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CNN TONIGHT

President Trump Ousted Michael Atkinson in the Midst of a Pandemic; COVID Cases Keeps Rising; No Stay-at-Home Order Yet in Eight States; Healthcare Workers Voice Out Their Agonies; U.S. Economy Lost 701,000 Jobs in March, Worst Still to Come; Pro-Trump Media Downplays Severity of Coronavirus; Special Thanks to Our Heroes During the Coronavirus Pandemic; Don Lemon Remembers Singer-Songwriter Bill Withers. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired April 3, 2020 - 23:00   ET

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


[23:00:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon.

11:00 p.m. on the East Coast, and here the latest on the coronavirus pandemic. Tonight, the number of cases worldwide is nearing 1.1 million. The global death toll just under 60,000.

Here at home the pandemic is worsening by the hour. Johns Hopkins University now reporting more than 277,000 confirmed cases in the United States. And more than 7,000 deaths in this country. More than 1,400 deaths reported just today.

Tonight, nearly 96 percent of the U.S. population is living under orders to stay at home or shelter in place. That works out to nearly 315 million Americans out of a population of 328 million. But eight states are still resisting imposing stay-at-home orders, despite Dr. Anthony Fauci advising that all states should do so.

President Trump is refusing tonight to issue a national stay-at-home order, saying he'll leave it up to the individual governors.

And we had this bit of breaking news late on a Friday night. Under cover of a coronavirus, the president settling scores with a perceived enemy from his impeachment.

A source on Capitol Hill telling CNN moments ago that the president has removed intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson, the official who told Congress about the anonymous whistleblower complaint that sparked the House impeachment proceedings against Trump.

I want to get right to CNN White House correspondent John Harwood and CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez. Good evening to both of you. Evan, this is a big deal. What do you know?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It is a big deal, Don. Look, we've been waiting for this exact moment, and it appears that the president took obviously the fact that the country is preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis to finally get rid of Michael Atkinson, who is the inspector general for the intelligence committee.

He is the one who sort of kick started all of the controversy over the Ukraine -- the president's leaning on the Ukrainian government to announce that investigation that Joe Biden, his political rival.

If you remember the inspector general was the one who received the whistleblower complaint and kicked it over and said he had to notify the lawmakers in Congress about it. And of course, that led to the president's impeachment.

We know that the members of congress, the heads of the two intelligence committees in Congress were notified tonight that the president was firing Atkinson. And so, Atkinson was informed tonight that he is essentially being put, Don, on a 30-day administrative leave. So, he is essentially out of the job. He's still essentially working for the government for another 30 days, but he is fired. The president has decided that it is time for him to go.

LEMON: Evan, I want to read part of the president's letter here. And it reads, it says, "the inspectors general have a critical role in the achieve -- in the achievement of these goals, as the case -- as is the case with regard to the other positions where I, as president, have the power of appointment by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general. That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general."

So, if that is the rationale, it is rather thin.

PEREZ: Right. Look, the president and people at the Justice Department who reviewed the whistleblower complaint did not think that it deserved to be notified the Congress. They didn't believe that the inspector general that the officer, the director of national intelligence needed to even tell the intelligence committees about this whistleblower complaint.

Instead, the intelligence community inspector general, he decided that he did. And so, that's one of the reasons why certainly the president, people around him were very, very unhappy with Mr. Atkinson and believe that essentially, he had started a controversy that they believe should never have gotten there, Don.

So, you can see why Atkinson's days frankly were numbered from the time this inspector general decided that he needed to tell Congress about this whistleblower complaint.

LEMON: Yes.

[23:04:58]

PEREZ: You can see that the president is saying in his letter to the intelligence committees tonight that he has lost confidence in this inspector general. And of course, Don, you know, the president, he has this power. He can

tell the lawmakers that he has a right to get rid of these people because they serve at his discretion. So that is what he has done tonight.

