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Derek Chauvin Trial Resumes Tomorrow After A Week Of Compelling Testimony; Record Pandemic-Era Numbers As Easter Travel Surges; Hunter Biden Talks About His Addiction And Burisma; Biden Infrastructure Plan Faces Steep GOP Opposition; Race Between Vaccinations And Variants Reach Critical Point; Far-Right Extremists Shift Focus On Anti-Vaxx Conspiracies. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired April 4, 2021 - 19:00   ET




DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: He mentioned the difficulties in Lebanon and the scandalous silence, he said, about the situation in Yemen. Pope Francis also spoke about an issue close to his heart that is vaccinations for the poor, not only for poor countries to have access to vaccines, but also for people in richer countries to not be forgotten.

Of course, the Pope himself offered to vaccinate 1200 of the homeless and poor here around the Vatican in the week leading up to Easter.

Delia Gallagher, CNN, Rome.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Well, the stage is set for a second week of compelling and potentially damning testimony in the Derek Chauvin trial. The jury is being asked to decide if the ex-cop dishonored his badge or was just following his training when George Floyd died in his custody.

Plus, more pandemic-era travel records are being broken as Easter travel surges. And the president's son revealing an emotional moment when his father forced him to reckon with his alcohol abuse.

I'm Pamela Brown in Washington. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM on this Sunday holiday.

And tomorrow the prosecution in the Derek Chauvin trial will question more witnesses hoping to build on the compelling case they made last week. First responders, bystanders, and civilians all took the stand, and all expressed the shock they felt when they saw Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd's neck as he lie motionless on the ground.

CNN's Sara Sidner breaks down the key moments so far.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JERRY BLACKWELL, PROSECUTOR: On May 25th 2020, Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force up on the body of Mr. George Floyd.

ERIC NELSON, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career. The use of force is not attractive. But it is a necessary component of policing.

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The defense and prosecution's dueling arguments in a case the world is watching.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you want?

GEORGE FLOYD, DIED IN POLICE CUSTODY: I can't breathe. Please the knee on my neck.

SIDNER: The first week of testimony in the former officer's murder trial began with jurors seeing the entire bystander video. That was followed by a long line of eyewitnesses.

JENA LEE SCURRY: My instincts were telling me that something's wrong.

SIDNER: Jena lee Scurry, a 9-1-1 dispatcher, called a police supervisor as she watched officers' treatment of George Floyd on a street surveillance camera.

DONALD WILLIAMS, WITNESS: I did call the police on the police.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And why did you do that?

WILLIAMS: Because I believe I witnessed a murder.

SIDNER: Donald Williams was watching from the sidewalk. The professionally trained MMA fighter was overcome with emotion as he heard his own call for 9-1-1.

WILLIAMS: You're all murderers, bro. You're all murderers, Thao. You going to kill yourself. I already know it.

SIDNER: 61-year-old eyewitness Charles McMillian was there, too.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not trying to win.

SIDNER: He says he begged Floyd to comply.

FLOYD: I can't breathe.


FLOYD: Mama, Mama.

SIDNER: McMillian dissolved into sobs when he saw the video from that day.

CHARLES MCMILLIAN, EYEWITNESS: I feel helpless. I don't have a mama either, I understand him.

SIDNER: An off-duty firefighter, an EMT, walking by on May 25th, 2020, testifies she begged officers to let her check Floyd's pulse or check it themselves.

GENEVIEVE HANSON, EYEWITNESS AND FIREFIGHTER: There is a man being killed, and I would have, had I had access to a call similar to that, I would have been able to provide medical attention to the best of my abilities, and this human was denied that.

SIDNER: Some witnesses' faces were shielded from the public, only the jury saw them because they were all minors when they witnessed Floyd's death. The teen who took the video that went viral and her 9-year-old cousin who testified anonymously.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's been nights, I stayed up apologizing and -- and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I saw the officer put a knee on the neck of George Floyd. I was sad and kind of mad.

SIDNER: A former cashier who accused Floyd of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill testified, too.

CHRISTOPHER MARTIN, WITNESS: I took it anyways, and I was planning to just put it on my tab until I second-guessed myself, and, as you can see in the video, I kept examining it, and then I eventually told my manager.


