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Obama Slams Lack Of Leadership On Pandemic Response; WHO Says, Spraying Disinfectants Outdoors Or In Broad Spaces Indoors May Do More Harm Than Good; Trump Fires State Department Watchdog Reportedly Investigating Pompeo. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired May 16, 2020 - 21:00   ET

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


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[21:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. This is a special edition of The Situation Room.

Tonight, while the president is at Camp David, the White House's response to the coronavirus pandemic is facing new criticism from the previous president of United States. There are now more than 4.5 million cases of coronavirus confirmed around the world with at least 310,000 deaths. Here in the United States, at least 1.4 million Americans have been infected while over 88,000 have died.

And today, in an online commencement address to graduate, of historically black colleges and universities, President Barack Obama spoke out in very sharp criticism of how the Trump administration has handled the national crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: More than anything, this pandemic is fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing. A lot of them aren't pretending to be in charge. If the world is going to get better, it's going to be up to you. But everything is suddenly feeling like it's up for grabs. This is your time to seize the initiative.

Change requires strategy, action, organizing, marching and voting in the real world like never before.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Obama did not mention President Trump by name, but there was absolutely no mistaking the criticism of his successor. This at a time where his own former vice president, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has been largely out of the spotlight.

Straight to the White House right now, CNN's Jeremy Diamond is on the scene for us. Jeremy, first of all, reaction tonight from the White House? I think that some White Officials are responding to this very harsh criticism by the former president.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORREPONDENT: They are indeed, Wolf. And, listen, this is the latest criticism from President Obama directed at the Trump administration over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Just a week ago, Wolf, we we're talking about President Obama's criticism that the Trump administration's response has been an absolute, chaotic disaster and now these latest comments from the former president.

And so we do have a statement now from the White House Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. She writes, President Trump's unprecedented coronavirus response has saved lives. His early travel restrictions and quarantines protected the American public while his Paycheck Protection Program and direct payments to Americans got needed economic relief to our country.

Moreover, President Trump directed the greatest mobilization of the private sector since World War II to fill the stockpile left depleted by his predecessor.

Now, Wolf, that last line there about a depleted stockpile is something that we have heard President Trump and his aides repeatedly bring up. But the truth of it, Wolf, is that while there were certain items in that stockpile that had not been replenish by the Obama administration, the stockpile was, by no means, completely depleted. And certainly, President Trump have three years in office before this pandemic in order to refill those shelves, as he so frequently talks about.

But, Wolf, what we haven't heard President Trump directly response to President Obama's criticism of his response to this coronavirus pandemic, we have heard President Trump ratchet up the rhetoric over the last week or two particularly with this new allegation, this Obamagate that he is using to attempt to smear the former president, using pretty much no evidence to suggest that President Obama was leading a conspiracy to try and undermine his presidency from the start.

In fact, President Trump is right now at Camp David. He has been meeting with some of his most conservative fire brand allies on Capitol Hill at his Camp David retreat to talk about how they can advance those basis claims against the former president. Wolf?

BLITZER: And even while he's at Camp David, he's been tweeting today, going after one tweet, Obamagate, then admonishing the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, I love you, but this is 100 percent true, referring to what he calls Obamagate. Time is running out, get tough, move quickly or it will be too late. Don't let them get away with this. And then he puts in @lindseygraham South Carolina.

He really wants, what? What does he want? He wants investigations in the Senate and the House of Representatives on what he calls Obamagate, because he's alleged that the president committed the biggest political crime in American history, the former president?

DIAMOND: Yes, it's been the biggest political crime but also the vaguest political crime because President Trump has struggled to really articulate exactly what the crime is that he is accusing his predecessor of committing and what exactly this big scandal is.

[21:05:00]

Much of it is centered on this issue of unmasking with former Obama administration officials requesting to unmask the identity of an American who was speaking with Russian officials. It turned out to be Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who later admitted to lying to the FBI.

