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Alleged Iranian Plot to Kidnap U.S. Journalist; COVID Cases Rising. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired July 14, 2021 - 15:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Governor DeSantis said this:


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): This has been a long time coming.

This is a -- a -- they are protesting communist oppression. That's what they are rebelling against. And I think it's a noble cause.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: OK, that's the opposite of what DeSantis said in April, when Floridians flooded the streets to support Black Lives Matter and justice for George Floyd.


DESANTIS: Just think about it. You're driving home from work, and all of a sudden you have people out there shutting down a highway, and we worked hard to make sure that didn't happen in Florida.


CAMEROTA: OK, I'm so glad for the clarification.

So, if it were for black lives free from violence, then they get arrested. I'm so glad he's giving us this clarification.

BLACKWELL: And let's remember what the law is. The law is making it a felony to block the roads and also giving civil immunity to people who drive through those crowds.

And I think the governor told his truth. I think it's a noble cause. It's whether he agrees with the cause whether that law will be enforced or not.

CAMEROTA: And either way, it's a political cause.

BLACKWELL: It is. Yes, it is.

I appreciate that he clarified it.

BLACKWELL: Next hour starts now.

It is a brand new hour. I'm Victor Blackwell.

CAMEROTA: And I'm Alisyn Camerota.

Unvaccinated Americans are reversing the country's progress in the pandemic. They're driving up cases and hospitalizations. Here's today's map. All but four states are now seeing an increase in cases. Doctors describe the patients who they're seeing come into the hospitals as younger and sicker than what we saw in the winter.

Here's an example. In Mississippi, the state health officer says seven children there are in intensive care. Two of them are on ventilators.

As for kids who are eligible to get the vaccine, only 25 percent of those who are aged 12 to 15 have actually gotten the shot.

BLACKWELL: Well, now the White House has enlisted pop star Olivia Rodrigo to reach that group and young adults. She just visited the president.

She recorded videos encouraging vaccination. Health experts say that if people continue to avoid vaccination, young children will keep suffering the consequences.


DR. PETER HOTEZ, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: If you can vaccinate all of the adults and all of the adolescents, we know we can slow or halt transmission of COVID-19. And that's what's going to happen in Massachusetts and Vermont and maybe parts of the West Coast and elsewhere in the Northeast.

It's what's not going to happen in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and now it's marching into the Deep South. So transmission will continue to accelerate. And what we will see -- and the ones who will also pay the price other than the unvaccinated adolescents are the little kids who depend on the adults and adolescents to get vaccinated in order to slow or halt transmission.


BLACKWELL: Elizabeth Cohen is CNN's senior medical correspondent.

Elizabeth, where are the companies, where's the government on emergency use authorization for those children under 12?


So, Victor, both Pfizer and Moderna are studying this vaccine in children. They're doing clinical trials with children as young as 6 months old. And the reason is obvious. As you said, these children are unprotected, and we want to protect them, because children do get sick from COVID-19. They do die of COVID-19. And they can also have long- haul symptoms that have neurological issues for months, if not for years.

So let's take a look at the when part of this question. When might we see vaccines for children under the age of 12? So if you look at ages 5 to 12, Pfizer, which seems to be ahead of the game here, they say, they tell CNN that they might be submitting to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in September.

We have seen that it is kind of a matter of weeks, then, for the FDA to consider those kinds of applications. So, in other words, this isn't happening even for that age group probably until later in the fall. For ages 2 to 5, we're told that they could, that Pfizer could have data on that group shortly thereafter.

But then, once they have the data, they have to put it together, they have to actually apply to the FDA. For the little ones ages 6 months to 2 years, Pfizer says they could have data in October or November. So I think the bottom line here is that, for 5 to 11, it is possible that maybe we will have a vaccine sometime this fall.

