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Trump Contradicts CDC Chief's Testimony on Masks and Vaccines; BioNTech Expands Production Capacity, Seeks October Vaccine Approval; Internal AstraZeneca Document Revealed Vaccine Trial Participant Has Serious Symptoms; Attorney General William Barr Blasts DOJ Prosecutors, Equates Them to Pre-schoolers; Whistleblower: Military Police Considered Using Heat Ray Against Protesters Near White House; Torrential Rain Causes Flooding in Florida Panhandle And Alabama. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 17, 2020 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


The president undercuts his own CDC director, the one he appointed, on critical messaging in this pandemic on a day we saw close to 1,000 deaths. And just hours after CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield testified under oath that a vaccine would not be widely available until next summer. The president claims a vaccine could be ready in just four weeks.

Redfield also said that wearing a mask may be more effective against the virus than any potential vaccine. The president undercut Redfield's testimony again there saying he was confused or misunderstood the questions.

SCIUTTO: As we always say on this broadcast, listen to the science, listen to the experts. The very public display comes at a time Americans are increasingly skeptical of the information they're getting from the White House and the nation's top scientists.

We are following, we're sticking to all the facts today and what we're learning about the race for a vaccine. There is new information this morning on timelines and one participant's illness that held up one key vaccine trial. We'll have an update on that.

Let's begin, though, with CNN's John Harwood on the president's contradicting the CDC chief, of course appointed by him.

John, we've seen this happen so many times before. I suppose the promises we've heard from the White House that the president has somehow changed on this or will stick to the science on this it's just not happening. JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He manifestly will not

stick to the science on this. He doesn't want to because the science constrains what he can say to the American people.

This was extraordinary yesterday, Jim. As America still is grappling with nearly 40,000 cases of coronavirus a day, 1,000 deaths a day. We just saw that last week the -- more than 800,000 people filed for new unemployment benefits because of the economic consequences of this pandemic. The president was out again trailing for re-election, contradicting his CDC director over the timing of a vaccine because he wants to portray to the American people that the vaccine is going to be there sooner than it actually is going to be.

Of course there are disagreements over what happens when it's ready, and some people will get it, but not everyone will get it. And that's what Redfield was talking about. But even more extraordinary than that was the president contradicting Redfield on the most basic, simple step that every American can do to protect themselves and protect others, and that's mask wearing.


DR. ROBERT REDFIELD, CDC DIRECTOR: I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said to him what's with the mask, he said, I think I answered that question incorrectly. I think maybe he had misunderstood it. I mean, you know, you have two questions, maybe he misunderstood both of them.


HARDWOOD: He did not misunderstand. What Redfield was doing there, and I should say it was brave of Redfield to do it because of the president's attitude, was trying to help save American lives by urging them to wear masks, but the president seems to feel that mask wearing is a wedge issue that he can use to motivate his base against people who were encouraging mask wearing, and that is where we were left yesterday.

And the question is how the American people react to it and most people don't trust what the president has to say about the coronavirus. We've seen that from polling. But you've got to think that every time he questions science advisers it has some effect on the public.


HARLOW: For sure, John Harwood, we're going to talk a lot more about the medical implications of that. Thanks for the reporting from the White House this morning.

Meantime, a coronavirus vaccine being jointly worked on between an American and a German company could have a lot more in terms of dosages available if it gets approved.

Our Fred Pleitgen joins us with more. Good morning, Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. Yes. This is the U.S. company Pfizer and BioNTech. And BioNTech today announced that they actually bought a vaccine making plant here in Germany and they say that's going to help them manufacture about 750 million doses per year more than they originally would have been able to manufacture.

They also said today, the CEO of BioNTech, that their vaccine candidate which is called BNT-162, they are still confident that they are going to be able to ask for approval for that candidate by the end of October. They say they're going to put in for that approval, all the paperwork, both with the FDA and the European agency which is called the EMA. They say they plan to manufacture about 100 million doses of that vaccine. This year about 1.3 billion doses in 2021. And they confirmed today that at least part of that first batch of 100 million doses that they plan to make this year will indeed go to the United States -- Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Fred Pleitgen, thanks very much.

We have new details this morning as well about an illness that halted a key vaccine trial in its final stage before approval.


