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Trump Told Bob Woodward He Knew COVID-19 was Deadly Before Downplaying It; Netflix CEO Calls Work-At-Home Practices "A Pure Negative"; Whistleblower Alleges DHS Officials Changed Intel to Suit Trump; Another 884,000 Americans File for First-Time Unemployment. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 10, 2020 - 09:00   ET



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right but the air, you just breathe the air. That's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than you're -- you know, even your strenuous flus."

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Legendary journalist Bob Woodward's taped interviews, 18 of them, with the president, exposing just how far he was willing to go to downplay this virus to the American people despite knowing the facts. Just three days after that recording, so on February 10th, he held an indoor rally in New Hampshire. Sixteen days later he said this.


TRUMP: You treat this like a flu. We'll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner. View this the same as the flu. This is a flu. This is like a flu.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It's not what he was saying in private and it's not what the facts showed then or show now. The president says that he did not want to create a panic. But tell that to thousands of people who could be alive today if there was a plan, if simple measures were taken in this country incurred by the president such as wearing a mask.

And note this, the president has continued to downplay this outbreak. Months later, only a week ago he shared a conspiracy theory questioning the death toll itself. And you may remember the president's dismissal of the deadly pandemic in an interview with Axios one month ago. Remember these words.


JONATHAN SWAN, AXIOS CORRESPONDENT: A thousand Americans are dying a day.

TRUMP: They're dying. That's true. And you -- it is what it is.


HARLOW: Columbia University notes that in May if social distancing had started just a week earlier, 36,000 people in this country would still be alive today. Two weeks earlier would have prevented 84 percent of U.S. deaths and 82 percent of cases.

To date the United States has had more than 6.3 million COVID-19 cases and the number of U.S. deaths higher than any Western nation. But here is the president just last night.


TRUMP: If you look at our numbers, our fatality numbers compared to other countries, we're -- really, I mean, it's amazing what we've done.


SCIUTTO: Touting his response, celebrating his response, on the same night that the tapes reveal the truth of what he knew, when he knew it, when he chose to share that with the American people.

John Harwood leads us off at the White House.

John, right now what you have inside the White House is finger pointing for letting the president do these interviews. Hard to question when the statements when you have the tapes. Let's begin, though, with really the (INAUDIBLE) here. That is the president downplaying the virus when he knew and was speaking in private about the true extent of it. The true danger of it. On that topic, what else did he tell Woodward?

JOHN HARDWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is along the lines of what you played in the intro. What the president confided in Woodward, trying to ingratiate himself to Woodward, try to get a good book written about himself after the bad previous book Woodward had written, he said that he knew it was at least five times more deadly than the flu. He knew it affected young people as well as older people but he simply minimized all that because he wanted to keep the American people calm. Take a listen.


TRUMP: Now it's turning out it's not just old people, Bob. But just today and yesterday some startling facts came out. It's not just older --


TRUMP: It's plenty of young people.


TRUMP: We're looking at what's going on -- WOODWARD: So give me a moment of talking to somebody, going through

this with Fauci or somebody who kind of -- it caused a pivot in your mind because it's clear just from what's on the public record that you went through a pivot on this to, oh, my god, the gravity is almost inexplicable and unexplainable.

TRUMP: Well, I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you --

WOODWARD: Sure, I want you to.

TRUMP: I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down.

WOODWARD: Yes, sir.

TRUMP: Because I don't want to create a panic.


HARDWOOD: Now, of course, the pivot that occurred, the evidence suggests was after the panic ensued in financial markets, after the president came back from a trip to India in February, the Dow had been down a couple of thousand points, the president held a news conference at the White House, took it somewhat more seriously, but even then, as he alluded to in that tape with Woodward, he still tried to minimize the severity of the situation.


TRUMP: This is like a flu. Of the 15 people, the original 15 as I call them, eight of them have returned to their homes. We are going down, not up. We are going substantially down, not up.


And again when you have 15 people and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done.

And I think the virus is going to be -- it's going to be fine. You know in April supposedly it dies with the hotter weather and that's a beautiful date to look forward to.

We have it very much under control in this country. People are getting better. We're all getting better. There's a very good chance you're not going to die. In fact we're very close to a vaccine. It's going to disappear. One day it's like a miracle, it will disappear.


