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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Restrictions Eased in Parts of New York, Maryland, Virginia, 48 States to Phase in Reopen Plans By Monday; Trump Threatens to Cut Off Relationship with China. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 15, 2020 - 16:30   ET

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


NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The curve here has flattened.

[16:30:02]

And great news from New Jersey. Sylvia Goldsholl, who lived through the 1918 Spanish flu as a kid, just recovered from COVID-19. She's 108.

SYLVIA GOLDSHOLL, 108 YEAR-OLD COVID-19 SURVIVOR: I survived everything because I was determined to stay alive.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: Now, here is the potential problem with all this uneven opening. Let's say salons are open in Georgia. You might get people coming across from Tennessee to get a haircut. And that's why New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware are going to coordinate the reopening of their beaches so you don't get a crush in one state. And they're saying they're going to be open before Memorial Day.

Here in L.A. County, this is going to be our first weekend with beaches open, so a test, can we social distance in the sand -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Nick Watt in California, thank you so much.

Tomorrow night, join me and my CNN colleagues as we honor the graduates of the class of 2020 with a special two-hour event. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, "Wonder Woman" actress Gal Gadot, LeBron James, and so many more will join us for the celebration. It starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night on CNN.

Coming up next, rising tensions. How China is responding to President Trump's latest threats.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:35:55]

TAPPER: In our world lead today, after months of praising the Chinese government for its transparency and its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump is now ramping up his attacks on that country and he did so again today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This came from China. It should have been stopped in China before it got out to the world. It should have been stopped right at the source. But it wasn't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany echoed that sentiment, saying that the president is frustrated. This, of course, just one day after the president alluded to cutting off the United States' relationship with China altogether.

CNN's Kylie Atwood joins me now.

Kylie, how has the Chinese government responded to what the president has been saying?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, in response to the specific comments that President Trump made yesterday, the foreign minister of China said essentially that it is in the best interests of both countries to continue to develop the bilateral ties between them. But that is noticeably more temperate language than we have seen from China when regard to these allegations by the U.S., these frustrations from President Trump over how China handled the coronavirus pandemic.

And we should also note that as these rhetoric and these allegations have been thrown back and forth between the countries, there have also been new policies here in the Trump administration that have been announced. So, just this morning, the Commerce Department came out and said that now, any American company that wants to sell semiconductor chips to Huawei, which is a massive tech giant in China, is going to have to get a special license to do so.

Now, that is going to create some tremendous hurdles for this Chinese tech giant. And China came out pretty aggressively and threatened some retaliation, saying that they could, you know, activate unreliable entities list. They could investigate American companies. So, this is really escalating the tensions between the two countries which could turn into something that's more than just rhetoric.

TAPPER: The president said that despite the growing tensions he's not concerned if China were to make a vaccine that we would be denied access.

ATWOOD: Yes, he was asked today, if China is the one that develops the vaccine, would the U.S. have access. And he very bluntly said yes.

But, of course, he has also said in recent days that he has not talked to President Xi, he doesn't want to talk to President Xi. He's reiterated his frustrations with China.

And, of course, the backdrop with regard to the U.S. and China and conversations over a vaccine is that just this week, the FBI and DHS came out with a statement saying that China is likely trying to use cyber attacks to steal the vaccine research secrets here in the U.S., that data that U.S. researchers are providing. So, not really creating an environment that is ripe for working together on vaccine research.

TAPPER: All right. Kylie Atwood at the State Department, thanks so much for that.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, but could coronavirus be the one thing the Post Office cannot overcome? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:43:17]

TAPPER: In our national lead, the fate of what polls say is the most popular federal agency hangs in the balance. The United States Postal Service has been in trouble for a long time, losing billions of dollars every year for the past decade. But the combination of President Trump's ire and the novel coronavirus could theoretically put a final nail in the coffin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Postal Service is a joke, because they're handing out packages for Amazon and other Internet companies and every time they bring a package, they lose money on it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The Postal Service has long been a target for the GOP. And president Trump, in addition, does not like his coverage in "The Washington Post," which is owned by Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos, making the Post Office something of a collateral damage in that war of grievance.

