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Trump Says He Knew COVID-19 was Deadly before Downplaying It; Whistleblower Accuses Trump Appointees of Downplaying Russian Election Interference and White Supremacist Threat. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 10, 2020 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A very good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


The president knew seven months ago how deadly this virus was but intentionally downplayed that to the American people. Still this morning, the president says his own words on the Woodward tapes were, quote, good and proper. Tell that to the families of the 190,000 people who have died in this country from COVID-19 and now listen to the president back on February the 7th.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: You know, you don't have to touch things, right? But air, you just breathe the air, and 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 your -- you know, even your strenuous flu.


SCIUTTO: Well, in the days and the weeks and the months after he downplayed the virus, very publicly and repeatedly, just three days after that recording, he held an indoor rally, one of the key risks, health officials say, in New Hampshire. He went on to hold 14 more rallies and, crucially, he mocked masks, one of the proven tactics to stop this virus given that it is, as the president said months ago, airborne, spread by airborne particles.

John Harwood leads us off at the White House. So, John, the thing about downplaying this virus, right, it's not something that was confined to a conversation weeks or months ago. It's continued right up to the present, right? It was only a week ago that he shared -- he shared disinformation that the death toll from the virus is being exaggerated. Tell us other key moments from these interactions with Woodward.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're right, Jim. He is downplaying it right up to the present moment. But what we hear on these tapes with Bob Woodward is the president from very early on in the crisis telling Bob Woodward that he knew that it was at least five times deadlier than a serious flu, that it affected young people as well as older people, but that he decided deliberately not to emphasize those facts to the public because he wanted to keep Americans 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 old, older people. Young people too, plenty of young people.

BOB WOODWARD, JOURNALIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: 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 be.

TRUMP: -- I wanted to -- I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic.


HARWOOD: Now, the evidence suggests that the panic that the president was concerned about was panic in the financial markets. He was hoping to have a strong economy going into his fall reelection campaign and he held a big press conference at the White House after the Dow had gone down a couple thousand points. But even then, he was trying to minimize the severity of the outbreak and make Americans feel very confident that it was simply going to go away. Take a listen to this.


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're going down, not up. We're going very substantially down, not up.

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

And I think the virus is going to -- it's going to be fine.

You know, in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather, and that's a beautiful day to look forward to.

We have it very much under control in this country.

People are getting better. They are 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.


HARWOOD: Now, of course, the question is how many lives could have been saved if during all that time that he was downplaying the severity of the crisis to the American people, if they ramped up a national testing program, if they had been more diligent about obtaining personal protective equipment. And then later on if he had emphasized mask-wearing and encouraged people not to gather in large groups like at his campaign rallies without masks on.

It's impossible to say for certain, but almost certainly, if you look at -- listen to public health experts, it would be tens of thousands of Americans would be alive today had he done those things.


HARLOW: John Harwood, I appreciate the reporting this morning.

Let's talk about all that we have learned, and there is so much in just less than 24 hours from these tapes. Our Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen is here and our Political Correspondent, Abby Phillip. Good morning to you both.

Dr. Wen, actually, if I could begin with you because you treat patients and I wonder what your thoughts were immediately as you heard these tapes for your patients and for their families and the impact on all of it.

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Poppy, it was really devastating. I alternated between being furious and just being really sad because I thought about all the patients, the people that I know who have lost their families, who had to say goodbye to their loved ones over FaceTime because they couldn't be with them in person.

And the patients I've treated and continue to treat who have recovered but still have lasting effects from COVID-19, including people who had strokes and now can't speak, and people with chronic kidney failure and now are on dialysis because of this disease.

I mean, this is the real human impact. And to know that this could have been avoided, and I also think about the health care workers too, is who ran out of PPE and got infected, some of whom died themselves, when that also was something that could have been prevented too.

And I just think that the most devastating part of all of this is that President Trump knew about the seriousness of the virus. He chose not to act, and he also stopped others from acting too, including silencing the CDC and casting doubt on his top federal government scientists from speaking the truth and taking action.

