Return to Transcripts main page


A Least Five Killed as Tornadoes Rip Through the Southeast; Biden Sends Warning to North Korea About Missile Tests; Biden Give First News Conference of His Presidency; Georgia Republicans Pass Sweeping New Restrictions on Voting; Biden Suggests U.S. Senate Change Filibuster Rules; Crews Work to Free Ship as Blockage Threatens Global Trade. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired March 26, 2021 - 04:00   ET



KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR: Homes and lives destroyed in an instant. Tornadoes have been ripping across parts of the Southern U.S. we have the latest on the devastation left behind.

Joe Biden faces the media in a long-awaited news conference. We'll tell you what he said about coronavirus, gun laws and working with Republicans.

Georgia was the surprise of the 2020 election, flipping for Joe Biden. Now Republicans there have passed a law that will make it much tougher to vote.

Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to all of you watching here in the United States, Canada and around the world, I'm Kim Brunhuber. This is CNN NEWSROOM.

We start here in the U.S. where powerful storms have been tearing through the southeast. In a deadly and destructive night at least five people have been killed in Alabama as a tornado swept through Calhoun County. So far seven tornadoes have been reported in the state. Here in metro Atlanta and surrounding areas a powerful tornado swept through south of the city and a tornado watch is still in effect. The cleanup will be substantial as the heavy rains and intense winds left a trail of wreckage in its path, knocking down trees, blowing out windows and leveling homes.

Now, in a stunning video one man captured a potential tornado touching down. Watch this.


(BLEEP). Oh, (BLEEP). Oh, no.


BRUNHUBER: Search and rescue missions are continuing into the night across the South. More than 45,000 customers are without electricity. Communities in Alabama and Georgia are now left to pick up the pieces and rebuild. CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam was at the scene of the tornado you just saw, and he spoke to CNN earlier showing us the damage that the storm left behind.


DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: This was a very heart-breaking scene for my crew and I to approach this evening as we came to the Columbiana region southeast of Birmingham. That same footage you saw a moment ago was part of the tornado that tore the house that you see behind me completely off of its foundation. Ripped it 100 feet from where it was originally located and deposited it in shambles behind me.

Now what you're seeing is a rescue operation from the individuals that live in this community. This is an animal rescue center where we're located, they house over 50 horses, 50 stallions, in fact. Several dozen goats as well as sheep. These animals all need to be rescued, there is no more fences, all the trees have been obliterated around this area including homes that you see behind me. So there is a massive effort to try to save the animals from this particular rescue center as well.


BRUNHUBER: Let's go straight to meteorologist Tyler Mauldin who's been tracking this deadly and destructive weather. Tyler, the storms have been devastating as we saw there, and they are not done yet. What's the latest?

TYLER MAULDIN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: No, they're not done yet, but they are quickly diminishing. Then our eyes go to the second system which is a system that's going to be coming our way come this weekend. It will bring yet another severe threat.

The system we dealt with yesterday brought large destructive tornadoes which led to structural damage as you can see from Eagle Point, Alabama, this area was hit really hard. Look at the trees it's like a buzz saw just went through. That is reminiscent of a strong tornado, likely an EF-4 or so.

In total nearly two dozen tornado reports yesterday, again, these were long track extremely dangerous tornadoes. There continues to be a tornado watch for the area shaded in red here across central Georgia on into South Carolina, that is until 7:00 this morning. You can see the line quickly pushing down to the south and starting to lose its punch. Down here across southern Alabama just some light to moderate showers ongoing at the moment, then just south of Atlanta we have moderate showers as well. The most intense part of the system now is pushing into South Carolina.


The wider view shows the main low pressure pushing up to the north, you can see the little spin -- spinning right there, the pin wheeling motion, that is going to lift to the north, bring the northeast rain and some wind. The trailing cold front will lead to some weak showers and thunderstorms across the South. Notice how it pushes down, it just kind of peters out as I said.

But notice this, Kim, as we get on into Saturday we're going to see a system start to push some showers and thunderstorms on into the mid- South come Saturday and Sunday, storm prediction center is already highlighting this area, we have to watch it closely for, yet another round of severe weather come this weekend -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: All right, let's hope no more lives are lost. Thank you so much, Tyler Mauldin. Appreciate it.

Well Joe Biden used the first news conference of his presidency to put North Korea on notice that the U.S. would respond if its missile tests continue. We will have much more on that in a moment.

Now, during the back and forth with reporters the president spelled out the many long-term challenges his administration faces, but he made clear his focus at the moment is on leading the country out of the pandemic.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I got elected to solve problems and the most urgent problem facing the American people I stated from the outset was COVID-19 and the economic dislocation for millions and millions of Americans.

