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GOP Congressman Facing Troubling Allegations About His Past; Georgia Republicans Pass Bill That Imposes New Voter Restrictions; Biden Meets with Democratic Senators in Final Pitch for COVID Relief Bill; Florida Governor DeSantis Under Fire Over Elite Vaccine Clinics. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired March 2, 2021 - 15:30   ET



ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A truly independent investigation doesn't just mean requesting and receiving documents and recordings if any exist, it also means witnesses, which means the governor himself could be compelled to testify -- Brooke.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Athena Jones. Thank you very much, Athena.

Now to the North Carolina Congressman and rising star, Madison Cawthorn. Who is also facing scrutiny over his past interactions with women and allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Several women allege the 25-year-old freshman Republican lawmaker put them in uncomfortable situations when he was a college student several years ago. His former classmates telling CNN that he would take women on these so-called fun drives as a way to make unwanted advances on them. Cawthorn has denied any wrongdoing. And CNN's Sunlen Serfaty talked to some of these women, she joins me now. Sunlen, what are the women alleging?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, they are alleging some pretty serious allegations. Allegations that Cawthorn when he was in college engaged in what they call, predatory behavior during his time at Patrick Henry College which is in Virginia.

Now many of the women I spoke to, his classmates during that time said that essentially, they always warned, other women warned him about Cawthorn. They said, look, do not get in a car with him. Do not be in a room alone with him.

But for the ones that did take these so-called fun drives with him, and that notably is something that the women told me that Cawthorn himself called these drives. That they said they were very quickly in a situation where they felt uncomfortable. It was often in a very rural area of town, a dark area and that they felt uncomfortable because he would quickly turn their conversation to their sexual experiences.

One woman I spoke to said she was on one of these fun drives, felt uncomfortable right off the bat and he started asking her about her purity ring and her sexual experience. Here is what more she had to tell me.


CAITLAN COULTER, ATTENDED COLLEGE WITH CAWTHORN: His M.O. was to take vulnerable women out on these rides with him in the car and to make advances. He got really upset, you know, he whipped the car around and started going back to campus at 70, 80 miles an hour, one-lane roads, and it was -- it was really scary.


SERFATY (on camera): And that woman Caitlan there told me that it was only after she shut down that conversation, Brooke, that Cawthorn she says turned the car around and responded in a very aggressive manner. And I heard that from many of the women I spoke with for this story. They said once that he was shut down, he got even more persistent and more aggressive.

Now Cawthorn has denied the allegations, and when this first came up over the course of his campaign last year, he did apologize for saying to anyone that he made feel uncomfortable -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: He's also, Sunlen, facing questions about claims that he has made about other incidents in the past including the car accident that left him wheelchair bound. What's that about?

SERFATY: That's right. This is a car accident that happened in 2014 and it has really become the central narrative that he tells about his background as a person, as a candidate, for office and now as a Congressman.

And the way he tells the story, some of the details, it appears he is misconstruing. He is saying -- he says repeatedly as recently as 2017 that he was left for dead in that car by his friend that was also in the car. But his friend in a new interview with "The Washington Post" is disputing that account, and this is the first time that his friend, the driver of the car is speaking up. Saying that that is not what happened. He says I pulled him out of the car the second I was able to.

There are also some inaccuracies about Cawthorn and his claims about potentially going to the U.S. Naval Academy. He says that the car accident was what detailed him from attending the Naval Academy. But in a deposition that we obtained here at CNN from 2017, he testifies, he says that he was rejected from the Naval Academy before his accident. So certainly many questions left still for the now new freshman Congressman, Brooke, and certainly some dark allegations about his past.

BALDWIN: Keep digging, Sunlen, keep digging. Thank you very much. Voting rights in America are under attack. Another state has passed a

bill to limit early and absentee voting but if there was no voter fraud then the question is why?



BALDWIN: In Georgia where the most recent Senate races flipped the state blue, House Republicans have just passed this sweeping election bill. And what it does is imposes more restrictions on ballot drop boxes. Requires more I.D. to vote early, and it would cut back on early voting hours.

So let's start there with CNN political commentator Charlie Dent. He is a former Republican Congressman, and also with us CNN political analyst Astead Herndon. He's a national political reporter for "The New York Times." So gentlemen, good to see you.

Charlie, first to you as we're talking about your party here. Is this the Republican Party strategy, like just totally suppress the vote rather than expanding the tent?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, interesting, Brooke. I mean, when you talk about voter suppression and let's talk about Georgia in particular, I mean President Trump at the time, he really suppressed his own vote during the last election and during the special or the runoff elections by ranting about the election being rigged and about mail-in voting being corrupted.

Well, I'm sitting here in Pennsylvania. We did no-excuse absentee voting for the first time and Republicans did extremely well with this system, Donald Trump did not, but all the other Republicans did. It really had nothing to do with the method of voting.


It had to do with the candidate, in this case Donald Trump and his message. So I think this is a -- I think this is completely overblown. You know, voters will turn out based on, you know, if they are energized, they're enthusiastic or they're angry. That's what drives them out. No vote whichever way is most convenient.

