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U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses 95,000 with almost 1.6 Million Cases; States Face Critical Reopening Test as Weekend Holiday Begins; CDC Publishes New Pandemic Guidance for Religious Worship; Violent Confrontations Erupt across U.S. over Face Mask Rules; Trump Removes Watchdog Investigating Key Cabinet Member; Duke University Planning For Students To Return In Person This Fall. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 22, 2020 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're following breaking news.

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has now surpassed 95,000 people with almost 1.6 million confirmed cases here in the U.S. Worldwide, there are now more than 5 million cases and more than 335,000 deaths. And as U.S. states face a critical test of their ability to reopen safely this Memorial Day weekend, the CDC has just issued new guidance for houses of worship after President Trump ordered them to open immediately. He's also threatening to override governors who don't obey, even though he doesn't necessarily have any constitutional authority to do so.

Also, tonight, a major new study of hydroxychloroquine, the drug touted and taken by the president. That study finds that seriously ill coronavirus patients treated with it were more likely to die.

Let's begin over at the White House. Our White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is joining us. Kaitlan, the president's order to open houses of worship may play well to his base out there but it's deeply troubling to many public health officials.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, and there are still a lot of questions about what authority it is that he's citing, saying he's going to override governors if they don't open up these religious institutions. That's a claim he made today. Though we know that really what these states have been doing has varied depending on what their outbreaks are like, what their cases look like in their state.

Then Wolf, the president did not answer questions about which authority it is that he's citing and he didn't answer questions either about that new study about a drug that he is slated to finish taking today and the risk it shows for patients who do have coronavirus and those that take it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): Tonight, a new study shows that an anti-malaria drug championed by President Trump may harm coronavirus patients.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hydroxychloroquine.

COLLINS (voice-over): The study is the largest analysis done to date and it reveals that coronavirus patients who were seriously ill and given chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine were more likely to develop abnormal heart rhythms or even die.

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: First, I think the FDA has been very clear on their website about their concerns about hydroxychloroquine.

COLLINS (voice-over): Trump has been taking the drug in hopes of preventing himself from getting coronavirus, despite a warning from the FDA that it hasn't been proven to be safe or effective at treating the virus or preventing it.

TRUMP: I really think it's a great thing to try. What do you have to lose? Take it. I really think they should take it. Hydroxychloroquine. Try it. If things don't go as -- planned, it's not going to kill anybody.

COLLINS (voice-over): Trump didn't address the study today but he did announce that the CDC will issue new guidance declaring places of worship as essential.

TRUMP: Today I'm identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogue, and mosques, as essential places that provide essential services.

COLLINS (voice-over): Trump says he wants churches and other places reopened immediately and claimed he'll overrule governors who push back.

TRUMP: Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential. But have left out churches and other houses of worship. It's not right. If they don't do it, I will override the governors.

COLLINS (voice-over): The new guidelines encourage religious houses to promote good hygiene like hand washing, wear cloth face coverings, intensify cleaning, and encourage social distancing while minimizing the use of shared worship materials like prayer books or hymnals. He left questions about his statement to Dr. Deborah Birx and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany.

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Boy, it's interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I object to that. I go to church. I'm dying to go back to church.

BIRX: Maybe they wait another week. COLLINS (voice-over): Today marks Dr. Birx's first appearance in the briefing room since late April. Lately, she and other officials like Dr. Fauci have largely disappeared from the airwaves, something Dr. Fauci told CNN will change soon.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: We've been talking with the communications people. And they realized we need to get some of this information out.

COLLINS (voice-over): As most traditional Memorial Day activities have been postponed or altered, Dr. Birx encouraged Americans to maintain distance but spend time outside this weekend.

[17:05:08]

BIRX: You can play golf, you can play tennis with marked balls, you can go to the beaches.

COLLINS (voice-over): The president ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff in honor of those who have lost their lives from the virus.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Wolf, they still have not cited exactly which authority the president think it is that he thinks he has to overrule these governors. We know that the Justice Department has been paying close attention to some of these religious institutions that have pushed back on their states' stay-at-home orders. Though we should note that the governor of New Hampshire just spoke a few moments ago. He was asked about the president's declaration, and he said no, the decision about opening houses of worship is going to rest with the governors.