And somehow President Trump and his allies have been trying to spin that into suggesting that President Obama and his allies were trying to undermine his presidency, trying to sabotage it even. And, yes, President Trump has called for President Obama to testify on Capitol Hill.

There is no indication, Wolf, at this stage that this is going to happen. But I do expect that this back and forth is going to continue here if only because we know that President Obama has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic nominee and President Obama has made clear he's going to campaign for his former V.P. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect it's going to get uglier in the coming weeks. All right, Jeremy, thank you very much. Stand by. We'll get back to you.

I want to bring in Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan right now.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us. Let me get your reaction first to the former president's comments on the current administration's coronavirus response. What do you think?

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL (D-MI): Well, I think president -- former President Obama is trying to bring attention to the fact that we probably have not probably haven't done enough right now. The coronavirus, COVID-19, is still spreading across this country.

I live in a state that's across 50,000 number of cases of COVID, almost 5,000 people dead. We're slowly going to reopen the economy next week, go back with the operation of the plants. We still have a stay home order until the end of May. But we need to be focused on how we do it safely, and instead the president has been sort of fanning the fires of fear and division in this state, which is not helpful right now.

BLITZER: Yes, almost 5,000 deaths in Michigan, and as you point out, more than 50,000 cases in Michigan, a very hard-hit state. I want to get to that in a moment.

But as you know, Congresswoman, this is the second time we've heard from former President Obama, in over the past week or so. Listen to what he told Obama administration veterans about a week or so ago. Listen to this, in a private phone conversation. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: It's part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anemic and spotty. And it would have been bad even with the best of governments. It has been an absolute, chaotic disaster.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Yes. So what do you think? If the Obama administration had been in power when we got this kind of pandemic, would things have been different?

DINGELL: Well, I do think that you saw when we last had a crisis that Ron Klain was put in charge, and while a lot of people were afraid of what could happen, we were able to minimize the impact and bring -- approach it from a global standpoint, and we're able to mitigate what the impact could have been worldwide.

I think the president did not acknowledge that this was a problem early on. And even when the administration began to check at airports, Detroit's Airport was one of the airports that -- Wuhan is the city that all the autos have plants in, do frequent travel, and we weren't an airport that was even be in checked. We really -- this country didn't take COVID seriously until the beginning of March. No one really anticipated that we would see what we saw across this country.

And I think there's been too much political partisan bickering that President Obama has a gravity (INAUDIBLE). And by the way, President Bush has said some of the same remarks. The two former presidents saying this is serious, we've got to come together as Americans and not let -- I'm worried about the fall. What are we doing? What the lessons are we learning from December and January that are going to make us better prepared for what could happen in the fall and spikes again?

BLITZER: Let's talk about Michigan right now. I want to focus in on what's happening in your state and the increasing tensions we're seeing in states like your own. On Thursday, we saw yet another protest over the state capitol in Lansing. Today, we learned a Detroit man has actually been arrested after allegedly making threats against the governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Why has all this turned so ugly?

DINGELL: Well, we're a state with people having very intense feelings. But, quite frankly, there is a certain segment here that when you look at what's happening in Lansing -- I'm going to divide it into two categories with these protests that you've been seeing.

There are people that, are anxious about what's going to happen, they're afraid for their jobs, they want to get back to work, they want to protect their small businesses. And, by the way, when they're protesting, they're respecting physical distance and listening to what the scientists are saying.

But there are a group of people that are being fanned by threat or by -- are being encouraged to divide us with fear and hatred.

[21:10:08]

They're carrying guns. They're carrying confederate flags. They're carrying swastikas. And they're take a very tense, anxious, very fearful situation and just a little spark, Wolf, could just trigger this. And I'm very worried about what is happening. And it's getting worse. Instead of pulling us together, which is what a leader is supposed to do, he's fanning -- the president -- I want to work with everybody. We need to work together. That they're fanning those flames that, by the way, could trigger a fire that none of us wants to see or are ready for.

