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Seven Democrats To Face Off In South Carolina Debate Tonight; Trump Downplays Virus Threat, Infected People Getting Better. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2020 - 10:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: All right. Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


We have all the makings of a major clash between the Democratic candidates at tonight's debate, Bernie Sanders likely to be targeted from all sides facing questions about his past as he settles into frontrunner status. Michael Bloomberg promising a more aggressive response this time to attacks against him last time around, reportedly planning in particular to target Sanders.

HARLOW: Meanwhile, Joe Biden and the rest of the field are counting big time on South Carolina to give their campaigns a major boost before Super Tuesday.

Let's begin this hour with CNN Business and Politics Correspondent Cristina Alesci. She joins us in Charleston. And Daniel Strauss, Senior Political Reporter for The Guardian, is with us as well. Good to have you.

Cristina, I mean, it is sort of everything tonight for Michael Bloomberg. What are we going to see?

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN BUSINESS AND POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And we're going to see heavy fire that Bernie Sanders is going to take from all of his opponents, including Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders is just kind of giving them, handing them this opening by, again, repeating a partial defense of Fidel Castro last night at CNN's town hall, saying that not everything that the dictator has done is bad, praising the literacy program in Cuba.

Listen, listen to the sound from that town hall.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When Fidel Castro first came to power, which was, when, '59?


SANDERS: Okay. You know what he did? He initiated a literacy program. There's a lot of folks in Cuba at that point who were illiterate. And he formed the literacy brigade, you may read that. They went out and they helped people to learn to read and write.

You know what, I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing. The truth is the truth. And that's what happened on the first years of the Castro regime.


ALESCI: Look, Pete Buttigieg shot back in his town hall last night saying, literacy is a good thing, but why are we spotlighting the literacy program of a brutal dictator? So we're going to hear more of that tonight.

Also, Sanders brushing aside criticism from his own party. I mean, there are Florida Democrats that are completely apoplectic over these these comments about Fidel Castro. So we could expect Bernie Sanders to see more probably defense of that and how he'll handle it.

SCIUTTO: Daniel Strauss, of course, a lot of focus on Bloomberg, he's got something to prove tonight on Sanders, he is a frontrunner, he's got frontrunner status with all the benefits and all the negatives of that as well. Tell us about the other candidates, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, what they need to do to call this a success tonight.

DANIEL STRAUSS, SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: I mean, it depends on the candidate, but this is a make or break night for the two senators and Buttigieg. For both Warren and Klobuchar, they need fast injections of cash and they need a sense of momentum within this primary. South Carolina is a tough state for both of them. And same can be said for Buttigieg. Although Buttigieg has known for a while that South Carolina would be particularly difficult. It's a state with a large African-American population, which is a group that Buttigieg has struggled with for most of this primary contest. And there hasn't been much of a change there.

HARLOW: Daniel, let's not forget what's coming tomorrow morning or night after the debate, and that is an endorsement from James Clyburn, the House majority whip, not only influential in his State of South Carolina but influential across the country.

STRAUSS: Right. And this is -- sorry.

HARLOW: Go for it.

STRAUSS: This is one of the most coveted endorsements in the Democratic primary process. He is very close to former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden in particular needs that support. Biden needs to do very, very well in South Carolina, otherwise his prospects are very, very poor going forward in this race.

SCIUTTO: Cristina, is it gloves off for Michael Bloomberg? We know he's been holdup with his team knowing that they didn't quite hit pay dirt (ph) the last time around. I mean, is that the focus, is that the strategy?

ALESCI: Well, that's putting mildly, Jim, very charitable of you. But Michael Bloomberg is well aware, I'm hearing from sources, that he really has to perform tonight and recover from that terrible debate performance. What I'm hearing that the team brought in some outside voices that really coached Michael Bloomberg to be a little bit more aggressive this time around and pivot when he gets attacked, to express his vision and his policies for the country.


But what we are seeing this morning is a full scale attack on Bernie Sanders. The campaign announced a press conference with a lawmaker, current and former mayors, to really challenge Bernie Sanders' record on a number of Democratic issues. And we're seeing also the campaign issue, some research that shows that a Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket could hurt Democratic incumbents.

