Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Launches Attack on Military Leaders; Mexico's Fourth- Highest in Covid Deaths; India Death Toll Possibly Higher; 22 Fires Burn Across California; Investigations into the Postmaster General. Aired 9:30-10a

Aired September 8, 2020 - 09:30   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Dismiss Pentagon leadership as placing bombs and money over the lives of deployed service members is no small thing. I mean talk about morale issues. I mean we're talking about putting lives on the line in the field.

I just wonder, you're inside that building. You've got a lot of long term relationships there. How concerned were senior Pentagon officials to hear the commander in chief make that accusation?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, facts matter, words matter, don't they? Chief of Staff Mark Meadows came out this morning and said he spoke to General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to reassure them that the president was not attacking top brass directly, but was talking about the so-called military industrial complex.

That's a key phrase, of course. That was put into American history by President Eisenhower three days before he left office to his farewell speech to the nation in 1961. He warned the country to be wary of the defense industry, which had really emerged since World War II. Be wary of the defense industry.

President Trump has facilitated billions of dollars in defense contracts for overseas sales, especially to Saudi Arabia, to the benefit of the defense industry. The president has continuously bragged about increasing funding for the U.S. military.

So the Pentagon leadership is very aware of -- that there's a fundamental contradiction. The president's words were very specific, were very accusatory of the top brass.


STARR: Now the question is, how will the troops on the line react to all of this.

SCIUTTO: Well -- and, Poppy, it's another case of the president's advisers in effect denying what the president said. He didn't say military industrial complex. POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Right.

SCIUTTO: He spoke about leaders at the Pentagon currently in their posts today.


SCIUTTO: It's -- you know, it doesn't add up.

HARLOW: It's a -- it's a great point, Jim.

And, John Harwood, to you. We haven't heard -- not only have we not heard from Defense Secretary Esper, we haven't heard from anyone, any of the top brass at the Pentagon responding.

What is your reaction to that? What does the White House make of that?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I think there are -- there are multiple layers to this.

First of all, if the president was so terribly concerned about the military industrial complex, why would he have placed a former Raytheon executive, Mark Esper, as his defense secretary?

Secondly, his remarks about the troops being in love with him, there was a recent Military Times poll that showed that a plurality of active duty service members actually support Joe Biden.

Third, and when you think about these wild claims about top Pentagon officials being in effect warmongers, remember as Barbara's pointed out earlier in the morning, it's the president of the United States who sends troops to war. It's not military commanders. And anyone who knows military people knows that they are not itching to return to combat, especially if they've seen combat.

But on a more significant level, with respect to "The Atlantic" article, the more you spend time publicly attacking top Pentagon leaders or attacking John Kelly, your former White House chief of staff, retired Marine general, the more you signal to the public that this story in "The Atlantic" wasn't just made up by the reporter, that there are people out there who have negative things to say about the president and that also track things that he's said publicly about John McCain. So I'm not sure how much it's helping him.

And think about what a direct center of the target hit that "Atlantic" article was. Every Trump rally we hear the Lee Greenwood song, where he talks about freedom and says we won't forget the men who died to give that right to me. This is a contradiction of that, as well as the fact that many members, disproportionate members of members of his white, working class base, are, in fact, military veterans and soldiers. That's how damaging this story was to the president.

SCIUTTO: But, Barbara, the -- we shouldn't underestimate that there is exhaustion among not just service members but their families, right, who have had to tolerate these long deployments abroad. But it does appear that politically the president is trying to create a wedge, right, between rank and file service members and their commanders and military officials. And I'm not asking you to be a pollster here, but you have covered the Pentagon for years. You know it well. I mean is that a wedge, in your view, that exists?

STARR: Well, you know, my experience is that military personnel, not to use the cliche here, but they're also American citizens. They have a broad range of views across the board and what is important to them and what they vote for a particular candidate.

But that said, this will be critical in terms of how they vote, for who they want to be their commander in chief for the next four years. I think it's important to look at it this way. If a top sergeant is sitting there talking to his platoon and members of the platoon, junior enlisted, say to the sergeant, hey, the president just said this, is that really true?


Does the top brass only care about defense contractors and not care about us? What is that sergeant supposed to say? It is going to be a tough road ahead no matter what if this begins to resonate with the force.

Keep in mind, Defense Secretary Esper, always reported to be on thin ice with the president, but he is carrying out the president's wishes to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. And, you know, to make the fundamental point, the president wants to end the so-called endless wars. So a lot of lessons for the entire country about how to not get into 19 years of continuous war. I think everybody thinks that's a good idea. But you have to do that at the expense of pitting one side against the other.


