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9 Vaccine Makers Sign Safety Pledge in Race for Vaccine; 11 States Report Rise in New Coronavirus Cases; Dr. Mark McClellan Discusses Rise in New Infections & Vaccine Maker Safety Pledge; Trump Attacks Rivals, Military Brass from Front of Steps at White House; Bolton: Trump Didn't Disparage Fallen Military Members; House Members to Investigate Claims Postmaster General Pressured Employees at Former Company to Make Political Donations. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired September 8, 2020 - 11:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Only three mothers have ever won a grand slam in the last half century. Amazing work by all of them. Congrats, ladies.

Thanks so much for joining us today. We'll see you back here tomorrow. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Tweet us who you think those three moms are, because we think we have the answer and we'll tweet them back.

I'm Jim Sciutto.

"NEWSROOM" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Today is back-to-school day for millions of American students and also a stark reminder that most everything is still disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Just a snapshot here of the 16 largest school districts starting school today, 14 are doing it fully online. More than 7.3 million students beginning the academic year not in a classroom but on a computer at home.

When it will be safe to return remains a big open question. The speed of the vaccine race, well, that's one factor. The trajectory of the new case count is another.

And some positive signs today, but it's going to take us a week, a little bit more to know if Labor Day weekend like holidays before it contributes to a spike in new infections.

Today is also eight weeks to Election Day. The president is the traveling to two big battleground states. The environment his focus in Florida and an evening airport rally in North Carolina.

Noteworthy, it's the second presidential visit to North Carolina in a week. That, a reminder that the president's troubles right now include states that are absolutely essential to his re-election map.

His morning tweets tell us what matters most to him. While many of you were testing the school Zoom log-in, the president was attacking Joe Biden, Black Lives Matter protesters, and taking aim at Democratic governors.

The president says, quote, "The Democrats will open up their states on November 4th, the day after the election." That's his complaint.

He says shutdowns are ridiculous and only being done, in the president's view, to hurt the economy prior to the most important election perhaps in our history.

A constant refrain from the president in recent days is that a vaccine should be ready by Election Day.

Well, today, nine biopharmaceutical companies that are rivals signed a remarkably unusual joint pledge to uphold, quote, "high ethical standards" and be certain they say science alone dictates any vaccine approval requests.

Pfizer's CEO says it's absolutely critical that you, the people who need these vaccines, trust the process.


ALBERT BOURLA, CEO, PFIZER: With increasing public concerns about the processes that we're used to go develop these vaccines and even more importantly the processes that will be used to evaluate these vaccines we saw this critical to come out and reiterate our commitment.

We will develop our products. Our vaccines use the highest ethical standards and the most scientific review process.


KING: There are positive trend lines when we look at the numbers but question is it just a blip coming out of a holiday weekend, or are we getting better control of the virus.

Let's take a look. Look at the 50-state trend map. Eleven states trending up, meaning reporting new infections now than a week ago. You see them in the orange and the red.

Florida and Arizona back trending up. The numbers not as high as they were in the summer surge but trending up in those two states.

But overall, 24 holding steady and 15 states trending down. Not fantastic but better than the map a few weeks ago. Trending down.

Five states in terms of in infections yesterday, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina. The Midwest one the current problem zones as we look at it.

The top five states in terms of reporting new deaths yesterday, Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Every one of these numbers is horrible, but these numbers are a little bit lower than they have been in recent days. Again, does that continue? Let's hope so in that regard.

If you look at the overall case trend, very important to note this is below 25,000 new infections reported yesterday. But it was a holiday. The question is: Can it go down you? See sometimes these drops. The drops tend to come right out of a weekend and then things go back up and the reporting.

The baseline, about 40,000 new infections on average in the United States. It was 20,000, just below that, to start the summer. So you had the summer surge, come down to Labor Day.

The question is: Can you push it down more as we head to fall? The experts tell you that's critical. Or is this just a blip? Stay with us throughout the week. We'll see what the numbers do there.

