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Trump Fields Tough Questions from Voters at Town Hall; Hurricane Sally Pounds Gulf Coast; Alabama Hit by 1st Hurricane in 15 Years; Greg Michel, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director, Discusses Being Spared from Worst of Hurricane Sally; Trump: I Didn't "Downplay" COVID-19, I "Up-Played It". Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired September 16, 2020 - 11:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing this very, very busy news day for us.

A crucial moment this morning in the coronavirus challenge. The data, yet again, moving in the wrong direction.

And 50,000-plus new infections added to the U.S. case count just yesterday. And 1,400-plus new American deaths. That's the highest single-day total deaths since the height of the summer surge.

Yet, this big reversal from the Big 10. It's universities will try to play football by late October, late next month.

President Trump was among those pressuring the conference after its leader said the pandemic made it too risky to play this fall.

The coronavirus, of course, is the biggest election issue. And it was a defining issue at a very rare event last night, a town hall where the president took questions from voters.

He misleads reporters and his own supporters every day. But it's far more risky when it is a voter who says he or she is undecided on issues from COVID to race to health care.

The president's answers last night twisted, if not defied the truth.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought you were doing a good job with the pandemic response until about May 1st. Then you took your foot off the gas pedal. Why did you throw vulnerable like me under the bus?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have yet to address and acknowledge that there's been a race problem in America.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So if you go -- I hope there's not a race problem. I can tell you, there's none with me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Should pre-existing conditions, which Obamacare brought into -- brought to fruition, be removed without --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please stop and let me finish my question, sir.


KING: Much more on the virus and the president's town hall ahead.

First, though, a brewing disaster on the gulf coast. Hurricane Sally crept ashore at 5:45 a.m. Eastern time this morning, hitting landfall as a category 2 hurricane.

The storm is in no hurry. And that's a problem. That makes it very dangerous. Slow speed means more unrelenting rain -- you see some of it there -- more tree-cracking wind, more life-threatening storm surge.

Let's get straight to our correspondents on the gulf coast. CNN's Gary Tuchman is in Pensacola Beach, Florida, and Ed Lavandera is in Mobile, Alabama.

Gary, let's start with you.

What are you seeing?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, as you said, the eye arrival, more than five hours ago, coastal Alabama. But 30 miles to the east, where we are in coastal Florida, this hurricane is still roaring.

Sally is still dumping rain and has been dumping since yesterday at 2:00 central time. Hasn't stopped since then. And we are still getting tropical-storm-force winds with the occasional hurricane gusts.

Behind me, you can see a restaurant. We got here yesterday and it was intact. The roof is gone. The tarp on top is flapping.

You see the yellow car over there. It's kind of a sports car golf cart that you drive around resort areas. That used to be behind the restaurant. It gives you an idea of the force of this wind.

This is Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. This is a barrier island just south of the city of Pensacola. Pensacola has 53,000 people.

This barrier island has about 3,000 year-round. But lots of tourists, who come this town of year to enjoy the September weather and hope they don't get stuck with a hurricane. They've gotten stuck with the hurricane.

And the big problem with this hurricane, as you alluded to, it's been going on for so long. And we haven't gotten an update, but as of two hours ago, we had 24 inches of rain, John. That's two feet of rain. That's just an incredible amount. And it's caused a lot of flooding on this barrier island.

But the plight appears even worse across the bridge in the city of Pensacola. We can't get there because we made a commitment, along with the tourists and year-round residents.

When we stayed on this barrier island last night, they closed all of the bridges. So we're stuck here until this hurricane comes to an end.

But the flooding is a serious problem. Emergency authorities are right now conducting water rescues in the Pensacola area and north of there here in Escambia County. They're hoping for the best.

Right now, we have no reports of casualties. That's the good news. But as we've learned when we cover hurricanes, like Hurricane Laura just three weeks ago, it sometimes takes hours, days, even weeks to count up casualties.

But right now, that's the good news this point, John, no casualties that we know of at this point -- John?

KING: Communication tends to be disrupted as much as everything else.

Gary, appreciate it. Stay safe. You and your crew stay safe. And we'll keep in touch.

Let's move on to Mobile, Alabama. Ed Lavandera is on the ground there.

Ed, what are you seeing?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. Here, just a short while ago, it was like the faucet had been turned off on the rainstorms brought by Hurricane Sally.

So even though the winds are still relatively strong and steady, the rainfall, for the most part, seems to have cleared out of this area here in Mobile County.

And now this gives the emergency crews a chance to begin surveying damage and getting out a little bit more freely into the hardest-hit areas of Alabama.

Which should include Baldwin County and the Gulf Shores area, anything really on the east side of Mobile Bay, where the eye of Hurricane Sally came ashore about five, six hours ago. And that is going to be the area of great concern.