It'll be a bit later for the others. Now, if you wonder why, like, hey, I have got a 10-year-old who is a big kid, weighs 110 pounds, why can't he or she get vaccinated, the reason is that children are not just small adults. Their immune systems are different from ours, even if they might be in some cases as large as an adult.

And so they need to do the testing. They need to be very careful. You give a child too much of a vaccine, you may get a side effect that you hadn't anticipated. You give too little and the vaccine might not actually work to protect the child. So you have to be very careful and get that just-right dose for individual ages.


We may see different doses for different aged children because of their different sizes and developmental stages -- Victor, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Right. I mean, and that's why it's important for parents to get vaccinated, because you protect your children by then not carrying at home as well.

Elizabeth Cohen, thank you very much.

Let's look at how politicized the vaccine has become in Tennessee. That state, as you will remember, made national headlines for firing its top vaccination official over what she says were her simple efforts to allow teenagers and encourage teenagers to get vaccinated.

BLACKWELL: And now we have learned today the Tennessee's Department of Health is not doing any adolescent vaccine outreach right now for any diseases, smallpox, polio, hepatitis B, for none of them.

The state Senate minority leader is blasting that decision today.


STATE REP. JEFF YARBRO (D-TN): It's not just embarrassing. It is actually dangerous to our livelihood as a state. It's hard to imagine what it is the Department of Health views its mission is if that doesn't include communicating about basic lifesaving vaccinations and immunizations.

It just makes you wonder where the grownups are.


BLACKWELL: CNN's Martin Savidge is with us now from Nashville.

Martin, tell us about this new investigation some are calling for.


Things have really escalated in this state when it comes to what is perceived as a political attack, not only on the coronavirus vaccine, but on all those who apparently are attempting to message and encourage people to accept that vaccine.

So front-line doctors are now speaking out. These are physicians who have been battling COVID from the very dark days and now face what is this new assault coming in the form of the Delta variant.

They're very outspoken, and they're demanding an investigation by the Department of Justice into the actions that have been taken by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, specifically the firing of the state's vaccine manager and also the reports, they say, of internal documents from the Tennessee Department of Health that they say shows that they have been instructed to suppress important public health information.

CNN has also seen those documents as well. Here's the doctor speaking out just a short time ago.


DR. JASON MARTIN, CRITICAL CARE PHYSICIAN: I have several folks in my ICU right now with life-threatening COVID-19 infections. And as recently as yesterday afternoon, one of them was crying on my shoulder, wishing that they had had the vaccine before this had come to pass for them.

And now they're facing the possibility of death from a preventable disease process. I'm pleading with the Justice Department launch an investigation into Governor Bill Lee's reckless misconduct that is endangering lives of Tennesseans, lives that me and my colleagues took an oath to protect.


SAVIDGE: We requested an interview with the heads of the Tennessee Department of Public Health located in the building behind us. They turned us down.

But they did put out this statement to say: "To be clear, our vaccination efforts have not been halted or shuttered. We're simply taking this time to focus on our messaging and ensure our outreach is focused on parents who are making their decisions for themselves and their family."

Well, it's the messaging that is really what's at the crux of the issue here. The Department of Health reportedly now, due to documents that we have obtained, has been told that they cannot outreach to adolescents between the ages of 14 and 17, which had been standard practice in this state for 34 years, until suddenly now Republicans and anti-vaxxers have decided, hey, wait a minute here, that usurps the power of parents.

That same medical doctrine was upheld by the Tennessee state Supreme Court here, which is why many see this as just politically motivated, coming at a dangerous time. Vaccination rates in this state are low, 38 percent, and right on its borders are Missouri and Arkansas, where the Delta variant is spiking dangerously. They say it's just a matter of time and rates are already rising here -- Alisyn and Victor.

BLACKWELL: Martin Savidge in Nashville there giving us a picture of what's happening in Tennessee, thank you so much.

Let's turn down to Barry Braan Jr. He is the senior pastor of the Greater Life Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. He's also a parent of six and several of them are teenagers.

