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Biden Attends CNN Town Hall Tonight with Agenda in Peril; Texas Democrats Heap Pressure on Congress for Voting Rights Action; White House Confirms Talks with Fox New over COVID-19 Coverage. Aired 10:30- 11a ET

Aired July 21, 2021 - 10:30   ET

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


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[10:30:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: A busy day for President Biden. Soon, he'll head to Ohio where he'll deliver remarks on his build back better agenda tonight. He'll join our very own Don Lemon for a CNN presidential town hall.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: CNN's Jeff Zeleny, he joins us from Cincinnati with more. So, Jeff, Biden, he's going to face questions tonight on a number of congressional hurdles to his legislative agenda. How is he going to answer those questions?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I mean, infrastructure, of course, is at the heart of President Biden's agenda, and it's at the heart of the news today where there's going to be a test vote in the Senate, really, as President Biden is flying here to Cincinnati.

We do know that that vote is going to fail because Republicans say this bipartisan infrastructure bill simply has not had time to work through how it will be paid for, but that does not mean it's not still important. In fact, that is what President Biden -- one of the reasons he is coming here to Cincinnati.

Take a look at these pictures that we've taken of the Brent Spence Bridge. This is one of the, really, exhibit A of infrastructure problems in America. It stretches from Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky. This has really been at the heart of every president's infrastructure plan for more than a decade.

President Obama stood right in front of that bridge saying his plan would fix it. President Trump also said his plan would fix it. So, now, President Biden certainly will be here. He's likely to be asked about that. I can tell you, after being here for a couple days and in other visits to Cincinnati, that bridge is on the top of people's minds because of many accidents it's had.

And it really is a major thoroughfare across the country. So, look for President Biden to talk about that bridge specifically, but also COVID-19, the rising number of cases certainly impacting health and the economy and so many other questions that voters and citizens actually have.

And that's what's always interesting about these town halls. It's not the same type of questions necessarily that reporters like us ask, it's individual questions from people. So, President Biden certainly here marking his six months in office, his second CNN town hall right here tonight. Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching. Jeff Zeleny there in Cincinnati, thanks so much.

You may have noticed prices for a whole host of things have jumped. So a big question is, is this lasting? If not, when will it end?

HARLOW: President Biden and the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, both say it's temporary. Our Matt Egan, CNN Business' Lead Writer, is with us with an analysis, and a little bit more on that.

I mean, we hope they're right. Everyone hopes they're right. But do we know?

MATT EGAN, CNN BUSINESS LEAD WRITER: Yes, Poppy and Jim. Clearly, there's no shortage of economic challenges facing America and how President Biden addresses them is really going to define his legacy.

So, let's go through five of the top issues that Biden needs to talk about tonight. And first on that list, to your point, is inflation and the worker shortage. Now, consumer prices, they rose in June at the fastest annual pace since 2008, everything from used cars and washing machines to bacon has become more expensive.

Now, the Fed and the White House say this is temporary, but we don't know that yet. And for now, it's certainly squeezing the budgets of families, especially low-income families.

Meanwhile, we have construction companies and restaurants and factories saying they can't fill open jobs. This worker shortage is going to slow the recovery if it's not resolved soon.

Now, we also have the issue, of course, of the delta variant and vaccine hesitancy. The economy is booming right now, but that's going to change if schools don't open or people shy away from going out to eat or traveling. The good news, of course, is vaccines are very effective against the variants, but Biden needs to try to reach out to those who are not vaccinated.

We've also got cybersecurity. The Colonial Pipeline attack showed how key parts of the economy can be held hostage by hackers. Biden has got to show that he's taking the cyber threat seriously and there's going to cost to those who attack American businesses and critical infrastructure.

The climate crisis, this is obviously an existential threat to the planet. And economists have joined scientists in saying that action has got to be taken now. I mean, look no further than the wildfires in Oregon or the severe flooding in Western Europe to see the cost of inaction. And, lastly, of course, inequality, this divide between rich and poor is not new, but it's been made worse by the pandemic. And President Biden has got to show how his proposals will actually help alleviate inequality.

HARLOW: Yes, that's a huge one. Matt Egan, thanks for the reporting. We'll watch and see how a lot of it is addressed tonight.

So, another big decision President Biden needs to make that could have a big impact on the economy is, does he reappoint the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell, does he replace him with someone else?

[10:35:09]

SCIUTTO: Yes, a hold-over from the Trump administration. CNN's John Harwood is at the White House.

