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CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Downplays Coronavirus Threat; Interview with Representative Denny Heck (D-WA) about Russian Meddling and Bernie Sanders; Seven Democrats to Face Off in South Carolina Debate Tonight; Trump and Democratic Contenders Vie for Key Union Endorsements; Dow Plunges 1,000 Points as Coronavirus Fears Spike. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2020 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- in the United States and certainly overseas rattled this morning.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: But how about President Trump? He does not seem worried.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country. We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are, in all cases, I have not heard anything other. The people are getting better. They're all getting better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Reporting just in to CNN says the president is not as calm behind the scenes.

Let's get to CNN's Kaitlan Collins. She's traveling with the president in India.

Kaitlan, what are you hearing about the president's real concerns about coronavirus?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, publicly he's downplaying it, but we know privately actually we're being told by sources that the president has been pretty frustrated with how his administration is responding to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Two things he's upset with, one, that they allowed those U.S. patients who tested positive for coronavirus back into the United States, though today you saw him at that press conference acknowledged it, in the end he does believe that was the right thing to do.

But, two, also that federal officials were going to place some of those patients at a FEMA facility in Alabama which the president faced blowback for getting calls from lawmakers saying, no, you just can't do this, including the governor of Alabama, and one of the senators, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama.

And Jim and Poppy, we're being told by sources, including my colleague Kevin Liptak and I that the president wanted to fire people over this, over these decisions made by his administration, though it's not clear who he wanted to fire and it's not determined whether or not anyone has been terminated over this. We do not believe anyone has. But it does speak to the frustration the president has had behind the scenes of all this.

Publicly he is really trying to calm the waters here, assure people that it's going to be a short-term problem as he was saying today. That it's not going to have these long-term effects on the economy, even though we saw how the markets were suffering yesterday because of these fears about the outbreak of the coronavirus and how people are going to respond to it.

We do know the administration is taking steps. They have requested over a billion dollars in funding last night for this as they continue to combat what their plan is going to be. And that's not really something the president telegraphed today. What steps they're taking, what concrete steps they're taking, though the question is whether or not we'll hear from the Health and Human Services secretary over this on the next few days.

But, yes, our reporting shows the president is not as calm privately about the coronavirus as he is acting publicly at least.

HARLOW: OK. Kaitlan, appreciate that reporting. Thank you very much.

Let's talk about this big picture. Our chief business correspondent Christine Romans is back with us this morning, along with CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, also a senior editor at the Atlantic.

So, Romans, I mean, even people who have been close to the president, worked for the president like Anthony Scaramucci telling "The Washington Post," quote, "If he gets real correction, a market correction of 10 percent to 15 percent, down draft in the markets, it would take one of the legs off a very big part of his re-election campaign."

The economy means so much to this president and he does not seem to think that this is going to have an impact.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And he himself has made the stock market his personal popularity poll, right?

HARLOW: Sure.

ROMANS: And a guy who a couple of years ago said I'm not a stock market guy is now someone who is making stock market strategy calls kind of on a daily basis here. So he has made the stock market a barometer of how he's doing. And so if there were another tumble in the stock market, obviously, he's going to try to find ways to say that it's not his fault. Look, the coronavirus is not this administration's fault. How it

handles it is what will be the big test for this administration. And my sources this morning are saying that one of the important re- election arguments for this president, a strong economy and a strong stock market, will not be as strong as an incumbent in an election year would like to see.

SCIUTTO: Ron Brownstein, the substance of this is, who is handling it? Right? For this administration.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

SCIUTTO: The Trump administration has deliberately cut foreign aid programs, including programs that speak to global health with the impression being that, well, those are foreign problems, they're not American problems. Of course with the pandemic, it's everybody's problem. So do we know who is overseeing this and should we have confidence in the folks who are doing that?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, you know, the way you just described it is emphatically not the president's world view. I mean, the contrast with how Barack Obama handled the Ebola outbreak is very I think illuminative of the way they approach the world. I mean, as I recall, obviously the President Obama named an Ebola czar, Ron Klain who was Joe Biden's chief of staff and former White House counsel.

