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U.S. Death Toll Surpasses 125,000 As New Coronavirus Cases Surge; Pence Insists "We Flattened The Curve" Even As It Gets Steeper; Biden Widens Lead Over Trump In National Polls; Interview With Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Aired 8-9a ET

Aired June 28, 2020 - 08:00   ET




MANU RAJU, CNN HOST (voice-over): America's COVID crisis worse than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody I'm testing is coming back positive for COVID. These are like preposterous numbers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're really in a worse place now than we were before.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't see an end in sight.

RAJU: Plus, the case count explodes in Texas. The governor rolls back the reopening.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): If you don't have to go out, do not go out.

RAJU: And with the president's reelection looking shakier than ever, he doubles down on the division.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The left wing mob is trying to demolish our heritage. They don't love our country.

RAJU: And denial.

TRUMP: The plague, it's going away.


RAJU: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Manu Raju. John King is off today.

If America is indeed at war with what President Trump calls the invisible enemy, it is losing. More than 125,000 Americans are dead. And at least 2.5 million have been infected.

The novel coronavirus is raging across much of the country. Thirty-six states are reporting a rise in daily case counts versus a week ago. And just two states are registering a decline in new cases since a week ago. And this is about as bad of a map as you can imagine. But listen to

how Vice President Mike Pence described things on Friday.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have made truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward. We've all seen the encouraging news as we open America again. As we stand here today, all 50 states and territories across this country are opening up safely and responsibly. We're in a much stronger place. The truth is, we did slow the spread, we flattened the curve.


RAJU: Take a look at the curve here, it has not flattened. The number of new cases in the United States set yet another new record on Friday with more than 45,000 cases. The situation is particularly dire across the Sun Belt, especially in Texas, one of the first states to reopen and now seeing its case count explode.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott bowing to reality on Friday, he rolled back part of the reopening by shutting down bars in the state, and admitting he may have moved too quickly.


ABBOTT: If I can go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars. Now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly it -- the coronavirus spread in the bar setting, and, you know, how a bar setting in reality just doesn't work with a pandemic. People go to bars to get close and to drink and to socialize.


RAJU: And joining me now, the mayors of two of the biggest and hardest hit cities in Texas, San Antonio's Ron Nirenberg and Austin's Steve Adler.

Gentlemen, thank you for taking time this Sunday morning to talk to us.

Mayor Nirenberg, I want to start with you. The vice president says we are in a much better place than we were two months ago. But the number of cases in your county has tripled this month, and this was the banner headline in the "San Antonio Express News" on Friday. It says city rushing to COVID calamity.

Is that what your county is facing and do you have the hospital capacity to handle it?

MAYOR RON NIRENBERG (I), SAN ANTONIO, TX: Well, thank you, Manu, good morning. So this is a stark contrast from where we were at the beginning of the month. And the challenge for us is that we indeed flatten the curve early on and we maintained capacity and built up our medical ability to treat, but no one believed that we could continue to do that without maintaining the proper measures that public health professionals have told us all along, this virus is going to be around for a while.

So, if we see the acceleration of cases that continue that we have seen over the last couple of weeks unabate, then we're going to be in trouble, and the capacity in hospitals are already at high stress and so we need to change behaviors very quickly.

RAJU: Mayor Adler, Governor Abbott is trying to close bars, is closing bars in the state and saying that's an effort to try to contain the virus. In your opinion, is that enough or does more need to happen? Does there need to be a shutdown, for instance, something that your own public health director suggested might be needed?

MAYOR STEVE ADLER (D), AUSTIN, TX: I think -- I think we do need more. I think that people that can need to start staying at home. The governor says that, but people don't hear the governor as much as they see the orders that he comes out with, which is why we want him to mandate the use of face coverings in the state. I think that would be one of the most important things that he could do right now. Have to do more.

RAJU: Yes. Mayor Nirenberg, one reason the virus is spreading so rapidly is that people seem to think they can go back to normal. In your county, cell phone tracking data shows residents are just as mobile as they were a year ago, you see there on your screen.