BLITZER: Yes, that's so worrisome. As you know, Congresswoman, state Republicans have filed a suit against Governor Whitmer over her extension of the stay-at-home order currently in place until May 28th. What do you make of this kind of pushback in Michigan?

DINGELL: I think that it is too much partisanship. I want to thank the leadership, of the Republican leadership of the state legislature, who, in the last 48 hours, before the Thursday event, said that people brandishing weapons that could intimidate people should be arrested. But we need more of that kind of work.

I know the governor. She is somebody that I work with and have known for a long time. She's my friend, she's a close friend. She -- when she was given the numbers of the number of people that could die in Michigan, she felt personal responsibility for every one of those lives.

What we're doing in Michigan is what you've seen across the country. She's listening to the scientists and the doctors who are trying to make -- Wolf, I lost a friend Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of this week that died again from COVID. It's still real. It's still here. And it's still looking for targets.

BLITZER: There are, what, as we pointed out, more than 50,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Michigan, nearly 5,000 deaths, certainly one of the hardest-hit states. But at the same time, and this is so difficult, a lot of people are really struggling with not being able to make an income, they're losing their jobs in huge numbers. So what do you say to them?

DINGELL: Well, we passed the Heroes Act yesterday in the House. We know that the chairman of the Federal Reserve has said that we've got to take action now or it's going to be worse. I have been working with the president of the UAW, with the governor, with the autos, with the supplier community about reopening and doing it carefully, following new protocols. That's going to be one of the critical things.

We need to listen to what the scientists and the doctors are telling us, which means we've got to change behavior, which means you've got to keep that physical distance. You've got to wear a mask. And discouraging people to not wear masks, not leading by leading, so why aren't we all wearing mask and I've said to my governor, you need to wear those mass when you're out there because you've got to lead. But that's going to be key. And as we go back to work and as we start to see spikes in these cases again, which many scientists, as you know, are worried about, it is going to fan the fears. It's going to spark even more terror. And that's one of the crises we have right now. How do we balance it? And we've got to balance, we've got to reopen, but we've got to do what the doctors and scientists tell us to do or we're going to have a total disaster in our hands.

BLITZER: Yes. And the president was in Pennsylvania, a battleground state, this past week. I suspect he might be visiting your state in the not too distant future as well. Michigan clearly a battleground state as well. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, thanks so much for joining us.

DINGELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll stay in close touch with you.

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, says spraying disinfectants across broad spaces to try to kill coronavirus actually may do more harm than good. They just issued a new statement. So what should we all be doing? Our medical experts, they are standing by. We'll discuss. Stay with us. This is a special edition of The Situation Room.

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[21:15:00]

BLITZER: So, for those of you stocking up on disinfectants to better protect yourself against coronavirus, the World Health Organization has offered some brand new advice. Spraying disinfectants outside or across broad spaces indoors can actually do more harm than good. And it may seem obvious, but the WHO also says spraying people is a really bad idea that could put the eyes at risk and cause serious problems, like skin irritation and respiratory issues.

Joining us now to discuss this and more, the Epidemiologist, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and CNN Medical Analyst Dr. James Phillips.

Dr. Phillips, does this mean we shouldn't be using aerosol or spray cleaners?

DR. JAMES PHILLIPS, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, disinfectants are very important, but they have to be used appropriately. And we have known since we were little kids that you're not supposed to spray disinfectants directly on people.

A lot of these disinfectants are chlorine-based or bleach-based. And we've seen foreign countries spraying and fumigating streets really since the beginning of this started.

And if you know anything about disinfectants we've kind of been shaking our heads at that site because it's sort of like catching the virus is a function of both time and distance. You need to be in proximity to the virus for a period of time to get the virus. To kill the virus with the disinfectant, you also have to be in contact with the disinfectant. The virus has to be in contact for a period of time. And if you're just spraying this stuff on there briefly or nearby, it doesn't do the trick.