But he also was very engaged with the front-line states in terms of sending U.S. assistance to them to help them manage the outbreak on the front lines, on exactly the theory, Jim, that you laid out. That, you know, that if a pandemic develops, ultimately it is everybody's problems.

Look at the contrast between the president's language when he said, you know, we're handling it very well and no sense of kind of interconnectedness with the other countries but, in fact, this has -- from supply chains to, you know, actual infection, this is just a reminder of how difficult it is to hide behind walls in the modern world.

[09:05:09]

HARLOW: You know, Romans, it was just a few months ago that our polling showed that 76 percent of Americans -- remember that number? Not just Republicans, 76 percent of Americans feel good about the economy. Can you talk about if this extends beyond Apple feeling the pain of this China slowdown when mom and pop, you know, companies that import from Asia across the Midwest are to feel this pain, what that could mean?

ROMANS: And that poll number you're talking about, that was the highest in 20 years or something.

HARLOW: Yes.

ROMANS: The highest since the dotcom bust. So that was a really notable number and something that, you know, the president's supporters were noting very well.

Look, usually these kinds of pandemics and epidemics have a short-term impact on the stock market, on investors, but business and companies get over it longer term. The reason why there's some concern here now is because the hyperglobalization of the last 20 or 30 years, something by the way the president wants to sort of undo, right?

That hyperglobalization has meant that China and its supply chain is so much more interconnected with the global economy and the global economy is so much more intertwined that history isn't really a good guide for how quickly companies and mom and pop businesses will get over this and be able to move forward.

SCIUTTO: But, Christine, it's not just supply chain, is it not? And China accounts for about a fifth of the world's economic activity. You look at Chinese streets empty, right? People -- 760 million people in China under residency restrictions to help control the spread of this. That means Chinese economic slowdown.

Do we know -- and China notoriously lies about its economic growth figures, but do we have any sense of how much China has slowed down in the first quarter, and then can we make any guest-mate as to how much that impacts the economy in that quarter and beyond?

ROMANS: Yes. So there are a bunch of different scenarios and right now most everybody is operating on the most mild scenario that this is all done, wrapped up by April or something, right? But if it's worse than that, for example, Morgan Stanley is saying that maybe you're going to have first quarter economic growth in China of just over 3 percent or 3.5 percent. That's a dramatic slowdown from the past few years and we've seen the upwards of almost 10 percent growth.

That will have a knock-on effect on shippers, on all different kinds of companies. I mean, I've been looking at, you know, from the cruise lines and tourism which is obvious, but even things like lobsters and wedding dresses and shoes and sporting equipment. You've got some companies in Europe that are talking about sending people with briefcases to get important parts to carry them out of the country to make sure that they can get the right parts they need for some of their important high-tech products.

So it's really kind of hard to game out how long this will take. What's really important here is how companies -- I'm sorry, how countries respond. And the president this morning sounded a little bit like the United States is this island with these closed borders.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

ROMANS: He said we've closed our borders. But that's not how the global economy works.

HARLOW: It's not. I mean, Ron, what -- help me understand the politics or whatever it is behind the sort of --

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

HARLOW: There's nothing to see here moment from the president.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I mean, as I said before, that is his world view. Right? I mean, it's a problem somewhere else. It's not our problem. But, in fact, as we're all saying, it doesn't work that way in the modern world. I mean, look, the economy is critical to his fortunes. You know, as we talked about many times on this show, the president does face more resistance from voters satisfied with the economy than any previous incumbent.

