Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Vice President Mike Pence Urges Everyone to Wear a Mask; Dr. Anthony Fauci Discusses Coronavirus Surge; Interview with Mayor Sylvester Turner about Coronavirus Cases in Houston; Trump Retweets Then Deletes Video of "White Power" Chant; Interview with Governor Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) about Coronavirus Pandemic. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired June 28, 2020 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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.
Very grim day for the world still struggling to combat the coronavirus. Today the global death toll eclipsed 500,000. And more than a quarter of those fatalities, over 125,000, are here in the United States. And the trends showed absolutely no sign of slowing down at all. In fact just the opposite. 36 U.S. states reported an increase in new coronavirus cases compared to last week. And just as alarming, only two states reported a decline in new cases in that same time frame. That would be Connecticut and Rhode Island, two of the smaller states in the United States.
So with the virus resurging across the country, the president still refuses to wear a mask in public. But the vice president after days of dodging the question finally, finally encouraged people to do what the president won't do.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Wash your hands, avoid touching your face. And wear a mask. Wherever it's indicated, or wherever you're not able to practice the kind of social distancing that would prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: While President Trump still pivots the issues that are not coronavirus, the vice president has become the face of the administration's messaging on the pandemic at least right now and he spent the weekend telling Americans that we're trending in the right direction despite the mounting evidence which you can see on your screen showing a public health catastrophe under way.
In just moments our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen will bring us her new interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease specialist. But first I want to go to CNN's Alexandra Field. She's in Texas right now where the situation is very grim. Alexandra, before meeting with officials there the vice president
visited a Dallas megachurch this morning filled with a lot, a lot of people. Did church goers and the vice president follow the CDC guidelines intended to keep him and everyone in the church safe?
ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a lot, a lot of people indeed. We did see the vice president wearing his mask when he was seated in the pews. Everyone who filled those pews was also encouraged at least to wear the mask. But there was a choir that performed about 100 people. They were singing loudly without the mask on. Of course Vice President Pence also got up to make remarks, took his mask off for that.
Again this was a gathering that happened indoors. So this is a scenario where you really just can't ensure social distancing. Particularly between the people who were there to watch him. The message that's being sent verbally at least is the correct one that people should be wearing masks. It's something that the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, is echoing as well. But he hasn't mandated it across the state.
Of course we've talked about that a number of times now, Wolf. Instead they are just encouraging people to put the masks on because really the numbers do not lie. Texas has seen a surge in case for days now. They've seen an increase in the hospitalizations for some two weeks and they have the alarming news that the hospitals here in Houston, the hot spot, could be overwhelmed in just one week to three weeks.
So again the message going out that masks should be worn. Doctor Deborah Birx who accompanied the vice president on his trip to Houston also sent out an important message saying wearing the mask is not just about protecting other people. But the science shows that it might help you protect yourself.
So, Wolf, if you are somebody who doesn't think it's important to wear a mask in order to protect your neighbors or your family members or the elderly or the most vulnerable, perhaps the message that you are helping yourself will finally resonate with people.
BLITZER: We shall see. All right, Alexandra, thank you very much.
Joining us now our CNN White House correspondent, John Harwood, and Dr. Ashish Jha, he's the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.
Dr. Jha, when you see the video, specifically the large choir all standing next to each other, singing very loudly obviously and beautifully, I must say, but they're not wearing masks, what goes through your mind?
ASHISH JHA, DIRECTOR, HARVARD GLOBAL HEALTH INSTITUTE: So, Wolf, thanks for having me on. Of course I think back to the choir, the famous choir in Washington state where one infected person ended up infecting almost 60 other folks in exactly that kind of situation.
Look, we all love church choirs. It is a beautiful thing to witness. But right now in the middle of a pandemic, especially in a middle of a pandemic in a hot spot, that's the kind of behavior that I think is from a public health point of view really not responsible. So, I understand why the vice president was there, but I wish that he would model good public health behavior.
BLITZER: Yes. That would be really, really important.
