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Higher Vaccine Rates Mean Fewer Cases; Blinken Meets with Russian Foreign Minister; Israel Defends Airstrike. Aired 9:30-10a ET.

Aired May 19, 2021 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:30:44]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, a big day and a major step towards back to normal life for millions of fully vaccinated New Yorkers. Starting today and in line with the new CDC guidance, they no longer have to wear their masks indoors or outdoors, at least in most cases. Masks still required, though, on public transit, in school and for those under 12 years old.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Also large venues, like theaters and ballparks, can move to full capacity for fully vaccinated people.

Our Alexandra Field is inside a transportation hub in lower Manhattan.

Are New Yorkers feeling good about this? Are they actually not wearing their masks?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, New Yorkers are skeptical as always, Poppy.

Here at the Oculus Train Station in lower Manhattan, our masks are on because masks are still required whether you're vaccinated or unvaccinated when using public forms of transportation. These rules, again, when it comes to taking off your mask indoors or outdoors only apply to the fully vaccinated. And there are exceptions. You've got to keep your masks on, not only on public transport, but also in schools and other congregate settings. And, of course, if you are not vaccinated.

But we've been asking to New Yorkers out here this morning, asking them what they think about the new guidance. They recognize that this is certainly a testament to the success of the vaccination program, the success of the city and the state in terms of lowering the positivity rate. But those who are and those who aren't vaccinated both saying they're feeling somewhat unnerved by the guidance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) VIKRAM MULCHANDANI, NEW YORK RESIDENT: I think the thing that we have to not let our guard off because the point is that it's not that the virus has gone away. It's still very much there. It's just that the chance of spreading and infection has gone down because more people are vaccinated.

BRENDA JONES, NEW YORK RESIDENT: I think it's too soon to relax the mask mandate. The COVID is still going on. It's not done yet. Maybe another year? I'm going to wear my mask for as long as I can.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FIELD: A lot of New Yorkers making a personal choice.

Jim and Poppy, I think you're still going to see a lot of masks on faces, particularly in the city. And adding ever so slightly to the confusion, you've got the New York City public health commissioner who says the new CDC guidance regarding the masks is firmly grounded in science, but he says he will still be making the personal choice to keep that mask on inside. Something to think about.

Jim. Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. It does. Yes, it does confuse things. But no harm in wearing it and you probably won't get a cold or flu or anything like that.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

HARLOW: Alex, thanks.

Right?

Well, this morning, there is new evidence that coronavirus vaccines are driving down new cases across the country.

SCIUTTO: Yes, a CNN analysis found seven states that have vaccinated at least 70 percent of adults with at least one shot have case rates that are now 10 percent lower on average than those states that have not yet reached that point.

CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us now with more.

I mean this makes sense. The vaccines have been shown to protect you and others around you. And I suppose we're seeing it in the numbers here.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, we're absolutely seeing it. It's real-life evidence that this vaccine works.

Here's the problem, Jim, there are pockets of people who are not taking this. You know, not every adult in the United States is vaccinated. And unvaccinated people tend to sort of live in clusters.

Now you might think, OK, well, I'm vaccinated. What do I care if a bunch of people over there aren't vaccinated?

Here's why you should care. When you get a bunch of unvaccinated people together, the virus can breed. Every time that virus spreads to another person, it's another opportunity for that virus to mutate.

We know this virus mutates well. We know that the variant sometimes can be tough on the vaccine. The vaccine doesn't always work as well. So we do not want this to be happening.

So let me -- let's take a look at some county rates just to show you some examples.

So, nationally, 48 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated, 48 percent. So put that in your head there. In Cameron Parish, Louisiana, only 12 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. McPherson County, South Dakota, 11 percent. Miller County, Arkansas, just 9 percent. So 48 percent nationally, 9 percent in Miller County, Arkansas. The fear is that in places like Miller County, Arkansas, this virus will continue to spread.

[09:35:00]

It could mutate. That could make it tough on the vaccine. That makes it tough on all of us.

Jim. Poppy.

SCIUTTO: That's the thing, it's about protecting yourself and others.

COHEN: Right.

SCIUTTO: Folks, if you have doubts, ask your doctor. You know, ask your doctor. See what they tell you.

Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.

COHEN: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meeting today for the first time face-to-face. Could it lead to a Biden/Putin summit? We're going to discuss that and what it might entail, next.

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SCIUTTO: Sources tell CNN that no topics will be off limits when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet just a few hours from now.