BLITZER: Yes. I'm sure most of the governors believe that as well. All right. Kaitlan, thank you very much.

The U.S. is heading into a Memorial Day holiday weekend unlike any the other and it will test the ability of states to reopen safely.

Let's go to our national correspondent Erica Hill. She's joining us. Erica, millions of Americans will be heading outdoors this weekend.

ERICA HILL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That they will. And as we know from early on, the president, as we heard, said it was up to the governors to decide when and how to reopen and we're certainly seeing different interpretations of that across the country.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILL (voice-over): Signs of summer falling into place. Beaches, parks, pools, open across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We got some counters so we can count people coming in.

HILL (voice-over): Bars in Houston getting a head start Thursday night as Texas lifts more restrictions heading into the holiday weekend. In Florida, all children's activities, including camp, can now resume.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): Our kids have been out of organized activities for a couple of months now, and I think that we need to have a pathway to get it back.

HILL (voice-over): Officials nationwide creating play books.

MAYOR PAUL KANITRA (R-NJ), POINT PLEASANT BEACH: Nobody wants to be the mayor from "jaws" who lets everybody back in the water a little too soon, right?

HILL (voice-over): Social distancing the new mandate. Masks, the must- have accessory.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): It is mandatory that you wear the mask within six feet of another person in public. You don't have a right to infect another person. You don't.

HILL (voice-over): As states ease limits on how many people can gather and wear, President Trump on Friday declaring houses of worship essential, calling on states to let them open.

JIM FRANKLIN, PASTOR, CORNERSTONE CHURCH: They can go to a restaurant which are now opening here in California. They can gather there to get the physical food. Then why can they not come to a church under the same guidelines and enjoy some spiritual food?

HILL (voice-over): Rhode Island's governor adamant it won't happen in her state this weekend.

GOV. GINA RAIMONDO (D-RI): Honestly, that would be reckless. It's Friday. They're not ready. So, the reason we did it the way we did it is, we gave them some time, we announced it you know this week so they can get ready for next weekend. They have a lot of work to do.

HILL (voice-over): Montgomery, Alabama emerging as a new hotspot.

MAYOR STEVEN REED (D-AL), MONTGOMERY: I think that we've been a little premature in our reopening of the economy. And now Alabama led to the spike. We've seen our numbers consistently go up.

DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA AT BIRMINGHAM: I'm quite worried with the Memorial Day weekend coming and the restrictions loosening, that this is going to go like prairie fire.

HILL (voice-over): New cases in the city nearly doubling since the beginning of the month. Another reminder that as the rules change across the country, the virus has not.

BIRX: You can see the top three states are Maryland, the district, and Virginia. And so, there is still significant virus circulating here.

Minnesota, Nebraska, Chicago, and Los Angeles, also on the task force radar. The Navajo nation, which has been hit particularly hard, now on lockdown through Monday. Just nine states showing a decline in new cases over the past week, as the CDC now estimates 35 percent of infections are asymptomatic.

CUOMO: I know the weather is warmer. I know people have been cooped up. I know there's tremendous energy to get out. You have to remain vigilant.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HILL: And as we look at what's happening around the country, there's still so much reaction coming in. What we heard from the president earlier today, I do want to point out too, what we heard from the governor of Rhode Island. We should note that earlier this week, she had said in her state as of May 30th, religious services can resume at 25 percent capacity. So, as we know, Wolf, this is something that governors have been dealing with for some time, hearing from the faithful in their states as they try to balance those needs and of course the public health.

BLITZER: The president was adamant today about his decision. All right. Erica Hill in New York for us, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of these. Joining us now, our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and Dr. David Holtgrave, dean of the School of Public Health in the State University of New York in Albany. Elizabeth, walk us through these new CDC guidelines for places of worship.

[17:10:00]

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, let's take a look at what they say and the wording of the might think is really important here, Wolf. So, let's go through them. Here are three that we - three of the - of the various things that they wrote.