BLITZER: Dr. El-Sayed, we're also learning that the virus can actually live in the air for more than eight minutes, even potentially as long as 14 minutes. So does that diminish the positive effects of social distancing if the coronavirus can linger so long after someone has been in a particular place?

[21:20:00]

DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I'll say this. It's really, really critical when we talk about social distancing that we define it the right way. It's not necessarily that we need to have a lot of people in one place. It's that we all need to stay in our own places to reduce the likelihood of contact.

So I'd actually say that that evidence suggests to us that opening up as fast as we're seeing may be a bit harmful given what we're understanding about the science. And so far, as you know, it may be that restaurants are opening up and folks are staying more than six feet away. But if you've got enough people and enough people may be carriers and they're breathing, you may actually fill that air up with more virus and spread the disease.

And so, all this says that even as we open up it's really critical for folks to take precautions to protect themselves. The best thing you can do is stay home and stay safe. And when you're out, the critical thing is we wear masks because what it does is it catches the air that we're breathing out that may be carrying those particles and carrying those virus particles and keeps them in our mouth and nose. And so what we're doing is protecting others.

BLITZER: Yes, those masks are so critically, critically important. Dr. Phillips, yesterday, President Trump launched operation what he calls Warp Speed, promising that millions of doses of a coronavirus will be available by the end of this year. Is that timeline realistic?

PHILLIPS: I'm afraid that it is. I think that we've been hearing from experts who really know this stuff, Dr. Fauci and his team, for the better part of four months now, about how vaccines are produced and the timeline that is really needed to do this safely.

And what is -- in order to get this done by next year would be a world record for any vaccine ever created. And I'm afraid that the timeline that is being espoused right now is more hopeful than realistic.

Now, don't get me wrong, I hope they find a way to get it tested safely and that it's efficacious, and if that's proven I'll be the first one in line to try to get one as quickly as I can. And I hope the president also is in line to get his vaccine as quickly as possible when it's approved.

But I'm still afraid that bumping up that timeline, this is almost a year ahead of what Dr. Fauci had said it would be, may be giving false hope to people. But I'll try to remain optimistic.

BLITZER: Yes, we all want to be optimistic. Dr. El-Sayed, what do you think? Because even if there is a vaccine, a lot of people are going to be wondering are there side effects, is it really safe? The rush to get one, you've got to really be careful with these vaccines.

EL-SAYED: Well, I'll say this, vaccines go through very rigorous trial and testing. And the reason it takes so long to develop one is because of this Phase 1. Phase 1 is up to 14 months and what we do is we inject the vaccine into healthy individuals to make sure that there aren't those side effects.

And so when a vaccine gets cleared and it's gone through the rigorous vetting of the scientific process, it is safe, it is healthy and it's really critical that people understand and appreciate that. But that's also why it takes a long time and that's also why you can't rush the testing protocols. It's why we need to take our time making sure that the science isn't -- that the corners aren't cut on the science and that the science is leading us, so that when we do have a vaccine, it is safe, it is effective.

BLITZER: And let's all hope there isn't a second wave in the fall and winter that some people are already fearing. We need that vaccine but it's got to be a safe vaccine, obviously. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, thanks so much for joining us. Dr. James Phillips, thanks to you as well, always an important conversation.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic critics now say, President Trump is purging government watchdogs. We'll have the late-breaking developments. The State Department's inspector general fired Friday night. Two U.S. senators have now announced an investigation into the firing. One of them, Senator Bob Menendez, will be joining us live to discuss.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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BLITZER: We'll have much more on all the late-breaking developments in the coronavirus pandemic in just a few moments. But, first, we're learning new details right now in the wake of last night's sudden firing by President Trump of yet another government watch dog, the State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.

Today a State Department source confirmed to CNN that the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was under investigation for allegations he improperly made use of a political appointee. And now the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, along with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Eliot Engel, they have announced a probe into the firing.

Senator Menendez is joining us right now. Senator, thanks so much for joining us. As you know, this is the fourth inspector general in the U.S. government to be removed since the start of last month. What do you think motivated the president to take this extraordinary step?

