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Biden Gives First News Conference Since Taking Office. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired March 25, 2021 - 13:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Jake Tapper. I want to welcome viewers here in the United States and around the world. This is CNN's special live coverage of President Biden's first solo news conference since taking off -- office. It's scheduled to start in minutes from the White House east room.

A White House official has confirmed to CNN that President Biden will announce a new COVID vaccination goal. It will be 200 million shots delivered in arms within his first 100 days in office. That's double what he initially promised. The news marks a major achievement.

Biden will also face questions on a variety of other challenges now testing this administration. No doubt the reporters will press him on the call for gun reform after back to back shooting rampages that left 18 people dead in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, the surge of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border, the latest missile launch out of North Korea and the dynamic on Capitol Hill, the competing interests of a Democratic House that wants to push legislation that its members feel are necessary, though they cannot get that legislation through the U.S. Senate unless the Senate rules change.

We should note, President Biden has taken longer to hold a solo news conference than any other presidents in nearly a century. Today marks 64 days since his inauguration.

I want to bring in our team. We have Abby Philip, Anchor of Inside Politics Sunday, David Chalian, CNN Political Director, and CNN Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, let me start with you. How is Biden tackling this new vaccination goal?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, President Biden is going to start with the optimistic news, and they believe that essentially doubling the goal of 200 million vaccinations in the first 100 days is a bit of good news. This is a sign that this vaccination rollout has really gotten through a lot of the hiccups and is working. So he is, I'm told, going to focus on that.

Now, yes, there are still issues out there with the vaccine. First and foremost is the vaccine hesitancy. We're seeing states across the country expand their age eligibility in some cases, allowing people as young as 18, and up, to get the vaccine. That is because a variety of older people, largely white men, are not interested in getting the vaccine. So that is something that President Biden is likely to address as well.

But, Jake, there are a variety of issues on his plate, no question. We know his position on virtually all of them. The question is, specifically how he will use the power of his office to get them through, guns, of course, first and foremost. A week ago, when this press conference was announced, the shootings had not even happened yet and they were not on the radar. The one in Colorado hadn't happened yet and they were not on the radar of this president. He only addressed this earlier this week. So this is something that he is uniquely qualified to compare the last time the Senate tried to tackle this in 2013 after the horrific Sandy Hook massacre to now.

He also has a variety of other things on his plate he's not talked as much about, that is Afghanistan. For the last ten years or so, he has been in favor of, often at odds with other presidents, like President Obama, of pulling out U.S. troops. Now, he is facing that same decision. We've not heard him talk about much of this at all. So, of course, he is going to start out, I'm told, by giving somewhat of a lengthy statement on vaccines, on the economy, but then, of course, he'll be pressed on all of these issues.

Again, some of which we know his positions on, but the point of this is for him to expand and really build public support for many of these programs.

TAPPER: Yes, we might have a better idea of his position on these issues if he'd held a solo news conference before now, historically late.

And, Abby, let me talk to you, let me pick up where Jeff just left off on guns. I had Republican Senator Pat Toomey on my show yesterday and he said that they could close the gun show loophole. Right now, if you have a gun show, you don't necessarily have to do a background check.

He thinks there is, will, 60 votes to get that passed in the Senate, but that doesn't go far enough for a lot of House Democrats and some Senate Democrats, and this is the push and pull that Biden is going to face. Does he want something passed or does he want a big bill that all the Democratic Caucus is behind but it can't get through the Senate?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, you heard Biden talk about the gun show loophole, the Charleston loophole. There are a number of priorities for Democrats. I mean, frankly, there is broad public support for universal background checks but that does not have, probably, 60 votes in the Senate.

So, yes, as with a lot of things, you can get 60 votes on piecemeal elements of this.


But from a strategic perspective, I think Democrats are hesitant to chip off a little bit of this. And what that inevitably does in Washington is that people can then take that home and say, oh, we did something, and then not deal with broader issues until well down the road, or if ever again. And I think that's what some Democrats are concerned about is that if you do a little bit, you ignore the broader problem and you don't actually make a difference. I mean, this is a life or death issue from the perspective of many Democrats.

TAPPER: And, David, President Biden, the White House has said that he might take some executive actions when it comes to new restrictions on gun ownership, though Vice President Harris said, if you really want to do something, it has to be done with legislation.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. It was interesting that when President Biden first came out to address the shooting in Boulder, he didn't go right to executive actions, right? I mean, his comments that day were, there are two House-passed background check bills that should pass the Senate now. And he threw in that he would like to see an assault weapons ban, the since expired assault weapons ban that he helped usher through in the '90s, he'd like to see that back in place, legislation.

