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Widower Battles Conspiracy Theory Touted By President Trump; Sean Penn's Non-Profit Group Expands Testing in Georgia; Kremlin Critic Navalny Emerges from Coma After Poisoning. Aired 7:30-8a ET
Aired September 8, 2020 - 07:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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TIMOTHY KLAUSUTIS, CIVILIAN ENGINEER, U.S. AIR FORCE: "I have never had an opportunity to get this fixed or corrected or go on the record and do what I owed Lori, never. These are extremely painful things, and that anything should be added on that kind of loss and that pain is just inhuman."
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ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: That is T.J. Klausutis speaking publicly for the first time about his wife, Lori's death nearly 20 years ago. In an exclusive interview, he discusses the painful toll of losing his wife and then having to fend off these conspiracy theories, including from President Trump, that suggested that she was murdered while working for then Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. We're joined now by "Yahoo News" chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. That interview is part of the latest season of his podcast, "Conspiracyland" which is out today.
Michael, great to talk to you and great to hear pieces of this podcast as I have now. It's so fascinating because we've never heard from Lori's husband, T.J., before, and the toll that this has taken on him and their family. So, did he want to talk to you about this?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Right. You know, he wrote this letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey last May, pleading with him to take down the president's false tweets about the death of his wife. And Twitter --
CAMEROTA: You know -- oh -- Michael, hold on, we lost you --
ISIKOFF: Conspiracy theories and hate --
CAMEROTA: We lost you for a second there --
ISIKOFF: OK -- CAMEROTA: Michael, but still, let me just recap. He wrote the letter
to Jack Dorsey, asking them to take it down. Jack Dorsey refused. And what did they say?
ISIKOFF: Well, they say that the initial explanation from Twitter is, look, global leaders like the president, get a pass on Twitter. They are -- their contributions, what they tweet is part of a democratic dialogue, people get to respond and therefore, they don't -- aren't subject to the same terms of service as the rest of us. That does -- did not go down well with T.J. Klausutis, as you can hear in the podcast, and he reached out to me. I had done a "Conspiracyland" series last year about the case of Seth Rich, the former DNC staffer who became the subject of these conspiracy theories that he was politically assassinated because he leaked e-mails to WikiLeaks.
It was all nonsense. And we told the full story in last year's "Conspiracyland", he reached out to me, he wanted to tell his full story, and he does here for the first time in "Conspiracyland", how he has been tormented for nearly two decades now by these conspiracy theories, first pushed by the hard left, liberal activists, Democratic partisans who wanted to stick it to a then-sitting Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, and they have since migrated to the political right and then adopted and embraced by President Trump, and as you can hear in the podcast, the QAnon conspiracy cult, taking their cues from the president and then embellishing these crazy conspiracy theories about Lori Klausutis all over the world.
CAMEROTA: You've just recapped for us what Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said, but just to drive it home a little bit more, he said that -- he keeps it up to incentivize healthy debate and healthy conversation on Twitter. And as you point out, T.J., her husband said that is just a bunch of bull blank. He said --
CAMEROTA: This was not an issue that was important to our society whatsoever. It has no social value. And then he goes on to just say that, you know, every time President Trump talks about this, it opens this raw wound for him. I mean, it's been almost 20 years. So, let me just play for you what he says about the emotional toll.
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KLAUSUTIS: When there's a raw, open wound, every time it starts to heal up, it gets a little tougher, here comes another one of these events, and thus, that sort of peels the scab back and re-exposes it. And here we are 19 years later, I should not be having to worry about having a fresh open wound on this.
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CAMEROTA: I mean, it's just impossible not to feel for him because President Trump actually tweets about this and talks about this. He has suggested -- I mean, just in case people missed the tweets, he has suggested, quite explicitly, that Joe Scarborough and Lori somehow had an affair. And there's no evidence of that -- ISIKOFF: Exactly --
CAMEROTA: And as you found out, Joe Scarborough didn't really know Lori.
ISIKOFF: He barely knew who she was. Let's remember, the president this year was tweeting, "whatever happened to your girlfriend" at Joe Scarborough, referring explicitly to Lori Klausutis. It was one of 11 tweets that the president put out there in April and May, right in the middle of the pandemic, the economic recession, he's tweeting, sticking it to Joe Scarborough with these conspiracy theories. And T.J. sort of walks through the Lori Klausutis' time working for Joe Scarborough in a satellite office in Fort Walton Beach that Scarborough rarely visited.
She was a low-level constituent service coordinator. And when T.J. and Lori encountered Joe Scarborough in 2000, a year after she went to work for him, he said he was right there, and he says it was instantly clear, Scarborough didn't even know who she was.
He didn't recognize her. He said he's met her on three occasions, but the idea that they were having an affair is complete nonsense as T.J. says in the podcast. In fact, he felt bad for her that her boss didn't even recognize her when they encountered each other.
