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Cuomo Accuser Speaks Out; Senate Debates COVID Relief Package. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 5, 2021 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:41]

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: Hello. And thanks so much for joining us. I'm Bianna Golodryga, in for Brooke Baldwin.

Under way right now, senators are debating specific pieces of President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, the last major hurdle before voting. But support for the stimulus is extremely narrow, and many Republicans who oppose it are determined to draw out the process, forcing the 628-page bill to be read aloud on the Senate floor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): This isn't the pandemic rescue package. It's a parade of left-wing pet projects that are ramming through -- they're ramming through during a pandemic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: Also today, political pressure is rising for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" are reporting that some of his top advisers changed a Health Department report to hide the higher number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

Plus, the investigation into the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The feds are now examining communications between members of Congress and some of the rioters who stormed the building. We will look into when some of these calls and texts took place.

But, first, let's get back to what's happening in the Senate.

CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju with live on Capitol Hill.

Manu, I know one of the last-minute changes was an agreement to extend unemployment benefits. What other compromises have been made today?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, actually, Bianna, action has ground to a complete halt in the Senate over major concern among Democrats that one of their members, Joe Manchin, may break ranks and join with Republicans and change the jobless benefits in the bill.

And that could upset the very delicate compromise that they have reached between progressives and moderates in the House and the Senate. And so, as a result, behind the scenes, there is a furious lobbying effort behind this to try to get Joe Manchin to support a last-minute deal that was reached between the White House and Democratic leaders on those jobless benefits.

Now, in the underlying bill, itself, there's $400 in jobless benefits that would have happened per week that would occur through August. Now, what the Democrats had agreed to with the White House, the leadership, to extend that for an additional month, through September, but also bring down that level to $300 a week, in addition to that, ensure that the first $10,200 of jobless benefits would not be taxed.

Now, I am told from multiple sources that Joe Manchin is concerned about that aspect of this proposal, the $10,200 of tax-free benefits. And as a result, he is withholding the support for a critical amendment that would be added to the bill.

And if he votes no, that amendment will go down. Also, on top of that, there is an alternative Republican plan that would extend jobless benefits at $300 a week through July. That's being offered by Senator Rob Portman. That does not have the tax-free benefits as part of that plan. Joe Manchin, I'm told, is supporting the Republican plan.

And Republican leaders behind the scenes are trying to get all 50 of their members behind this alternative plan. So, the concern among Democrats is that there could be 51 votes to amend the bill with the Republican plan that would pare back jobless benefits and, as a result, throw a wrench into this effort by Democrats to get the bill out of the Senate, and then back to the House for final passage by their deadline of March 14, when so many these jobless benefits expire.

So, right now, behind the scenes, this effort is taking place to try to see if there's any sort of resolution. And for more than three hours, Bianna, there has been no action the Senate floor as they have been trying to resolve this dispute.

We had been expecting just dozens and dozens of amendments to be voted on by now. But nothing has happened because all this riding on jobless benefits and concerns that any changes here could essentially undercut and derail the larger $1.9 trillion relief plan that is central to Joe Biden's agenda -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: A last-minute surprise from Senator Manchin quickly now turning into something that Democrats are alarmed over.

Manu Raju, thank you so much.

Well, the fight over COVID relief comes as the U.S. sees new cases of the coronavirus plateau, with several states now pushing forward with lifting restrictions, something that health experts warn may jeopardize recent progress.

CNN's Nick Watt has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The mask mandate in Mississippi is no more. The governor says his people don't need handlers. Many of them agree.

KRIS KWITZKY, OWNER, KWITZKY'S DUG OUT: If you don't feel well, don't go out. Or if you don't feel well and you have to go out, wear a mask.

[15:05:05]

WATT: But mask mandates reduce COVID-19 case counts and deaths, according to more data published today by the CDC.

ANDY SLAVITT, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER FOR COVID RESPONSE: Wear a mask now, so we can get to a place where you don't have to.

WATT: More than 65,000 new COVID cases confirmed across this country yesterday, way too high for us to be throwing away masks, throwing open doors, say the feds.

So, where is that place when rollbacks will be OK?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIAID DIRECTOR: I would say less than 10,000. And maybe even considerably less than that.

WATT: Case counts were heading there, but plateaued about 10 days ago. Could be fatigue, complacency and/or those more contagious variants kicking in.

FAUCI: Also, I would like to see a substantial proportion of the population vaccinated.

WATT: And this is the mantra.

DR. PAUL OFFIT, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: Climb into whatever lifeboat you can get. I mean, we shouldn't -- whatever vaccine you can get, get.

WATT: But Detroit just declined the shipment of Johnson & Johnson's single-shot vaccine.

MIKE DUGGAN (D), MAYOR OF DETROIT, MICHIGAN: Moderna and Pfizer are the best. And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the city of Detroit get the best.

SLAVITT: We have been in constant dialogue with Mayor Duggan, who said -- in fact, that was not what he said.

WATT: Well, it is what he said. Maybe he misspoke. Either way, it's wrong. All three vaccines are:

FAUCI: Extraordinarily effective in preventing severe disease. And we don't compare one to the other. The only way that you can effectively do that is by having head-to-head comparisons in a clinical trial, which was not done.