SCIUTTO: It's still happening, Dr. Wen, is it not, that the president is questioning the death toll from this. There was political pressure, it seems, on the CDC to draw back testing on those who were asymptomatic.

From a public health perspective, when you add these things up, for instance, attacking the use of masks or questioning the usefulness of wearing masks, you know, going back months, holding indoor public rallies going back months, these things, can you quantify from a public health perspective what effect this had on the response and, therefore, on the American people?

WEN: Well, we know, Jim, that public health depends on public trust. It also depends on public action. And if we look back and had the federal government taken strong action themselves and mobilized for testing, had a cohesive national strategy around things like PPE and masks and other things, it would have made a big difference only on that point alone.

But then you also take into account the mixed messaging that continues to occur, as you said. That's caused so much confusion. And I think there's still an opportunity for President Trump and the federal government to do right at this point, to stop muzzling and silencing scientists, to stop putting political pressure and valuing political expediency over science and to really let scientists lead in this response. We can still save hundreds of thousands of lives going forward.

HARLOW: Abby, listen to this exchange. So, first, I'm going to play the president to Woodward on the 7th of February. And right after that, you'll hear a White House press conference and our Dr. Sanjay Gupta asking the president questions.


TRUMP: And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your -- you know, even your strenuous flu.

You know, people don't realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: The flu has a fatality ratio of about 0.1 percent.

TRUMP: Correct.

GUPTA: This has a fatality ratio of somewhere between 2 and 3 percent.

TRUMP: We don't know exactly. And the flu is higher than that. The flu is much higher than that.

GUPTA: (INAUDIBLE) it's just the flu, but this is spreading and it's going to spread maybe within communities. That's the expectation.

TRUMP: It may. It may.

GUPTA: Does that worry you? Because that seems what worries the --

TRUMP: No, because we're ready for it. It is what it is. We're ready for it. We're really prepared.


HARLOW: So, Abby, dereliction of duty?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is what it is. That's a phrase that he uses so frequently when it comes to this virus. And it is really striking because often with President Trump, sometimes you don't know whether he is simply disbelieving of the facts that he has about a situation or perhaps he doesn't know that that maybe he wasn't told.

In this case, what the tapes provide is proof that he did know, he did understand and he did get the gravity of the information. He said that the coronavirus was five times more deadly than the flu. And then later on, repeatedly, in interview after interview, in press conference after press conference, would compare it to the flu. In tweets, he would say, well, we don't shut down the country for the flu.


Why would we shut down the country for the coronavirus? The answer is because the coronavirus is a lot more deadly. And he tells Woodward in the interview that the virus is also a lot more transmissible.

So the president knew exactly what we were dealing with but repeatedly refused to tell the American people that. And as a result, you saw a lot of the president's supporters showing up at state capitols all across the country at protests, protesting stay-at-home orders and protesting mask orders. And the signs that we saw at those protests said, this is just like the flu. Why should my liberties be constrained because of that? It was clearly irresponsible, and it had a real life impact.

SCIUTTO: It was deliberate.

Just a moment, Abby, before we go on the contradiction, I mean, the cognitive dissonance even in the president's own message on race. Because Bob Woodward, in one interaction, gave the president something of an opportunity to say that, yes, I like you, Mr. Woodward, we're children of white men of privilege, we can't quite see it from the side of black Americans.

But the president did, in another exchange, acknowledge, he said that there is racism in this country and that it's a sad fact that black Americans have to face that. Can you explain that contradiction and why that granting of that fact by the president hasn't been more a part of his political messaging before the election?

PHILLIP: Well, I think that the president does not necessarily believe that systemic racism is embedded in parts of society. I think he believes that there are racist people, that people experience racism, but I don't think based on his comments to Woodward and his own comments both in recent months on social media and over the years for decades that President Trump has talked about his belief that some black Americans actually have it better than white Americans because they get advantages, like affirmative action and things like that.

So, clearly, this is not a president who spends a lot of time thinking about what the experiences are of black Americans. He has spent most of this summer rejecting calls to speak with more empathy about the experience of black Americans. And I don't think that these comments really change anything except that he explicitly says, you're drinking the Kool-Aid. Why on earth would I ever want to consider that black Americans might have a different experience? I think that explains a lot of what we've been seeing over the summer.