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Well, Wolf, it's another Friday night massacre, another inspector general gone. This time the State Department's inspector general, who has conducted since 2013 when I was chairman, which is when he was confirmed, both tough investigations during the Obama and the Trump administration.

And there are reports that, in fact, he had opened up an investigation as it relates to Secretary Pompeo and the improper use of personnel for personal purposes. And one can only conclude from that that, in fact, there was a purpose to try to ultimately obstruct such an investigation.

[21:30:06]

And this is outrageous. Inspector generals are supposed to be independent. They are there for the purposes of making sure that agencies act appropriately. And once again, we have another Friday night massacre of another inspector general for no good cause.

BLITZER: Here is the president's explanation in a statement released over at the White House late last night, quote, 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. What's your reaction to that?

MENENDEZ: Well, I think that's wholly unacceptable. Even a Republican senator, Chuck Grassley, who is known for his advocacy of inspector general's, tweeted tonight that, in fact, such an explanation is unacceptable as the cause for ultimately letting an inspector general go. I think that's a thin veneer.

Look, the president doesn't want any investigations. He wants no transparency. And at the same time, he creates a diversion from the lack of his readiness of dealing with this pandemic.

So that's why Chairman Eliot Engel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and I have announced that we are launching an investigation, because we cannot have inspectors general let go with impunity when there is no good cause for it other than that. They might very well be investigating something that would be embarrassing to the administration.

BLITZER: And another Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, slamming the president's firings as well. He tweeted this. Let me read it to you. The firings of multiple inspectors general is unprecedented. Doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power. So there are Republicans speaking out about this as well.

MENENDEZ: Yes, and I'm glad to see that because, look, an inspector general -- the whole purpose of an inspector general is to create transparency, to make sure that government entities, in this case, the State Department, is acting within the law and in the full interest of the American people. When you fire them with impunity, you are sending a chilling message to every inspector general of every department that, in fact, when you step on the administration's toes, then you are fired. That cannot stand.

BLITZER: The -- you know, it's interesting. The -- I just want to point out that the president does have a history of going ahead and firing these whistleblowers conducting investigations. But what can you, Chairman Engel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, what can you really do about that other than have some sort of investigation? President, if he wants to fire these guys, he can do it, right?

MENENDEZ: He can, which is why I am looking at legislation to strengthen the role of inspector generals across the board. If at the end of the day, we can have someone fired without cause, with impunity, then we have totally eliminated a check and balance on this or any future administration.

And that's not acceptable. That's the reason that Congress created inspector generals in the first place, to make sure that the department, in this case, the State Department, is being honest and truthful and pursuing the cause of the American people.

And when they lack that independence, when they are fired with impunity for no cause whatsoever, you can say at any time that you've lost faith in an inspector general. You lose faith in them when they seem to be, you know, getting very close to something that's problematic for you.

BLITZER: Senator Menendez, thanks so much for joining us. We'll continue to watch these developments closely. I appreciate it very much.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Up next, she was Miss America, former First Lady of Kentucky, and a trailblazing sportscaster. We'll take a closer look at the life and legacy of Phyllis George.

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BLITZER: Well return to our coverage of the coronavirus pandemic in a few moments. But, first, we have some very, very sad news to bring you tonight. Phyllis George, has died. The former Ms. America, First Lady of Kentucky, the broadcasting pioneer was 70 years old. She died Thursday at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, following a very long illness. A fraction of her accomplishments would have been a full life for most people.

She was also a very good friend for many years and the proud mother of our CNN colleague and friend, Pamela Brown, and her brother Lincoln, both are very, very special and wonderful people. Our Chief Media Correspondent, Brian Stelter, is joining us right now. Brian, she lived a truly extraordinary life. What was her impact, first of all, on the world of television?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, she absolutely did, Wolf. And this is the loss of an icon in the media world as well as an enormous loss for Pamela Brown and for her family and for the family there.

