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President Biden on Brink of First Cabinet Defeat; House Planning to Vote Friday on $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Bill; Senator Ron Johnson Airs Conspiracy Theory About Fake Trump Supporters in Capitol Riot Hearing; Researchers Find New Coronavirus Variant Spreading in New York City; House Continues Hearing on Deadly Insurrection at U.S. Capitol. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2021 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:20]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. So glad you're with us. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

Just minutes from now the fight for answers about the deadly insurrection at the Capitol continues on the Hill. It has now been 50 days since that attack. Today we will hear for the first time from the leadership of the Capitol Police.

What you're hearing a lot is blaming a breakdown in intelligence which led to a lack of preparation for violence there. Does that hold up? Was it really just an intelligence failure? We're going to have a lot of questions about that.

HARLOW: Totally. And the first time we're going to hear from the acting chief of the Capitol Police since that day. So it's been 50 days with no answers on that.

First, though, new troubling developments in the fight against COVID. Researchers say they have found a new homegrown variant right here in New York City. And others across the northeast not only is it becoming more common this variant appears to evade at least, in part, the body's natural immune response. And the big question is, how do vaccines play into all of that?

Let's begin there. With us to talk about all this is global health expert, Dr. Ashish Jha, also the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Good morning, Dr. Jha. As someone who resides in New York City, I took particular interest, obviously, in looking at this. But my main concern wasn't just that it looks like it's really here. It's that part of it that they think it evades our -- part of our body's natural immune response, and I wonder what you can tell us about that and in terms of how it relates to the vaccines.

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Yes, so good morning. Thanks for having me on. So this is new development and we're tracking this. The two things I would say are, first, there's a lot we have to learn about this variant. We don't really know if it's more infectious or more deadly. And on the issue of the immunity and vaccines, my best guess based on very little data is that our vaccines are going to continue to work just fine against this variant.

But let's be honest. We don't know. That needs to be tested more carefully and my hope is in the days and weeks to come we will get more answers on that.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Jha, the fact is that viruses mutate. This always happens. It happens every season with the flu, for instance, and that's why you update the flu shot every season. So this is expected. I suppose one question is, and again, it's early here, if you do determine, if research does determine that this is not as well dealt with by current vaccines, could you correct that conceivably with boosters?

JHA: Absolutely. So this has been one of the really impressive things about the development of these new vaccine platforms, the MRNA ones, the Pfizer and Moderna and others as well. They can get updated pretty quickly we think in about six to eight weeks. They would need a little bit of testing, but within a few months of a variant. Let's say we did have a variant that truly was resistant against our vaccines.

Within a few months we could be producing new vaccines that are targeted towards that variant. So we do have that capability. I'd rather that use it very often, but we can do it if we have to.

HARLOW: In terms of the progress that we're making on the vaccines you did this interesting interview just a few days ago with "The Atlantic," talking about sort of when you think your life, as a good example, will get back to normal. And then you told ABC this morning we're going to see a relatively normal summer. Really? Even with things like what's popping up here in New York?

JHA: Yes, so, look, we have a couple of tough months to get through. No doubt about it. We are not out of the woods. And there's always the kind of low likelihood catastrophic possibility of some variant that pops up that is totally resistant to our vaccines. I think that's really, really unlikely. So I do think we're going to have a relatively normal summer. Maybe not super packed stadiums, maybe not large concerts indoors.

But a lot of the things that we value in the summer will be back. But we sort of have to prepare for the fall. Like the fall, the virus is going to be back a bit more and we're going to have to deal with it. So I don't want to suggest that we're all done, the pandemic is behind us, let's move forward. But I do think we have a lot of good stuff to look forward to.

HARLOW: All right.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Jha, if I could go to a baseball game this summer in person, you'll have made my year. Just very quickly, and again I don't want to overestimate trends but I want to put up a graphic on screen of where cases, new infections are now and the drop we've experienced over the last several weeks seems to have flattened out a bit. And again, I don't want to overestimate this, but is there any evidence that we're coming off this fall and we might be on the beginning of another jump?

JHA: Yes, it's a very good question. I've been watching this and have been wondering the same thing.

[09:05:03]

We have not seen sort of widespread increases, but there is that flattening. I think we're going to have to monitor this very closely. And the other thing we have to track is how the new variant is doing and whether that's part of the reason. But we've got to keep paying attention to this.