So what is your message to those individuals who continue to move around and who may not be listening to this advice? What do you say to them?

NIRENBERG: That's the biggest challenge is that, you know, from the very start we all knew that the biggest tool we had to fight this pandemic was public trust. It is not just bars. It is not just restaurants. We can't put our finger on just one cause.

This virus spreads everywhere and so when you have mixed messages that call into question whether or not wearing a face mask is a personal liberty or public protecting public health as our medical experts have said repeatedly, it becomes a challenge. We need to, if we're going to open up this country in the next couple of years, we all need to heed the word of the medical experts, wearing face masks, physical distancing, and sanitation, hygiene, all the things they have been telling us, but we're getting too many mixed messages from politicians and Washington, D.C. and at the state capital.

RAJU: And, Mayor Adler, I want you to listen to what the vice president said about masks in an interview this weekend.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why not ask people to wear masks?

PENCE: Well, we believe people should wear masks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why doesn't the president say that? PENCE: Wherever social distancing is not possible, wherever it is

indicated by state or local authorities, and, you know, the -- the president has worn a mask. I wore a mask on several occasions. We made it clear that we want to defer to governors. We want to defer to local officials.


RAJU: Now, Texas, of course, is a red state.

I'm curious, Mayor Adler, would it make a difference if the president or the vice president took a stronger stance on this, or is it enough to leave it up to state and local officials to make that call?

ADLER: It would be a huge difference if the president and the vice president wore a mask everywhere they were and everywhere you expect the public to wear a -- as the mayor said, it is the mixed message that is coming to people.

They don't know whether masks are optional, they are not convinced they help, if they rally helped, then wouldn't their government be mandating that they use them? We had mandatory masking in Austin, and in San Antonio in March and April and more and more people were wearing masks, we were able to flatten the virus.

But then the governor took away our ability to be able to do that, it became something he recommended, but not required. And that sends a very confused message and people stopped wearing the masks. We have gotten now back part of the ability to mandate masks, but only through business and not for people when they're outside.

Government has to do more in this instance and recommend because the message is ambiguous if the governor doesn't mandate it.

RAJU: And we're seeing across the country the tension between reopening the economy and ensuring public safety.

As -- Mayor Nirenberg, I want t ask you where you think they went wrong in the governor's efforts to try to reopen the state's economy?

NIRENBERG: There were a few things that combined into the perfect storm. The first, we began opening before we reached the gating criteria. Having the proper amount of testing and isolation tracing protocols in place before we started opening, none of the cities were really in that position yet. And we began to open.

The second thing is that we started opening too fast. We opened in phases, but the phases were put in place before we had data to support the previous decision. We're moving very quickly. And then to top it all off, which I think was the most difficult and dangerous thing was that they stripped away local authority. And also made it seem as if mask wearing and other physical distancing measures were not necessary.

So you had a perfect combination of people just getting the feeling we're out of the woods, the urban communities had done such a good job of flattening the curb, that we could all go back to normal life, and clearly that is not the case. It is much easier to prevent a forest fire than it is to try to contain and stop one.

RAJU: And, Mayor Adler, of course, you have a major university in your city, the University of Texas, in Austin. It's one of the biggest campuses of the country, more than 50,000 students.

Should they reopen for in person instruction in the fall? It appears they have not made a decision yet, plan to make one soon. But what do you think they should do? Should they reopen and allow students to come back to class?

ADLER: I have real concerns about students gathering again. The answer to that question is absolutely not, if they can ensure that the students are going to mask and social distance. We're finding right now that our numbers are going up as is they are all over the country, especially in that younger population. Folks that feel that they're bulletproof.

Although I just saw the two 17-year-olds died in Florida, a day or two ago, so they're not bulletproof. But they have to wear masks because they can carry the virus and infect other people, even if they don't feel like they have it themselves, even if they're asymptomatic.


So I have concerns about it, and absolutely not if they can't get the students to mask.

RAJU: Thank you, gentlemen, for taking the time this morning and talking with us and dealing with the challenges in your cities.

