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THE SITUATION ROOM

Schools Open Online Across Country; COVID-19 Vaccine Timeline?; Rochester Police Chief And Top Command Staff Stepping Down As Daniel Prude's Sister Sues Over Brother's Death; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) Says She Doesn't Trust Trump On Vaccine, Fauci Warns We Must Regain The Trust Of The Community; Barr Suggests China Poses More Of A Threat To Election Security Than Russia; Rescues, Evacuations Under Way As More than 20 Fires Burn Across California. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 8, 2020 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: This hour, the United States is on the brink of 190,000 coronavirus deaths, amid growing fears of a post-Labor Day spike in cases that already total more than 6.3 million right here in the United States.

[18:00:09]

A new report reveals that more than half-a-million children in this country have now been infected. That's an alarming figure, as more schools are now struggling with reopening.

Also tonight, Dr. Anthony Fauci is again, again contradicting President Trump, saying a coronavirus vaccine is not likely to be proven safe and effective by Election Day, November 3. Fauci is hopeful about an end-of-the-year timeline.

As for the president, he's on the campaign trail tonight. He's getting ready for a rally in North Carolina very soon. You're looking at pictures coming in, crowds gathering there. We're seeing very little, if any, social distancing, very few masks, even though a local GOP official is urging the president himself to wear a mask at the event tonight.

We will see if he does.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president's North Carolina rally begins very soon. So, what more are you learning? Another very important day.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

President Trump is claiming he's done a -- quote -- "good job, great job" on the coronavirus, he says, as the number of dead in the U.S. from COVID-19 has reached approximately 190,000 people.

The president's wishes for a vaccine by Election Day, though, just got a dose of reality, as Dr. Anthony Fauci just said that is unlikely. The president is also doing damage control after revelations that he used crude language to describe fallen U.S. service members. As it turns out, there is video from 2016 that appears to show Mr.

Trump describing military commanders as -- quote -- "losers." In the meantime, Trump supporters -- you were just showing this picture a few moments ago -- they're gathering in North Carolina right now for a campaign speech.

We can show you that video, if we have it available to us. There it is. People packed into this event venue down in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And, as you can see, there is little social distancing and not many masks in sight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): With the number of dead from the coronavirus soaring past 190,000 lives lost and the November election just eight weeks away, President Trump is patting himself on the back for his response to the pandemic.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have done a great job with COVID. We have done a great job with the Chinese virus, a great job. Whether it's ventilators or whether it's vaccines, which you will be seeing very soon, or therapeutics, we have done a great job.

ACOSTA: With his campaign burning through cash, the president is toying with the idea of pumping $100 million of his own money into his reelection bid, he says, to combat what he sees as negative COVID-19 coverage.

Mr. Trump tweeted, his campaign "was forced to spend in order to counter the reporting about the way we handled it. We and are doing a great job."

TRUMP: I would put it up personally, like I did in the primaries last time. In the 2016 primaries, I put up a lot of money. If I have to, I will do it here.

ACOSTA: Another shot in the arm, the president is seeking a coronavirus vaccine before Election Day, but one of his top health experts, Dr. Anthony Fauci, cautions, it may not happen before then.

JUDY WOODRUFF, PBS: But the idea that we're going to have a vaccine by November 3, how realistic?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIAID DIRECTOR: It's unlikely that we will have a definitive answer at that time. More likely by the end of the year.

ACOSTA: The president has been bothered by a recent report in "The Atlantic" confirmed by CNN and other news outlets that he referred to U.S. war dead as suckers and losers during a 2018 trip to France.

But Mr. Trump botched his own cleanup on that story by trashing his own generals at the Pentagon.

TRUMP: 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. ACOSTA: As it turns out, in 2016, then candidate Trump blasted U.S.

military commanders as losers, accusing generals of giving away their battle plans against ISIS.

TRUMP: Whatever happened to the element of surprise? The element of surprise. What a group of losers we have. And now it's a very tough battle. They're dug in. It's a very -- much tougher than they thought.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump continues to claim Democrat Joe Biden doesn't have the stamina to serve as president.

TRUMP: We have a radical left group going around. These people, there's something wrong with them. There really is. There's something wrong with them. And Joe doesn't have the strength.

