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Biden Administration Defends Infrastructure Plans; Gaetz "Absolutely Not Resigning" Amid Sex Crime Investigation; U.S. Says Talks with Iran in Vienna are a Step Forward; Alexey Navalny Says He Will Keep Up Prison Hunger Strike; Michigan Facing Spike in COVID-19 Cases. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired April 6, 2021 - 04:30   ET



PAULA NEWTON, CNN ANCHOR: Now to the Biden administration's attempt to get its massive infrastructure plan through Congress. Republicans are attacking it saying Democrats are putting a lot more in that bill than just infrastructure. One of the president's top cabinet picks Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is tackling that issue head- on.


PETE BUTTIGIEG, U.S. TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: I know there's a lot of quibbling over the definition of infrastructure. I've been puzzled to hear a lot of Republicans express a view that things like water and wastewater pipes don't count as infrastructure, I think they do. They're very important for us to be able to live and thrive and have a strong economy. Same thing with broadband. I know that broadband is not traditional infrastructure, but, you know, railroads weren't traditional infrastructure until we built them. Part of good infrastructure policy is thinking about the future.


NEWTON: Now, the Biden administration faces an uphill battle to get the legislation through and not just from Republicans as Kaitlan Collins explains.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Biden is defending his proposal to revamp the nation's infrastructure against Republican attacks.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the definition of infrastructure has changed, but they know we need it.

COLLINS (voice-over): Republicans say Biden's $2 trillion plan goes far beyond what most consider to be traditional infrastructure, like roads and bridges, by funding other Democratic priorities, like child and elderly care. SEN. ROY BLUNT (R-MO): They're trying to take 70 percent of this bill

and call it infrastructure in a new way than we've ever talked about infrastructure before.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's time for people to be bolder and more forward looking about infrastructure looks like.

COLLINS (voice-over): Republicans have also criticized how Biden wants to pay for his plan by raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I can't imagine that's going to be very appealing to many Republicans.

COLLINS (voice-over): But there are also cracks within Biden's own party. The White House is defending the corporate tax rate raise even as a critical Democratic vote, Senator Joe Manchin, says he won't support it.

PSAKI: Some think it's too small, frankly there have been folks who have come out on both sides.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As the Bill exists today it needs to be changed.

COLLINS (voice-over): Some progressive members of the party say the package itself isn't big enough.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): In order for us to realize this inspiring vision, we need to go way higher.

COLLINS (voice-over): As that debate plays out on Capitol Hill President Biden is weighing in on another.

BIDEN: I would strongly support them doing that.

COLLINS (voice-over): The White House says Biden supports a decision by major league baseball to move its all-star game out of Georgia after Republicans in the state passed a new voting law.

PSAKI: That was their decision. They made that decision and as he stated earlier, he certainly supports that.


COLLINS (voice-over): Biden has been extremely critical of the new law calling it a 21st century version of Jim Crow but faced criticism himself after he falsely claim the law ends voting hours early.

BIDEN: You can't do that. Come on. Or you're going to close a polling place at 5:00 when working people just get off.

COLLINS (voice-over): The White House acknowledged it doesn't change election day voting hours today.

COLLINS: The president does acknowledge that the new law doesn't change election day voting hours, right? PSAKI: Well, look, Kaitlan, it also doesn't expand them for early

voting and makes early voting shorter. So there are a lot of components of the legislation he is concerned about and that's what he was expressing.

COLLINS: The president also is pushing back on Republicans who say that by raising the corporate tax rate it's going to drive these businesses to leave the U.S. and head quarter their corporations elsewhere. He says there is no evidence of that, but of course we should note it also came on a day when the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called for there to be a global minimum corporate tax rate as well.

Kaitlan Collins, CNN, the White House.


NEWTON: U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz says he is absolutely not resigning. The Justice Department is investigating the Republican lawmaker over allegations involving potential sex trafficking and prostitution. CNN's Paula Reid reports Gaetz is taking new steps to clear his name.


PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Today Congressman Gaetz published an op-ed where he tried to frame the ongoing criminal investigation as another political witch-hunt. He also denied allegations of prostitution and sleeping with an underaged girl, writing --

First, I have never, ever paid for sex. And second, I, as an adult man, have not slept with a 17-year-old.

One thing Gaetz did not address in his op-ed is the separate set of allegations first reported by CNN that he was showing nude pictures of women he allegedly slept with to other lawmakers, including when he was on or near the floor of the House. That conduct is not under criminal investigation, but it's another in a series of escalating scandals surrounding the lawmaker.

Even as he denies the allegations in that op-ed, CNN has learned Gaetz is building a legal team to defend him as this moves forward. His lead attorney has added another lawyer with experience in white collar crimes. It's not clear when the second attorney was added but it suggests they may be preparing to possibly have to defend against financial transactions in addition to any specific sexual encounters.

We were also hearing from a former Gaetz staffer who said the FBI reached out to him. The staffer is Nathan Nelson. He is Gaetz's former director of military affairs. And in a Florida press conference he said two FBI agents questioned him at his house last week about Gaetz's alleged criminal conduct. They apparently asked him if he left his job working for the Congressman because of this type of behavior.

