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White House Staffers Fired For Past Marijuana Use?; New CDC School Guidelines; President Biden Visits Atlanta. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 19, 2021 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:22]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Hi there. You are watching CNN on this Friday afternoon. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

Comforting a community in pain. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are in Atlanta today, about to meet with Asian American leaders in the wake of the mass shootings at those three spas that left eight people dead, including six Asian women.

It is a crime that has sparked a national conversation about pandemic- related racism and a deep sense of fear in the Asian American community.

And so we will take you live to Atlanta, of course, for that.

During his visit, the president also toured the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, just as the agency is releasing some new crucial guidance about school reopenings. They now say classrooms can reduce their physical distancing rules from six feet to three feet, a game- changer for administrators and teachers.

But there are some caveats. We will talk about that.

And a heated confrontation between the Biden administration and China unfolding on camera. This is a rarity during these types of diplomatic meetings. We will show you, in case you missed it, what Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that caused such an uproar.

But we begin with CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Natasha Chen, both in at Atlanta.

And, Jeff, first to you just on this presidential trip. Who specifically are the president and the vice president meeting there with today?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, President Biden and Vice President Harris just arrived here on the campus of Emory University just a few moments ago, and they are meeting behind closed doors now with leaders of the Asian American community, several elected leaders, state representatives in the state House and Senate here who've been speaking out, urging the White House to forcefully condemn these shootings and acts of violence, which the White House absolutely has done.

But one thing President Biden's stop short of doing is specifically calling this a hate crime. Of course, White House officials say the reason for that is he does not want to interfere in the investigation or, rather, the prosecution of this crime.

But make no mistake, the White House speaking out forcefully about the rising really epidemic of violence against Asian Americans in this country throughout the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

So we are told that the president and vice president are both going to speak in the next hour quite forcefully about this. The president also urging Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. What that would do is allow the federal government to have a faster response to responding to hate crimes in the wake of this pandemic.

And, Brooke, we have seen it really for months and months. But the shootings this week in Atlanta have sharpened the focus on this. It's why the White House has changed their trip today to Atlanta to focus specifically and meet with community leaders, which is happening behind me here, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes. This is why they're there. We will look for them in just a little bit.

And, Natasha, to you just on the investigation. We listened to APD brief everyone this time yesterday, saying that nothing's off the table, saying they hadn't divulged still some of the victims' identities, per notification of their families. They have done so now.

Who were these women?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brooke, this is very heartbreaking.

We are learning that the four women who were killed at the two Atlanta spas were all Asian women, and, of course, in addition to the two Asian women who were killed at a third spa here in Cherokee County, along with two other people.

Now, I want to mention one of the victims at the Cherokee County spa location was Delaina Yaun. She was there with her husband for a massage on Tuesday evening. And we're learning now more from her husband about what happened. He said they were happy. She was getting off of work. They were in separate spa rooms.

Here's a quote that he gave the Spanish-language newspaper "Mundo Hispanico." "They took the most valuable thing I have in my life I had, because she was taken from me. He left me with only pain, the killer who killed my wife. Something needs to be done."

So, a very difficult moment for these families. This husband also spoke to the paper about the fact that he was actually detained by law enforcement right after this happened. He explained that he had heard the gunshots in the moment, was not injured, that his wife was in a separate room, and he was urgently trying to find out information about how she was doing.

He was in a patrol car, he said, until at a certain point that investigation led law enforcement to the suspect. And that's when he said they told him that his wife was dead.

And in giving this interview to "Mundo Hispanico," he said he wished that he got that information sooner, that he was only told when they found out that she was his wife.

[15:05:08]

So, so much pain in -- for all eight families, and so many questions still left to be answered, and, as you said, many angles of the investigation still to be looked into, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Imagine that. It's how you find out how your wife was killed.

Natasha Chen, thank you. Jeff Zeleny, thank you.

Again, we're standing by for the president and the vice president there in Atlanta.

In the meantime, with me now, Patricia Eng. She is the president and CEO of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy.