You noted, Kamala Harris, when she was asked multiple times about what kind of executive action could the administration take right now to start dealing with this gun crisis, and she put the onus on Congress. She said, no, we must move through legislation because that's how you get actual permanent, long lasting solutions to problems.

I'll note, it's a totally different position than she took in her own presidential campaign back in 2019.

TAPPER: Well, she's a vice president now.

CHALIAN: But now she is the vice president, yes, exactly.

TAPPER: She has to take on Biden's position on these issues.

And this gets into, Abby, the bigger question for Joe Biden which is -- President Biden, which is whether or not he should, as many progressives want him to, support changing the Senate rules. Right now, Democrats have 50 votes, Republicans have 50 votes, Kamala Harris, the vice president, can cast the tie-breaking vote, and that's how they got the economy package, the recovery package through, using special rules.

But, generally, you need 60 votes in order to bring something to the floor of the Senate. It's called the people shorthanded, they say it's the filibuster rules, and Democrats are saying, President Biden, we can't get any of your agenda through unless we change the rules so we only need 51 votes instead of 60 votes.

PHILLIP: I mean, that's very -- that may be the case but it's an oversimplification of the problem because they have a problem among Democrats.

TAPPER: Right.

PHILLIP: I mean, the real issue, I think, they're facing right now is that when you have other Democrats who have two positions, one, Joe Manchin's position seems to be that bipartisanship is a requirement for his vote. That seems to take the 51 vote thing completely off the table because, you know, if Joe Manchin doesn't even -- you know, he's not willing to go along with something that only has 51 votes.

So you've got to get to at least 52 votes. It seems like he'd be fine with Democrats, plus one, but you have to get at least some Republican votes to get him on board. And then on top of that you have other Democrats who are very hesitant to roll back the filibuster on other -- for other reasons.

And so Democrats need to figure out where their caucus is before they can even have the filibuster conversation. Because this would all be fine if they could count on the Manchins of the world and the Sinemas of the world, but they can't. So until they can figure out what legislation can get just those people on board, this is a moot conversation.

TAPPER: And this is the price you pay for the majority, right, because Joe Manchin --

CHALIAN: For a thin majority.

TAPPER: A very thin majority. He's a moderate Democrat and probably the only West Virginia Democrat that could have a Senate seat, certainly the only Democrat that's won statewide at that level in a long, long time. And I've seen some gun rights -- not gun rights, some gun control activists saying, you know, nasty things about Joe Manchin on social media, we need to get rid of him, he doesn't get replaced by a more liberal Democrat if you get rid of Joe Manchin. He gets replaced by a more conservative Republican.

CHALIAN: There is no doubt about that. Here is what I think is so interesting with what Abby was saying. Yes, the problem is inside the Democratic House here. It's not just about the 60-vote threshold.

But what he White House and some -- or I should say some advisers in the White

House and some activists in the Democratic world on the outside believe may move the needle for these Democrats is showing time and again some key Democratic priorities failing because that they can't get any Republican votes. And that if they show enough failure on big agenda items, it will build pressure on the Democrats to all get on board with changing the voting rules, the threshold, the filibuster, and coming on board with these agenda items.

Now, I think that's a -- that's a pretty big gamble.


I don't know that that strategy is actually going to produce Joe Manchin to come along and say, oh, okay, you showed me this won't get through, all of a sudden, I'm going to be on board with this. It seems the administration is going to need to work on both sides, right?

They're going to need to try and move some Republican votes so that they can get all those Democrats on board as well, including Manchin, as well as placate a bit to the base about changing the structure of the rules in the Senate because that is something that the Democratic base is really asking for on issues that matter so critically to them, voting rights, gun rights.

As you're saying, these issues are so front and center. And without any action on them, I think you're going to see the Biden White House concerned that they will lose some of that energy in their own base.

TAPPER: Yes, of course, what happens when the Republicans take control of the Senate again, as inevitably will happen at some point in the future, and what do they do if they only need 51 votes, or 50 votes plus an incumbent Republican vice president.

Jeff, we also know that President Biden is going to be asked about the situation at the border. Roughly 14,000 migrant children are currently in U.S. custody. The Biden administration has so far avoided calling it a crisis. It's clearly a humanitarian crisis, whatever you think of the politics of it. What do you think he's going to say today? Do you think he might actually acknowledge the horrific conditions that are going on?