ACOSTA: But Biden is jabbing back, pointing to Mr. Trump's slow descent down a ramp at a West Point commencement earlier this year.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look at how he steps, and look how I step. Watch how I run up ramps, and he stumbles down ramps, OK? Come on.

ACOSTA: The Democratic nominee just found an unlikely ally in former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen, who claims in a new book that the president has made numerous racially offensive remarks.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: If he asked me if I had known of any country that's run by a black that's not an S- hole, and I said, well, how about America, to which he gave me the proverbial "F-you."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for the president's speech in North Carolina this evening, a top GOP official in that state is calling on the president to wear a mask for the appearance.

[18:05:03]

The president is not likely to do that. He has been mocking Joe Biden, even reporters, for wearing masks in recent days. That's despite the fact that Mr. Trump once touted mask use as patriotic.

The president just wrapped up an event in Florida, where there were few masks in sight. And as you were just showing that video in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, people packed into that event -- venue there, non-social distancing, not wearing masks tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that's really, really disturbing, indeed, and potentially very, very dangerous. All right, Jim Acosta reporting, thank you.

Now to the breaking news on the coronavirus crisis.

Our national correspondent, Erica Hill, is joining us.

Erica, the U.S. is nearing another horrible milestone.

ERICA HILL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that, we are. We're staring down 190,000 deaths in this country, Wolf.

I also just want to update you on some breaking news that's just coming into us here. We're just learning that AstraZeneca is pausing its clinical trials of its vaccine because of what they say is an unexplained illness in one of the volunteers.

So, AstraZeneca, again, was working on this vaccine with the University of Oxford. So they have put these trials on hold at the moment as they review the safety data.

I should point out, too, and as our medical unit would tell you, it is not uncommon to pause a clinical trial. They, of course, need to see what the reason is, see if it is in fact this trial vaccine that could be causing that adverse reaction in a participant in the U.K.

But, obviously, we will keep a close eye on this, Wolf. AstraZeneca is one of the nine pharmaceutical companies issuing a rare statement where they're pledging they will follow the science and not politics as they move forward.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILL (voice-over): Buses, backpacks, masks, back to school in the age of COVID.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My daughter is thriving to be around other people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's going to be great to see them.

HILL: Sixteen of the nation's largest school districts start today. Of those, 14, including Chicago, will begin the year online.

LORI LIGHTFOOT (D), MAYOR OF CHICAGO, ILLINOIS: As we said from day one, we're going to be guided by what the public health numbers tell us.

HILL: The first day in Hartford, Connecticut, postponed after the city was hit with a cyberattack.

LUKE BRONIN (D), MAYOR OF HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT: This was, however, the most extensive and significant attack that the city has been subject to that -- certainly in the last five years.

HILL: Cases still rising at colleges nationwide, the University of Tennessee warning more drastic measures may be needed and calling out fraternities.

DONDE PLOWMAN, CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE, KNOXVILLE: Fraternity leaders communicating to houses how to have parties and avoid being caught, telling fraternity members not to get tested, actively working to avoid isolation and quarantine is reckless. And it will further spread this virus. HILL: West Virginia university just suspended more than two dozen

students for COVID-related violations and moved classes online.

Deaths in the U.S. approaching 190,000. New cases over the past week are holding steady in nearly half the states, 15 posting a decline. But among the 11 seeing an increase, the states in red, two former hot spots, Arizona and Florida, where new cases are up 20 percent in the last week.

New York City announcing it will now stop buses from states required to quarantine upon arrival to ensure compliance.

BILL DE BLASIO (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY: The officers will literally be going on the buses. This is so important to keeping us safe.

HILL: Travelers from 35 states and territories must quarantine for 14 days when arriving in the tri-state area.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY (D-NJ): This is a virus that is still among us. It ebbs and flows.

HILL: New ads trying to recruit more diverse volunteers for vaccine trials.

NARRATOR: Someone like you who wants things to go back to normal.

HILL: As nine pharmaceutical companies working on those vaccines issue a rare joint pledge in the face of mounting political pressure from the president.

TRUMP: We're going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date. You know what date I'm talking about.

ALBERT BOURLA, CEO, PFIZER: We will develop our products, our vaccines using the highest ethical standards and the most scientific rigor processes.

HILL: Dr. Fauci stressing a vaccine without public trust won't be effective.

