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House Holds Hearing on Deadly Insurrection at U.S. Capitol; President Biden on Brink of His First Cabinet Defeat; Researchers Say, New Coronavirus Variant Spreading in New York City. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2021 - 10:00   ET

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


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JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: Very good Thursday morning, I'm Jim Sciutto.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Poppy Harlow.

Congress is set to press for answers on the Capitol Hill attack. House lawmakers are about to hold their hearing -- another hearing this hour into the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.

50 days ago, the insurrection left five dead and more than 130 police officers injured.

SCIUTTO: The acting Capitol Police chief is set to partly blame a breakdown in intelligence, which directed law enforcement to prepare for a peaceful protest but not a violent attack. Many are now saying it was the intelligence that was incomplete or poorly analyzed. Is that the truth?

CNN's Whitney Wild joins us now from Washington. So, Whitney, what news do we expect to be made today?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we expect to hear -- in addition to the USCP acting chief, we also are going to hear from the acting House sergeant at arms, Timothy Blodgett. He is going to make an astute observation which was the intelligence was poorly synthesized, that there were all of these puzzle pieces out there that indicated that there was violence.

But for whatever reason, whoever analyzed the intelligence did not put the puzzle together well enough to see clearly what was going to happen on Capitol Hill despite the fact that most of that information, Jim, was -- and Poppy too, was open source.

He's also going to point out that within the intelligence document, the main intelligence document that USCP was working from, had conflicting information. They knew that there was potential for violence. They knew white extremists will be in the crowd that they planned to be armed. They also believed that this march would more closely reflect the marches of November and December, in which Trump supporters came out in droves and there was very little violence. So these competing ideas, he believes, led to poor decision-making.

Here is the exact quote. The intelligence provided to the U.S. Capitol Police and other law enforcement did not anticipate a coordinated attack. Warning should not be qualified or hidden. Bad information, conflicting information or missing information leads to poor decisions.

The now acting U.S. Capitol Police chief, Yogonanda Pittman, had a vital role in all of this, because at the time of the insurrection, she was the head of the intelligence operations. It was her job to assess the intelligence. They are consumers. But, again, to look at this intelligence with her team and bring it to the chief.

One part of that she may be questioned on is this FBI memo that warned on the Capitol and yet never made its way to Steven Sund. A lot of questions to be answered today, Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: And a lot of the intel, let's be frank, it's very public. So let's see how that factors in. Whitney Wild, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Andrew McCabe, he's former FBI deputy director, and Charles Ramsey, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and former D.C. Police Chief. Thanks to both of you.

Commissioner Ramsey, if I could begin with you, oftentimes, when intel gets blamed, it is really about passing the buck, right? I mean, from your perch, was this an intelligence failure or a preparation failure?

CHARLES RAMSEY, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think it was both. I mean, we won't know the truth until there is an actual commission of some kind established, much like the 9/11 commission. These Senate hearings will not get at or uncover the actual truth. What you're getting now is finger pointing back and forth, mixed in with politics that is occurring from various senators that are questioning the people appearing before them.

So, there needs to be a 9/11 commission, and if I could say one more thing about that, it needs to be similar in composition to the actual 9/11 commission. You can't use acting or current sitting members of Congress. You will not get an objective or truthful report as a result of that. It is just too toxic over there right now. They need an objective report.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: I'm glad you bring that up, Commissioner, and, Andy, to you, if we can just jump on the commissioner really getting answers here, right? Because looking back is only worthwhile if it helps you moving forward, the two leads on the 9/11 commission are Republican and a Democrat, Cannon and Hamilton, they both say it sounds like this thing is going to be partisan. It won't have much confidence from the American people if it is the current split, which Speaker Pelosi, which is Democrats choose seven members of the commission and Republicans choose four. What do you think?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I couldn't agree with Chief Ramsey more. I think that the commission needs to be evenly split.

[10:05:01]

It needs to be individuals who are -- who have a background and experience in these sorts of investigations. And let's call it what it is. It needs to be people who aren't running for office and who don't have a stake in the political outcome of the commission. They need to be dedicated only to the task of peeling back every aspect of this tragedy and presenting to the American people what actually happened and what should have happened.

SCIUTTO: The trouble, Charles Ramsey, is that beyond unified politics, we don't have a unified set of facts here, right? You have a sitting Republican lawmaker in Ron Johnson sitting on a relevant committee who is still spreading lies about claiming that it was provocateurs or Antifa behind this. It is just not true. Listen to the FBI, not me. It is the equivalent of having a 9/11 commission and having members or people questioning whether terrorists were behind the 9/11 attack.