And up next, for us, against all evidence, the president continues to say the virus isn't as bad as you think.


RAJU: The numbers tell the story of a virus that continues to ravage the United States. States. States across the South and West setting records last week for daily confirmed cases. At least 12 states have been forced to pause or roll back their reopening plans.

And it didn't have to be this way. Look at the comparison of the United States and the European Union, E.U. countries did crush their curve, the United States did not. But president Trump inaccurately continues to claim the real problem isn't that people are getting sick, is that more people are getting tested.


TRUMP: So we have more cases, because we do the greatest testing. If we didn't do testing, we have no cases. Other countries, they don't test millions. So, up to almost 30 million tests.

So when you do 30 million, you're going to have a kid with the sniffles and they'll say it is coronavirus, whatever you want to call it.


RAJU: And joining us now, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard's Global Health Institute.

Dr. Jha, thank you so much for taking the time this morning and chatting with us.

I want to start right there with what the president has been saying for weeks that the only reason the case count are --cases are rising is because the United States is testing more.


He says the virus will disappear, the worst is behind us.

Give us the reality about how much increased testing really has to do with the uptick in cases across the country.

DR. ASHISH JHA, DIRECTOR, HARVARD GLOBAL HEALTH INSTITUTE: So good morning and thank you for having me on.

So we have increased our testing. And that's good news. But it is very clear to all the experts, including the experts from the CDC and the president's own task force that that's not what explains what is happening in the United States right now.

The increasing number of cases we're identifying is because there are more people getting infected and increasing testing wouldn't explain our hospitals getting full, our ICUs getting full. So, this idea that testing is driving all of this is just simply not true.

RAJU: Now, three of the states that are doing the worse now are three of the biggest, California, Texas, Florida. Texas and Florida were among the first to reopen, but California has been a little bit more cautious.

But now, we're seeing some states like Texas, Arizona, Florida pause and reverse their openings. And I'm curious what lesson should states draw from this.

JHA: Yes. So, the key issue here is that we have got to let evidence and science and data drive these decisions. And those states didn't. They opened when things were still the number of cases had not been declining steadily and they opened too fast.

I think as you mentioned in your last segment or someone mentioned in the last segment, too many states opened too fast without letting data drive those decisions. So, now, I think we're going to see reversals. I'm afraid that we might see a couple of states at some point go back into shelter in place. And I'm hoping that we're learning our lesson and we can really open up our country much more safely as we go forward in the next days and weeks ahead.

RAJU: And learn much more about this virus, and the CDC said just this past week that there could be 20 million Americans who had the disease, but were asymptomatic, so they never knew they even were carrying the virus.

So, how much harder does that make it for public health experts, for local officials, the federal government to stop the spread of the disease?

JHA: So, yeah, the CDC report didn't necessarily argue that most people were asymptomatic, just that we had a lot more infections.

Couple of thoughts on that, one is that it is a reminder that most of those people weren't identified as having COVID because we didn't have enough testing. So the lack of testing is why we have so many more people infected and have been identified.

Second, you know, for months we have been telling people unless you're really, really sick you can't come in and get a test. So, if we really want to get our arms around this disease, we have to ramp up testing.

Even today we're probably missing 70 percent, 80 percent of the cases that are out there on a daily basis. So we're way behind on testing and we've got to be doing a lot more.

RAJU: The case count is surging, but so far, the death rate has not been. Listen to what Vice President Mike Pence did have to say about that.


PENCE: We can still take some comfort in the fact that fatalities are declining all across the country. There literally was a day, two months ago this week, where we lost 2,500 Americans in a single day. This week, there were two days where we lost less than 300 Americans.


RAJU: Dr. Jha, is he right? Should we take some comfort in that or do we just not know yet?

JHA; I mean, it is always good to take comfort in fewer people dying. And so, I do. But the question is that sustainable and there are a couple of reasons that make me worry they're not.

First of all, death is always a lagging indicator. When hospitals start getting full, you start worrying that eventually in the days and weeks ahead, we're going to see increases in deaths. So, I am worried about that.

