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CNN NEWSROOM

Andy Slavitt is Interviewed about the Colorado Shooting and the Government's COVID Response; Pressure Builds on Biden to Act on Guns; Sidney Powell Sued for Defamation. Aired 9:30-10a ET.

Aired March 23, 2021 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:30:16]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, two major developments in the race to vaccinate America.

First, Johnson & Johnson is now working to catch up after the White House did lay out that they're not sure the company will meet their goal to deliver 20 million of their vaccine doses by the end of the month.

Also this morning, AstraZeneca is seeking Emergency Use Authorization of its COVID vaccine, but now they are standing by data after an independent board expressed concerns about their trial.

Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor on the COVID response, is with me.

And, Andy, two critical things. We'll get to both of them in a moment. But you are the first White House official to be on CNN since the horrific mass shooting that killed ten people in Boulder, Colorado, last night.

The White House said just last month that it will not wait for the next mass shooting. It will take action to end our epidemic of gun violence. Does President Biden consider this a public health emergency?

ANDY SLAVITT, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER FOR COVID RESPONSE: Well, thanks for having me -- having me on.

And, first, our hearts do go out to the victims, their families, the people in the community of Boulder, Officer Talley and his family, such a hero of the story, and such a sad story. And it is a reminder, as you say, that we have more than one threat in this country, and that it is indeed a public health threat when we can't go to the grocery store or to a salon or a spa without facing gun violence.

And President Biden was briefed yesterday. He stands ready to do everything he can to help Governor Polis and Colorado and, of course, is very supportive of taking on the NRA and all the measures, whether it's waiting periods or others that really need to happen to make Americans feel safer again.

HARLOW: Candidate Biden, when he was running, said that on his first day in office he would send a bill to Congress repealing liability protection for gun manufacturers and also critically, as we just heard from the Colorado attorney general, closing the background check loopholes. Neither have happened yet.

Does this shooting move up the prioritization of gun safety in the Biden White House?

SLAVITT: Well, the president has, as you know, a long track record of taking on the NRA and winning. And he is very committed and has always been very committed and resolute. He's no stranger to loss. He's no stranger to recovery. And he's no stranger to fighting and winning.

And, you know, days like today only steel him to what he already knows and what he already believes and he's already been fighting for his entire career. So we have got to do something to make our kids, our families and others feel safe in this country again.

HARLOW: So it sounds like action is forthcoming.

Again, that was a promise made to the American people as a candidate.

Andy, let me ask you about COVID. Obviously, that is your focus right now.

AstraZeneca, yesterday, came out with good news saying our vaccine is 79 percent effective and 100 percent effective in preventing deaths from COVID. But now this independent board reviewed the data and they are concerned, in their words, that it may have included outdated information from the trial, meaning that it was kind of old information.

AstraZeneca, this morning, says no, no, no, everything is fine. This is up to date.

What does the White House say?

SLAVITT: Well, let me first make sure that I remind the public of where we are. We have three safe and effective vaccines. We have procured enough supply of those vaccines. Those are Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, to have enough vaccines for the country by the end of May and the president has called for every American to be eligible by May 1st. And we see that happening.

So this is -- we're talking about now is a fourth vaccine that's not yet approved by the FDA. And the reason we have an FDA process is exactly so that we don't have to wonder about data. We don't have to take a company's word for it with all respect to the companies. We urge, obviously, companies to issue the most current data that they have. We expect and hope that that will happen here.

But the public should rest assured that nothing will get approved unless the FDA does a thorough analysis of this data. And when it does that thorough analysis, it will render a judgment on both what the data says, or what it's saying, and also whether or not it will be approved.

And so until that time, this is all just stuff that will happen in the background. As soon as the NIH got word of the information yesterday that there were some outdated data, it put out a release. We believe that this transparency and this scientific independence is vital for public trust.

[09:35:02]

HARLOW: Yes. It absolutely is. And that is why there are these independent boards and why the FDA does what it does.

SLAVITT: Absolutely.

HARLOW: Andy, thank you for answering that.

Let me show you these images that I know you've seen by now of unaccompanied minors in Border Patrol facilities on the southern border right now. These came to us from Democratic Congressman Cuellar. If we can pull them up in the control room so that our viewers can see them. They're working on it.

But you've seen them, right, Andy?

SLAVITT: Yes.

HARLOW: OK, here -- here they are. Clearly that's not COVID safe. People are not socially distanced.

Can you help us understand what the administration is doing about that? Has this changed, or is this still the situation?