FAUCI: We have got to regain the trust of the community about, when we say something is safe and effective, they can be confident that it is safe and effective. And that's the reason why we have to be very transparent with the data.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HILL: The key to controlling this virus, according to a new blog post from 11 directors at the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, it's testing, Wolf.

They say that more testing needs to be done, asymptomatic and symptomatic people, noting that, if you think you have been in contact with someone who has the virus, you should be tested. That, of course, directly contradicts the revised guidance that we have from the CDC. But "The Post" also notes that testing and contact tracing are just

some much measures that can be taken and are essential to safely getting people back to work and to getting kids back to school -- Wolf.

[18:10:02]

BLITZER: Erica Hill reporting for us from New York, thank you.

Joining us now, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, the former health policy adviser to President Obama. He's now the vice provost of global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and also an adviser to the Joe Biden COVID task force.

Dr. Emanuel also just led a team of global experts in proposing what they call an ethical framework for distributing a coronavirus vaccine worldwide.

Dr. Emanuel, thank you so much for joining us.

We're now learning the coronavirus vaccine study from the drugmaker AstraZeneca is now on hold due to a suspected serious adverse reaction in a participant over in the United Kingdom at Oxford University, which is cooperating in this study.

Health officials have warned that vaccine development is complicated. Nothing is guaranteed. How concerning is this news to you?

DR. EZEKIEL EMANUEL, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SPECIAL ADVISER: Well, it is concerning, and it does tell you that predicting a date by which we're going to have results and we're going to introduce a vaccine is foolhardy, because nature takes its course.

And part of nature taking its course are unexpected adverse events that you need to understand and learn about before you can continue to enroll patients in a trial to make sure that it's not the vaccine, the COVID vaccine, that's causing this.

And, similarly, you know, you can only get results when people get exposed to COVID and people come down with COVID, and you don't know how frequently that's going to happen, because a lot depends upon how much COVID there is in the community, how exposed people are.

And so we just learned that, you know, no one controls the timeline on these vaccine developments, due to adverse events and exposure to the virus. And so we're at the mercy of nature here.

BLITZER: So walk us through what happens now in this AstraZeneca/Oxford University clinical trial. What happens now that they put this pause out there?

EMANUEL: Well, they're going to investigate whether they think this adverse event is caused by the vaccine that this person got or whether it just happens to be some other illness that they might have got concomitantly. They -- obviously, everyone who has gotten a vaccine will continue to

be monitored for getting COVID and getting any other side effects, and they won't restart until they're confident that this is not -- that this serious adverse event has not been caused by the COVID vaccine.

So, that's the determination they're going to have to make. And they're -- you know, you can be sure they're working extremely hard to identify what this person was injected with, and whether these are consistent symptoms with getting a vaccine.

BLITZER: In your new paper, Dr. Emanuel, you note that, once a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it will be scarce.

What do you recommend to ensure vaccines are fairly distributed around the world?

EMANUEL: So, Wolf, there's two questions. One is distributed fairly among countries, and the other is distributed fairly within the United States.

It will be scarce worldwide, and it will be scarce in the United States. We were focused on distributing it among countries. Everyone says it should be fair and equitable, but no one says what that means.

One of the things we are clear is, it doesn't mean giving to every country to cover 3 percent of the population of that country. That is not an ethical policy. You send a vaccine where it's needed, not the countries where they have controlled the viral outbreak.

So, sending a vaccine to, say, Taiwan or New Zealand probably isn't going to be the best thing for controlling the COVID outbreak. We have to look at where the hot spots are.

And our first goal is to reduce premature deaths. And so we look at, where will the vaccine make the biggest difference in reducing premature deaths? And then the second goal is to reduce the economic impact unemployment, poverty, education suspension, and where will the vaccine make that biggest impact?

And that's how you should distribute the vaccine. And we think it's very important to follow this ethical framework.

BLITZER: A really, really important study.

And thank you so much, Dr. Emanuel, for doing this work. It's going to be significant. Let's just hope there's a safe and effective vaccine coming forward soon. It is so, so critical.

Thanks so much for joining us.

EMANUEL: Couldn't agree more with you, Wolf. We need that vaccine, and we need it soon. But we need it safely.

BLITZER: Yes. And it's got to be safe and effective.