Second is, a lot of these are young people who are getting infected, less likely to die, thankfully, but these people are then going to go on and infect their parents and grandparents. And so, we're going to see increases in the age of people getting infected, in the weeks ahead.

So I don't think we're out of the woods, I don't think we should assume this is no big deal. We still really need to work on curtailing this disease.

RAJU: So much more to learn about this disease.

Dr. Jha, thank you for coming on, and sharing your expertise with us this morning.

And up next, what does the top Republican senator think of the U.S. response to the pandemic? My exclusive with the Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, next.



RAJU: Welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS.

As we discuss what's happening across this country, bringing back Dr. Ashish Jha to discuss the U.S. response to this pandemic.

Dr. Jha, I want to ask you about schools reopening in the fall. Is this a -- how realistic is it for schools to begin instruction in classes, bringing back students, college campuses, is that a real possibility given the surge that we're seeing in key states across the country?

JHA: Yeah, so, thanks for that question.

You know, everybody is interested in this, I have three kids -- my wife and are wondering are we sending our kid backs to school? We're desperate to send kids back to school. I think it's really important that we get kids back in, we open up colleges and universities.

The single biggest factor of whether schools can open and stay open is how much disease outbreak there is in their community. And if we look at the levels of infection that are happening across much of the country right now, if those numbers are sustained into the fall, there is little to no chance we're going to be able to keep schools open.

This is why it is so urgent for us to get political leadership to really work on bringing virus levels down, so we can open up our schools, open up our businesses, open up our universities, and get our economy going again.

RAJU: Yeah, and one of the ways to get the economy going is getting back to airline travel and we've seen airlines starting to -- airline travel starting to pick up, American Airlines, some flights showing that there are full flights.

What precautions should Americans take about traveling, should they travel and how should the airlines deal with what we can see potentially is the influx of new passengers, particularly if schools open in the fall and students have to fly cross the country to get to their classes?

JHA: Yeah, you know, travel is such an incredibly important part of the American sort of experience, right? Especially during the summer when everybody likes to go on vacation and get on an airplane.

The key issues are planes themselves are safe because of the reasonably good job they do filtering air. But you've got to get to the airport, you've got to get through potentially large crowded airports. So I think all of that remains risky, if you're in a community in a city with a large outbreak.


So, if you're in a place where there aren't many cases, you're safe to travel. I do think it is important that people wear masks all the way through, when they leave their home to when they arrive at their destination. That's going to make it safer.

There's nothing that is perfectly safe, but there are things we can do to make travel safer.

RAJU: Yeah, some of the airlines and passengers both have to work on as we deal with reopening the economy.

Dr. Ashish Jha, thank you so much for, again, taking the time here. We'll be right back.

JHA: Thanks.



RAJU: Now, President Trump is beset by crises on all sides and a look at the latest 2020 polling shows he faces an increasingly uphill battle for re-election. Now, let's just look at some of the numbers. The national pollings tell a very similar story, the President is behind and behind by a lot.

Look at beyond -- well beyond the margin of error, the President down by eight points in an NPR/Marist poll. Down by double digits in two polls here: Fox News poll and "The New York Times" poll. Eight points in a Quinnipiac University poll. That's on the national level.

Now let's look across the key demographic group. Black voters, a huge advantage for Joe Biden. Hispanic voters, younger voters as well, major gender gap here with Biden holding a 22-point edge with women.

And key voters -- Independent voters look how big of a margin that Joe Biden has now -- 18 points leading Trump according to the polls.

Now let's just take it in comparison to what happened in 2016 when the President won his -- the first term in office. He took Independents by 4 points. He won men, older voters who tend to vote in larger numbers. Did well with white voters. White voters with no college degree, also did well.

Now look at right now. Joe Biden ahead in these three categories -- Independents, men and older voters who do vote in large numbers as well as look at neck and neck with white voters and cutting into the President's margin with white working class voters.