The positivity rate is something that looks a little bit better. You're looking for signs of progress. On Monday, the report was just shy of 5 percent of coronavirus tests nationally came back positive.

All the public health experts say get it below 5 and try to shove it lower. It's at 5 at the moment but the question is can you keep it there and shut it down.

Here's where people get worried Labor Day weekend. More people out. Were they being safe? Were they in close crowds, especially in states that have a way higher 5 percent positivity: 20 percent in North Dakota and 19 percent in South Dakota, 15 percent in Iowa, 18 percent in Kansas, 13 percent in Florida, and 17 percent in Mississippi?

Do those states, can they push it down? Does the holiday weekend bring it back up? That's one of the problems.

Look at New Jersey on the map right here. Its positivity rate right now is 1 percent. Remember back at the beginning, march and April, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut was driving everything? This part of the country is in much better shape right now, much better shape.


If you look at New Jersey overall, over three million coronavirus tests since the beginning in New Jersey and 6 percent have come back positive and 94 percent negative. The positivity rate at the moment down to 1 percent.

The Governor of New Jersey says we're in a good place but we won't let up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. PHIL MURPHY (D-NJ): At this point, we don't see any hot spots. We don't see any specific reason, but this is a virus that is still among us. It ebbs and flows.

We'll do everything that we can to obviously monitor it but also put the policy in place that will keep it in a box. And that's what we're trying to do every day.


KING: Let's continue the conversation. With me is the director of the Center for Public Health at Duke, a former FDA commissioner, Dr. Mark McClellan.

And Dr. McClellan, it's good see you.

So where are we? You see below 25,000 new infections reported yesterday. Let's hope that every infection is a bad thing but let's hope that trend line continues. But as you well know, sometimes out of a holiday weekend you get a bit of a blip in the data there.

But if, right now, seven-day average, 40,000 new infections, where does the United States of America need to push that baseline as we begin to go into the dangers of the fall?

DR. MARK MCCLELLAN, PROFESSOR & FOUNDING DIRECTOR, DUKE-MARGOLIS CENTER FOR HEALTH POLICY, DUKE UNIVERSITY: John, that was a great overview of some numbers that are still concerning in terms of their levels but for most part have been trending in the right direction.

As you said, we won't really know of the consequences of what happened over Labor Day weekend for a few more days at least. It takes a few days for the cases to develop symptoms and to be reported and so forth.

We, right now, are trying to reopen schools and universities, which, in turn, will help more parents get back to work.

Also, if we can keep getting case levels down, it makes it easier to reopen businesses successfully.

These are trends we need to continue. It's challenging when we head into the fall when people spend more time closer together.

The good news in all of this is we know steps that work, distancing it at work and wearing a mask personally and increased testing, especially for people who don't have symptoms and have to be in places together, like in universities and some essential workplaces.

We can do more of all of these things and keep trends going the right direction.

KING: You mentioned if people do the right things. Among the many things you do is it advise the governor of Texas.

During the summer surge with the biggest takes, Arizona, Texas, Florida and California. Texas has come down dramatically since the summer surge. That's good for the people and the country. We hope the numbers stay down.

One thing we saw, Dr. McClellan, in the middle of the surge, that's when Governor Abbott got much more aggressive about masks. I believe you're on the record that you thought bars opened too soon in Texas. The governor did get very aggressive.

We see now Dr. Birx, of the Coronavirus Task Force, delivering reports to Iowa, to Missouri, a few weeks back it was Georgia, urging the Republican governors there to impose a mask mandate, and they have resisted.

Would that help at this time? As you mentioned, kids going back to school, all the kids going back to campus. Parents head willing back to work. Should we develop a mask mandate in place nationally at the moment?

MCCLELLAN: The evidence is wearing masks does make a distance. It reduces the rate of spread. States that have adopted mask mandates have had slower growth.