So I just wonder how you pierce that fact bubble beyond the politics.

RAMSEY: Well, that is why you need to not have members of Congress, whether the Senate or House is part of this, active members. And I think Senator Johnson is the perfect example as to why you don't want that sort of thing. If you want to get at the truth and understand not only what happened but where do we need to go from here to prevent it from happening in the future. I mean, this is serious stuff.

And we don't need the theatrics and all of the other things that we see going on right now in Congress. You have very credible people that were part of the 9/11 commission, you need the same level of credibility in this commission, otherwise it is a waste of time to even have it.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Andy, if we could talk about the hearing that's just about to get underway here, it is the first House hearing after the Senate hearings that we saw earlier this week. And it's the first time in 50 days since the insurrection that we're actually going to hear from someone who is in charge right now on Capitol Hill in terms of the acting Capitol Hill chief of police.

What she's going to say is that the assessment or theory from anyone that at the department ignored or was ignorant of the risk is incorrect. What would be your biggest questions to the acting chief right now?

MCCABE: Well, you know, it is hard -- it is going to be hard for the acting chief to distance herself from the intelligence reports, how they were produced, the assessments that they contained and the decisions that she and other leadership members made as a result of those reports. I mean, she was in charge of the intelligence infrastructure at the U.S. Capitol Police. So it is the work product of people that she supervises. I don't think she can effectively point the finger someplace else. She might try but I don't think it will be effective.

I think there are very legitimate questions to ask about were the right assessments made base on the intelligence they had. But at the end of the day, it is leadership's responsibility to read those intelligence products and make good decisions. And in this case, it seems like that was lacking.

SCIUTTO: Charles Ramsey, a number of members of law enforcement have been suspended for not doing their jobs that day or perhaps even helping some of the insurrectionists. And I wonder how deep do you think that problem goes.

RAMSEY: I'm sorry, I had some interference there. I got part of the question of people within policing that are part of extremist groups.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

RAMSEY: Is that correct?

SCIUTTO: Exactly. How deep do you think that problem goes?

RAMSEY: Yes. I saw a report earlier on CNN about the military with the same issue and problem. We don't know how deep it goes. But I think it is pretty safe to say that there are some members of extremist groups that are part of law enforcement across the country both at the federal, state and local level, I would imagine.

We have to take a deep dive into that to find out just how deep it runs. I don't know how deep it runs. But we need to find out. We need to be paying closer attention to background checks being far more thorough, we need to look at social media posts, we need to be looking at all of these kinds of things to make sure that we don't have those kinds of folks in our ranks. But right now, we have no idea as to how deep it runs.

HARLOW: Thank you so much, Commissioner Ramsey and Andy McCabe, both of you, for being with us. It is certainly big, a really consequential hearing that's about to get underway.

RAMSEY: Thank you.

MCCABE: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Well, another major warning sign that Neera Tanden's nomination for White House budget director could be under brink of collapse. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a key vote needed for confirmation, a Republican, has expressed concerns, like others, about Tanden's old tweets.

HARLOW: Our Lauren Fox joins us on Capitol Hill with more. Lauren, this one seems different. This seems like it may be the linchpin. Can you tell everyone what the tweet said and the significance?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, essentially, we knew that this was a tough slog because the Democrats, the Biden administration specifically, has to convince a Republican to support Neera Tanden's nomination.

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All eyes had been on Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from the state of Alaska.

But yesterday, reporters read her a tweet that she had not seen from Neera Tanden. Here is what the tweet said, and I should note that it is referencing MurkowskI's 2017 support for that tax bill that Republicans passed. It said, 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.

Now, Lisa Murkowski said this was a new tweet. She also said this really is just more evidence of how the American public and senators, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have gotten too used to negative tweets like this one. She said, clearly, this is an illustration that she needs to continue doing her homework on Neera Tanden.

We should note, of course, the Democrats do not have unity on her nomination, because Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the state of West Virginia, has already said he would not support Tanden.

HARLOW: Thank you, Lauren. We'll see where this goes pretty soon.

We're keeping an eye on this House hearing regarding the deadly insurrection at Capitol.

SCIUTTO: Plus, and the push to vaccinate Americans set to ramp up even more. That is good news, especially after the discovery now the new coronavirus variants spreading in New York City and parts of the northeast. Ahead, why this strain could have health officials worried.

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SCIUTTO: This morning, two different teams of researchers have discovered what could be a disturbing new coronavirus variant. It is spreading rapidly in New York City and elsewhere in the northeast. Still a lot of questions about this.