LEMON: So, John, let me bring you in here. So, this is what the president is doing late on a Friday night in the middle of a deadly pandemic, a historic pandemic?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Look, Don, he set out on this course before the pandemic flowered into a huge story. He started firing people who had called out his behavior. Alexander Vindman in the White House is one of those conspicuous examples, immediately after the impeachment process was over.

He doesn't like people who call him to account within his administration any more than he likes reporters asking him difficult questions. And I should note that there is no indication that Michael Atkinson did anything wrong by reporting this information to Congress.

Republican senators in the impeachment process agreed that there was a quid pro quo that was imposed by the president on Ukraine. He later backed off of it, of course. He just said it wasn't worth impeaching him for.

So, the president is trying to purge the administration of people he thinks are disloyal to him. And this is not unrelated to the laggard response the administration has had on coronavirus.

If your priority as the chief executive, and the head of the executive branch is to have people in jobs not because they're qualified to do the jobs, but because they're loyal to you, you're not going to get the highest quality people.

We noted by the way, that the admiral in charge of the navy ship who called out the plight of his crewmen was removed by the president's navy secretary from his command. And so, this is a pattern with the president.

And you saw it when Jared Kushner came into the White House briefing room yesterday. The president's son-in-law is taking a lead role in pandemic response. And that simply illustrates the problem that we're talking about. Not the best people, but the people who the president thinks are loyal to him.

LEMON: Well, you got to wonder if -- I said that under the cover of coronavirus. But I'm wondering if maybe it's to sort of change the news from the coronavirus to this. I mean, which came first, John, the chicken or the egg?

HARWOOD: Look, he would have done this anyway, as Evan said. We were waiting for this to happen. But he is suffering an avalanche of catastrophic news at the moment to the extent that he is embarrassed by this, yes, he is burying it.

But in the current news environment, you can't bury stuff very effectively. The news is 24/7. And whether you do it on Friday night or do it Monday morning at nine o'clock, it's going get pushed back from Democrats. It's going to get attention from the press.

But the president is not concerned about that. He is focused on somebody who has made him look bad, put him in a bad position. He's going to strike out.

LEMON: Thank you, both. I appreciate it. I want to bring in now James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence. He joins us now by phone. Director, thank you so much.

First, I want to discuss the timing. Why is the president doing this late on a Friday night? Does the timing tell you anything, or do you agree with John, he is going to do it anyways?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think John is right. He is going to do it anyway. But of course, I guess figuring Friday night is the best time typically for revelation of bad news, but particularly so in the midst of a pandemic crisis.

It looks to me like he's got his list of people he wants to remove or punish, who had some role at what led to the impeachment. And clearly Mr. Atkinson as the I.G. was a catalyst for this with his handling of the whistleblower complaint which for my part I thought was entirely proper.

LEMON: Yes. Let's be clear about this. He was doing his job. But what does this mean for the country, especially at a time of global instability and crisis?

CLAPPER: Well, what it means to me, Don, is this is bad message to the intelligence community if you care about his independence and objectivity and telling truth to power. So, this is another chilling message that you better cue the line here, and don't cross it.

And I think the implicit message, which is even more serious is this could certainly I think affect or may affect the objectivity of the reporting that the intelligence community is doing.

[23:10:01]

And that to me is what is very bothersome about all of this. You take this in the total context of the firing of acting director Joe Maguire and the emplacement of Ambassador Grenell as the acting DNI and the nomination of Ratcliffe, of John Ratcliffe, all of which I think the bottom line message here is loyalty is more important than professional confidence.

LEMON: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, thank you, sir. I appreciate your time.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: I want to turn now to the news from tonight's coronavirus briefing. The CDC urging Americans to wear a makeshift shift face masks out in public. I want to bring in now the resident -- our resident fact checker

Daniel Dale. Daniel, thank you so much for joining. The CDC now recommending Americans wear these masks, these coverings, face covers. Here is what Trump said about the new guidelines, even though he doesn't plan to wear one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEROME ADAMS, SURGEON GENERAL: Here's how you can make your own face covering in a few --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: From recent studies, we know that the transmission from individuals without symptoms is playing a more significant role in the spread of the virus than previously understood. So, you don't seem to have symptoms. And it still gets transferred.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: But haven't health officials been warning of asymptomatic spread for months, Daniel?