SIDNER: Soon after, police were called.

MARTIN: George was motionless, limp, and Chauvin seemed very -- he was in a resting state.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He saw you standing there with your hands on your head for a while, correct?

MARTIN: Correct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was going through your mind during that time period?

MARTIN: Disbelief and guilt.

SIDNER: None of the bystanders knew George Floyd at the time, only one person who testified this week did. They met at his job years ago when he noticed she was crying.

COURTENEY ROSS, GEORGE FLOYD'S GIRLFRIEND: He had this great deep Southern voice, raspy. And he's, like, sis, you OK, sis? And I wasn't OK.

SIDNER: They dated for nearly three years. She testified that they shared many things, including an addiction to painkillers. ROSS: Floyd and I both suffered with an opioid addiction. We got

addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times.

SIDNER: Chauvin's attorney pounced, pointing out Floyd's drug use. His argument, Floyd didn't die from Chauvin's actions but his own drug use and pre-existing medical issues.

NELSON: It was your belief that Mr. Floyd started using again about two weeks prior to his death, correct?

ROSS: I noticed a change in his behavior, yes.

SIDNER: The jury also heard from a slew of EMTs and police, both current and former. When EMT Derek Smith arrived on the scene, Chauvin was still on Floyd even though Floyd was unresponsive.

DEREK SMITH, EMT: I thought he was dead.

SIDNER: But Smith said that he and his partner, along with an officer, worked to treat Floyd. Two officers criticized their fellow officer's treatment of Floyd.

STEVE SCHLEICHER, PROSECUTOR: Do you have an opinion as to when the restraint of Mr. Floyd should have ended in this encounter?


SCHLEICHER: What is it?

PLOEGER: When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers. They could have ended their restraint.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is your -- you know, your view of that use of force during that time period?


SIDNER: Lieutenant Richard Zimmerman testified he is the most senior member of the Minneapolis Police Force. He's been there 35 years. Now the head of homicide. Chauvin's attorney intimated that the lieutenant may not be in the best position to judge patrol officers' decisions.

NELSON: You're not out patrolling the streets, making arrests, things of that nature?


NELSON: All right. And it's fair to say, then, that your experience with the use of force of late has been primarily through training?


SIDNER: He shows up on scenes after an incident occurs. Still, with all his years of experience, he did not mince words when asked if the officers used excessive force that day. ZIMMERMAN: Pulling him down to the ground facedown and putting your

knee on a neck for that amount of time is just uncalled for. I saw no reason why the officers felt they were in danger, if that's what they felt. And that's what they would have to have felt to be able to use that kind of force.


BROWN: Well, Sara Sidner with that great reporting there.

And joining me now is one of the attorneys for the Floyd family, Antonio Romanucci.

Antonio, thank you for coming on the show. Tell us, what does George Floyd's family think of the prosecution's case so far? Had there been any specific moments that have really stood out to them so far?

ANTONIO ROMANUCCI, ATTORNEY FOR GEORGE FLOYD'S FAMILY: Well, there have been many moments, Pamela. And I had the honor of being with them last week during the trial. And it never gets easier for them. You know, George Floyd was on the ground for, you know, nearly 10 minutes, and he was tortured during that period of time. But for the family now, they feel that they are being tortured every day because of what happened to their brother and their loved one.

So they're reliving this, and it's a very painful experience for them. And when we see the new camera angle, something that we haven't seen before, you know, we've seen things that now we understand better as to why George was in so much pain. We have found certain still frames where Derek Chauvin was, now I think we have proof that he was torturing George with small joint manipulation.

BROWN: And you talk about the footage that was shown. The prosecution did play footage of comments Chauvin made after the incident, that was also part of this new footage, where he seemed to be justifying his actions.


The defense says Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do, but a top detective in the department testified that Chauvin's use of force was uncalled for. What do you hope jurors are piecing together from all of that?

ROMANUCCI: Well, I think what the jurors are piecing together is exactly what the prosecutors are doing. They're laying out a story, which is -- requires common sense. It's a very reasonable story. They're doing it in chronological order with the bystander witnesses, with the EMTs, and then with the homicide detective.