Now, swing states also tell the story of advantage, Biden. All the states that help the President carry the -- carry the election back in 2016 -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida -- those states all going to Biden, according to the polls.

The President and his team think that things will turn around once Biden is out in public more, believing he's going to make mistakes, commit gaffes. But even as President Trump ridiculed the way that Biden talks during a Fox News interview last week, Trump also seemed to slip himself saying Biden is going to be your president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is so crazy what is happening. Here is a guy, doesn't talk, nobody hears him, whenever he does talk, he can't put two sentences together. I don't want to be nice or unnice, ok. But I mean, the man can't speak.

And he's going to be your president because some people don't love me maybe and, you know, all I'm doing is doing my job.


RAJU: Now here to share their reporting and their insights: Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times" and Asma Khalid of NPR. Thank you both for taking the time this morning and speaking with us.

So let's just talk about we know the polls can turn around and it's a long time between now and Election Day and when you look at the polls -- Jonathan, those voters, they swung -- the swing voters, they're now moving towards the Biden camp. Can the President win them back or are they -- are they gone for him?

JONATHAN MARTIN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, that's the key question, Manu, you know, are they recoverable? And I think it is going to take sort of two steps from the President he has not yet demonstrated he's willing to take.

One is to sort of stick to his teleprompter in public remarks and the second is to give up his phone and not tweet inflammatory things. And there is just no evidence that he's willing to do either of those things.

In fact, he believes that a big chunk of his appeal -- Manu, is that he does speak off the cuff. He does sort of lob these verbal grenades. And so he's not willing to sort of give up those sort of platforms.

The challenge is because he's so unrestrained, he repeatedly exacerbates his political challenge. This race has been a competitive race against Biden for a year. It is not until the last month and a half that it got away from him. And he's now looking at margins in states like Wisconsin which you know well, which are not even close.

Can he bring down the margin? Yes. Can he get it back to a point where he's winning in Wisconsin? I think it's going to be a real challenge without him changing his behavior.

RAJU: Yes. And there's no way he had been -- since you noted -- that he's changing his behavior. He's been very active --

MARTIN: Right.

RAJU: -- including this morning on Twitter, not surprisingly. Well, one thing that caught people's attention is he shared a video this morning in which a supporter in Florida shouts white power at protesters. He praised them as --

MARTIN: Exactly.

RAJU: -- quote, "great people".

Asma -- what is your reaction to this latest tweet by the President and it seems to be in line with what he's been saying and doing in the last couple of weeks here.

ASMA KHALID, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NPR: Yes, I would say it has been (INAUDIBLE) in sync with what we have seen from the President since he first began his run in 2016. And that is that he often reverts to culture wars. It is something that was very successful for him in 2016.

I think what we have begun to see in both the polling as well as, you know, anecdotal reporting -- I spent some time recently in both Wisconsin and Michigan, talking to voters in key swing counties and what I have begun to see, which is really fascinating, is that there is culture and race as a motivating factor for white liberal voters.

And I will say, to me, this is very unusual. I have not seen race and cultural issues as a motivating factor for Democratic liberal voters, to be honest, in many previous campaign cycles.

I think conventional wisdom is that when Donald Trump goes and plays to the culture wars, it is usually a successful strategy for him, a successful strategy for the Republican base which is why he keeps going back to it.


KHALID: You know, obviously, the protests that we have seen around racial injustice though, have shown this kind of, you know, overwhelming shift, I think we have begun to see amongst white voters that I have not seen before.

And really, you know, we see them across the world. We see it in young voters. We see it in sort of middle-aged white women who tell me that they feel embarrassed that they weren't aware of their white privilege before. And that is a fundamental shift is in white voters.

RAJU: And a big question -- go ahead. Go ahead -- Jonathan.

MARTIN: I was going to add, Manu --

RAJU: Looks like we lost Jonathan. Asma -- do we still have you? We lost them both?

KHALID: Oh no. I think I'm still here.

RAJU: You're still there. Ok, good. We'll try to get Jonathan Martin back.

