a deal to bring wrongfully imprisoned Americans home.
Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: Tonight, as five American citizens freed by Iran are heading back to the United States, the White House is defending the deal that led to their release.
CNN's Brian Todd has more on that.
Brian, presidents of both parties have struck deals to bring Americans home in the past. Tell us about that.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Presidents in both parties have done it, Wolf. And presidents going back at least as far as the early '60s have made those deals. Tonight, we take a deeper dive into some of those prisoner releases and how they were viewed at the time.
TODD (voice-over): Donald Trump today pounced on President Biden for the deal that brings five American detainees home from Iran. Trump posting on Truth Social that, quote, once you pay, you always pay, and many more hostages will be taken, calling Biden dumb as a rock for making a deal.
But many of America's biggest hostage deals of the past have also been the most controversial, and they've been done by Democratic and Republican presidents.
KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Whichever administration does a hostage swap gets Americans back home, it's a win. So you can expect the other side to attack the deal. The fact that the matter is if you want to get Americans back, you're going to have to give something.
TODD: As president, Trump himself engineered releases in 2018, bringing three Americans home from North Korea, which seemed to some observers like a quid pro quo for a summit with dictator Kim Jong Un.
One of the most controversial deals was the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, brokered by the Obama administration in 2014. Bergdahl had been held in Afghanistan for about five years after vanishing from his post and was considered by some to be a deserter.
Trump later criticized that deal in an interview with Wolf Blitzer.
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: We're tired of the Sergeant Bergdahl deals where we get a traitor and they get five of their killers that they've wanted for years.
TODD: In exchange for Bergdahl, the Obama administration did trade five Taliban figures who had been held at Guantanamo Bay.
DANIELLE GILBERT, EXPERT ON HOSTAGE POLICY, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY: Those officials then went on to become the chief negotiators for the Taliban in negotiating the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. These deals go back several decades.
TODD: In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan's administration became enmeshed in its biggest scandal which began when it secretly traded arms to Iran in order to free American hostages held in Lebanon by the terrorist group Hezbollah.
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT: What began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated in its implementation into trading arms for hostages.
TODD: And the 52 American hostages seized from the U.S. embassy in Tehran were released after more than a year on the last day of the Carter presidency under a deal that unfroze almost $8 billion in Iranian assets.
A more recent but no less controversial deal was the trade last year involving American basketball star Brittney Griner who was arrested in Russia on drug charges. The man who the Biden administration traded for her, Viktor Bout, nicknamed the merchant of death, a notorious Russian arms dealer, who conspired to kill Americans.
GILBERT: There was a lot of concern that releasing someone like that was completely disproportionate to release someone like that in exchange for an American basketball player on a trumped up drug charge.
TODD (on camera): A senior Biden administration official acknowledged that these are some of the most difficult decisions a president makes. But the officials said they thought this deal with Iran does stand up. The official said, quote, when you look at the full contours of the deal compared with the alternative, the alternative is these Americans never come home -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian Todd, excellent report. Thank you very much.
Still ahead, the auto workers strike is now in its fourth day amid widespread concerns about how long it might last and the impact it might have on the economy.
BLITZER: The auto workers strike here in the United States is now entered its fourth day, but another strike this one in Canada is set to begin at midnight amid concerns of a prolonged work stoppage and an economic downturn.
CNN's Gabe Cohen is covering the story for us and joining us live from Toledo, Ohio.
Gabe, how far apart are the negotiations, and are the stakes about to get even higher? GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, (INAUDIBLE) indication that the
sides are getting closer. We know that United Auto Workers Union met with Stellantis today where I'm standing outside of with the company saying in a statement this afternoon, quote, the discussion was constructive and focused on where we can find common ground to reach an agreement.
(INAUDIBLE) roughly 20 percent raises that the Big Three automakers have offered, versus the 40 percent that the union has demanded, plus that long list of benefits. And so there certainly is this gap between them.
As you mentioned (INAUDIBLE) with the Big Three with more than 5,000 workers in Canada. Ford workers set to go on strike at midnight if their union can't reach a contract agreement with the company. It's becoming more likely by the hour, Wolf. And that will create even more disruptions.
We know more than 2,000 Ford and General Motors workers are set to be laid off because their facilities can't operate as long as these three are on strike. So, again, it's creating a lot of problems in the auto manufacturing industry across North America.
BLITZER: Certainly is. Those workers who are on strike, they're obviously very, very concerned for good reason.
Gabe Cohen, thank you very much.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Be sure to join me tomorrow for my interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy tomorrow 6:00 p.m. Eastern right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.