So what they're doing is they're hoping that the jury sees that what happened was unreasonable and that it only takes a little bit of common sense to know that if you kneel on someone's neck, you cut off the ABCs, the airway, breathing, and circulation, and eventually you will have death. A police officer should know that. The bystanders knew that. The reasonable police officer Zimmerman knew that. Why didn't Derek Chauvin know that?

BROWN: So let's talk about this because, as you know, one part of the defense strategy during cross-examinations last week was to focus on Floyd's alleged drug use, to take attention away from the force from Chauvin and saying that it was drugs and pre-existing conditions that killed George Floyd. What is your reaction to that?

ROMANUCCI: Well, that's what I call the made-you-look defense. The defense wants the jury to look anywhere but straight at the evidence. So that if they can plant seeds in other parts of this case with this fentanyl and other opioid addiction, which means nothing to this case.

If George Floyd even had he been intoxicated with medication, either legal or not, it doesn't play into what caused his death. We know what causes death, mechanical asphyxiation, period. Everything else is really just a side show.

BROWN: I want to ask you about Floyd's sister. She is pushing for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. It would ban chokeholds and qualified immunity for law enforcement and create national standards for policing. Do you think George Floyd would be alive today if that law had been in effect?

ROMANUCCI: Oh, there is no doubt. There is absolutely no doubt. Because what happened to George Floyd was a knee restraint, but it was really a neck lock is what it was. And had those police officers been trained to never ever constrain airways or cut off circulation, George Floyd would be alive. That's why it's so important to get the George Floyd Police Reform Act Bill passed because lives will be saved.

This was over allegedly a phony $20 bill. Is that worth a life lost? Never ever. That's why this is so important.

BROWN: OK. Antonio Romanucci, thank you for coming on the show this Sunday. We do appreciate it.

ROMANUCCI: Thank you, Pamela.

BROWN: Hunter Biden revealing a deeply emotional moment when his father actually ditched his Secret Service detail to confront him one- to-one about his excessive drinking. We'll play that interview.

And far-right extremists switch from the big lie to anti-vaccine misinformation to try and undermine the government. I'll speak to someone who spends their life tracking the wildest conspiracy theories.

But first, the race -- as the race to vaccinate intensifies to keep new COVID variants at bay, travel numbers are surging this Easter holiday. Our Evan McMorris-Santoro was at LaGuardia Airport for us tonight as more pandemic air travel records are set. That's next.


[19:18:07] BROWN: Well, between spring break holidays and Easter weekend, Americans are clearly on the move right now. On Friday the TSA screened more than 1.5 million people. That's a new pandemic-era travel record. Those numbers dipped slightly yesterday, but it's evident that a lot of Americans have just had it with this pandemic. The question now, is the pandemic finished with us? It doesn't appear so.

CNN's Evan McMorris-Santoro is at New York's LaGuardia Airport with more. What are you seeing there?

EVAN MCMORRIS-SANTORO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, Pam. This is the departure hall in Terminal B of LaGuardia. Right now it's pretty quiet, and that's not surprising given the last flights depart from this terminal in the next half an hour. But we've been here all day and we've seen a steady stream of passengers coming through. People who are just eager to travel. We talked to people who were traveling for business, people traveling for pleasure.

And, you know, I spoke to some of them about traveling right now and what the CDC is saying about it and how it's affecting their decision. Let's talk to -- let's listen to one woman from Virginia who is traveling home after visiting her daughter here in New York.


MCMORRIS-SANTORO: The CDC says if you have the vaccine it's safe to travel but they're asking people not to travel that much if they don't have to. Does that still factor into the decisions that you make when you think about making travel decisions?



MORRELL: Not so much. I mean, we'll be vaccined. We're scheduled. So that I guess will alleviate some worries for us.


MCMORRIS-SANTORO: So the weather is nice, and the vaccine is available more and more, and so people like that woman feeling like it's OK and safe to get back into the skies. The CDC obviously saying, look, you can get the vaccine, you should get the vaccine as quickly as you can, it's the best thing you can do right now. And if you do get it, do get fully vaccinated, you're safe to travel. But they're urging people not to travel.

Still those numbers are growing up. I have a graphic here to show you just how much more travel is going on now than happened, for example, last year.