And then this is extrapolated by the conspiracy theorists into, they were having an affair and then Scarborough, for some reason murdered her. That's what the president of the United States suggested on Twitter and from the White House when he was asked about it.
And you know, for somebody like T.J., who's lived through this for nearly 20 years, to have these conspiracy theories amplified and going out to millions of laptops and iPhones around the world because the president of the United States is tweeting on it -- well, as he says in the podcast, it's just inhuman.
CAMEROTA: I mean, one of the things that the president does repeatedly is say, I don't know, but I suggest someone look into it. Read --
ISIKOFF: Yes --
CAMEROTA: What you can about it. I don't know, but I think they should open the cold case. I mean, he just plants all of these kind of sinister seeds. Has T.J. attempted -- since he didn't get any joy from Twitter, since Jack Dorsey has claimed that it has to be kept up somehow for democratic dialogue, has T.J. ever tried to ask the White House to stop and president to stop?
ISIKOFF: He hasn't gone directly to the White House. He is an Air Force Civilian Engineer, designs navigation guidance systems for the U.S. military, and you know, he is a U.S. government employee. But he did go to Twitter in that very poignant letter, which he reads in the podcast, and then he came to me and wanted to tell the full story. And that's what we've tried to do in this -- in this podcast. It's
three episodes -- and it just -- I can't emphasize enough, the role that the president played in amplifying these conspiracy theories, giving them new life, and then to have it adopted by the QAnon conspiracy cult, that's another important part of this.
That's in the third episode. We have QAnon people, a QAnon guy saying -- reading the president's tweets, saying, well, Donald Trump must know something, he wouldn't be tweeting about this if he didn't. And one final point, yes, the president is asking for a cold case investigation.
We went to the Fort Walton Police Department, asked them about this, and you won't be surprised to learn they have no intention of reopening this case. The chief of detectives says in the podcast, no, this is not a murder case. This was a tragic death caused by an undiagnosed heart ailment.
CAMEROTA: That's what the president always fails to mention -- it was investigated, it was closed. Michael Isikoff --
CAMEROTA: Great to have you preview it for us, it's called "Conspiracyland", it's the podcast, it -- download -- people -- it's available today, and people can get it through "Yahoo News" "Conspiracyland" if they subscribe or Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for sharing all that with us.
ISIKOFF: Thank you. Thank you.
CAMEROTA: Testing and tracing, of course, is key to containing coronavirus outbreaks. Now that effort is getting some help from an Academy award-winning actor.
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SEAN PENN, ACTOR: Jeff Spicoli.
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CAMEROTA: Yes, that was his senior project at "Ridgemont High", and he's going to explain it.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So, as of this morning, nearly 190,000 Americans have been killed by coronavirus. Health officials stress that more testing is needed to prevent further outbreaks. So now, a non-profit led by Oscar-winner Sean Penn is helping to do just that in Georgia. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta has that story.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two, three, four --
SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What you're looking at is testing, something any public health expert in the world will tell you is the key to controlling a pandemic like COVID-19. And here in Fulton County, Georgia, where I live, that need, which has been slow to be met, has finally found some help from the non-profit organization core, and this familiar face, Sean Penn.
PENN: This partnership sets an example, not only for the state of Georgia, but for the rest of the nation.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you ready for this?
GUPTA: When was the moment you realized that this county or at least, Atlanta, was in over its head on this?
ROBB PITTS, CHAIRMAN, FULTON COUNTY BOARD: When Georgia got in the spotlight, that's when it started to hit home.
GUPTA: For Fulton County Board Chairman Robb Pitts, that spotlight came when Georgia became one of the first states to reopen on April 24th. Today, there's no state-wide mask mandate.
GOV. BRIAN KEMP (R-GA): I'm confident that Georgians don't need a mandate to do the right thing.
GUPTA: And average daily cases in Georgia are more than doubled since that last week in April.
PITTS: When we started following the advice of the scientists and the medical professionals, we focused on testing.
GUPTA: It's part of the reason Chairman Pitts funded a $3 million contract with CORE to help fill the gaps.
(on camera): So, I would think that's going to be Georgia Department of Health.
JONATHAN GOLDEN, CORE, AREA MANAGER, GEORGIA: Right.
GUPTA: And instead, it's this non-profit from the other side of the country doing this work.
GOLDEN: The Department of public health, the counties can have these ideas and know the implementation of the action. They don't necessarily have the personnel to carry it out. We're the feet on the ground. We can bring the personnel, add surge capacity.
GUPTA: The numbers seem to show that, so far, the strategy is working. If you look at Fulton County's positivity rate over the past two weeks, it's around 6 percent. Georgia is around 10 percent. But still, as the most populous county with the most cases, it is like Fulton County is a blue Petri dish in the middle of a red state.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was not experiencing any symptoms. I just came to get tested because one of my friends tested positive.
GUPTA: And this is important -- who to test, finding asymptomatic cases. That's been a priority for CORE since they first came here in May.