Is Biden happy with him? Any indication he wants to replace him?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, he hasn't said publicly, and maybe we'll get a hint or two if Don asks him about it at the town hall tonight. But, for now, the general expectation among economists is that he is pleased with Jerome Powell and is likely to reappoint him for the very reason that Matt Egan just outlined a moment ago, which is that the Federal Reserve and the White House see economic fundamentals, in particular, this advent of inflation, in similar ways, that it's temporary, that it's important to keep the pedal to the metal on expanding the job market, even though we've got a growing economy, declining unemployment rate, we're still down millions of jobs from pre-pandemic.

Now, in some ways, this mirrors the choice that previous Democratic presidents have had to make, and you think that Joe Biden, a Democrat, has got a very progressive, ambitious economic agenda, maybe he would want to put a Democrat in that job. On the other hand, Jay Powell has guided the economy through the pandemic, just as Ben Bernanke did the financial crisis. Barack Obama reappointed him in his first term. And so the widespread expectation is that Jerome Powell is the frontrunner for that to happen again.

And I should say one final point on the notion that Jeff and Matt were both talking about, there is increasing optimism here at the White House that whatever happens on the Senate vote today, that that bipartisan infrastructure plan may have a promising future, which is a big step toward the second part of his plan, the reconciliation. So, the Biden economic agenda, which would seek to address income inequality in a pretty robust way, has a possibility for making some progress today, whatever happens on that Senate vote.

HARLOW: Right, right.

SCIUTTO: Interesting. You are hearing -- beginning to hear confidence from Democratic senators, Republican senators and the White House, notable. We'll see. John Harwood at the White House, thank you.

Be sure to watch tonight's CNN presidential town hall airs live, 8:00 P.M. Eastern only on CNN.

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[10:40:00]

HARLOW: Just a few hours from now, Vice President Harris will meet with poll workers and other election officials at the White House where she'll hear their concerns about voting rights in America. This follow the vice president's meeting last week with a group of Texas Democratic lawmakers who fled their state and went to Washington, D.C., for a month to prevent the ability for the Texas legislature to vote on their latest voting bill.

Joining me is one of those state lawmakers, Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democratic. It's good to have you.

First of all, you announced over the weekend that you have COVID. And I'm glad to hear, as you told me, that you're feeling okay, just a mild fever. But it's meant that you're quarantined. And so I wonder what that means for your hopes of accomplishing what you want to get done in Washington, D.C. I mean, does it prevent you from having more meters with senators while you're there, with the president? I know you were hoping to.

STATE REP. TREY MARTINEZ FISCHER (D-TX): Well, in some ways, it kind of speeds things up. I mean, we're now meeting virtually. And so, you know, already yesterday we were able to meet with Majority Whip James Clyburn via Zoom. Today, we have meetings with Majority Senate Leader Steny Hoyer, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries.

And so instead of moving all around the Capitol, we're able to get these meetings and spend more time talking substance. And --

HARLOW: Wasn't that the point of going?

FISCHER: Well, of course. But now that we have a setback, I mean, obviously, you have to make the adjustment and we're making a really good adjustment. We're quarantining for ten days. And when that's over, I think things will get back to normal and resume as normal. But we're going to take advantage of every minute that we're here.

HARLOW: Do you think if you can ultimately not achieve what you're hoping to, is to move the ball on federal voting rights legislation, federal protection, and unless the filibuster would magically disappear on the legislative, which it's not going to, you need to sway Republicans? If you can't do that in the 30 days, might you stay longer?

FISCHER: That's a great question. Looking at it right now, we have managed, along with others, to keep voting rights at the top of the domestic policy agenda. We're hearing a lot about infrastructure this week, and that makes sense. But we have made voting rights a talking point in the country. We're going to continue to work towards that end and be very hopeful that we can get something done.

I mean, I'm encouraged by the fact that there are multiple strategies being discussed on how this can be achieve, everything from maybe looking to carve out the filibuster for voting rights to perhaps even trying to find voting rights language that could fit in a reconciliation package.

So, look, I give the U.S. senators a lot of credit that they are taking this very, very seriously, and we will continue to do our work. We are here now and we're going to stay here through the August recess. And that's what I can talk about today.

HARLOW: So a month ago -- I know you guys were successful in meeting with Senator Manchin. A month ago, he did, Senator Manchin, propose a compromise, somewhere where he thought he could land on voting rights legislation federally and perhaps Republicans would get on board with it, included Election Day as a federal holiday, bipartisan -- banning partisan gerrymandering, automating voter registration through the DMV.

[10:45:21]

And it got the support of Stacey Abrams, who used the word, absolutely, when asked if she would back it. Beto O'Rourke called it progress. Is that legislation you could get on board with?