Asma -- you were in Michigan, though, talking to white swing voters, people some who voted for the President last time. What were you hearing on your reporting on the ground as you spoke with them about the President's response to these crises?

KHALID: So I would say when we speak to voters, or when I did speak to voters both about the pandemic as well as George Floyd's death and the racial unrest that we have seen in the country, the President does not get good reviews. Where he does sometimes still get positive reviews is around the economy.

And I think to Jonathan's point earlier, you know, if the President is able to focus his message and refocus on concentrating on the economy, you know, he could potentially turn this race around ahead of November. I think the struggle for him is that the moment we are in right now, we are hearing so much about race, we are hearing continuously about the rising number of coronavirus cases and these are two issues which the President does not get positive reviews.

And not just I would argue, you know, from folks who may have voted for a Republican governor in the past, but what I heard time and again from folks -- these are people who are, you know, most likely telling me -- they were interested in either candidate.

I certainly have met people who voted third party in 2016. Some young voters who chose not to vote at all. And those are the voters that I have actually been fascinated to hear from who seem willing to go with Joe Biden, willing to go with the Democratic nominee this time around and they were not willing to do that for Hillary Clinton before --

RAJU: And big question, of course, is what the President's vision for a second term. During campaign rallies, the President offers generalities about bringing the economy back, years of many, many grievances.

Listen to how he handled this softball question from Sean Hannity, one of his close advisers, a Fox News host, when he was asked about his second term priorities.


TRUMP: You know, the word "experience" is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I've always said that. But the word "experience" is a very important word. It is a very important meaning.

I never did this before. Never slept over in Washington. All of a sudden I'm president of the United States. I didn't know very many people in Washington. I wasn't my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York. Now I know everybody. (END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: So Asma -- how damaging do you think that response ultimately will be for the President?

KHALID: I mean, that lack of experience was no doubt a selling point in 2016, but we're in the midst of a pandemic, about a quarter of the deaths we have seen from coronavirus are here in the United States. What I hear from voters -- Republican and Democrat alike -- is that they want somebody who is experienced to be able to handle the scientific and medical problems that we have begun to see with the virus.

And the President often does not get good reviews from even Republican voters I've spoken to about how he's handled the medical side of the virus.

RAJU: Yes.

KHALID: You know. Make jokes about Joe Biden's gaffes and what not, but one thing you hear from a lot of voters is they like the fact that Joe Biden knows government, knows people, and knows what to do.

RAJU: And one thing I do want to ask you about is a story that came out over the last couple of days. "The New York Times" first reported about intelligence officers recently offering Taliban militants in Afghanistan money as rewards to kill troops from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Now the White House says neither the President nor the Vice President were briefed on this intelligence. Joe Biden was quick to criticize the President over this.

Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin. But this is beyond the pale. It's betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation. To protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm's way. That's a betrayal of every single American family with a loved one serving in Afghanistan or anywhere overseas.


RAJU: Asma -- do you think that statement from the White House is that the President has not been briefed on this. The President tweeted repeatedly this morning saying he has not been briefed on this. They've not denied the ultimate report here that there is intelligence showing this.

Is that enough, the White House statement? Are they going to have to answer more questions about this?

KHALID: I mean I think a lot of journalists are going to be asking more questions because whether or not the President says he wasn't briefed on it, I mean that raises questions too about who is ultimately responsible for, you know, negotiation of that sort or -- behavior of that.


KHALID: And if the President says he wasn't briefed on that, I think that certainly raises questions amongst many voters about who is ultimately responsible here.


Asma Khalid with NPR -- thank you so much for joining us. Jonathan Martin for that brief moment martin we lost him -- thanks as well.

Up next for us, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairman Lamar Alexander will be joining us next.



RAJU: More than 2.5 million cases in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is a full blown public health disaster. But that's not how President Trump sees it.


TRUMP: And we're up to almost 30 million tests. That means we're going to have more cases. If we didn't want to test, or if we didn't test we wouldn't have cases. But we have cases because we test. Deaths are down. We have one of the lowest mortality rates. We have done an incredible historic job.