Phyllis was the first female co-anchor of NFL Today, the famous football pregame show on CBS. She was a trailblazer in the 1970s when there were so few women on television anchoring and covering sports. She was able to interview football stars and other legends in a way that nobody else was. She was able to get them to open up.

In fact, her fellow co-hosts on NFL Today praised her for her humanity and her ability to get people to share their personal experiences. So she was doing that for years on CBS, she also covered Super Bowls and Rose Bowls and other premier sporting events, and then went on to host shows like Candid Camera.

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She briefly hosted the CBS News Morning Show. She had these important jobs in broadcasting at a time when you didn't see women in those roles. And she deserves a lot of credit for being a trailblazer in that way.

BLITZER: I know you had a chance to speak with her, our colleague, Pamela, earlier today. Tell us about that conversation, what she and her wonderful brother, Lincoln, had to say about their mom.

STELTER: That's right. Pamela and Lincoln were able to be there with Phyllis during her final hours in the hospital. They had been with their mom for years as she battled this blood disorder. A lot of people didn't know that Phyllis had this blood disorder for decades. And she lived a lot longer than the doctors thought she ever would.

She was in a coma in her final weeks in the hospital, but she was able to -- her kids were able to be there and even to speak with her. They said that Phyllis teared up in those final moments. So, clearly, the mom was able to her what her children were saying in those final moments.

Pamela and Lincoln remember their mom as someone who was so full of warmth and love, loved being around people, had this incredible magnetic personality that filled the room. In fact, she gets a lot of credit for helping her then husband win the Kentucky governorship back in 1979, John Y. Brown Jr. Then Phyllis went on to be the first lady of Kentucky for four years, helped the arts and crafts in that state that reached national attention. And that's an important piece of this as well.

She went from Ms. America in 1971, and that's what catapulted her to TV stardom and then as first lady of Kentucky, helped put the state on the map, helped started a museum there as well. So these were important contributions, important accomplishments in multiple fields.

But at the end of the day, Wolf, Phyllis was a mom and a grandma, a grandma to Pamela's two young children. She was able to meet Pamela's 12-week-old thankfully before she passed away.

BLITZER: Yes, so, so sad. What a wonderful, wonderful woman. And I know that both Lincoln and Pamela are going to miss their mom so much, and totally understandable. All right, Brian, thank you so much for some thoughts.

And to our viewers don't forget, Brian will be back tomorrow morning on reliable sources at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. And I'll have some very personal thoughts about Phyllis George in the next hour here in The Situation Room. She will be missed. May she rest in peace and may her memory be a blessing.

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BLITZER: Even as much of the United States slowly, slowly reopens, millions of people are still out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic. Both the unemployment rate and job losses hit their highest levels ever recorded in April and this month is expected to be even worse.

But this morning, out on the Fox News, the labor secretary, Eugene Scalia, tried to downplay the numbers, saying, many of those jobs are going to come back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EUGENE SCALIA, LABOR SECRETARY: There are tens of millions of Americans that have been put out of work, and it's a great hardship for them. But many of those jobs are not lost yet. And I've seen three different surveys over the last week showing that about 90 percent of Americans on unemployment think it's temporary, think they're going back to those jobs. What we want to do now is get them back there safely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Joining us now to discuss this and more, Gene Sperling. He was the Director of the National Economic Council under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He's also the author of the new book titled, Economic Dignity. There you see the cover. Gene, so what do you think? What's your reaction to what the labor secretary says?

GENE SPERLING, FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: Well, you don't want to be downplaying what's happening now. We're going to see on June 5th that the May numbers were -- that we may have lost 25, 30 million jobs in our economy, unemployment's over 20 percent. And, yes, some jobs, if we reopen carefully and smartly and thoughtfully and we don't have a backfire or a second wave, we're sure some jobs are going to come back. But the reality is that we could be in double-digit unemployment for a long time if we do not have a careful, thoughtful, science-based reopening and we do not have major, and I mean major help, recovery help for small businesses, for workers, for states who need it.

