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Boulder Shooting Suspect Expected to Make First Court Appearance Today; FBI Examines Boulder Shooting Suspect's Online Activity; North Korea Fires 2 Ballistic Missiles, Prompting Concerns Among U.S. Allies; Biden Holds First Press Conference as Administration Faces Key Tests; Georgia Expands Vaccine Eligibility to All Residents Ages 16 and Older. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 25, 2021 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:14]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Top of the hour. I'm glad you're with us. I'm Poppy Harlow. Jim has the week off.

Hours from now, a test of leadership. President Biden facing reporters at his first solo press conference as president, and it's a moment that he's been preparing for, even holding an informal press session earlier this week at a practice session earlier this week. It's a chance to tout the administration's victories on COVID relief and vaccinations. But do expect hard questions from reporters on the fast- evolving and critical issues facing this White House, gun control, immigration and the rise of hate crimes.

The challenges this administration has faced over the past few weeks have amplified calls to hear directly from the president himself, and that comes today in just a few hours.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our Jeremy Diamond. He joins us at the White House.

Good morning, Jeremy. Do you have a sense of -- I mean, they can't control what the reporters ask, but do you have a sense of what the administration wants to convey in this press conference?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, and that's the critical decision there, Poppy. There is what the administration wants to convey here, what the president wants to focus on during this news conference, and then there are the topics that the president is going to face questions on during this first news conference of his presidency.

Look, President Biden is going to come out today and he's going to want to talk about what he has accomplished in his first 64 days in office. Getting vaccinations to a pace of about 2 1/2 million vaccines per day. Crossing that 100 million vaccines goal within 60 days in office, rather than the 100 days that he had first laid out. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which he signed into law in recent weeks and the checks that have already gone out to more than 100 million Americans. But there are a number of hot-button issues that the president is

going to face questions on. You just think about the nine days that have gone by since the White House announced this news conference. So much has happened in this country, including those two tragic mass shootings in Atlanta and then in Boulder, Colorado.

The president, of course, coming out strongly in favor of specific gun laws that he wants Congress to pass, including an assault weapons ban. He's going to face questions on how he's going to accomplish that and what he can do via executive action. There's, of course, the situation on the southern border. More than 500 -- about 500 children a day entering Border Patrol custody, overwhelming the U.S.' border facilities over there on the southern border.

And, of course, there are a range of foreign policy issues as well to be discussed. On Afghanistan, President Biden is said to be considering whether or not he will pull out troops by that May deadline that President Trump had put in place or if he will delay that. How he will delay that. How he will go about that. And most recently, North Korea now firing a pair of ballistic missiles. That marks a serious escalation. The first ballistic missile test of Biden's presidency. How he will respond to that threat of North Korea and engage in diplomacy going forward.

All of those set to be top on the agenda as President Biden holds his first news conference -- Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. Jeremy, so much you laid out there. Thank you for the reporting at the White House.

Let me bring in our chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, and our senior political analyst David Gergen. He's also a former presidential adviser to four presidents.

Thank you both. David Gergen, let me begin with you. I mean, it has been a devastating, especially devastating last two weeks for this country, on top of the COVID pandemic that continues. You've got two mass shootings. You've got the rise in hate crimes, obviously, that we've seen. You've got an evolvingly difficult situation if not a crisis at the southern border.

What is President Biden hoping people take away from this, and what does he have to say and directly answer?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think as a general proposition, the press is not talking about (INAUDIBLE), but nonetheless, there are a lot of reporters and Republicans are going to be watching the president to check his mental acuity. Is he mentally sharp? He had a stumble on the plane. Is he going to stumble in a press conference?

We don't know the answer to that. What I would say is that in the past, Joe Biden has faced this kind of questioning. He usually does much better in press conferences and debates than anybody expects going in. In so many areas of public life, Biden likes to under promise and then over deliver. So I am expecting he'll (INAUDIBLE) and I think he'll probably use an opening statement to make his main points before he gets to the (INAUDIBLE).

HARLOW: Brian, you've pointed out something really important in your newsletter overnight that this is the most extended period of questioning that Biden will take yet, period, as president. You know, when journalists ask questions and they're on camera, there can sometimes be posturing, right, for that good sound bite if you will. And then there can be really digging into the key issues here. What do you expect?