ZELENY: I think there's no doubt that he will acknowledge that the conditions that we've seen in those intake facilities are unacceptable. We've heard his aides and his spokespeople say they're unacceptable to the president. We've not heard in his own voice what he believes, you know, is unacceptable.

Now, clearly, the administration was moving very quickly in advance of this press conference to show that action was under way and to show that this, indeed, is a priority of this White House. Yesterday, of course, President Biden appointing Vice President Kamala Harris in charge, really adding this to her portfolio, making this her portfolio of leading the diplomatic efforts in Central America, but also overseeing some efforts on the border. So, really, spanning the root causes of the migrant surge as well as what happens to the children once they arrive.

So I do believe that we will hear President Biden, based on the sources I'm talking to, speak, you know, very forcefully about how this is not something that is acceptable. But he will also point out the reason this is happening is because under his administration he is allowing -- his administration is allowing these children to stay here.

For the last four years, the Trump administration sent them home once they crossed the border, so that is the big difference. The question is, was he prepared, was his team prepared for this surge of migrants, which many people predicted would happen.

And, of course, he has experience from this. In 2014 and 2015, as vice president, in the second term of the Obama administration, he was given this portfolio as well. He sent a lot of aid down to Central American countries and it didn't really change that much in the long- term. So I do believe his words on this will be interesting.

But also, this is the first time we're going to hear him talk about how he thinks things are going in today's Washington. He talked so many times, in fact, I was thinking back to his last news conference as president-elect in Wilmington right around the holidays. And I asked him if he thinks he'll have a honeymoon period. And he essentially pushed back any suggestion that he's being naive about this. He said he can work with Democrats and Republicans.

Now we know, of course, after that COVID relief bill was passed with Democratic votes only, Republicans are not likely to work with him, and Republicans now say the White House seems unlikely to work with them.

We know he's only spoken to Leader Mitch McConnell about one time since taking office. So it will be interesting to see if he gives a sense of what bipartisan means now, because the White House is now saying that, to them, bipartisanship is supporting things that the vast majority of the American people support, not necessarily Republicans voting on it here in Washington.

So having him take stock of what he believes this moment is also is so important in assessing the rest of his presidency.

TAPPER: Yes, that's traditionally not what people have meant when they refer to bipartisan support for legislation. They traditionally mean Democrats and Republicans supporting a piece of legislation, not public opinion polls.

Abby, we learned today that 684,000 people filed for unemployment last week. Now, the good news in that number is that that's the lowest since the pandemic began, but for context, it's still higher that any week in American history, in recent American history, until the last recession. How long does Biden have, do you think, to get the economy turned around before voters start holding him accountable?

PHILLIP: Well, I'd certainly think by the end of this year, there needs to be a lot of progress on the economy. Because, remember, the argument, in favor of this gigantic COVID stimulus bill was that if we don't act now and if we don't act aggressively, we will have a slow and stalled recovery.


And so I think, you know, this year is going to be crucial for that and it's likely that we could see some progress. You've seen economists saying -- we could see GDP growth in the 7 percent or 8 percent, which would be an astronomical number. But if that's the case, Biden is probably in a much better place than he would otherwise have been.

And I think that, you know, look, it's not just about the numbers. It's also about people and their families and their livelihoods, right? So, yes, people might be employed but they're in the hole for rent, tens of thousands of dollars. And making people feel whole again is actually bigger than just making sure that they have a job again.

And I think that's the other part of this challenge that they've also faced back in 2008-2009 was that people -- the economy was doing better. People didn't actually feel that in their pocketbooks, in their homes and in their home economies.

TAPPER: Okay. Abby and David and Jeff, stand by. Again, President Biden will announce that new vaccination goal in just a matter of minutes. Here's what the CDC director said today about the rollout of the vaccine so far.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: What we do know is that we're vaccinating people at 2.5 million people per day, and we're really starting to see the positive effects of that vaccination. We know that people who are over the age of 65, their mortality rates have come down dramatically from 16 and 100,000 in January to 1 in 100,000 now. So we know and we're getting that early evidence that this vaccine is working.


TAPPER: CNN Medical Analyst and Professor of Medicine and Surgery at George Washington University Dr. Jonathan Reiner joins us now. Dr. Reiner, good to see you.

2.5 million doses a day, that's a vast improvement on where we were just a few months ago but obviously more needs to be done. Do you think President Biden can hit this new target, 200 million shots in arms within his first 100 days?

DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: He certainly will. This administration has shown a practice of underpromising and overdelivering. When they announced their initial goal of basically a million shots per day, 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, we were already giving 900,000 shots per day. So that wasn't a big aspirational goal. Now, we're giving 2.5 million shots per day, some days 3 million shots per day. We will probably beat that 200 million goal with about a week to spare. So we're already doing that.

The problem is that at 2.5 million shots per day, we're still five months away from herd immunity if we're using 75 percent of the population as a goal. We've made great strides. About a third of the population, a third of the adult population has had at least one vaccination, and almost two-thirds of people over the age of 65.

So we're really moving in the right direction. But we need to go further and faster. I think we probably need to go more than 3 million shots per day, and we need to start vaccinating the young people. That -- that's the group that is propagating the virus in the United States, the people right now who have not been vaccinated.

TAPPER: Right. And they -- well, first of all, we're still waiting for data when it comes to how safe the vaccines are for children, under the age of 16. But you're right about the underpromising, overdelivering, Biden saying just a few weeks ago, when I said 100 million shots in arms within the first 100 days, you all said I was crazy. Nobody said he was crazy, as you pointed out. They were already at 900,000 a day under a Trump.

In that same interview that we just aired that clip from, the CDC director said that she's seeing about 1,000 COVID deaths per day, which, in her words, and I think we all agree, is way too many. How concerned are you that the number of cases, particularly with these new variants, might outpace the rate of vaccination?

REINER: I'm concerned but I don't think that's going to happen. What we're seeing right now is it's a little bit uneven in the United States in the southeast and southwest in California, cases are way down. We've seen a pretty big surge in Michigan, a little bit in the northeast, which seems to be stabilizing a bit. So I think we're going to have this sort of plateau for a little while until the states that have been surging get more vaccines in arms. And then I think we'll start to go down even further.

The good news is that even if we see a surge in cases, we have so much vaccine in our most vulnerable population, particularly the folks who live in long-term care facilities in nursing homes where fully a third of our deaths happened during this pandemic.


I don't think we're going to see the big surge in deaths.

So we'll need to sort of keep an eye on how this is spreading out in the United States but I think we'll see sort of up and down over the next several weeks, and then finally way down as we start to get the majority of the population of this country vaccinated.

TAPPER: Pfizer just announced that they started a vaccine trial for children ages 5 to 11. How long do you think it will be before all children are able and eligible to be vaccinated?

REINER: Probably not before sometime this fall. I think, probably, we'll start to get shots in the arms to teenagers probably sometime during the summer and early fall, but it will be several months, I think, before we have data on the youngest children. But, hopefully, certainly, by New Year's of next year, hopefully, every American of every age should be eligible for a vaccine.

The important thing about this is that the FDA and the CDC are doing this right. You don't want to extrapolate adult data to kids. They're not just little people. We need to make sure we have the dose right for our little children, and both in terms of safety and efficacy, and the only way to do that is with a clinical trial. So the data will come. I have no question that we'll find the right dose for children. And that will really be how we put an end to this pandemic once and for all.

TAPPER: I know it's not the same but, for example, are flu shots different for adults than they are for children? And if so, how?

REINER: No, they're not different but these are different vaccines.

TAPPER: Right.

REINER: And particularly this is the first time we're administering mRNA vaccines. And we don't have decades of precedents the way we do with flu vaccines to understand how these will behave in children. We need to trial it, particularly for safety.

TAPPER: Absolutely. Recently, you tweeted, quote, during a clinic session, nearly every patient had received at least one vaccine dose, the only exceptions were two patients with disabilities and no access to computers. We need the J&J, that's the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, in clinics for these people. These are our most vulnerable patients and we need to do better, unquote. J&J likely to fall short of its goal to have 20 million vaccine doses ready in March. How does that figure into the disparity?

REINER: So, you think -- if you think about it, getting vaccinated in the United States has been a little bit of a real world Hunger Games with people on multiple browsers, getting up at the crack of dawn, looking for multiple sites to try and get in the queue. Our most vulnerable population, the oldest people in this country, people with learning disabilities and other disabilities don't have the ability to do that, economic disabilities. So we need to take vaccine to them.

We need to -- first of all, we should be vaccinating every person who's hospitalized in the United States right now. You should not be discharged from the hospital without receiving a dose of a vaccine. And last week was the first time i was actually able to do that. I vaccinated two patients in the hospital who had special needs.

Likewise in clinic, sometimes the only access you have to a patient is when they're in your office. We need to have availability of vaccine, particularly the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which doesn't require patients to come back to get the most vulnerable patients.