SLAVITT: Well, we've had to very quickly get people into HHS facilities away from the CBP facilities that have not been set up properly for COVID. Send the message clearly that the border is closed, which, I think, the secretary has -- Mayorkas has done.

And we have teams down there -- FEMA teams and others -- that are working to get people into safer areas. I would say, when it comes to my concerns about the spread of the virus, I have larger concerns about the spread of the virus than what's happening at the border right now. I have concerns with the -- with all of the travel and the kind of potential people see for the light at the end of the tunnel --

HARLOW: Yes.

SLAVITT: That people are letting their guard down. And I think that's really a more significant, potential challenge.

HARLOW: Well, just look -- yes, I mean look at -- look at the total disregard for safety and law in Miami and what is happening in the streets of Miami. On Johnson & Johnson, I know you don't know if they're going to meet

the goal of 20 million doses by the end of this month, which is in a few days, but do you still -- does the White House still have confidence Johnson & Johnson will reach its goal of 100 million doses for Americans by the end of June? And if you're not sure about that, does that push back the president's timeline of a May 1st availability of vaccinations for every American?

SLAVITT: Yes. No, thank you for asking the question and particularly all the parts of that question because it's important to reiterate that we are still very confident that the public will have enough vaccines and enough vaccine doses to be -- to have all the vaccinations in place by the end of May. It doesn't mean everyone will have their exact second -- first and second shot by the end of May, but it does mean that they can start to get their appointments in May and hopefully everyone will be completed a short time afterward.

And as you say, you know, the company reiterated publicly that they are on target. They have a big production week ahead. I want to make sure that we get through this week and we'll see where they are, but they claim that they're going to hit their goal and we're working very, very closely with them.

Obviously, this is a monumental challenge for everybody. They're doing -- ramping production for the first time. And, you know, we view our role as collaborative and try to help them through this. And, you know, we'll see what happens over the next week.

HARLOW: Andy Slavitt, thank you very much, White House senior advise on the COVID response.

SLAVITT: Thank you.

HARLOW: We appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

Well, moments ago, Vice President Harris reacted to the deadly shooting, the mass shooting in that grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.

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KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just tragic. It's absolutely tragic. It's tragic. Ten people, going about their day, living their lives, not bothering anybody. A police officer who was performing his duties and with great courage and heroism. Seven children, I understand. It's tragic. It's tragic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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[09:43:16]

HARLOW: Welcome back.

Well, so far, there is no official response from President Biden directly as the nation suffers its second mass casualty mass shooting in seven days. In hours, though, he is expected to leave the White House for a planned trip to Ohio. One would expect if he does answer reporter questions, of course, he'll talk about this.

John Harwood joins us at the White House this morning.

Good morning, John.

You heard perhaps what I just asked Andy Slavitt, does this now move up the prioritization of gun legislation, particularly on background checks for the Biden White House? What do -- what do we know at this point? Do they feel this urgency, especially this morning?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly they are feeling pressure at the moment. And you can expect a reaction, a policy reaction, from the Biden White House. The question is, how much and how fast? There's some things that the president can do administratively and by executive order say to tighten up enforcement of existing gun laws, tighten up background checks.

But the real question is going to be, do they take steps further and push legislation aggressively on background checks or even an assault weapons ban? Cedric Richmond, a senior White House aide, was talking boldly just a few minutes ago on television.

Take a listen.

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CEDRIC RICHMOND, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: The good news is that this president has a track record of fighting against the NRA and beating them. Mad we need to make sure that we have sensible gun regulations in this country to ensure safety. And so we need action, not just words and prayers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARWOOD: So here's the question, though, Poppy. Something like background checks and strength -- closing loopholes in the background check system, polls overwhelmingly popular, in the '80s, but you cannot get that through a Senate filibuster right now.

[09:45:10]

Certainly President Obama couldn't during his term. It's doubtful that you could do it today. There are even more aggressive steps like an assault weapons ban which President Biden pushed forward as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, got passed early in the Clinton administration. Sixty percent of the American people are for that. But that is more controversial among Democrats. It's not clear that even if you didn't have a Senate filibuster that you could get the votes to pass that.

So there's a whole lot of politically challenging things that Joe Biden wants to do as evidenced by this trip today to highlight the COVID relief bill, as evidenced by the forthcoming infrastructure plan. And the question is, is the shock and horror of the events like the ones yesterday in Colorado enough to move this up and displace those items? I think it's doubtful, but we're going to have to see how President Biden responds.