CNN obtained an internal document from the drug firm AstraZeneca that confirms a previously healthy woman in her 30s was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder after her second dose of the vaccine. Of course implications for the broader trial there.

HARLOW: Our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has been reporting extensively on this.

Good morning, Elizabeth. So what exactly did this AstraZeneca report show?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. This is a document, as you said, an internal AstraZeneca document, and it sort of walks through what happened to this woman after she got her second dose. She is in the U.K. About two weeks after her second dose she started experiencing trouble walking and pain and weakness in her arm as well as other symptoms.

Now this is labeled as an initial report and the company, AstraZeneca, has said that there is no final diagnosis. And we should say it is unclear if this illness is connected to the vaccine or not. I spoke with Dr. Fauci this week, Tony Fauci, at the NIH and he said, look, from now -- from here it looks like this is a one-off but we need to be vigilant. Doctors who are running these trials need to look for these kinds of symptoms because if this happens again, he said that is a whole different situation -- Poppy, Jim. SCIUTTO: Understood. So they're still investigating, Elizabeth. I just

wonder I guess two things. One, what this means for the trial going forward, right? You know, and how broadly they tested. How long they put this on hold, what it means for delay for the vaccine.

COHEN: Well, you know, it's interesting, Jim, because the trial has been taken off hold in the U.K. On Saturday they announced that they had restarted it. But that is not the case in the U.S. We're sitting here several days later and it is still on hold. So it is unclear why the British regulators felt that they could put it on back. According to a statement from British regulators they said that they investigated it and that they decided that it could be put back on.

But again, I want to say this is an initial report that we found and also I want to say that AstraZeneca and Oxford have come out and said that they're adhering to the highest standards of patient safety.

HARLOW: Elizabeth, before you go, I do want to ask you about this because there have been other media outlets that reported last week that this study volunteer either had transverse myelitis or symptoms consistent with that. What did AstraZeneca say about those reports?

COHEN: Right. So AstraZeneca at the time said that media reports of confirmed transverse myelitis were not -- were inaccurate, were incorrect. And they said that there was no final diagnosis. And so that has led many people to say, wait a minute, where's the transparency? You know, we need to have more transparency. This is something that is being funded by taxpayers to a large extent.

AstraZeneca got a large chunk of money from Operation Warp Speed but even more importantly, this is a vaccine that many of us, maybe, you know, hundreds of millions of us might end up taking and so there are people who are calling for more transparency in this whole process.

HARLOW: Elizabeth, important reporting, thank you very, very much for that.

Let's talk about all of these developments, and they are significant. Dr. Leana Wen is here, emergency room physician and former Baltimore City health commissioner.

Good morning, Doctor.


HARLOW: So let's just talk, if we could, I'd love your opinion on the health consequences of the president neutering the CDC with those comments and then on top of Michael Caputo, the former HHS spokesperson, accusing government scientists of sedition and saying they've given up science and they're political animals. Not the political implications, but the health implications for Americans.

WEN: Our entire response so far has been hampered by mixed messaging. Somehow, public health has been pitted as the enemy. Instead the virus is the enemy and public health is the road map back. It is not the enemy of the economy, it's not preventing schools from reopening, it's quite the opposite. And it's beyond time for President Trump and all of our elected officials to get behind our scientists and to let them lead.

And I think that's what's so disturbing about all of these recent developments. There shouldn't be political interference on approval process of vaccines. There definitely should not be political interference on the science itself which is what he we're seeing with the neutering of the CDC, and forcing the CDC potentially to even not put out scientific documents.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Wen, it shouldn't happen. Sadly it is. And it fits a pattern from the very beginning of the response to this outbreak. Political influence, denial, straight-up contradiction, right, you know, of hard health messages. I wonder what influence you fear this will have on vaccine approval and then distribution, right? Because, you know, we've seen political influence already. If it gets in the way of a proper trustworthy approval process, and then what does that mean for the broader population.


WEN: We know that we can't take shortcuts when it comes to vaccine safety and when there is doubt about whether short cuts are being taken even if we actually follow all the right processes but there's doubt about it, I actually think that President Trump needs to stop talking about a date certain. Certainly tying the approval of the vaccines to elections is really harmful because it makes people who are not by any means vaccine skeptics normally.