Let's start with your story, Pastor. And I thank you for being with us.

You had COVID. You were skeptical of the vaccine, but we know now you are vaccinated. What changed your mind?

BARRY BRAAN JR., SENIOR PASTOR, GREATER LIFE CHURCH OF KINGSPORT: So honestly, I had a conversation with some information, if you will.

I pretty much just lended my ear to people who had the right information. With all the disinformation going on social media, things like that, yes, I was very skeptical, along with a lot of different people.

Had a conversation with Miranda from the Health Department here, and listening to people like Dr. Stephanie Walker (ph) out in Nashville just kind of speak about the science and the medicine behind it. It kind of became a no-brainer after so long for me anyway to go ahead and go with it.


I was actually making the church available, the building available for the Health Department to come in and do the vaccinations. It was during our recon, if you will, when Miranda came and just kind of checked out the layout, that we just had a random conversation. And it answered a lot of questions that I have never even asked her. And it kind of brought some comfort to me.

BLACKWELL: So what were those things that were the elements that convinced you?

BRAAN JR.: Yes, probably ones you have already heard before, things like the science happened too fast. This is the mark of the beast.

You may still be surprised at some of the stuff that I have heard over the time. But some of these things were legitimate concerns for me. For me, example -- well, the mark of the beast wasn't for me, but for me, example, it was the time frame that the vaccines were -- that came up with them.

It seemed like it just happened too fast.


BLACKWELL: And what did the Health Department tell you?

BRAAN JR.: Sure.

Well, she basically just kind of told me how long, for one, the research had been going on for the types of vaccines that were available at the time. And then she told me -- I had the Johnson & Johnson vaccination. She described to me. She said, and that's much like the other vaccinations that we have been receiving for years past.

I did 12 years in the military. God knows what all I have been vaccinated from in the time in service. So my rationale said, well, what, the science being taken that much time to develop, it's 2021, 2020. How long should it take at this point for us to come up with reasonable science, reasonable medicine that works?

And we have got all this technology, all these elevated minds, smart people working on these things day in and day out. How long should it take?


So, let me ask you. I read that you said that those one-on-one conversations are crucial to convince people like you--


BLACKWELL: -- potentially people in your conversation -- in your congregation, I should say.

But they're a little difficult to get to get to that point. Explain that.


Well, a lot of times, when folks' minds are made up, they take away that vulnerability that will get you to actually answering some of the real legitimate concerns. And so a lot of people that I have just talked with and I have discussed this thing with have a lot of legitimate concerns, but they're not always based on right information.

They're not always based on the good info. And so while their concerns are legitimate, meaning that they really do feel this way about them, the information that they receive is wrong.

And so getting to a place in a person that will allow you to actually have this conversation in a way where they're interested, they don't feel like you're trying to sell them propaganda, you're not a part of the system, being a trusted individual.

Ironically, social media has become a trusted source of information because people are believing what they can find on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are the conspiracy theorists over real science.

BLACKWELL: Yes, yes. And that's what the White House announced today. They're going to try to combat some of the misinformation, the disinformation.

We also know that the White House has started this plan, this initiative to send people door to door in communities to give them information about the vaccines.

Do you think that someone coming from, sent by the federal government coming to Kingsport front doors knocking and saying, I'd like to talk to you about the vaccine, would convince that, by your estimate, 30 percent of your congregation still not vaccinated?

BRAAN JR.: I really do not know the answer to that question.

That's -- it's probably depending on who you send to what door. And I think that's a matter of, again, that trusted individual. One of the thing -- one of the reasons why we had been kind of successful in this area, especially initially, with the efforts that we made is because we relied on that personal comment.

And I didn't even really realize it. I can't really take the credit for even the success that my church has had in our almost 70 percent of our people being vaccinated, because a good number of them were vaccinated on their jobs. They work in the medical field, they work in education, things of that nature. Some of them had health issues, which kind of put them to the front side of the vaccinations.

