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Russia Says American Paul Whelan Won't Be Part of Any Prisoner Swap; California Reopens Today, Lifts Some COVID Restrictions; Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) Discusses Biden's Upcoming Meeting with Russia's Putin, Sen. McConnell Suggesting Senate Not Open Probe into Secret Data Collection of Congressional Members. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired June 15, 2021 - 13:30   ET




ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Ahead of the meeting between President Biden and Putin, Russia indicated it is open to a prisoner exchange between the two countries, but says it won't release imprisoned American, Paul Whelan.

Whelan was arrested in Moscow in 2018. After a trial held in secret in 2020, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Now Whelan says he was only in the country as a tourist. Late last month, he recorded this plea ahead of tomorrow's meeting in Geneva.


PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN IMPRISONED IN RUSSIA (voice-over): The abduction of an American tourist cannot stand. Congress, American citizens, and supporters throughout the world echo my call for immediate decisive action.

Please bring me home to my family and my dog, Flora, where I belong.

Thank you, Mr. President, for your commitment to returning me home and bringing this deplorable hostage situation to an expedient conclusion.


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

David, thank you for spending some time with us. I'm sure it's gut wrenching it have your brother there locked up in Russia.

We just heard from your brother. He was sounding in a clear voice a couple weeks ago when that recording was made.

But today marks 900 days since he was detained. What do you know about your brother's condition and how he's doing?

DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF IMPRISONED AMERICAN PAUL WHELAN: The last time my parents spoke to Paul was last week, last Thursday.

He was going to be going for medical attention for a -- an injury he had suffered from the work that they're doing at the labor camp. They create clothes for the Russian market. As well as a long-suffering respiratory ailment he had.

He didn't know what it was but he was getting medical treatment.

CABRERA: We heard him plea for his safe return. Russia has indicated it's ready to transfer U.S. citizens convicted this that country, but that doesn't include your brother.

What is your reaction to that?

WHELAN: That's a longstanding statement from the Russian government. As of even back in July 2019, they were talking about wanting to do exchanges.

They have felons in U.S. prisons that they would like to return to Russia but they have always excluded Paul. And the reasons are not clear or consistent.

CABRERA: What do you think the reasoning is?

WHELAN: Well, I think they really haven't got the sweet offer they were hoping to get for concessions from the United States in order to send Paul home.

CABRERA: Have you talked to the Biden administration? And if so, what did they tell you?

WHELAN: My sister, Elizabeth, has gone down to D.C. and met with the special presidential envoy for Hostage Affairs and others in the administration.

And we essentially have just been getting updates on where they are going but nothing specific.

We have been very appreciative of the statements, the open statements they've made in support of Paul, and suggesting that Paul would be discussed as part of the summit.

CABRERA: What do you think President Biden should be willing to do to get your brother home?

WHELAN: It's difficult because, on the one hand, you want him home more than anything. You want him to come back to our family and to Michigan.

But I don't know that anybody is willing to have him traded for the merchant of death or some other terrible person who is sitting in a U.S. prison. It's a very difficult situation. The president is responsible for all of the American citizens wherever

they are. And so it's a very difficult situation for him to have to decide about.

CABRERA: Former President Trump, of course, had a notoriously warm relationship with President Putin in Russia. If he couldn't bring your brother home, what makes you think President Biden maybe able to?


WHELAN: I'm not sure that have many attempts were made during the first two years that Paul has been a Russian hostage to bring him home.

And I think part of that is because the U.S. and Russian Federation have not had a very good relationship.

So regardless of who the president is, I think the need really was something like this summit to kick start the ability for the two nations to discuss the irritants, as they are described. And Paul is an irritant to the relationship.

So that eventually his release can be discussed.

CABRERA: Do you think your brother is being used as a bargaining chip?

WHELAN: Absolutely. No question. The arbitrary detention of Americans isn't just happening in Russia. And the countries that are doing it are trying to extract a concession from the U.S. government.

And it's a very difficult position. And obviously, the U.S. government doesn't want to create precedents that cause more Americans to be put in the same situation.