Sure we should do things to make sure that the system has greater integrity. I'm all for drop boxes and by the way, getting rid of drop boxes would be a mistake. It makes voting less convenient.

And finally I would just add too, that I supported voter I.D. in the past but we have to be reasonable about what types of I.D. are out there and make sure, that you know, we're not trying to stop anyone from voting, just trying to make sure it's legitimate.

BALDWIN: But when you cut through it all, Astead, how much of this, we're talking about Georgia, right? We saw how many folks really showed up especially in January for the special elections. I mean how much of this is really about restricting voting access for people of color?

ASTEAD HERNDON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You cannot strip away the realities of what -- who the impact has been on. We know that since Voting Rights Act was forever changed by the Supreme Court removing preclearance that the vast majority both in Georgia and in states across the country, the vast majority of those changes and restrictive voting measures have happened in black and brown communities. And this is a strict kind of political play that we know has become the mantra of the Republican Party at the moment.

Instead of expanding the tent, instead of appealing to majorities in the wake of Donald Trump's slide, they have acted on his big lie, quote, unquote, they are giving it teeth on the state legislature level to actually make it harder for folks to vote.

Now as the former Congressman says, this is not clear that that is all going to impact Democrats. This will have some impact on Republicans, but what this is, is a tacit acknowledgement that the communities, particularly the black and brown communities that helped power the wins in Georgia, they are not seeking to appeal to them. They are not seeking to moderate their policies to -- to get them on their side. They are simply making it harder for them to get to the ballot box.

BALDWIN: For your first point about it backfiring on Republicans -- and Congressman, I'm coming back to you on this -- you know, a lot of Republicans as you know still vote by mail. Do you think, you know, these restrictions could actually end up doing more harm than good for the GOP?

DENT: Oh, absolutely. Take a state like Florida where they have a very robust mail-in voting program. You know, Republicans have been winning there. The last I checked Donald Trump won Florida, you know, the state and federal candidates all did very well.

And in Pennsylvania where I live, we've always had absentee voting and candidly the Republicans were better at it. The Republican state committee was much more aggressive about absentee voting for years until this year when Donald Trump said that there was something corrupted about it. And then Democrats by a 3-1 margin roughly ended up voting by mail more than -- more than Republicans.

So Republicans know how to do it, but if the leader of the party is out there saying the system is rigged and the process is corrupted, well, again, we get back to voter suppression, but he's suppressing his own vote and he's basically telling Republicans not to use a convenient way for them to vote. I mean he's hurting himself. He's hurting the party. This is a terrible blunder. It's self-inflicted. Malpractice.

BALDWIN: Charlie and Astead, thank you both so, so much. I'm sure we'll be talking about this for some time to come as they are trying to standardize this across the country. Thank you both.

A lot of questions today about vaccine inequality across the U.S. In Florida new concerns that more doses are finding their way into the arms of more wealthy, white citizens while other hard-hit communities are left out.



BALDWIN: As doses of the third COVID-19 vaccine go into arms today from Johnson & Johnson, President Joe Biden is working on the economic toll of this pandemic. He has just met with Democratic Senators via Zoom to try to lock down votes for his COVID relief bill.

The meeting really underscores how important it is that the Democrats maintain this narrow majority. If the chamber does indeed result in that 50-50 split that means the Vice President Kamala Harris would act as the tiebreaker.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is live this afternoon for us at the White House. And Phil, what are you hearing about this meeting behind closed doors?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brooke, one person who was on the call told me it was a little bit of a pep talk, 15 minutes, the president getting on the call with these Senate Democrats making clear a couple things. One, the urgency of the moment. Two, the fact that he believes this bill is popular everywhere pretty much but within the Republican Conference in the House and Senate. And he's pointing to polls that seem to back that up.

But also underscoring a key thought here as this moves forward for Democrats, and that is that not everybody is going to get everything that they want in this bill. Obviously, there are restrictions as we saw with the $15 minimum wage based on Senate rules. There are other areas in particular that some more progressive Senators would want that they aren't going to get, that some more moderate Senators are going to want that aren't going to get.

But Biden's primary point here was get this across the finish line. Now is the time, this is the moment, and a $1.9 trillion price tag, this is what's necessary to address the dual crises the country's currently facing. Both on the public health and on the economic side.

Now, Brooke, I'm told he did not take questions. There's a more detailed policy discussion with a smaller group of Senators and the president yesterday. And obviously the president's team is closely engaged in terms of what's going to happen next. But I think the overarching point here from the president and frankly the entire administration is they are on the cusp right now of passing the president's cornerstone legislative proposal perhaps in just a couple of days in the U.S. Senate.

But they know there is no margin for error. So the president's primary message doesn't let little things get in the way of what they are about to accomplish if everybody sticks together. And right now Democrats on the Senate, while there are still several issues that are outstanding that they are trying to hammer home between progressives and moderates in terms of targeting specific provisions.