RAJU: Trump seems determined to downplay the pandemic even as it has killed more than 125,000 Americans in just four months. But New York Times/Sienna College poll this week shows nearly six in ten voters disapprove of his handling of the pandemic response. And new outbreaks are cropping up around the country including in states the President won in 2016, places like Florida, Texas, Arizona and Tennessee.

And Republican Senator Lamar Alexander represents that last state Tennessee. He's also chairman of the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and oversees the U.S. response to this pandemic.

And Senator is joining us by phone and we thank you for joining us from Maryville, Tennessee.

I first want to ask you, Senator -- about the President's assessment that the United States is doing an incredible job containing this pandemic. I'm wondering, do you agree with that?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN) (via telephone): Well, I can give you my assessment of it. I think in some ways the United States has done a good job. For example, removing one thing that will make the most difference -- tests, treatments and vaccines more rapidly than we ever have. One area where we didn't do as well was the first test from the Centers for Disease Control -- was a flop.

But let's remember that on March 1st, "The New York Times" reported on its front page that most experts agree that the United States is about as well prepared as any country in the world to manage like this.

And this virus surprised the experts. It moves more rapidly than people expected. It moves silently and it has been a problem and it is a problem today.

RAJU: Do you think that the U.S. response has suffered any, has been lackluster when you look at how the government has responded to this virus?

ALEXANDER: Well, in terms of the number of tests I think the number of tests is going up 4 to 5 times by the fall so that schools and colleges that are planning to reopen will be able to have an adequate number of tests for systematic testing.

(AUDIO GAP) enough money from Congress to allow the states to hire as many contract tracers as they need, which is an essential part of it, and we're moving ahead more rapidly with vaccines, building manufacturing plants. We even know whether the vaccines work in order to cut six months off the amount of time it takes.

So in those areas I think we're doing well. But, you know, it is a virus that we have -- having a hard time dealing with and some states are doing better than others.

RAJU: So your state of Tennessee reported the highest number of new cases since the pandemic. Are you worried states like yours are rushing the reopening before getting control of the virus?

ALEXANDER: I'm not ready to say that yet. Our governor has been very reasonable, I think in his approach. For example -- we're among the top ten states in testing. We have tested all of the prisons, all of the nursing homes, free tests are available in -- for people in vulnerable areas, minority communities, anybody who wants to test can get one.

So I think our pace is about right, from my vantage point, but it is concerning when the number of hospitalizations go up and I think we just have to watch it very carefully.

RAJU: Now, studies also show that wearing masks has a significant impact on preventing the spread of the disease. You -- I see you wearing your red and black plaid mask throughout the capital. Your staff does as well.

The President, however, he refuses to wear one. The Vice President continues to say this is an issue states should decide. Should the White House do more and the President do more to urge Americans to wear masks? ALEXANDER: You know, I wish the President would wear a mask when it is

appropriate because millions of Americans admire him. And they would follow his lead.

And his experts have told all of us that (AUDIO GAP) -- social distance and washing your hands is the way we're going to contain the disease, to go back to school and back to work. It also would help to get rid of this political debate, that if you're for President Trump, you don't wear a mask. And if you're against President Trump, you do wear a mask. The stakes are much too high for that.


ALEXANDER: So I understand why he doesn't. Most of the time he's with people who have been tested, he's been tested, so they're not infecting others.

But there are times when he could wear a mask, the Vice President could wear a mask. It would signal to the country that it's important to do so. It would help contain the disease because people admire him and will follow his lead.

So I think it would be a sign of strength if he would from time to time wear a mask and remind everyone that it is a good way to help deal with this disease. We're going to have to live with it through 2020 until we get to a vaccine.

RAJU: And when you see -- when you see, Senator -- you know, in his rallies people are not wearing masks. Not calling out -- urging people to wear masks, I mean how much does that worry you that that could lead to this continue spread of this disease without real aggressive call by the White House, by the President urging his supporters to do just that?

