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Democrats Kick Off Critical Week Ahead of S.C. Primary; Candidates Scramble for Second Place as Sanders Solidifies Frontrunner Status; Priorities USA Chairman, Guy Cecil, Discusses Sanders Lead Ahead of S.C. Primary & Sanders Defending Some of Fidel Castro's Communist Policies; Dow Plunges as Coronavirus Fears Rattle Markets; Trump Attends Massive Rally, Tours Taj Mahal in India; Sen. Chris Van Hollen Sources: White House Looking for Disloyal Staffers; (D-MD) Discusses Trump Administration Purging Disloyal Staffers, the Democratic Race, Sanders' Comments on Fidel Castro. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 24, 2020 - 11:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: NASA's Langley Research Center tweeted, "Katherine believed in equality. She overcame obstacles to achieve great things and make life better for others."

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom back in 2015. There's that moment. When she passed away, she was 101 years old.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: What a life. Pretty amazing.

All right, thanks to all of you for joining us. We'll see you back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

The next eight days could be the defining moment in the race for the Democratic nomination for president. It is five days until the South Carolina Democratic primary, with Super Tuesday then just days after that. Which means in a little more than a week, though many things are just getting started, this Democratic primary could be well on its way to decided.

And Bernie Sanders is riding high on a wave of momentum, solidifying his frontrunner status after a commanding victory in the Nevada caucuses over the weekend. And with the other candidates locked in a scramble for second place there, Sanders' lead could become virtually insurmountable depending on South Carolina and the 14 states and territories that vote on March 3rd.

We're going to show you the calendar. It is full speed ahead, starting with tomorrow's debate in Charleston, South Carolina.

CNN's Abby Phillip is there. And she joins me now.

Abby, a wild week ahead after what has already been a wild weekend. What are you hearing on the ground?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Kate, things really accelerating on the ground as all of these other candidates, who are not named Bernie Sanders, scramble to blunt his momentum and put up a strong electoral case that they can actually become the nominee.

Now, that is going to be center stage here in South Carolina, where this is where Joe Biden, who had been the frontrunner for the previous periods of time in this primary, will put up a big stand.

The African-American vote in the state is 60 percent of the Democratic electorate. And Joe Biden has been saying for months that this is where he will show his strength. I think a lot of people are looking to see if that is actually the case.

But at the same time, Bernie Sanders is riding the momentum from a very strong finish in Nevada. His campaign is telling CNN this morning that they are planning on ramping up their events on the ground here, ramping up their spending on the airwaves to try to make the -- take advantage of that momentum going into Saturday.

And then, of course, there's the debate tomorrow night. We will have all of the candidates out on the stage again, including Michael Bloomberg.

And you're hearing the Bloomberg campaign this morning ramping up their attacks on Bernie Sanders, saying that it is risky for Democrats to nominate him. Bloomberg will not be on the ballot on Saturday in South Carolina, but he'll be on the debate stage.

And it will be yet another opportunity for us to see, what do the candidates do. Will it be another all on one, all of the candidates attacking Michael Bloomberg, or will some train their attacks on Bernie Sanders, who is now the Democratic frontrunner? Quite a few dynamics here going into Saturday.

One more I will add, Kate, Tom Steyer, he is the other billionaire in this race. He spent a ton of money on the ground here in South Carolina and has made a lot of inroads with African-American voters. We can expect at least right now that he should do well on Saturday.

But the question is, will that hurt Joe Biden. Will it cut into his support among African-Americans? And if it does, does that open up an opportunity for Bernie Sanders to finish close to Joe Biden? That could be a momentum-changing event if it were to happen on Saturday -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Great to have you on the ground, Abby. Thank you so much.

Even though Bernie Sanders has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner, anyone who tells you they know how this will shake out in the next week hasn't been following presidential politics closely enough since the 2016 race.

Joe Biden is expecting, and let's be honest, counting on a strong rebound and a win in South Carolina. Mike Bloomberg getting on the ballot come Super Tuesday, just again crystallizing how important and crucial the next little over a week is.

