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New York's Cuomo Apologizes Amid Allegations of Sexual Harassment; White House Defends Not Applying Sanctions to the Saudi Crown Prince; Lady Gaga's Dog Walker Speaks Out About the Near-Fatal Attack. Interview with Ron Kim, State Assemblyman (D-NY), Governor Andrew Cuomo's allegations of nursing home deaths and sexual harassment. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired March 1, 2021 - 15:30   ET

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


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BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Just one year ago in March of 2020 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo really became the voice many people across this country listened to for solace in the fight against this pandemic.

This March 1st, Governor Cuomo is under fire after a second former aide has reportedly come forward accusing him of sexual harassment. And let me just read for you what the governor has said in part.

Quote, I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments given my position made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.

CNN's Athena Jones is following this for us today. And Athena, will there be an independent investigation into all of this?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brooke, there most certainly will be. The New York Attorney General Leticia James just putting out a statement saying that her office has now received a referral letter from the executive chamber -- that's the governor's office and his closes aides -- giving the AG's office the authority to carry out this independent investigation.

She said in a statement -- this is part of it.

This is not a responsibility we take lightly as allegations of sexual harassment should always be taken seriously. As the letter states -- the letter from the governor's office -- at the close of the review, the findings will be disclosed in a public report.

And so let's talk about these allegations. The latest allegations coming from 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett. She is the second woman to come forward accusing the governor of sexual harassment. Bennett had been an aide to Governor Cuomo.

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She told the "New York Times" that while the governor never tried to touch her, he spoke in inappropriate ways to her. He asked personal questions about her sex life. He asked if she was monogamous in her relationships. He asked about her opinions about dating older men. He asked if she had had sex with older men, and he told her he was lonely and open to a relationship with women in their 20s -- a relationship to women in their 20s.

Bennet told the "Times" --

I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared. I was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.

Bennett also telling the newspapers she felt compelled to speak out because she wanted to draw scrutiny to, quote, the way Cuomo wields his power.

Now CNN has reached out to Bennett for comment on this accusation. We have not heard back from her and we have not been able to corroborate the allegations. But certainly these allegations have led to an uproar among lawmakers both in Albany and beyond.

Several high-profile Democrats weighing in. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke to MSNBC about this scandal and also about the other still unfolding scandal about the -- the administration, the Cuomo administration's handling of the counting of COVID-related deaths in nursing homes. Listen to what the Congresswoman had to say.

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REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): If these investigations bear out, that, you know, that the details of these allegations are true as well as deliberate misconduct in -- in, you know, these nursing home numbers, it really starts to I think call into question the leadership that we currently have. I don't think that we'd rule anything out in either direction until we get the full facts of the situation.

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JONES: So Ocasio-Cortez and others saying they are not ruling out something as strong as impeachment. No matter how you slice it, this is a governor who is being battered from all sides and it's not clear what impact, yet this is going to have on his political future -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Athena, thank you so much. And among those calling for Governor Cuomo to be impeached is New York State Assemblyman Democrat Ron Kim.

Assemblyman Kim says the governor may have obstructed justice by suppressing information, data on nursing home deaths from the Department of Justice, and that the governor's office underestimated the number of nursing home deaths by up to 50 percent.

Kim also says that on a private phone call that Governor Cuomo berated him, threatened his career and demanded that he issue a fabricated statement. Cuomo's adviser fervently denies that. Assemblyman Ron Kim is with me now. Mr. Kim, welcome.

ASSEMBLYMAN RON KIM (D-NY): Thank you for having me on, Brooke.

BALDWIN: We will get to your conversation with the governor that I just detailed in just a moment, but I want to stay on what Athena was just reporting out. The fact that the governor says that he is, quote, truly sorry to those who might have, quote, misinterpreted the remarks as an unwanted flirtation. What do you make of the governor's choice of words there?

KIM: That is not an apology, Brooke. We all know anyone who has taken a sexual harassment class there's a big difference between intention and outcome. The outcome is that women were hurt. They felt abused and threatened by the governor and that's all that matters, and he should be issuing a genuine apology and thinking about resigning as soon as possible.

BALDWIN: You heard the sound a moment ago from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We've also heard from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We've heard from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. All saying that these appear to be credible charges. You know the governor. What did you immediately think when you read about these allegations?

KIM: The governor is an abuser. I think we all know that by now. And I stand with many of my progressive female Democrats who have already called for his resignation so we can focus on moving our state forward. That doesn't mean that there shouldn't be an investigation into his broad abuse of power because resignation is not an accountability mechanism.

BALDWIN: I hear you using strong words, calling him an abuser. I just want to be crystal clear for everyone watching, again, these are allegations. The governor also, Mr. Assemblyman, has said that he's OK with the Attorney General Leticia James doing the investigation on this. My question to you is do you trust that it will be a fully independent investigation?

