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Senate Begins Debate on $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Bill; U.S. Economy Adds 379,000 Jobs in February; Mississippi Governor Doubles Down on Lifting Mask Mandate; NYT & WSJ: Cuomo Aides Altered Report on Nursing Home Deaths; Governor Cuomo's Accuser Speaks Out About Sexual Harassment Claims; Federal Investigators Examine Communications Between U.S. Lawmakers and Capitol Rioters. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 5, 2021 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:26]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Friday morning to you. It is Friday. I'm Jim Sciutto. Poppy is off today.

The breaking news this hour. Right now the Senate is kicking off debate on President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. Despite expected attempts by Republicans today to stall a vote, Democrats are expected to pass the stimulus bill this weekend with Vice President Kamala Harris likely deciding the -- casting, rather, the deciding vote.

Remember, millions of Americans are still struggling right now. And they are on edge over this. A new Monmouth poll shows that 6 in 10 Americans support the bill. Just moments ago, the jobs report released. The numbers far better than expected. The U.S. economy added 379,000 jobs last month. The unemployment rate fell slightly to 6.2 percent. The expectation has been around 200,000 new jobs.

It is a positive signal for the labor market, but the nation is still down nearly 10 million jobs nearly one year into the pandemic. Ten million Americans.

Let's begin on Capitol Hill with CNN's Jessica Dean.

As the Senate finally begins three hours of debate on the coronavirus relief deal after they had to read every single word of that, kind of a ploy by Republicans to delay this. Despite all those delays, does a vote happen, and when that vote happens, does this pass?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning to you, Jim. Yes, the vote is certainly going to happen. The question is now timing. To get to your point, we just don't know exactly how long this is going to take. And I'll explain why all of that is. But we do expect the vote to happen, and we do expect this $1.9 trillion package to pass through the Senate. So this starts at 9:00 a.m. So right about now the Senate is gaveling in. That's going to start three hours of debate. You see them right there. Three hours of debate evenly split among

both sides over this bill. After that is complete, we're estimating that's around noon today. That's when vote-a-rama begins. And it sounds like a very fun term but what it means is they can introduce as many amendments and senators can introduce as many amendments as they want and it can go on as long as they want it to.

So it's a question of stamina, how long they want to be here, how long they want to stretch this out. When vote-a-rama begins, look to Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders is likely to introduce the first amendment. It will be that $15 minimum wage. Now we expect that they will not have enough votes to pass that. The key here for Democrats is they want to stay united. President Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have both indicated they don't want them voting on any of these amendments.

The key for Republicans, they want Democrats taking tough votes on things like immigration. They want Democrats taking tough votes on energy. But you look there at what's in this $1.9 trillion bill. It is big. It has support for small business. $1400 direct payments to people. School -- money to schools, money to states, cities, local governments. There's a lot in this 628-page bill.

One note to tell you about, Jim, last night you mentioned that the clerks who are nonpartisan, they're not political, had to read the 628-page bill in its entirety at the request of Senator Ron Johnson. When that wrapped up in the middle of the night, Jim, Senator Chris Van Hollen rose up and said he wanted to start Senate business at 9:00 a.m. with three hours of debate versus 20 hours. So after all of that, we're actually running a little bit ahead of schedule -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, that's nice to hear.

(LAUGHTER)

SCIUTTO: Doesn't always happen on the Hill.

DEAN: So we'll just see how long it takes. Yes.

SCIUTTO: That way. Jessica Dean, thanks so much.

DEAN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Joining me now, CNN's chief business correspondent Christine Romans and Catherine Rampell, a CNN economics and political commentator. She's also a "Washington Post" opinion columnist.

Thanks very much to both of you.

Christine, let's start with these job numbers. Let's dig into the number here. Listen, this is good news, right?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

SCIUTTO: 379,000 Americans found work in the month of February, well beyond forecast. Who, where and why? ROMANS: So these are jobs added back that were lost in the first

place. Not necessarily new jobs.

SCIUTTO: Right.

ROMANS: And you can see that almost all of these are bars and restaurants. Waiters and waitresses and bartenders. These are the reopenings you're seeing in parts of the country where businesses are reopening again and these people are getting back to work. A reminder that much of this economy is run by an army, a small army of low-wage workers who work part-time jobs in hospitality. So that's about 4/5 of that job gains there. But, you know, it's a deep hole we're in.

