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Biden Visits Devastated Texas after Deadly Deep Freeze; FDA Board Votes on Whether to Authorize First Single-Dose Vaccine; U.S. Intel Report Finds Saudi Crown Prince Responsible for Approving Khashoggi Operation. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 26, 2021 - 13:00   ET

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


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BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Brianna Keilar, and I want to welcome viewers here in the United States and around the world.

We are right now tracking multiple stories this hour. Any moment now, we will see President Biden in Houston, days after the deadly deep freeze killed at least 29 people in Texas.

And then tonight, the House will vote on his almost $2 trillion COVID relief bill, the first step in the first significant legislative priority of his presidency.

Also happening now, an FDA board is reviewing Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, the first single-dose option to fight the coronavirus that not only prevents most sickness but may also stop transmission of the virus.

And we're also watching Syria after the president launched the first airstrikes of his administration. The Pentagon says the attack was targeted against militias there backed by Iran in response to recent rocket attacks on American forces in the region.

We begin though in Houston where the president will play a role that we haven't seen in a while, comforter in chief. In his first trip to a disaster zone since taking office, he will meet with local leaders and survey the damage caused by a deadly winter storm.

Last week, millions experienced extended power outages combined with record-low freezing temperatures resulting in the deaths of at least 29 people.

CNN White House Correspondent Arlette Saenz is covering this for us in Houston. What are we expecting from this trip, Arlette?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, President Biden is set to land here in Houston any minute now where he will be receiving an in-person on-the-ground assessment of recovery efforts after that severe winter storm battered the state of Texas last week, leaving millions without power, water or even heat. Now, the president will be making multiple steps here in the Houston area. First, he will tour an emergency operation system here in Harris County and then he will visit a food bank and meet with volunteers there. His wife, First Lady Jill Biden, will also be packaging water and food for the local community at that food bank a little earlier in the day.

And then the president will wrap his day here on the complex of NRG Stadium, which is one of those federal mass vaccination sites, as the government is trying to get more vaccine out to the American people.

Now, while he is on the ground in Texas, the president will be joined by the state's governor, Greg Abbott, as well as John Cornyn, both Republican lawmakers in the state. The state's other senator, Ted Cruz, was in Florida earlier today attending and speaking at a conservative conference.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki just a moment ago actually said that there was no invitation nor was there a request for Cruz to join the president on this trip here in Houston.

There will also be other lawmakers from the Houston area, as well as the city's mayor that will be visiting Biden while he is on the ground.

Now, this trip is as much as assessing what kind of federal assistance can be offered the state of Texas in the wake of these storms as it is a moment for Biden to offer some comfort for a state that is still struggling as they're recovering after that storm.

This is a role that you see many presidents step into in the wake of disasters and tragedies, and one that comes quite naturally to Biden as he is quite well known for his empathy.

You have seen him in the past go into multiple communities to meet with victims and families, and you've even seen those expressions of empathy come amid the coronavirus pandemic even in that somber ceremony over at the White House earlier this week. But that is something that will certainly be on display when the president is on the ground here in Texas as the state is still recovering.

KEILAR: And tell us a little bit about this last stop that he is making, Arlette. He is going to a COVID vaccination site, you mentioned.

SAENZ: Yes, that's right. So, this is a vaccination site that's set up by the federal government here just outside the stadium where the Houston Texans play. This is one of the efforts the administration has really launched to try to get more vaccines out to Americans. The administration earlier today announced that they will be launching two other sites just like this one, one in Chicago and another in North Carolina.

And this site actually just opened up yesterday and is expected to issue out about 6,000 vaccines a day as the administration is trying to get closer to that goal of 100 million shots in 100 days. KEILAR: All right. Arlette, thank you so much. We know you'll be following this all day there in Houston.

The House is expected to vote and to pass President Biden's nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package today, but a $15 minimum wage is something that has really been a sticking point and that has been doomed in this bill now.

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I want to bring in CNN's David Chalian to talk about this. What can we expect in the bill?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, you said it, Brianna, it's a $1.9 trillion bill. It's an enormous bill, and it has some key big-ticket items, obviously those stimulus checks, we know the additional $1,400 that Joe Biden promised. This was something actually that Donald Trump agreed with as well back in his final days of his administration, so getting those additional stimulus checks is a part of this package.

Take a look at the unemployment benefits, right? So, there is some extended unemployment benefits, federal unemployment benefits. There is a deadline that comes around on March 14, which is why Biden wants to get this bill signed into law by then because of this extension of some of those federal benefits. Education and childcare, the administration constantly talks about the money in the package to get the schools back open full-time. Vaccine money, $20 billion in here to get vaccines distributed out, to get vaccines produced, and then, of course, perhaps one of the more controversial items when it comes to the partisan battling over this is the $350 billion or so for state and local aid that's inside this package.