PENN: Every essential worker, symptomatic or asymptomatic is invited, encouraged to come here, and we will test you.
GUPTA: Remember, according to the CDC, 40 percent of people who carry the virus have no symptoms, and yet, they are responsible for around 50 percent of the spread. And now is the number of testing cases are moving in the right direction, Fulton County Board of Health Director, Dr. Lynn Paxton says it's time to think about the next steps.
LYNN PAXTON, DISTRICT HEALTH DIRECTOR, FULTON COUNTY BOARD OF HEALTH: Contact-tracing becomes even more crucial as the numbers start to fall. Think about it almost as if you're trying to stamp out, you know, embers from a fire. You know, you put the fire out, but if you have little -- you know, little embers they can catch fire again.
GUPTA: And CORE is helping to do that as well.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's do this one first.
GUPTA: That means going door-to-door to try and reach those who have tested positive, but couldn't be contacted any other way. And that's because every test, every contact informed, every step we can possibly take is what's going to help us win this battle.
GUPTA: I think what we see more than anything else here, as you do more testing, you can actually start to bring the numbers down. Still, that may be counter-intuitive to a lot of people, but more testing actually means more isolation, more quarantine and less transmission of the virus. And that's what CORE is really trying to do there. I've got to tell you as well, Alisyn, it was interesting, Chairman Pitts, who is the chairman of Fulton County, we interviewed him on the day that the CDC guidelines changed.
And he said to me, he goes, so the CDC says we no longer have to test asymptomatic people. And I said, no, that's what you should take away from this. Asymptomatic people can still be responsible for, you know, half the spread in this country. So it's amazing. You know, months into this pandemic, we still got to continuously educate people about this, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Absolutely, Sanjay, I mean, that's what you've been doing, but it's important -- there's so much confusion that it is amazing that we have to keep clarifying it every morning but we do. So, thank you very much --
GUPTA: We do --
CAMEROTA: And we'll speak to you momentarily --
GUPTA: You got it --
CAMEROTA: But first, we want to remember some of the nearly 190,000 Americans lost to coronavirus. Rhonda Felder (ph) was a social worker in San Diego, County, she was also a foster parent and an advocate for children. Her two daughters say she leaves behind a legacy of love and service.
Kyle McCarthy (ph) fought for survival his entire life, his mother says he was born with a compromised immune system and had to endure countless surgeries but always emerged with a smile. Kyle is described as having a kind soul and an infectious laugh, he was only 24 years old.
Oliver Ezrada(ph) was a nurse in Fresno, California. He started as an engineer in the Philippines, but decided to become a nurse because of the high demand for them in the U.S. His nephew says nursing was Oliver's true calling because he was so caring and compassionate. Oliver is survived by his wife and his son, he was 58 years old. We'll be right back.
BERMAN: All right, we have breaking news. At least, two people linked to poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are now suffering from some kind of chemical attack themselves. This as Navalny emerges from a medically-induced coma in a German hospital. CNN's Matthew Chance is live in Moscow with the breaking details. More people now, Matthew?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, just along the line. More evidence if you needed it, John, that it is extremely dangerous to be an opposition activist in this country, an office in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk which contained, you know, dozens of opposition workers who are planning their coverage ahead of the forthcoming local elections there.
Victims of an attack, security cameras caught masked men bursting into the office, dousing it with what's been described as an unknown substance. It filled the whole office with a very pungent odor, we're told, at least three -- not two, it's gone up to three, three individuals inside have been taken away to hospital with breathing difficulties.
We don't know what their situation is yet, we're trying to get more information, we'll bring it to you. But of course, it comes as the most prominent opposition leader in Russia, Alexei Navalny, continues to be treated for suspected nerve agent poisoning in a clinic in Berlin.
There's been some good news when it comes to Alexei Navalny, though, over the course of the past 24 hours, his doctors say his condition has improved, he's been brought out of his medically-induced coma, he's been taken off his ventilator and is responding to voices which is a really positive step for a patient that's been in a coma for so many weeks.
The bad news though, doctors say they can't yet decide whether there's going to be any long-term consequences for what they describe as a very serious poisoning. There's also been no commitment -- this is also bad news. There's also been no commitment from the Russians to open a transparent investigation into what happened to Alexei Navalny despite growing calls around the world for them to do so. John?
BERMAN: All right, an intriguing, perhaps dangerous development there for so many people. Matthew Chance, thanks so much for the update. NEW DAY continues right now.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now you have schools opening, as I'm really worried about what happens to this nation as we head into the Fall.
KAMALA HARRIS, DEMOCRATIC VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE FOR 2020: I pray we have a vaccine as quickly as possible that is approved by the scientists.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They'll say anything. The vaccine will be very safe and very effective, and we could have a very big surprise coming up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More than 20 wildfires currently burning in the state and causing major structural damage.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fire is getting dangerously close to some of these mountain communities, and about 2,500 people had to evacuate.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was instant danger. There was instant no way out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This fire is on all sides, all around us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States.