WATT: More than 10 percent of American adults are now fully vaccinated, but still no CDC guidance on how they should behave.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: These are complex issues and the science is rapidly evolving. We are making sure and taking the time to get this right. And we will be releasing this guidance soon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: Now, something very interesting just happened in West Virginia. The governor just said that, as of tomorrow, bars, restaurants, gyms can all open 100 percent.

But no matter how many times he says he hates wearing a mask, Governor Jim Justice says he will continue wearing a mask. He's keeping his mask mandate and is telling everybody to obey it, because there is a pretty solid school of thought that, for now anyway, these really are our best way back to some kind of normal -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Big difference from what we heard from the governor of Texas.

Nick Watt, good to see you, my friend. Thank you so much.

Well, here with me now to talk about all of this is infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, as well as CNN medical analyst Dr. Celine Gounder. She's also a former member of the Biden/Harris transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.

Doctor, great to see you.

So, from a realistic standpoint, would the messaging be better to focus right now more on masking mandates, as opposed to lifting restrictions? Because, as you know, states are doing it anyway.

DR. CELINE GOUNDER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Yes, I really do think we need to be doubling down on masking in this moment.

We have seen cases, hospitalizations and deaths plateau. Where this has happened in other countries, and as well as in our own epidemic here in the United States, this is a sign that cases, hospitalizations and deaths are about to go up again. Some of this is probably related to behavior, people letting down their guard, socializing with family and friends in person without masks, without being in a well- ventilated place outdoors.

And there is no question that the variants are very much on our mind, in particular, the U.K. variant, which is more infectious, more transmissible, spreading more easily from one person to another and also more virulent, so causing more severe disease.

And by the end of March, by the end of this month, it is predicted that the U.K. variant will become the dominant variant in the United States.

GOLODRYGA: It's so important to remind people who, no fault of their own, are ready to move on. They are exhausted from being indoors.

I saw a sign in New York City today that said: "Hang in there. We're almost there. Spring is almost here."

And yet there are still these concerns. So, when it comes to what that number is going to be in terms of when we can start to ease up, we heard from Dr. Fauci today, and he said that the U.S. should not be loosening restrictions until daily new cases fall below 10,000; 10,000 was the first time that we heard a specific number from him.

This really would be a big development. The question is, when are we going to get there?

GOUNDER: I think we really need to focus on vaccinating those at highest risk right now.

[15:10:00]

So, we have already gotten a good start in the elderly, especially in long-term care facilities, but really trying to reach everybody who is over 65 and maybe down a bit further into middle-age groups, and then people with chronic medical conditions, so conditions like heart disease or diabetes that we know predispose people to more severe disease and death.

And if we can really focus on vaccinating those highest-risk groups, that will have -- make a big difference in terms of reducing the risk of severe COVID hospitalization and death, which is really the goal in all of this.

GOLODRYGA: Using all three vaccines, that's key, J&J, Pfizer and Moderna, correct?

GOUNDER: That's right.

And I think it's unfortunate that the Detroit mayor, Mayor Duggan, is reinforcing some of these misconceptions. And I think, to Dr. Fauci's point, these were not studied head to head. They were studied in different contexts, different geographies, at different time points during the pandemic.

GOLODRYGA: Right.

GOUNDER: And so what you really want to focus on is, did these prevent hospitalization and death? And they were all 100 percent effective with respect to that.

GOLODRYGA: And that's we want to hear, 100 percent effective.

Dr. Celine Gounder, always great to see you. Thank you so much.

Well, soon, we will hear from President Biden, when he hosts an event on the COVID relief bill. We will bring you his remarks as soon as we get them.

Plus: The crisis deepens from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Multiple reports say his top aides rewrote a nursing home report from state health officials, hiding the true death toll.

Also, one of the governor's accusers is speaking out in a new interview on her sexual harassment claims.

And federal investigators now looking at communications between members of Congress and the pro-Trump mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol to see if lawmakers helped the insurrectionists.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:16:28]

GOLODRYGA: Pressure is building today on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as not one, but two separate crises have deepened overnight.

First, there is new reporting from both "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" that alleges top advisers to the governor rewrote a Health Department report in order to hide the actual number of COVID deaths within nursing homes, all of this as one of the women who has leveled harassment accusations against Cuomo is speaking out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLOTTE BENNETT, 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)

GOLODRYGA: CNN's Athena Jones is following the latest details.

Athena, starting with the nursing home numbers, how and what exactly was altered in those reports?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Bianna.

Well, this is an example of more problems piling on for the governor. "The New York Times" spoke with six people with direct knowledge. This all started with a -- last summer with a report put out by the state Health Department, focusing on COVID-related deaths in long-term care facilities.

Now, the original version of the report, which was never made public, listed the number of nursing home deaths at nearly 10,000. But "The Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" are reporting that senior aides to Governor Cuomo rewrote that report, cutting that number of COVID- related deaths nearly in half.