Now, Nelson denied having any knowledge of any illegal activities. He said his departure from Gaetz's office last fall was not related to the federal investigation. But Don Nelson is one of the only people who has come out to defend Gaetz, but when actually pressed by reporters on the specifics of the criminal allegations, Nelson said he didn't actually have any specific knowledge of the investigation and he actually hasn't even spoken to the Congressman in months.


NEWTON: And our thanks to Paula Reid for that update.

Now, a prominent Kremlin critic speaks out about his health and conditions at the prison where he is incarcerated. The latest on the Alexey Navalny, we'll have a live report coming up.



NEWTON: The U.S. says it won't be taking unilateral action such as lifting sanctions to entice Iran back to the 2015 nuclear deal, however, the State Department says sanctions will be discussed at the nuclear talks beginning today in Vienna.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is there for us. Fred, good to see you. So the Biden reset -- the way it's being called -- may still be a long way off here and the point is there are no direct talks. So how is this all going to unfold?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's going to be really complicated, Paula. And you're absolutely right, this is really at this point yet not really a reset but really just the two sides feeling each other out through intermediaries. What you have going on is you have several venues here in Vienna where discussions led by the Europeans are going to on separately with the Iranian delegation and then also with the delegation from the United States as well.

And they're going to discuss varying topics. Because the Iranians have poured cold water on the notion that there could be direct negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. The Iranians said that's absolutely not going to happen. The U.S. says they're still up for it. The Iranians are saying, look, if the U.S. wants to get back into the nuclear agreement they need to get into full compliance with the nuclear agreement and drop all of the sanctions against Iran. Obviously, you just said it there, the U.S. saying that is absolutely not going to happen.

So what's happening here is that there's separate negotiations going on, especially with the other partners of the JCPOA of the Iran nuclear deal with the Iranians about how Iran can come back into full compliance. Because of course the Iranians have now enriched more uranium than is allowed under that deal, also enriched to that higher levels and conducted some sophisticated research as well.

So the Europeans negotiating with them on that level and then also shuttling back and forth with the American delegation about what can be done with sanctions relief. Again, the Iranians for their part are saying they believe that these negotiations could be very quick and very easy. They say the U.S. just needs to get back into full compliance. Obviously, the Americans are saying that's not that easy saying they want to see moves by the Iranians as well or at least simultaneously.

In What both sides are saying is they believe that the deal should be salvaged, and that all sides should get back into full compliance, the U.S. should get back into the nuclear agreement. Just who's going to go first and what steps exactly are going to be taken? That is a very, very difficult question -- Paula.

NEWTON: Yes, and still significant that they are of course back at the table. Fred Pleitgen will update us on everything from Vienna in the coming hours. Appreciate it.

Now, Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny is vowing to keep up his prison hunger strike even though he says he's sick with a high fever and bad cough. Now have a look at this. This is newly obtained video reportedly shot on March 26th by the pro-Russian government media-- that's important -- and it's meant to illustrate what it calls the exemplary conditions where he's being held. It is said to show Navalny in a prison room without any obvious signs of discomfort. State media have accused him of faking medical problems to try and stay in the public eye which he and his allies deny.

Now imagine catching coronavirus on your way to get vaccinated. And that was the frustrating reality for one patient in Michigan and he's not alone as the state battles a COVID spike. We will have details on that when I come back.



NEWTON: We will return to a story we're following here at CNN. Matthew Chance joins us now from outside the prison where Alexey Navalny is being held. He's in the town of Pokrov, Russia. You know in terms of following this story, Matthew, we have this release of this video that we showed earlier and of course it's state media essentially saying that look, Alexey Navalny is just fine, but what's behind the release of this video and what more do we know now about Alexey Navalny's condition?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, there have been a couple of releases on state media or on pro- government media in this country of Alexey Navalny sort of being shown sleeping in his bed, that being woken, he alleged he was being woken every hour. That which he said is pantomimed to sleep deprivation and torture. There's been video of him sort of walking around carrying a cup of hot drink, speaking to a prison guard as well. Him

That was a couple days after he complained that he had a terribly bad back and that the pain had spread to both of his legs where he had lost sensitivity.


The attempt being to show that perhaps Alexey Navalny is exaggerating the afflictions with which he says he has fallen down with. But there is genuine concern about the health of Alexey Navalny. He has spoken about his bad back and about his lack of sensitivity in his legs. You have to remember that this is an opposition figure who was poisoned with a suspected nerve agent back in August. In those horrific images we all remember so well of him sort of howling in agony on an airplane before it made an emergency landing in Siberia.

And so there is a possibility that some of these symptoms could be caused -- have been caused by neurological damage. That's why Alexey Navalny wants to get a specialist doctor into these gates of this penal colony here -- and I'm standing in front of it now, you can see the police have sealed it off, not letting us get any closer towards these gates -- but that's why he wants his own doctor to come in to give him an examination and to see exactly what's wrong with him. There are some other complications as well.

First of all, he has gone on an hunger strike and apparently according to his team he has lost about 13 kilos in the past eight days since he was on that hunger strike. He's also got a high temperature we're told on his social media platform and a cough and obviously in the age of COVID that's a real concern as well.