ALEXANDER: He can lead more by example than by calling out. I don't expect the President to tell us what to do in that sense. He has Dr. Fauci and the other experts who are going to be testifying Tuesday before our committee. They'll be wearing masks. They'll be telling people to wear masks. The health experts are the ones who can do that.

I'm just saying, if wearing masks is important and all the health experts tell us that it is, in containing the disease in 2020, it would help if from time to time the President would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate that says if you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask. And if you're against Trump, you do.

RAJU: So the President also has -- continues to give out medical advice. You know, you and I talk about in the halls of the Capitol, I've heard you say repeatedly, listen to the public health experts about what is happening in the pandemic.

But the President oftentimes gives false and misleading medical advice. I want you to take a listen to some examples of that.


TRUMP: By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer it miraculously goes away.

What do you have to lose? Take it. Hydroxychloroquine. Try it.

I see the disinfectant. Is there a way we can do something like that? By injection inside.

You're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.


RAJU: So what is your suggestion to the American public in these very uncertain times? Should they listen to the President's advice about how to deal with this virus?

ALEXANDER: I think what the President said -- listen to Dr. Fauci, listen to Dr. Birx, Dr. Redfield. They're testifying Tuesday before our hearing for two and a half hours. When they did that before you had very CNN and every network carry them live.

So my suggestion to the President all along and to the other political leaders is let the experts do the talking about medicine. People trust them. If Senator Schumer or Senator Alexander or President Trump give medical advice, people would think we're have some (INAUDIBLE). So I stay away from that.

And when I repeat what I think is going to happen, I try to give the source for it. And then Dr. Fauci and others say, look, there is a lot we don't know about this disease. So we have to be very careful what we say about it.

(AUDIO GAP) is that if you wear a mask, and you social distance, and you wash your hands -- those are the three things that each of us can do to make our way through 2020 until we get a vaccine.

RAJU: So you, of course, have worked for years on healthcare policy, but one thing you have been critical about is the lawsuit now before the Supreme Court to essentially eliminate the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday night, the administration filed a brief in support of that effort.

Why are you concerned about that White House-backed effort to dismantle the law before the Supreme Court?

ALEXANDER: I never thought that was a very good case. I mean what the government is basically arguing is that when the United States Senate in fact repealed the individual (AUDIO GAP) -- it repealed Obamacare.

I don't remember hearing anybody in the United States Senate saying at the time we thought we were repealing Obamacare. We thought we were repealing the penalty on the individual mandate.


And I also want to ask you about reports that came out over about this weekend, you know, intelligence showing that there were actually Russian intelligence services that were offering bounties to Taliban fighters to pay (SIC) American and British soldiers in Afghanistan.

I wonder -- you've seen the reports, I'm wondering if they concern you from what you've read?

ALEXANDER: I read the story -- Manu. One, I don't know if it is true or not. Just based on sources. So I need to wait to find out if it is true.

Number two, if it were to be true, anything like it, it would be (AUDIO GAP) the Russian practice over the last several years of doing its best secretly to try to undermine western governments, including the United States.


RAJU: Yes. And Senator -- I know you don't like to talk about the President's tweets. But he has been active this morning on Twitter and he shared a very inflammatory video this morning of a supporter in Florida shouting "white power" at protesters. He praised them as great people.

In a time when this country is confronting racism, you're dealing with it in Washington, is this the type of thing that the President should be doing?

ALEXANDER: Well, Manu -- you and I discussed this many times -- I don't try to get (AUDIO GAP) on the President's tweets. What I try to do is work with him when I can as we did with the Great American Outdoors Act last week, the most important bill we passed in -- on conservation in 50 years. And to work with him to try to increase the number of tests and vaccines and have hearings like we are on Tuesday on what we're doing about COVID.

So I'm not going to try to comment on a tweet I haven't even seen.

RAJU: Senator Alexander -- thank you so much for joining us from Tennessee.

That's it for us for INSIDE POLITICS.

Up next, "STATE OF THE UNION WITH JAKE TAPPER". His guests include Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, John Bolton, the former national security advisor, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Thanks again for sharing your Sunday morning with us. Have a great day.