All right, thank you. Just ahead, "The New York Times" columnist and bestselling author

Thomas Friedman, he is standing by to join us live. We have lots to discuss.

Among other things, I will get his reaction to the devastating allegations that President Trump privately called fallen American troops suckers and losers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:19:12]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories here in the THE SITUATION ROOM, including a lack of social distancing and masks just ahead of President Trump's rally in North Carolina later tonight.

Let's talk about what's going on in the campaign and more.

Joining us now, Thomas Friedman, "The New York Times" foreign affairs columnist, award-winning author, including his historic, truly great bestseller on the Middle East entitled "From Beirut to Jerusalem," still selling after all these years.

Tom, thanks so much for joining us. We're what, now, just eight weeks, 55 days or so, from Election Day. And, as we saw in 2016, anything can happen in these final few weeks.

What do you expect the remainder of this unprecedented campaign, this campaign season, what do you expect it will hold?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": You know, Wolf, I think what we have learned in the last week or so is that Trump has discovered that the issues he wanted to beat on, China, Biden's son, you know, Ukraine, none of those were working.

[18:20:07]

But I do think he feels that he may be able to make headway, particularly with suburban voters and suburban women, who he's lost ground with, on the law and order issue. And I think it's too soon to tell, but early polls indicate he hasn't been yet, but I would wait on that.

But I think he sees that as the one wedge issue that he can really pound Democrats on. And I think what you're going to see is they're just going to double down on that theme, that Democrats -- you know, your cities are going to be unsafe, your suburbs will be unsafe if the Democrats win.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect you're right.

In the last hour, I spoke to "The Atlantic"'s Jeffrey Goldberg about his amazing reporting about the president's disparaging remarks about the U.S. military. As you know, there's been some pressure for those who are speaking out off the record to now come on the record, attach their names to their comments. I want you to listen to what Jeffrey Goldberg told me in the last

hour. Then we will discuss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "THE ATLANTIC": There is some hesitation to go out and become partisan in any way.

There's also a countervailing feeling on the part of some people that this is not a normal situation. I think that there's a lot of internal, let's say, and external pressure on various people to make statements of some sort before the election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So what do you think, Tom?

FRIEDMAN: Well, Jeff's a great reporter, and I certainly trust his reporting, first of all.

Secondly, I would say he's absolutely right. You know, our military leadership are born and bred basically not to involve themselves in politics, to -- when the commander in chief gives an order, to salute, and not to make themselves basically partisan political actors in the public sphere, especially on the eve of an election.

That said, I think everyone agrees this is an extraordinary election. And there's enormous stakes, and people do believe that some of these military leaders have been witnesses to deeply aberrant behavior, the kind of behavior, the kind of language that was quoted in Jeff's article.

And, you know, Wolf, we don't have to also just rely on the behind- the-scenes. You have got people like Admiral William McRaven, who has now written two pieces in "The Washington Post" -- Admiral McRaven, who commanded our Special Forces that killed bin Laden, one of the most respected military officers.

And he publicly has said and written in "The Post" that he believes Donald Trump is out to destroy basically all our institutions in order to create the foundations for, you know, some really one-man, strongman rule.

And so when people like Admiral McRaven come out and say that, it tells you how worried the military is. And the people who leaked this, I wish they'd come out and say it directly, but what it's telling you is that, at least among the military leadership, there's a real concern that the president -- this is a disturbed person in certain ways, and that's what people are trying to, I think, scream from behind the off-the-record curtain.

BLITZER: And only yesterday, the president publicly said these -- the top military brass at the Pentagon, the only thing they want are endless wars, and they want to see the defense contractors make more and more money, apparently suggesting they don't really care about the young men and women they might send off to fight these wars. We haven't yet heard publicly from three retired generals who worked

directly for the president, Generals Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster. Should -- do you think these prominent leaders, retired generals, should speak up?

FRIEDMAN: You know, I believe that people who go into military service go there because they want to protect and defend the Constitution and swear an oath to that.

And I believe, if they feel in their heart that our core institutions are in peril by four more years of Donald Trump, I would hope they would speak out.

BLITZER: Yes, they're under a lot of pressure, I'm sure, especially with the president of the United States publicly ridiculing them, as he has. It's very awkward, right?

FRIEDMAN: You know, it's awkward, Wolf, but I just want to say -- and what is tragic about this whole thing is that we're politicizing our military.

