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New COVID Surge?; Cuomo's Future?; Atlanta Killing Spree. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 17, 2021 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: You are watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being here.

We are learning really disturbing new details in that deadly murder spree in the Atlanta area. This gunman targeting massage parlors killed at least eight people. Police say, at least of now, they're not calling this a hate crime, even though six of these victims were Asian women.

The Cherokee County Sheriff's Office says the suspect indicated that he may have visited these spas in the past.


JAY BAKER, CHEROKEE COUNTY, GEORGIA, SHERIFF: This is still early, but he does claim that it was not racially motivated. He apparently has an issue what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places. And it's a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.


BALDWIN: You heard him, a temptation he wanted to eliminate.

But the Atlanta mayor is praising police for acting so quickly, because they say this could have been so much worse. This suspect indicated that he was heading down to Florida perhaps to carry out similar crimes. So we have much more on that.

Other top stories this afternoon, President Joe Biden is defending the administration's handling of the thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, urging anyone considering migrating to the United States to stay home.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can say quite clearly, don't come. We're in the process of getting set up. Don't leave your town or city or community.


BALDWIN: And exciting news in the fight against the pandemic. Access to COVID vaccines is expanding to any person 16 or older in multiple states.

As of now, all 50 states have fully vaccinated at least 10 percent of their adult populations. But 14 states are reporting an uptick in case counts, and the warnings remain, stay vigilant to all of us.

We want to start, though, in Atlanta, where this investigation is under way into the horrific murders of eight people, most of whom were Asian American women.

CNN's Natasha Chen is live for us.

And so, Natasha, as of now, what are police saying? Why did this happen?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's what everyone really wants to know, Brooke.

And what they were able to share with us today is based on an interview the suspect gave investigators after he was brought into custody last night. As we know, there are three massage parlors involved here, one in Cherokee County, one across the street behind us, and one directly in front of us in Atlanta.

And as time goes on, as we have been sitting here today, we have seen more and more people in the community come up to these locations, bringing flowers. You can tell just how much this has shaken the Atlanta community that this violence happened in such a short span of time.

Now, what investigators are learning by speaking to the suspect is that 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long tells them that he did commit these shootings, that he perhaps was motivated by targeting places that he felt were temptations for his sexual addiction, and not necessarily a racially motivated act.

Now, CNN has spoken to a former roommate of Long, who told us that they had spent time in a transition house together, that Long had spent time in rehab for sexual addiction. So, a lot to go through there as far as investigators' work is concerned.

Like you said, this is not being called a hate crime right now, especially what law enforcement have just said about his potential motivations. But the fact still remains that the majority of these victims are women of Asian descent. And that is in the broader context of the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and assaults across the country.

And that has created a lot of anxiety in the Asian American community. And that fear is real. And we spoke to a state representative who said that the White house even this morning reached out to him, an Asian American member of the Georgia legislature, to just see how the administration could help offer support for the Asian American community, Brooke.

BALDWIN: People are understandably furious and fearful and want to know why this is happening, or, maybe more importantly, how we can stop it.

Natasha, thank you very much.

Again, though, functioning in facts, waiting for the result of this investigation.

With me, now Vincent Velasquez, a retired Atlanta homicide detective.

So, Detective, nice to have you on. You heard Natasha there saying that the suspect told investigators he had issues, potentially specifically sexual addiction issues, and may have frequented some of those spas in the past. You hear all of this well. What's your main takeaway? What does your gut, as a former detective, tell you?


VINCENT VELASQUEZ, RETIRED ATLANTA HOMICIDE DETECTIVE: Well, Brooke, I have to follow my instinct and my experience.

In 17 years of working homicide, I have never seen a case like that. You know, it's not to say that that's not indeed what this motivation is. It's just not something that we're used to seeing or hearing. And, in fact, in 17 years, I have never even had a case inside of a massage parlor, much less a homicide.