SCIUTTO: All right, Dr. Jha, we know you'll help us keep on top of it. Thanks very much.

JHA: Thank you.

HARLOW: Well, this morning, the acting House sergeant-at-arms will testify before Congress and is expected to tell lawmakers that contradictory intelligence is at least part of what is to blame for the lack of preparedness ahead of the insurrection at the Capitol.

SCIUTTO: CNN's Whitney Wild joins us now from Washington.

Whitney, will we hear more of that today? Because there was, let's just say it right out, a lot of finger pointing this week. You know, I didn't screw up on any preparations. Really we just got bad intelligence, which you often hear. Do we expect to hear more of that today?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think you will hear a lot more of that today. Basically what the explanation has been up until this point was this piece of paper with the intelligence didn't tell me what to do, and what Timothy Blodgett, who's now the House acting sergeant-at-arms, so astutely points out, something we've recognized here, too, at CNN is there are these contradictory ideas.

So there's this one idea that has been purported by now Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman and she has said more than once now that they knew there was a possibility for violence and because of that, they acted accordingly. They made preparations. They added security to members of Congress' homes, for example, but at the same time, Timothy Blodgett will also point out their very own intelligence said but we think this protest is going to look a lot like the past marches in November and December, full of Trump supporters that ended up with very little violence.

And he says within that intelligence document that those two ideas just are such in conflict that he's having a hard time understanding how you could move forward with good intelligence when you have these two polar opposite ideas driving the decisions. For example, he says, "The intelligence provided to the Capitol police and other law enforcement did not anticipate a coordinated attack. Warnings should not be qualified or hidden. Bad information conflicting, information or missing information leads to poor decisions."

And one thing I think is important to point out and I should have done it before I read his quote was that he also thought that at the end of the day, the intelligence simply didn't synthesize the reality of what was going on. There were all of these pieces and they weren't pulling it together correctly. Additionally we're going to hear from now acting USCP Chief Yogananda Pittman. She's really important because she was in a top leadership role.

She was the head of Intelligence and Operations on the day of the insurrection. Her job was to make sure the intelligence was solid, to analyze the intelligence, along with her team, and then make decisions based on that. And in additionally, physical security of the building was under her purview. So she will probably face a lot of questions about the interpretation of the intelligence and what their leadership knew.

Additionally. we'll also probably hear a lot about this. A thing we've been talking about a lot, which is this FBI memo from Norfolk which warned on -- warned about a war on the Capitol but never made it to Steven Sund. She may have to answer to that today.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Yes. For sure. And like we have no idea if it made it to the White House because the Trump team isn't saying.

Whitney, our team, the K-File team has uncovered video that shows a close, a very close friend and ally of Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene was among those who stormed the Capitol on the 6th of January? What can you tell us about that person and also how this just clearly undermines some Republicans who are claiming, you know, making false claims about who was behind this?

WILD: Well, exactly. I mean, Marjorie Taylor Greene is one of those people who is out there saying, look, these weren't Trump supporters. These were leftists who infiltrated the Trump group and then made their way into the Capitol and pretended to be Trump supporters. Her friend is out there saying, no, it was all Trump supporters. Here he is in his own words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANTHONY AGUERO, CONSERVATIVE ALLY OF REPRESENTATIVE GREENE: We were all there. It was not Antifa, and it was not BLM. It was Trump supporters that did that yesterday. I'm the first to admit it. Being one myself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILD: We have also heard this very same idea from other people who are now being charged with their roles in the riot. In some cases, Poppy and Jim, they are actually offended that anybody would think for a moment it was Antifa because they are proud of their work. They are taking credit for it. They know exactly what they did and who did it. Back to you, Poppy and Jim.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Whitney, thank you for all of that so much.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And yet still sitting Republican lawmakers spread the lie. Thanks so much.

Joining me now to discuss is James Gagliano, he's a retired FBI supervisory special agent, CNN law enforcement analyst.

James, always good to have you on.

JAMES GAGLIANO, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Good to see you.

SCIUTTO: So one issue of unity on the Hill in the last couple of days in these hearings was, it was all bad intelligence. Whenever I hear that, I've got to say, I'm like, wait a second here. Come on.