If you look at this graphic, 2019's Easter weekend, nearly five million people went through TSA screening checkpoints that weekend. 2020, unbelievably low, just 200,000 people went through those checkpoints. And here in 2021 we haven't gotten all of the numbers yet. The numbers that we have show we're back up to nearly three million people.

So Americans are really feeling -- they're feeling like they can get out there and they can travel. And the CDC is saying, look, it's safe if you have a vaccine, but if you don't need to travel, don't do it because we are on the cusp possibly of another surge here.

So this really the question right now. People are ready to get out and they want to get out. The CDC is saying make sure you stay careful, do the right thing and be careful, because this pandemic is still here, Pam.

BROWN: It certainly is. All right, thank you so much, Evan. Much appreciated. Live for us from LaGuardia Airport.

And be sure to stay with us because coming up I'm going to speak to Dr. Celine Gounder. She was on the COVID Advisory Board for the Biden Transition Team. And I'll ask if she thinks we're in a category 5 hurricane of COVID and get her opinion on universities requiring the COVID vaccine. That conversation airs in about 15 minutes from now.

But if the meantime, President Biden son's struggle with addiction has been front page. But now we're hearing directly from Hunter Biden and how his father helped him stay alive, even ditching the Secret Service to get him help.

When we come back, I'll speak to former -- speak to President Obama's former adviser, David Axelrod. Stay with us.




HUNTER BIDEN, PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN'S SON: I don't think I made a mistake in taking the spot on the board. I think I made a mistake in terms of underestimating the way in which it would be used against me. And --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But you must've seen the optics. Even back then you must've -- I mean, how could you not have foreseen that this was going to look bad?

BIDEN: Because I really didn't. I'm being as honest with you as I possibly can. All I know is that not one investigative body, not one serious journalist has ever come to the conclusion that I did anything wrong or that my father did anything wrong.


BROWN: So that was the president's son Hunter Biden defending his position on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that played a role in former President Trump's first impeachment trial. Hunter Biden also told CBS he is absolutely certain he'll be cleared of wrongdoing in the Justice Department probe, and to his business dealings in China.

Joining me now is David Axelrod. He is a CNN senior political commentator and former Obama senior adviser. He's also the host of "THE AXE FILES" podcast.

David, great to see you. Happy Easter to you.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Hey, Pam. Same to you and your family. Good to see you.

BROWN: Thank you. Great to you. So you just heard there Hunter Biden says that joining the Burisma board wasn't a mistake, that he underestimated it, that was the real mistake. Was it a mistake?

AXELROD: Well, I think what he was kind of saying was, well, inherently it wasn't a mistake, but when I now see what the optics were, it was a mistake. He should've seen it then obviously. I think everybody understands that. You know, Hunter is -- I know him. He's smart. He's been around politics all his life. He's been around government all his life. I think he probably should've understood how it would be used.

Absolutely he's right. No one's proven that he or certainly his dad did anything wrong. But politics is a game of optics as well. And, you know, he probably should've foreseen that it was going to be used in the way it was.

BROWN: He also talked about his major battle with addiction, which is really the crux of his memoir. Let's listen.


BIDEN: He came to my apartment one time. And this was when he was still in office as vice president. And so he kind of ditched his Secret Service, figured out a way to get over to the house. And I said, what are you doing here? He said, honey, what are you doing? I said, Dad, I'm fine. He said you're not fine.


BROWN: While Biden was vice president, he lost one son, he almost lost another. Learning about the way he reacted here, does it surprise you here?

AXELROD: Not in the least. First of all, most Americans now know the story of loss and pain that the Biden family has gone through. Just, you know, incredibly sad, but when you work with now President Biden, his sense about his kids and his sense about family is manifest. It's right up front, and, you know, I think about him as a grandfather and as a father and the things he's been through. And this is exactly what I would expect him to do.

You know, he's lost two children. He didn't want to lose a third. And he went there out of the love of a father. And no, it didn't surprise me at all to hear it. But it was really poignant to hear.

BROWN: I want to ask you about the infrastructure plan that the White House is putting out there and wants Congress to pass. "Washington Post" analysis by Dan Balz talks about the challenges ahead for Biden. He references the massive package focused on infrastructure and says it'll be a little more difficult than the stimulus package to pass, which as you know, passed with zero Republican votes.