HARLOW: Such a great point, Barbara. Thank you for that reporting from the Pentagon.

John Harwood, appreciate it, the Washington perspective.

All right, we're going to go to Mexico next because in Mexico even the government admits there now that the number of people who have died from Covid is likely significantly underreported and the lack of testing may be why. We'll take you to Mexico City, next.



SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

Well, Mexico now has the fourth highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world at nearly 68,000, but the actual number could be much higher. Even the Mexican government admits that is likely because so few people have been tested.

HARLOW: Let's go to our Matt Rivers. He joins us this morning in Mexico City.

I mean, Matt, this is quite an admission from the government and the number that they're putting out there in terms of how many people they think really may have perished from Covid-19 is stunning.

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, Jim and Poppy, the criticism of Mexico's government from the start has been that because of a lack of testing in this country, they don't really have an idea at how bad things are in regards to this pandemic here. But we do have other indicators that show that things are really bad.

So recently Mexico's health ministry took a look at all recorded deaths from March 15th through August 1st of this year and what they found was more than 120,000 excess deaths, that basically means that they recorded about 120,000 extra people dying during this time period this year as compared to other years, more normal years, non-pandemic years. And we know that of that 120,000 figure, more than 47,000 are directly attributed to Covid-19. But what about the remaining 75,000 or so?

I spoke to a director of a Covid response unit at a very prestigious hospital here in Mexico City, and he's of the opinion that of all those excess deaths, in fact the vast majority of those excess deaths, are due to Covid-19. And Mexico's government itself has said multiple times that the actual death toll is far higher than what they've actually put out there officially because of the lack of testing. People with symptoms died before ever getting a test, Jim and Poppy. And it just gives you an idea that things are not great down here in Mexico.


Matt Rivers, thank you for the reporting from Mexico City.

Medical experts in India also fear the deaths there may be much higher than reported.


It's been a number of countries. Italy as well, underreporting.

Vedika Sud joins us now from New Delhi with more.

What do they base this assumption on?

VEDIKA SUD, CNN REPORTER: Well, the deal is that in India there are a lot of tests taking place at this time. As of today, the health ministry has come out and said that over 50 million tests that have taken place and 30.3 million taking place in the last two weeks. But I've spoken to medical experts and others and this is what they have to say.

They say as far as the deaths are concerned, India's got the third highest number of deaths here compared to the rest of the world after the U.S. and Brazil, but these numbers could be underreported for one simple reason, which is, like Matt pointed out, even here in India, people are not getting themselves tested, especially in rural areas where the public healthcare infrastructure is quite frail and fragile.

So a lot of people are dying without the tests being conducted and that is primarily the reason why there could be underreporting here in India when it comes to casualties. We've put that question to the health ministry today that held a press conference about three hours ago. They didn't take our question or respond it to. But this is a very important question that we want the government to be answering sooner rather than later.

Today in the press conference, the government today (ph) even came out and said that while the cases are rising, it's because that the economies are opening here in India. There has been an easing of restrictions across India because of which the numbers are going up and they, once again, appeal to the people to wear masks and maintain social distancing, Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Those rules apply no matter what the country is. That's what the science says.

Vedika Sud, thanks very much.

SUD: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Well, nearly two dozen wildfires -- sound familiar -- still raging in California. One is so bad officials are calling it an unprecedented disaster. All the time new records being set. We'll bring you more.



SCIUTTO: Well, this morning, several people had to be rescued from one of the wildfires still raging in California, and officials say there are more that need to be evacuated. Those people are in campsites near the massive Creek Fire, as it's known, in central California. It is zero percent contained, not at all, and officials are calling it an unprecedented disaster.

Goodness, look at the heat and speed of this, Poppy, it's incredible.

HARLOW: I know. And zero percent contained, as you said, my God.

That is just one of at least 22 fires that are burning across the state.

Our Ryan Young is in California where firefighters are battling also the Eldorado Fire. This is the one, Ryan, that was sparked, officials say, by a gender reveal party. They used pyrotechnics for some reason and now it's grown to nearly 10,000 acres?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It has. You know, there's a lot of people in this area who are very angry about that fact. Look, a lot of people come to this area to take pictures for fall. I mean, look behind me, it is absolutely gorgeous. But when you look back here, you can see the scorched earth. [09:50:02]

This is where the family came to set off those pyrotechnics. And we don't even know what the reveal ended up showing. But we do know at some point the fire sparked and the family tried to put the fire out using water bottles. Well, that didn't work.