DANIEL DALE, CNN REPORTER: They have been warning to an increasing extent. I think to interpret this Trump comment generously, there is more evidence today than there was, say, two months ago. But way back in January, at the end of January, Dr. Anthony Fauci said he was convinced that asymptomatic transmission was occurring.

In February, the director of the CDC said it was possible and concerning. And by mid-March, we had a story on cnn.com by our medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen. In front of me a headline, people with infected symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realize. So, this is not breaking news in the last, you know, few days. We've known for at least some time now.

LEMON: The president also claimed tonight that he never gave a date for when this virus would go away. What's the truth?

DALE: So, Trump said over and over that he thought this virus would vanish from the United States in April. Listen to some of the things he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Looks like by April, you know in theory when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. Hope that's true.

You know in April, supposedly it dies with the hotter weather. And that's a beautiful date to look forward to.

I think it's going to work out fine. I think when we get into April and the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that, and that type of a virus. So, let's see what happens. But I think it's going to work out fine.

(END VIDEO CLIP) DALE: So, he didn't mention a specific date in April, but he kept saying April. And it's also misleading at best for him to suggest today as he did that his claims in February that it would just go away have somehow been proven accurate.

He said, I said it was going away and it is going away. Well, he didn't mention back in February that thousands of Americans would die and the economy would be more or less be shut down before it allegedly went away.

LEMON: Daniel, the president keeps saying no one could have predicted something like this would happen. But we're learning his own administration had concerns.

DALE: Yes. So, Don, you and I have been talking repeatedly about how there were repeat warns from the U.S. intelligence community from outside public health experts. But reporting from our K-File team shows that Trump's own senior officials were warning about this last year.

Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and then senior national security adviser -- council official Tim Morrison were at a conference in April 2019, and they both said that possible pandemic was chief among their worries. And they suggested it was something that keeps them awake at night.

Morrison said it's something that, you know, we're not -- might not be preparing for to a sufficient extent, but we need to think about. So not only were the warnings coming from outside, they were coming from quite close to the president.

LEMON: Daniel Dale, thank you very much.

Next, on the frontlines inside a New York hospital, more than 6,500 new coronavirus cases reported in the city in just the past day. I'm going talk to a doctor and a nurse working, risking their own lives to save their patients.

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LEMON: So, take a look at your screen right now. Live pictures of the Empire State Building. That red light symbolizing a heartbeat to pay tribute to all those infected with coronavirus. New York City has become ground zero for the outbreak in this country. Residents reporting almost constant sirens.

In just the last day, more than 6,500 new cases were reported, along with over 300 deaths. Just the past day.

So, joining me now, two New York heroes, Dr. Laura Ucik, and also Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez. She is an E.R. nurse and the president of the New York State Nurses association.

I'm so grateful to have both of you on this evening. Let me just thank you right off for what you're doing. And don't tell me that you're not heroes, because you indeed are.

Dr. Ucik, I'm going to start with you, because these numbers are shocking. You're working on the frontlines in New York, in New York City right now. Can you please take us inside? What is it like at your hospital?

LAURA UCIK, NEW YORK PHYSICIAN: Well, Don, first of all, thank you so much for having us. And I just really want to be clear that I'm here representing the voices and the experience of resident physicians throughout my hospital system and across New York.

Working right now is unlike anything I've ever imagined. Things are totally chaotic. Patients are sicker and dying at higher rates than I've ever seen before, and we're running out of basic supplies.

We've been talking a lot about the lack of protective equipment, but actually what a lot of people don't know is we're running out of everything.

[23:19:55]

The last shift that I worked I was told that there are 15 oxygen masks left in the entire hospital where we have over 500 patients with coronavirus, many of whom are dying because they simply can't breathe.