It makes them skeptical of the vaccine even when it comes out. And I also think that the president needs to get behind mask wearing. I mean, there are studies showing by now that wearing masks can reduce the rate of transmission by up to 80 percent. That's better than a vaccine that could potentially be approved.

HARLOW: You have really interesting opinion piece out, I believe this is "The Washington Post." I read it last night. And I want to ask you about it because we have had a number of partisans and even Jared Kushner in the White House talking to Wolf about this on Tuesday, the Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh talking about the impact of indoor rallies on the spread of COVID versus outdoor protests for the Black Lives Matter movement. Just listen to this from Mr. Murtaugh.


TIM MURTAUGH, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, TRUMP 2020 CAMPAIGN: If people can protest in the streets by the tens of thousands, if people can riot, if people can gamble in casinos then certainly they can gather peacefully under the First Amendment to hear from the president of the United States.


HARLOW: I hear the casino point, but to the protests outside versus indoor rallies, what is your take? WEN: I think it's important for us to -- as public health experts to

lead with the science and the science tells us that this is a virus that does not discriminate. It doesn't care why it is that people are gathering. But it does care about the conditions under which they're gathering, so outdoors much safer than indoors. Wearing masks obviously much safer than not wearing masks. And I also, in this case, would distinguish between the behavior of the participants while at protests versus rallies.

At protests, many people are aware of the risks and are doing everything they can to reduce that risk, versus at many of these rallies. We're seeing people going in defiance. And it's their behavior during those events. And I also worry about what they do after the events. They may not be self-quarantining and then getting testing as they should be.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Wen, just very quickly, we've seen some data that had shown that indoor events have led to outbreaks, I mean, whether it'd be a Trump rally or a wedding. We're going to be talking about that later, a wedding in Maine. What has the data shown us on outdoor protests? Have there been super spreader events tied to protests?

WEN: Of course there have been infections and we should be clear that outdoor protests with a lot of people still have risk of transmission and ideally should not happen in the middle of the pandemic either. But the -- but there have not been surges of infections that have been tied. There was a study looking at over 300 cities where protests occurred.


WEN: And they did not find surges of infections tied to these protests.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Dr. Leana Wen, thanks for breaking through the fog of confusion and disinformation to lead us back to the facts.

WEN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Happening right now on Capitol Hill, a hearing on threats to the homeland. The acting Homeland Security secretary, however, won't be there. Chad Wolf has defied a House subpoena after a scathing DHS whistleblower report. Why not? Why isn't he there telling you and me and the American people what the biggest threats are to this country?

HARLOW: Also Attorney General Bill Barr says the virus lockdown is, quote, "the greatest inclusion," end quote, on civil liberties other than slavery. More on his stunning remarks ahead.

And one wedding in Maine as Jim just referenced is now being linked to nearly 200 COVID-19 infections and seven deaths. We are learning about this super spreader event.


[09:15:00] SCIUTTO: Attorney General William Barr is facing backlash this

morning after making truly stunning comparisons between stay-at-home orders to stop a pandemic and slavery. Have a listen.


WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, putting a national lockdown stay-at-home orders is like house arrest. It's the -- you know, other than slavery which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.



HARLOW: Well, Barr is not just unleashing on safety measures. He took on hundreds of Justice Department prosecutors working beneath him as well. Let's go to our senior justice correspondent Evan Perez. Good morning, Evan, you choose where to begin because they were both stunning statements.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Poppy, look, I think one of the first things we should say is that there were no national lockdown --


PEREZ: Orders. That's one of the things that --

HARLOW: Yes --

PEREZ: Frankly, has been the subject of discussion nationwide for months, and there was never a national lockdown order, but the attorney general seems to be living in a different reality. And by the way, that's a comment that I've heard from people inside this building because there's a great deal of frustration with his leadership, and he seems to have decided to go to war against the rank-and-file employees of the Justice Department, 115,000 employees around the country who are especially the career people, who are the ones who carry out or do a lot of the work of the department.

The political leaders do make the decisions, he's right about that a 100 percent, but it's the tone and the language, the insulting language that he used to talk about career people that is really making waves today. Just referring to them and comparing to them -- comparing them to pre-schoolers is not something that's going to sit very well among the troops here, guys.