So a good number of them were vaccinated already. We did our first drive in March. A lot more of them were vaccinated then. Others were vaccinated since then.


BRAAN JR.: By the time I did the first interview talking about this, I realized, and I said it kind of haphazardly. Then I went back and did the math. And it's about right. We're right at about 70 percent.

Most of those who don't have it either don't want it or can't get it right now.


Now, quickly, before we go, really a father of six.

BRAAN JR.: Yes. BLACKWELL: I mentioned that at the top for a reason. We know that the

state has stopped its outreach for vaccinations on COVID and other things to minors.

Do you think that's a good or bad idea?

BRAAN JR.: I'm really curious about the wisdom that they have behind this. Like, that's a really bold decision to do something like that.

And I'm curious. I almost want to hear the arguments. And I haven't had a chance to do that yet. I really want to hear the arguments. I want to hear the conversation about why that was the decision that was made.


And my prayer is that there's some wisdom in there that I just don't know. Maybe it's just above me.

BLACKWELL: All right, Senior Pastor Barry Braan Jr., I have enjoyed the conversation, learned a lot. Thank you, Pastor.

BRAAN JR.: Thank you for having me.

BLACKWELL: Certainly.

CAMEROTA: I enjoyed that conversation too. That was really interesting.


I mean, when you consider that he was setting this up for his congregants to get vaccinated and still had questions of his own, it's good to have those one-on-one conversations.

CAMEROTA: For sure.


OK. Next, an Iranian American journalist was reportedly the target of a kidnapping plot right here on U.S. soil. Four people have now been charged. We will detail how this all unfolded.

BLACKWELL: Plus, the top Senate Democrat introduces legislation to legalize marijuana. Does it have a chance of passing?



CAMEROTA: Four Iranian nationals have been charged in connection to an alleged brazen kidnapping plot.

Unsealed federal court documents reveal their plan was to abduct an Iranian American journalist who has been critical of the regime in Tehran. "NEW DAY" spoke to that journalist this morning.


MASIH ALINEJAD, JOURNALIST: I still cannot believe it that, in New York, the Islamic Republic was allowed, actually, to threat and following an American Iranian citizen.

I'm not as scared of being dead or being executed. But what scares me that the whole world kept silent about such a regime and allowing them to have such an operation in the United States of America.


BLACKWELL: It really is remarkable.

CNN's Brynn Gingras is following the details.

So, what do you know about these suspects and the charges?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's actually a fifth person, a woman who was arrested in California. She lived in California. And it appears by this indictment that she was sort of the funneling of the money for this scheme.

So those four men, though, I think we have wanted photos of them from the FBI's Web site. They're still on the run. Now, one of them, that first person you're seeing there, was -- is actually an Iranian intelligence officer. And these other men are part of his team, so to speak, according to this indictment from the Southern District here in New York.

And essentially what the indictment says is that they worked together to come up with a way to kidnap that journalist. That's -- her name is not in the indictment, but she says she was the target. And, essentially, it started back in 2018, where they approached her family and said, hey, will you help us lure her back to Iran?

When that didn't work, 2020 came around, and they started hiring a private investigator to take photos of her, her family, even strangers, people that were just marketers coming to her door. And, literally, the FBI went to her door, she said in the interview this morning, and said you have been followed for quite a while and we need to put you in several safe houses.

But it didn't stop there. They actually also, according to this indictment, looked into hiring -- or renting, rather, a military-style speedboat to bring her all the way to Venezuela, and then possibly Iran after that, where the U.S. attorney says who knows what her fate would have been.

So this was an elaborate plan that the FBI foiled, thank goodness. She is OK. And it's believed she was the target because she has been super outspoken. She has a number, millions of Instagram followers, Facebook followers, where she tries to tell Iranian women who are outspoken, send me photos, send me videos. I will post them where I can speak out here.