The other problems we are talking about from immigration to guns and the other things you mentioned are long-term problems, they've been around a long time. And what we're going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin one at a time to focus on those as well.


BRUNHUBER: The 78-year-old president also revealed for the first time that he is already thinking about a possible second term. That prompted an interesting question from CNN's Kaitlan Collins. Listen to his response.


BIDEN: My plan is to run for reelection. That's my expectation.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Do you believe you will be running against former President Trump?

BIDEN: Oh, come on. I don't even think about -- I don't -- I have no idea. I have no idea whether there will be a Republican party. Do you?


BRUNHUBER: Well As the president alluded to 2024 is still a long way off. In the meantime the clock is ticking on getting his aggressive agenda moving in Congress and at the center of that is a growing debate about the Senate filibuster. CNN's Jeff Zeleny has our report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF U.S. NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: President Biden feeling emboldened during his first news conference on Thursday at the White House making clear that he believes he has the upper hand in his battle with Senate Republicans. He talked about that $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan that got no Republican votes, but it did earn support from Republicans in the country. And that, he said, is going to be a template going forward. He explained his thinking like this --

BIDEN: I think my Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together, or they decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to -- is to just decide -- divide the country, continue the politics of division. But I'm not going to do that, I'm just going to move forward and take these things as they come.

ZELENY: Now, this hour-long news conference certainly offered a window into President Biden's thinking in ways that we have not yet seen. One is the juxtaposition of bipartisanship has changed a bit. He started coming into office by wanting to get Republicans to vote on some of his plans. But when they showed little interest in doing that he clearly is trying to go his own way saying bipartisanship is getting support from Republicans out in the country.

But also some interesting thinking on the filibuster. Of course, that is the Senate rule that requires 60 votes on any major piece of legislation. He inched a bit closer to urging Senators to change the rules on that, take that away, allowing legislation to pass more easily.

Now, former president Barack Obama has called the filibuster a relic of the Jim Crow era, certainly racial undertones in that, and Biden said he agreed. He acknowledged he does not have the votes or power to change that filibuster yet. So on gun controls, on voting rights reform legislation, those are some issues that will test the filibuster and the president clearly making a case that he believes this is something that if there is gridlock he will push harder to change that.

All this coming as foreign policy also front and center on the president's agenda. He is facing a decision on Afghanistan, is he going to withdraw troops by the beginning of May or not? He made clear that that time frame may be a little more aggressive, but he said in a year from now troops would not be in Afghanistan.

At the same time talking about North Korea, he was asked succinctly if he believes like former president Obama believed that North Korea is the biggest foreign policy threat. President Biden answered in one word, he said yes.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN, the White House.


[04:10:00] BRUNHUBER: All right, now more on North Korea. The U.N. Security Council committee in charge of dealing with sanctions on that country will meet in a few hours. The U.S. requested the meeting after North Korea conducted two separate missile tests in less than a week and the U.S. didn't view the first test as a real provocation, but Wednesday's firing of ballistic missiles ramped up the urgency for Washington and its allies. Here is what president Biden said.


BIDEN: U.N. Resolution 1718 was violated by those particular missiles that were tested, number one. We're consulting with our allies and partners and there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly. But I'm also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.


BRUNHUBER: CNN's Paula Hancocks is in Seoul, South Korea, for us. Paula, so as we heard there President Biden saying North Korea was the top foreign policy item so presumably for North Korea's missile launch it was mission accomplished.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kim. I mean, certainly it felt as though North Korea was lowered down the priority list when it came to the incoming Biden administration, certainly there were more pressing concerns. But this is what North Korea does well, it makes sure that it puts itself at the top of that national security priority list by firing these two ballistic missiles.

Now, it was interesting that President Biden did say once again, yes, that it is at the top of the agenda and a very big policy -- foreign policy concern. The national -- the North Korea policy review is still under way. We are expecting as early as next week to hear exactly what the Biden administration believes should be the policy going forward. That's been under way for a couple of months now. Many people are waiting for that, North Korea clearly couldn't wait for that and carried out what it calls this newly developed new type tactical guided projectile.

Now clearly there are many missile experts that are pouring over the images that state run media has issued to find out if that is exactly the case, some of them have preliminary assessments out, they believe that it is a new kind of short range ballistic missile. And as you say, there will also be a U.N. Security Council committee meeting when they deal with the sanctions against North Korea to talk about all of that on Friday morning, U.S. time. Of course, it is very difficult to see what exactly they could improve on when it comes to the sanctions which are already fairly tight -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, and we'll be following that story today. Thank you so much, Paula Hancocks in Seoul.