He writes, "When confronted with criticism that he is breaking his vow to work in a bipartisan fashion, Biden has tried to flip the script to define bipartisanship as reflecting public opinion, not the votes of lawmakers." Is that really a fair definition of bipartisanship?


AXELROD: Well, you know, there's no doubt that there are many elements of this very large infrastructure plan that are popular with Republicans, you know, significant numbers of Republicans as well as Democrats and independents.

But you know, if you -- I'm sure what he is thinking is if you define partisanship narrowly about cooperation, as cooperation you get from Congress, you give essentially, the other party a veto over your ability to get things done and he has obviously made a decision, you know, where in the final four weekends, so let's use the sports analogy.

He has decided to go big or go home. And this country has tremendous infrastructure needs, and he has gone after all of it in this package.

And you know, the problem, Pam, though, is not really with Republicans. The problem is he has got a 50/50 Senate. He needs every Democrat to go along in the Senate, and he can only give up three members of the Democratic Caucus in the House to pass this.

Even if he goes through budget reconciliation, he doesn't need 60 votes in the Senate.

So he's got some persuading to do among his own caucuses. There are some members of the House Democratic Caucus who have said they won't vote for it unless he rescinds a cap on the deductibility of property taxes, which is big for high tax blue states.

You know, there are members of -- Joe Manchin has expressed some concerns about the package in the Senate. He obviously has a decisive say.

So he's got work to do among his own caucus, and it's likely that whatever does pass is going to be a little bit different than what we see today.

BROWN: And of course, one of the sticking points here, particularly for Republicans is the corporate tax hike. It could take 15 years for Biden's proposed corporate tax hikes to generate the $2.3 trillion in spending for this plan, and that would increase the deficit approximately $900 billion over 10 years, according to the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget.

Does this leave Democrats open to the charge that they are the party of tax and spend, wasteful big government?

AXELROD: Well, they'll undoubtedly hear that, but you know, Republicans have lost a little bit of credibility on this subject. They are seasonal deficit hawks. They hibernate during Republican administrations, and they become very concerned about deficits in Democratic administrations.

In the last administration, they voted for an unfunded $1.7 trillion tax cut. They voted for unfunded spending increases under President Trump. And as soon as the clock struck noon on January 20th, they became concerned about deficits again.

The question is, at a time of low interest rates, does it make sense to be borrowing large sums of money in order to deal with the obvious infrastructure needs of the country? And that is what Biden is arguing. It is a difference of philosophy, and his point is, if the Chinese are making these investments, other competitors are making these investments.

If America doesn't make these investments, we're going to be the losers economically and we'll see who wins that argument.

BROWN: Yes, the big selling point is, this is about America's future.

All right, well, we will continue to track this. David Axelrod, thank you again for sharing your time with us on this Sunday.

AXELROD: Good to see you, Pam.

BROWN: Well, despite four million vaccines administered in one day in the U.S., a top doctor warns that we are in a category five hurricane of COVID.

I'll be speaking to former Biden COVID adviser, Dr. Celine Gounder when we come back.



BROWN: Well, people packing onto planes for holiday travel, going to celebrate Easter Sunday services in church, then gathering with family and friends.


MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH AND POLICY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: At this time, we really are in a category five hurricane status with regard to the rest of the world. At this point, we will see in the next two weeks the highest number of cases reported globally since the beginning of the pandemic.

In terms of the United States, we are just at the beginning of this surge. We haven't even really begun to see it yet.


BROWN: CNN medical analyst, Dr. Celine Gounder joins me with more. She is a former member of the Biden transition COVID advisory board and a former Assistant Commissioner of Health in New York City.

Dr. Gounder, thanks for coming on. We were all ready for this to be over, all of us, I think I can pretty -- feel pretty safe saying. But wishing as we know doesn't make it so.

On Friday, the T.S.A. said the U.S. had a new pandemic era travel record. How concerned should we be about what lies ahead?

DR. CELINE GOUNDER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Unfortunately, I do think we still have a few more rough weeks ahead. What we know from the past year of the pandemic is that we tend to trend about three to four weeks behind Europe in terms of our pandemic patterns, and they too have seen the spread of this b.1.1.7 variant. This is prompting reinstitution of strict lockdown measures in much of the European countries.