I'm sure there are many, many officers who support Donald Trump. I know that, who support President Trump. And many clearly are uncomfortable with him.

But what I am so uncomfortable with, what's the tragedy besides the kind of leadership the president has exhibited here is the politicization of our military. We really don't want to go there.

[18:25:03]

And so, if retired officers working for the president were witness to that, then I hope they will speak out. But, at the same time, you know, I just hope we be very careful here.

We're playing with fire. One of the crown jewels of our country is our separation between our politics and our military, and I want to keep it that way as long as possible.

BLITZER: Yes, it's so, so important. Let's see what happens.

We're also seeing, as you know, a series of very damning new books coming out from one-time members of the president's inner circle, including his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, his niece, Mary Trump.

Do you think any of these really unflattering books, these claims that they're publishing, do you think they really will matter much to the president's core supporters?

FRIEDMAN: No, I think they won't, Wolf.

I think we've learned about that. I actually wrote in my column for tomorrow about that, that, you know, Trump's supporters actually hate the people who hate Trump more than they care about Trump. They feel that liberal elites look down on them. For any number of reasons, they are aggrieved, legitimate and illegitimate. And, therefore, we in the media keep giving them more data, more

information about Trump's aberrant behavior and statements and whatnot, but I don't think they're penetrating at all. I think that -- just the opposite, I think, for Biden to win, he's going to have to speak to the sense of grievance and humiliation of Trump's base.

Again, I wrote about it for tomorrow. It's complicated. He's not going to, I'm sure, make deep headway, but I think he can make some headway. But they clearly don't lack for information. They are supporting Donald Trump not because of his policies, but because of his attitude.

They see him as the fist in the face of the liberal elites, who they feel look down at them, and there's no amount of information about Trump, it's pretty clear now, that's going to change their mind.

BLITZER: Tom Friedman, as usual, thank you so much for joining us.

"From Beirut to Jerusalem," a classic, It's still out there. I love that book, and you're doing amazing work.

Thank you so much. There's the book cover once again.

Coming up: The police chief of Rochester, New York, is stepping down amid outrage over the death of Daniel Prude, after an encounter with police. We're getting new information, and we will share it with you when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

BLITZER: We have breaking news right now in the death of yet another black man after an encounter with police. The Rochester, New York, police chief and his top command staff are stepping down as the death of Daniel Prude is now under scrutiny.

CNN's Alexandra Field is joining us right now. Alexandra, so what are you learning?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this comes on the same day that the sister of Daniel Prude filed a lawsuit against the city of Rochester, the police chief and 13 members of the department. The police chief now saying that he is retiring as a result of the mischaracterization and politicization of his handling of the events that have followed Daniel Prude's death.

For weeks, we've seen finger-pointing with the mayor over whether there was a delay in releasing the video of Prude's encounter with police both to her and to the public. I'll remind our viewers that some may find this video rather disturbing, but in it, you clearly see an agitated Prude. He is spitting. Officers put a spit sock over his face. They put him down on the ground. They hold his head down. Prude later died of intoxication and acute -- excuse me, acute PCP intoxication, excited delirium and suffocation.

Wolf, that video has fueled outrage, including days of protest in Rochester. More than 1,000 people turning out on Sunday to demand justice for Prude. Seven officers involved in the incident have been suspended with pay. None of them is facing charges at this point. We haven't heard comments from any of them, but their police union is defending what they saw in the video, saying that the officers were following their training.

Wolf, that is now a question for a grand jury. The state's attorney general announced over the weekend that a grand jury will take up the investigation. Meanwhile, back in Rochester, the mayor is saying that she is committed to bringing reform to the police department. One thing we know for sure tonight is that that department will soon look pretty different. Wolf?

BLITZER: It certainly will. Alexandra Field, thank you very much. Joining us now is CNN Legal Analyst and Criminal Defense Attorney Joey Jackson. Joey, did the Rochester police chief mishandle this incident based on what you know?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I'll pause on that in as much as we don't know everything, but all indications that have been reported are very concerning. And what are those? I think we are in an era, of course, of accountability where police officers need to be held accountable for their conduct.

We're in an era of transparency where we need to know that as the public at large, what that looked like, what happened, when did it happen? Was it a drug overdose? Was it not a drug overdose? Did you see the video? Did you not see the video? When did you see it? Did you say to the mayor that it was something that it was not?