[09:05:02]

I mean, we're still down 9.5 million jobs since the pandemic began. And those leisure and hospitality workers, they're still down 20 percent, you know. 3.5 million of those jobs are still gone. So this is all about the hole that we're crawling out of. I want to be really clear about that. But you can see those reopenings having an effect on job creation in the month -- the low end of the wage spectrum.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Still a deep hole.

Catherine Rampell, you know the politics of this. Republicans before these numbers were already saying, listen, the economy is recovering. We don't need this big $2 trillion relief bill. Now worries about inflation later in the year. What's the response to that?

CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the response is you have to put these numbers in context. This was a positive jobs report, absolutely, but even if we continued at the same pace of job growth that we had in February, it would take another two years before we recovered all of the jobs in that jobs hole Christine was just talking about, you know, from the number that we lost last spring.

So we are not out of the woods yet. There are still a lot of suffering out there. If you look at the numbers for, you know, food insecurity, housing insecurity, et cetera, those are jarring, frankly. And even though we are on the path to recovery, we're not done yet. As long as the pandemic is still ongoing, there's going to be a lot of suffering out there.

SCIUTTO: Christine, tell us what you hear about the inflation risk, the threat of rising prices.

ROMANS: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Who is worried about that? Who is not worried about that?

ROMANS: Wall Street is worried about that. I mean, they're looking ahead to a strong economy later this year, next year. They are starting to worry about the strong economy maybe sparking inflation. The Fed has to raise interest rates. Come on. Main street does not have the luxury of looking ahead to 2021, last half of 2021, 2022. There's a real crisis right now paying bills, paying for food. Wondering if you're going to have unemployment checks.

I mean, 18 million people rely on the government for some form of jobless benefits. So I would say there's a real stark disconnect here with what Wall Street is worrying about and some in Congress who, by the way, the recovery so far has benefited only the elites. I mean, 100 percent, any recovery in the economy has benefited the elites, not working people. So really important here that the right now is not overlooked for the -- maybe down the road you're going to have a gangbusters economy.

SCIUTTO: Catherine, can you explain to me the GOP politics on this, right? Because the COVID relief bill is popular. Big majorities in the country. 60 percent, 70 percent in public polling support the COVID relief bill here. When they, you know, delay a vote on this, reading out every word of the bill to push this back, does that work politically for Republicans?

RAMPELL: It's very confusing, frankly, because this bill is tremendously popular. Nearly every component of it is tremendously popular. And you don't even really hear Republicans trying so hard to attack the bill on the merits, perhaps because they know that their constituents are in favor of it. Instead, it's a lot of whining about process and about supposedly broken promises of bipartisanship and unity, whereas President Biden, of course, has asked for Republicans to weigh in.

Republicans' own voters have asked for them to support this legislation. But I think that they just don't want to hand Biden a victory.

SCIUTTO: Yes, it gets to the political incentives, too. Right? You get punished for handing the other side a victory in any circumstances.

Christine Romans, Catherine Rampell, thanks so much to both you.

ROMANS: Nice to see you, Jim.

RAMPELL: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves is doubling down on his decision to lift the state's mask mandate saying the people of Mississippi don't need handlers.

CNN's Ryan Young is in Mississippi.

Ryan, just one of at least 15 states that are now easing restrictions. Of course, Texas among them, too. Cases there already ticking up slightly. I wonder how the people of Mississippi that you've spoken with are feeling about this. Because, listen, I get the desire to get back to work, right, to get restaurants open, businesses, they want to survive. Why not do it with masks on?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know what, it's an interesting conversation hearing you talk about the economy and so many people here have been referring to the economy and the fact they want to get back to being open. We went to several different restaurants throughout the city of Jackson and you could see it was packed. It was having an immediate impact. Some people wearing masks on the way in. Some people not wearing masks.

There's a big push here for vaccinations as well. And if you look back this direction, we're about an hour away from this site being opened. It's really a small line so far here. The National Guard is on standby here to help facilitate this process. Talking to some of the workers there, they are excited about helping their fellow Mississippians get this shot.

[09:10:04]

But, of course, the governor has been talking about the fact that the rates here, hospitalizations have plummeted and so have the case numbers. So people felt pretty comfortable with sort of returning back to normal. There's been a mixed bag, though, when you start talking to people sort of at these restaurants about what they have experienced because some people have dealt with COVID. Others haven't.