John, listen to what the former -- President Trump's former National Security adviser John Bolton told me earlier in the week about how he thinks the president is handling this overall coronavirus crisis. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BOLTON, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think there is an empty chair in the Oval Office because the president did not want to hear bad news about Xi Jinping, his friend. He did not want to hear bad news about the cover up of the virus in China or its potential effect on the China trade deal that he wants so much. And he didn't want to hear about the potential impact of a pandemic on the American economy and its effect on his reelection.
Turning a blind eye to all these early signs I think hampered the country's ability to deal with this and continues to do so.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He's clearly blaming the president for a lot of this crisis that's unfolding, John, here in the United States. The president turning a blind eye there was an empty chair in the Oval Office. What's your reaction?
JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: First of all, what John Bolton said tracks everything that we watched unfold in real time. The second thing is the best example of that empty chair is just this mask wearing issue that we've been talking about. It's great for Mike Pence to wear one. But President Trump has the biggest megaphone in the country. He has a unique ability to reach all those people you see screaming in online videos about not getting their freedom impinged upon by wearing a mask.
But the president appears psychologically disabled from doing that. We've heard and his friends give us the excuses that it would make him look bad personally. It would make his coronavirus response look bad. He doesn't want to admit he's wrong. He doesn't want to give reporters the satisfaction of seeing him in a mask. But those are all things that exist in his head and no one else's.
There's no debate about it. It would help if the president wore a mask. Encouraged others to do so. But he can't make himself do it. He can't make himself say it. And as a result the entire rest of the government has to proceed working around him as if he's not there.
BLITZER: Yes. At least the vice president now finally, finally is saying it.
Dr. Shah, Dr. Deborah Birx from the Coronavirus Task Force is now saying masks can help protect the wearer from getting infected. They don't just necessarily protect others. But how far does this messaging go when it's not necessarily coming from the top?
SHAH: Yes, so there is some emerging evidence that wearing a mask can help you as well. And maybe even if it doesn't reduce the risk of getting infected, it may reduce the risk of how severe your infection is. So that's important. But all of this is getting lost in all this sort of noise about freedom and what's good for our country. What we need is clear messaging from the White House. And that can ultimately only come from the president.
And that has to be that mask wearing is critical to keeping people safe, keeping our economy open, and until we hear that from the president it's going to be very hard for other officials in the White House and elsewhere to be able to speak clearly on this.
BLITZER: Yes. That's really important. You know, John, as we saw the vice president was wearing a mask when he was sitting at that church earlier today. Hours later he urged all Americans to wear masks finally. That's important coming from the vice president. President still refuses to wear a mask in public.
I want you to listen to what Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN): If wearing mask 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. If you're against Trump you do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Why is it so hard, John, for the president of the United States to do something so simple, to set an example and simply put on a mask?
HARWOOD: Wolf, Donald Trump is imprisoned by his ego. He is not capable of processing the advice he gets from rational people like Lamar Alexander. Everyone knows, as I said earlier, everyone knows this would be a good thing for the president to do. Not only that, it would be good for the president himself politically. It would help him contain the coronavirus.
Containing the coronavirus would help the economy reopen in a more robust way as he's running for reelection this fall. And the fact that he is not able to absorb this information and react to this information tells you something about that empty chair that John Bolton was telling us about.
BLITZER: You know, Dr. Jha, let me play something for you. This is the former director of the CDC, what he had to say about testing right now. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. TOM FRIEDEN, FORMER CDC DIRECTOR: As a doctor, a scientist, an epidemiologist, I can tell you with 100 percent certainly that in most states where you're seeing an increase, it's a real increase. It is not more tests. It is more spread of the virus. And the one number to look at that's very important is the percent of tests that's positive.
The number of cases that can vary some because we're only diagnosing 10 percent, 20 percent of all cases. So the numbers you're seeing are just a reflection, the tip of the ice burg of even more spread.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: When you hear this, Dr. Jha, how important is it for the states out there to take these numbers seriously? What needs to be done especially let's say in Florida right now that are seeing a record number of new cases?
SHAH: Yes, Wolf, so Dr. Friedman is right about everything he said. We do need to be looking at percent positive. I think states like Florida, Texas and Arizona need to understand that the record number of cases they are identifying, they represent 10 percent or 20 percent of all the cases that occurred in those states today. And those cases will end up filling up the hospitals in the days and weeks ahead.