It's important to remember, John, it's not only imposing the mandate but changing behavior.

What also mattered in Texas, as an example, was new steps to enforce the mandate and in businesses.

Also a lot of outreach to public to remind them it's not only about when you go into a workplace but also when you gather with friends in the backyard, other social events on your own. These same distancing and mask rules are important to follow.

I think the mask mandates at the state level can and do make a difference. Arkansas has seen an impact as well.

But it needs to be backed up with other steps. And that's hard for the national government to do by itself. It really needs to be -- as you said, we're all in this together.

KING: Help me understand, from your past experience as the FDA commissioner.

You have nine competitors coming together to sign a statement saying only science will dictate our decisions to ask for approval of a vaccine. They are trying to allay a lot of concerns that the president or others may have their thumb on the scale.

Imagine you're the FDA commissioner and the president of the United States almost every day said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date. You know what date I'm talking about. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is that helpful?

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think it's very unlikely that we're going to have a vaccine available, even for emergency use in very high-risk groups, like health care workers and some military personnel and first responders.

Very unlikely that that's going to happen before the election. Lots of things have to go right.


And I think, John, the concern is, with all the politics going on right now, we need to remember that there's a strong regularity science team base at the FDA, experts who are watching very closely what's going on with the trials now.

They've laid out clear guidance for what they expect to see. And they to see real results on lowering the rates of infection and severity of infection in a vaccine before we can even be used in an emergency limited situation. That's very unlikely to happen before the election.

I think what you're seeing from industry, from public health experts, former FDA commissioners like me, is just a reminder to the American people that we have a good regulatory mechanism in place. We need to be sure to follow it.

KING: Dr. Mark McClellan, grateful for your expertise and insights, sir Thank you very much.

MCCLELLAN: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.

Up next for us, the president, at that press conference you saw a clip of there, attacks his own military leaders. More on that.

But as we go to break, the president's former fixer, Michael Cohen, with a colorful choice of words to describe his longtime boss.


MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER PERSONAL ATTORNEY TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I describe Mr. Trump as a cult leader. And I was in this cult.




KING: Eight wreaks until Election Day and the president, through his own words and tweets, telling us he's more interested in grievances rather than selling you on his own next term agenda. And 50-plus tweets and retweets to start the day, attacking Joe Biden, the Black Lives Matter movement and the media.

He hits the road for two stops in battleground states, Florida, to promise to protect coastal waters from offshore drilling and, later, an evening rally in North Carolina.

The president is trailing. And top Republicans say it's critical he reset voter perceptions about his coronavirus mismanagement.

Instead, the president is using the country's most powerful stage just as he uses his tweets.

Yesterday, you see him there. That's the North Portico, the front door of the people's house. The president using that as a pulpit to tick through a series of grievances, from rivals, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, to his own military leaders.


TRUMP: Biden is a stupid person. You know that. You're not going to write it but you know that.

Biden and his very liberal running mate, the most liberal person in Congress, by the way -- not the most competent person in my opinion -- should immediately apologize for the reckless anti-vaccine rhetoric that they are talking right now.

I'm not saying the military is in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren't. Because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.


KING: With us to share their reporting and insights, CNN's Barbara Starr and Tamara Keith, White House correspondent for NPR.

Barbara, I want to start with you.

The White House chief of staff trying to clean this up a bit today. But that was the president directly attacking, questioning the integrity of his top Pentagon officials now. Mark Meadows may be trying to say that's not what he meant. But that's what he said.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is absolutely what he said. Chief of Staff Meadows referencing, oh, he was talking about the military/ industrial complex, of course, a reference to General Eisenhower's famous speech in 1961.

Not what President Trump said, however, directly attacking top officials, saying they were going to war to benefit the defense companies.

Words matter. Facts matter.

The nation is controlled, in terms of going to war, by the civilian authorities, not by the military. They go to war because they are told to by the president of the United States. And he keeps them at war as he so sees fit.