[09:10:01]

First of all, a lot of this stuff was public that the president's exhortations, social media posts about coming to Washington, challenge the vote, et cetera. Do you buy that this was an intelligence failure alone or a preparation failure?

GAGLIANO: Well, Jim, in these type of massive and colossal failures, it's always a cascading system of mistakes and failures that become compounded. But to your point. Did intelligence failures in the intelligence cycle play a role in this? Yes, I think it played a role. Look, the consumers of intelligence are policymakers, decisionmakers, the U.S. Military. But the collection of intelligence itself is only directly related to what people in the intelligence community, 24 different agencies that includes the FBI, are directed to collect.

After the collection you go through a processing. Then you go through analysis of that and then you go through dissemination. I think the breakdown here was in the dissemination between the FBI, other members of the intelligence community, Capitol Police and Capitol Hill itself.

SCIUTTO: Listen, though, as you know better than me because you've dealt with intelligence. Intelligence informs decisions. It doesn't make decisions whether you're in the military, the police or the FBI. And I just wonder if there's another element to this. That there was an overlearning of the lessons from the protests last summer because clearly there was a reluctance across the board to put uniformed military on the streets of D.C., even from some D.C. leaders here.

Was that part of the issue? Right? That they didn't want to go there with National Guard because of that.

GAGLIANO: Jim, you and I have talked about this before, and I hate the term optics, right? But do I believe that played a role? Yes. We also have the issue that, you know, the mayor of the District of Columbia does not have the same powers that a state governor does. She can't herself call up the National Guard.

Look, a big part of this, too, is the chain of command. I listened as the chief of Capitol Police Steven Sund testified and I was horrified because I didn't understand this, but he doesn't answer to one person. He answers to a Capitol Police board made up of three people.

Well, Jim, you know the old sports adage. When you two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. And I think that was a problem here, too.

SCIUTTO: Yes. OK. Final question here because now there's a debate about just the make-up of a commission to investigate this. What strikes me is that the 9/11 Commission was bipartisan and that helped. But you also at the time had a bipartisan agreement as to the facts of the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda did this and we have to do something about it.

You still have some sitting GOP lawmakers denying the facts of this assault. They are still spreading the, oh, it was Antifa, it wasn't really trump folks, it wasn't as bad as you say, et cetera. I mean, can you have a substantive investigation recommending real changes if both parties can't agree on the facts? Can you re-create a 9/11 Commission?

GAGLIANO: Can you do that today as divided as the country is and as tribal as the country is? It's difficult. I think that the law enforcement reps on that will be able to filter out the noise and the distractions.

Jim, agent provocateurs exist during any type of unrest. But in this instance, they need to look at it from the right wing extremism perspective. Let's focus on that because that's what precipitated this. We can talk about the other stuff when we're dealing with that on the other side.

SCIUTTO: Yes. 255 people have been now faced federal charges for involvement in this. And they come from those groups.

James Gagliano, thanks very much.

GAGLIANO: Thanks, Jim.

HARLOW: It's such a good point, Jim, that intelligence informs decisions but it doesn't make decisions, right? And those decisionmakers are now having to answer the really important questions. It's a great point.

OK. We have a lot ahead this hour. Still to come, new reporting from former president -- that former President Trump is plotting his own future as well as his political revenge. And he's doing it all from the golf course there in Florida.

Plus, the fight over President Biden's Cabinet nominees could paint a bigger picture of the battles that lie ahead for this administration. SCIUTTO: And new evidence in a disturbing case. The South Dakota

attorney general faces charges and calls to resign after a car accident left a man dead. He initially told police he hit a deer. Now investigators say they found the victim's glasses inside the attorney general's car. Inside his car.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00]

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: President Biden could be facing his first defeat on a cabinet appointee. His budget director nominee Neera Tanden's confirmation appears to be on the brink of failure after another of her tweets resurfaced. This one criticizing GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski.

POPPY HARLOW, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: The administration is now considering offering her a different position, one that she would not need Senate confirmation for. Let's go to Lauren Fox up on Capitol Hill. Do you think -- does it seem like this Murkowski tweet is sort of the straw that might break the camel's back?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly. Senator Murkowski said she had not been aware of that tweet, and it certainly was a reminder to her that she might need to get into more information about Tanden's background. I want to read you what that tweet said. And this was in reference to Murkowski's support of the 2017 tax bill. It says, quote, "no offense, but this sounds like you're high on your own supply. You know, we know and everyone knows this is all garbage. Just stop."