We know that there are a number of downed power lines, trees, and road closures and that sort of thing.

So if you do not need to be out, please do not get out in the elements right now because it is still treacherous right there.

And as we've seen many times in the past, and as emergency officials repeatedly say, it is oftentimes after the storm where they see the worst injuries and the deaths pile up. So that is of great concern.

And we are just now getting to the chance to begin to be able to begin surveying some of the damage. And we know, in some areas, it will be quite extensive -- John?

KING: Ed Lavandera on the ground in Mobile. Ed, keep in touch as you do that survey throughout the day. Bring us the latest when you find more information down there.

Mississippi, at one point, at risk of taking a direct hit, appears to have been spared from the worst.

Greg Michel is the director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Colonel Michel, thank you so much for your time today.

I say spared a direct hit. What are you hearing from counties around the state? Significant damage or do you think you've mostly dodged this?

COL. GREG MICHEL, DIRECTOR, MISSISSIPPI EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: We came out really good on this one. I'm actually in Jackson County, which is our most southeastern extreme county right up to the Alabama border.

And monitored this through the night last night. We did have some trees go down and some localized area flooding, but nothing like what our neighbors to the east are experiencing right now.

We prepared for the worst but came out well on this one, thank goodness.

KING: Thank goodness is right. And our thoughts and prayers are with those as Sally makes its way.

You mentioned trees down. You've got some water, obviously, and some high winds. Do you have a significant number of people without power?

MICHEL: We had, as of this morning, just under 11,000 without power. And that's due primarily to the wind bands that we got on the western side of the storm. And it's better than being on the eastern side. But we did have outages.

And we had nine shelters that were open, been open about since Monday and had some evacuations began. We're sending some of those evacuations this morning. Shelters began to close. We had, at one time, about 120 people in shelters.

So we had to prepare but, again, we missed the brunt of it. Power should be mostly restored by the end of the day today.

And we are prepared to send resources over to Alabama and Florida if we need to.

KING: That's always the interesting question. Neighbors band together. If it had come your way, they would say they'd help you.

What does that entail? Is that power crews? Is that medical crews? Is that all of the above?

MICHEL: All of the above.

Typically, what my agency gets involved in is high-water rescue, urban search-and-rescue assets, and even coordinating National Guard to go in and support with specific high-water extractions or route clearance.

The utility crews typically manage that. But again, we had a lot of resources staged down toward the south to respond to our evacuations should the storm hit us, like was originally prepared.

So we can very easily send resources to the east. And we can do that through are agreements. And all of the states have those reciprocal agreements in place.

KING: That is one of the heartwarming things that happens when something like this strikes its neighbors, even neighboring states, getting together to help each other out.

You mentioned you had 120 people in shelters last night. How many were you prepared for had this taken a different path? And what were the COVID-related precautions put in place since you're dealing with this in the middle of a pandemic? It has been quite a year.

MICHEL: It has been quite a year. And COVID, and as it relates to shelters and operating shelters, they're not only for hurricane, but for tornadoes and the flooding that we had earlier this year, has been the biggest problem.

If you talk to any emergency managers across the nation, that's been the biggest challenge.

What we did in place, we were prepared to receive more people than we actually had. Starting out, we did have congregant shelters that were open.

We required everyone in those shelters to wear PPE and wear a mask and sanitize with the appropriate social distancing.

And of course, with COVID, you have to have -- you could put less people in shelters than we did prior to the pandemic. So it means having had more shelters available.

We were prepared to do that. We identified last Monday where those evacuation centers were. We know, based on historical data, how many people will come to the shelter. So we were prepared to house them.

But it does complicate -- the pandemic does complicate shelter operations.

KING: Colonel Greg Michel, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, grateful for your time, sir, and your perspective. And I'm sure your neighbors are grateful for the offer to help. We'll keep in touch as the next few days play out.

Thank you very much.

MICHEL: Thank you.

KING: Thank you, sir.

Let's check in on the situation in the ground right now. Chad Myers is in the CNN Weather Center.

Chad, where is Sally headed?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Headed to Dothan, Alabama. It will move across the Florida peninsula, across Escambia County and on up and back to Alabama again and back into Georgia.

The real threat today is still some wind. And we're still gusting to 80 miles per hour around the center because it had a good head start.


But it is only moving forward at five miles per hour. And that's better than two and three that we had yesterday. But the amount of rainfall will truly be the problem.

And there's also the threat of some of these storms as they come on shore to produce a tornado or two, a small tornado, but it can happen.

Everywhere that you see white. Granted, a lot of it is from Mexico. But anywhere where you see white has picked up over 20 inches of rain or more.