U.S. President Joe Biden says it's sick and un-American for Republican-led state legislatures to propose ways to restrict voting. And now three civil rights groups have filed suit against a sweeping new law here in Georgia which they say does just that. The bill sped through the Republican-controlled state legislature on Thursday. The governor -- also a Republican -- signed it immediately. As Dianne Gallagher reports Democrats say Republicans are trying to gain an unfair edge in future elections.


GOV. BRIAN KEMP (R-GA): After the November election last year I knew, like so many of you, that significant reforms to our state elections were needed.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signing into law a sweeping election bill that could restrict ballot access. The move came after both the Republican- led Georgia House --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Yeas were 100, the nays were 75

Gallagher (voice-over): -- and Senate worked in quick success to pass the legislation..

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The yeas are 34, the nay's are 20 and the Senate has agreed to the House substitute to send the Bill 202.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Democrats ripped the nearly 100-page bill that would make significant changes to Georgia elections. Arguing some of the provisions would disproportionately affect voters of color.

ZULMA LOPEZ, GEORGIA STATE HOUSE DEMOCRAT: This bill targets a county like mine and minority voters because we have the votes to change elections in the state of Georgia.

ELENA PARENT, GEORGIA STATE SENATE DEMOCRAT: The elections were not stolen, but what is happening before our eyes right now is an effort to steal elections.

GLORIA BUTLER, GEORGIA STATE SENATE DEMOCRAT: They are trying to make it a crime to give people water and a snack.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Republicans countered saying the legislation would help safeguard elections.

BARRY FLEMING, GEORGIA STATE HOUSE REPUBLICAN: The bill greatly expands accessibility of voters in Georgia and greatly improves the process of administration of elections. While at the same time providing more accountability to ensure the integrity that vote -- that the vote is properly preserved.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): The bill known as S-B202 would add new ID requirements for absentee voting, limit the use of ballot drop boxes, make providing food or drink to voters in line a misdemeanor and grant state officials broad power over local elections including the ability to replace local election officials, among other major changes. Republicans dropped measures that would have dramatically reduced

Sunday early voting and repealed no excuse absentee voting. It adds a second Saturday and allows for two optional Sundays of early voting. Opponents of the bill protesting at the capital in Atlanta Thursday says it feels like revenge after the last elections here.

GREGORY WILLIAMS, ATLANTA PASTOR: Well, what happened in Georgia scared them. They're scared. What happened in Georgia turning a southern state blue and also getting a Jewish Senator and an African- American Senator in the state of Georgia, that scared some people.

SHENITA BINNS, GEORGIA VOTER: This is not a moment. This is a movement. This is a revolution. And when our votes are under attack we will stand up and we will continue to fight back, even if we have to go to the Supreme Court.


BRUNHUBER: That report from CNN's Dianne Gallagher.

A Democratic Georgia state representative was arrested Thursday evening for protesting outside the governor's office as he signed the bill. The post to social media shows Park Cannon speaking with a Georgia Capitol Police officer. But after the state representative knocks on the door she is arrested, handcuffed and led away. Cannon was taken to Fulton County Jail but has since been released.

Joining me now from Los Angeles is CNN's senior political analyst Ron Brownstein. Ron, thanks so much for coming on. First I want to get to what happened last night in Georgia, those sweeping new election restriction laws, state lawmaker arrested trying to protest the bill, all quite extraordinary.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's extraordinary what we are seeing across the country, Kim. I mean, the big lie from Trump that the election was stolen, stolen in his vision primarily in large cities with big African-American populations, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta. Disproven in courtroom after courtroom across the country. Discredited after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, which it happened to inspire, and yet still living on and driving this extraordinary surge of voter suppression laws in Republican-controlled states across the country.

Clearly the broadest attempt to make it more difficult for Americans to vote since the Jim Crow era before the Voting Rights Act and one that I think is creating -- even putting a gauntlet down before Congressional Democrats. Will they act to try to set a nationwide floor of voting rights because without it we are going to see an enormous divergence in what democracy means in blue states and red states as soon as 2022.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, I mean the symbolism of a black lawmaker being dragged off to jail, you know, surely this will be a huge rallying cry for Democrats. You talked about the gauntlet. Well the president said in his press conference yesterday it was un-American, he would, quote, do everything in his power to stop it. So, you know, the filibuster, the fact that he signaled that he would be open to getting rid of it. Could this be the issue, the one thing that might generate enough unanimity among Senate Democrats to overcome the filibuster to tackle this issue head on?