HARDWOOD: And he was saying all that in public at a time he could have had the administration ramp up much more aggressively on a nationwide testing program and steal the American people for the anguish that was ahead of them, as presidents typically do in crisis. Give people the truth, let them adjust to it.

HARLOW: John, before you go, so the president called in last night to FOX News. He talked to Sean Hannity. Tell us how he is trying to explain this.

HARDWOOD: Well, what he is doing is continuing to do what he told Bob Woodward on the tape. Continuing to try to play it down and continuing to say, my role is to talk up conditions in the country as opposed to giving it to the American people straight.


TRUMP: I'm a cheerleader for this country and I don't want to see panic. And I thought what Matt said was fantastic because we would have lost two million, 2.5 million lives, instead of the number we're talking about. Anything above one is no good. It's no good. We can't have it. It was China's fault. They sent this to us and it's no good.


HARDWOOD: Blaming it on China, but obviously the question is, had he acted more aggressively, how many lives could have been saved? In fairness to the president, even his advisers were equivocating on the issues of mask wearing as late as March but that is time that was lost on the testing program and even today on mask wearing and on other steps that we know can help the situation the president is trying to minimize, move the discussion to the economy and economic recovery.

HARLOW: John Harwood, stay right there.

Let's add to this conversation our senior political analyst in John Avlon and CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University.

Good morning to you as well, Doctor, and John Avlon. Let me begin with the fact that there's just a host of rallies that the president held, including ones indoors, masks not encouraged, certainly not mandated, Dr. Reiner, following those comments on February 7th to Bob Woodward. And listen to what the president said in the June 20th Tulsa rally.


TRUMP: Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu. What difference?


HARLOW: What difference? He knew. He knew months and months before. What is your take from a public health perspective on what the costs of that has been?


HARLOW: We're having a hard -- Dr. Reiner, we're going to try to fix your audio. John Avlon, let me put that to you.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, what the doctor just said before he broke out is about 150,000 lives, if I remember correctly. That's the cost of the president's impulse to lie, to downplay the virus in contradiction to the intelligence and the information he was being given. And the idea that this president doesn't want to cause panic is itself a lie because his entire campaign, his entire public strategy is about panic in the democracy and increasing divisions. So that doesn't fly.

Telling the truth is mission impossible for this president. But in this pandemic there is a human cost. Lives have been lost because of this dereliction of duty and the tapes exist and we can hear the gap between what he's saying in private and what he was saying in public. He misinformed the American people during a pandemic.

SCIUTTO: John Harwood, as you noted the president has repeatedly tried to blame China for this. And it's notable, and I'm quoting from an interview between the president and Woodward where as he's speaking to him in February, he says of Xi Jinping, president of China, I think he's going to have it in good shape.

I mean, two points about that China argument. One, in January, the president knew this was serious. So the idea that somehow it was all about China holding back, right, that undermines that somewhat. But he's praising Xi Jinping there early in the spring or late in the winter for their response.

What does that do to the president's argument that, well, the only reason we've had problems with this outbreak is that China hid it from the world?

HARDWOOD: It undercuts that argument severely, Jim.


The president was trying to stay on the good side of Xi Jinping as he's actually tried to do throughout his presidency in part because he was pursuing a trade deal to end the tariffs that he had implemented that were damaging the American economy. He desperately, and his advisers desperately wanted to get out or mitigate the impact of those tariffs and Xi Jinping was the key to doing that.

So all along, during that period, now he says, oh, it's terrible what they did, so many -- they inflicted this on me and the country. That is not what he was -- how he was acting and what he was telling Bob Woodward in real time. He was saying, I'm working with Xi Jinping, they're doing a good job, and we're going to do a good job as well.

HARLOW: The president has just written this on Twitter, quote, "Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous why didn't he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn't he have an obligation to do so? No. Because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic."

Dr. Reiner, your response to that?

REINER: Well, as I was trying to say, the most lucid the president has been about this virus has been in private to Bob Woodward.

HARLOW: Yes. REINER: So now we know that from the beginning of February, the

president knew this virus was at least five times as lethal as the most severe flu. We know the president knew this was an airborne virus and we also knew that he had been briefed a week before and told that this virus was occurring in asymptomatic people in large numbers in China. So if you want to understand why so many people in this country downplayed this virus, so many of his supporters downplayed this virus, is because the president told them to.