I think each of these states is reacting to slowly giving the gravity of the situation. They have to pull back substantially from how much they've opened. They've got to ramp up testing and they've got to communicate effectively to their people that we are in some trouble in each of these states and we've really have to hunker down for the next few weeks until this wave can pass.
BLITZER: Yes. I just need the next few weeks, this thing could go on for quite a while until there's a real treatment out there, a therapeutic, and certainly until there's a vaccine.
Dr. Jha, thanks as usual for joining us. John Harwood, thanks to you as well.
Coming up, CNN's Elizabeth Cohen has now interviewed America's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. We're going to bring you the interview. That's next right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: In the early weeks of the pandemic, the nation's top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci became America's most trusted voice on coronavirus. I have often said he's a national treasure. While the White House's daily coronavirus task force briefings are now
a thing of the past, Dr. Fauci's expertise will be more vital than ever as the U.S. endures an alarming coronavirus surge.
Our senior medical correspondent Dr. Elizabeth Cohen sat down for an interview with Dr. Fauci. Elizabeth is joining us now.
Elizabeth, you spoke with Dr. Fauci as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival presented by the Aspen Institute. So how concerned is he about this really awful surge in cases here in the United States?
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I have known and been interviewing Dr. Fauci for many, many years now, he is very, very concerned. And he says certainly some of this surge could have been prevented.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: What has happened, I guess understandably, but nonetheless regrettably, that people took the attitude in some places of either all or none. Either you're locked down or you just let it fly and you just ignore many of the guidelines of physical distancing. Wearing a mask. Shaking hands. Avoiding -- I mean, not shaking hands. Avoiding crowds.
And what happened is you see pictures on the TV of the fact that even in states that are telling their citizens to do it correctly, they're doing that. There are crowds. They're not physical distancing. And they're not wearing masks. That's a recipe for disaster.
It's something I spoke about time and again. We do need to open up again. No doubt about it. We want to get the economy back. But you've got to do it in a measured way. And now, we're seeing the consequence of community spread, which is even more difficult to contain than spread in a well-known physical location like a prison, or a nursing home, or a meat-packing place.
When you have community spread it's insidious because there are so many people in the community who are infected but asymptomatic. It makes it extremely problematic to do efficient contact tracing because most of the people who are infected don't even know they're infected. So how do you do contact tracing when someone doesn't have any symptoms?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COHEN: Wolf, Dr. Fauci said that some states have been doing an A plus job of trying to address how to reopen in the best way. Other states he said are doing more of a C job -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, I understand, Elizabeth, you also had a chance to speak with Dr. Fauci about where we are in regards to this all- important critical vaccine. What did he say?
COHEN: You know, Wolf, it's interesting. There are vaccines that are going to go into large scale clinical trials this summer. But we the public, we have not seen any human data on any of these vaccines. There's been no published data. Dr. Fauci, though, said that he's seen data, and I asked him, does this data give you hope that a good efficient safe vaccine is on its way?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FAUCI: What I have seen thus far looks good. So with all the caveats that go with no guarantee, I still think that one can say that I'm cautiously optimistic. That we will have one or maybe more candidates of vaccines that could be available and be effective by the end of the year, the beginning of 2021.
COHEN: When you say available, do you mean I could go to my doctor or my pharmacy and get the shot by the end of the year, beginning of next year?
FAUCI: Yes. Well, Elizabeth, what's different about all of this is that there is a great risk in the provision of resources. So if this were normal business as usual, no emergency, companies would not make investments in the next step until they were sure of the previous step. They wouldn't be manufacturing doses unless they knew the vaccine would work.
What's happened now with major investments on the part of the federal government, that when these products reach a certain point, phase two, early phase 3, you're going to push the button and already start manufacturing, which means that if you prove that it's effective or not, but let's assume it is, and it's December or January, by that time, you will already have a lot of doses to distribute.
In fact, several of the companies and I can't vouch for them, but they're saying it with confidence, several of the companies are saying that by the beginning of 2020 into -- excuse me 2021, and into 2021 they will have hundreds of millions of doses and after a year or so even as many as a billion doses. So if that's true, and we'll take them on their word, then you and I and others could have a vaccine that we might be able to take in December or January or February.