Let's look at the data and where it stands now.

CNN's senior political writer and analyst, Harry Enten, is here.

Good to see you, Harry.

Nice to see you.

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER & ANALYST: Let's start, Nevada is in the rearview mirror. So quickly we look past it. Let's talk about how things are looking in the sprint now to South Carolina.

ENTEN: I think, look, here is the deal. Bernie Sanders is the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination. These are my delegate odds, the chance of winning the most delegates. We're not getting into the contested convention here. But look at this.

BOLDUAN: No, we're not.

ENTEN: No, we're not. Look at this. Bernie Sanders with a seven-in-10 shot of winning the most amount of delegates. Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg at one-in-ten. All the way back, Warren barely registering and Buttigieg not registering at all. It is the field versus Bernie Sanders.

BOLDUAN: I heard a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders, Jeff Weaver, one of his closest advisers, start saying this weekend that they're in it, they're fighting to win South Carolina. Can Bernie Sanders do it considering all - Joe Biden has put all his eggs in the South Carolina basket?


ENTEN: I absolutely think he could do it. Look at this. This is my average of polls in South Carolina. Joe Biden is ahead with 26 percent. Look who is behind him, Bernie Sanders at 22 percent. That's a tight race.

Given what we have seen nationally, where Sanders is moving up, winning the contests and he wins in Nevada --


BOLDUAN: They're really clumped up here.

ENTEN: They are really clumped up nationally. And we have seen Sanders taking off. It wouldn't be surprising, given Sanders' Nevada performance, that he may, in fact, be able to jump Biden. One other thing I'll point out, as Abby was pointing out, look at Tom

Steyer at 17 percent. He's quite competitive there. But Bernie Sanders could win this state and perhaps knock Joe Biden out of the race.

BOLDUAN: Three days after South Carolina is Super Tuesday. This is a lot of contests. And some of them very expensive media market states. California being one of them. What does the landscape look like?

ENTEN: You pointed it out correctly. Look at this, 34 percent of the delegates are awarded on Super Tuesday. This gives you an understanding that this -- three days after South Carolina, this contest goes in hyper speed. And a lot of things can change.

You're pointing out that money. All those states, expensive states like California and Texas on the ballot. Look at this. Look at Michael Bloomberg with $160 million spent.

BOLDUAN: Look at this.

ENTEN: Exactly. Look at this at the bottom. Look at Joe Biden. Even if he were to win in South Carolina, he's spent zero dollars, zero dollars.

BOLDUAN: Three days later.

ENTEN: Three days later.

BOLDUAN: Getting the money out there.

ENTEN: It's like, how does this work, right? If he wins South Carolina, he gets this boost of momentum, but he's not really going to be able to get on the air. Bernie Sanders, among the candidates who aren't the billionaires, leading with $11 million on the air. But of course, he's ahead. So he doesn't necessarily need to be spending $150 million.

BOLDUAN: Then comes your and my favorite fight.

ENTEN: Oh, yes.

BOLDUAN: The hypothetical head-to-head matchups in the general election. Who do you have? You have Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. When these Democratic candidates -- which of these Democratic candidates can beat Donald Trump? What do you see at this moment?

ENTEN: Look, here is the deal. These were three states, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that went for Barack Obama in 2012. Flipped over to Donald Trump in 2016.

What we see is Bernie Sanders, who is the frontrunner, quite competitive in these states. In fact, leading in these latest Quinnipiac University polls. Five points in Michigan. Four points in Pennsylvania. Wisconsin, he seems to be behind. I will point out the average poll is tighter, but Wisconsin is a very tight race.

The other thing, Kate, though it is not on here, is that the rest of the Democrats are about doing as well here. It's not clear to me that any of them can make that electability argument at least looking at the polling so far.

BOLDUAN: I think that's an important thing. That is a really important conversation because electability has been the thing for Joe Biden and what everyone says Bernie Sanders wasn't, right? This says essentially they're all in the same boat.

ENTEN: They're all in the same boat and Bernie Sanders is quite competitive. That makes it very difficult to make the argument against Sanders as we head down the stretch.