BLITZER: On Thursday, the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, released numbers showing just how hard lower-income Americans are getting hit by this downturn. Nearly 40 percent of those with a household income below $40,000 a year reported a job loss in March. So, how do you get them back? A lot of those jobs probably won't be available down the road because a lot of these companies are going to go out of business.

SPERLING: Well, it's one of the sad things, that the very slow start, the kind of denial and delay at the beginning not only cost lives but my guess is 10 million-plus jobs were lost that were unnecessarily lost.

But the people making 40,000 and under, many of them minorities, many of them are woman, are getting triply hurt.

[21:50:03]

One, they're losing their jobs more. Two, the ones who are working are often not getting the PPA, they're not getting the hazard pay, they're not getting the dignity, the respect they deserve. And three, many of them have the smallest cushion. So that if we fail and having a robust unemployment system, we fail in ensuring they do not lose their healthcare. They're the ones with the least cushion and could be hurt the worse.

BLITZER: So what's needed, Gene, to make an economic recovery happen while still keeping workers and the American public for that matter safe?

SPERLING: Well, one, you have to open in a safe, careful way. Nobody should for opening or not opening. You're for opening, to the degree, the larger economy economy and the specific business place can be done in a way that safe to workers and customers.

Two, you have to have broad help for people. That means unemployment check that is enough to really pay your bills and sustain you, so it's got to be bigger, it's got to be broad enough to still cover gig workers, and we're going to have to really help people with healthcare and paid sick leave, because many people, up to 25 million, could be losing their healthcare.

And third, we've really got to provide this state and local relief that people need. They're getting devastated through no fault of their own just because they're a state or local government that's going during a pandemic.

And we saw just last month 468,000 local education jobs lost. If we don't help, the cost is going to be in teachers, in first responders, in state troopers and lost jobs and less healthcare that we desperately need right now more than ever. BLITZER: The House of Representatives on Friday passed a $3 trillion relief bill, but it's almost certainly doomed in the Senate. Is there a long-term solution that can get bipartisan support right now?

SPERLING: Jeez, I hope so. I don't see how the Republicans in the Senate are going sit there on June 5th when we hear we're over 20 percent and we have a higher unemployment rate than we did in 1931 and say, jeez, we've got to wait and see.

So I'm hoping we can come up with an unemployment benefit that goes as long as you need until unemployment well under 10 percent, that we give real respect to the central workers out there, hazard pay, sick leave, healthcare, PPE, and third, that we do this kind of robust state and local relief, because it's about our quality of life. It's about our teaching. It's about our first responder. It's about our healthcare jobs. And I just don't see how people are not going say no.

So I'm hoping that circumstances, public will force Republicans to come and work out a solid compromise but bold deal with Speaker Pelosi.

BLITZER: On a very, very different sad note, Gene, I want to offer all of our condolences on the death, recent death of your mother, a truly wonderful woman. I know she's also, among other issues, had coronavirus. Tell us a little bit about her?

SPERLING: Well, my mother wouldn't want me to take one second that was not about kids that were less advantaged. That's what she gave her life too.

And if she were well and healthy right now, I'll tell you what she would be doing back in an Ann Arbor in the Detroit area, she would be saying, what do we need to do to make sure that low income kids, often minority kids, who often get a raw deal, what are we going to do make sure they have the technology, the individual learning, the after school activities so that the achievement gap, so they don't fall further behind, but we use this moment to make sure we're doing everyone we can, to help each one of them, not just survive educationally, but thrive.

That's what she would be working her heart out. That's my message on her behalf to policymakers anywhere listening right now.

BLITZER: And, once again, Gene, our deepest, deepest condolences. May she rest in peace. And as we say, may her memory be a blessing. Gene Sperling, thank you so much for joining us.

SPERLING: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, the former President of the United States, Barack Obama, not mincing words on the current administration's coronavirus response. The White House has now responded. We're going bring you the very latest developments in our next hour of this special THE SITUATION ROOM.

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