So, Patricia, a pleasure and honor to have you on.

Just the fact that the president and vice president there are in Atlanta for this very reason, what would you like to hear them say?

PATRICIA ENG, PRESIDENT AND CEO, ASIAN AMERICANS/PACIFIC ISLANDERS IN PHILANTHROPY: Well, first of all, thank you so much, Brooke, for having me today.

And my heart goes out to all of the families of the murder victims. I am so glad that the president and vice president are there meeting with Asian American leaders. That is so important. We are so heartened by President Biden's strong early responses to the violence that has been happening to the Asian American community, a community that has been in great fear and very frustrated.

BALDWIN: Pat, I was talking to this Asian activist this time yesterday. She's in Georgia. She's fighting for progress. She was extraordinary.

And so she was just on television just reminding all of us that, in everyday life, Asians, Asian Americans get ignored or discounted. Those were her words.

ENG: Right.

BALDWIN: And that also includes times such as these in tragedy, and she was frustrated that this hasn't already been labeled a hate crime, that it doesn't matter that he also had some sort of addiction.

And I'm just curious how you feel, and what you want to see from the community at large and also law enforcement on this point.

ENG: OK.

Well, in terms of law enforcement, I think that the -- some of these matters are for law enforcement to determine. I certainly can speak about the impact that it has had on our communities.

BALDWIN: Please.

ENG: And the impact, as I had said earlier, is this sense of fear and the sense of frustration that we are both invisible, that we are often picked on, especially over the past year, with COVID and with the former president stoking that fear -- that hope -- not hope at all -- stoking that the racism that the community has experienced.

And I would say that racism is not a new experience for Asian Americans. It has been a factor in our lives here ever since Asian Americans have stepped foot in this country, yes.

BALDWIN: No, and to that point -- no, I'm hanging on your every word. I just want to -- in addition to the killings in Atlanta, of course, we have been covering the violence in San Francisco specifically. We know police there are stepping up patrols following the recent assault against Asians there.

You have already spoken about the fear. I also heard you told my producer that many Americans feel that these incidents against Asians are episodic, you said. But explain to us how you and the community really see them.

ENG: Yes.

Well, as I said, racism is not a new experience for Asian Americans in this country. And I think that perhaps, for a lot of people, they think of it as episodic. They see these kinds of incidents, and they think, oh, this is terrible, but then it goes away.

Well, this is just really one of a long string, a long history of violence. And it is not experienced -- for those of us who experience this kind of violence in our communities, it is not episodic. It is cumulative. It has a cumulative impact on those of us who are Asian American, those of us who are people of color, that we experience racism every day.

And these stories just really adds to that harm that we feel.

BALDWIN: Of course, that this isn't a one-off.

ENG: That's exactly right.

BALDWIN: This has been happening for a long time. And now we're all just really talking about it.

Patricia Eng, thank you.

Again, the president, vice president will be speaking in Atlanta in the wake of all of this. And we will look for that.

Patricia, thank you very much.

Also breaking today, the CDC makes it official, cutting the recommended distancing for kids in schools from six feet to three feet. It could be a major boost to reopening classrooms. Is it safe?

Plus, the first face-to-face high-stakes meeting between the United States and China devolves into an insult-fest, and it all happened while camera were rolling. We will discuss that.

[15:10:02]

And marijuana, it is legal in much of the country. It is also less harmful than alcohol. So, why is the Biden White House firing staffers who have admitted to past pot use? Let's talk about that.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:15:05]

BALDWIN: We're back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

President Biden is visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta this afternoon a big day for his administration. He is setting a new goalpost in his quest to get 100 million COVID vaccine -- vaccines into people's arms in his first 100 days in office.

His administration says that target of 100 million shots was actually hit today, 42 days ahead of schedule.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We hope we can keep the pace about two-and-a-half million a day, which would mean that we may be able to get to -- may be able to double it.

But we have met the goal. And we're continuing to move forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Some crucial changes for schools as well. Listen to this.