Look, the earth is very dry here. And with the combination of winds and the heat, it spread very quickly. Like you said, 8,000 acres so far that they've had to deal with.

But then you talk about this other fire, that Creek Fire, where they had to rescue folks. Thirteen hikers were able to be rescued by helicopters. They had to go to four different locations. And that zero percent containment, you talk about 135,000 acres that have been burning so far. The firefighters have been working very hard, some not even getting a chance to sleep for more than three hours. In fact, listen to one of the commanders talk about the rescue efforts.


COL. DAVID HALL, CALIFORNIA ARMY NATIONAL GUARD: Well, right now the great news is, is they're not in the fire danger area, the ones that we are looking at. Obviously they're at risk if the fire continues to grow and the sheriff's department has been prioritizing the evacuees and providing us a list.


YOUNG: Jim and Poppy, I think one of the things you miss sometimes when you do this on television is the sheer size of the fires when you talk about thousands and thousands of acres of some of this land that's been touched here. Just yesterday I was talking to some of my crew members here, and they were saying, all of this was back here was on fire. We watched this morning as the sun slowly starts to come up here. You can see animals trying to come back out, they're trying to see what's left from the fire.

But as far as your eye can see, you can see the scorched earth. And I think when you combine the fact that it's triple-digit heat and you have the fast-moving winds here, you understand that we're not out of the wood yet, especially when you're dealing with low containment numbers. Your heart goes out to all the people who have lost businesses and stuff, but let's not forgot about those first responders who are fighting the fires right now.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And if you've ever walked through one of those fire zones even years later, it takes years and years to recover. But, of course, lives come first.

Ryan Young, thanks very much.

YOUNG: Absolutely. Thank you.

HARLOW: Well, House Democrats say that the postmaster general should be immediately suspended. Why they are launching a new investigation into him. What's that about? We'll take you to Capitol Hill live.

SCIUTTO: And the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, he'll sit down with our colleague Jake Tapper for an exclusive interview. Don't miss "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" Thursday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, right on CNN.



SCIUTTO: The greatest terror threat to the United States right now is white supremacists. That is according to a report drafted by the Department of Homeland Security. In the drafts, multiple drafts, in fact, DHS calls white supremacists the, quote, the most persistent and lethal threat in the U.S. through 2021. There are some key differences in the placement and language about white supremacy in three versions of the memo but all list white supremacists as the top threat among domestic violence extremists.

HARLOW: That's right. And in the lead section of the two most recent drafts, the phrase "white supremacists extremists" is replaced with "domestic violence extremists."

CNN has reached out to DHS for comment to find out why. The final 2020 threat assessment has not yet been publicly released.

The House Oversight Committee is launching a new investigation into the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, and they're calling for immediate suspension of him. Why? Because of questions over campaign fundraising.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, this is an interesting case.

CNN congressional reporter Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill.

So he's accused of basically getting employees to make donations and then he would reimburse them in effect, right, here? I mean is that -- I mean the allegation, right, is getting around campaign finance limitations.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, that's exactly right, Jim. This all comes from that Sunday report in "The Washington Post" that alleges when he was an executive at New Breed Logistics, essentially he encouraged employees to donate to Republican campaigns, and then they were compensated with lucrative bonuses.

Now, DeJoy has said that he followed campaign finance laws. That while he encouraged his employees to be civically involved, he never meant to pressure anyone and that he followed the law of the land.

Now, what the House Oversight Committee is saying now is that they are going to be investigating. And what they want, is they want to make sure that DeJoy is temporarily suspended while they undergo their investigation.

Here's what Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman of the oversight committee, said. She said, if these allegations are true, Mr. DeJoy could face criminal exposure, not only for his actions in North Carolina, but also for lying to our committee under oath. We will be investigating this issue, but I believe the board of governors must take emergency action to immediately suspend Mr. DeJoy, who they never should have selected in the first place.

And, of course, this all comes after President Trump said yesterday he would be open to an investigation into DeJoy and that if he had done something wrong, that he would no longer support him.

So the House Oversight Committee looking into this. This, of course, is not the first call from Democrats to look into the past allegations about DeJoy.


HARLOW: Lauren --

SCIUTTO: Lauren Fox, thanks so much.

HARLOW: Yes, it's going to be really interesting to follow.

SCIUTTO: Well, a good post-holiday Tuesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow. We're glad to be back with you.

So today is a big day, right, for parent, for students, back to school for nearly 2 million kids today, and parents too, as the nation marks the unofficial end of really a devastating summer.


The death toll from Covid-19 in the U.S., almost 190,000, if you can believe it. Experts signaling it's probably going to get a lot worse in the months ahead.