We are also low on pain medicines, which are necessary to keep people when they are uncomfortable on a breathing machine. And without those pain medicines, they'll sometimes pull out their own breathing tube. So, things are pretty drastic right now.

LEMON: I just want to get -- Judy, stand by. I just want to look at an e-mail, something that you said that corresponds with some of our reporting here. When you said some of the patients -- here it is.

It says, an intensive care unit nurse at a large New York hospital spoke with CNN's Athena Jones about the current condition of patients, how the coronavirus is affecting their bodies. And basically, they are saying the patients they are seeing there this week appear sicker compared to last week.

And you just said the same thing. What is -- what is -- what's going on? I mean, Judy, are you seeing the same thing as well?

JUDY SHERIDAN-GONZALEZ, NEW YORK NURSE: Yes. The level of illness has really increased. The number of patients has increased. Yesterday -- last night alone, we admitted 200 additional patients. We have about 1,500 corona positive patients in our system. We have over -- we have 1,300 people out on furlough. We have about 600 positive COVIDs and many sick workers, many of them nurses.

We have lost some nurses. They've succumbed to the virus, and we have quite a few already in the ICU. We're terribly at risk because of the intensity of the virus, the virulence of the virus. It's attacking our own systems. And that's the big reason that we need the PPE, particularly the hazmat suits that protect us. Because not only --

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: You've said you've -- I hate to cut you off, but just --

SHERIDAN-GONZALEZ: Yes.

LEMON: -- I'm going to let you finish. You've lost some nurses, meaning they are sick or they have passed away?

SHERIDAN-GONZALEZ: They have passed away.

LEMON: Boy. You've been experiencing coronavirus symptoms yourself. How are you feeling?

SHERIDAN-GONZALEZ: I'm OK now. I just want to see if I have antibodies. My test was negative. There is a lot of false negatives. But we're hoping to get the antibodies test to see if we have some kind of resistance. I think that would be helpful.

It doesn't necessarily protect us completely, but it seems to perhaps give us a little bit of immunity, because our colleagues are exhausted. You know, we started off being concerned. The concern turned to worry. The worry turned to fear and then to abject terror. And now we're just almost numb. Many of us are ill. We're still trying to work. But the need for protective equipment is essential.

We've done studies. We looked at what happened in Wuhan. Initially in Wuhan and Italy, they did not have the protective equipment, and they lost many health care workers, even young and healthy ones.

In the second phase in Wuhan, they had those kind of hazmat suits that you've seen, those full body gear, and they had zero transmission and much better outcomes for the patients.

The other thing that concerns us is the patients are so ill and we just don't have enough people to take care of them that we're having to triage who we're able to care for at a given time. And the outcomes are worse when you're in that situation.

LEMON: Why do you continue to go put your own life in danger? I know you're speaking on behalf of nurses throughout the New York area.

SHERIDAN-GONZALEZ: Correct. Yes. We go in. Nurses do what they do because that's what we have to do. This -- we're like the Normandy of this viral invasion. We are on the front lines. We have had casualties. We hope we'll win.

Dr. Ucik, you are 28 years old. You're writing your last will and testament. How concerned are you about your health?

UCIK: I'm absolutely terrified. We had people in their 20s die in our hospital this past week. And I realized when that happened that I also might not survive this pandemic. And it's really been a reckoning for me.

I wrote out my wishes. I spoke with my family. I've cried a lot this week. But, you know, this pandemic is something that is affecting everyone, and nobody is really safe from coronavirus.

I think about what it would be like to be in a prison right now or in a nursing home. I heard that we are still detaining people and that ICE is stockpiling medical supplies. We're literally putting more people into immigration detention right now which is an enormous risk, because if a virus spreads in a confined space like that, like a jail or public housing, it will spread to the surrounding community.

So, this is really been a wake-up call for me personally, and hopefully for all of us as a nation that, you know, our health as a community, as a country is only as good as the health of our most vulnerable communities.