CABRERA: If you could speak to President Biden right now as he prepares in hours to meet with President Putin, what's your message? What do you want to tell him?

WHELAN: I would say thank you for extending the offer to have this summit, for being pragmatic in the relationship with the Russian federation.

And to let him know that we are supportive of him and the decisions that he may have to make.

And we are hopeful that his administration will find a way to bring our brother, son, home to our family.

CABRERA: David Whelan, we hope for the best for your brother and your whole family. My heart is with you.

Thank you for taking time to speak with us.

WHELAN: Thanks, Ana.

CABRERA: Ahead, we are in California, the state that was first to shut down because of the pandemic, but all that changes today.



CABRERA: Welcome back.

More than 15 months after being the first state to shut down, California is reopening today, lifting some, but not all of its restrictions.

More than 70 percent of California residents now have at least one dose of the vaccine, and the case rates are staying low.

CNN's Dan Simon joins us live in San Francisco.

Dan, lay out, lay out what restrictions are being lifted, and what is staying put for now?


First of all, it is a beautiful 63 degrees here in San Francisco. And I have to tell you, people are energized that these restrictions are coming to an end.

I know some folks across the country are saying, well, we haven't had restrictions for a long time. But California took a more conservative approach. And here we are with the state's reopening.

So let's talk about some of these restrictions being lifted.

No mask requirement if you're fully vaccinated. I saw people going into the gyms today without their masks and they were absolutely thrilled about that.

The businesses, they can operate fully, restaurants, bars, movie theaters. They can pack people in. But they can require masks at their own discretion.

For large indoor events, we're talking about 5,000 or more people, need to show your vaccine certification, or a negative COVID test.

But, of course, not everybody has that vaccine paperwork with them. And so Governor Newsom is pledging that, coming soon, there's going to be an electronic vaccine card program coming.

And, of course, let's talk about where masks are still required, public transportation, airports, hospitals, and K through 12 schools.

In the meantime, Ana, listen to the folks we spoke to a bit earlier. Take a look.


JORGE RODRIGUEZ, CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: I just went to the gym and I'm usually going in there with my mask on and it's a lot because, you know, you're sweating and it's hard to like obviously -- it just felt a lot different.

JAN BLOEDAU (ph), CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: I'm very happy about it. As long as we're safe, it's great. I come from health care. Just go out and get vaccinated. It's safe. And everybody should take care of themselves and take care of each other.

BIANNA SHIPMAN, CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: No masks. I'm mean, I'm hoping we have some sort of methodology to check that people are vaccinated.


SIMON: Well, there will not be a vaccine passport program. I think that's what she's alluding to. But again, there will be electronic version of the vaccine card that you can presumably have on your phone.

Again, Ana, a big milestone here in California.

I Just want to show you what a difference a year makes. This is "The San Francisco Chronicle" from just about 15 months ago. You see the headline there, "Stay at Home."

This is the headline today. "Grand Reopening Day as Virus Loosens Grip."

Ana, we'll send it back to you.

CABRERA: That is something to smile about. That is what I'm also loving about people being able to take off their masks as you can actually see people smiling nowadays, which I think helps lighten all of our spirits.

Dan Simon, it's nice to see you. Thank you for your reporting.


Democratic Senator Bob Menendez has a message for President Biden: Putin is a ruthless killer, act accordingly. The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee joins us next.


CABRERA: In less than 24 hours, President Biden will come face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, their meetings may have wrapped up by this time tomorrow.

While it isn't their first meeting ever, it is safe to say this is the most important.

Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez is joining us now. He's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for taking the time.

Last week, on the Senate floor, you said Russia is a, quote, "mafia state run by a vicious authoritarian and his inner circle of corrupt oligarchs, not a normal country."

So that said, President Biden has told aides he believes Putin will respond to directness, and he wants to be ready to offer a frank message.


What does he need to say to Putin?

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Well, I think President Biden's going in clear-eyed. He himself has called him a ruthless killer, and that's what he is.