Flash flood warnings are posted all of the way from Mobile Bay, all the way back into parts of the central Florida panhandle.

More rainfall to come. Here we go, there's Pensacola. There's -- and all of the way through here, Panama City.

These big storms, as they roll on up, could all rotate. Go back over here, St. George's Island, just east of Apalachicola, every single one of those can rotate as we work our way into the rest of the day.

Winds are still gusting to around 80 miles per hour there at the naval air station last hour.

So there's your storm. It's a category 1. It will move on up toward the north and toward the northeast. And eventually parts of Alabama, into Georgia and the Carolinas.

But by the time it gets to the Carolinas, it will be a 30 mile-per- hour storm. So, yes, it will be windy.

But the problem is, even in here in Mississippi, Alabama, and parts of Georgia, if the ground is so saturated, a 40-mile-per-hour wind, John, can bring down the tree for sure. And that's the forecast. Anywhere where you see red here, somewhere greater than six inches of

rainfall still to come on top of what the places down south have already seen.

KING: We need to keep on top of this one for a few more days.

Chad Myers, appreciate the latest. We will keep in touch over the next few days, of course.

Up next, President Trump face to face with voters, from health care to coronavirus. Town hall answers that flunked the fact-check.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why would you downplay a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families in minority communities?

TRUMP: Yes. Well, I didn't downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it in terms of action. May action was --


TRUMP: -- very strong.


KING: That's the president telling a voter last night that he up- played the impact of the coronavirus. We know that's a lie. We know that not because I say it. Because the president said it.

He told Bob Woodward that he deliberately played down the scope of the coronavirus. He said he didn't want to scare the American people. He told Bob Woodward it was deadly stuff back in early February. He told you something quite different.

Let's walk back through, before we discuss more of that town all, some of the timeline here of how we got here and how the president did not up-play the coronavirus. This, just the raw numbers.

Remember, he starts talking to Woodward in February, back when there were a few cases, the coronavirus was just starting to distribute. We have lived through this the past several months, 6.6 million cases.

Now, let's go back in time. Remember, it was -- we now know from the Woodward book, it was January 28th the president was told by his security adviser this will be, the coronavirus, the biggest national security challenge of your presidency.

That's on January 28th. The White House task force created the next day. The president did, in late January, announce the partial ban on travel

into the United States from China. He did take that early action. That was important.

February 7th, he tells Bob Woodward this is deadly stuff. Go back and look at the record. He wasn't saying telling you that. He told Bob Woodward that. He wasn't saying that in public. He was saying something quite different.

On February 26th, this is the first time -- task force created here. A month later, the vice president put in charge. Inside the White House, they're beginning to realize they need to do more. They're still not telling you the truth.

Let's move on into March now. The president announced the partial ban on travel into the United States from Europe on March 11th and national emergency on March 13th. Remember, national emergency on March 13th.

I'll go back in time. He's telling Bob Woodward, on February 7th, this is deadly stuff, it's out of control in China, and it could be distributed airborne transmission. That's February 7th.

And it is not until more than a month later he declares a national emergency and two weeks at that point to stop the spread started by the White House.

An executive order in March allowing the president to use the Defense Production Act for things like masks, for things like testing, allowing him. But he didn't do it. He didn't implement it then. He just gave himself the authority to do so.

On March 27th, at the end of the month, he did invoke the Defense Production Act for General Motors and ventilators on that issue.

Let's move into April and May. Remember, February 7th, to Bob Woodward, deadly stuff. April 27th, March, April, the end of April, a blueprint to ramp up testing. It's deadly stuff in early February.

This is when they start to realize they have a testing problem months later. Millions of cases confirmed here. And Operation Warp Speed for a vaccine announced in the middle of May.

It was deadly stuff on 7th and vaccine ramp up in the middle of May. And we hit 100,000 confirmed deaths in the end of May. And then we move into the summer. And 150,000 confirmed deaths on July 28th.

Admiral Giroir, end of July, telling Congress, we still have a testing problem. We have lags in testing, problems with the labs turning all of this around. Five million confirmed cases in the end of August.

The president did not play it up at the beginning. He did just the opposite.

But when pressed on this last night, he said, grade my response, I'll give myself an A-plus, thank you. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)


TRUMP: No. I think we did a great job.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: You were saying it was going to disappear.

TRUMP: It is going to disappear. It's going to disappear.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Could you have done more to stop it?

TRUMP: I don't think so.


KING: Joining me now, our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, and our CNN medical analyst, Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips.

Dr. Compton-Phillips, I'll start with you.

The president was asked, could he have done anything more to stop it. He says, I don't think so. What do you think?