And now we have a suspect who's who's giving a narrative to law enforcement that his motivation is sexual addiction. But we can't ignore the fact that six out of the eight victims happen to be Asian women. So, I got a feeling more is going to wash out of this. I think the investigators right now are doing a heavy scrub on his social media, his acquaintances, his family, his associates, to try to find out who this guy Robert Long really is.

BALDWIN: You know Atlanta so well. What do you know about these spas?

VELASQUEZ: So, Atlanta has a good geography of concentrated areas that have sex shops. In this particular area, there's a business not far from there that's just that.

As recent of January of this year, we have had arrests in the metro area of shop owners, massage shop owners charged with prostitution, masturbation for hire.

So, there is that element that exists in Atlanta, and I'm sure in other major cities. That's not to say that this is the case. I heard the Atlanta mayor, Keisha Bottoms, say today that she's had her investigators look into these two particular locations, and there was no evidence of any illegal activity going on.

I suspect that Cherokee County and Atlanta are going to work heavily together trying to find out exactly who Robert Long is and if he frequented these places. We don't even know if he had a personal relationship. Most of these mass shootings are grievance-related.

If it's a work-related shooting, someone got fired, or relationship. I think there's more to learn about who Robert Long is and how he plays into these three particular spots.

BALDWIN: The fact, though, that he is talking, it sounds like he is cooperating with investigators, at least to that degree, we learned that he was planning to get to Florida.

But the fact that he is talking, what does that tell you? And then, if you're sitting on the other side of the table from him, how do you find out if this was about some sort of sex addiction or a need to kill off these women in an effort to kill off this part of him vs. something to do with the race of these women?

VELASQUEZ: Well, what's happened so far is, I believe, Cherokee County investigators had the first crack at him.

I highly doubt, at this point going forward, whoever his attorney is going to allow him to speak to investigators. Atlanta investigators certainly want to talk to him. Me, as a trained homicide detective who had interviewed hundreds of people, that's a very delicate situation. And it's not an interview that you want to challenge him in the interview too much, because, the more he talks, the more you can learn.

What he is saying doesn't necessarily mean it's truthful. It could be self-serving. Many, many times, these shooters commit suicide. So, this case, obviously, it's not the case. He was in a car chase. He was fleeing, actively resisting and taken into custody. So, not only do the investigators have to try to figure out what happened, but they also have to keep in mind that they need to have all the tools, all the evidence they can get for a successful prosecution.

So, who knows what his story is going to be later, if he even has an opportunity to tell it. But, right now, that's what he's sticking with. And it certainly may be self-serving.

BALDWIN: My last question is overarching, and, again, we're having to be so cautious because we're taking the lead from police.

Police are not connecting the dots on this being Asian hate crimes. But the Asian community, as you have been following all these attacks, really over the course of the last year, right, they're furious and they're fearful, and for good reason.

Because investigators say it's too soon to know the motivation here, how can law enforcement help the Asian American community in this country feel safer?

VELASQUEZ: I think this particular case, they need to be as transparent as possible, because, rightly so, we have seen an increase in assaults against our Asian citizens in our country.

And that's documented. So, when something like this happens, the default is to always be cautious. You have to expect the worst-case scenario and hope for the best. And in this case, just because Robert Long is saying this is a sexual addiction-motivated shooting spree, that doesn't necessarily mean that's true.

So, if you're an Asian American in these communities, you should be cautious. And law enforcement needs to be as transparent as they can in getting that information out. And especially if we find anything out about this being motivated towards Asians, that information needs to be put out to the Asian community, so they know how to deal with that and inform the citizens of what they can do to become safer.


BALDWIN: So appreciate your perspective, as a former detective in Atlanta.

Vincent Velasquez, thank you, sir.

Let's get you back to the other big story today, thousands of migrants making their way to the Southern border. President Biden is sending a strong message to those hoping to make their way into the states. He's saying, do not come.


BIDEN: First of all, the idea that Joe Biden said come, because I heard the other day that they're coming because I'm a nice guy, and I--



BIDEN: Yes. Well, here's the deal. They're not

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you have to say quite clearly, don't come?