Consider limiting the size of gatherings, consider practice social distancing, consider increased ventilation, disinfect frequently touched surfaces between services and shared objects between uses. They also say to consider just not sharing things like no collection plate, don't share hymnals. Also, if you can't practice social distancing, then they encourage the use of cloth-based coverings.

I think it's important to note here. I've been covering the CDC for decades now. They are usually much more to the point than this. We should consider social distancing at a church. That doesn't even make sense. We're supposed to be social distancing really pretty much all the time. Why would you just want to consider it? These seem to be -- these feel kind of weak and watered down to me.

We have to make it clear that the whole point of having a service is to have many people in an enclosed space. They talked about, consider having them outside. Obviously, that's not always practical. But you know you can do all of these things after you've considered them and still, you're going to have possibly an issue in churches where they haven't done anything. There have been outbreaks. People have died because of outbreaks that started at churches. It's unclear how much you can mitigate something when you're bringing together a large number of people. Wolf? BLITZER: These guidelines from the CDC, they're guidelines, they're recommendations. These are not mandatory by any means, right?

COHEN: Oh, absolutely not. They're not even really recommendations, in a way. I mean, when you say, consider social distancing. I get concerned that when people read that they're like, oh, it's sort of an option. We can social distance, we cannot. When you use words like "consider," it makes it sound like it's not necessarily all that important.

BLITZER: David Holtgrave, we've seen many clusters of cases around the country emerge at religious services. So, do you think these measures will be enough to limit transmission where coming into a holiday weekend?

DR. DAVID HOLTGRAVE, DEAN, SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH, UNIVERSITY AT ALBANY SUNY: Well, I think it's really important to be clear about what we're trying to do here, whether it's houses of worship or other organizations. We still have a responsibility to help protect older persons, persons of all ages with underlying health conditions, and even increasingly we're seeing cases of this new syndrome among children that we need to be mindful of. And the tools that we have available to us now are quite similar to what we had when the shutdowns began.

And I agree with what Elizabeth said. We have to be clear that it's not really an option. We have to practice social distancing. We need to stay home if we're ill. We need to make sure that we're checking symptoms and temperature maybe at the doors, different organizations, faith communities, using masks, using gloves, cleaning between services, all of those things that we really must do if we're going to really protect all the members of our community. And I think those are really critical steps to take.

BLITZER: And you've also, David, been looking at this other development today, the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine. When you look at these late breaking results that we just received today, do you think it's clear this drug should not be used to treat coronavirus patients? Or is there still some room for debate?

HOLTGRAVE: Well, I think the message is becoming quite clear from the observational studies in the literature. We have the very large study, over 96,000 people from six different continents that was published in "The Lancet" journal today. 15,000 of those persons received either hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, and/or an antibiotic with that. And as was said earlier, increased numbers of deaths and abnormal heart rhythms. And that message is really quite consistent with our paper that was out in "The Journal of the American Medical Association" a few days ago and the paper in "The New England Journal of Medicine" a few days before that.

So, these three large observational studies I think are telling a very similar message that there doesn't seem to be evidence of benefit here. And depending on the study, there does seem to be concern about different kinds of effects that might be associated with them. In our paper in "JAMA," the effect was around cardiac arrest, this one today in "Lancet" is around abnormal heart rhythms.

I think that combined with NIH treatment guidelines and the FDA statement of drug safety concern are really clear that if anyone is considering using these drugs, they need to be very mindful about what the literature is suggesting so far. Of course, these are observational studies, and we await some randomized controlled trials that are underway now. And also, these are studies that are focused on more ill, hospitalized patients, and we await any studies, either observational or trials, for prophylactic purposes.

[17:15:09]

BLITZER: All right. Dr. David Holtgrave, Elizabeth Cohen, guys, thank you very much.

Up next, beach cities around the country bracing for crowds this holiday weekend and the potential spread of the virus. I'll talk to the mayor of Daytona Beach about what his city is doing to keep people safe.

Plus, the growing number of violent confrontations over face mask rules. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Americans are expected to flock to newly opened beaches this Memorial Day weekend. Some health experts are very worried that the crowds will make it very difficult for people to stay safe. Let's discuss with the mayor of Daytona Beach in Florida, Derrick Henry.