BROWNSTEIN: I will say if there's any issue that can do it this will be the one. You know, there are two responses that are advancing legislatively to this wave of efforts to make it tougher to vote. One is the bill known as H.R.1 or S.1 in the Senate, a kind of omnibus set of election reforms centered on creating automatic same-day online registration as well as guaranteeing voters access to mail voting on demand and 15 days of early voting.

The other is a kind of reauthorization and reinvigoration of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that was eviscerated in a 2013 Supreme Court decision. It is highly unlikely that any Republican is going to vote for S.1, there may be a couple for the Voting Rights Act, but the likelihood is that both of them face a filibuster. And I think this will be the issue where Democrats feel that they are on the strongest ground historically, morally in challenging the filibuster which as you know in response to a question from our colleague Kaitlan Collins, Joe Biden agreed that he views as a Jim Crow relic.

BRUNHUBER: We only have about a minute left. I did want to get your thoughts on Biden's first press conference as president. What are your key takeaways about his priorities, how he handled it and what it says about Joe Biden as president?

BROWNSTEIN: The priorities I think. Look, I think that even though Biden gave very strong statements on voting rights and didn't give an inch on immigration, you know, basically saying he felt no compunction about abandoning Trump policies that separated kids from his parents. I think he came out of that press conference it is clear that he wants to be defined above all by responding to kitchen table concerns. Bread and butter concerns. I mean he wants to be a president who is putting shots in arms, checks in pockets and shovels in the ground.


It was very revealing that amid all of these questions I thought the press didn't do themselves any favor by never asking about the pandemic, which is still immediate for most families. But amid all of these questions about other issues what did he say he was going to do next? Infrastructure. You know, there will be other elements of administration that will be fighting some of these cultural war and socially divisive issues but Biden himself I think is going to define himself as much as he can to the American people as focusing on these lunch pail kitchen table concerns.

BRUNHUBER: All right, sadly that's all the time we have. But we always appreciate your thoughts. Ron Brownstein really appreciate it.

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

BRUNHUBER: A standstill at the Suez Canal could mean trouble for global commerce. Coming up, the efforts under way to free this massive container ship blocking one of the world's most important trade routes.

Plus the suspect in the boulder supermarket shooting makes his first court appearance. We'll have the details.


BRUNHUBER: Global supply chains could soon be feeling the pressure as crews are still scrambling to find a way to free a massive container ship clogging the Suez Canal.


After failed attempts to free the Even Given dredgers are working to remove up to 26,000 cubic yards, that's about 20,000 cubic meters of sand from around the ship. And that's enough sand to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools.

CNN's John Defterios is tracking developments from Abu Dhabi. John, so early on the Suez Canal officials were giving rosy estimates of how long it might take to solve the problem. So now a couple days in are they giving a more realistic idea of exactly what he it's going to take?

JOHN DEFTERIOS, CNN BUSINESS EMERGING MARKETS EDITOR: Yes, this is day four now, believe or not, Kim, and it looks like the hill is getting a little bit steeper each day. The Suez Canal authority put out that number what needs to be dug up but didn't give a timeline which is quite alarming. And you know, in the last 24 hours we heard from one of the CEOs involved in terms of the salvage operation saying it could take days or it could take weeks. And we do know there's 200 vessels there already backed up. And in the last hour Refinitiv, the data group, shared the latest information. That should swell to 300 vessels. So the pressure is on the industry now.

So the cost of operation, the cost of lost trade is being more defined as well. $400 million an hour in lost trade. It adds up to about $10 billion a day. That's why people want to get this moving, but we are lacking clarity. Is it feasible by next week is what the industry wants to know.

BRUNHUBER: OK, but then if they can't move it in a week or so what happens then?

DEFTERIOS: Well, in fact, I spoke to some shipping sources last night, Kim, and they said if their deadline is next Tuesday, one week in. There is expected to be a kind of act of mother nature here, a reasonable high tide between Sunday and Monday and the industry is talk being it a lot offering some hope.

If not the alternative is to reroute and go around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, as you know, and then come into Europe and on to the United States from there. But that adds seven to 12 days of shipping, a lot of costs, a lot of wear and tear on the crew and that's why they're giving this the extra time to see if there is an escape opportunity here for the ship.

BRUNHUBER: Lots of hopes on that high tide. Thanks so much, John Defterios in Abu Dhabi. Appreciate it.

And we have much more to come here on CNN NEWSROOM. Face-to-face, but will they work side-by-side? EU leaders are about to begin the second day of their virtual COVID-19 summit struggling to hammer out a deal on COVID vaccine exports. Stay with us.