BOLDUAN: All right, good to see you, Harry. Thank you so much.

ENTEN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: So joining me now for more this, Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, one of the most powerful outside Democratic groups.

Good to see you, Guy.


BOLDUAN: So, reminder to everyone, you say it all the time, your super PAC is agnostic, not backing any one Democratic candidate.

What are you sensing on the ground now in South Carolina? Do you think Sanders is on a glide path to the nomination?

CECIL: Certainly, here, I think we're expecting a close race and, in particular, between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Clearly, Tom Steyer showing some strength.

I think it is premature to say he's on the glide path because, if Joe Biden does win here in South Carolina, I think we'll see a number of Super Tuesday states continue to be incredibly close.

I would remind you, even after the last debate and without any television advertising in Super Tuesday states, we did see Elizabeth Warren move into second or third place in a number of Super Tuesday states.

So as long as this field remains crowded, I think Bernie is still the frontrunner in this race. But I think South Carolina is going to have a lot to say about who really is competitive on Super Tuesday.

BOLDUAN: Look, you mentioned the field being crowded. Biden has said that South Carolina is must win for him. And then there's all of this talk about a multi-candidate field and what it does after Super Tuesday.

Setting aside bank accounts, and resources available, do you think, in the perspective of your goal is to beat Donald Trump, do you think folks need to start dropping out and, quote/unquote, "uniting the party?" CECIL: Well, I think what we're going to find is that South Carolina

helps us narrow the field. Reality is, let's be clear, there are only three or four people that have a path to this nomination. And my hope is that the field will winnow not because I'm in favor of one candidate or the other, but because we need to crystallize the focus on who can take on Donald Trump.

I think Michael Bloomberg's late entry into the race, the fact he spent the amount of money he has, has only complicated matters because it just means that it is even harder for candidates to hit that 15 percent threshold, which is important in order to get a delegate.


So my hope is that, going into Super Tuesday, we really will only have four candidates on the ballot, four candidates with a plausible path to the nomination.

BOLDUAN: What is that conversation, what is that argument you make to those not in the -- those outside of that four? What is the argument? Right now. folks are -- listen to Amy Klobuchar. She says there's no reason for her to drop out right now.

CECIL: Well, look, I know this might be hard to believe, but every politician thinks they are the best to take on Donald Trump, those that are on the ballot and those that were on ballot before.

But I think this is the time where candidates need to take a hard look at just how well they're doing in the polls, whether or not they can build a diverse coalition of Democrats not just based on race, but socioeconomic status, gender, age. The reality is we really only see two, three, maybe four candidates with the ability to do that.

I think Nevada and South Carolina are really helping crystallize this fact, that in order to be successful as a Democrat, we need to increase turnout with African-Americans and Latino voters. We need to bring in those suburban women that were critical in order for us to pick up the House in 2018.

And if you can't do that in the context of the first four states or even in the Super Tuesday, we have got to beg the question of whether or not you can do that in the rest of the nominating calendar.

I think it is a hard conversation to have. Folks have been putting in an endless amount of work. They have been working from morning to night, across the country. We're now getting to the place where we need to stop just picking who will be on the debate stage and begin the process of picking a president.

BOLDUAN: You're in South Carolina. You also know Florida very, very well. In an interview with Anderson Cooper for "60 Minutes," Bernie Sanders defended some of Fidel Castro's Communist policies in Cuba.

Let me play that moment for our viewers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SANDERS: We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba. It is unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?


BOLDUAN: Florida Democrats, some Florida Democrats have been jumping all over him for this. How big of a problem do you think this is?

CECIL: Well, I was born and raised in Miami. I know a lot of these stories firsthand. There's nothing that makes up for the fact that Fidel Castro was a murderous tyrant, who used authoritarianism, who used murder, who used threats to destroy his country and to kill some of his own people. It is an unfortunate comment. And I hope that as we move forward, Senator Sanders would clarify that.

BOLDUAN: Good to see you, Guy. Thank you for being here.