[17:20:02]

Mayor Henry, thanks very much for joining us. So, what guidelines will people have to follow when they go to the beach in your city this weekend?

MAYOR DERRICK HENRY (D-FL), DAYTONA BEACH: Well, Wolf, we have asked that folks come in no more than groups of six. So, if you're in a group of six, you're fine. We then ask that they stay 10 feet apart from other groups. And as you perhaps know, our beaches referred to as world's most famous beach and that is in large part because many of our beach allow beach parking and driving on the beach. So, we also ask that you park 25 feet from each vehicle. So those are some of the measures that we're putting in place with hopes that you know folks will be able to enjoy the beach and the sunshine and yet be as safe as possible.

BLITZER: It's going to be a holiday weekend, as you know, and you're expecting beautiful weather where you are. What will you do, Mayor, if the beaches get overcrowded and people aren't necessarily able to do significant social distancing?

HENRY: Well, currently all of the beach approaches that are normally open, it's the beach has full access but we do have the one of the mechanisms that can be put in place or enforced is you regulate how many people are allowed to get down on the beach by closing off the ramps. But that is not something that we hope or plan to do. In most cases thus far, what we have noticed is that most folks are completely compliant with what we're asking. One of our biggest concerns happens to be the surf and the rigor of the water during this season. Recently we had as many as 80 rescues. So, we want people to follow good water safety rules and make certain that they are being as safe as possible when in the water.

BLITZER: Do they have to wear face masks?

HENRY: Wearing face masks is not a requirement. Obviously, people quite naturally do not wear face masks when they're on the beach, but we certainly encourage it. We never want to discourage it. It is regarded as best practice in all situations. But it is generally, not expected that when folks come to the beach.

One thing I have said is that the other amenities near the beach will not be open. So, we don't want people to expect you know obviously, bars or even any of our rides to be available or ready for them. But as it relates to masks, we don't expect people to wear them, but you always want to encourage best practices.

BLITZER: You certainly do. Mayor Henry, Florida, as you know, is seeing an upward trend in new cases right now, one forecasting model actually predicts a spike across many southern states if people let their guard down this weekend. Do you worry that potentially could contribute to a new spread of the virus in Florida, in Daytona Beach, where you are?

HENRY: Absolutely. We are concerned. This virus has shown itself to be an uncertain and almost something that we are learning more about each day. So, I am concerned about a spike. And, you know, we're preparing, hoping for the best but obviously preparing as we have for the last several months for the worst.

BLITZER: We just got some detailed CDC guidelines for places of worship. This is on top of other reopening recommendations from the CDC. Is your community going to be implementing these guidelines on houses of worship this weekend?

HENRY: Well, I have not had a chance yet to review the guidelines. But we have not closed our worship centers. And so, we -- our religious community has been extremely compliant. Most of them have self- regulated by closing, and I fully expect them to embrace the CDC guidelines as they have done throughout the pandemic.

BLITZER: Mayor Derrick Henry, good luck to you. Good luck to everybody in Daytona Beach. I'm sure it's going to be very, very important to see what unfolds in these coming days and what the impact potentially could be. Thank you so much for joining us.

HENRY: Thank you, Wolf. Good night.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Some Americans are refusing to wear masks despite serious rules out there actually requiring them in certain areas. And in a very disturbing trend, enforcing mask usage has actually led to some violent encounters across the country.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into this for us. So, Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there have been several disturbing incidents over the past few weeks. Confrontations specifically related to people being asked to wear masks. The seeming escalation of this behavior has put store and restaurant employees as well as security guards in danger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A confrontation over wearing masks gets deadly at a Family Dollar store in Michigan. Three people charged with killing a security guard who police say had asked a customer to wear a state- mandated face mask. It's unclear if the three defendants have entered pleas. The guard's uncle couldn't make sense of it.

[17:25:06]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My nephew lost his life trying to help save lives.