[15:50:03] It does appear like they are on the cusp of passage, but the president making sure keep pushing, keep pushing and see if they can get it over the finish line -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: We're watching. Millions of Americans are watching. Phil Mattingly thank you very much at the White House.

Now this controversy over who is getting access to potential lifesaving COVID vaccines. Listen to this today.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is in a little bit of trouble from both Republicans and Democrats after the state set up these vaccination clinics in at least two wealthy communities, and to get a shot you had to get an invitation.

So the accusation is that this elite group of people could actually skip to the front of the line ahead of senior citizens and others more vulnerable who need the vaccine first. Here is the story from Rosa Flores.


ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Beneath the calming landscapes of Manatee County, Florida is a community outraged.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't like it at all.

FLORES (voice over): After county commissioner Vanessa Baugh recently helped organize a COVID-19 vaccination site at the upscale Lakewood Ranch community allowing people from two affluent, mostly white zip codes to get the shot ahead of 150,000 seniors on the county's waiting list.


FLORES (voice over): She even included a V.I.P. list that included her own name. While fellow commissioners say --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because I was really ticked off.

FLORES (voice over): They were kept in the dark. The move equally angered residents living in affluent and not so nonaffluent neighborhoods.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're in the wrong zip code.

KEN SCHULTZ, MANATEE COUNTRY, FLORIDA RESIDENT: The whole thing to me just smacked of politics, favoritism, elitism and racism.

FLORES (voice over): The Manatee County Sherriff's Office is investigating Baugh after Michael Barfield -- the self-proclaimed citizen watchdog -- filed a complaint with the Sherriff's Office claiming the commissioner may have broken the law by misusing her public position to benefit herself and others.

FLORES: And what does justice look like for you?

MICHAEL BARFIELD, CITIZEN WATCHDOG: Accountability. Accountability and consequences. That's the way our justice system is.

FLORES (voice over): CNN asked Baugh for comment on the investigation and did not hear back. While Baugh admitted to choosing the zip codes --

BAUGH: I want to apologize to all the residents who I have disappointed.

FLORES (voice over): She said it was Governor Ron DeSantis who called Rex Jensen, the CEO of the parent company of Lakewood Ranch, about setting up a vaccine drive there and that she got involved after he called her for help.

Jensen's spokesperson told CNN their involvement in the vaccine drive was only to help identify a site that could accommodate 1,000 people per day.

All this begs the question, why would DeSantis reach out to Rex Jensen to help distribute the vaccine? I tried asking DeSantis about it. But he didn't take my question.

In a statement to CNN, DeSantis' press office said the state has launched several initiatives to target underserved communities and the insinuation that politics play into vaccine distribution in Florida is baseless and ridiculous.

Turns out a similar thing happened at a 55 and over gated community called King's Gate which allowed residents of another place called Grand Palm to get the vaccine.

HARVEY GOLDSTEIN, CHARLOTTE COUNTY, FLORIDA RESIDENT: I'm an active Republican, so I'm a fan of the governor, but I think that this could have been done better.

FLORES (voice over): What do Lakewood Ranch, King's Gate and Grand Palm have in common?

ADVERTISEMENT: Where you live matters.

FLORES (voice over): One of the prominent developers is a donor to the governor, Patrick Neil. Campaign finance records show between 2018 and 2019 he donated $125,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC.

Records show mega conservative donor Richard Uihlein, who has family ties to Lakewood Ranch, also donated $900,000 to the PAC during that period.

Neil Communities did not wish to comment on this story but said it was not involved in the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site.

CNN reached out to Uihlein and did not hear back. REP. CHARLIE CRIST (D-FL): It just doesn't seem fair. In fact it seems

grossly unfair. That's why ...

FLORES (voice over): U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist is asking the U.S. DOJ to investigate whether these vaccine drives benefit DeSantis' political allies and donors.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): I don't think it's an effective political attack, to attack me for vaccinating seniors. Yes, we are aggressively vaccinating seniors.

FLORES (voice over): Carlos Hernandez, the mayor of Hialeah, a mostly Hispanic working class city doesn't buy the governor's answer.

CARLOS HERNANDEZ, MAYOR OF HIALEAH, FLORIDA: I have not been invited again I'm here as a citizen of Hialeah.

FLORES (voice over): Hernandez crashed the governor's recent press conference in the city and says he has been trying to talk to DeSantis since the pandemic started.

HERNANDEZ: He talks about politics aren't involved. Come on. I mean you know what, give me the vaccine.


FLORES (on camera): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declined my request for an on-camera interview for this story. But his press office sent me a statement saying that the governor has launched multiple vaccine initiatives.


Like the one that you see behind me for underserved communities. And Brooke, that is true, but a right doesn't correct a wrong.

BALDWIN: That was incredibly strong reporting, to you and your team, Rosa Flores, thank you for shining a light on the inequalities happening there in Florida. Thank you.

Our breaking news this afternoon continues as President Biden prepares to address the nation with an update on the COVID pandemic. We'll bring it to you live as soon as it happens.