Something like 20 percent of the people who say they approve of his handling of the economy still say they disapprove of him overall. And/or still say they're going to vote for one of the leading Democrats. But as the economy improves, most people who are satisfied still do approve of the incumbent president, even if it's a smaller share than usual. So his approval rating, his overall approval rating, which is the best probably marker of his ultimate competitiveness, has been drifting up as economic satisfaction has been drifting up.

And if, in fact, that hits a bump in the road, you are back closer to where he has been for most of his presidency in the low 40s in approval. And that's just a very different re-election for any incumbent president in the low 40s from the mid to high 40s. It's a completely different scenario. So, I mean, he has a lot riding on this, but as I say, his world view is such that it is something happening there.

We can literally build -- we can literally wall ourselves off from it and again, as Christine has said, that just does not work in the modern economy or the way that people interact in the modern world.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's also not how viruses operate. This is sadly --

BROWNSTEIN: Right.

SCIUTTO: They know no borders.

Ron Brownstein, Christine Romans, thanks very much.

ROMANS: Thanks, guys.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: The president was also asked this morning point blank if he believes the intelligence community's assessment that Russia is again meddling in U.S. politics in the 2020 election. He did not answer that question.

HARLOW: He instead went after Democrats suggesting, without evidence, that right now there is an effort within the Democratic Party to make sure that Bernie Sanders is not the Democratic nominee. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Schiff leaked it in my opinion. And he shouldn't be leaking things like that. That's a terrible thing to do. But basically they would like to see -- Bernie is probably winning and it looks like he's winning and he's got a head of steam.

[09:10:07]

And they maybe don't want him for obvious reasons. So they don't want him so they put out a thing that Russia is backing him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Again, making that assessment without putting out any evidence.

Let's talk about that and a whole lot more with Congressman Denny Heck, Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee.

It's good to have you. Just I guess your response to the president's assertion about the chairman of your committee.

REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA): Four plays in his playbook, not five, not three, just four. One deny, two, attack, three, play the victim and four, change the subject by saying something outrageous. This is out of the fourth play in his playbook.

Look, his intelligence community -- his intelligence community -- has assessed that Russia is playing. Director of FBI Christopher Wray said this I think some months ago. So that seems to me to be obvious, self- evident and an established fact. The only question is what are we going to do about it? He's obviously not inclined to do anything about it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. No one disputes that Russia is meddling again in 2020. What caused the kerfuffle, if you'd call it that, last week was the read that Russia again has a preference for Trump in this election. That, of course, was the IC's assessment in 2016. There was a lot of evidence to that. For instance, you know, it was DNC e-mails that were stolen and released during the Democratic National Convention to hurt Democrats. Podesta's e-mails were stolen, released 22 minutes after the "Access Hollywood" tape.

I just want to ask you, given that you're on the committee, is there evidence that Russia's preference has changed since 2016?

HECK: Jim, I, obviously, can't either confirm nor deny anything that occurred during a classified briefing, but, obviously, as I have said for three years when asked, is Russia going to be back, I have always responded, what do you mean back? They've never left.

Look, it's really important that we all step back and understand why this is so important. Our great republic, any healthy democracy, sits atop a three-legged stool. First leg, the rule of law. Second leg, guarantee of individual freedoms. Third leg, a perception that we conduct free, fair, open elections with integrity. And if we lose the latter because somebody is trying to cheat, then basically what happens is the election outcome will not be considered legitimate.

And at the end of the day in any democracy, good government is predicated on the consent of the government. HARLOW: Congressman, I'd like to turn the attention to tonight.

There's a big debate tonight. And the frontrunner now in the Democratic Party, in your party, is Senator Bernie Sanders, a self- proclaimed Democratic socialist. You have said you want a, quote, "honest debate" for the future of our country. What do you think Democratic socialism would mean for the future of America?

HECK: So, Poppy, can I preface this by saying, I haven't endorsed anybody in this race.

HARLOW: That was the next question, Congressman.