[09:20:00] And, of course, this is exactly one of the reasons why Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, announced on Friday he would not support Tanden's nomination. This all comes as two key committee votes on her nomination were postponed yesterday.

And I think the key question is just, is there a Republican who is going to be willing to come forward and support her? Of course, we had been keeping an eye on Murkowski, but, you know, reporters reading her this tweet in real-time, I mean, that makes it tougher for her to back Neera Tanden.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: OK, so other big vote coming up. This, of course, on COVID relief, the house is going to vote tomorrow, big step. It will pass along partisan lines though. I wonder when you speak to Republican lawmakers because polls show that a lot of elements of this very popular with voters across the board, even some Republican mayors coming out in support of this. Do they see this as a political risk here?

FOX: Well, I think Republicans are confident that they can just rail against the overall price tag of this bill. Remember, $1.9 trillion is a significant amount of money. They also argue there's still money that hasn't gone out from the last coronavirus relief bill they passed in December and was signed into law by former President Trump. That's the argument that they're making. I think you should look to the fact that Democrats are expected to be very united. There perhaps will be no defections on the Democratic side. That's because they don't want to disappoint their new president. They're going to hold together even though there are some concerns about some provisions in the bill, both progressives and moderates arguing that this is so important for the American people.

It's so important for Biden's first days in office that they are willing to back this. Certainly, polling will show that this is popular. Will Republicans pay a price? That's one of the questions we're going to have to wait and see.

SCIUTTO: And we're seeing those jobless claims still very high as the number show --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Today, Lauren Fox, thanks very much.

HARLOW: All right, so let's talk more about that house vote tomorrow on this COVID stimulus package. Democratic Congressman Adriano Espaillat of New York joins me. Welcome Congressman, thank you for being here.

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT (D-NY): Thank you, Poppy, thanks for having me.

HARLOW: So, at this point, you don't have a single Republican in either chamber on board with this stimulus bill, $1.9 trillion. You've also got some concerns from a few Democrats in the Senate about the $15 minimum wage being included. Would you vote against the bill if it does not end up including a $15 minimum wage?

ESPAILLAT: I would take a look at that possibility. Look, we have the $15 minimum wage in New York State. I was a state senator when we made that happen. Every -- some folks have a doomsday vision to that important initiative. It didn't happen in New York City. It didn't sink us into a hole. In fact, I think that it stabilized my district. You know, by giving a couple of dollars in people's pockets, a week, a month, what you're doing is you're increasing their purchasing power. The minimum wage, Poppy, was introduced for the first time by Franklin D. Roosevelt right in the middle of the great depression. Imagine that. So, I think it's a great measure.

HARLOW: Yes --

ESPAILLAT: You know, I'll take a look at it, it's good for the rest of the country.

HARLOW: I hear you. But I live in New York City just like you do, and things are a lot more expensive here than they are in other states and other cities, and people pay more for things and businesses can charge more for things. And that's why there's a counter argument against it saying, is it really going to work on a federal level? That's the question. And I hear your argument, but you say it's not doomsday. The Congressional Budget Office, which is nonpartisan, you know has just come out with analysis and said, yes, it will do some good things like lift 900,000 people out of poverty and it will also increase wages for 27 million workers, but they determine it will cost 1.4 million jobs by 2025. Does it worry you?

ESPAILLAT: No, it doesn't worry me. I think we heard those kinds of concerns when we did it in New York. By the way, Oregon and other places which have a cost of living much lower than New York City and New York State had it before we did. In fact, you know, people have not gotten a raise in a long time. Imagine living on $7.25 a week.

HARLOW: Yes, I can't.

ESPAILLAT: You know, a couple that was bringing -- a couple that were bringing home $600 a week in my district now is bringing $1,200 a week. They can pay rent. They can go to the store. They're not going to go on a Caribbean vacation. They're just going to buy emergency items at a local grocery store.

HARLOW: All right, so it sounds like you consider voting against this if it gets taken out. We don't know how the Senate parliamentarians are going to --

ESPAILLAT: No, I haven't said that. I haven't said that --

HARLOW: OK --

ESPAILLAT: There's a lot of --

HARLOW: OK --

ESPAILLAT: Provisions that I will consider, I think that --

HARLOW: OK --

ESPAILLAT: Are very important for my district.