And it looks like that got her into a lot of trouble. Thank God she is doing OK. But I do want to mention that the Iranian government did give us a statement this morning. It says: "This is not the first time that the United States has undertaken such Hollywood scenarios. It's called" -- they called it "baseless and ridiculous and it's not really worth answering."

And also, the White House commented on this. So let's hear that.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not going to weigh in on the specific allegations in the indictment. Overall, though, we categorically condemn Iran's dangerous and despicable reported plot to kidnap a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil.

We will forcefully defend U.S. citizens and U.S. interests.


GINGRAS: But, of course, that's a real concern here guys, right? This is a plot that was to get a U.S. -- American citizen back to Iran. I mean, it's just incredible.

CAMEROTA: Thank goodness for good police work.



CAMEROTA: Just incredible that they were able to foil it. And she sounds brave, though there is a police car station now outside of her apartment at all times.

GINGRAS: Protecting her. She said she's not going to stop. So, brave too, yes.

CAMEROTA: Brynn Gingras, thank you very much for all of that.

With us now is Jason Rezaian. He's a "Washington Post" columnist who was imprisoned in Iran for 18 months beginning in 2014. Jason tweeted that: "This is further evidence that, when it comes to dissent, the Islamic Republic has zero regard for international law. Their increasingly audacious plans, whether realized or not, are intended to terrorize."

And Jason Rezaian joins us now.

Jason, tell us what your thoughts were when you heard about this alleged plot.

JASON REZAIAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, Alisyn, I think, when I when I first read about it yesterday, my thought was, I hope that Masih Alinejad is safe and that the FBI are continuing to keep a close eye on what's happening around her home and her family. This is not the first time that Iran has tried to do this sort of

maneuver in the third country. But this is the first time we're hearing about it in the United States against an American citizen.


So it's quite shocking for me, as someone who has survived prison in that regime, under that regime, who continues to get threats from Iranian agents around the world, as do many other Iranians in exile in the diaspora who work in the media, who are critical of the government, who write about it, who talk about it.

Masih Alinejad is one of the most high-profile members of that diaspora and arguably the most effective at criticizing the regime on a very high level. So I think that going after somebody that is so outspoken, but also so high-profile, is particularly shocking.

BLACKWELL: So if there is this plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad, is it your expectation that there are potentially plots to kidnap others?

REZAIAN: Well, look, they did it in France with a journalist named Ruhollah Zam, who was the operator or the head of a Web site that reported on a lot of events inside Iran that were censored in the country.

He was based in Iran. He was lured to Iraq, where Iranian agents kidnapped him, took him back to Iran, put him in prison. And then he was executed. Another Iranian German citizen has been lured to Iran, is being held right now. Uncertain what his fate is.

So this is not the first time. And I think we should expect that Iranians in diaspora are being targeted in different parts of the world. It's just astounding and incredible that they would able to get that kind of surveillance on someone so high-profile here in the United States, from wherever they're operating out of.

CAMEROTA: Yes, that for Americans is chilling, as you say, the audacity, the audacity of getting that surveillance and the audacity of thinking they could pull off a plot like that in the U.S.

Is there a larger message here about U.S.-Iranian relation and what any of this means?

REZAIAN: Well, I think, first and foremost, we have to really stand up and protect the rule of law and prosecute the perpetrators, but also go after the people within the Iranian system who ordered this.

And it's a system that has not known a lot of regard for international law over the years when it comes to its most outspoken critics. But it can't be allowed to get away with this kind of behavior. We have all covered similar events. We covered the murder of my colleague Jamal Khashoggi, when the Saudi regime orchestrated his murder in Turkey.

This is even more chilling because it's taking place on U.S. soil.

BLACKWELL: Yes. Jason Rezaian, always good to have your perspective. Thanks for being with us.

REZAIAN: Thank you, guys.

CAMEROTA: Thanks, Jason.

BLACKWELL: So next, another chapter in the battle for Britney Spears' freedom. We are live at a California courthouse to explain what decisions could come today.