[23:25:03]

LEMON: You know, doctor, a lot of people are getting restless under these social distancing guidelines and these stay-at-home orders. What is your message to people who say that I don't know anyone with this virus? My community will never be anything like a New York. I don't think we need this stay at home guidelines. What do you say to them?

UCIK: You know, I felt that way too a few weeks ago. When I had friends over, and I realize now how serious this is, both on a personal level. I had patients who I saw in the office, you know, a week and a half ago and they were fine, and now they're dead.

And the major financial impact. For many of my patients and my community at large. One of my coworkers who is a doctor recently had to PayPal a patient rent money so that the patient could stay home and not risk her life by going to work.

So, my patients, they're losing their lives. They're losing their jobs. They're losing their homes, and they need basic supports right now like eviction, rent support, income protections. Those things are just as important as the kinds of protections that Judy and I are asking for like masks and gowns, because this is something that we're all in together. And it's so much more than political. And it's hard to imagine when you're not there yet, but it will come, and it will affect all of us.

LEMON: Well, both of you, you're the reason the people who -- one of the main reasons that I sit here and do this and that I am so hard on the people who are in charge, because they should be protecting you.

You're on the front lines. You're risking your lives. You're trying to save people. And they're feet should be held to the fire, and they should be protecting you. You guys should not have to be risking your lives to do this. You should not have to be paying people's rents. We should not be losing nurses.

So, I thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, and I'm sure I speak for millions and millions of Americans around this country. Thank you, thank you, thank you, and please, please, please take care of yourselves. And if you need anything, you know how to get us. Judy, I know you want the say something. Go. SHERIDAN-GONZALEZ: I do. You figured that out. I'm really glad you

said that, because there is a potential solution here. If the president would truly invoke and implement the Defense Production Act and commandeer all the factories and all the industries that could make ventilators, that could make the protective equipment that we need, this should have been done two months ago.

We understand that they sold -- these companies sold millions of dollars of equipment abroad for a big profit. We don't think there should be a price gouging or a price war or Colorado has to fight with New York for equipment.

We think the government should commandeer all of these industries just like they did in World War II and get us the things we need, get our families the things that they need, get our patients the things that they need, and protect the healthcare workers in the frontline so that we can save lives instead of lose our own.

LEMON: And again, very simply, thank you.

UCIK: Yes. I can't agree more.

LEMON: We'll be right back.

[23:30:00]

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LEMON: The U.S. economy is hemorrhaging jobs as coronavirus slams the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy lost 701,000 jobs in March. The unemployment rate is shooting up to 4.4 percent. It is the worst month for American jobs since 2009 in the depths of the great recession. And experts say the worst is still to come.

Joining me now is CNN business anchor Richard Quest. Richard, hello. Good evening. Today's report was very, very bad and this is just a sign of things to come.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN BUSINESS ANCHOR: Absolutely. Unfortunately, Don, the report that you're looking at deals with primarily the first, say, two to three weeks of March. It doesn't take account of all the serious job losses that will have happened at the back end of the month as more shutdowns and lockdowns continue across the United States.

Every economic report I read today from Goldman, from Bank of America, from J.P. Morgan, they all said the same thing, that next month will be far worse, far worse because this is we are going to see -- in other words, the month we're in now, when we get those at the beginning of May, then we'll really see exactly the depths of which.

So in terms of a national unemployment rate and bear in mind we started at about 3.5 to 3.7, we're now over 4, 4.5 percent, and expect that to go up, Don, at a very fast rate, perhaps as high as 13 to 14 percent. So, look, I'm not trying to worry. People are well aware of it because, you know, for the hundreds of millions of Americans who are not infected, who have lost their jobs, they know exactly what I'm talking about, and it's the help for those that now so crucial.

LEMON: Well, speaking of people who lost their jobs, people filing for first-time unemployment claim. That system has not gone smoothly at all, Richard.

QUEST: There are two different things here, Don. The unemployment claim, 6.6 million people filed for it over the last week. And, again, that will rise. That was twice the previous week, which was 3.3 million.