These are all talking points that Michael Bloomberg has been briefed and prepared on. We're going to see how he rolls them out tonight. Jim, Poppy?

HARLOW: Cristina, thanks, great reporting. Daniel, good to have you as well.

We're joined by South Carolina State Senator Krystle Matthews. She is endorsing Bernie Sanders. It's very nice to have you. Thanks for coming on the show.

STATE SEN. KRYSTLE MATTHEWS (D-SC): Hi, thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

HARLOW: So you just heard Senator Sanders double down last night, defending part of Fidel Castro's regime and time in Cuba. And let me just read you again what he said last night to Chris Cuomo in our town hall. I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing. The truth is that's what happened in the first years of Castro regime. But the truth is also that in the first years of the Castro regime, he sent his rivals to be executed or held in labor camps, and those literacy programs also helped people to read his propaganda. So do you wish that Bernie Sanders would be saying a little bit more of that?

MATTHEWS: No. I think that what we need to focus on is where we're going as a country. I think we are failing our people. When we get caught in this paradigm of fighting between candidates, one of the things that I did here --

HARLOW: No. But I just would like -- but it's really important how he views Fidel Castro and it's particularly important, you see up in arms, Democratic lawmakers in South Florida are right now over this. I wonder he keeps talking about Fidel Castro and partially defending him and I wonder if you wish he would be talking about some of the other aspects of him more.

MATTHEWS: I don't wish that he would be talking about Fidel Castro at all. I think we have enough important issues over here to deal with than to be referencing somebody that we as a country do not support.

SCIUTTO: It gets to a bigger question picture here, does it not, Krystle, though that part of his identity is that he is not a run of the mill Democrat, he calls himself a Democratic socialist. And he has a history of traveling to these countries and dealing with folks who espouse frankly a fundamentally different system that has been the mainstream here before. And I wonder if by doing things like this, one calling himself a Democratic socialist, but praising, really, a socialist dictator in Cuba here, who, yes, has a literacy problem, but as Poppy said, also throws people into prison. I mean, how is he appealing to the American people by going down that path?

MATTHEWS: I don't know that I would categorize that as him praising him as it has been stated before. It's funny that everybody is now up in arms about this when the same thing has been said in previous administrations. And all of a sudden now that he is the frontrunner and he's saying it, you know, I get it. I do. I'm with you. It is problematic that we would categorize him in that way.

However, we have more important things to deal with from a Democratic standpoint when we're talking about going into an election where there are so many voters still undecided on who they're going to choose as the nominee. And even until last night, I was in a crowd with hundreds of people and the one thing that we all agree on is that, okay, we get it, everybody is fighting to try and get camera time, to try and get press and media, we need to know fundamentally what are you going to do to move this country ahead.

How are you going to help the working class people who have carried this country on their backs for years and years and years? That is what we want to know. The fighting won't get us where we're going.

HARLOW: If he does continue with these answers on Fidel Castro, that could cost him Florida. And then, as you know, he has proposed a complete ban on fracking, which could hurt him in Pennsylvania. Are you worried about what a path to 270 would look like if that plays out in both those states?

MATTHEWS: I'm not worried about that at this point. I think that we will address those issues as we come to them. I think that he is fully aware of the concerns and I believe that he is going to address them tonight on the debate stage.

SCIUTTO: Okay. We'll be looking to that.

Another issue that he did not address clearly in an interview with our colleague earlier this weekend, Anderson Cooper, was the exact cost of his Medicare-for-all plan. I mean, it's late in the race. We're nine months to folks going to polls, less than nine going to polls. Why isn't there a straight answer to that question?

MATTHEWS: I can't answer to why he didn't answer that with a straight answer. I can tell you for myself why I am not concerned about that.

[10:10:00] It's funny that when it comes to the things that the poor and disenfranchised need, we're all of a sudden concerned about money. We're not concerned about --

SCIUTTO: How can we not be concerned about money? It's how we -- if it's a real thing, we've got to be able to pay for it.

MATTHEWS: Well, who knew we had $2 trillion to go to war?

SCIUTTO: Fair point, but I'm asking --

MATTHEWS: Well, where do we get $2 trillion for? Where do you get it from?

