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Biden Vows Enough Vaccines for All U.S. Adults by the End of May; Texas, Mississippi Lift Mask Mandates and Allow Businesses to Reopen; FBI Warns of Extremist Chatter to Attack U.S. Capitol Tomorrow; Air Base Hosting U.S. Troops in Iraq targeted in rocket attack; Growing Number of New York Democrats Call on Governor Cuomo to Resign. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 3, 2021 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


President Biden has made a bold pledge. He is vowing to have enough vaccines for every adult in the country by the end of May. And he's pushing for all teachers to get their first dose by the end of this month. But as those timelines dramatically speed up, and that's good news, some states are already rolling back key restrictions that have kept coronavirus under wraps.

HARLOW: That's exactly right. You have the governors of both Mississippi and Texas now defying recent warnings by the CDC, both lifting mask mandates and green lighting businesses to fully reopen. This is a major gamble as we're seeing the recent drop in new COVID cases and deaths nationwide level off and new variants threaten to wipe out any of the recent progress we've seen.

So let's begin at the White House with Jeremy Diamond. He joins us with more on the best news that I have seen in months, Jeremy.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No doubt, Poppy. This is going to be a relief for many Americans to see that this vaccine timeline is being accelerated. President Biden announcing yesterday that the United States will have enough coronavirus vaccine doses to fully vaccinate every American adult by the end of May. Moving that up from previous timeline of the end of July.

That is being facilitated in part by this new partnership between Johnson & Johnson, which has developed that single shot coronavirus vaccine and Merck, a pharmaceutical company that is normally a competitor for Johnson & Johnson, but in this case, with the help of the Biden administration officials, they are partnering up to scale up Johnson & Johnson's ability to manufacture that coronavirus vaccine.

That is part of the reason why we are seeing this more rapid timeline here. But listen, it's important to note, even as these vaccines are being developed, there are still tough months ahead in this pandemic. And that is the message that we have heard from the CDC director Rochelle Walensky from President Biden just yesterday making clear that now is not the time to take your foot off the gas pedal, and yet that is exactly what we are seeing in the states of Texas and Mississippi, and the White House really saying that that is the wrong move here.

Listen to Andy Slavitt, one of the president's top advisers on the coronavirus, just yesterday.


ANDY SLAVITT, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE TEAM SENIOR ADVISER: We think it's a mistake to lift these mandates too early. So I really hope that the businesses and the community and people in Texas, the mayors, the county, will rethink this. I hope the governor rethinks this. It's only a small piece of cloth that's needed.


DIAMOND: And, of course, there's nothing that the Biden administration can do to actually force these states to implement these mask mandates, even though the president has put in some federal mask mandates as it relates to interstate transportation, for example. But, of course, many of these businesses can still keep those mask mandates in place. And that is something that you will hear from Biden administration officials in the coming days. They are also, of course, working to wrap up this coronavirus relief bill. It is expected to begin moving in the Senate as early as today -- Jim, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching that closely. We know Republicans are trying to slow it down. Jeremy Diamond at the White House.

One week from today, people in Texas will no longer be required to wear a mask. The mask wearing, it seems, has made a difference there.

HARLOW: Yes. Businesses also allowed to open starting next week at 100 percent capacity. Lucy Kafanov joins us in Houston.

You've just heard the White House saying well, we hope that mayors will make a different decision. What do Texans want?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I mean, it's a mixed reaction on the ground. It's a stunning decision by the governor to remove this mask mandate and to allow all businesses starting next Wednesday to open at full capacity with no restrictions because we have not, as a nation, or the state of Texas, turned the corner on this pandemic.

Yes, cases and deaths are down compared to where they were, for example, last December, but they're still at the same level that they were over the summer. We also have this new element of the worrying more contagious variants that are spreading. And actually, I should add that Houston is now the first city in the U.S. to have all major variants documented by genome sequencing.

It doesn't mean that they're not in other cities but they definitely documented all of those here. But the reaction on the ground among ordinary Texans is mixed. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just to rip them off and go back to like it was old times, I don't think it's going to happen. I don't think we're ready for that yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No more six people in the store waiting in a line outside. So silly. Done.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not at that comfort level yet. I don't think our staff is either.


KAFANOV: And, though, you know, this does put it now in the hands of businesses and local officials to decide what to do, whether to continue to enforce those mask mandates, to continue on a local level or in terms of individual businesses.