HARLOW: Right. Well, if it wasn't enough after Sandy Hook, and it wasn't enough after Aurora, and I could go on and on and on, John Harwood, you're exactly right to say, is anything different this time around?

Thank you for being there. Let us know if you do get updates from the Biden White House on it.

Still ahead, Sidney Powell, who, remember, was an attorney for former President Trump and at the center of the baseless conspiracy that the election was somehow stolen, she's now saying, in her own legal defense, that no reasonable person would actually have believed her comments. Seriously, that's her defense. Will it hold up in court?

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[09:51:05]

HARLOW: Former attorney for the president -- former President Trump, Sidney Powell, is now backtracking bigtime on her claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. She now says those statements that she made, remember all of them about widespread voter fraud that never happened, she says they were clearly her own opinion and, get this, in her own legal defense, because she's being sued over this, she says no reasonable person would have believed them as fact. She's facing a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems.

Elie Honig, former prosecutor, CNN legal analyst, is with us.

Let me read from her own brief, Elie. No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly matter of fact.

Is this a serious legal defense? Will it stand? And could she be disbarred?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, it's not a serious legal defense. No, it won't stand.

What's so interesting to me, Poppy, is, Sidney Powell doesn't even try to claim that all of her claims about election conspiracy, election fraud were based on some nugget of truth, some kernel of fact. She gives that all up and admits flat out, not only were they lies, not only were they conspiracy theories, they were such flagrant lies that no person could possibly reasonably believe them.

In fact, what Sidney Powell has done here is she has made the plaintiff's case. She has made Dominion's case. Dominion needs to prove these were false claims. Sidney Powell knew they were false. She's now come out and all but admitted that in her court papers.

HARLOW: OK. This is how central she was in the big lie. You remember that Oval Office meeting with former President Trump in December. He talked about -- our reporting is that he was even considering naming her as a special counsel to investigate the voter fraud allegations that he had made. Again, the big lie. I mean that's how central she was in all of this.

You've just said that it sound like the bar for Dominion is not that high to prove that, right? So, I mean, what does that mean? Does it mean she's going to be on the hook for over a billion dollars?

HONIG: Yes, so, ordinarily, it is hard to prove a defamation case, but not when the defendant admits it was a complete and flagrant lie. And, by the way, thank goodness that Sidney Powell was not named special counsel over anything. That would have just been absolutely disastrous.

You know, Sidney Powell takes this to such an extreme point of view here. What she's arguing is, I shouldn't even be taken seriously. And keep that in mind, when you hear this big lie repeated by Donald Trump, by Rudy Giuliani, they have not given up on it yet. So next time Donald Trump gets on TV or, you know, gets on social media and says, election was stolen from me, remember, his chosen attorney at one point, Sidney Powell, she's already given it up. She's already said, no, big lie, so ridiculous, nobody should believe it.

HARLOW: But you make an interesting point because the bar for defamation is high, especially with the public person, right? But that she would be protected legally, you think, if they were obviously satire, right? So if someone went on "SNL" and said something like this, because that's how nuts it is, right? But this wasn't satire.

HONIG: Exactly. Our laws, our First Amendment, gives very broad protection to satire. It goes back to the founding of the country. "Saturday Night Live" is a perfect example. If they did a sketch where someone came out and started yelling these crackpot theories about how Venezuela hacked into the voting machines, you and I and everyone would understand this is a comedy show, this is satire, this is public sort of commentary. It's parody.

However, that is not at all how Sidney Powell held herself out to the public. She said these things in court filings. She said them at very serious press conferences to the national media. The fact that she's saying think of me like "Saturday Night Live" I think speaks for itself.

[09:55:00]

HARLOW: Elie Honig, thank you.

HONIG: Thanks, Poppy.

HARLOW: Well, it is morning in America and it has happened again, another deadly mass shooting. Ten people killed, including a police officer, all of them gunned down in Boulder, Colorado, yesterday afternoon. Next hour, we will get an update from the authorities. You'll see it all live right here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HARLOW: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. Jim Sciutto has the week off.

Moments from now the nation may get some answers. Boulder, Colorado, police will hold a press briefing on the deadly shooting rampage that left ten people killed at a supermarket there. Police say this investigation could take days. At least five days. Right now they have not yet released a motive behind this attack.

[10:00:00]

So far, just one of the victims has been identified. That is 51-year- old Police Officer Eric Talley. You see him there.