SCIUTTO: Abby Philip, Dr. Leana Wen, thanks to both of you.

Still this hour, a whistleblower says the top political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security instructed career officials to downplay Russia's election interference in this coming election in 2020. Why is that? All of this allegedly to suit the president's personal political agenda?

HARLOW: Plus, Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden not mincing words when it comes to the revelation that the president clearly downplayed what he knew was fact to the American public.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: He waved a white flag. He walked away. He didn't do a damn thing. Think about it. Think about what he did not do. And it's almost criminal.


HARLOW: Our Jake Tapper sat down with him exclusively. He joins us with his interview, ahead.

And eerie scenes on the west coast as deadly wildfires turn the skies orange there, next.



HARLOW: This is stunning, and it may have gotten a little bit buried in all the headlines that have come out in the last 24 hours, but listen to this. A whistleblower is now accusing top Trump appointees at DHS of downplaying threats from Russia and from white supremacists to suit the president's political agenda.

This whistleblower says, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf instructed career officials to modify intelligence assessments to match the president's rhetoric. DHS has not responded to CNN's request for comment on this.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now is Mike Rogers, CNN National Security Commentator and former Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Shawn Turner, CNN National Security Analyst, former Director of Communications for U.S. National Intelligence at the ODNI, also served himself in intel. Thanks to both of you. I wanted to ask you to help put this in context for people at home and perhaps I could begin with you, Shawn, about why this matters, right? Because this is not the first time we've seen this administration color, influence, ignore intelligence to a political end, except the intelligence that likes, say, on Chinese interference, downplay that it does not on Russian interference, both in 2020 and in 2006, or North Korea's expansion of its nuclear program or Iran's compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

You see this across the board. Just tell us, Shawn Turner, in your experience, having been an intel professional yourself for years, why that matters and why that's a danger.

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, Jim. You know, look, this is pretty egregious. When you ask a national security official, an intelligence officer, to shape or reframe intelligence to support a political objective, you're asking our national security officials, the people who have the responsibility of keeping Americans safe, asking them to lie to us.

And that's so important because, look, you know, at some point, this president is going to have to make a decision about national security matters. And when they have to make that decision, what they need more than anything is the trust of the American people. The intelligence community has to have the trust of the American people. And incidents like this call into question whether or not leaders are accurately representing intelligence.

But I'll just -- you know, there's one other aspect of this, Jim. Look, this isn't just about being asked to reshape or reframe intelligence. There's also the substance of this intelligence.


I mean, this was particularly egregious. We're talking about, as we get ready to go into an election, the intelligence community being asked to downplay what Russia is doing to interfere in that election.

So I think that, you know, for a number of reasons, both on the intelligence side but also on the side of what people -- what people understand about what Russia is doing, that this is particularly egregious in the kind of thing that I think we're going to be feeling the reverberations of for some time.

HARLOW: What about you, Mike Rogers, as the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee? What are the consequences of something like this if all that the whistleblower has alleged is true?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMENTATOR: Well, if it's true, I agree, this is completely egregious. Because what -- DHS, Department of Homeland Security, not only provides this intelligence, their assessments of their intelligence to the White House, this is also the communication arm to state and local police and other organizations around the country. So are you deliberately misleading what the threats are is really dangerous, even if you're downplaying it as something really to be concerned about. If you think about why the white supremacy piece is troublesome to me is we're seeing the spike in that ideology looking for violent outgrowths and some of its lone wolf white supremacists. March 24th, somebody was arrested by the FBI for trying to blow up a hospital because they believe that coronavirus was something to eliminate white people. I mean, that just tells you that ideology and that extremism, we just need to be prepared.

And getting the information out there doesn't mean, you know, that the president is right or wrong or whatever. It does mean, however, that that's something that local and state police should be considering when they are investigating crimes and criminal activity and groups.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, you hear some of the same rhetoric from the top law enforcement official in this country repeating some of those misleading claims, that being Bill Barr.