[09:05:09]

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Right. And there will be heat as well as light. But hopefully a lot of news. Biden has been under pressure for several weeks to hold a press conference. His predecessors did this much earlier in their presidencies, but I think the average American cares a lot more about stimulus checks than how many press conferences Biden has had. Let's be realistic about what the average American cares about.

That said, press conferences are important symbolically. They are symbols of access and transparency. And there are a lot of issues we've not heard from Biden about for several weeks or at all during his presidency. So this press conference is actually important for those reasons. And I think we can expect to see him try to take command and create another contrast with President Trump.

Let's not forget that a lot of what Biden is trying to do is just break from all the trauma of the Trump years. Trying to show respect and decency and normality. And that's what Biden wants to symbolize at a press conference. Remember, Trump press conferences were all about insults and enemy of the people smears and lies. Biden is going to try to create a sharp contrast today.

HARLOW: For sure. He is and he will just because of who he is, there will be a contrast. But I also think a real test here, David Gergen, is straight answers. Like, you cannot give a straight answer and insult reporters, as we saw Trump, do but you can also, you know, just not give a straight answer, which matters a lot to folks. And I think particularly, David, on the issue of executive action on guns.

When Vice President Harris was asked about this on CBS, she said we want legislation, we want legislation, but it wasn't clear from her what the administration is willing to do on the executive action front on guns. Do you expect more clarity from the president today on that?

GERGEN: One would hope there's more clarity from the president. They don't want to be -- they don't want to have these long delays, (INAUDIBLE) press conference and then backed up. What they want to do is -- I think they need to regularize press conferences. Especially as an activist president like Joe Biden. He's got his -- you know, he's dealing with at least a dozen serious issues. Each one of which could consume an entire press conference.

It's really important that there be clarity and there be frequency. I think there ought to be at least one to two press conferences a month. And that would be sort of the more normal routine. But also, I think Brian will attest to this, too, the press conferences are not only good for the country, but they're good for the White House. They're good for the president because what it -- it forces everybody in the White House to get on the same page.

And in an area like climate, for example, when there are at least half a dozen different people that might theoretically be in charge, it's a little hard to tell who is in charge. They need to be on the same page. And it forces that process so that you get better government when you do it more often.

HARLOW: That's a great point. What do you think, Brian?

STELTER: It is -- I think don't take it from us. Take it from, you know, past press secretaries, you know, who have said, well, of course Gergen has been there, done that. You know, the idea that you need to be prepared for any number of topics. That is a plus. It's a positive for the administration. I think we're trying to -- you know, with Biden, he -- there's always this worry he's going to step on himself and get in his own way.

And yet at the same time, I think a lot of people find that relatable and likable. You know, there's a new book out called "Bidenisms," all about Bidenisms, all the funny things he's said over the years. And yet to many Americans, that can be very relatable. So I think the instinct is to try to keep him away from cameras. It may sometimes backfire on this White House. Well, I guess we'll find out in a few hours.

HARLOW: Well, they have many more crises to address now than if they had had a press conference three weeks ago or a month ago. That's for sure. But it makes it even more important I think to directly hear from him now.

Brian, thank you. David, thank you very much. We'll carry it live obviously right here, right after 1:00 Eastern Time.

The White House says it will distribute some 27 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccine this week. This as more Americans become eligible for it. Starting today in Georgia, 16 years and older, you can get it, no matter what.

Our national correspondent Natasha Chen joins us in Atlanta.

Good morning, Natasha. The expansion comes as the president will announce a new goal for vaccination?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy, so we're among a handful of states right now who are offering the vaccine to anyone 16 and older. This comes as Biden last week hinted that his administration is on pace to deliver -- administer perhaps 200 million COVID-19 vaccines by his 100th day. We'll see what he says exactly about the new goal in his press conference.

This site that we're at today is in Stonecrest, Georgia. You see people coming in over here. They're waiting and then getting their shots right behind me. Now they're going to do about 400 or 500 shots at this location today. After they get their shots, they are waiting over here to make sure they have no adverse reactions before they leave.

[09:10:04]

Georgia has fully vaccinated a little more than 11 percent of its total population. And that's not quite as good as the U.S. overall, which is about 14 percent at this time. But with the expanded eligibility today, the hope is that that will ramp up.