Right now, of course, troops are coming home. A lot of lessons to be learned from being in 19 years of continuous combat. But the president didn't address that. He just simply went after the top brass.

And it is concerning to many, wondering what the rank-and-file, the troops out on the line are going to think about all of this. We don't really know yet.

But it's unprecedented that anyone in the Pentagon can remember that a commander-in-chief went after his top officials that he, in fact, personally selected -- John?

KING: And we see this, Tamara, when things get under the president's skin. He's upset by "The Atlantic" report, confirmed by many, even by FOX News, talking about the disparaging remarks the president made about American servicemen, fallen heroes in past wars. So he can't let these things go.

We did get a glimpse yesterday. Republicans wish he would project more leadership on coronavirus and talk more about Joe Biden and the economy.

We did get a little bit of the Joe Biden and the economy part yesterday.



TRUMP: Joe Biden, the radical Socialist Democrats would immediately collapse the economy. If they got in, they will collapse it. You'll have a crash the likes of which you've never seen before, your stocks, your 401Ks.

Biden wants to surrender the country to the violence and surrender our families to the left-wing mob and he wants to surrender our jobs to China.


KING: It's striking to me, Tamara, number one, that Republicans would like him -- we can fact-check some of it. Republicans would like for him to focus on the economy and coronavirus.

It's always striking to me when you see the president reading his notes. That's what they want him to say. He doesn't often stick to it.

KEITH: And what was remarkable about yesterday is that -- and I guess it's not that remarkable anymore because that keeps happening -- that was essentially a campaign speech.

That is what amounted to sort of a subdued version of one of his rally speeches with the same talking points and lines and criticisms of Joe Biden, except it was happening from the White House ostensibly in a press conference. Ultimately, he did answer some questions.


But that's been the president's argument. That was the president's argument, in fact, before the pandemic and before the economy crashed, that Democrats would hurt your 401K. That is something that President Trump has arguing for quite some time now.

KING: And, Barbara, one of the fascinating things is people defend the president when they are defending the president.

This is John Bolton, his former national security adviser. These two men, of course, had a falling out.

But John Bolton was questioning a specific, when the president might have said something denigrating, might have said "suckers" or "losers" about fallen American heroes.

But listen to John Bolton who said it didn't happen at this moment. Listen.


JOHN BOLTON, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president has a habit of disparaging people. He ends up denigrating almost everybody that he comes in contact with whose last name is not Trump.

But at the critical point, Saturday morning, when the decision was made not to go to the cemetery, that he made the disparaging remarks, and he did not.


KING: John Bolton saying it didn't happen at one specific moment that was cited in some of the reports.

As you well know, other reporters at other organizations, our organization, have confirmed the gist, that the president has said disparaging things about fallen American heroes.

But it's striking to me someone in a national security position, like John Bolton, has a habit of disparaging people. He ends up denigrating almost everyone that comes in contact with him. That is remarkable.

STARR: It is. And it will be, you know, clearly up to the voters of this country to decide what they think about it.

But just go back for one second to yesterday. The president disparaged his own leadership in the United States military, basically accusing them of being war profiteers by trying to support defense companies.

When it's very much worth remembering it's Mr. Trump who has touted increased military spending, that he's believes he's gotten for the military, touted overseas weapons contracts, billions of dollars of weapons contracts to Saudi Arabia that have benefited U.S. defense companies. Words matter. Facts matter.

In this case, the president, clearly right on tape there, right in front of cameras, disparaging his own top leaders. There's really no question about it anymore.

KING: You say wards matter, facts matter. Let's listen to more of the press conference yesterday where a lot of this is fact free.


TRUMP: The United States has experimented among the lowest case fatality rates of any major country in the world. And we are an absolute leader in every way.

I've taken in billions and billions of dollars from China. No other president has done what I've done.

President Obama and Biden, Sleepy Joe, he knew everything that was happening. They were spying on my campaign and they got caught.