[09:40:02]

This highly anticipated face-to-face setting the stage for a possible summit between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a number of weeks. Sources familiar with the plan say no topic is off limits in this talk. And there won't be any time limits.

Joining me now to discuss, Fareed Zakaria, host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS."

And, Fareed, always good to have you on.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, big picture. As you know, Biden promised to be tougher on Russia than Trump. He said repeatedly during the campaign, Putin doesn't want me to be president. Has he followed through?

ZAKARIA: Well, he followed through in a big way on the SolarWinds hack, you know, that massive hack that has been attributed to the Russians. The truth is that the Trump administration, as opposed to Donald Trump, was pretty tough on Russia. So if you look at the issue of Ukraine, the Trump administration went further than the Obama administration in aiding the Ukrainians.

So, on some of these issues, it was more that Donald Trump personally was very soft on Putin and was very tallied (ph) toward him and trusted him and believed him, and particularly about the 2016 election interference. But American policy toward Russia has been pretty tough and Biden continues to pursue that policy.

SCIUTTO: Understood. So you have a summit now. Biden, tough, equally tough, and certainly in the public rhetoric tougher than his predecessor. So what can the two sides accomplish in this meeting and with the possibility of Biden and Putin themselves sitting down? Where are the possible areas of working together?

ZAKARIA: Well, it's a very good question because, you know, part of what Biden has done is take this very tough, rhetorical stance, continue the policies that were tough, expand on them, which is all very good in terms of deterrence.

But then it becomes tougher to -- it becomes harder to make a deal with them on anything. And if you're trying to find areas where you need a deal -- I mean, look, if you want to try and de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, the Russians have to play ball. If you want to de-escalate what's happening in the Middle East even you need the Russians not to veto U.N. Security Council actions.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

ZAKARIA: A resolution of issues in Syria. You need the Russians. So there are a number of specific places where it would be nice if there could be some degree of cooperation. But I think the Biden people are right in feeling the most important thing to do is to stop the Russians from engaging in some very maligned behavior, particularly in the cyber realm. And if you can't get them to stop that, then you -- you know, you don't want to be -- you don't want to get too pally with them on everything else because this is a big deal for us.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

ZAKARIA: This is a new realm of cyberwarfare and the Russians are, as far as I can tell, the most powerful, malign actor in that space. So you really have to draw a line and try to make them understand there has to be deterrence in that space. The Russians cannot expect to simply ceaselessly hack American systems and there be no price for it.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

So I'm curious, big picture, if the Biden team has a strategy, right? Because we've watched successive administrations of both parties use essentially the same strategy, economic sanctions on individuals and entities, sometimes ratcheted up, sometimes ratcheted down. But, at the end of the day, certainly hasn't deterred Russian cyberattacks, certainly hasn't pushed Russia out of Ukraine.

So does Biden have a new approach that might change that?

ZAKARIA: No, you're absolutely right, they have tried all these mechanisms. They haven't worked.

Look, one part of it, which would be an interesting -- interesting to watch is, is there a way to combine the toughness that you require for deterrence strategy with real outreach, real diplomacy, real negotiations where you're trying to see the Russians' point of view on some things, where you're trying to understand what motivates the Russians.

Putin is not crazy. He's a very tough statesman who acts in what he regards as the national interests of Russia. He can be ruthless, he can be unscrupulous, but there is a method. And so if we try to figure out whether there is a meeting point, whether there is a win-win, that would be interesting because, you're right, the -- simply levying sanctions on Russia has not worked.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

So I want to ask you, in light of that, there was a lot of confusion, surprise, as the Biden administration decided not to sanction the Russian company involved in the Russian gas pipeline that has, of course, been a central issue in all this. Blinken had said, you know, back in January that he's determined to do whatever they can to prevent that completion.

[09:45:04]

How do you fit that reversal in the larger approach to Russia?

ZAKARIA: I think it probably involves the Europeans. I'm not entirely sure what happened. But, as you say, there -- there is some recognition also that the sanctions, particularly those kind of broader sanctions, often don't work very well. I mean look at our sanctions against Iran.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

ZAKARIA: They were meant to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. The sanctions against Cuba, put in place in 1959, 1960, were supposed to topple the regime.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

ZAKARIA: Sometimes sanctions have the opposite effect. They entrench the hard-liners.

SCIUTTO: Yes, no question. The Cuba example over decades, of course, an illustrative one.

Fareed Zakaria, thanks so much for putting it all into perspective for us.

ZAKARIA: A pleasure, Jim.