Now the Biden administration, we're going to show you this graphic here, is committing $10 billion to expand vaccine efforts. And that includes $6 billion on expanding testing, vaccination efforts and treatment, preventative care for high-risk groups. $3 billion to strengthen vaccine confidence with a focus on the hardest hit communities. 300 million on community health workers, working on COVID prevention and control and 32 million specifically for training community health workers. So really trying to reach those low-income, more rural and underserved communities, Poppy.

HARLOW: Natasha, thank you for that update very, very much.

We have a lot ahead this hour. The suspect in the Boulder, Colorado, mass shooting that left 10 people dead will be in court for the first time in less than an hour. The latest on that investigation is next.

Also, North Korea firing two ballistic missiles overnight. The second weapons test in less than a week. How will the Biden administration respond?

And Georgia lawmakers today set to vote on rule changes that would allow sweeping restrictions to voter access. What is in the bill, ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00]

HARLOW: Just one hour from now, the suspect charged with ten counts of murder in the grocery store mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, will appear in court for the first time. Our Dan Simon joins us again in Boulder this morning. Good morning, Dan. Some questions about whether he will actually be in court in person this morning. What will happen there?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is expected to be here in person, at least the judge has asked him to be here in person. He can waive that right, but he has to do so in writing. Poppy, I just want to talk to you briefly about what happened last night. It was a very somber evening in the Boulder community where you had hundreds of people gathering to mourn and honor the victims. People just huddling in the cold and sort of, you know, building, you know -- it's hard to really explain what it was like, but the sense of community and people still grieving all the victims.

As for what we expect to see this morning, the alleged shooter is expected to be in court in about an hour. And he's going to be advised of his rights and informed of the charges. And again, he is expected to be here, unless he waives the right to be here. We're not quite sure if he'll do so. In the meantime, as we wait for that to happen, we're continuing to hear from people who were in the store. I want you to listen to Logan Smith who helped protect an older worker and also watched a friend get shot. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOGAN SMITH, HELPED COWORKERS & CUSTOMERS ESCAPE DURING MASSACRE: I pushed her into a corner and I barricaded her with trash cans. And then, from that moment, it was game on. I saw my best friend, my co- worker, Rikki Olds get shot as well, and she fell to the floor. That moment, it -- there was a split time in my mind that I wanted to run over to her, comfort her, and I was unaware if it was just one assailant or if there were multiple.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: Now in terms of the overall investigation, a law enforcement source tells CNN that they're still trying to ascertain a motive. They're trying to figure out why the alleged shooter targeted that particular grocery store when there were grocery stores closer to his home. This one was 30 minutes away, and they're also looking at mental health issues. Poppy?

HARLOW: Dan Simon, thank you very much for bringing all of that to us today. Let me bring in our legal and national security analyst, Asha Rangappa; she's a former FBI special agent and also CNN law enforcement analyst Peter Licata, the Department of Justice Deputy Mission adviser for law enforcement previously in Somalia. Good to have you both on another horrific mass shooting. It's sad that it is these things that bring us together for these conversations. But Asha, if I could just begin with you. I mean, there is a federal component to this. The FBI is involved in this on a federal level. Can you explain the significance of that in the investigation, and then also what we'll see in court today.

ASHA RANGAPPA, LECTURER, YALE UNIVERSITY: Yes. I mean, the federal -- the FBI will be there to as they're ascertaining the motive and, you know, fleshing out the components of this crime. Federal jurisdiction can involve, for example, hate crimes. We've seen that, unfortunately in the Atlanta shooting as a potential possibility. Also various crimes, if -- you know, the person was a felon, for example. So, I think they're on standby as they flesh out the details of the investigation. Today's hearing is an arraignment. The defendant will be advised of the charges against him, his rights, and they will set a date for a preliminary hearing, and that the next court date, the government will present the probable cause for him to be charged, and he'll enter a plea.

HARLOW: You know, Peter, to you, one law enforcement official tells CNN that investigators are looking at the shooter's online activities and conducting interviews with relatives and friends. And that would all be sort of normal right now. But the fact that he was not previously the subject of any FBI investigation, and it appears nothing in the federal system would have prevented him, at least at this point.