I want to read you some of the reactions from local officials. The Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said that he is disappointed with the governor's decision to open up and lift the mask mandate. Armando O'cana, the mayor of Mission, Texas, he said that all city buildings will continue to require masks. He said in a statement that the virus is still here even though those precautionary measures taken have been working.

And Eric Johnson, the mayor of Dallas, said that the people of the city should continue to mask up and take all precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19. And, guys, I have to say on a personal level, I hope that my team and I are not going to be back here next month talking to you as we see a surge in deaths and new cases because, again, we have not turned the corner on this pandemic.

HARLOW: Lucy, thank you for that reporting.

SCIUTTO: Well, joining us now to discuss all this is emergency medicine physician, Dr. Richina Bessette. She is the medical director at Baylor College of Medicine, of course, in the state of Texas.

Good morning, Doctor. Thanks so much for joining us. So, you know, it's interesting. I always feel like if leaders read the history books, they would know what to do because if you look back to the 1919 pandemic, you know, data shows the cities that opened too quickly saw a resurgence in the flu then. And that's what the doctors recommend. So what happens in a state like Texas now?

You have the good news of vaccinations accelerating, but now you have a premature drawback of these restrictions. What do you expect to see there?

DR. RICHINA BICETTE, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Well, Jim, not only am I an active emergency medicine physician and frontline worker, but I look at the Texas data almost daily. So to say that I'm petrified doesn't even really explain the gravity and depth of my feelings. Throughout this pandemic, and especially over the last two to three months, Texas has consistently ranked in the top three states that's showing the highest number of daily new cases.

Right now, of the 48,000 people that are hospitalized, 12 percent of those are in the state of Texas. And, yes, the rate of vaccinations is increasing, but we've only fully vaccinated 6.5 percent of the state. Well below what we need for herd immunity here. So I'm definitely a little bit worried and also hopeful that, you know, this decision isn't going to have us turn the corner and get back to where we were at the beginning of January and end of December.

HARLOW: You make such an important point, Doctor. Because on July 2nd when Governor Abbott issued that mask mandate, there were 7310 new cases on that day. On March 1st, two days ago, there were 7778 new cases. Was the decision by the governor based in data and on science?

BICETTE: To be honest, I can't say that I know what the governor was thinking or I know who was on his advisory team, but I know what the data shows. And I am choosing to follow the CDC and the WHO recommendations. I'm choosing to follow the recommendations of science and the recommendations of medicine.

To all Texans, I would recommend that you still continue to wear a mask. Business owners, you do still have the ability to require masks in your business and to limit capacity.

SCIUTTO: So if we can, for a moment, let's talk about the good news, right? I mean, the supply of vaccines is accelerating. And now you have the Biden administration saying enough for every adult in the country by May. I mean, that's just remarkable. Now delivery is another thing. But I wonder, are you already seeing the effects of this in Texas? And do you have hopes at least that the rate of vaccination will increase there markedly in the coming weeks?

BICETTE: Well, we know that there are two major vaccination hubs that are going to be opening within the next week. One here in Houston at the stadium and another in Dallas. So we're definitely hoping to see the rate of vaccinations increase. I think across the nation, we definitely have seen that rise as in the middle of January, we were vaccinating about 800,000 people a day. And as of last week, that number has jumped up to 1.9 million vaccinations per day.

This new collaboration with Merck and Johnson & Johnson is a huge deal. We have two big pharmaceutical giants that are typically competitors working together. So we have all hands on deck and definitely hoping to try to reach herd immunity by this summer.

HARLOW: Do you have any concern, finally, Doctor, about, this was highlighted in "The Washington Post" yesterday. It stood out to me. The fact that the government is sending the J&J single dose vaccine to harder to reach communities, and that does make practical sense. They don't need two shots. But they also fear that it could create sort of a two-tiered system, sort of the even more efficacious, you know, at least on the surface, Pfizer and Moderna vaccine for certain groups of people and the J&J for others?


BICETTE: No. We have to stop looking at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as almost a second class citizen.

HARLOW: Right.

BICETTE: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is extremely effective against what matters most which is protecting against severe disease, preventing hospitalizations and preventing deaths. So it perfectly makes sense that we're putting it in those harder to reach communities because it's easier to manufacture, it's easier to distribute and it's easier to store. So perfect for rural areas.