But, today, the House votes for a massive COVID relief bill that would provide the Postal Service with $25 billion, something President Trump blocked in March's relief bill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: Their goal has always been to privatize, to make a profit off the Postal Service. We're for having the Postal Service meet the public interest, not some special interest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump just appointed a wealthy Republican donor and Trump ally as the new postmaster general, giving the president new influence over the agency, which is, of course, always in peril.

Joining me now is Phil Rubio, historian, professor and retired postal worker. His new book, "Undelivered," is out now.

Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Rubio.

So, so far, more than a thousand postal workers have tested positive for coronavirus, more than 50 have died. How has coronavirus impacted the agency?

[16:45:02]

PHILIP RUBIO, FORMER POSTAL WORKER: It's had a devastating effect on the Postal Service, as it has on the U.S. economy.

Because people aren't using the mail as much, especially businesses, there's been a drop-off in revenue, and -- because of a drop-off in volume, by a third since the same period last year.

So, it's estimated the Postal Service has lost $13 billion already and could lose another $22 billion over the next 18 months. Of course, the Postal Service gets no taxpayer funds. It just sells postage. That's ever since 1982.

TAPPER: Conservatives have attacked the Postal Service for years.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: They prefer private competitors like FedEx or UPS.

What makes President Trump's attacks on the Postal Service different than previous Republican attacks?

RUBIO: Well, it's really unique.

We have never seen a president, a sitting president, attack the Postal -- attack the post office like this. But I think we can get distracted too much, because this has really been a growing trend among conservatives to privatize public institutions, like the Postal Service.

Keep in mind, the post office is a 245-year-old institution. And, ironically, one of Trump's presidential heroes, President Nixon, presided over the change in format from a U.S. Post Office Department to a government agency/corporation, the U.S. Postal Service, after the 1970 nationwide postal wildcat strike forced the issue.

And so we actually had a bipartisan compromise between Nixon and congressional Democrats and postal unions.

TAPPER: So, President Trump has called the Postal Service a mismanaged business. He said he would not support any additional financial support unless they raise package rates by 400 percent.

Why do you think that's not a feasible option?

RUBIO: Well, it's not feasible because every time the post office has raised its package rates, predictably, UPS and FedEx raise theirs, they take some of the business.

If they raise it -- of course, if they raise it too much, they will price themselves right out of business. So they will lose business, they will lose volume, they will lose revenue. And Amazon will just be content to deliver more of its own. They deliver about half of their own packages.

But the massive debt that the post office -- I'm glad you brought that up about billions of dollars in debt, because almost all of that is a result of the 2006 law that forced the Postal Service to pay $5.5 billion a year for 10 years into the Retiree Health Benefits Fund.

So they have been carrying this massive debt, even though most -- for most years since 1995, they were in the black. And then starting, in 2009, they were in the red. They would have been in the black almost every year since that time, even with the Great Recession, except for this imposed, congressionally imposed -- I call it a tax on them.

TAPPER: So, just for viewers at home, why does it matter if it gets privatized? What's the worst thing that happens if the U.S. Postal Service goes away, and people use UPS, FedEx, et cetera?

Why does it matter?

RUBIO: Well, everybody uses UPS, FedEx and the Postal Service at some point.

What we have to remember is that FedEx and UPS only deliver to a fraction of what the U.S. Postal Service delivers. It's -- the Postal Service is universal. It goes to all 160 million homes and businesses, including the last mile delivery.

So your UPS package probably has a USPS sticker on it as well. And when you think about what privatization means, it means now profit- driven, as opposed to the one institution that we have that's an essential infrastructure, networking institution that provides -- has provided for American innovation and development over the years.

So, every day, tens of millions of prescription drugs and invoices for small businesses and large businesses alike and bills -- a third of households pay bills still by mail -- personal letters, business letters, go through the mail, parcels.

Of all times -- and there's never been a good time to...

TAPPER: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

RUBIO: ... the post office. But this is especially a bad time.

And by the end of September, the Postal Service could run out of cash, if it's not given relief.

[16:50:03]

TAPPER: All right, Phil Rubio, thank you so much. Appreciate your time. Coming up: They put their lives on the line for the United States,

but one former official is raising the alarm, saying, veterans are not being protected enough from coronavirus.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In our national lead: Veterans, who put their lives on the line to protect their country, are now facing a new and deadly battle with this pandemic.