KIM: I trust in Attorney General Tish James who also issued a bombshell nursing home report that stated there was 50 percent underreporting of life and death information. But also you have to remind everyone that the governor made an attempt to appoint his own judge all weekend, and it was only --

BALDWIN: Initially.

KIM: -- and it was only when there was massive pushback -- initially -- and there was a massive outcry and pushback by Democrats all across the state. That's only when he agreed that it has to be 100 percent independent. He wasn't there to begin with.

[15:40:00] You had to force his hand. This has to be 100 percent independent.

BALDWIN: Depending on what they find, whatever the results of this investigation may be, what do you want to see happen to the governor?

KIM: Oh, I mean, this is -- this is -- for me it's always been about trying to get to the truth of what happened in last ten months in our nursing homes and long-term facilities.

But as the chair of the Committee on Aging I still have a job to do. There are many mistakes that were made the last ten months and we have to go back and legislate. The current sexual harassment charges are very serious, and there has to be a thorough investigation, and he needs to be held accountable.

BALDWIN: I don't even want to get ahead of myself and ask you what accountability looks like because we just don't know yet what the results are so I'm going to hit pause on that question for now.

I do want to ask you about you and this whole nursing home, you know, scandal. and, you know, I know you say the governor threatened you during a phone call on the subject. Saying that he would -- your word was "destroy" you. I just need to read for everyone, a senior adviser to the governor says this about your phone call.

Mr. Kim is lying about his conversation with Governor Cuomo from Thursday night. I know because I was one of three other people in the room when the phone call occurred. At no time did anyone threaten to destroy anyone with their wrath nor engage in a cover-up. That is beyond the pale and is unfortunately part of a year's long pattern of lies by Mr. Kim against this administration.

Mr. Kim, so for you have you received any follow-up from the governor's office? Have you received any sort of apology?

KIM: I have not received an apology, but I did receive -- after that ten-minute threatening phone call, they did attempt to reach out to me almost eight times, so the governor including himself almost four times the following weekend.

So I felt harassed that weekend. It was only then when I decided that I need to retain an attorney, and I told them anything related to nursing homes you can talk to our attorney because I refused to issue a statement that -- that forces me to lie for that administration and implicate myself in part of their cover-up of nursing home death numbers.

BALDWIN: Assemblyman Ron Kim, thank you, sir, very much.

KIM: Thank you, Brooke. Take care.

BALDWIN: You got it.

We have some breaking news this afternoon on the coronavirus pandemic. A third vaccine heading out to states right now. There is also a warning today from the CDC. Please stay strong. Do not let your guard down.

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BALDWIN: In the next hour, President Joe Biden will be meeting with the Mexican president in the second bilateral meeting with the foreign leader. Today's conversation with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will be virtual of course because of the pandemic and coronavirus will be one of the top topics.

The Mexican president is expected to ask the U.S. to share its COVID- 19 vaccine supply and of course immigration and border security will be on the agenda. So to CNN chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny. There we go at the White House and Jeff, what do you know about this meeting?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, there is a question on the table about this meeting about is the U.S. willing to share some of its COVID-19 vaccine? And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cleared that up very succinctly earlier, she said no. The vaccine is dedicated and being reserved for the use of the United States citizens first so that, you know, certainly was answered there.

But this meeting is going to be the second actually conversation that President Biden and President Lopez-Obrador have had. They spoke on the phone of January 22nd just the week of the inauguration. But this will be their first virtual meeting and still be seeing each other and so many issues to discuss.

Of course, the border first and foremost. We heard earlier today from the Homeland Security Secretary here who said that look, the Trump administration has essentially dismantled the U.S. immigration policy and system. And of course, the president of Mexico supported the former president's view on border issues. So that, of course, is something they start on with a major disagreement on.

But this is just the latest in the series of meetings that President Biden is having. Of course, he met virtually with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week and holding this meeting with the Mexican president again this afternoon in about an hour or so. So clearly just going around the region, if you will, Brooke. But these -- this virtual meeting is certainly front, and center is the border -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Jeff, thank you, and Jeff mentioned Jen Psaki. Today the White House Press Secretary is defending the lack of U.S. sanctions against Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And this comes after Friday's release of that U.S. intelligence report that indicated that the Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi back in 2018. Before being elected president, Biden promised justice for Khashoggi's murder.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered and I believe in the order of the Crown Prince, and I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.

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BALDWIN: So let's go straight to our senior national security correspondent Alex Marquardt. And you know, we know that the White House is defending the actions it has taken. Have they done enough though to live up to what we just saw, candidate Joe Biden's promises?