I want to talk, Shawn Turner, about the credibility now of other officials around the president giving -- given their willingness to sort of stay in line with the president's messaging even when it contradicts the facts as known. Woodward's book claims the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, he warned President Trump on january 28th that the coronavirus would be the greatest national security threat of his presidency.

Now, listen to the president's reaction and listen to what O'Brien said publicly about the virus just days later. Have a listen.


WOODWARD: So now I understand --

TRUMP: It was too early.

WOODWARD: Your new national security adviser, O'Brien, said to you on January 28th, Mr. President, this is going -- this virus is going to be the biggest national security threat to your presidency. Do you remember that?

TRUMP: No, no.

WOODWARD: You don't?

TRUMP: No, I don't, no, I don't. I'm sure he said it. I'm sure he said it, nice guy.

ROBERT O'BRIEN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Right now, there's no reason for Americans to panic. This is something that is a low risk, we think, in the U.S. But President Trump, from the day he took office, made protecting Americans and keeping them safe, whether it's from terrorists or criminal organizations or from viruses, like the new novel coronavirus, that is top priority.


SCIUTTO: Shawn Turner, we've seen this. We've seen -- and listen, he is the commander-in-chief. I suppose they have to listen to the president here. But where is his and other's credibility given their willingness to parrot the president's misleading statements about the severity of this early on?

TURNER: Yes, Jim. And, you know, this is really unfortunate when you see it lined up side by side. You know, there's somewhat of an epidemic of people around the president who have sort of independently come to the conclusion that in order to stay in the good graces of the president, they have to listen to what the president says publicly. And then they need to -- they have to alter their official positioning to make adjustments and sort of tie themselves in knots to make sure they are not terribly inconsistent with what had the president says.

And, look, I've always been an advocate of the president having the advisers that he wants to be able to govern and to lead the way that he wants. But when we see these things lined up side by side, and we understand that the truth has a significant impact on the American people, and what we understand and our safety, and how we go about our daily life, I think that what we've seen is we've seen people go too far with regard to getting in line with this president, even when they know what he's saying is -- is not accurate.

HARLOW: Chairman Rogers, big picture, if we could, given what this whistleblower is alleging, given what we heard from the president in his own words on these Woodward tapes. Is it a dereliction of duty across the board, I mean, to know something in early February and to say something completely opposite to the American people?

ROGERS: Yes. Listen, much of what this president does makes me scratch my head.


I think his instinct was --

HARLOW: I know, but this is -- is this bigger than scratch your head?

ROGERS: Well, listen, I think what his intent was, he said, hey, I don't want them to panic. But ignoring a problem is not leadership. He should have come out when he knew the information and then set out a course. What the American people wanted to see, okay, we understand that this is bad and it's real, so what are the steps that we can do and that -- that whole three months of miscommunication. And, by the way, states did some of the same things out there. It was real kind of crazy. That's where I think the president could have led and should have led on this -- on the coronavirus response.

The same with adjusting intelligence. At some point, intelligence is designed to give you the facts as best as they know it and give you an assessment. It's not designed to protect your political narrative. And when you start getting into that, that's when serious mistakes can be made. And I think the danger level of those kinds of activities starts to rise up.

I hope the inspector general gets their hands on this and just tries to make that determination so you have a fair determination were they trying to change the assessment. Changing the intelligence assessment for political gain is dangerous on a good day, and when you have so much going on and the Russians are so active.

And, by the way, the Chinese are bad too. Yes, they are engaged in really bad activity here, the Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party engaged in terrible activity in the United States, that is really troublesome. It doesn't mean you can wipe aside one side that have equation. We have a real political interference problem with the Russians and we need to deal with it.

HARLOW: Thank you, Chairman Rogers, for being here, and Shawn turner, always good to have you both.

So, Joe Biden sitting down for an exclusive interview with our Jake Tapper, telling him that it is quote, disgusting and, quote, almost criminal that the president knew of the risks posed by COVID but downplayed them. Up next, Jake Tapper is with us.