Now, that meant that the state was not counting those nursing home residents whose conditions worsened and were transferred to hospitals and died there. The tension over this death count dates back to March of last year, when the governor put out an order that prevented long- term care facilities in the state from turning away patients who had been treated at hospitals for COVID-19. Critics of that policy said almost from the start that it was going to

cause problems and that it was responsible for a surge in infections, coronavirus infections, in those facilities.

Now, Cuomo has said he was following federal guidelines and that, if these facilities were not equipped to handle these patients safely, they should not have taken them on. In response to the reports, the special counsel to Governor Cuomo said in a statement: "The out-of- facility data was omitted after DOH," the 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 25 order was not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities."

The statement goes on to say: "COVID task force officials did not request that the report conclude the March 25 order played no role."

The state Health Department is also responding. Here's what they said: "While early versions of the report included out-of-facility deaths, the COVID task force 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, we know from the state attorney general's report in January that the Cuomo administration has been accused of severely undercounting deaths in those long-term care facilities. This forced or pushed Cuomo to finally release a full picture of that data. At the time, he said that that data had been held back out of concerns about a preliminary investigation by the Trump administration.

But the governor has said he regrets how he handled this and he should have done a better job of handling the information. But the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of New York -- that's in Brooklyn -- they're looking into the handling of this data.

[15:20:09]

So, certainly a compounding of the problems facing the governor just on this one issue -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: I mean, look, Athena, we have evidence of him bragging and touting that the low number of nursing home deaths. I mean, these aren't just a few 100 cases or a few cases, we're talking about thousands of lives here.

Athena Jones, thank you so much. I know you will continue following this.

Well, these new reports of Cuomo aides editing out nursing home deaths run directly counter to what the governor has claimed. Here he was in last January.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): If you look at New York state, we have a lower percentage of deaths in nursing homes than other states. A third of all deaths in this nation are from nursing homes.

New York state, we're only about 28 percent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: Joining me now is Democratic New York State Assembly member Zohran Mamdani.

Zohran, thank you so much for joining us.

So, state officials have argued that the edits made were done over concerns about accuracy. Do you buy that?

ZOHRAN MAMDANI (D), NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLYMAN: Not at all.

GOLODRYGA: Why not?

MAMDANI: Because this is just one instance of a larger pattern, where Governor Cuomo has committed willful and acts of misconduct in office, which is the standard for impeachment. We're looking at this report that came out last night.

We're looking at when Melissa DeRosa made those comments to my colleagues about the fact that they withheld information because they thought it might be used on them in a federal investigation.

It's just on and on and on with this governor. And we know what his behavior actually is. This is not just one example.

GOLODRYGA: Well, you say that the governor should be impeached over the nursing home deaths. Do you have enough political support to actually do that?

MAMDANI: I would say that it's growing by the day.

Every single day, we hear of another instance of something that he's done with regards to nursing homes, with regards to sexual harassment allegations. At this point, there are three -- every single day, the appetite and the interest within the legislature grows to hold this governor truly accountable.

GOLODRYGA: And turning to the sexual harassment allegations that you just noted, one of his accusers just spoke out yesterday. Here's what Charlotte Bennett said to CBS News.

(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'm not as confident in myself because of my history. QUESTION: You think he knew that?

BENNETT: Yes.

QUESTION: You think he was grooming you?

BENNETT: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: So, Governor Cuomo apologized earlier this week, but did not admit to any inappropriate behavior.

Now that one of the accusers is painting a different picture of their interaction, does that make you question what the conclusion of this investigation that's currently under way will lead to? What do you expect it to prove?

MAMDANI: I expect that the investigation will show us what we already know.

And I would also just contend with the characterization of what the governor said as an apology. I thought it wasn't a complete non- apology. He was saying sorry if someone had misconstrued his actions or if someone was offended.

When you ask someone if they are willing to sleep with older men, when you ask them if -- when you tell them that you are lonely, when you basically, in many different ways, proposition them for sex, that is not a question of if they are offended or if they took it the wrong way.

It's very clear what you're trying to do. And he has not disputed what the allegation has been in that case. He has simply tried to characterize it differently, ridiculously, as mentorship or as friendly banter.

GOLODRYGA: Do you know of any other names that will come forward in New York state politics that will also be calling for his resignation?

MAMDANI: There are already, I would say, about 10 or so names that have come forward publicly to call for his resignation and/or impeachment.

And I believe that, in the coming days, we will see more and more legislators willing to hold this governor truly accountable.

GOLODRYGA: Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

MAMDANI: You're very welcome. Thank you so much.

GOLODRYGA: Well, we are waiting to hear from President Biden any minute now on the push for COVID relief, that as the Senate prepares for a long night ahead. Plus: new questions about connections between lawmakers and those who attacked the Capitol. What's being learned about their communication in the days before the insurrection?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:29:24]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is important. And I appreciate you being willing to come and tell your stories.

I wanted this to be a conversation about what the impact of the $1,400 that our plan has for every American out there, and to make sure that I understand what you think is important about it, if you think it's important.

And I also want to know the people you're about to meet, the millions of people we're going to help with this -- I think, with this check, that it's going make a big difference in terms of their lives.