BIDEN: Yes, I can say quite clearly, don't come. We're in the process of getting set up. Don't leave your town or city or community.


BALDWIN: CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is with me now.

When you hear him saying, don't come, I guess, aside from that message, what do you know just about what the administration is going to do when it comes to this crisis at the border?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, and something, Brooke, that Biden's own top immigration officials have admitted is that sometimes their message is drowned out by other messages that these people are receiving and still trying to come to the border.

And it doesn't appear to be slowing down the surge yet, even though you have heard officials repeatedly say now is not the time to come to the border, including President Biden saying so last night during that interview with ABC News, because the other perspective of this is look at what people like the Mexican president are saying, that, yes, these people who are now trying to cross the border, which we are being told by the DHS secretary is going to be at a record number in the last 20 decade -- or the last two decades, last 20 years.

You have the Mexican president saying that the reason that's happening is because they view President Biden as the -- quote -- "migrant president."

Now, his officials have said that is not the way they see it. They just believe they're taking a more humane approach to the border than his predecessor was. But the reality is, this is a problem that is facing them.

And Biden is coming under increasing scrutiny, not just from Republicans, but also from members of his own party, who are saying, what is happening to these thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who are crossing the border and then being held in these Border Patrol facilities for longer than legally mandated is not a solution either.

And so I think that's where you see the administration and where they are at right now, with even the DHS secretary testifying on Capitol Hill today, facing tough questions about what their response is going to be, not in the long term, but in the short term.

BALDWIN: We will have a bigger conversation about this in just a little bit.

For now, Kaitlan, thank you in Washington.

As for COVID in this country, vaccination appointments are opening up for more Americans here. It comes as more than a dozen states report a big jump in new cases. We have those details ahead.

And President Biden taking his strongest stance yet on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, saying, if the allegations are true, if, that he should resign and that he could be prosecuted.

President Biden is also changing his stance on a key Senate procedure that could be a total game-changer for his agenda, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is already warning a scorched earth response.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.



BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Former President Donald Trump, who got his COVID-19 vaccine off- camera, remember, back in January, he is finally urging his supporters to roll up their sleeves. But in doing so, he also highlighted -- quote -- "our freedoms."




And I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly.

But I -- again, we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that. And I agree with that also.


BALDWIN: Here is CNN's Nick Watt with very latest COVID developments today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been selling Jameson all day long.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tough to tipple with a mask on. Despite mitigation measures, celebrating St. Patrick could spread this virus, and two more variants are now officially of concern to the CDC, both first found in the United States here in California.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: We are in a race to stop transmission. And the emergence of variants that spread more easily has made that even more challenging.

WATT: This past week, in all these states, average new case counts climbed by more than 10 percent ,in Michigan, up over 50 percent.

DR. WILLIAM HASELTINE, INFECTIOUS DISEASE EXPERT: I think we're seeing a new wave. It is starting in the North.

WATT: The country still averaging well over 50,000 new cases every day.

DR. CELINE GOUNDER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: When we see a plateau like that, whether that's been here previously or in those European countries, that predicts another surge.

WATT: Predicts. Not for certain. Here's the bright side.

DR. PAUL OFFIT, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: There are two things that are working against this virus right now. One is the weather. I mean, as it gets warmer and more humid, it is more difficult for this virus to be transmitted. And more and more people are getting vaccinated.

WATT: Every single state has now fully vaccinated at least 10 percent of their adult population.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIAID DIRECTOR: My concern is that we prematurely pull back and don't give the vaccines time to continue to protect the country.

WATT: Two weeks ago, Mississippi's governor signed an order that:

GOV. TATE REEVES (R-MS): Removes all of our county mask mandates and allows businesses to operate at full capacity.


WATT: Average case counts in the state had been falling, but rose nearly 20 percent this past week.

OFFIT: Opening businesses makes sense. But doing that at the same time that you release mask mandates just doesn't make any sense.


WATT: And some good news on schools. The federal government is going to funnel $10 billion into testing for kids K-12.