COHEN: You know, vaccines have different levels of efficacy. If you get two doses of measles vaccine you are almost 100 percent protected. But, you know, as you and I know, the flu vaccine even on a well matched year is, you know, 40 percent to 60 percent protective against, you know, the flu. Which do we think this is going to be? Is it going to be 100 percent we are going to protect against this or it might be something less than that? And if so how much less?
FAUCI: Well, as you probably know the answer to your own question, Elizabeth, we don't know the answer to that right now. You've got to do the testing to find out. I doubt seriously that any vaccine will ever be 100 percent protective. The best we've ever done is measles, which is 97 percent to 98 percent effective. That would be wonderful if we get there. I don't think we will. I would settle for 70 percent, 75 percent effective vaccine because that would bring you to that level of would be herd immunity level.
COHEN: So that's -- I'm glad you mentioned that number because the CNN poll and other polls have shown that about -- in this neighborhood about a third of the Americans are not going to get the vaccine. They say they're not going to get it even if it's free and easy to get, or they've very, very hesitant to get it. If only, say, 70 percent, 75 percent of Americans are willing to get the vaccine and it's only, say, I think you just said 70 percent, 75 percent effective, is that going to get us to herd immunity?
FAUCI: No. Unlikely. And that's one of the reasons why we have to make sure we engage the community as we're doing now. To get community people to help us, for people to understand that we are doing everything we can to show that it's safe and that it's effective, and it's for the good of them as individuals and in society to take the vaccine so we have a lot of work to do because as you well know, we've spoken about this intensively in the past, there is a general anti- science, anti-authority, antivaccine feeling among some people in this country. And alarmingly large percentage of people relatively speaking.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Excellent interview. It's only just the beginning, Elizabeth. Thanks so much. Thanks to the Aspen Institute.
COHEN: Thank you.
BLITZER: The Aspen Ideas Festival also for organizing this. It is really, really important. And I just want to alert our viewers we're going to have much more of your interview with Dr. Fauci coming up right at the top of our next hour. There's some important new information coming up. We'll have that. Thanks once again for doing this. We're grateful.
And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Texas is one of 10 states seeing a dramatic rise in new coronavirus cases of more than 50 percent. And Houston is getting hit especially hard. The mayor of Houston is standing by live. We'll discuss when we come back.
BLITZER: Here in the U.S. there are 10 states that are now showing an increase of more than 50 percent new coronavirus cases. One of those is Texas. And as you can see, the state's infections are surging. Texas announced an additional 5300 cases just today. Here's what the Governor Greg Abbott urged Texans to do to try to mitigate the dire situation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R), TEXAS: It does require all Texans to go back to those strategies that we mastered. Wearing a face mask. Sanitizing your hands. Keeping a safe distance. And remembering this, and that is if you don't need to get out, there's no reason to go out at this particular time. If you can keep your distance from others, that's a very good safe place to be.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Good advice from the governor. Joining us now the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner.
Mayor, you heard the governor urging everyone first and foremost to start wearing a mask but still, unfortunately, there's no statewide mandate to do so. Do you think he should require everyone, all Texans, to be wearing a mask?
MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER, HOUSTON: Yes. It's medically sound judgment. That's what the doctors and others are telling us. Right now we can require businesses, their employees, and their customers, but it's not across the board. So the answer to your question, Wolf, is yes. An emphatic yes.
BLITZER: Yes, Mayor, I think Houston is the largest city in Texas, one of the largest cities in the United States. What steps are you willing to take if things don't change on a federal or state level?
TURNER: Well, you know, our authority is somewhat limited by the state. We don't have the power to be any more restrictive than what the governor will allow us to be. I do applaud him for example for closing bars and clubs on Friday. That's a step in the right direction.
For pulling back on the occupancy on restaurants from 75 percent to 50 percent. I would recommend that we kind of go back even further probably to phase two. I think we're in phase three right now even though he's not moving forward on the other phases. But I do think we need to step back a moment. Not necessarily saying we need -- put in effect a stay home order. But certainly we need to be a little bit more restricted, slow things down a little bit and make sure that we're all on the same page.