HARLOW: Yes. The studies suggest a new mutation that appears to dampen the effectiveness of the current vaccines as well as certain antibody treatments. Our Polo Sandoval joins us this morning from a mass vaccination site in Brooklyn. Good morning, Polo.

You've got the good news that you're standing in front of, which is mass vaccinations, and then you've got the not so good news about this new variant. POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Poppy, we should preface it all by telling viewers that, at this point, this research has not yet been peer reviewed or published but certainly expected to be published here very soon. But, in short, what researchers at Columbia University Medical Center are finding is this the increase in this new variant bred here in New York possibly, and they're noticing that increase not just here in New York but also in various parts of northeast, specifically an increase of 13 percent in the detection rate in just the last two weeks. So that tells researchers that this appears to be spreading.

Now, let me give you a quick breakdown of what some of these early findings are. It appears that this variant does have mutations that offers the virus an ability to somewhat evade the body's response to vaccines and also monoclonal antibody treatments. And also what was quite concerning for officials is that the mutation gives the virus an ability to slip past someone's -- at least the body's immune system. So the concern is, of course, that authorities want to make sure that these vaccines that are being distributed, that are being administered will continue provide that high level of protection.

I can tell you that authorities at the local level, they say they're certainly not worried at this point. But more research needs to be done about this. But, again, it is certainly a reminder of what we have heard from health officials that the longer people have to actually be infected with this and the longer the virus remains in people's bodies, the higher chance that the virus will have to actually mutate. And now this is really just the latest variant concern here in New York City, Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: Okay. Thank you, Polo, very much for that reporting.

Joining us now to discuss, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan, currently director at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and also notably an independent director on the Johnson & Johnson board.

Obviously a big week for the J&J vaccine, we'll know in just a few days whether or not the FDA gives it sign off. I'm a little worried about that we may be confusing people on this variant, if you will, Dr. McClellan. From what you understand from these Columbia University researchers, again, it hasn't been peer reviewed but it is a strong team looking at this, are they saying your body's own immune may not fight it off as well? Are they really saying that vaccines, like J&J, Pfizer and Moderna may not be able to fight it as well?

DR. MARK MCCLELLAN, DIRECTOR, DUKE-MARGOLIS CENTER FOR HEALTH POLICY: Well, there are some concerns about both, Poppy. One concern is that for people who have been vaccinated, if they were vaccinated against a little bit different formulation of the virus, that the immunity may not work as well.

On that point, for the vaccines that we have now from Pfizer and Moderna and also from the studies that we've seen of the J&J vaccine, it looks like there is still considerable protection. Maybe not quite as good, especially against mild illnesses but very important protection, especially against more serious cases, which is the main thing, remember, that we want to prevent in this whole pandemic.

For people who have been previously infected with a different version, a different variant of the virus, the earlier one, there is some worry that they may not be as immune as well. Again, we haven't seen lots and lots of cases of that happening yet. It is just a reminder of the main thing is that we need to get this pandemic under control. The more people that can be get vaccinated, the faster, the more we do to reduce spread, the fewer chances there are for these variants to develop and spread. And we've got a really good opportunity to do that here in the United States over the next month or two.

SCIUTTO: That is a great point. Because, right, if you reduce infections, you're reducing the amount of this virus out there that allows it to kind of constantly mutate itself, which happens naturally.

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I want to ask you about the direction of the pandemic, because there is some data, and if we can put it up on screen, and it is been encouraging to see new infections come down, new hospitalizations, new deaths. But the data seems to show that the drop flattening out a bit, and I wonder if you consider that significant.

MCCLELLAN: I think it is too early to tell. Last week was a tough week in terms of weather, in terms of further steps to containing the pandemic. I think the overall good news here is that cases have really been dropping and, Jim, the number of deaths in nursing homes, hospitalizations in nursing homes is cratering. It is really going down to levels we haven't seen since before the initial daily outbreaks in New York City. And that is incredibly good news and a reflection of just how important vaccination in those settings have been.

Hopefully it is a sign of what is to come as we get more vaccination going faster now that the weather is better, now that the number of vaccines and shots in arms is going up.

HARLOW: So, let's talk about a scenario that could hit us in just a few weeks. There are already states that are saying they're going to let people choose which vaccine they would like to get if J&J is given the authorization by the FDA. I just wonder what your advice would be to folks. Because one shot only is nice have, but there are others that may look at the data and say, well, should I get Pfizer or should I get Moderna, even though all of them, it seems, prevent deaths from COVID. What should people do if they have a choice?

MCCLELLAN: They all provide very strong protection against serious infections, which is, again, the main thing that we're worried about from the pandemic.