HECK: Well, look, I -- unlike some of my colleagues, I'm not entirely sure that there are a lot of people waiting around to see who it is I'm going to vote for or whom I endorse. But I'm going to have to make my mind up pretty fast because my state votes on March 10th. So I'm giving this all due consideration.

I'll tell you what I hope for. I hope for a debate tonight that is completely unlike the last one which, frankly, I likened to a middle school food fight. I'm looking for the candidate who puts out a strong vision about where they want to take America and who appeals to our better angels, who ask us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. To move the country forward. I didn't see that the last debate. And I sure hope and pray that that's what we'll get tonight.

SCIUTTO: Question, if I can, because it relates to what you brought up just before that. Relates of course to 2020, which is, you know, without the impression of the confidence in free and fair election elections, that is enormously damaging to the country. Just ask you straight out because the president didn't address this, this morning.

What has the president done to prevent interference in the 2020 election, based on your knowledge, particularly on the committee? And what evidence is there that the president has prioritized preventing Russia and other countries from interfering again?

HECK: Well, Jim, self-evidently has he not only failed to do anything to prevent interference, he's effectively encouraged it. Excuse me. He encouraged it when he specifically and explicitly called out for Russia to interfere last cycle. He affirmed that perspective when in Helsinki he publicly said that he believed Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence community. And he's done it many times since, including by failing to sanction Russia.

I think Senator Schumer is right when he announced this week that we ought to levy sanctions on Russia because here's the deal. Until the pain is so great that Russia stands down, they will continue to do this.

[09:15:00]

This is a rigged game, Jim. The fact of the matter is that we're engaged in an unchecked and uncontrolled equivalent of an arms race in cyberspace. And we're at structural disadvantage. We're at structural disadvantage because when you engage in cyber warfare, there's inevitably collateral damage.

And our values are such that, we don't like collateral damage. They don't care. We're also at structural disadvantage because of the economics of this thing. People who can engage in the kinds of cyber expertise to enable us to compete in this place are highly competed for in the private sector. They're very cheap in the countries that are coming after us. So it enables them to punch way above their weight. So we have a structural disadvantage.

And that's why it is far past time for us to step up and lead --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

HECK: An effort globally for some kind of an international treaty to stand down on this never-ending cyber warfare.

SCIUTTO: Yes, well, sadly, here we are four years later and it's sort of friendly-fire, right, internally. Congressman Denny Heck, thanks so much. Always good to have you on.

HARLOW: Thank you, sir --

HECK: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come at this hour, a critical debate for Democrats days before the South Carolina primary. And front-runner Bernie Sanders preparing to take some major heat.

HARLOW: Also, ahead, Richard Trump; the head of the largest organization of Labor Union in the whole country will join us live. What does the AFLCIO think about the 2020 race, are they ready to get behind a candidate? And minutes away from the opening bell after an ugly day on Wall Street. The Dow plunged more than a 1,000 points on fears that the global impact of the coronavirus. What will we see today?

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[09:20:00]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back. It is debate day in South Carolina, and each candidate is taking the stage tonight with something to prove. For Bernie Sanders, that he can stand up to the heat now coming at him as the current front-runner. For Michael Bloomberg, a do-over you might call it from last week's debate debacle and a chance, his team is saying, to target Bernie Sanders.

HARLOW: The question for Joe Biden and the rest of the field, can the different demographics, very different in South Carolina than any of the three states we've seen so far, give them a foothold to keep their White House hopes alive? CNN business and politics correspondent Cristina Alesci joins us from Charleston.

You have been following the Bloomberg campaign far before it was a campaign. He needs a better performance -- a way better performance tonight than last time. He knows that, what will we see? CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN BUSINESS & POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, when it

comes to Mike Bloomberg, what I've been hearing is that he realizes that he needs to recover from that terrible debate performance. He brought in some outside advisors to his debate prep this time around. And what we could expect is a more aggressive Mike Bloomberg.