BLITZER: On Friday the Harris County judge, and Houston is in Harris County, Lina Hidalgo said this about the capacity of hospitals in the area, in your area. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JUDGE LINE HIDALGO, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS: What the data says is in indisputable. Our hospitals, the largest medical center in the world, are using 100 percent of their base operational capacity right now and are beginning to have to rely on surge contingency plans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I know you know Judge Hidalgo. The Texas Medical Center then said today that despite data on ICU beds that was posted yesterday because they were working on developing a new reporting system. That data I don't know how accurate it is. But are you concerned that you aren't necessarily getting the full picture right now of the increasingly dire situation in your city?
TURNER: Well, you know, for the last six weeks every morning I get the report from the Texas Medical Center on the hospital utilization, ICU beds, where things are in terms of their PPEs. I didn't receive on Friday and Saturday. I inquired over the weekend and I have been assured that that information and even more will be forthcoming. So I fully expect that as of Monday going forward that we will get that information.
It's important for people to know, the information is important. Especially when we see the rising surge and we know more people are testing positively for the virus. Look, we're all in this together. It's not the hospital versus anyone else. We're all on the same page. We need to be on the same page. And information is critical so that we can make these critical decisions.
BLITZER: We just --
TURNER: I think that information would be forthcoming.
BLITZER: Mayor Turner, we just learned some disturbing news that Judge Lina Hidalgo and I interviewed her the other day here in THE SITUATION ROOM, and her staff are now in self-quarantine after possible exposure to coronavirus. I don't know if you've heard about this but if you have, what can you tell us?
TURNER: Well, you know, they've been in close proximity but one of the staff members who I think tested positively and then just out of being cautious, she's elected to quarantine. It's a reminder, Wolf, that this virus is an equal opportunity abuser. It doesn't matter who you are. Your party affiliation, whether you're in elected office, whether you're the county judge or the mayor, or anyone else. Yes, this virus is insidious. It is still very much present. And it has no respect of persons.
BLITZER: We heard today from the Vice President Mike Pence who was visiting Dallas. He was wearing a mask at that church earlier this morning. But the choir of more than 100 people they were not wearing masks and they were singing very loudly. There you see video from the vice president. He's in the first row. Unfortunately he's wearing a mask and he finally told everyone wearing a mask is critical.
But when you see the scene at that megachurch this morning, the choir without masks singing very loudly, what goes through your mind?
TURNER: Well, you know, messaging is important and pictures speak volumes. Much volumes than the words themselves. It is important whether you are in a faith base institution, whether in the choir, whether in the pew, whether you're on the campaign trail, whether you're going to work, business, what have you, that you have to put on the mask. That's critically important.
Look, we can't dictate what churches or faith based institutions do. But if they are certainly in the business of making sure that everyone is safe, practicing good health (INAUDIBLE) in positions that we hold to lead by example. You know, my mask is always very -- several masks, always very close where the church I go. Number one, we're virtual. We're not even meeting in person. So all of those things are important. I would encourage even the choir members to put on a mask while they sing.
BLITZER: Yes. Me too. And Mayor Turner, as usual, thanks so much. Good luck to everyone in Houston right now. I know you guys are going through a really, really rough period. Let's hope for the best. Thanks so much for joining us.
TURNER: Thanks. Thanks, Wolf. Appreciate it.
BLITZER: Thank you.
We're going to get back to our special coronavirus coverage in just a few moments. But we're also following another important developing story right now. The president of the United States retweeting then deleting a video that included, get this, a white power chant. The president of the NAACP standing by live to join us. We'll get his reaction.
Stay with us in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We'll have much more on the coronavirus pandemic. Our special coverage coming up the troubling surge in cases here in the United States in just a few moments. But there's another story we're also following tonight. And that story involves the president of the United States. He retweeted a video earlier today of a supporter of his in a golf cart. And on that video the supporter chanted white power. You can see for yourself. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, get out of here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: White power. Yes. There you go, white power, you hear that?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Critics immediately lashed out including the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden who invoked the memory of Charlottesville. President Trump eventually took down the tweet amidst the uproar. But that uproar hasn't subsided. That tweet went out to his more than 80 million followers on Twitter.
Jeremy Diamond, our White House correspondent, is joining us right now with the latest. So, Jeremy, tell us how all of this unfolded. It clearly, it clearly
is so awkward and embarrassing for the president of the United States to be retweeting promoting this kind of language.
JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. And the president didn't just retweet the content. He also attached his own sentiment to it, saying, "Thank you to the great people of the Villages." That comment coming above a video that you just played there where one of his supporters is chanting white power, white power.
Now the White House did issue a statement after the president deleted this tweet more than three hours later. And this is what the deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said in that statement. He said, "President Trump is a big fan of the Villages. He did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from many of his supporters." From his many supporters.
And so, Wolf, the important thing to keep in mind here is that this isn't just an isolated incident. This is part of a string of what we have seen from the president over the years. Both during his 2016 campaign and during his time as president where we have seen the president repeatedly amplify hateful or bigoted messages. You saw some of the president's critics including the Democratic -- presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden saying that this is similar to when the president said there were many fine people during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
You know, and that was one comment. And then we also know that the president has retweeted videos anti-Muslim bigotry as well. So this is a pattern that we have seen from the president.
Wolf, what we saw in this instance, though, is the president deciding to take it down ultimately. But we did not see him apologize for this or frankly condemn the racist message that one of his supporters made here in this video that the president was touting earlier today -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Jeremy, thank you very, very much.
Let's discuss this and more with Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP.
Derrick, thanks so much for joining us. So how do you react to the president retweeting and that message he posted involving that white supremacy video? It happens in a moment where we're seeing a nationwide push pack against systemic racism.
DERRICK JOHNSON, PRESIDENT, NAACP: Well, this president has normalized white supremacy racial hatred to a level where it is dangerous. This is the very thing that we're fighting against with Facebook. This is the very thing that in Mississippi of all places that we're celebrating the taking down of a flag that had imbedded in the corner, the Confederate emblem.
We are a nation that we are on the brink. We have to decide what direction would we like to go. Would we like to go to future where we have a civil discourse around tax policy? Or to the past where we're arguing about racial superiority? This is the presidency I have said before, he's a racist. He's allowed racism to germinate from the White House. And it's a dangerous place for us to be in.
BLITZER: Do you buy the White House statement that the president didn't hear that supporter of his in the golf cart chanting white power?
JOHNSON: It's only a matter of time as soon as the reporter asks him, did you mean to say that, he's going to say yes. Just like a few days ago when he said I don't kid, although the White House tried to put a spin on it. You cannot spin away from this president all of his statements. His actions are consistent for whether Charlottesville, whether it's today. This is a president that is not good for society. It's not good for the globe, and is definitely not good for the citizens of this country.
BLITZER: What does it tell you that there's been no public condemnation of the phrase or any apology even from the White House?
JOHNSON: We have Steve Miller in the White House. That's part of the problem. We have to begin to plan and look forward as a nation. November is that tipping point where we truly make a decision as Americans. How do we want to position ourselves. Do we want to be a civil nation. A united nation, and we celebrate all of the diversity that we have in this nation, or do we want to go back to an America that once was?
And I don't think we want to go backwards. If you look at the protesters in the street, if you look at corporate reaction to the Facebook campaign, I think we're ready to move forward. We just have to make sure that platforms like Facebook that policy makers understand there are repercussions for dividing us as a community. We need to stand together and should no longer be tolerated.
BLITZER: As you mentioned, Derrick, you're joining us from Jackson, Mississippi, and just a few moments ago, the state Senate there passed a bill 37 to 14. That was the vote to change the state flag to remove the Confederate battle emblem.
The bill will now go to the Governor Tate Reeves who has said he will sign it. Give us your reaction. How significant is this?
JOHNSON: It's huge. While a student at Tugaloo College, undergrad here, I was one of several plaintiffs with Congressman Thompson that filed a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi. That was in 1993. In 2001 we had a ballot referendum and I was a campaign manager for that referendum to take the flag down.
And here we are in 2020, that's what 27 years long, and we picked up the fight for many people who came before us. This is a long time coming. Finally Mississippi decided to be one of the 50 states and not the one state standing alone still bearing the emblem of a segregated society.
BLITZER: Yes. I spoke to the commissioner the Southeastern Conference, the Athletic League for Colleges, he said they weren't going to hold anymore championship games in Mississippi until they got rid of that flag. And now they're finally, finally doing it. And that is really important.