And, Poppy, I think the most important thing is for people to look at what happens with the FDA's advisory committee meeting tomorrow, where there are going to be a whole set of independent experts, as well as the FDA's expert review staff presenting the data from the J&J vaccine and discussing all of the issues that understandably factor into people's choices. How likely are they to get any symptoms to all? How likely are they to get serious symptoms? That is really important. How long is the duration of protection for the vaccine? How well does it do against variants?

And so we don't have perfect information on all of those things but there is going to be some great discussion tomorrow and that will go into state decisions.

I would you add too that this is a country where people like choice, and it is great to have several choices available if you look at the expected supply coming in the next month and especially as we get into April and May, there should be a large amount of vaccines of each of these types available that hopefully people can use. But most important is taking any of these vaccines is way, way better than not being vaccinated.

SCIUTTO: And, historically, these vaccines are all pretty darn effective. Heck, I'll take any one available.

HARLOW: Me too.

SCIUTTO: Dr.Mark McClellan -- yes, as soon as possible -- thanks very much.

MCCLELLAN: Good to be with you.

SCIUTTO: A Pentagon report obtained by CNN is giving disturbing new insight into how widespread white supremacists are inside the U.S. military. It is disturbing. We'll have more on that, next.

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YOGONANDA PITTMAN, ACTING U.S. CAPITOL POLICE CHIEF: -- about the January 6th event. The final assessment indicated amongst other things that militia groups, white supremacists and other extremist groups would be participating in the January 6th event.

[10:25:00]

These groups planned to be armed, the target of the demonstration would be Congress and the demonstrators saw this as a last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election and they were desperate.

The assessment was widely shared throughout the department, and in response to the assessment, the department made significant changes to its security posture. We increased the size of details, deployed counter-surveillance agents across D.C., increased our CDU platoons, including deploying hard platoons, we deployed SWAT teams, enlarged the security perimeter and increased exterior and interior patrols to include the subways.

Since the 6th, it has been suggested that the department was either ignorant of or ignored critical intelligence that indicated that an attack of the magnitude that we experienced on January 6th would occur. The department was not ignorant of intelligence indicating an attack of the size and scale we encountered on the 6th. There was no such intelligence.

Although we knew the likelihood for violence by extremists, no credible threat indicated that tens of thousands would attack the U.S. Capitol, nor did the intelligence received from the FBI or any other law enforcement partner indicate such a threat. Indeed, the Secret Service brought the vice president to the Capitol that day, as they were also unaware of any credible threat of that magnitude.

The department also did not ignore intelligence that we had, which indicated an elevated risk of violence from extremist groups, to the contrary, we heightened our security posture. There is evidence that some of those who stormed the Capitol were organized. But there is also evidence that a large number were everyday Americans who took on a mob mentality because they were angry and desperate. It is the conduct of this latter group that the department was not prepared for.

The department did face some operational challenges that we are addressing. For example, the Capitol lockdown was not properly executed. Some officers were unsure of when to use lethal force. Our radio communications to officers were not as robust, and we are ensuring that our incident command system protocols are adhered to going forward and re-implementing training in those respective areas.

We're addressing those operational challenges but I want to make clear that these measures alone would not have stopped the threat we faced to stop a mob of tens of thousands requires more than a police force, it requires physical infrastructure or a regiment of soldiers.

Since the 6th, we have harden the complex and we know that some of those temporary enhancements are not popular. But these are necessary in the short-term. The department is beefing up its flow of information and now holds daily calls with its intelligence partners.

I would like to thank the committee for their continue the support and ensuring the department has what it needs. I would also like to thank you the chairman for helping the department to ensure that our officers have the mental wellness resources that they and their families need.

As to the USCP officers that proudly served the congressional community, they fought bravely on January 6th, they are heroes.

I am ready to answer your questions. Thank you.

TIMOTHY BLODGETT, ACTING HOUSE SERGEANT AT ARMS: Chairwoman DeLauro, Ranking Member Granger, Chairman Ryan, Ranking Member Herrera Buetler, and members of the Appropriations Subcommittee and (INAUDIBLE) branch, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the security failures of January 6th.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe to the officers of the United States Capitol Police, Metropolitan Police and the law enforcement partners that came to the aid of the institution and risked their lives so that our Constitution and democracy could endure. I cannot thank them enough. I want to thank Congress for helping provide a fitting tribute to Officer Sicknick. We mourn as a community for the loss of his life, that the recognition rightfully bestowed upon him hopefully served as a moment of healing for Capitol Police and for all law enforcement who make sacrifices on a daily basis to provide for our safety.

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And I want to acknowledge the sacrifices of Officer Liebengood and Smith and their families. Their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

And I finally want to.