SCIUTTO: Understandably so. And you do -- Evan, just very quickly, you have seen some career prosecutors straight up resign and allege political interference by this attorney general. You've covered that department for a long time under Republican and Democratic administrations. Have you seen that before? PEREZ: No, it's very rare to see people resign in protests. This is

not a step that people take very lightly, and so, the attorney general making accusations at prosecutors, saying, for instance during his speech last year that prosecutors are prejudging the outcomes when they're doing investigations or leading investigations.

Frankly, that's something that you could accuse the attorney general of doing. He's the one that is going out there doing regular interviews on conservative media including "Fox News", talking about the John Durham investigation and seeming to prejudge the outcome, saying he's very troubled by the things that he's seeing. So, that's an accusation, frankly, that you know, he may want to turn inward, not against the prosecutors --


PEREZ: In the department.


HARLOW: Evan, thanks. We're glad you're there and we appreciate the reporting and the reality check --

PEREZ: Sure --

HARLOW: On it all this morning. Also this morning, we're learning that federal officials in June had requested a heat ray and stock piles of thousands of rounds of ammunition hours before clearing a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square in Washington D.C.

SCIUTTO: Folks, we're not making this up, it exists. A heat ray, to be clear, targets people's skin, makes it feel like it's burning. It's a weapon of war that even senior military officials hesitated to use during war time. CNN's Boris Sanchez is with us now. How are White House officials explaining this?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Jim and Poppy. No official response yet from White House officials. The details here are really stunning. They're coming from Army National Guard Major Adam DeMarco in written testimony to a house committee. He says that the Department of Defense at the height of these protests outside Lafayette Park in June requested this active denial system, as you were describing it, Jim, this heat ray gun, that makes the target it's focused on feel like it's burning.

DeMarco says that the Department of Defense also requested a long range acoustic device to blast sound at protesters. The Department of Defense officials there are confirming this request, saying that it was just part of a routine assessment of inventory. An attorney for DeMarco says there's nothing routine about this, and it underscores just how badly officials wanted to clear the area outside the White House again at the height of Black Lives Matter protests earlier this Summer.

And we should point out there's a bit of a history here going back to 2017 at the beginning of his administration. White House officials told CNN that President Trump had discussed using a heat ray-style- weapon against immigrants trying to cross the border. So, this idea has been out there according to officials that CNN spoke with, that idea ended up going nowhere back then. Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Boris Sanchez, thanks for keeping on it. Well, the remnants of Hurricane Sally are now moving across the southeast, dumping heavy rains as expected, causing some flooding. We are live in Alabama with the aftermath there.

HARLOW: We're also moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street this morning, mixed markets here and futures. We're going to watch how they react when the market opens to news that another 860,000 Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week. This also comes as notably the chairman of the Federal Reserve says social distancing and wearing masks are key to saving the economy, and that a full economic recovery will not happen until people are confident and it's safe to resume their normal activities.



SCIUTTO: Well, what's left now of Hurricane Sally is inland and dropping a whole bucket load of rain on the southeast this morning. Right now, people in Alabama and Florida dealing with the storm's aftermath. More than half a million people still without power along the Gulf Coast.

HARLOW: You've got streets that are flooded, you've got trees down as you can see right there, their homes severely damaged. Let's go back to our Ed Lavandera this morning in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Yesterday, I mean, Ed, you were on the air with us as the wind was whipping you, and now we're seeing the result of that.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we are in Gulf Shores, Alabama, which is right on the coast. This is the area where the eye of Hurricane Sally came ashore. I must tell you that for the most part, structurally as we've driven around the island this morning, things have held up structurally rather well.

But, there is a ton of clean-up like this at a popular souvenir shop here on the island that needs to be cleaned up. And if you walk around and you're around on the island which is very restricted to residents and contractors, the most popular sound you'll see are front-end loaders scooping up all of the debris that is in the roads here. And as you look overhead here on Gulf Island -- Gulf Shores Island, you can also see that there is some flooding that still has not quite receded all of the way.

And so, the situation here is a great deal of clean-up that will last for days. In fact, city officials here are basically shutting the island down for -- to tourists for about ten days.