SCIUTTO: And we'll be right back.

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SCIUTTO: There are new details about the Israeli air strike over the weekend that destroyed a building in Gaza, housing media outlets such as the Associated Press and al Jazeera. CNN is now learning that U.S. officials have been pushing privately for Israel to publicly disclose the information they had to justify the strike.

HARLOW: Now a senior Israeli defense forces official is speaking out and says the building held electronic -- the electronic department of Hamas. According to the officer, the Hamas operatives there were researching and developing high-end capabilities for sensitive attacks against Israel. That is a significant development that the -- to actually say that.

Let's bring in our chief medial correspondent Brian Stelter, also Nic Robertson, our international diplomatic editor.

Nic, let me just begin with you. I mean this is the first sort of public actual intelligence sharing from Israel on -- on -- as a justification for making that strike that was housed -- in a building that was housing journalists.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: The Israeli defense forces had to know that they were going to come under incredible scrutiny when they targeted a building with journalists in. It's not something that they said that they did lightly. They said that they did it because that was the only way to take out this particular target, this particular threat.

They haven't yet been specific about how this sort of research and development department that could carry out high-end sensitive attacks against Israel was operating. You know, when you sort of try to deconstruct what was happening in that building, of the bits that we know, two major news organizations in the building, using quite -- probably quite a wide data stream out of that building.

Is it implicit in what the Israelis are saying, that Hamas' research and development wing had some sort of cyber operations using that data pipe coming out of Gaza because, obviously, Israeli defense forces are scrutinizing any and all data, as much as they can, coming in (INAUDIBLE) from Gaza because potentially some of it's of a national security threat. They haven't said that explicitly. But the fact that they took out the whole building is still causing them a huge amount of, you know, concern and focus, not just from the international media, but, of course, from governments as well. And I don't think yet we've had a full explanation.

SCIUTTO: Brian, I mean, in effect it becomes a rules of engagement kind of issue here, right? I mean they literally blew up the entire building and collapsed it. And I've been in these buildings in Gaza before. You have multiple news outlets often there.

I mean a question is, was there an alternative, right? I mean if it's an electronic issue, could you have targeted that office, that line, rather than blowing up the whole building? I do know that they gave a warning to journalists, which is why we had that video, so that they could get out prior to the attack.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Right, which is why no one was killed, thankfully. But it's still incredibly shocking to see a building housing journalists targeted by an air strike and it is very unusual. That is why media groups have been calling for more information. And this step by Israel to say some of the details about the intelligence is a step in the right direction.

It does, as you said, Jim, come down now to the rules of war, the law of war. In the aftermath of the attack, I spoke with David French, a former U.S. Army lawyer, who did some of these same targeting decisions in Iraq, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Here's what he said about the laws of war in this case.

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DAVID FRENCH, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE DISPATCH": I served as an Army lawyer and applied the laws of war in these contexts. And the laws actually that apply are pretty simple. The facts are complicated. The simple truth is that you do, in fact, convert a civilian target to a military target if a military force uses that civilian target, or that civilian facility. And that includes any kind of civilian facility. That includes a mosque. That includes a hospital. That includes a school. There are no targets off limits once an army decides to use it.

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STELTER: And that, once again, underscores the asymmetric nature of this conflict happening in urban areas, happening with Israel, this incredible technological and military might versus Hamas. And the allegation, of course, here is that Hamas was using these journalists as human shields. You know, incredible if true. And Israel is saying today, here's the evidence. We say that it was true, it was happening.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, it still raises other questions, though, because even if it's a military target, the U.S. military deals with this all the time, for instance, with drone strikes. You assess -- at least U.S. military, right, the potential human collateral damage of it, right? And that factors into the decisions, which have been adjusted over time, you know, in U.S. strikes on military and terror targets.

[09:55:01]

Listen, continuing conversation, because there are a lot of hard questions here.

Nic Robertson, Brian Stelter, thanks very much.

STELTER: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Still ahead, the House is expected to vote on establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. It was negotiated by Democrats and Republicans under the direction of Republican leaders, but it faces some hurdles now, opposition from the top two Republicans in Congress. We're going to be live just ahead.

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HARLOW: It is the top of the hour. So glad you're with us. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

This morning, a serious turn for President Trump's legal troubles. Overnight, the New York Attorney General's Office announced it is now adding a criminal component to its already-existing civil investigation of the Trump Organization.

[10:00:02]

We're going to get into the details of that soon, but here is the big takeaway.