The CDC is announcing it is cutting physical distancing guidelines for schools and students in half from six feet down to three.

Let's get the latest now from CNN's Nick Watt in Los Angeles.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Reopening America's schools just got a bit easier. The CDC now says desks need only be three feet, not six, apart.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: In classrooms with universal mask-wearing.

WATT: The CDC now also says one kid per row on the bus. Staff should still keep six feet away from kids and each other, and everyone should still keep six feet of distance in the hallways, when eating, singing, exercising.

Physical barriers between students no longer advised, but divide them into cohorts. According to the CDC, the science says:

WALENSKY: That K-12 schools that implement strong, layered prevention strategies can operate safely.

WATT: More good news, the president promised 100 million vaccine shots in 100 days. Done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In just 58 days, weeks ahead of schedule.

WATT: But there's a massive mountain still to climb. About 12 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated. Herd immunity, best estimate, 70 to 85 percent.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIAID DIRECTOR: If it is that, we would probably have to get more children. And I believe, as we get high school students vaccinated in the fall, we will be able to reach that.

WATT: Normality creeping closer.

Starting today, New York City restaurants can be half full inside. Nationwide, 98 percent of AMC's theaters are open again, with restrictions, but open, while officials fear that more contagious variant first found in the U.K.

FAUCI: And likely accounts now for about 20 to 30 percent of the infections in this country. And that number is growing.

WATT: Average new case counts are rising in 10 states, Michigan up 45 percent in a week.

DR. JONEIGH KHALDUN, MICHIGAN CHIEF MEDICAL EXECUTIVE: We are going in the wrong direction with the key metrics that we are tracking for COVID-19.

WATT: Case times falling in 11 states, holding steady for now in the majority, including Texas.

There's a Jack in the Box manager in League City, Texas, showing a customer their rules to help slow the spread.

GARY RATLIFF, LEAGUE CITY, TEXAS, POLICE CHIEF: When officers arrived at the scene, they found the shift manager leaning against the counter with multiple stab wounds.

WATT: Stabbed, police say, for asking that customer to wear a mask. (END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: Now, that manager is going to be OK.

Meanwhile, it is exactly one year to the day since California triggered the first statewide stay-at-home order in this country.

Now 3.5 million cases, more than 50,000 deaths later, California, like the rest of the country, still trying to finesse the exit strategy from all this. Right now, latest figures, nearly a quarter of Californians have had at least one dose of vaccine -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: That's great.

But, still, the stabbings over not wanting to wear a mask. We're going to have a whole conversation about masks and vaccines and hesitancy in a little bit, resistance, really, I should say.

Nick Watt, thank you in L.A.

Dr. Rob Davidson is with me. He's an emergency room physician in West Michigan and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare.

So, Dr. Davidson, welcome back.

Let's start on the point about the CDC now reducing the physical distancing guidelines in schools from six feet to three. A Massachusetts study found there's actually no significant difference in spread whether you are six feet apart or three. Do you think schools should fully reopen in the next couple of weeks?

DR. ROB DAVIDSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT MEDICARE: Yes, I think this CDC and the director, Walensky, told us they're going to use science. And the science is not airtight. It is murky at times.

Science across medicine is murky. And we come up with recommendations based on the best available. And based on this study out of Massachusetts, another one out of Missouri, another out of Utah, they are showing that, as long as there is universal wearing of masks, kids can be three feet apart, and that -- particularly in the younger age group, as long as community transmission is low, even in the older age kids, up to 19.

[15:20:06]

And then they have provisions. At meals, when they're eating lunch or breakfast, when they're in choir or they're at sporting events and people might be screaming or yelling, they still recommend that six feet.

But, yes, I think the science is there. So we should be going down that path and getting they're as soon as we can.

BALDWIN: I also wanted to ask you about this, this new "Washington Post"/Kaiser Family Foundation poll -- a bunch of us couldn't believe this -- I'm curious your perspective -- found that more than four in 10 health care workers have not been vaccinated.