So, you know, it's sort of been a tale of two countries. Half the country is sort of masking up and taking this seriously, and the other half not. And that's because the president of the United States told them this was no big deal. This was just basically a fluke.


REINER: Germany which had -- Germany which had -- which has had sort of a middle of the road response to this virus has had 11,000 deaths. They're about a quarter of the size of this country. So if we had simply a middle-of-the-road response to this virus like Germany there'd be about 45,000 deaths in this country. Still a big toll but 150,000 less than where we are now.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Reiner, to your point, I remember an exchange between Sanjay Gupta and the president in the White House briefing room on the death rate of the flu after Trump's private conversation with Woodward saying it's much worse than the flu, where you had Sanjay Gupta reminding him actually the death rate is higher and the president contesting that.

But from a public health perspective, Dr. Reiner, because you make an argument here that lives would have been saved had the president been more upfront about this, to back that up explain from a public health perspective why you believe that's true. For instance, if the president rather than questioning the value of masks from the beginning had said masks, because I know this is an airborne disease, make a difference, or masks, public rallies, et cetera.

From a public health perspective why would that leadership and those comments have made a difference?

REINER: OK, so here's an alternative president. An alternative president comes out in February and says, listen, we're learning from the Chinese that this virus is airborne so we're going to need to be careful. We're going to need to learn over the next few weeks how best to protect each other. Right? And that may include masks. I think we need to avoid large gatherings.

The president continued to hold these mass rallies. I need to start to plan for a pandemic here. Invoke the Defense Production Act, start producing N-95 masks. Start producing swabs. Build up our testing capacity. The one thing this president did, the White House did was they built up a testing capacity to protect the president, not to protect the country.

SCIUTTO: Yes. REINER: So as he was -- as he was trying to slow testing down, they

were increasing testing to protect him all the while they knew exactly how virulent this virus was.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Listen, it's remarkable to imagine a different reality, right? Were those messages were clear in public and national from an early stage. Unfortunately that's not the reality we live through.

John Harwood, John Avlon, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, thanks to all of you.

Let's keep up the conversation. Still to come this hour, more audiotapes. President Trump in his own words telling Bob Woodward about -- listen to this -- a secret U.S. nuclear program. That's next.

And stunning allegations from a whistleblower who says President Trump's top official at the Department of Homeland Security ordered staff to alter intel assessments to suit President Trump's personal and political agenda, among other things downplaying Russia's efforts to interfere in the U.S. election again in his favor.

HARLOW: Also ahead for us, Netflix, all about streaming entertainment at home, but that does not mean the company's founder and CEO likes his teams working from home. His answer might surprise you. He's ahead.



SCIUTTO: There was another revealing moment from the president in the Woodward tapes. In case you missed it, have a listen.


TRUMP: But I have built a nuclear -- a weapon -- I have built a weapons system, weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven't even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There's nobody -- what we have is incredible.


SCIUTTO: Well, now they have heard about it. Joining me now to discuss this and other issues, Dave Lapan; he's former Press Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, also a long-serving U.S. Marine. Dave, thanks for joining us this morning.



SCIUTTO: So that exchange there is -- the president -- it's not the first time that the president has shared classified information, I mean, he famously did so in the Oval Office to Russians, senior Russian officials. From your perspective, what's the significance of the commander-in-chief revealing what is presumably a classified weapons program?

LAPAN: Well, part of it goes to the question of whether he even realizes the potential danger of revealing that kind of information. It's consistent with what we've heard about intelligence briefers being careful what they tell him because they're not sure that he won't go blurt it out to other people. So, again, it's the president showing he doesn't clearly understand national security, military and intelligence matters.

SCIUTTO: Now, you're aware that a whistle-blower inside DHS where you used to serve suggests that Trump administration officials, political appointees, pressured career officials to downplay known intelligence about Russian efforts to interfere in this election in 2020, which of course, U.S. Intelligence assesses they're doing so to help the president. By doing so, given your service in DHS and its mission here, are they making the election less safe by downplaying this clear threat?

LAPAN: I think they are. I think any time they downplay any threat -- you know, and we saw it too with whether it was white supremacists, whether it was extremists, Russian interference. The mission of the department is to try to -- is to protect the homeland, plain and simple. And to do so, they need to provide information -- accurate information to law enforcement agencies, other parts of the government based on the information they have. They shouldn't be underplaying anything and they shouldn't be overplaying anything.