HARLOW: OK, then, I must have misunderstood you, I'm glad you corrected that. I've got to ask you about some other stuff in this bill because you've got folks like Asa Hutchinson; the governor of Arkansas saying it's got to be more narrow. He talks about aid in there for arts programs, peace programs, et cetera.

[09:25:00]

But then specifically, there's something in your state here in New York. There's $1.5 million of funding toward the international bridge between New York and Canada. A bridge. And then right around San Francisco in the bay area, there's $100 million to fund the San Francisco Bay area rapid transit or BART. I mean, Steve Scalise, your Republican colleague said "who said a subway to Silicon Valley has anything to do with COVID?" Are you comfortable with those in here?

ESPAILLAT: Look, a lot of people will get into this got-you attitude about this provision -- this budget, right? HARLOW: I'm not got-you. It's just -- it's what -- it's there. It's

like right here, I actually went back and read it --

ESPAILLAT: It's there, that's it -- I'm not saying you're doing that. I'm saying that in any bill that has $1.9 trillion, there will be one line that will probably be somewhat embarrassing, right, Poppy? But I tell you what, this is --

HARLOW: So, you're saying it's embarrassing, and that's $101.5 million of taxpayer money, and I'm just saying, are you comfortable with it?

ESPAILLAT: Yes, there's -- the answer, no, I'm not comfortable. I'm never comfortable with it. But --

HARLOW: All right --

ESPAILLAT: I tell you what I'm comfortable with. I'm comfortable with the fact that the past initiatives came from the Senate. And we had to adjust to them. This is the first time we have a vision that comes from us, from the house. And it's a robust vision. I think though --

HARLOW: OK --

ESPAILLAT: The American people and the country certainly and $1.9 trillion will get us back on the right track.

HARLOW: Congressman, I'm sorry to cut this short. I wanted to ask you about the hearing today, but I'm hearing we have some breaking news coming in, so come back, OK? I know you have an important hearing today --

ESPAILLAT: I'll do that --

HARLOW: And a lot of pressing questions.

ESPAILLAT: Thank you, Poppy --

HARLOW: Thank you for the time. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Well, there is a new big lie being spread among some GOP lawmakers and right-wing media. This one denying the facts of the January 6th Capitol insurrection. Listen to Republican Senator Ron Johnson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI): A very few didn't share the jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor of the great majority. Some obviously didn't fit in, and he describes four different types of people. Plain clothes militants, agents provocateurs, fake Trump protesters and then disciplined uniformed column of attackers. I think these are the people that probably planned this.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SCIUTTO: That's a lie. In fact, three lies. So, let's look at them

one by one. One, Johnson claims, quote, "just a few", his words, spoiled what was an otherwise jovial event. Again, his word. In fact, federal prosecutors have so far charged more than 255 people with crimes in the Capitol attack, including threatening to harm lawmakers, entering a restricted building and assaulting police officers. Remember this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SCREAMING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: That's a police officer. Two. Johnson claims fake Trump protesters and provocateurs were responsible. In fact, the FBI says there is zero evidence that Antifa or any other group of leftist provocateurs was part of the January 6th crowd in a significant way. What investigators have documented are numerous members of far-right groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. Three, Senator Johnson claims white supremacists were not involved in the attack. So, in fact, listen to what we heard from the leaders in charge of Capitol security that day who testified under oath before Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you agree that this attack involved white supremacists and extremist groups?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: A handful of Johnson's Republican colleagues are calling out his lies. Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger tweeted, "it's disgraceful for a sitting senator to spread disinformation so blatantly. It's a disservice to the people he serves to continue lying to them like this." One more sad fact is that the big lie about January 6th is now the third in a series of damaging lies spread by Trump and his defenders. They say the election was stolen. That's a lie. They say the pandemic was exaggerated. That's a lie. As the deaths of half a million Americans now demonstrate so sadly. And now, Senator Johnson and others are spreading one more lie, and once again, sadly, many Americans believe it.

HARLOW: This just in. We're learning that the Manhattan District Attorney has obtained former President Trump's tax returns. This follows, of course, a Supreme Court decision on Monday. We'll have much more on that straight ahead.

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