And the point -- "The Post" points out -- quote -- "Health care workers were the first group in the United States to be offered coronavirus vaccinations, but three months into the effort, many remain unconvinced, unreached, and unprotected."

I know you and I have spoken. You have gotten your COVID vaccine. I'm just curious, given what "The Post" is reporting, are you seeing in your own hospital front-line workers refusing to get the vaccine?

DAVIDSON: Yes, there are. There's nurses I work with that I respect that are amazing nurses. And we have conversations. And the people that I run across, they are not dig my heels in, I'm not going to get this.

They're a little bit hesitant. So, we have conversations every time--

BALDWIN: Tell me why. Tell what they to say.

DAVIDSON: I think they say, listen, we're a little worried that it was rushed.

And then we talk about the fact that this was done along the path of every other vaccine that's been developed, that the technology has been there for 10 years, and that every safety measure was followed. And they tell me what they're worried because this is new technology.

Again, we go back to a decade of research on this mRNA vaccine technology. And so, little by little -- and I have seen folks in my hospital come around eventually, after a few months, after they see other people getting vaccinated and being able to meet with family members and feel safer about it.

And then more of those people are getting it. So I'm confident that significant numbers of those folks will get vaccinated.

BALDWIN: But, given the study, given the fact that we're also seeing 47 percent of Trump voters who don't want to get vaccinated, we're also hearing one-third of military service members have opted not to get the COVID vaccine, when you hear all of this, is it possible we never reach herd immunity?

DAVIDSON: Well, yes, that's possible.

And, again, this is the politicization of the pandemic. And the politicization of masks is why you see people getting stabbed who are trying to enforce mask mandates. It's unfortunate. It's real. Health care workers are political folks as well. They have certain views.

So, the more we can get folks like former President Trump to come out and say this is important, I think the more we get people in Congress -- I think a quarter of members of Congress aren't vaccinated -- get them to actually come around and trust what is being said by experts, I think that can get better.

But this is the next great challenge. And we have got our work cut out for us.

BALDWIN: Just sounds like maybe politicians aren't the ones some folks are listening to you, but they're listening to you and other doctors and even some faith leaders in their communities to dispel any myths and get vaccinated.

DAVIDSON: Right. Right.

BALDWIN: Dr. Rob Davidson, thank you very much. Good to see you.

DAVIDSON: Thanks, Brooke. You too.

BALDWIN: The insults and tough talk flying in front of the cameras in this first face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and China under President Joe Biden. So, if things got that testy in public, how will it go behind closed doors?

Plus: some White House staff are suddenly out of a job for past use of marijuana.

Stay with me.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:28:05]

BALDWIN: Sources telling CNN a handful of White House staffers has been asked to resign after revealing in their background checks that they have used marijuana in the past.

At least five are no longer employed, while others have been suspended or are working remotely. Now, recreational use of marijuana is legal in at least 14 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana use is legal in three dozen states, but marijuana use is still illegal at the federal level, triggering hurdles in the security clearance process.

CNN White House correspondent Arlette Saenz is with me now.

And, Arlette, an official says to CNN that this actually wasn't just about pot that was the issue for some of these staffers. So what else was involved?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, we know that, for some staffers, there are some challenges when it comes to their past use of marijuana.

And what we have been told by a senior White House official is that five staffers are no longer employed at the White House after reporting they had used marijuana during their background checks. Now, we are also told that some -- this issue for some of those staffers involves some other security concerns, including possible hard drug use.

We don't know any further details beyond that. But, in addition to those staffers who are no longer working at the White House, there are additional staffers who have now been working remotely after they had disclosed in their background checks that they had used marijuana in the past.

Now, I spoke to some sources who said that, during the transition period, it was suggested to some that they would not be disqualified from working at the White House if they had used marijuana in the past. But now that appears to be slightly different.

And one of the sources I spoke with said that also the White House policy was not made clear to staffers before they were filling out these forms.

But right now, this shows just how complicated that issue of marijuana policy, even within the own -- their own White House--

BALDWIN: Yes.