KING: Again, Tamara, the best employment in the last four years has been as a fact-checker in Washington, D.C.

When you watch him go through it, when he's falsely accusing Biden and Obama of spying on him, that's him. He's animated. He's reading the talking points. He's looking down and seems disinterested.

KEITH: Yes. When he reads from the script, he doesn't have the energy. When he riffs -- and he really riffs when he goes after former President Obama, he perks up.

You know, the fascinating thing about his focus on case fatality rates, which has been something that has endured more months now, is that epidemiologists and health officials, is not the right thing to focus on.

And the sheer number of cases that continue to persist in the United States, regardless of how many people are dying or not, is holding the economy back, which is one of the keys things that President Trump wants to be able to campaign on.

It's the economic recovery that the Fed chairman said in an interview that the best part of the recovery has happened and it's going to get harder from here.

KING: Harder from here.

And you're so right. We went through a stretch in August two, three weeks, 1,000 Americans were dying a day. There's nothing -- there's nothing, nothing to brag about or to compare to anybody else in that.

Tamara Keith and Barbara Starr, grateful for the reporting and the insights. Let's move to another important story. The White House chief of staff

calling the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, an honorable man but saying he expects him to fully cooperate with the House investigation into possible campaign finance activity.

DeJoy issued a statement through a spokesman saying he did consult a trusted campaign finance attorney during his political activities and he believes he followed the rules.

And the House Oversight Committee is launching an investigation after a damning "Washington Post" account that quoted employees of DeJoy's former company saying they were asked to donate to Republicans and then they were reimbursed for the donations. If the true, that is illegal.

The president's take: Wait and see.


TRUMP: I think let the investigations go.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President a follow up, if you don't mind. Do you think he should lose his job if he did something wrong?

TRUMP: Yes. If something can be proven that he did something wrong, always.


KING: CNN's Manu Raju tracking this for us on Capitol Hill.

Manu, where is this investigation going?


It was just announced late last night by the House Oversight Committee, that Carolyn Maloney, the chairman of the committee, says she will have to go through the aftermath of that report that said DeJoy, when was heading the logistics company between 2003 and 2014, would reimburse employees for political donations that were made to Republican candidates.

The federal statute of limitations has lapsed, a five-year statute of limitations. North Carolina doesn't have a statute of limitations. And this is illegal under federal law and North Carolina law.

And on Capitol Hill, Democrats say they are going to investigate, including claims that DeJoy made to the House Oversight Committee in testimony last month that the Democrats believe amounted to him essentially lying to their committee.

This is what Carolyn Maloney said in her statement. She said, "If these allegations are true, Mr. DeJoy could face criminal exposure for his actions in North Carolina and for lying to a committee under oath. 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."

She's referring to that testimony in which he denied reimbursing contributions to the president's campaign. So we'll see how that goes and plays out going forward.

But DeJoy, for his part, issued his own statement from the U.S. Postal Service, saying:

"During his leadership of New Breed Logistics" -- a North Carolina- based company -- "Mr. DeJoy sought and received legal advice on elections law, including the law of political contributions to ensure that New Breed Logistics and any person affiliated with New Breed fully complied with any and all laws. DeJoy believes that all campaign fundraising laws and regulations should be complied with in all respects."

And, John, of course, hovering over all of this, the reason why this is so critical, the focus on the Hill, is because of questions over mail-in voting, whether or not ballots will be delayed in November.

DeJoy, of course, imposed policies that Democrats believe could delay the elections. DeJoy denied that. And that's what's real driving all of this.

And we'll see if he does, indeed, cooperate with the investigation. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said he would this morning -- John?

KING: Not a great time to have leadership questions swirling around the head of the post office. Eight weeks from today, we count the votes.

Manu Raju, live for us on Capitol Hill, we appreciate it very much.

Next, when we come back, the coronavirus on campus. The University of Illinois system got off to a good start but then, well, it says students behaved like students.