CECIL: You, too. Thank you for having me.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

We are also following some breaking news. A big drop in the Dow this hour. It is down now more than 800 points on continued fears about the coronavirus and the real impact that it is and could be having on businesses around the world. Today's losses could effectively wipe out the gains made so far in 2020. But a long trading day still ahead.

Let's get to CNN business anchor, Julia Chatterley, at the stock exchange, watching all of this.

Julia, what are you seeing, hearing? How bad it this?

JULIA CHATTERLEY, CNN BUSINESS ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: It is a great question. It is pretty uncomfortable. To your point, the Dow wiping out year-to-date gains. What is bad about this is the sheer degree of uncertainty. How do you price the economic impact here and get a sense of where stocks should be trading? That's the challenge.

I think investors here are reacting to three things. The first thing, the spike in cases outside of China and Asia. What does that mean?

Two, remember, big companies like Apple are already coming out and saying, look, our sales will be hit in this quarter. We expect more companies to do that.

But I think the third thing is analysts, like Goldman Sachs, again last week, they came out and said investors are being way too complacent here about the risks. And I think you're seeing some of that complacency being taken out of the market here.

Just to give you a sense, Kate, and this is really important, they said the number of missing workdays in China right now is the equivalent of a two-month planned -- unplanned holiday for the entire U.S. workforce. Can you imagine the chaos that would create in the United States? That's what China's dealing with and what investors are trying to price here.

The degree of uncertainty is huge. Short-term, watch the session. See how this session ends. That will be a great gauge of real sentiment here. It's been a tough session so far.

BOLDUAN: This is a huge conversation in terms of global health and safety and now becoming a huge global business story as well.


BOLDUAN: Great to see you. Thank you, Julia.

CHATTERLEY: Thank you.


Coming up, the White House is looking to clean House. Sources confirm a new report that says Trump allies are making a list of people disloyal to the president. Details on that next.


BOLDUAN: There are some enormous crowds greeting President Trump during his first state visit to India. This morning, the president spoke to a stadium filled with something like 100,000 people. He also toured the Taj Mahal with first lady, Melania Trump. You see that photo opportunity right there.

But a very different seen unfolding in Washington, of course. CNN is now learning more about how far President Trump is willing to go to purge his administration of staffers seen, viewed, believed to be disloyal. This goes well beyond the firings that we detailed since his impeachment acquittal.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins traveling with the president in India. She joins me now.

Kaitlan, These lists were first reported by Jonathan Swan of Axios. Your reporting, you've learned much more.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is that Trump does want to cut down the number of people working in the administration. Not only does he want people who do still work there to be loyal to his agenda, he wants them primarily to be loyal to him.


Now, this is an attitude that the president has had since he first took office. But, Kate, now that he's been acquitted in this impeachment trial, he seems to be more empowered to do this. And he actually wants to cut down on the number of staffers that he feels are working against him in his administration. He's instructed aides to be on the lookout for them to essentially be prepared to fire people like this.

Now, the question is whether or not he's going to go through with that. He does -- some people describe this as a sense of paranoia, that it is widespread throughout his administration, this is a Deep State, people who work in his administration, they're working against him.

But you've also got to point out, sometimes it is the people he hired himself and put in top positions that are people that try to thwart things that the president wants to carry out.

You've seen that before with people like Gary Cohn when it came to certain trade agreements that the president wanted to terminate, other top officials when it comes to national security matters, like John Bolton.

But all of this is going on, Kate, while the president is here in India being boosted by thousands of people chanting and supporting him from the minute he got off the plane when he landed here in India to when he went to this rally that was reminiscent of his own rallies in the United States.

And of course, even driving up the street, there are people lining up on the streets next to him. That was a very optics-heavy day today.

Tomorrow, we're expecting to get it to be more about the behind the scenes. Can they come to a trade agreement? What will he say to the Indian Prime Minister Modi about religious freedom now that there's a crackdown here in Kashmir and with this new citizenship law they passed that favors essentially every religion except for Islam and, of course, if they're going to make any agreements on national security measures as well?