Also, the CDC hinting again that they might tweak their guidance and say that, with masks, three feet of social distance is OK in the classroom.

And, finally, Brooke, a ray of sunshine from here in California. Disneyland will reopen the end of April. It has been closed for about a year -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: My best friend's daughter will be happy to hear that.

Nick Watt, thank you.

Back here in New York, just a couple hours ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo publicly received a COVID-19 vaccine. Just a few months ago, this scene might have been received very differently, business as usual for one of the pandemic's most prominent governors.

But now Cuomo faces several allegations of inappropriate behavior and harassment from a growing list of women. His future in politics is uncertain, at best, while President Biden gives his strongest repudiation of the governor yet.

Here was the president on ABC last night.


STEPHANOPOULOS: If the investigation confirms the claims of the women, should he resign?

BIDEN: Yes, I think he would probably end up being prosecuted too.

A woman should be presumed to telling the truth and should not be scapegoated and become victimized by her coming forward, number one. But there should be an investigation to determine whether what she says is true.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BALDWIN: Tara Palmeri co-authors the "Politico Playbook" newsletter, and she joins me now.

And, Tara, it's so nice to have you on, and you particularly, just because of your history in covering the governor from your "New York Post" days. Just what do you remember from that time when it comes to office culture and what staffers would tell you?


I remember that there was a culture of intimidation and bullying, and it extended to the press. Simple inquiries could turn into just shouting that. And I have always thought, and I'm sure you have had this experience as well, that staffers tend to act like their bosses a lot. And they sort of change. They look up to them.

That was an experience that I had. Some of the former staffers that I have spoken with recently about his conduct have said that gross jokes, inappropriate comments were pretty regular, not just with junior staff, but with senior staff. It is just accepted as part of the culture.

One of the former staffers I spoke to who is a woman said that there was a lot of pressure to look good, so much so that she would be wearing high heels while running around the Capitol. And you and I both know that it is no fun wearing high heels all day long.


PALMERI: But if you feel like your appearance is factored into your job, that's obviously an issue.

And, basically, this person just seemed to say that a lot of those staffers were talented, on the rise, a whole generation of future leaders, felt almost traumatized and disgusted by the culture. And it's quite evident from the number who didn't stay in government.

And part of that is because what Cuomo really ran this -- runs the state with an iron fist and had so much control over so many agencies. So it was hard to just move out of his inner circle into other places in government.

So, as to the extent of those specific allegations of harassment, I just know that the culture there, that it felt a bit like a boys club for a long time.

BALDWIN: So, given all of that -- and you -- the governor has so far resisted, obviously, all these calls to resign. And now we have this interview with President Biden, how he's weighing and going as far as he has with George Stephanopoulos.

Do you think that it all changes the calculus for Governor Cuomo or not whatsoever?

PALMERI: I think it does, because he is still the number one Democrat in the country. That's Joe Biden. He's the president. And just having your name and the words resign out of his mouth, even though, obviously, he said should resign if the investigation proves to be true, you just don't want that out there. You don't want those two words married together.

And hours later, you have the number two most powerful Democrat in the country, Nancy Pelosi, saying the exact same thing. Not just that, but the entire -- almost the entire delegation of Democrats in New York state putting pressure on him, launching an impeachment trial.

It seems untenable in some ways. You want be in a politically sound situation, especially when dealing with a crisis like COVID. And this isn't the only sample to come his way. we have also seen a manipulation of the numbers of deaths in nursing homes.


This is just a new wave of issues for Andrew Cuomo. And I know that his thinking is, we are in the middle of a crisis. It's a war time. He needs to stay in position and carry New York to the finish line.

But it's going to be difficult for him when he doesn't even have the support of his own party.

BALDWIN: I appreciate all of your time, having covered him and your knowledge of the staff and the culture. And we shall see, right? We shall see what happens.

Tara Palmeri, thank you.

Let's get back to the story of the day, the shooting rampage in Atlanta.

As Asian Americans fear for their safety, really across the country, I will talk to a congresswoman who says she knows who is to blame for this rise in racist violence.