France has gotten into a strict lockdown. Italy is now announcing some new measures.

And so we do anticipate following that trend, at least to some degree, and we have seen cases increase by about 20 percent across this country just over the last 14 days.

BROWN: Why are we seeing younger Americans in the hospital in Michigan?

GOUNDER: the b.1.1.7 variant that was first identified in the U.K. is what's driving this current surge. First, it happened in the U.K., then in Europe and now in the United States. This variant is more infectious. It's also more virulent, which means it causes more severe disease including in younger adults, and so we're seeing a surge of patients hospitalized for severe COVID who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s in Michigan right now.


BROWN: And of course, there's a concern that that age group doesn't necessarily -- can't necessarily get the vaccine right now, depending on their circumstances. So you have that situation as well.

I want to look at this new Gallup polling. In February, 56 percent of people said, they were still avoiding public gatherings. That number dropped to 48 percent in March. Are enough people vaccinated to stop dropping our guard about gathering and traveling?

GOUNDER: Only about 30 percent of people in this country have received even one dose of vaccine, much less being fully vaccinated. And so I think if you are vaccinated, yes, you can engage in some of these activities, but you should still stay away from crowds. You should, if you're visiting with people from household, not your own, really be sticking to one other household at a time because there is still a very real risk.

BROWN: If people seem to be increasingly ignoring the messaging about travel and gathering, does the messaging need to be adjusted? It just seems as though, you know, as you see, in this video, right here, people are been traveling. There have been record travel numbers, according to T.S.A.

I mean, how do you get through to people that, hey, we just need to hang on another four to six weeks.

GOUNDER: You know, this is really hard, because I think if we are overly frightening, people will just turn off and don't listen. You know, I think you do need to meet people where they're at. We're all exhausted -- I'm exhausted -- and try to offer reasonable advice that they're more likely to follow.

At the same time, I do think it's really important for people to know we're not out of the woods and there is a real risk to younger people with this new b.1.1.7 U.K. variant that they could get much sicker than they might have with the earlier forms of the virus.

BROWN: I think that's a really important point to emphasize. I also -- we have to talk about vaccine hesitancy, what's going on with the vaccines.

Last night, the Federal government directed Johnson & Johnson to fully take over its vaccine production at a Baltimore contract manufacturer where contamination spoiled 15 million doses of the vaccine. I want to note, those doses never made it out to the public.

But how can people be assured that this vaccine mix up at that plant didn't impact anyone and that the vaccines they've been getting are safe? Are you concerned how much this will hurt the efforts to get people vaccinated?

GOUNDER: I think this actually speaks to how strict U.S. government regulators are when it comes to vaccine safety and production. All of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that has gotten into people in this country that's been administered to people in this country was manufactured at a plant in the Netherlands that had already been fully vetted and approved by U.S. government regulators. So all of those doses were safe. I think this just really speaks to how rigorous our program is.

BROWN: Okay, as always, Dr. Celine Gounder, we appreciate you coming on sharing all of your knowledge and expertise.

Well, after staying laser focused on election conspiracy theories, far-right extremists have a new target, the coronavirus vaccine.

Coming up, I'll speak to Devin Burghart, the Head of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Stay with us. We'll be right back.



BROWN: A new article in "The New York Times" details a shift in focus among far-right extremists in recent weeks. The rioters who once chanted "Stop the Steal" as they stormed the U.S. Capitol may now be shouting a new line, "Stop the Vaccine."

Devin Burghart is the Head of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. His group tracks far-right movements. Devin, thank you so much for joining me.

You were quoted in that article saying of QAnon followers, "They rode the shift in the national conversation away from Trump to what was happening with the massive ramp up in vaccines allowing them to pivot away from the failure of their previous prophecy to focus on something else."

So what make coronavirus vaccines a logical new target?

DEVIN BURGHART, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR RESEARCH AND EDUCATION ON HUMAN RIGHTS: Well, there are a couple of reasons why it became an important target for rightists. The first is that they'd already built up a huge base of support around the issue.

At the Institute, we tracked around 1,100 different groups on Facebook alone that had over 3.2 million members. Those groups were dedicated to things like anti-massacre propaganda, coronavirus conspiracies, and you know, a whole litany of different things designed to keep the disinformation cycle flowing around COVID-19.