TODD (voice-over): At this waffle house in Aurora, Colorado, police say a man threatened a cook who he refused to serve him because he wasn't wearing a mask. Police said the man returned later wearing a mask and shot the cook after the cook refused to serve him again. The man is charged with attempted first-degree murder. He has not yet entered a plea.

At a Publix grocery store in Miami Beach earlier this month, this was the scene when a man was not let in because he wasn't wearing a mask.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A violation of my constitutional rights and my civil rights!

TODD (voice-over): Miami Beach police tells CNN this video was captured on a code enforcement officer's body camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no pandemic. I'm filing a (BLEEP) lawsuit.

TODD (voice-over): The sign on the store's front door clearly says customers have to cover their mouths and noses. CNN reached out to Publix for comment and more information on the incident, like what precipitated. We didn't hear back from them. Miami Beach police did not have information on what started the confrontation but told CNN no arrests were made.

Tension, confrontation and violence seem to have escalated in recent weeks as businesses have opened up and customers have brushed back on the rules requiring face masks.

JAMES GAGLIANO, FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: And it's frightening. A lot of these stores are trying to follow the rules and regulations that have been placed out there but without additional security it's become very difficult for them. People are angry. People are frustrated. What this means for individual businesses, it puts them and their employees at a greater risk.

TODD (voice-over): We asked a psychiatrist who has worked with law enforcement, what is it about being asked to wear face masks which might set off confrontations.

DR. LISE VAN SUSTEREN, FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST: The face is a very personal - our most personal space. When we're telling people you to cover that up, it really kind of invoke a very primitive sense about the fact that you're trying to dominate me, you're trying to humiliate me, you are trying to control me, and I'm not going to do it.

TODD (voice-over): Some who have resisted wearing masks have said they have a right not to wear one. And many people have been confused over mask wearing because so many jurisdictions have different ordinances about them. But health experts are unequivocal about why they're important.

DR. PETER HOTEZ, DEAN OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: As you go into the workplace or as you're going into any area where there's significant numbers of people, it's lifesaving. You're actually saving other people's lives by wearing that mask and preventing aerosol release of COVID-19 virus.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But law enforcement analysts are worried tonight that as more businesses and public spaces reopen, that the confrontations over wearing face masks will only escalate, stretching the resources not only of law enforcement but also of businesses which may have to hire extra security now. Wolf?

BLITZER: Really serious stuff. Excellent reporting, Brian Todd. Thank you very, very much.

Coming up, all 50 states reopening in some fashion, but many of them are still seeing a rise in new cases. Can governors keep the virus under control even as they loosen restrictions? I'll ask one of the experts behind a very influential coronavirus model.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:33:07]

BLITZER: All 50 states have now partially reopened even as the U.S. closes in a coronavirus death toll of 100,000 people. Let's discuss with Dr. Chris Murray, he's one of the experts behind a key model often cited by the White House. Dr. Murray, right now what 95,823 confirmed deaths here in the United States, what does your model tell us about when we'll actually hit that very sad milestone of 100,000 deaths?

DR. CHRIS MURRAY, DIRECTOR INSTITUTE FOR HEALTH METRICS AND EVALUATION, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: Well, we think we're going to hit the milestone of 100,000 deaths, you know, over the four-day weekend. So coming soon, unfortunately. And so, yes, pretty soon. BLITZER: So pretty soon it'll be 100,000 Americans dead over the past what three months alone, March, April and May. What will the death -- the daily death toll look like as we go into the summer?

MURRAY: Well, we expect the daily death toll to go down slowly. That's the current forecasts. There are four states that have got our attention already where the death count is starting to creep up. And the case count as a leading indicator, and those are Arizona, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin. But overall for the whole country, we do expect this sort of slow decline for the next, you know, two months.

BLITZER: As the country reopens, people are moving around a lot more, but that hasn't necessarily led to an increase in cases, at least not yet. Why do you think that might be?

MURRAY: I think, you know, we've been surprised by that, Wolf, which is, you know, there's been this pretty big uptick in mobility. People see it around the street. We see it in the data, and yet we haven't had as big an increase in transmission as expected.