HARLOW: Thank you, Doctor. We're so glad you joined us.

BICETTE: Thank you so much for having me.

SCIUTTO: Well, still to come this hour, as military leaders prepare to answer questions in the next hour about January 6th insurrection, we are learning of a new threat by extremists to attack the Capitol tomorrow. We're going to speak to a senator on the Homeland Security Committee about that and broader threats. That's coming up next.

HARLOW: Also an escalating crisis for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo after several allegations of harassment and inappropriate behavior. We will speak to a New York lawmaker, a Democrat, who is calling for his resignation.



JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: This just in to CNN. Sources tell myself and my colleague Whitney Wild that the FBI has now warned the Capitol police about a new threat to attack the Capitol tomorrow. Officials sounding the alarm about chatter on social media and the internet of violence. This tied to the baseless conspiracy theory that former President Trump will somehow become president again on March 4th. Military leaders have adjusted the posture of the D.C. National Guard in light of this and other threats in these days. In one hour from now, the commander of the D.C. National Guard will testify on the overall response to the January 6th deadly insurrection. Joining me now to discuss this and the broader threat is California Senator Alex Padilla. He is a member of the Homeland Security and Judiciary Committees. Senator, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

SEN. ALEX PADILLA (D-CA): Thanks for having us on and staying focused on this very important issue.

SCIUTTO: Senator, you heard the reporting just now at the top. To our knowledge, this is based on the FBI sharing a warning with Capitol police based on chatter of an attack on the Capitol tomorrow tied to March 4th. Are you aware of this threat, and how seriously are you and others taking it? PADILLA: Yes, look, very seriously. There's a reason why there's

still National Guard service women and men deployed in the Capitol at this time, and the fencing and the barriers that we see. It's because of what happened on January 6th. We still have yet to hold everybody accountable for what happened on the 6th, and we still haven't made the many changes necessary to secure the Capitol going forward. So this is evolving in very real-time. And frankly, this information from DHS may be officially new, but not really surprising.

SCIUTTO: It's CNN's reporting as well that a review of Capitol security led by retired General Russel Honore will recommend among other things, adding some one thousand Capitol police officers both here in D.C. and in members' home districts, as well as more permanent or longer term fencing around the Capitol, particularly the kind of fencing that can be easily deployed. Retractable and deployable. And I wonder, in light of what you've been briefed on, what you heard from the FBI director yesterday, do you believe those changes are sufficient?

PADILLA: Look, I think there are general categories of changes, maybe some ideas. There's going to be, you know, different types of fencing, you know, different -- maybe levels of increase in the use -- in the number of police officers, for example. I think that's all very fluid. Still it's important to maintain the balance of security and accessibility. We cannot have the Capitol, the symbol of democracy in our nation look like a fortress. It needs to be accessible to the people of this country, and safe, not just for the members but for everyone who works here and everybody who visits here. So I think expect a lot of conversation about the various proposals, but part of securing the location going forward is still understanding completely how January 6th happened. And that's where the ongoing inquiry needs to focus.

SCIUTTO: I'm told that members of the house and the Senate are particularly concerned about their own safety and their family's safety in their home districts, even in their homes. Threats from these kinds of extremist groups. Now, I wonder if you share those concerns for yourself and your family?

PADILLA: Look, I absolutely do share them. Many reasons for why we've seen the rise of domestic violence extremism in recent years. But let me show you, Jim, for the last six years, I served as California's Secretary of State, overseeing elections in the most populous, diverse state in the nation, but active with my colleagues around the country, and we know that January 6th insurrection was all premised on the big lie. The big lie that Donald Trump continues to perpetuate, most recently this weekend at the CPAC conference. So, as long as they're perpetuating the big lie and other disinformation, we have not just the threat of violence, but the real imminent danger of extremists in the nation's Capitol and out the nation. So, you can't take this too seriously.


SCIUTTO: Speaking of the big lie, remarkably, the former Vice President Pence whose own life and the life of his daughter was threatened on January 6th, penned an op-ed today, that again repeats the big lie, citing extensive voter irregularities in the last election to justify new election laws. What's your response to that, to see not just Trump, but Pence and other sitting lawmakers like Ron Johnson continue to spread that lie. What damage does that do?