The administration argues that there is not a lot here to cut, that everything is needed to get the country through this pandemic and to get the economy back on its feet. Joe Biden often says to Republicans who don't seem poised to vote for the bill, what would you have me cut? They have been pointed to some local infrastructure projects, maybe some of that state and local aid that they think is a little extraneous and not directly tied to COVID relief, that would have brought the price tag down. The administration said, no, they believe they have the Democratic votes to go with it, and today, as you noted, is the first huge step with the House of Representatives voting late today.

KEILAR: Yes, it is a big step. David, thank you so much for that, David Chalian.

And in the coming hours, the FDA advisory board is expected to vote on whether to give emergency use authorization to the first single-dose coronavirus vaccine. It is made by Johnson & Johnson, which says its vaccine is 85 percent effective against severe COVID.

Once the FDA gives its green light, the process moves on to the CDC. Moments ago, the CDC director says she is ready and waiting to review what should become the third vaccine in the U.S. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Following the FDA's actions, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, is prepared to meet over weekend and continue with the same data being discussed in the FDA's advisory meeting.

Then ACIP will make recommendations for use of the vaccine and I will stand by ready to review them and sign.

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KEILAR: CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is with us now to talk about this. Sanjay, what are you expecting to see over the coming days? How fast will this new vaccine from Johnson & Johnson become available?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It could happen very fast, Brianna. We have some precedent now for this because we saw this process play out with Pfizer and Moderna, you remember. And in those situations, the advisory committee met, and either that evening or that day, the FDA actually approved that recommendation, so then you have an authorized vaccine.

The CDC basically would meet to determine the who, how, when, meaning who is going to get this, how the vaccine is going to be rolled out, those sorts of recommendations, and then you just heard from Dr. Walensky, who would give that final approval. So, there's a lot of steps but it can happen quickly

We also know Johnson & Johnson has been manufacturing millions of these doses at risk, which means that they should be available and possibly able to roll out later next week.

KEILAR: All right. Sanjay, thank you. I'm going to have you stand by for me. We do have some breaking news.

This is breaking news just in to CNN. The director of National Intelligence has just released a long-awaited report on the 2018 killing of Washington Post Columnist and Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. I want to get straight to our team who has been following this story and awaiting this report, our CNN Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins.

Tell us what the top line is here.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I mean, Brianna, this is huge. This was a highly anticipated report. It is now been declassified. It is being released by the director of National Intelligence from the White House, who was talking about this earlier. We knew that this was coming. They were waiting for that call between President Biden and the Saudi king to happen first.

But this is from an intelligence report from the United States confirming what we had already believed to be true, and it says, we assess that Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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Of course, that was when he was taken into that Saudi consulate in Istanbul, dismembered, and his death was widely covered for so long and the questions about the culpability. And there was so much finger pointing at the crown prince who, we should note, had a very close relationship with Jared Kushner, with former President Trump. That was something he often spoke to. The Biden administration said they wanted to make that different as the way that they were going to move forward with Saudi Arabia. And then words of the White House press secretary, they wanted to recalibrate this relationship.

But this is a damning report to have this on DNI letterhead saying that this is what they believed happened after they went through this report and they investigated this.

And we should note, Brianna, the reason they're making this assessment in here is they say, we base this assessment on the crown prince's control of decision-making in the kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser in what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, his murder, and members of his protective detail in that operation.

And also, Brianna, this key line, the crown prince's support for using violent measures to silent dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi. It says, since 2017, the crown prince has had absolute control of the security organizations, making it highly unlikely that the Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without his authorization.

KEILAR: This is key when they're talking about this link here.

If you can stand by for us, Kaitlan, I want to bring in our Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt.

You've been reading this. I should emphasize that we just got this. What more can you tell us?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, what strikes me immediately is how short this is. It's just three pages. And this is what the intelligence committee has deemed that they can release in unclassified fashion.

Let's remember, this report has been sitting out there ready to go. This was something that was ordered by Congress through law that it get released by the director of National Intelligence publicly. This is a law that was ignored by the Trump administration.

And so we have been waiting for this to come out knowing that, according to the CIA and according sources, that they had determined with high confidence that, in fact, Mohammad Bin Salman, the crown prince, had ordered this murder.

So there had been questions about how much farther this report would go. In actual fact, it's not going that much farther. It is not offering a ton of detail in terms of how the crown prince, MBS, actually transmitted this order to this band of assassins, including some members of his protective detail and some of his top lieutenants.