DR. AMY COMPTON-PHILLIPS, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that he was actually gifted with the pandemic playbook, an infrastructure in the government that actually knew how to handle a pandemic.

And unfortunately, that was defunded and thrown out in the fall before the pandemic hit. And so they were starting from ground zero. They had to reinvent everything.


And I absolutely think we would have been well ahead of the game and we would not be approaching 200,000 Americans dead if they'd actually used the resources they were gifted with before coming in.

KING: And, Dana, to the politics of this, Dr. Compton-Phillips lays out the policy and the public health, the responsibility of the presidency challenge to act. When you're telling Bob Woodward this is deadly stuff, act then, don't wait and wait and wait.

To the question, it was, why did you play it down. Those were the president's own words. That's not fake news. The president told that, and it is recorded, to Bob Woodward.

I want to do a little bit of what he was telling Bob Woodward and what he was telling the American people. Let's start with Bob Woodward.


TRUMP (voice-over): It goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch. It's deadlier than even your strenuous flus. Not just old -


TRUMP: Young people, too. Plenty of young people.

I wanted to always play it down.

This thing is a killer if it gets you. If you're the wrong person, you don't have a chance.

It's was the plague.

It's so easily transmissible, you wouldn't even believe it.


KING: Sober stuff there from the president to Bob Woodward, including I want to play it down.

Here's what the president, in the same timeframe, was telling the American people.


TRUMP: When it gets a little warmer it miraculously goes away.

The risk to the American people remains very low.

We have it so well under control.

We're testing everybody that we need to test and we're finding very little problem.

We'll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.

One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear.

We don't want the cure worse than the problem. We want to get our country open.


KING: It is striking the president, in his own words, telling Bob Woodward one thing and telling the people consistently and repeatedly something different, something at odds with the facts he was being told in his briefings.

The president lies to us every day. And I'm sorry, I'll just say it that way. He lies to reporters every day.

It's different when you're face to face with a voter.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It was really remarkable to watch this president with actual voters last night asking him incredibly tough questions. Remarkable because we really haven't seen him outside of the bubble of

people asking him questions largely from friendly reporters in interviews and from the White House press corps who, you know, do their best to try to follow up, but it doesn't always happen.

In this particular case, these voters were given the chance to not just ask a question, but hold his feet to the fire in a way that he can't make them a foil in the way he can do with members of the press corps.

It's much, much more difficult. For many reasons, not the least of which is that they're feeling the effects of what they're asking about out in the real world and in places that will determine whether or not he will be re-elected. So that's -- that was really remarkable to watch.

The other thing I'll just say, John, you played a retrospective of all of the things the president said publicly, which flew in the face of what he said privately.

It's not just retrospective. He did the same thing last night. We are still in the middle of a pandemic and he is still saying that it's just going to go away. He's still saying waiters don't like wearing masks, whatever that means.

It's happening as we speak, which is still, given everything we now know about the virus, reprehensible.

KING: Let's listen to that, Dr. Compton-Phillips, and Dana Bash, since she made the point.

The president did once wear a mask to be photographed at Walter Reed and did in the briefing room once hold up a mask and say some people think it's patriotic to wear. But then he has since then mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask.

And to Dana's point, this was last night.


TRUMP: There are lots of people that think masks are not good. And there are a lot of people that -- as an example --


STEPHANOPOULOS: Who are those people?

TRUMP: I'll tell you who those people are, waiters. They come over and they serve you and they have a mask. And I saw it the other day where they were serving me. And they're playing with the mask. I'm not blaming them. I'm just saying what happens.


KING: Dr. Compton-Phillips, besides the president's waiter apparently, are there people out there who say masks are not good? COMPTON-PHILLIPS: Well --

KING: Besides his political supporters?

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: Honestly, John, there are people that are out there who say the earth is flat. Who do you believe, the people who say the earth is flat or do you believe the science and evidence that believe the earth is round? It's the same thing.

Initially, we had to figure out whether or not masks protected people. Initially, back months ago, we did not know that. As soon as we learned it, we started saying masks work.

Masks not only, by the way, stop transmission to your neighbor so they help take care of others, but now we know that even cloth masks can help protect the people wearing them because they lower the amount of droplets if you do get exposed.

You inhale, and people who wear masks are much more likely to have less impactful infections, to have asymptomatic infections.


And so masks protect you. Masks protect your neighbor. That's the science and that's the data. Waiters do not determine science. So wear a mask.

KING: Amen to that.

Dr. Compton-Phillips, Dana Bash, appreciate the very important insights and the fact-checking. Sadly, we have to do it every day.

Thank you both so much.

Up next for us, the raging fires out west are so massive, the smoke -- look at live pictures right there -- the smoke is now spreading all of the way to the east coast, even Europe.