PADILLA: Yes, look, it's -- any person who's held office, especially, you know, the president, the vice president of the United States, members of Congress, both houses. When we take our oath of office, it is to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Not to uphold and defend conspiracy theories and baseless lies about election integrity. We've seen the consequences. It's not just dangerous. It's just not violence. It is deadly, and it continues to propagate it. So, we've got to keep the focus on the truth and honestly with the American people, and then make the changes necessary to try to hold people accountable and make the changes to keep us all safe going forward.

SCIUTTO: Just very quickly before we go. Last week when we heard from the Capitol police and others on the Hill, they all said, oh, it was an intelligence failure. We didn't hear enough or anything about threats to January 6th. Director Wray yesterday contradicted that. He said that intelligence was shared three times in three different ways with Capitol police. Who do you hold responsible for the failure on January 6th now?

PADILLA: Yes, well, again, those inquiries continue. And the way I painted it last week, you know, I share your frustration. Jim, the way I painted it last week is, did anybody see the house impeachment manager's presentation on how January 6th developed? It was not spontaneous. It did not start that morning. It was months and years in the making. So whether intelligence come in -- this agency shared with that agency. Folks, just look on Facebook and Twitter. It was all there. We all saw it coming. And to take it one step further, you know, the intelligence community and Capitol police says hid behind -- well, there was a gathering in November, didn't turn violent.

A gathering in December didn't turn violent. So January 6th --


PADILLA: Was unexpected. You know, if we learned anything from our experience with foreign terrorist organizations, you should identify when they're test events, test efforts going on to confirm vulnerabilities and exploit them at a future event. That's, in my opinion, what happened on January 6th.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and Wray equated the threat from domestic extremists with international terrorists in his testimony yesterday. Senator Alex Padilla, I said Padilla, since my name gets mispronounced all the time, I want to get yours right, Senator Padilla, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

PADILLA: Thank you, Jim, have a good day.

POPPY HARLOW, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: All right, well, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's troubles are growing. Calls are becoming louder for him to step aside amid allegations of sexual harassment. More on that ahead. Also, looking at the markets this morning ahead of the opening bell, futures are pretty mixed right now. Markets are reacting positively though to the COVID stimulus negotiations. Also boosting investor confidence, President Biden's announcement that the U.S. will have enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May. We'll keep an eye on all of it.



SCIUTTO: At least, ten rockets targeted an air base hosting U.S. troops in Iraq overnight. U.S. coalition officials have not reported casualties or damage. CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon with more. And Barbara, there was an attack last month which the U.S. attributed to Iran and then led to a retaliatory attack. Do we know who is behind this?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: So far, Jim, no word from the U.S. about who may have been behind it. But you're right, of course, this is less than a week after the U.S. responded with a small air strike against a border crossing, trying to push back against these Iranian-backed militias which are -- the U.S. believes are responsible for many of these rocket attacks against U.S. troops inside Iraq. So this is less than a week after that strike which was the U.S. response just yesterday. The Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby talking about how they hoped that the strike the U.S. did would push back the militias, would discourage them for further rocket attacks.

Well, not so fast because now, somebody clearly has launched another attack, ten rockets targeting this base. We are awaiting word on any casualties, any damage. We don't have that yet. One of the big questions now is what is next if the Iranians are testing President Biden, how will the White House now respond, Jim?

SCIUTTO: Yes, no question. It's a test. Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

STARR: Sure.

HARLOW: Well, this morning, a growing number of New York Democrats are calling for Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign or be removed from office. Three women have now accused Cuomo of making unwanted advancements. And this comes as the embattled governor is dealt with another political blow. State lawmakers striking a deal yesterday that would immediately strip him of the emergency powers he was given at the rise of the pandemic. Joining me now, New York Democratic state Senator Alessandra Biaggi; she was the first to introduce legislation to take away those powers from the governor. She also worked in Cuomo's administration herself as an attorney in the executive chamber. Good morning and thank you for your time.

SEN. ALESSANDRA BIAGGI (D-NY): Thank you for having me, Poppy.

HARLOW: Senator, you tweeted last week, "New York Governor Cuomo, you are a monster. It's time for you to go." This was before an independent investigation was agreed on. Now, we know there will be an independent investigation. Do you stand by that decision? Should he still go or should the process of investigating play out?

BIAGGI: So, I am still calling.