What is striking, however now, the most important part, Brianna, is that this is the U.S. intelligence community coming out and saying that the crown prince approved of this extrajudicial killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

There is no detail in here about how he did that, there is no smoking gun, which was a big question after the murder of Khashoggi. There was no phone call, no message that they referred to as him transmitting this order. But in no uncertain in the very first line of this three- page, report they say that the crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, approved an operation in Istanbul, as Kaitlan was just saying. They say that they can make this determination because of the control that he has in the kingdom, because of the operational control that he has over the security and intelligence apparatus, because of the makeup of this team.

They go on in this report to name 21, I've just counted, different individuals who participated in, ordered or were otherwise complicit in the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

This is a very important line in this report, Brianna. The crown prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary, to silence him.

So on the one hand, the report is not offering a lot of evidence in terms of the order from the crown prince, but this is the U.S. government saying in explicit terms that the de facto ruler of one of America's closest allies ordered the murder of this journalist and that has huge implications for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

KEILAR: Yes, it has huge implications.

Let's talk to our International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson. The question, now that we know this, Nic, that we have this report, because this is such a key part of what the diplomatic response is going to be from the United States and perhaps even the global community, is what is the U.S. going to do with this?

The Trump administration went very easy on Saudi Arabia when it came to this. The Biden administration is not going to go so easy. Where does this lead that process?

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NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think some of the hints for that come in the conversation that President Biden had with King Salman last night, and that was that transparency was going to be part of the way that the two countries would work together. And we heard from Ned Price, the spokesman at the State Department just last night also saying, that this was transparent, that this would lead to transparency and that would lead, therefore, to accountability.

So I think that's how you frame the relationship going forward. But I think this begs an absolutely huge question right now. What happens when the king dies? He's 85, there's every possibility that he could pass away while President Biden is president. The crown prince becomes the king. That's what happens. That's what a crown prince is. So President Biden, through protocol that he has recalibrated only deals with the head of state, the king, but the crown prince would become the king. Where does that put the relationship between the two countries then?

This is a hugely important relationship. Saudi Arabia is a massive power in the gulf. It is a huge partner in counterterrorism to the United States. It is an important strategic partner in the gulf that, as we know, has a destabilizing influence of Iran.

So this is a very, very difficult moment. And we can only understand that some of that must have been covered in the conversation, parts of the conversation, between Biden and King Salman that weren't made public.

But, you know, from a Saudi perspective, I think you'll find that they will point to this and say there is no smoking gun. Their defense at the time was this was a rogue operation that went wrong. I think that's been this report, the CIA's assessment, the report put forward by the U.N. special reporter for non-judicial killings completely undermine that narrative. But that, I think is how, if we hear the Saudis push back, they will.

And the idea that people in the detail close to the crown prince kind of, because they were there, that implies that he was responsible. The Saudis have pushed back on that before.

I think one of the points I get from this report is naming this key lieutenant of the crown prince, Saud al-Qahtani, whose name comes up again and again and again, linked to recent detentions of activists in Saudi Arabia and alleged torture of them. It's possible that we may see efforts to have him pushed out of the relationship equation.

KEILAR: Yes. And also mentioning the team also included seven members of the crown prince's elite personal protective detail, known as the Rapid Intervention Force, a subset of the Saudi Royal Guard existing to defend the crown prince, says it answers only to him and had directly participated in earlier dissident suppression operations.

A lot of this stuff we knew, but it's very important, right, that it's coming from the DNI here in the U.S.

And I want to chat again now with Kaitlan Collins, if we can go back to the White House. This is a critical moment for the U.S.-Saudi relationship. This was something -- this killing that happened in 2018, which largely went undefended by the U.S., by the Trump administration, that is not what is going to happen with the Biden administration.

But this is also delicate. This is something that the Saudis did, and to a journalist obviously with Saudi ties, of course, but who was working for an American publication. This was something that was really seen as an affront.

So, Kaitlan, where does this go from here?

COLLINS: Brianna, this just takes me back to when former President Trump was in office and the way he talked about this. This report is being released under the Biden administration, declassified. They talked about it a lot. But I remember we used to talk about this with former President Trump and we used to question him on it, especially after it was reported that the CIA had concluded that, yes, the crown prince had ordered Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

President Trump used to tell us that the crown prince, he believed, was very angry about what happened, and he was upset about it. That was what he kept pointing to as kind of this defense of his position, and that when we were questioning him about his role given, he was the leader that the former president, President Trump, communicated with.

And when I'm looking at this report, it says that the crown prince had fostered an environment in which his aides were worried about failing to complete an assigned task because they were worried, they could be fired or arrested. So here it says, Brianna, that aides were unlikely to question his orders or undertake sensitive actions without his consent.