And so, in the event, as the mayor has seemingly indicated, Wolf, that the police chief has said it was an overdose. Clearly, it was not. Then that would be mishandling it. This is not about a cover-up. This is about a community, a society and a nation that demands and wants justice.

[18:35:02]

And until and unless we get that, again, you're going to see people like this, police chiefs and their counterparts who are going to step aside and give us leadership that the people demand and certainly deserve.

BLITZER: When should video of a very disturbing police incident like this one be released? Immediately or only after a complete investigation?

JACKSON: You know, I think that you'll get ten lawyers and you'll get ten different opinions. Let me tell you what mine is. My view of the earth is that I get that you have to investigate, and you have to investigate thoroughly. People want that. People demand that. In this particular case, we have the New York State attorney general pursuant to state law, who has the mandate to find out exactly what happened.

Why is that relevant? Because you don't want local police and local prosecutors, right, prosecutors depend upon the police, handling this case. You need an outside, independent entity that resolves it. Having said that, I think society and communities want to know.

And I don't believe that it impedes an investigation in any regard by having a video out there allowing the family, most importantly, to know and to find out what happened to their brother, their uncle, you know, what happened to this person that you love so much? What happened to a beloved member of our community, whether he's from Chicago or not?

And so I believe that the more the community knows, the better community is off. It shouldn't take a FOI request, freedom of information request by attorneys to allow the community to know. That should be something that the mayor, the police chief and everybody wants the community to know. And if you want to bridge the gap between trust in the police and police and communities, you allow that dialogue, and you tell it like it is. And if you don't tell it like it is, then this is what you get, resignations.

BLITZER: Joey Jackson, as usual, thank you very much. An important story we're following in Rochester.

And just ahead, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, there it is, here, she is standing by live. We will discuss what's going on and ask her about the race for a coronavirus vaccine, the integrity of American elections, a whole lot more. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

BLITZER: We're following very disturbing breaking news on a potential coronavirus vaccine. The company, AstraZeneca, pausing its trial right now because of the unexplained illness of a volunteer. Let's talk about vaccine politics, the 2020 presidential contest here in the United States.

Joining us now, Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former National Security Adviser to President Obama, she's also the author of the book, Tough Love, My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, which is now out, by the way, in paperback. Susan, thanks very much for joining us.

Let's talk, first of all, about a potential vaccine. The Democratic vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, says she does not trust President Trump's word on a coronavirus vaccine. At the same time, Dr. Fauci is saying that public trust in this process needs to be restored. Are you worried about the American public's losing confidence in this process right now given all the talk that's going on?

SUSAN RICE, FORMER OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I'm very worried about President Trump and his administration politicizing every aspect of the coronavirus, including vaccines. And he keeps talking about, you know, his expectation -- I'm not sure where it comes from -- that a vaccine might be available before the election. He is the one who's injected politics into this by using the election as some sort of deadline. And we all know that for the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine to be established pursuant to longstanding FDA policy, there needs to be a process that can't be rushed. And I think the American people have to have confidence in the safety of a vaccine. Trump has done so much from talking about injecting bleach and hydroxychloroquine and, you know, all sorts of things to undermine confidence that he will follow the science.

Now, today, with the nine CEOs of the major pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine coming out and pledging not to rush to FDA authorization ahead of completion of phase three trials, that should give people some greater degree of confidence that perhaps the process will not be politicized. But Trump is undermining that confidence.

BLITZER: It's truly extraordinary statement. The fact that they felt they needed to issue a joint statement like that, these major pharmaceutical companies, that really is almost unprecedented.

Let's talk about the election, only 55 days away, but who's counting right now? The president continues to sow doubt in the mail-in voting process. I asked the attorney general of the United States, Bill Barr, about this last week. He told me, in his words, we are playing with fire. Are you concerned about the integrity of this process?

RICE: I am not concerned about the integrity of mail-in voting and absentee balloting, which is essentially the same thing. We have five states in this country that have had only mail-in balloting for many years with virtually no cases of fraud and high success.

What does worry me is that the president and the attorney general and others in the administration are undermining confidence, public confidence in mail-in voting for political reasons without any basis and fact. They go ahead and use mail-in ballots when it's convenient for them, but they don't want other people to do so because they have some notion, I believe misplaced, that it's too their political detriment.