SCIUTTO: We're borrowing a lot of money. And that fact is to meet the vision that Bernie Sanders is talking about here, it's not clear where that money is coming from. I'm concerned, as a supporter of him, why aren't you concerned that there is any more specific answer?

MATTHEWS: I get it, right. Let's just be honest though. There is money for whatever people want to spend money on, whether it's the Republican administration or the Democratic. I think when we talk about money, fundamentally, we get wrapped around the axle. But, honestly, if we knew where the money (INAUDIBLE) right now, we would say we didn't have money for that either, right? And it is going to come from someone.

HARLOW: You have a great point that it doesn't seem like Democrats or Republicans care about debt or deficits at all anymore. But I think our kids are going to pay for it so we should all care about it. Come back. We're glad you joined us. Thank you, Krystle.

MATTHEWS: Thank you. Have a good day.

SCIUTTO: Well, President Trump publicly downplaying fears of coronavirus, spreading even as we have learned that he is privately venting his frustration over his administration's response so far. All U.S. senators were just briefed on the outbreak. They say the U.S. should be prepared for a widening spread of the virus.

HARLOW: Also this morning, the president is now calling on Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse themselves from any cases related to the administration. I wouldn't hold your breath for that one.

We're also following the latest on Wall Street. The Dow is up this morning modestly following a horrible day yesterday, worst day in two years on coronavirus fears. We're on top of the markets.



SCIUTTO: As the number of coronavirus cases grows around the world, President Trump is downplaying its effect on the U.S.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: You may ask about the coronavirus, which is, you know, 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.


SCIUTTO: Members of the Senate, all 100, were briefed just an hour ago on the virus. And one of the people present for that, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, also happens to be doctor and has a thing or two about this. Senator, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): Thank you, Jim. Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: So you heard the president there downplaying it, says it's very much under control. We heard Senator Johnson, one of your colleagues, come out of the briefing, saying to expect -- Americans should expect more cases here in the U.S., his words, we will have more here in America. Who is right about the direction of this virus and as it affects the U.S.?

BARRASSO: Well, I think they are both right. The president is right and the travel restrictions have been put in place have actually lowered the amount of cases that we have here. But with it all around the world, there is concern that there will be inevitably more cases in the United States in the near future. We are the most prepared nation in the world to deal with it. But when there is a new virus like this, coming up with any kind of a vaccine that will work, after it is tested, proven and then made so there is enough for everyone takes at minimum of a year, and more likely a year-and-a-half to two years.

SCIUTTO: Right. The White House has asked Congress for 1.5 -- $1.25 billion in emergency funding. We were doing some math here. And just in the last two requests, the president has asked nearly seven times that, he's actually diverted money from defense for building the wall, seven times the money for building the wall as for fighting this, what may become a pandemic. Is that a sufficient amount of money to do what's necessary to keep Americans safe from this?

BARRASSO: Well, at the briefing, the specific dollars came up, and it's not enough. It's enough for the first tranche right now to deal with it. We asked the last briefing about ten days ago, did these folks, the Centers for Disease Control, the NIH have what they needed at the time? They said they did. Now, with this supplemental, this is a starting point. We realize we're going to have a number of additional, as you said, bites of the apple to go to do additional funding. And I expect there's going to be more funding needed.

The initial amount was to bring people back from overseas. We need more for testing, for treatment, for vaccine development. All of these things are important and readiness at the local level. SCIUTTO: Just a short time ago, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, commented on Russian interference in this election and said at the State Department podium that he delivered a warning to his Russian counterpart. I want to have you listen to that and I want to get your reaction.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Meddling in our elections is unacceptable. The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections, period, full stop. Should Russia or any foreign actor take steps to undermine our Democratic processes, we will take action in response.


SCIUTTO: You're well aware of the president's reluctance to call out Russia for this interference and, of course, he famously, in Helsinki, accepted Vladimir Putin's denial that Russia interfered.


Why can't the president say definitively those words we heard from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to say, Russia, don't do it and I'm going to stand in your way?