[16:55:01]

Based on the data that we have right now, if the VA's hospitals and state-run nursing homes were a state, that state would rank 16th for total coronavirus deaths.

And some veterans' advocates are now saying that the VA secretary could be doing more, much more, to protect this already vulnerable population.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ROWAN, NATIONAL PRESIDENT, VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA: I felt like I had a target on my back.

TAPPER (voice-over): It's a terrifying new reality many veterans are facing, surviving in a pandemic world.

ROWAN: Elder male with preexisting conditions. It's me and every Vietnam veteran I know, practically.

TAPPER: And it's a growing fear in the community, especially after the Department of Veterans Affairs released disturbing new numbers, at least 985 patients known to have died with COVID-19 receiving some form of care from the VA health care system that serves six million people; 985, that's more than most states.

DR. LINDA SCHWARTZ, FORMER VA ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR POLICY AND PLANNING: Like everyone else, it was a little behind the curve.

TAPPER: Outside of the federal system, deaths at many state-run veterans homes have skyrocketed.

ROWAN: This disease, once it got into these nursing homes and these veterans home, before anybody knew it, it was running rampant.

TAPPER: Veterans advocacy groups have had questions for the VA on any number of topics, including its use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus and whether it did sufficient outreach to veterans who were particularly vulnerable.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the question of oversight of state-run facilities. According to a report from the Vietnam Veterans of America, more than 550 residents in veterans homes across the country have died from this virus.

And not all states are reporting. And families of those residents have been forced to face unfathomable and painful realities, as their loved ones fight for their lives, sometimes remaining in the dark as they wait to hear if their family member is still alive, as in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where more than 70 residents have died from COVID-19.

SUSAN KENNEY, DAUGHTER OF CORONAVIRUS VICTIM: I took a grease crayon, and I wrote on my car: "Is my father alive? Shame on you, Soldiers' Home."

TAPPER: And in New Jersey at Paramus, where 72 residents of one veterans own passed away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They gave us only 15 minutes at the cemetery.

TAPPER: But despite the VA partially funding and overseeing these state-run homes, Secretary Robert Wilkie is bucking the blame, instead pointing the finger at local governments.

ROBERT WILKIE, U.S. SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: We take complaints when we hear complaints. We cannot impose our will on those state venues.

TAPPER: The VA press secretary tells CNN that federal law states that the VA -- quote -- "shall have no authority over the management or control of any state veterans home" and that individual states, not the federal government -- quote -- "are solely responsible for the operation and management of state-run veterans homes and any problems that arise within them."

But the law also states Secretary Wilkie can inspect any veterans home whenever he wants. And former VA Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning Linda Schwartz says Wilkie can create and enforce guidelines to hold these homes accountable.

SCHWARTZ: They have the authority to make changes. And they have in the past.

TAPPER: And she would know. She was the Connecticut veterans commissioner for 11 years and managed all state-run homes there, directly dealing with federal VA oversight.

And she says urgent action needs to be taken.

SCHWARTZ: There is a real need to do an analysis of what's going on here and what are the needs of the population. And it can't be something that takes years. It has to be now. Taking care of veterans is a great honor and a great responsibility.

TAPPER: And as we approach Memorial Day in the middle of this pandemic, it will also be a moment for the nation to pause to reflect on the lives of veterans lost and what more might have been done to prevent it.

SCHWARTZ: It's sad to think how many we will be mourning this year who died because of a virus and not on the battlefield. But, in a way -- in a way, the battlefield is in the streets of America today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: When we asked the VA if they would do anything different, a spokesman said that the VA grieves for all of the veterans and loved ones affected by this heartbreaking situation.

Before we go, we want to take a moment to remember another victim of coronavirus, an Air Force veteran who lost his life to the virus.

Clifton Dougherty lived at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis. Employees held a funeral procession for him, complete with a flag- draped casket. Dougherty was 78 years old. His daughter says that her dad loved everyone and had an incredible sense of humor.

May his memory be a blessing.

Tune in this Sunday morning to CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." My guests include Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.

That's at 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern, only on CNN.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

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