Derrick Johnson, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.
JOHNSON: Thank you for the opportunity.
BLITZER: A quick programming note for our viewers. Join our Jake Tapper later tonight for a new CNN Special Report entitled, "TRUMP AND THE LAW AFTER IMPEACHMENT." It airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern right after our special SITUATION ROOM.
You'll want to watch that. It's really important. We'll be back in a moment.
BLITZER: As the coronavirus surge is now sweeping across the United States at least 13 states have now paused or rolled back reopening measures to try to curtail the spread including Arkansas, which has postponed going into what's called phase three. Like 35 other states, Arkansas has seen a rise in cases this week leading to a total count that nears 20,000 cases and at least 264 confirmed deaths.
The Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson is joining us right now.
Governor Hutchinson, thanks so much for joining us. So what's your main concern right now when you look at your state's numbers?
GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: Well, my main concern is simply that the people of Arkansas follow all the guidelines that are needed and adhere to the admonitions of governors and mayors that they socially distance, they protect others, they wear a mask when they can't socially distanced. Those are such critical messages that are very simple and every weekend I get a little stressed out when I see young people particularly that are just going out and having fun.
So that worries you. Secondly, of course, you look at the hospitalizations. We're in good position now, but our hospitals can be strained and our health care workers are doing such an incredible job saving lives under stressful circumstances. And you want to be able to supplement the incredible effort that they are doing.
We are holding our own right now in Arkansas, but we know that we've had an uptick in cases and we're taking it seriously. We've doubled our contact tracing, we've dramatically increased our testing and that's made a difference in helping us to isolate those strains of transmission and that's what we focus on every day.
BLITZER: I know you're one of at least a dozen states that has at least paused some of the reopening plans. Did Arkansas like several other states reopen too soon?
HUTCHINSON: I don't think so. And the key thing was that we didn't re- open on May 4th as many states did everything all at once. We phased it in subsequent to May 4th and we opened things gradually. That way we could measure as to how they were doing in terms of their compliance to see if there's any cases that arise out of lifting those restrictions.
And we measure that every week to see how many cases are coming out of having a contact in a restaurant or a bar, or a barber shop or a church. And as you measure that, then you can determine whether there's a correlation, what specific action you should take. And so, I think, but clearly now, we don't want to move in to broader lifting of restrictions into a phase three until we can have a better control, we know the direction that our cases are going and hopefully see some decline.
BLITZER: Yes, well, hopefully that's the key word. As you know, despite the president's resistance to wearing a mask, we are seeing a whole bunch of other very high profile Republicans calling for people like you, and you have been doing it yourself, to wear a mask when you are close to other people, when you are in public. The vice president today encouraged everyone to wear a mask, Senator Mitch McConnell, Senator Marco Rubio, the former vice president Dick Cheney.
Why do you think the president still, the leader of our country, is refusing to do that?
HUTCHINSON: Well, he would have to answer that question but, you know, the president meets with world leaders and I think he's used that as a reason that he needs to make sure he can communicate effectively. But the bottom line is, his -- this is the most important issue that we face as a nation right now. There's really two things. One is trying to bring our country together in terms of the racial divide and frustrations that are out there. The president needs to lead in that area.
Secondly, in terms of the coronavirus, we have to really set an example, the most -- the thing that we can take charge of is the simple thing of self-discipline, wearing a mask, encouraging people to do the right thing.
And that's why we're all trying to lead in that direction. I fully expect the president to do that. It's important that he does that, so that we can all be moving the same direction to get over this virus, to get it under control.
HUTCHINSON: And it takes everybody pulling together to do that.
BLITZER: It would be really important for him to do so because so many of his supporters think it's a political issue that the Democrats wear a mask, the Republicans don't masks, and that is an awful, awful situation that we are watching right now. Wearing a mask will save people's lives. Hundreds and thousands in the coming weeks and months.
Governor Asa Hutchinson, thanks for what you're doing, thanks so much for joining us.
HUTCHINSON: Great to be with you, Wolf. Thank you.
BLITZER: Thank you.
We're going to have much more of our special coverage coming up, including more of Elizabeth Cohen's new interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci. We'll be right back.