Those are the things we're going to be looking for. But as all of this is all going on, the president also has an eye on what is happening back in Washington with these essential loyalty tests that he's putting forth for staffers.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Kaitlan. Thanks so much.

Joining me for much more on this, Democratic Senator from Maryland, Chris Van Hollen.

Senator, thank you for coming in.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Kate, good to be with you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

I wanted to get your reaction to the latest reporting, as Kaitlan summed it up, the loyalty tests, the list of staffers, this little ty test loyalty test being put forth by the president and his administration.

VAN HOLLEN: So this purge is very dangerous for the country. And I want to distinguish between two things. One, presidents are, of course, entitled to have a team and staff -- a team that implements the policies once the president made a decision. Assuming that's a lawful decision. With -- and with this president, that's an asterisk. What we're talking about here is purging people who may present

alternative ideas to the president, who may have a different perspective on something. And it is really important that a president get all sides of a story before the president makes a decision. Once the president makes the decision, it needs to be carried out.

But to purge people who may have an alternative viewpoint on a particular issue is very dangerous. And we have seen this with respect to reporting about Russian interference in our elections. Because we're told that the president just doesn't want to hear that intelligence, doesn't want to hear those facts.

And when you start screening out facts in advance because you're afraid the president just doesn't want to hear them, that obviously presents risks to the country.

BOLDUAN: I want to ask you about Russian interference in one second. First, in general, about the primary, we kind of hit hyper-speed mode going to South Carolina and Super Tuesday. I haven't seen you endorse anyone.

I want to read something to you from Senator Chris Coons. He has endorsed Joe Biden. But this is what Chris Coons told the "New York Times." He says: "Some folks need to look hard at whether they are viable and contributing to a positive path forward for our party."

He goes on to say that those who remain in the race were undermining the party's chance for a, quote, unquote, "shorter and less-divisive primary." He wasn't naming names though.

Do you agree? Do you think candidates need to start dropping out?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I'm not going to suggest any candidates what they should or should not do. I think it is really important, Kate, that Democrats focus on the main objective here, which is stopping Donald Trump. And it will be important for the Democrats to unify behind our nominee, whomever it is, the sooner the better. But the most important thing is that people rally behind that nominee.

And I do worry, in the primary, when people start firing each other, more than we are taking a collective effort against Donald Trump, that it could hinder those efforts to come together quickly.


But, look, we got to let this process play out. I'm not one to subscribe to the collective freak out that some people seem to be experiencing right now. Again, my biggest concern is that, you know, people not -- we need to come together as soon as we have a viable nominee.

BOLDUAN: But in the collective, quote/unquote, "freak out" that some folks are pointing to if the fact that Bernie Sanders is the frontrunner and Bernie Sanders has a lot of momentum right now. That's -- I'm reading a lot of the collective freak out is, I guess, what I should say. He did an interview with "60 Minutes." I played the sound byte in my

last segment with Guy Cecil, where he has -- he defends Fidel Castro in the sense of kind of complimenting policies he put in place with regard to a massive literacy program. He's getting -- he's taking a lot of criticism for saying that and going out on a limb on that.

What is your reaction when you heard him say that?

VAN HOLLEN: So, Kate, it's always important to take the statement in its entire context. I heard him lead by condemning the authoritarian regime of Fidel Castro. The reality is that when you look at U.S. policy toward Cuba, over the last 40, 50 years, it has been pretty much a total disaster.

Which is why, under President Obama, we moved to develop relations. We formalized our relationship with Cuba. The Trump administration has taken us in a very different direction. But the Trump administration policies have been a total failure when it comes to Cuba.

So, look, I'm not going to parse certain phrases with respect to what Bernie Sanders said. My interpretation of that statement was he led where he should lead, which is saying that this was an authoritarian regime and it obviously didn't serve democratic principles well.

BOLDUAN: Senator, thanks so much for coming in. Appreciate the time.

VAN HOLLEN: Good to be with you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

Still ahead for us, Joe Biden saying that he's unfazed after finishing a distant second in Nevada, saying it sets the stage for a comeback. Is that too optimistic?

We'll be right back.