BARRASSO: Well, the president speaks for himself. I would agree with Mike Pompeo. The election security is always a top priority and enduring challenge. The bipartisan Intel Committee said that, basically, we were caught flat footed in 2016. We did a lot of hardening in 2018 with lots of money to all of the states, and we did not see this level in 2018 and we are prepared in 2020. We've had secure briefings on that. I am confident that this election will be done in a secure way.

SCIUTTO: Okay. So the president speaks for himself. But Americans count on their president to be commander in chief, to defend the country. What confidence should they have that the president is doing what's necessary, providing the leadership that is necessary and resources to keep this coming election safe?

BARRASSO: Well, the resources have been provided. We heard that from the Department of Homeland Security, we heard it from the FBI, we heard it from --

SCIUTTO: What about from the president?

BARRASSO: He has provided the resources, Jim, as needed. And this has been signed into law as part of the appropriations process, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars have been sent around the country for election security.

SCIUTTO: Let's talk about then his appointments. The director of National Intelligence is the most senior intelligence official in the country. It was established by law in 2004, which demands that any individual nominated for appointment as director of National Intelligence shall have extensive national security expertise.

And, of course, one thing that DNI will have to do, as they did in 2016, is monitor foreign interference in elections, among other things, terrorism, Russia, China, you name it. Does Rick Grenell, the president's choice for that position, who is still to be serving as ambassador to Germany, does he have the necessary experience for that post?

BARRASSO: The president gets to choose who he wants, but this position is one that actually requires Senate confirmation. And my understanding is Ambassador Grenell is a temporary appointment and not necessarily one the president is going to nominate. I'd like to see the permanent nominee made quickly and brought to the Senate for confirmation.

I was with Ambassador Grenell in Munich a week-and-a-half ago at the International Security Conference, and I think he's representing our country well there.

SCIUTTO: On this issue for this particular role, and keep in mind the long experience that all previous DNIs have had in intelligence. Look at these folks here. They served as senators on Intel Committees, served for 25 years in the CIA, Jim Clapper was the head of two intelligence agencies before becoming the DNI. Would you, if the president chose Grenell as his permanent choice, would you vote for or against it?

BARRASSO: Well, I'd want to see how he responded during the hearings. I thought that Dan Coats was a superior choice for that position. I worked closely with him in the Senate. I think I voted in support of the ambassador to be ambassador to Germany. This is a different position and I'd want to participate fully in the hearings.

SCIUTTO: Senator Barroso, a pleasure to have you on the program.

BARRASSO: Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: All right. So the Intelligence Community has made it very clear Russia is trying to meddle once again in the 2020 elections. So what should we make of the president's refusal to answer direct question about that this morning?



SCIUTTO: Right now, U.S. intelligence officials agree, Russia is attempting to meddle in the 2020 presidential election again. When asked this morning if he believes the Intelligence Community's assessment, the president declined to answer, but he did say this.


TRUMP: Okay. First of all, I want no help from any country. And I haven't been given help from any country.


HARLOW: Joining us now is Rachael Bade, Congressional Reporter for The Washington Post. Margaret Talev joins us, Politics and White House Editor for Axios.

Rachael, what did you make of -- I mean, it was not an answer to the question. It was a statement, but it was not an answer to the question, why continue to deny facts here from his own Intel Community?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, look, since the president's election in 2016, the whole Russian interference in 2016 has been really a problem for him in terms of his ego and his self- esteem. This is something that he has long tried to sort of downplay because he thinks it sort of undercuts his own victory.

And so we have seen this for years, and it's continuing in 2020, and this is despite not just intelligence officials saying Russia is trying to interfere in the coming election, but also his own party. Keep in mind that there is a GOP-led committee in the Senate right now that is actually doing a report that is going to come out probably in the coming months about Russia election interference in 2020 and pointing toward -- I'm sorry, in 2016, pointing toward 2020.

So it's not just the Intelligence Community that he's going up against right now, it's also of his own party and a lot of this goes back to, again, his unwillingness to sort of say, he got any sort of help from Russia because he thinks it hurts his victory.

SCIUTTO: So, Margaret, help us answer this question. What is the president doing about election interference?


Okay. I just spoke with John Barrasso, a Republican, he says, well, the president is providing the necessary resources. But the fact is, one, I mean.