Alexey Navalny through his social media platform saying there's actually an outbreak of tuberculosis inside this penal colony as well. There are all these sort of various factors being sort of brought into this idea that Alexey Navalny's health is potentially at risk. And that's why later on today, in fact, within the next few minutes we're supposed to be seeing a protest by doctors coming here to this prison to demand that Alexey Navalny get proper medical attention -- Paula.

NEWTON: And we're glad you're there, Matthew will continue to update us throughout the day. We really appreciate it.

Now, the U.S. state of Michigan is seeing a jump in COVID cases with at least 81 new clusters or outbreaks in just schools across the state. One hospital has even had to reform its COVID unit after disbanding it months ago. CNN's Miguel Marquez has more.



MARQUEZ (voice-over): Fred Romankewiz was on his way to get vaccinated.

FRED ROMANKEWIZ, COVID-19 PATIENT: I was going there. And I didn't feel right.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): He got a COVID-19 test instead. It was positive.

MARQUEZ: You were right at the finish line.

ROMANKEWIZ: There was a lot of -- there's a lot of emotional baggage that went with that.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): He says he got it from his 19-year-old son Andy, his wife, Betsy was fully vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine. She too got COVID-19 with only minor symptoms. The virus hammered Fred 54- years-old and no underlying conditions.

ROMANKEWIZ: I felt like I went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I was absolutely physically exhausted. I mean, I felt like I had been beat up. I felt like I had been in a car accident. I mean, it was crazy.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Tina Catron thinks her son's soccer club brought the coronavirus into her home.

TINA CATRON, COVID-19 PATIENT: Even though we were all masked up from the sidelines. Everyone's yelling.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Her boys Levi and Jesse got it with no symptoms. Her husband Jason got a bad case. Hers was worse.

CATRON: They said yes, you have pneumonia. Because from COVID so going to admit you. And here I am.

MARQUEZ: How surprised are you to be in this bed?

CATRON: Oh very shocked.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): The 44-year-old mother of two with no underlying conditions outdoorsy, active, never sick and here to coronavirus guidelines never thought she would get COVID or that it would hit her this hard.

CATRON: It's weird. It's almost like you feel like you're suffocating a little bit. I don't know it's hard to explain but you get really lightheaded and you're just like whoo clammy.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Two cases of thousands in the Wolverine state now in its third coronavirus surge.

DR. MEREDITH HILL, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, EMERGENCY MEDICINE DEPT. SPARROW HOSPITAL: We're not to where we were back in November, December. But I would say that the rate of increase seems more drastic than it did back then.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): At Lansing Sparrow Health System COVID-19 admissions have risen 600% in a month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And so, we're trying to see where we can pull extra staff from.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): The hospital had disbanded its COVID incident command center with cases piling up. They've reestablished it.

JIM DOVER, PRESIDENT, CEO, SPARROW HEALTH SYSTEM: In December, we had a high of close to 150 patients. Right now we have 95. And at the rate it's going if it doesn't abate we'll be at 150 patients in 15 days.

MARQUEZ: Fifteen days.


MARQUEZ: And do you know where the top of the curve is?

DOVER: We do not know where the top of the curve is.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Dr. Justin Skyrzynski specializes in caring for patients with COVID at Beaumont Health Royal Oak, part of the largest health care system in Michigan.


COVID tests of some patients sent for DNA analysis indicate a worrying sign. Sharp increase in the new more contagious, possibly more lethal B117 variant.

DR. JUSTIN SKYRZYNSKI, COVID-19 HOSPITALIST, BEAUMONT HEALTH: Right now the regular COVID test we do that's still just showing COVID, no COVID. But we do send a lot of those out to the state and we're seeing something like 40% of our patients now B117.

MARQUEZ: Oh right?

SKYRZYNSKI: Yes, so big percent.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): As older Michiganders and those with underlying conditions get vaccinated hospitalizations for them have plummeted. Now the hospitalized typically younger and healthier.

LYNDA MISRA, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, COVID-19 UNIT, BEAUMONT HEALTH: Each surge has brought different challenges. And when we address them, we felt very strong that we had this disease under attack, but then we get a thrown a curveball.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): For healthcare workers an exhausting year, getting longer.

LINDSAY MUENCHEN, REGISTERED NURSE, COVID-19 UNIT, SPARROW HEALTH SYSTEM: The first day I came in and saw that our unit was full of COVID patients again. It was really difficult. I had tears in my eyes.

MARQUEZ: Twenty-two years a registered nurse.


MARQUEZ: How hard is the last year been?

HOPPES: Harder.


HOPPES: People are dying. I'm sorry.

MARQUEZ: Why it's so hard to talk about? HOPPES: Because I just saw it yesterday.

MARQUEZ: What did you see?

HOPPES: I had a patient that passed away.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): The weight of so much sickness and death that burden getting only heavier.

Miguel Marquez, CNN, Michigan.


NEWTON: And it's been quite a burden for so many around the world.

I want to thank you all for watching. I'm Paula Newton. "EARLY START" is up next. You are watching CNN.