[23:34:57]

QUEST: There are good benefits or longer benefits, improved benefits, four months of unemployment benefit, help for various different aspects of it. It's been widened to include self-employed, independent contractors.

But the sheer numbers involved have completely overwhelmed the system and you can see why. No system was designed for this. And then you've got the fact that the states are dealing with it. The federal government is already complained about that. You can see why it is such a mess. So, when you get it, it will be better and for longer, but you've got to get it.

And then, of course, there is the checks going out in the next two weeks. Now, most Americans, don't be frightened by the report that some won't get it until August. This is a small number of people who do not have their bank details with the tax man, who have not managed to file a return, whether tax authorities are going, and the IRS is going to have to go and search for these people.

The majority of people will get their checks in two to three weeks, possibly three or four weeks. It is still a long time, but I think it's been a bit misleading fears that it can go as late as September or August.

LEMON: Let's talk about the small business side, small business side of this.

QUEST: Yeah.

LEMON: Three hundred fifty billion in that rescue package for them. But today was the first day that people could apply for it and it's been chaos.

QUEST: And I'm not surprised, frankly. I'm absolutely not surprised. This program, the payroll protection plan, was elevated and extended and put in place at a very, very great rate of note (ph). Bear in mind Steve Mnuchin only talked about it the other day. It opened that night.

So what would you expect? It's exactly what you'd expect, thousands, hundreds of thousands. In some cases, the websites of the bank weren't ready. In other cases, there are restrictions on who can get it. Are you an existing bank loan? Have you got a credit card, a business credit card with that bank? So many people found that they weren't eligible, even though they met the criteria.

Let me give you one phrase. The Chase (ph) says that there are limited funds available, and Chase anticipates high volume and there may be -- there may be delays and system failures, processing delays and system failures. Don, it will sort itself out. It's a very good plan and there are other plans.

Can I just tell you, Don, that before you go for -- as well as looking at the PPL One, anybody in a small business should also be looking at the Economic Injury Disaster Loan payments, the EIDL. Have a look at that one as well because that gives immediate $10,000 grants, not loans, and it could be easier to get. Two big plans, a vast amount of money available, the bureaucracy is intense, but that was inevitable bearing in mind the size.

LEMON: Do you have this online, Quest Means Business, anywhere? I hope you have this online somewhere where people can go, Richard. If not, can you put it there?

QUEST: I will tweet it at Richard Quest the EIDL and, of course, the payment for payroll protection plan. They're huge plans. It's going to take time. This is a vast country.

LEMON: Yeah. Good. Good. Put it out there because I think people need -- obviously, people need to know that. Thank you, Richard Quest. Appreciate it.

Conspiracy theories and false information. How right-wing media is trying to deflect from the coronavirus crisis and the risk that poses to Americans.

[23:40:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Tonight, there are more than 7,000 deaths from coronavirus in the U.S., and the predictions that the death toll could climb well past 100,000. President Trump is now warning of dark days ahead but initially dismissing the pandemic as a hoax and getting lots of support from right-wing media. Here is CNN's chief media correspondent Brian Stelter.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "If you could see my hospital," this physician says, "you would know the horror of COVID-19." But most people can't see inside the beleaguered hospitals in New York and New Orleans, Miami and Detroit, and other hot spots. And that's given rise to heinous conspiracy theories and even some denialism that could hurt public health.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People are saying, film your hospital.

STELTER (voice-over): Users on social media are showing quiet scenes outside hospitals and suggesting it's not that bad inside.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sick and tired of hearing about all these fake news.

STELTER (voice-over): But they are lucky to be on the outside because on the inside --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a war zone. It's a medical war zone.

STELTER (voice-over): Weeks of rhetoric from President Trump and right-wing stars downplaying the dangers looks ignorant now. Patricia Cowden, whose husband died from coronavirus at a veteran's home, now worries if the home's administrator was influenced by the president.