Last time, he was coached to kind of hang back and take the incoming punches, clearly, that did not work out for him. So this time around, he's going to hit Bernie Sanders really hard, and I saw a preview -- I mean, we are seeing a preview of that. I was on the phone with his state directors -- his state's director yesterday who said, you know, Bernie Sanders has a questionable track record when it comes to gun legislation.

Hit him really hard on his so-called socialist policies and how they're divisive. This morning, the Bloomberg campaign putting out research that says that Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket will hurt incumbents down-ballot. So, all of that is going into effect today. Also, Bloomberg campaign is launching a press conference at noon today with lawmakers, Democratic lawmakers, former and current mayors to really challenge Bernie Sanders' record on a number of issues.

All of this forming the runway, we're going to have to see whether Michael Bloomberg can pivot from taking the incoming to really expressing of his vision for America which is really critical tonight. He knows it, and his team knows it.

SCIUTTO: Cristina Alesci on the trail, thanks very much. Let's speak more about this with Todd Graham; he's debate director at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale. And Brittany Shepherd, she's national political reporter for Yahoo! News. Brittany, just on the bigger picture politics here, if you've got a more aggressive Michael Bloomberg, you got Bernie Sanders with a target on his back because he's a front-runner.

And you have a lot of other candidates who have to kind of prove themselves still viable heading into Super Tuesday. Should we expect just as much of a food fight as Denny Heck was saying to us about --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: The most recent debate, you know, coming up as we had just a few days ago?

BRITTANY SHEPHERD, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, YAHOO! NEWS: You know, Jim, if Nevada was a food fight, I think South Carolina will be a blood-bath. There's so much for all these candidates to prove. And especially someone like Mike Bloomberg who I would say was a ham- handed debate for him at best.

He's going to have to show that he's not only charismatic, but a fierce debater. Especially because his general election pitch is like, you know, you don't need Trump, I am someone who can go toe-to-toe with Trump. But we've seen a lot of this aggression online from his staff, you know, his chief of staff is going on CNN, trying to push oppo about Bernie Sanders.

But we haven't seen that connect go to Mike Bloomberg. And Bernie Sanders, who is known to punch back when he is punched is definitely going to be aggressive, too.

SCIUTTO: Yes --

SHEPHERD: And that aggression will, obviously, extend with Elizabeth Warren. We saw a very strong Elizabeth Warren, frankly, her supporters are saying, where has this Warren been since the beginning?

HARLOW: Yes --

SHEPHERD: And I think we will see around 2 and 2.5 of that tonight.

HARLOW: But Todd, to Brittany's important point, I wonder where Warren's fire will be aimed because she has -- she has been holding back from aiming any of it at the front-runner, and that is Bernie Sanders. Like if you think about what is her end game, and for end game is to win, which she says it is, she's going to need to take Sanders down.

TODD GRAHAM, DEBATE DIRECTOR, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY: Well, yes, I mean, everybody needs to take Sanders down if the end game is to win. But the problem that we saw in the last debate is most people confused Elizabeth Warren's very effective attacks on some other candidates, and they equated that with votes for her. And what actually happened was, she was so effective at attacking other candidates that she forgot to build up her own case strong enough for why she should be president.

[09:25:00]

And it showed in the Nevada polls. And in fact, the one person she didn't attack very well, he, Bernie Sanders, gained momentum because of that debate. Because everyone else on stage got attacked. So, I think Elizabeth Warren has a fine line to play, which is she is very good. I have in fact, before called her the honey badger because she really goes after people.

And I do like that in Elizabeth Warren, but she's got to remember to say why she should be president, not just why everyone else on stage shouldn't be.

HARLOW: Fair enough --

SCIUTTO: Well, Brittany, with humility, a lot of us sometimes get ahead of things, right? And pronounce front-runners, front-runners and then things can change, right? I mean, we're only a few votes into this race. Biden in the most recent polling still showing in the lead, though a small -- much smaller lead than he had over Sanders --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: You know, a number of weeks ago, but still in the lead. If Biden wins South Carolina, that does prove to be something of a firewall, as his team has described it before. Does that change the outlook of the race?