And then we need to go in to our communities that have been the most vaccine hesitant, all right, communities of color, as we've spoken about it at great length, the conservative communities in this country and also young -- you know, young people. You know, we need to -- and we need to take vaccine to them. That's what I want to see this administration doing, getting -- being very, very proactive, not just making more vaccine available to states.

We have tons of vaccine available for almost 40 million delivered, but not yet administered doses in the community. I want to see us really taking vaccines to churches and community centers and meeting people where they are, talking to them and getting them vaccinated.

Because I think the biggest hurdle to herd immunity is not the amount of vaccine, or even the number of vaccinators, it's going to be convincing people to take the shot. And that's what this administration needs to do. We need to get down to the grassroots and do that. TAPPER: Will the Biden administration announcement of nearly $10 billion to expand vaccinations address these problems?

Sara Sidner, CNN Correspondent, did a story for my show yesterday talking about an effort in one Native American nation in Oklahoma to go on the road and go meet the people where they are, meet the members of -- I think it was the Osage Nation where they are.

Does the Biden administration need to be doing that more for inner city communities, for Native American communities, for the Trump- supporting communities, as you just referred to, where they are also vaccine hesitant?


Does there need to be more of an effort there to get church leaders, community leaders and others to get the shot and set a leadership role?

REINER: Absolutely. I had these conversations with people every single day. And the way it starts is by listening to people. Tell me why you're hesitant to take the shot.

You know, if you poll hospitals around the United States, and ask hospitals, what percent of their staff have been vaccinated you might be shocked. In many places around the country, only between 50 and 65 percent of hospital staffs have been vaccinated, not because the vaccine hasn't been available but because there is still great amount of vaccine hesitancy.

And it all comes down to getting people who the employees and the population trust to talk to them about this. And we just haven't seen enough of that in mass media now. We need massive campaign to educate people about the safety and efficacy of these vaccines because there's a tremendous amount of disinformation circulating in these communities.

TAPPER: Disinformation circulating, and certainly with some communities, historical reasons to mistrust the U.S. government coming to them and saying, hey, trust me. Dr. Reiner, thanks so much, I appreciate it.

We have a two-minute warning now to the president speaking. Let's bring the panel back in to discuss while we wait for the president to come out.

And, David Chalian, these moments are high stakes for every president, low reward and high risk?

CHALIAN: And hopefully really instructive for the public, right, because you get to see the president of the United States think on his feet in real-time in these unscripted moments, and, of course, coming at a time when some unexpected challenges, guns, moments in the history that are not part of the pre-planned strategy of the White House intercede, and how he responds to that, how he handles questions and the poking and prodding of his policies, his agenda, his priorities, all of that in real-time, we just haven't had that opportunity with President Biden yet and now the public's going to be able to see him think through these major challenges in real-time.

TAPPER: And, Abby, when he was the vice presidential nominee in 2008, we had a running blog in which we covered his gaffes.

Well, never mind, here he is. Let's listen to him, the 46th president of the United States, Joseph Robinette Biden.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to give you a progress report to the nation on where we stand 65 days into office here, on vaccinations and a few other top priorities for the American people.

First, on vaccinations. On December 8th, I indicated that I hoped to get 100 million shots in people's arms in my first 100 days. We met that goal last week by day 58, 42 days ahead of schedule. Now, today, I'm setting a second goal, and that is we will, by my 100th day in office, have administered 200 million shots in people's arms. That's right, 200 million shots, in 100 days. I know it's ambitious, twice our original goal, but no other country in the world has even come close, not even close to what we are doing. I believe we can do it.

And today, we made a historic investment in reaching the hardest hit and the most vulnerable communities, the highest risk communities, as a consequence of the virus, by investing an additional $10 billion in being able to reach them.

I also set a goal before I took office of getting a majority of schools in K through eight fully open in the first 100 days. Now, thanks to the enormous amount of work done by our administration, educators, parents, local/state education officials and leaders, recent Department of Education survey shows that nearly half of the K through eight schools are open now full-time, five days a week for in- person learning. Not yet a majority, but we're really close. And I believe in the 35 days left to go, we'll meet that goal as well.

As of yesterday, more than 100 million payments of $1,400 have gone into people's bank accounts. That's real money in people's pockets bringing relief instantly, almost. And millions more will be getting their money very soon.

One final note, since we passed the American rescue plan, we're starting to see new signs of hope in our economy.