PATRICIA COWDEN, HUSBAND DIED OF CORONAVIRUS AT HOLYOKE SOLDIERS' HOME: The commander in chief was saying it was nothing, you know.

STELTER (voice-over): And wonders if he heard broadcasters who soft pedalled the threat.

COWDEN: I just can't be mad about it.

[23:45:00]

COWDEN: I just think there was a lot of confusion, too much confusion for something so serious.

STELTER (voice-over): Talk radio personalities and other people close to the president spread faultily information about the virus.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, TALK SHOW HOST AND CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.

STELTER (voice-over): That was Rush Limbaugh back in February. As recently as last week, Rush was doubting the government's medical professionals.

LIMBAUGH (voice-over): We didn't elect a president to defer to a bunch of health experts that we don't know. How do we know they're even health experts?

STELTER (voice-over): He dismisses true expertise. And this week, he is still focusing on the politics.

LIMBAUGH (voice-over): They want you to blame President Trump for it.

STELTER (voice-over): The pro-Trump media is on defense, looking for any which way to prop up the president amid new scrutiny of Trump's belated response to the pandemic. Some are still trying to downplay the severity of the disease, but most are shifting blame to China, to Democrats, and to the news media.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Incessant, never ending constant complaining, and frankly lack of accountability of that guy.

STELTER (voice-over): Sean Hannity training his sights on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo while ignoring the Trump administration's failures. As The New York Times reports, blame the left is a big part of the playbook. And right-wing websites are still promoting anecdotes that suggest things aren't that bad. But the growing number of widows indicates otherwise.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON: Brian Stelter joins me now. Brian, thanks for joining us. This is not just pro-Trump propaganda. This is actually affecting public health.

STELTER: And that's what makes this case different than all the other stories we've covered in the past three years. There's always been this propaganda machine designed to promote the president at all cost. The difference this time is that the cost is measured in human lives.

LEMON: Mm-hmm. Many on the right are claiming that the government is mislabelling every death as a COVID death now. Why don't they want to accept reality?

STELTER: That is the newest conspiracy theory that I'm seeing, Don. It's an attempt to say things aren't really that bad. The government is trying to lump every death, even something from heart disease or other sorts of illnesses as a coronavirus death.

That's the new claim coming from fringe right-wing conspiracy theorists. They are trying at all cost to say the death toll can't possibly be this bad because they're trying to run defense for the president. They're not even making claims the president is making.

Look, the president has been behind the eight ball the entire time. And unfortunately, he has these megaphones that will support him no matter what. The question is whether most Americans will see through that nonsense and trust the medical professionals who are on the ground.

LEMON: Brian Stelter, thank you so much. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:50:00]

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LEMON: There are a lot of people across the country putting their lives on the line during this crisis. There are the healthcare workers and the first responders battling the virus, the grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, farm workers and pharmacists braving the streets to serve us all every day. And we appreciate that. To thank them, our CNN heroes team put together this tribute.

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(MUSIC PLAYING) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a New Yorker. It's essential that I'm out here.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a little risk coming outside but kind of feel like a superhero saving the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a war zone. It's a medical war zone.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): This is an extraordinary time where you need to see people at their best.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is in our heart and it is in our soul to sacrifice, to serve, to fight for you.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I travel coast to coast. As long as we can haul food for the American people, you will have plenty of food on those shelves.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My heroes are all of the people that I work with who are showing up and helping us fight this pandemic.

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LEMON: And before we leave you tonight, one of my favorites and someone that -- really special to my family. I remember my mom taking us to see him at the state fair back in the '70s. And I just want to note the passing of singer and songwriter Bill Withers. You may not know his name right away, some of you. But most of us do. But you definitely know his work, his soulful hits, "Lean On Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," and "Lovely Day." They are familiar to generations of Americans. He died this week in Los Angeles from heart complications.

[23:55:00]

LEMON: His 1972 blockbuster "Lean On Me" now speaks to all of us, all of us who are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. Here is Bill Withers and others singing it for us.

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