SCIUTTO: This -- like so many things, is not the first time where we've seen political efforts influence national security issues. We've seen it in the intelligence agencies now. You served in DHS under Trump into late 2017. Did you witness any similar political interference?

LAPAN: I didn't witness any political interference at that time. And I can tell you during the time that I was there, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis within the Department of Homeland Security was under close scrutiny, and so the information products that they produced were always looked at very closely by members of Congress and others. So I saw scrutiny of Intel and analysis within DHS, but I didn't see the kind of politicization that we are seeing -- that we're hearing about now, and the politicization of DHS across the board that I have seen since I left the department.

SCIUTTO: OK, let's talk about bigger picture here. You have yet more accounts of senior officials appointed by this president who served this president, expressing the view that this president is incompetent, unfit for office. In Woodward's book, Jim Mattis is quoted as saying that Trump is dangerous and unfit.

Dan Coats; the former director of National Intelligence as well as a former Republican senator, I should note, "Trump doesn't know the difference between a truth and a lie." More revealing, Coats suspects Russia has influence over Trump. I wonder, should Mattis and others speak about this publicly rather than let it come out in a book? Should your former boss, John Kelly given that we're 50 some-odd days from an election, say publicly, I do not believe this president is fit for office?

LAPAN: Well, I obviously can provide an opinion, but that doesn't change anything. Every person that serves in the administration, whether it's me, whether it's Miles Taylor, whether it's General Mattis, Secretary Mattis, Secretary Kelly, makes a personal decision about where that line is. And at what time they think it's appropriate to speak out and how.

I do think on the one hand, the revelations that have come out in recent days just reinforce what we've heard not only from others about the president, but from the president himself. So this is a pretty consistent picture. I don't know how much more we need to know about his unfitness for office. We've seen it time and time again and we're hearing more on the record accounts of that.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, you hear it from his family, you hear it from former military officials, you hear it from folks such as John Bolton. I want to ask you about the president's defense because the president is now claiming and his allies as well that he was simply trying to prevent panic.

You know, that while the president deliberately downplayed the COVID threat, he has certainly hyped up the threat of things like a migrant caravan from Central America, absentee ballots, we're hearing that about mail-in voting without any evidence supplied. Is the president's defense credible?


LAPAN: No, not at all. Again, as you've said, he's overhyped certain things and downplayed them. He's on the record saying that he downplayed them. This idea that he didn't want to create a panic is simply ridiculous.

There are ways to address the information that he had to get the public to understand the threat and the nature of the threat, and the steps that they could take to protect themselves without causing a panic. It says a lot that the president doesn't think the American people can handle truthful, accurate information in a way that they could responsibly react. But it's the president's responsibility. I mean, the last thing --


LAPAN: In a public health emergency you want to do is keep information from people that can save lives.


LAPAN: And I think the president's actions have cost many lives. His actions and his words have cost lives and they're going to cost more lives.

SCIUTTO: Just very --

LAPAN: And the last thing I'd say is, I went back and looked at George W. Bush's speech from the Oval Office, the night after the 9/11 attacks, we had every reason in this country to be afraid and to potentially panic.


LAPAN: The president's words were strong and they were reassuring. It wasn't trying to incite anything.

SCIUTTO: Yes, are American institutions failing here? Because we're seeing institutions, the heads of those institutions, slowly bending to the president's wishes here, trying to accommodate the president's statements even when they contradict the intelligence or the facts. Are U.S. institutions failing to protect this country where the president has not?

LAPAN: I think they are, and what it gets to, Jim, is that obviously, all of those institutions serve under the president of -- the president of the United States and the commander-in-chief. So, of course, they are going to carry out duties along the president's agenda. Where it crosses the line is when those things become blatantly partisan and political. And the president acting in his own best interests rather than the best interests of the country --


LAPAN: In causing those institutions as you said to bend to his will rather than serving the larger public good.

SCIUTTO: Dave Lapan, appreciate your service to this country in the Marines and at the DHS, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

LAPAN: Thanks for having me again.

HARLOW: All right, we're moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Taking a look here, all three major U.S. indices slightly higher this morning, still though, more sad news about the broader economy, finding out today another 884,000 Americans filed for first- time unemployment benefits just last week.