FISCHER: Obviously, that Manchin proposal would be wonderful in the state of Texas. I don't think people realize how many hurdles we have in the state of Texas when it comes to voting in our visits with Senator Manchin. Just comparing West Virginia election law to Texas election law, you can vote in so many different ways in West Virginia.

So, at a minimum, whether it's a Manchin compromise, whether it's a modified S-1, whether it's an accelerated HR-4, all of those things would benefit us here in Texas. And so we have an all-of-the-above strategy so long that we can bring fair voting rights and have one standard in the country and that's the American standard.

HARLOW: I know you have had hopes of meeting with Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Also it has been reported, at least as of yesterday, that you have not met with any Republicans. I wonder if any of those things have changed. Have you secured a meeting with Senator Sinema? Have you been able to meet with any Republican senators?

FISCHER: So I may not be as up-to-date. As you know, I'm quarantining. I have had occasion to talk to other lawmakers from Arizona. It sounds like they're organizing and mobilizing, and perhaps we can partner together. But, again, we are here through the first week in August. And so we will not give up.

And we will talk with anybody who wants to have a pragmatic discussion about bringing a fair voting rights standard to this country because I think it's necessary that we have that discussion. And the issue is also important and it's not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, it's an American issue. And we should be talking to anybody who has an open mind.

HARLOW: Well, thank you, Representative, for being here. We hope that your symptoms continue to be mild and that you get better by the day. Thanks very much.

FISCHER: Thank you.

HARLOW: Jim?

SCIUTTO: Just ahead, the White House has met with top executives at Fox News over its coverage of the coronavirus. Is that why we're seeing an about-face from some Fox personalities on vaccines? We're going to talk about it next.

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[10:50:00]

HARLOW: The White House press secretary is now confirming the administration has been in talks with Fox News executives about the COVID-19 coverage on parts of that network.

SCIUTTO: Yes. They've been raising questions about a very effective, life-saving vaccine. The news comes after Sean Hannity, who had previously downplayed the pandemic, but actually has been in favor of vaccines, called on his viewers to, quote, take COVID seriously.

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SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Please take COVID seriously. I can't say it enough. Enough people have died. We don't need any more deaths. Research like crazy. Talk to your doctor.

I believe in science and I believe in the science of vaccination.

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SCIUTTO: CNN's Anchor of Reliable Sources Brian Stelter joins us now. Brian, what changed?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think they had to view Fox News as a part of the GOP. Think about it as the Republican Party on T.V., just like Republican Party leaders are taking different positions about vaccines, so are different stars on Fox News.

And it is noticeable that in the last few days, we've seen a slight change in tone, especially on the newscast, the conservative newscast, promoting vaccines.gov, urging viewers to go and look up information and try to get vaccinated. That's happening on some of Fox's shows, in the same way that, for example, Mitch McConnell is out there urging people to be vaccinated.

So, you have some parts of GOP T.V. slightly changing its tune about vaccines but then other hosts, but the bigger, higher-rated stars, the more trusted figures, like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, are still sowing down doubts, still recklessly spreading anti-vaccination propaganda.

Let me show you what I mean. Here are three recent clips from Fox that belie this change in tone.

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LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST: Drop the entire thing. Let people come to their own conclusions. No more mandates, no more masks, tell Fauci to retire and tell Americans it's time to keep calm and carry on. Be smart. Use your common sense. This virus may indeed be seasonal.

BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX NEWS HOST: If you didn't get a vaccination, that's your choice. And if you did, like I did and they did and maybe you did, then you should not wear a mask. And if you want to go cliff diving this weekend, you don't have to check with me. It seems a little dangerous but I'm not going to judge you.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: If the vaccine is so great, wouldn't it sell itself?

Why should people who have recovered from COVID-19, and there are millions of them in this country, who are immune to the virus, why should they be forced to get the vaccine? What's the answer? What is the harm rate from the vaccine?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: See, on Fox News, they say the accurate part quietly and say the dangerous part loudly. Tucker Carlson's voice is the loudest and he's the one out there spreading anti-vaccination messages.

But it seems like the network is undertaking a P.R. strategy by coming out and promoting vaccines.gov and having some of its news anchors encourage people to get shots.

[10:55:00]

If you think about this innocently, you would say Fox is just responding to the delta variant, taking it seriously because it's really affecting Republican strongholds in red states and red counties. If you're more cynical, you would say this is a P.R. ploy to try to get ahead of Biden, naming and shaming them the way they've been shaping Facebook.

HARLOW: Whatever it takes.

STELTER: Whatever it takes.

HARLOW: If more people listening get it, good. Brian, thank you.

STELTER: Thanks.

HARLOW: Thanks to all of you for joining us. We'll see you right back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto. At This Hour with Kate Bolduan starts after a quick break.

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