[17:35:00]

Our best explanation for that is that quite a lot of Americans are wearing masks and being pretty cautious when they go out. You know, 40 percent in the surveys, on average, it varies by state, say they always wear a mask and another 40 percent say they sometimes wear a mask. And we know that masks probably cut the risk for each individual by about half.

So that's probably a big factor and also people just being cautious when they do go out. Not everybody. You can see it in the videos and in online. But on average, we think that's part of the reason we had -- it's not as bad as it could have been.

BLITZER: Does your latest model still a project that by early August 4th, 143,000 Americans will have died from coronavirus right now, once again, 95,000, early August 143,000?

MURRAY: That's what we're seeing. I think as we factor in these states that just didn't peak and are actually on the upswing, you know, the Florida and the Texas examples that I was talking about. Those numbers will probably end up being revised upwards, but we're going to need to see where those trends go. But, yes, 143,000 is our current best estimate for -- until the early August.

BLITZER: And when it comes to the global outlook, I know you and your team have been looking into this very closely. How worried are you about the jump-in cases in -- right now, for example, in Brazil, which has seen an explosion of confirmed cases and deaths?

MURRAY: Now Brazil is incredibly concerning. Numbers are shooting up and they're going up despite having had, you know, the social distancing mandates not imposed by the federal government, but by the state governments. And in the big epidemics like at Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the numbers keep going up. They've had that mandates. They're super concerning. They're going in into the winter season. So to the extent there's seasonal effects, it will get worse. The same thing starting to happen in Argentina, in Chile, in Colombia, in Peru, to Latin America is really a big concern.

BLITZER: It certainly is. We'll stay in very close touch with you, Dr. Chris Murray. Thanks so much for what you and your entire team at the University of Washington are doing. Appreciate it very much.

MURRAY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Coming up, colleges and universities are grappling with some extremely difficult decisions as they plan to reopen in the fall. Is it possible to keep campuses safe during this pandemic?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:10]

BLITZER: We'll get back to our special coverage of the coronavirus pandemic in just a few moments. But first we want to tell you about an important new investigation into the Trump administration's removal of yet another government watchdog. CNN's Jessica Dean has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, there are questions about why the Transportation Department's watchdog was removed from his post while overseeing an investigation into a Trump ally, and whether his outing was politically motivated. As Acting Inspector General Mitch Behm was investigating Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for alleged favoritism toward her home state of Kentucky. Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's up for re-election in Kentucky this November.

The Trump administration replaced being with a new Acting Inspector General Howard "Skip" Elliott, a political appointee nominated by Trump. Behm will be involved continuing on as Deputy Inspector General. Still, it's not sitting well with Democrats.

REP. PETER DEFAZIO (D-OR): Trump is urging inspector generals across all the agencies. We have not heard any substantive reason for removing the career professional who was the acting I.G. except that he isn't a Trump loyalists, or Trump appointee

DEAN (voice-over): News of Behm's removal came the same weekend as the firing of the State Department's Inspector General. In fact, he's the fourth inspector general Trump has fired or removed in the last few months. What's unclear is whether Behm's removal had anything to do with the ongoing investigation into Chao or any other investigation. It's a question government watchdog groups like the nonpartisan project on government oversight want answered.

DANIELLE BRIAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT: One of the things that has to happen is there needs to be a clear mandate that any ongoing investigation remains in effect and it's not stopped because of this removal. That's the best way to ensure that this wasn't retaliatory.

DEAN (voice-over): A department's spokesperson calls the allegations against Chao, "a politically motivated waste of time", adding, "While the department will always be cooperative and responsive to appropriate requests, DOT looks forward to a final resolution of these questions".

This week, three senior Democrats send a letter to Secretary Chao asking for Behm to be reinstated and requesting documents relating to his removal. The Democrats which include Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Congressman Peter DeFazio also expressed concern over Elliott, the new acting I.G., who will now serve in dual roles. Acting inspector general, the agency's internal watchdog, and also the head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation.

DEFAZIO: The political appointee is now both inspecting his own agency, his own actions and will know about his own whistleblowers within his own agency because he's the I.G.