It is pointing the finger at him about as much as it can with what they know, it appears, and it's just notable given how unwilling the last president was to do that when it came to the crown prince and how Jared Kushner had a very close relationship with the crown prince and spoke with him.

And so just to see the change in that -- and you are right, it is going to be a delicate situation going forward.

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I mean, look at what President Biden did. He called the Saudi King -- talked to him before this report came out. We were told they wanted to do that specifically. He wanted to talk to them before it came out.

Now, the White House readout did not say that he actually he brought up this report. It said he brought up human rights. And we've asked multiple times and the White House won't go further than that. So I don't know if that's an agreement that the United States and the Saudis came to, but they didn't actually mention it in the readout. But that was what we were told is why he wanted to speak with him before this report came out, basically saying and pointing the finger at his son for the death and dismemberment of this reporter inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

KEILAR: Indeed. And it is going to be very delicate to that point.

And I also just very quickly want to mention to viewers what you're looking at here on the right side of your screen. President Biden is in Houston. He is there, obviously, where they have experienced a terrible weather tragedy last week and also, he is going to doing a lot of COVID outreach. This is Air Force One that has touched down in Houston. But back to our news here that the U.S. has put out this intel report that is directly linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a columnist for the Washington Post, who was a Saudi journalist.

Back to you on this, Alex Marquardt, this is delicate, just like Kaitlan said, it is not a coincidence that President Biden took the time to call King Salman before the report would come out, even if it's unclear if talked to him about the report but that he talked to him about human rights issues.

MARQUARDT: And. And, in fact, Brianna, we've expected this report earlier. We expected it yesterday. And it was clear that this wasn't going to come out until the two men spoke. It's clear that the U.S., for all of its talk, all the Biden administration's talk about recalibrating this relationship, they're not going to go so far as to blindside the Saudis when it comes to something as monumental as this.

Remember back to the campaign, President Biden, then-Candidate Biden, talking about how he was going to make Saudi Arabia the pariah that it is. But now, he's in office. And now, he is trying to strike this careful balance of fulfilling campaign promises and a shift in the relationship that is expected from Democrats and liberals, while at the same time maintaining this relationship with an absolutely critical ally.

And we really see that in the readout of that phone call. Absolutely no mention of Khashoggi, no mention of the crown prince, no mention of this murder or this report coming out, but talking about human rights and the strong relationship, the historic relationship.

Meanwhile, you have to kind of take it in the broader context. This was a phone call that only happened more than a month after Biden was in office. So, it was a long time coming. And we have seen the Biden administration trying to -- changing things significantly, pulling back on the war in Yemen, of the U.S. support for the Saudis on the war in Yemen, reviewing weapon sales to that country. Nic Robertson was talking about the State Department mentioning that they will be holding Saudi Arabia accountable.

And that, Brianna, really is the next big question. Now we have the U.S. government coming out and saying that the crown prince approved this murder. So, does that mean that there are going to be sanctions against the crown prince?

In the wake of the Khashoggi murder we already saw --

KEILAR: How would they manage that, because that is the question, right? And that is -- I spoke yesterday with the U.N. special repertoire who wrote the initial report in 2019 about this, and there is clearly a view from people who are actively trying to stop things like this from happening, that there needs to be sanctions. How can there be sanctions against the future ruler of Saudi Arabia, who obviously is a country with different espoused views and values than the United States but is a clear ally as well? How do they manage that? MARQUARDT: Yes, it's a terrific question. I mean, we've already seen sanctions against most of those who the U.S. believes were involved in this operation, despite the fact that President Trump at the time was essentially covering for MBS. His administration imposed Magnitsky Act sanctions again 17 of those that they believed who were part of this operation.

Now that the U.S. government is going farther and saying MBS was actually complicit and approved this, will they actually apply sanctions to him?

And it's just an extraordinary situation where, as Nic was saying, this is a person who, any day now, could take over the crown of that country, of this absolutely critical ally.

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And how do you do that? How do you apply sanctions to someone who is going to take over this country? It very much - it remains to be seen.

But there is going to be bipartisan demand on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats who are outraged by this for significant action against Saudi Arabia, against the crown prince, and I imagine, Brianna, that will include sanctions.

KEILAR: We will be watching. Important news ahead after this report. Alex, thank you so much, and to our colleagues, Kaitlan and Nic, as well.

Next, we are keeping our eye on President Biden, who is now in Houston where he is set to meet with Texans impacted by that brutal winter storm, but he may face questions about this Khashoggi report, no doubt.

New details about the airstrike that President Biden ordered in Syria and second target that what was scrapped at the last minute.

Plus, the acting Capitol Police chief is warning that the threat is not over from the insurrectionist. What she shared about plots to blow up the Capitol when the president addresses Congress.

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