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ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: And that really is the big difference there, Brooke, and it's certainly not in the eyes of many. In that clip he goes on to say that Saudi Arabia will be held accountable. That was candidate Joe Biden, and in the eyes of many President Joe Biden has not lived up to that and in fact passed on the first chance to really hold Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, accountable.

What the Biden administration has done is to sanction one senior Saudi intelligence official, a protective force that protects MBS known as the Tiger Squad, and to impose what they call the Khashoggi ban which is travel restrictions on 76 Saudis.

We just heard from the State Department. They said that their goal in all this is a recalibration not a rupture of this relationship. The White House has said that going forward their goal is to make sure this doesn't happen again. Listen to how Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, rationalized this earlier today.

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JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We also, from day one, even prior to the release of this report, have recalibrated the relationship, have made clear that it is going to be a shift from how it was approached from the last four years.

That means counterpart-to-counterpart conversations. That means not holding back and voicing concern and pushing for action as it relates to dissidents, or journalists or others being held. And it means making clear that we are not going to support the ongoing war in Yemen, we want to find a conclusion of that war.

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MARQUARDT: So Brooke, this debate erupted on Friday afternoon after the release of this long-waited unclassified report from the intelligence community that said in no uncertain terms that MBS did approve this mission to capture or kill Jamal Khashoggi.

Now a strange thing happened after that report came out. Initially it said there were 21 other men who were also complicit in this murder. A short time later the report was taken down by the Office of Director of The National Intelligence. When it went back up, there were only 18 names who were complicit. So, why did they remove three of those names, and who are they?

Now I asked this of the Office of The Director of the National Intelligence. They had not explained it when this actually happened. And this is what they told me.

An ODNI spokesperson saying we put a revised document on the website because the original one erroneously contained three names which should not have been included.

The did not say why those names shouldn't have been included and what if any role these three me played. But what is clear according to the U.S. intelligence community is that MBS approved of this mission and what's clear is that the Biden administration is not taking direct action against him -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: That is significant as these first initial foreign policy steps are huge tests setting the tone, right, for this administration, especially how we approach this ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. Alex Marquardt with the update, Alex thank you so much.

Back here at home, Lady Gaga's dog walker is speaking out for the first time since someone shot him, left him for dead and then stole two of the singer's French bulldogs. Now those bulldogs have since been returned but a lot of questions remain. We have those details next.

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BALDWIN: Just a short time ago, lady Gaga's dog walker made his first public statement since he was shot while walking the singer's French bulldogs in Hollywood. Ryan Fischer is recovering. The stolen dogs have been returned. CNN's Stephanie Elam is live in Los Angeles. And Stephanie, what us Ryan Fischer saying?

STEPHANIE ELAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is the question that everyone wanted to know. How is he doing? We had heard, Brooke, from the Los Angeles Police Department that he was shot in the torso, that he was expected to recover.

And you look at these pictures that he's posted on Instagram and you can see that obviously he's still very much in the process of recovering, in what he calls a very close call with death. He says he's humbled and grateful for the outpouring of support. And he also -- let's just take a look at what he actually said in his post on Instagram, recounting that exact moment after this happened to him.

He's saying, four days ago -- because this happened Wednesday night -- while a car sped away, and blood poured from my gunshot wound an angel trotted over and laid next to me. My panicked screams calmed as I looked at her. Even though it registered that the blood pooling around her tiny body was my own. I cradled Asia as best I could, thanked her for all the incredible adventures we had been on together, apologized that I couldn't defend her brothers, and then resolved that I would still try to save them, and myself.

So Ryan Fischer was walking Lady Gaga's three French bulldogs but managed to hold on and to protect one of them, Asia, while Koji and Gustav were the ones who were taken. And this just very quick, very brazen attack, when you take a look at the surveillance video that we've seen of this.

And so that one little pup was there with him, shaking and upset, obviously. And then to find out Friday night, Friday evening that a woman found the two dogs and brought them into a police station so that they could all be reunited.

He says that he's very much appreciative to the first responders, including the people who lived and worked nearby. The LAPD as well for responding to them and then just saying he appreciates Lady Gaga, who has been there for him throughout this entire experience. Which has to be completely surreal, to live through something like this when you're just out walking with dogs in the evening.

BALDWIN: It is extraordinary that he survived. Obviously, we wish him well. Got the dogs. I mean obviously still the big question is, who did this? We know police are investigating.

ELAM: And why?

BALDWIN: And why somebody would have done this? You know, she'd offered up the money, but they got the dogs. We'll find out, wishing him the strongest, best recovery ever.

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Stephanie Elam, thank you so much for the update.

ELAM: Glad he's going to live, yes.

BALDWIN: Amen. Thank you.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being here.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.