SHEPHERD: I mean, it's possible. I think the question is -- and I found in my reporting talking to folks on the ground here in Charleston and Columbia is, will Biden win? Probably, but by what margin? And I think that margin will be very determinative of --

HARLOW: Yes --

SHEPHERD: How Biden will campaign going forward. I don't think we're going to see that 30-point landslide, and of course --

SCIUTTO: Sure --

SHEPHERD: It's all speculative just -- but when you speak to black voters, the generational divide is so stark here, especially for voters under 35. For voters of color, they very firmly prefer Bernie Sanders. And if they turn out on Saturday, even if Joe Biden wins, he won't be able to say that it was a decisive --

HARLOW: Yes --

SHEPHERD: Coalition-building victory that they've been running from since, honestly a year ago. So, yes, I think it will change, and also we might forget that Tuesday is Super Tuesday which could knock this entire race on its back when it comes to delegate counts. So, as important as Saturday is, especially because black people are finally voting in big numbers, I think the race is still TBD depending on what happens on Tuesday.

HARLOW: I'm so glad you brought up that generational divide among African-American voters because it is stark when you look at the polling in South Carolina, and nationally, Todd, and you know, it just does not appear from the polling that Sanders is going to have any kind of performance like he did last time in South Carolina.

I mean, Hillary Clinton bested him by more than 40 points. And that's not going to happen this time around. And his ability to be gaining momentum with -- especially with younger black voters. What does that say for the whole map going forward when you look at a lot of the Super Tuesday states?

GRAHAM: Well, I think that helps Sanders. I think the only way that Bernie Sanders has a poor debate is if there's a coordinated attack on him. Because as we've seen in the past, a little attack here or there, Bernie Sanders can handle that. So everyone has to be on the same page to make sure, to get Sanders on his second, third, fourth line on one issue.

Because if they just move from issue-to-issue, he'll be fine. My prediction for the debate is this. Two people will actually be pretty bad in this debate. I think Joe Biden is going to have trouble, and I think Michael Bloomberg is going to have trouble. Joe Biden will have trouble because now, he's got this energetic anger where he seems to be misplacing his anger and yelling at a lot at people. I think because of the pressure on him, he's going to yell at Sanders.

He's going to yell at Bloomberg. And I think there's a possibility that this actually hurts him in South Carolina --

HARLOW: Interesting --

GRAHAM: If he doesn't remember, people like him. People want to vote for him. That's why people like Joe Biden. So, that's I think one of the things he has to remember.

SCIUTTO: Brittany, before we go, just quickly, who else in your view has the most to prove tonight?

SHEPHERD: I think someone like Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a lot to prove. We've been talking about for a long time how poorly he does with black voters. We have seen that number go up a little bit, but 10 percent is not 30 percent or 20 percent --

HARLOW: Yes --

SHEPHERD: And it's really hard for me to see a path forward for Pete if he can't get black voters nationally and especially in South Carolina.

SCIUTTO: Got it, well --

HARLOW: Big night, right?

SCIUTTO: Lots to watch.

HARLOW: Big night, not a lot of sleep for us. Well, we'll be watching. Todd Graham, Brittany Shepherd, thank you both. Join us tomorrow for night two of CNN's special series of town halls, again, live in South Carolina. Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren will all join us, starts at 7:00 Eastern only right here on CNN.

SCIUTTO: And something we're following closely, we're just moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. The Dow is set to rise, but just about a tenth of the amount it dropped yesterday, remember, a 1,000 points down --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Coronavirus fears about the global economy. Yesterday's drop was the third worst closing in history. Today, markets in Asia were mixed, in Europe, stocks there have been losing ground. We're going to be live at the New York Stock Exchange next.

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