[18:45:06]

What should be in everybody's interest is that every American who is eligible to vote has the ability to vote safely and securely. And I think mail-in balloting, absentee balloting has been demonstrated to be an effective approach and one that guarantees a high degree of security. And when you have the president and the attorney general actively sowing distrust in a means of voting, it's another form of voter suppression, nothing less.

BLITZER: The attorney general also told me he sees China as more of a threat to the U.S. election than Russia. He said his assessment was based on intelligence.

Do you agree with him?

RICE: No. If you read the report that came out of the director of national intelligence office on August 7th, where it outlines to the greatest extent that the public has information available to it what the nature of the threats are, it puts Russia in quite a different category, quite correctly, from that of China or Iran.

What the Russians have done for years and have continued to do every day between 2016 and up through the election in 2020, is of a far more dangerous and nefarious character.

The Russians are the ones that hack into email systems. The Russians are the ones that have tried to get into our voting systems in various states. They are the ones through their state television and through their troll farms that are trying to sow disinformation and misinformation and distrust in our public media and our social media, and many other things that they may be doing that we're not quite privy to just as they did in 2016.

China, on the other hand, is, according to the Director of National Intelligence Office, using its public statements to say what it thinks on issues ranging from 5G to trade issues to the closure of their consulate in Texas.

So, it's a very different kind of thing. One is public statements, overt. That's China. One is very dangerous, covert, perhaps in cahoots again with others in the United States to undermine faith in our democracy.

BLITZER: Susan Rice, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.

RICE: Thank you, Wolf, for having me.

BLITZER: All right. Stay safe out there.

Just ahead, dangerous conditions are fueling wildfires across California right now, adding to the state's record-breaking total -- get this -- more than 2 million acres have now been scorched.

I'll speak with the official in charge of California's wildfire response when we come back.

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[18:52:28]

BLITZER: We're following a very disturbing breaking news out in California where more rescues and evacuations are underway as dry windy conditions fuel more than 20 large wildfires across the state.

Let's discuss with the chief of CAL FIRE, Thom Porter.

Chief, thanks so much for joining us.

How dire is the situation in California right now?

CHIEF THOM PORTER, CAL FIRE: Thank you, Wolf.

It is really one to behold. We have now -- we were tracking this morning, 25 major fires. We've had an additional at least two that have occurred during the day today. Every one of those fires is being blown out by the east and northeast winds that we are seeing surface over the entire state.

So, very dire situation. Our fighters, local government, CAL FIRE, and our federal partners are all fully engaged and really doing everything they can to protect lives and property. But these fires are going to continue to grow for several days.

BLITZER: Yeah, it's awful. More than 2 million acres have now been destroyed by these fires. These are the worst fires in California's history, we're told.

What are the biggest obstacles, Chief, that you're facing right now as you're trying to get these historic fires under control?

PORTER: Really it changes. I mean, we've got fires burning from in the north part of the state, all the way to the Mexican border, about 800 miles between the furthest distant fires. So, we're stretched across the landscape. But there's also been a persistent drought over many years. We've had a few wet years but not enough to really change the fuel consumption issues that we're having. Very dry fuels north to south.

And then when we have winds and we already have fires going, they just spread very quickly. We do have 150 million trees in the southern sierra several years ago. Those are fuelling which is the biggest and most concerning fire to us right now, the creek fire near Fresno do I know, that is -- it's just -- it's uncontrollable until we have a weather change.

BLITZER: Well, good luck, Chief Porter. We're hoping for the best. These are awful, awful fires, as we've been watching.

Thanks so much for joining us.

[18:55:02]

PORTER: Thank you for your time.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have more news just ahead. We'll be right back.

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BLITZER: Finally, our nightly tribute to victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dwontreze Lovett was only 29 years old. He was a barber and a newlywed, married to is wife Tia only three months before he fell ill. He also leaves behind a 5-year-old daughter and his mother who says his dreams were tragically cut short.

Daniel Morales of Texas was 39. He was a nurse who treated COVID patients in need of dialysis. His sister describes him as selfless and caring to his wife, Erica, his four children, his patients and everyone he met.

May they rest in peace, and may their memories be a blessing. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

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