So they really think that it's time to get rid of the mask. When you talk to some folks, other businesses don't want to be shut down again. So they're saying hey, we need to keep a hold of these. In fact, take a listen to one of the mayors in this state talking about COVID.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR ERRICK SIMMONS, GREENVILLE, MISSISSIPPI: We are at a crucial moment in the fight against this disease. And the path is unclear. We cannot relax. We cannot loosen restrictions. We cannot lift mask mandates. We cannot let our guards down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YOUNG: Jim, we've been having this conversation and especially when you have people who are on the lower spectrum and are struggling for basic health care needs, it's tough to say to some folks, hey, don't wear the mask because you know how devastating it can be if they were to catch COVID.

Add on to the fact here there has been a water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, and there are people who are sort of stretched thin and they are hoping that a lot of folks will continue to wear their mask because they don't want to see a hospital influx happen again. It's a conversation that people will be watching.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

YOUNG: As the numbers sort of go up and down.

SCIUTTO: Ryan Young, good to have you there. Thanks very much.

Still to come this hour, explosive reports overnight allege that aides to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rewrote data on nursing home deaths in the state. An apparent effort to hide a higher death toll. We'll have more on that, next. Plus, federal investigators are examining communications between

members of Congress and some of the rioters who attacked the Capitol violently on January 6th. What the data shows and exactly when these calls and texts took place. What does it mean? Did they help them?

And more states are dropping mask requirements and other COVID-19 precautions despite warnings. Could we see another spike as a result as we head in the spring?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00]

SCIUTTO: Political pressure is mounting on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo amid not one, but two crisis facing him and his administration. First, there is new reporting from "The New York Times" and "Wall Street Journal" alleging that top advisors to the governor altered a State Health Department report to conceal and undercount the actual number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. This as one of the women accusing Governor Cuomo of harassment speaks out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLOTTE BENNETT, GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO ACCUSER: He is a textbook abuser. He lets his temper and his anger rule the office, but he was very sweet to me for a year, in the hopes that maybe one day, when he came on to me I would think we were friends or that it was appropriate or that it was OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: CNN's Athena Jones is covering the news live from Albany. Athena, let's begin if we can, on what we learned about nursing home data here. How much did his administration attempt to undercount this actual figure, and how are they now responding to that allegation?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Jim. Well, look, "The New York Times" spoke to six people with direct knowledge of this. This all started last Summer when the State Department of Health issued a report focusing on COVID deaths in long-term care facilities.

Now the original report, which was not made public at the time listed the number of nursing home deaths at nearly 10,000. But "The Times" and the "Wall Street Journal" are reporting that a senior aide to Governor Cuomo altered that report, cutting the number of deaths nearly in half. That meant that the state was not counting nursing home deaths that happened after those patients were transferred to hospitals as their conditions worsened, and that they died there.

So, the tension over this death count stems from or dates back to March of last year when the governor issued an order that prevented long-term care facilities from turning away any patients who had been treated at hospitals for COVID-19. Now critics say that, that order fueled the spread of the virus in those facilities. Governor Cuomo has said he was following federal guidelines and if these facilities were not equipped to handle these patients, they should not have accepted them back.

Now in response to the reports overnight, the special counsel to Governor Cuomo said "the out of facility data was omitted after DOH" -- that's Department of Health, "could not confirm it had been adequately verified. This did not change the conclusion of the report which was and is that the March 25th order was not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities."

The State Department of Health is also responding saying, "while early versions of the report included out of facility deaths, the COVID taskforce was not satisfied that the data had been verified against hospital data, and so the final report used only data for in-facility deaths which was disclosed in the report." DOH was comfortable with the final report and believes fully in its conclusion that the primary driver that introduced COVID into the nursing homes was spread, brought in by staff.

Now, the state attorney general reported -- report in January found that the number of deaths had been severely undercounted by the Cuomo administration. That prompted Governor Cuomo to release the complete data. And this was just in the past few weeks.

[09:20:00]

At the time, he claimed that it had been withheld, this accurate data had been withheld because of concerns about an investigation by the Trump administration. The governor said he regrets the way this was handled and should have done a better job of handling the information, and as we know, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn are looking into the handling of this COVID data. Jim?