So when they failed at being able to overturn the election, it was an obvious place for them to return to.

BROWN: So as you noted, your institute has been tracking the rise of right-wing extremist peddling disinformation on coronavirus. You have found that there are roughly three million members in this movement, but they aren't all your typical anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists. How diverse is this coalition and what are the different messages that are resonating within it?

BURGHART: You know, it's an incredibly diverse coalition. It's one of the most diverse we've seen in quite some time. For one thing, this movement right now has attracted a lot more women to it than it has before.

It breaks down pretty much all the stereotypes we have about those involved in far-right activity. They are large. They're more likely to be employed. They're more likely to be upper income. They're more likely to be women, and they're more likely to have a higher degree of education.


BURGHART: So those are big changes that were paying really close attention to. And as a result of that, that kind of plethora of propaganda that they've used has also changed as well. Now, they're using all kinds of different messages to reach different

crowds. So it's everything from anti-vaxxer messages targeted at moms and yoga influencers to conspiracies around COVID-19 vaccine being the mark of the beast, to COVID-19 being a tool for a one world government to use to try and take over the planet.

Those are oftentimes combined with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to you know, kind of further rile up this base. And as a result, we've seen many of these groups now, not only engaged just, you know, typical anti-vaxxers, but also bring in armed militia types and other far-right paramilitaries to create a really toxic mix to make it harder for those on the frontlines trying to get out the vaccine.

And actually, in some cases, even threatening the lives of doctors and public health officials who are doing their jobs in trying to fight the pandemic.

BROWN: Why do you think that is that it is resonating with more women, as you noted, more people who are educated and employed? What's -- can you answer the why behind that?

BURGHART: I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that far- rightists have developed new messages and realize that they have a captive audience there to reach into. So they've really worked hard at trying to target them, first of all.

And then secondly, I think that they also have a larger percentage of women now who are actually leaders in this movement. So they see themselves represented in the face of these organizing efforts.

And then lastly, I think there's also a lot of disinformation and confusion that's been floating around during the pandemic, and far- rightists have been really adept at reaching in and trying to provide simple answers to really complex challenges that we as a nation are facing.

BROWN: Yes, I mean, people like certainty. So clearly, that is resonating with a big swath of people. If Trump, the former President came out tomorrow and forcefully shut down these theories, would that help? Would that even do anything?

BURGHART: I think it would make a dent. Unfortunately, it's a whole lot too late. Many of these ideas have already been baked in to a large percentage of far-rightists, and they've already kind of encapsulated that into their messaging, right?

The few times that President Trump has come out and suggested that the vaccine should be taken, those in the far-right have already begun pushing back against that. So it's going to be a lot more challenging the farther we go along, without real voices coming out from the right about the importance of the vaccine and the necessity for getting this virus under control.

BROWN: All right, Devin Burghart, it is so fascinating. Thank you so much.

BURGHART: Thank you.

BROWN: Well, the gift that keeps on giving even when you didn't want it to. Supporters of President Trump, former President Trump are reportedly charged many times for what they thought would be a single donation. That story just ahead.



BROWN: Or recent attacks on Asian-Americans are just the latest reminder that prejudice and bigotry remain a serious problem in the United States.

This week, CNN Heroes salutes two tattoo artists for their efforts to fight intolerance by covering up hate tattoos for free.

Since last June, their Cover the Hate Campaign has helped dozens of people by erasing the mementos of their racist past.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seeing people risking their lives to the Black Lives Matter movement on TV that moved me greatly. This is genuinely helping people move past their past. It is powerful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Growing up, I was never raised to be racist. I just was around the wrong people. And I wanted to show everyone that I was above them. And one day, just realized this racist thing is stupid. Everyone is equal. I look back on it now, I'm ashamed of it, you know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go ahead and take a look at the design here.

Most of these tattoos are pretty old, worn and outdated. Just like that ideology.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got two granddaughters they're mixed. I love my grandbabies to death. It is like a change in life and this is the last step and this man is here to help you to fulfill it.

That is so cool.


BROWN: Well, get the whole story and nominate someone you know to be a CNN Hero at