And I think what he's going to say is, look, you continuously challenge the United States in ways that affects our national Securities.

By permitting ransomware attacks, by engaging in our elections, violate the international order by the use of chemical weapons to assassinate your opponents and countries abroad, and annexation of Crimea.

All of these actions are not only in violation of the international norms but also some real challenges to the United States. And here's what's going to happen if you continue to do that.

And I think that that clear and precise message, especially after four years of having President Trump, who basically coddled Putin, is going to be a stark reality for Putin and something that is good for him to hear firsthand from the president of the United States.

CABRERA: Do you have any concerns about this meeting at all? What would be your biggest worry?

MENENDEZ: I don't have concerns, particularly, because I know that President Biden is very steeped in foreign policy. He served in the role that I have, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, vice president of the United States.

He understands Putin. He's going in there clear-eyed.

I would be worried if he thought that Putin is someone he could turn around to ultimately be a great ally of the United States.

But that's not how he's going in there. He's looking for some type of predictable, stable relationship, and that's desirable.

The question is whether you can get that with Putin. Putin sees that, in his actions, not only does he achieve what he wants but creates instability in the world.

And so there has to be a clear message that there's going to be a consequence for that.

For example, there are still pending chemical weapons sanctions that should be levied under our existing law for what he did to Alexei Navalny.

There's potentially tremendous opportunities to go after the oligarchs, the rich supplicants of his that are his via to money.

You freeze their accounts, you don't let them travel to the West, you will have accomplished getting Putin's attention big-time.

CABRERA: Yes, but Trump and his administration levied sanctions, kicked people out of this country.

We had this administration, since Biden took office, level 32 sanctions against different individuals and entities in Russia, in addition to kicking out 10 diplomats from the U.S.

And yet, that really hasn't changed behavior.

MENENDEZ: Well, first, President Trump's sanctions were, you know, of the lowest order of the sanctions leveled.

That's why I say, you go after the oligarchs, those people that Putin have empowered that are also his money pots. And you attach their accounts in the United States. You stop travel to the United States and to the West.

Believe me, you will get Putin's attention. We've never done that.


CABRERA: Why hasn't that been done already?

MENENDEZ: Well, that's a good question the administration's going to have to face.

Now, listen, they're only there six months. Why it hasn't happened in the past? With Trump, I wouldn't expect it.

He just said recently, just recently, that he had a good meeting with Putin in 2018. And that he believed him over our intelligence agencies.

I don't understand how my Republican colleagues can continue to embrace that type of thinking.

So, I wouldn't have expected it in the last four years.

This administration started off with some very significant sanctions. I think depending upon how this meeting goes, we may see a lot more.

CABRERA: I want to pivot to some other news back here at home.

Because Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, suggested the Senate should not open its own probe to look into the secret data collection of members of Congress.

He warns that would become a partisan circus. He says the I.G. investigation is enough. To that, you say what?

MENENDEZ: I say that, obviously, Senator McConnell is in a full-time job of trying to cover up for the previous administration.

If this was Barack Obama, he'd be crying from the high heavens that, in fact, we need to have an independent investigation.

Look, this goes to the very heart of undermining the institutions of government, the checks and balances, the independence of the Congress from the executive branch, no matter who sits there.

And you would hope that as an institutionalist, someone who wants to preserve the institution of the Senate and the House of Representatives and the Congress, that he would seek a robust investigation.

But what he's doing and what he has continued to do, whether it's January 6th or anything else, is basically to try to protect Republicans from the harsh realities of what the Trump administration did and how far they were willing to undermine the constitution in order to achieve their political aims.


CABRERA: Senator Bob Menendez, I really appreciate you taking the time. And I hope you'll come back, especially after the summit with Putin so we can continue our conversation and see what the results are and what comes.

I appreciate it.

MENENDEZ: Appreciate it. Thank you, Ana.

CABRERA: Thank you all for being with me today in the NEWSROOM. I'll see you tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll have so much more to discuss. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter, @AnaCabrera.

The news continues next with Alisyn and Victor.