SCIUTTO: OK, it raises serious questions there. OK. On the other --

JONES: It does --

SCIUTTO: Issue one of Cuomo's accusers has described in great detail now her interactions with the governor. Tell us more. I mean, we heard something from her interview with "CBS" there. What more have we learned from her now?

JONES: Right, this was an emotional and compelling interview from Charlotte Bennett, his former aide. We know that she was not satisfied with his apology on Wednesday. And she has called his actions predatory. She spoke more about this with "CBS". Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENNETT: I think it's really strategic. I think abusers look for vulnerabilities, previous traumas, the idea that maybe I'm more willing to accept behavior because I have a history of sexual violence. Perhaps I am not as confident in myself because of my history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You think he knew that?

BENNETT: Yes. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You think he was grooming you?

BENNETT: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: Now, when reached for comment on Friday morning, Cuomo's office said they did not have a new statement, referred us back to that apology on Wednesday. Of course, the question now is, how much does this raise the stakes for the governor and will his other accusers come forward with a television interview just like this one. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Athena Jones, thanks very much. Let's go now to CNN political commentator Errol Louis, he's host of the "You Decide" podcast. So, Errol, let's begin. I mean, there are two major controversies here. But let's begin on the nursing home deaths.

You've heard the way "The New York Times" and "Wall Street Journal" tell it as a deliberate hiding, right, of this data. Governor's story is, listen, the deaths at that point were verified, we were following guidance from the Feds and from the Department of Health. Do you buy that? And --

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well --

SCIUTTO: What should the consequences be for this?

LOUIS: We've had shifting explanations. You know, we -- the first explanation was that they were following CDC guidance. Then we got the explanation that they were trying to avoid getting into a problem with the Trump administration, that there was a Justice Department probe and they didn't want to give more information that might be used against them was the phrase that was used.

And that, we have this revelation, this -- again, it's not a disclosure from the administration. This is just some good reporting from the "Wall Street Journal" and "New York Times" finding out that lo and behold, that there's yet another version of how the information was treated. The consequences are going to be determined by the Justice Department.

They're probing them for a reason because you can't lie to everybody, the public, the state legislature and the federal government and expect to get away with it.

SCIUTTO: Yes, OK, so, you have at the same time now three women who accused the governor of inappropriate behavior. What strikes me here broadly is the Democratic Party's response to this and how different it is, for instance, from the response to Al Franken where the accusations were less serious. There was an immediate rush to push him out. Now, you have sort of the Democrats saying, well, let's see how the investigations pan out, et cetera. Do they have this wrong here? And when you look at this, should the governor resign over what we know already? LOUIS: Well, at the local level, there are 212 legislators in New

York State, and not one has come forward to say that they think everything the governor did was OK. So, in some ways, the script is a little bit flipped. There are a number of calls for his resignation, but the governor has said he's not going to resign.

He says he doesn't work for his fellow politicians, he works for the people who elected him. And he's got a re-elect coming up next year and that's the forum in which he'd like to see this resolved. Unfortunately, there's something else that's going on which is that he's not getting a lot of cooperation. They're not negotiating a budget the way they should.

They are taking away -- the legislature is taking away some of his emergency powers to battle the pandemic. He's openly feuding and warring with the mayor of the biggest city, New York City. Government is slowly grinding to a halt. And so, you know, while we'd love to see a full investigation and the governor would like to see this resolved at the ballot box next year, we may not get to that point.

SCIUTTO: Errol Louis, thanks very much.

LOUIS: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Well, federal investigators are trying to find out if lawmakers knowingly or unknowingly may have helped insurrectionists on January 6th. They've discovered communications between lawmakers and some who participated. We'll have details, next.

[09:25:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: New this morning. House Impeachment Manager Eric Swalwell has just filed a civil lawsuit against former President Trump and some members of his inner circle, alleging they are accountable for inciting the January 6th insurrection. Let's go right to Jessica Schneider with the breaking details. Jessica, this lawsuit targets not only Trump, but his son, Trump Junior, Rudy Giuliani and more. What's the substance of this and where does this go from here?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so, Jim, this lawsuit is actually a lot more robust than the one we saw last month from a Democratic congressman. In that, really, these claims, they're more expansive. And as you mentioned, the lawsuit names not only.