[09:20:00]

We don't totally know, but what we know so far from buying a firearm. You've got -- you've got all of that. And I just wonder what you make of that, given the affidavit did say that his sister-in-law saw him playing with a gun that she thought looked like a machine gun, those were her words just two days before the shooting.

PETER LICATA, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Right. So the machine gun could be in fact, the weapon that he used. The AR-15-like rifle. Again, getting to his state of mind, the motive and why he did it is going to be very important for officials to follow and to find out. And it goes to Asha's point where the federal government is standing by to perhaps work to add additional charges in conjunction with the state to find out if any other federal violations may be -- may have been committed. And that could go from anywhere -- again, what Asha had already stated to perhaps terrorism, hate crimes or any other type of Title 18 violation that the federal government can supersede and potentially have a larger penalty for the violations of the law that he -- that took place.

HARLOW: Peter, you were also formerly the lead bomb technician for the FBI in New York City. So you know about weapons. Deeply about weapons of war, et cetera. I want to ask you this because the gun that was used in the Boulder shooting was a Ruger AR-556 semiautomatic. And there have been a number of people who have argued, well, that's not a quote/unquote, "weapon of war" because it's not fully automatic. But "The Washington Post" I think importantly points out this morning that this gun that was used in the Boulder mass shooting uses the same ammunition as an AR-15. It is technically a pistol. And, you know, that means it is regulated differently and sold differently. What are your thoughts on that this morning as, frankly, many people are debating semantics.

LICATA: It does. It becomes a matter of semantics. It's -- the laws exist and companies or vendors that want to sell something find loopholes in the law. So the way this gun was manufactured is a clear loophole in the law. And the law isn't broad enough to cover this type of weapon. I'm not encouraging that more laws are enacted, but the government has to do a better way to cover up some of these loopholes or fill some of these loopholes with regard to weapons purchases, the cooling off period, et cetera, in order to prevent or try to minimize. You're never going to prevent it, but minimize these horrific acts from happening. Again, two in just a matter of a week.

HARLOW: Asha, what do you make of that?

RANGAPPA: I agree with Peter. I mean, if you imagine, say, a house that has many different windows, which are vulnerabilities, there's no one thing that can prevent -- you know, if you close one window, there's others. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't really address each of these windows. There are layers. You know, universal background checks, waiting periods. Giving the FBI more time to run the checks from three days to ten days before they go through with the purchase. Red-flag laws, I think that's something that should be covered a little bit more. Colorado passed its first red flag law --

HARLOW: Right --

RANGAPPA: Last year. And in its first year, there were 112 petitions, 46 of which were granted often because family or law enforcement found mental health issues or drug use, and either took away the gun or prevented the purchase of a gun in those situations. That seems to have been something that could have applied here, given that family members, as you mentioned, Poppy, knew he was playing with this gun and were upset --

HARLOW: Yes --

RANGAPPA: And took it away from him.

HARLOW: Right --

RANGAPPA: And that he had some issues potentially as well.

HARLOW: Yes, it's that hurdle, though, of family members being comfortable, then flagging it to the authorities, right? And the implications that could have for their loved one down the line. Thank you, Asha, thank you, Peter, both.

LICATA: Thank you.

HARLOW: U.S. allies on high alert this morning after North Korea launches two ballistic missiles overnight. Now the Biden administration is under pressure to respond. We'll head to the Pentagon next. We're also moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, take a look here. Futures are pointing slightly lower this morning after jobless claims in the United States actually fell for the week to a better-than-expected but still very high 684,000 people. It is the lowest, though, since the start of the pandemic, but it's still very high. For context, it is still higher than what we saw at the peak of the Great Recession. We'll see how markets react in just a few minutes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:25:00]

HARLOW: Welcome back. North Korea overnight firing two ballistic missiles in what could be seen as a direct challenge to the Biden administration. Reported by South Korean officials, it is the second launch in less than a week after U.S. officials said the regime conducted a weapons test. The North Korean regime conducted a weapons test over the weekend, obviously, this is prompting concern from the U.S. and from allies. Let's go to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, she joins us for more. Any response from the Pentagon this morning? I mean, I'm sure Biden will get asked about it today.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think people will be watching to see what President Biden has to say at his news conference later this afternoon.