[17:45:12]

DEAN (voice-over): The Department of Transportation issued a fiery response, saying the congressional letter contained, quote, numerous errors of fact and law. It defended Elliott's qualifications and record blasting the letter as, quote, written to further and unfounded political narrative. According to the Department of Transportation's response letter, Elliott will recuse himself from any investigations involving his administration.

BRIAN: What's happening at the Department of Transportation is part of a larger package of assaults on the independence of inspectors general.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DEAN: Now, the department has said that Behm was never removed from office because he had only assumed the duties of an acting inspector general. But CNN has obtained a document signed by a department attorney that designated Mitch Behm as acting Inspector General. As for the new acting and Inspector General, well, we talked with a spokesperson from the DOT I.G.'s office who tells us that Howard "Skip" Elliott will protect the independence of the I.G. office and also will perform his duties with the utmost integrity. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Jessica, thank you very much. Jessica Dean reporting for us.

Coming up, schools are struggling to figure out how and when to bring students back to campus. I'll speak to the president of Duke University.

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[17:51:26] BLITZER: Schools across the United States are struggling to figure out what their campuses will look like this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. We're joined now by the President of Duke University Vincent Price. President Price thanks so much for joining us. And I know you say students will be back on your campus this fall but specific details on the school schedule, attendance, testing haven't yet been determined, I'm told. What can you open up without first setting those guidelines to keep people who come to the campus students, faculty, others safe?

VINCENT PRICE, PRESIDENT, DUKE UNIVERSITY: Well, the reason we stated that we would be announcing by the end of June are concrete plans is because we are still working out those details. Reopening university is not a straightforward proposition under these conditions. We have close to 7,000 undergraduates, most of whom live on campus. We have 8,000 graduate students who live in the Durham, North Carolina community, over 43,000 employees. And the health and safety of the campus community and the Durham community is our top priority, as well as making sure that we can deliver excellent, best in class educational programs.

BLITZER: Well, Duke is --

PRICE: So that takes time.

BLITZER: Yes, Duke is a great university, as we all know. So let me go through some specifics, President Price, will you be doing coronavirus testing, for example?

PRICE: We certainly will do testing. And we have been working with our medical experts at Duke Health, and talking with epidemiologists the nature of testing, the regularity of testing, the manner in which we deploy testing is the open question.

BLITZER: Will the schedule change as well? Will you be rotating students, for example, as they physically go to class? How are you going to figure that out?

PRICE: Well, we're looking at multiple scenarios. And in most of these scenarios, our, you know, critical parameters have to do with safe social distancing on campus, which means less classroom space and certainly less residential space. And we are looking to alter the calendar. It's certainly on the table as one of the options we're considering to compress the work that the students are doing, so that we have less travel in and out of campus, for example. So we're running multiple options to ground at this point.

BLITZER: So what about older professors who might fear their health could be at risk?

PRICE: Well, we're certainly sensitive to that. And we're anticipating that we will be combining remote instruction, even for students who will be on campus would be my expectation, and some mixture of delivery of course work face-to-face and remotely. And my expectation is that we'll be sensitive to the needs of our faculty as well as the needs of our students. Many students may decide that they would rather complete their courses remotely in the fall rather than then beyond campus. And our faculty may decide that they would like to deliver their courses remotely. I think that match of supply and demand is among the things we're working out at this point.

BLITZER: What about sports? So you got some great sports teams at Duke? Will Dukes college sports be starting up again in the fall?

PRICE: Well, again, we're looking at that closely. And at this point, we have not made final decisions. Well, we'll make those announcements when we announce more generally what the fall program will be like.

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We're working closely with the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has put together a medical advisory team which is chaired by a member of our medical school faculty. And we're looking very closely at ways that we can mount, not just intercollegiate athletics but recreation and physical education programs safely. That's the critical concern that we have.

BLITZER: These are critical decisions you have to make. Good luck, President Price, Duke University, a great university. We'll stay in close touch with you. Appreciate it very much.

PRICE: Thank you so much, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, there's more breaking news coming up next year in THE SITUATION ROOM. The CDC issuing guidance for houses of worship as President Trump orders them to reopen, threatens to override governors who refuse.

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