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CNN NEWSROOM

U.S. Presidents Historically Honored Election Process; University COVID-19 Cases Continue to Rise; Bill Barr Criticizes Integrity of Justice Department Prosecutors. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired September 17, 2020 - 10:30   ET

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


[10:30:00]

JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: And now we have a de facto systemic racism that continues to shape (ph) who we are, with a structural partisanship.

So the search for a more perfect union was framed the right way, "more perfect." Perfection is not possible. And people like Senator McCain, people like Joe Biden, people like George Herbert Walker Bush, these were people who didn't get everything right, but when they had power, when they had influence, they tended to get more right than they got wrong.

And I think that's the test, do you trust this person at the pinnacle of power to think more about you than about himself?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Jon Meacham, we often use the word "unprecedented" with this president in terms of statements, attacks, moves, decisions, et cetera.

I want to ask about one in particular -- as we're 50-some-odd days out from the election -- that's his repeated attacks on the election as being credible. You know, again this morning he says, "We may never accurately know" the outcome of this election, deliberate, constant. You're a historian.

MEACHAM: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Is there any precedent for that in this country, a president --

MEACHAM: No.

SCIUTTO: -- repeatedly calling into question the credibility of the process?

MEACHAM: The very legitimacy of the process. There's really not. In fact, quite the opposite. In 1960, President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon thought about challenging the Kennedy result, and decided that that would be disruptive and there was -- there were plenty of grounds to do so, there were a lot of folks in Illinois who voted beyond the grave. They were so civically minded that they voted even though they were dead. So there's really not -- and "unprecedented" is a tricky word because

there's always something. But President Trump is this singular phenomenon in many ways.

But here's something that I think everybody should bear in mind as we go through the next couple of months. He is a manifestation of perennial American forces that we should do all we can to force into an ebbing mode: racism, extremism, hyper-partisanship, a grasp -- an elemental grasp for authority, which is what your question alludes to -- those are always going to be with us because we live in a fallen (ph), frail and fallible world.

But what we had done at our best, is we have forced those impulses into abeyance, and we've managed to focus on pushing ahead, expanding the Jeffersonian promise of equality and embracing what Lincoln called "our better angels." It hasn't been perfect, it will never be perfect. But that's been the story of the country when we've been at our best.

And you don't have to have unanimity, right? Thirty-four percent of the country approved of Joe McCarthy after he was (INAUDIBLE), so if 51 percent of us in the right number of states say we want an American more like John McCain's, we want an America that Joe Biden will bring us, then we'll get there. And then the fight will shift focus and we'll keep pushing.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Always pushing. Thank you, Jon, it's nice to have you and I hope people tune into your podcast, "It Was Said." It's powerful. Thanks so much.

[0:33:46]

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Well, sorry to share this to our younger viewers, universities are cracking down on house parties and big gatherings as virus cases spread because they spread the virus.

HARLOW: Our correspondent Omar Jimenez has reporting on these colleges.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In 2019, this would have been a typical college Saturday night. But in 2020, it's a nightmare for universities across the country, trying to gain control as coronavirus cases continue to increase on America's college campuses.

JIMENEZ: This is where students here at the University of Wisconsin- Madison get taken when they test positive for COVID-19, to isolation housing. Nobody goes in, nobody comes out. It's all part of the university's effort to try and get a handle on the outbreak here on campus, where it took just five days to go from the first day of classes to students restricted to essential activities only.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): Since move-in started at Wisconsin in late August, more than 2,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19.

KEIR METTER, FRESHMAN, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON (via telephone): They sent me an e-mail, pack your bags and be out of there as soon as possible.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): Freshman Keir Metter is one of them.

JIMENEZ: Why do you think it's so difficult to contain COVID-19 outbreaks on college campuses?

METTER (via telephone): You could say, like, don't do this and don't do that, but it's very difficult to enforce all of that. That's probably why they can't send everyone home, that's what I think, because we're just going to spread it all across the country if we do.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): Metter says he's had mild to no symptoms so far, and he's been in isolation housing for days as he waits out his two-week period.

In total, more than 350 students are in isolation at the university with another 100-plus quarantining. The rest of the undergraduate campus has been restricted to essential activities only, a move students say they only learned about last-minute, rushing to grocery stores as cases continued to climb.

[10:40:16]

PETER GIRZADAS, FRESHMAN, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON: You're standing in the elevator with people that might have it. Of course, you know, you have your mask on and you're like, well, that does something but not a hundred percent of, you know, everything.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): Across his dorm and another, roughly 20 percent of the students have been infected, according to the school. Residents in those dorms have been told they can leave the building for 30 minutes three times a day to secure meals and get a breath of fresh air.

REBECCA BLANK, CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON: We're almost certainly going to see significant case numbers continue over this coming week. We're identifying people who test positive and moving them into isolation.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): The school says they're investigating more than 380 student violations and reviewing 12 students for emergency suspension, a step that's been taken at other schools. The University of Missouri, expelling two students for disregarding COVID rules. And at the University of Kansas, large gatherings like these, leading to public health bans at off-campus residences, according to a statement given to "The University Daily Kansan," a concern at schools across the country.

DYLAN KLEIN, STUDENT, UNIVERSITY AT ALBANY: We're in the middle of a pandemic, and the fact that people think it's OK to party right now is the biggest mistake.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): It's all part of a reality some students say they assumed would come with back-to-school.

METTER (via telephone): Obviously, I don't want to have COVID, but.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JIMENEZ: Now, the campus positivity rate has been right around 10 percent at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and their plan to try and get that number down comes down to testing -- as they have increased that -- and also trying to limit student in-person interaction. It's why testing isn't just free to all students, it's now required for those living on campus in the residences and in fraternities and sorority houses -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Just another reminder of if there was just testing every day for everyone on colleges, we'd be in a different position. Thanks, Omar, appreciate the reporting.

Ahead, Attorney General Bill Barr leveling unprecedented criticism at Justice Department prosecutors, equating them to preschoolers. We'll discuss the impact of those comments, ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:46:46]

HARLOW: Well this morning, stunning attacks from the attorney general, Bill Barr, as he continues to face backlash over decisions he's made since the close of the Robert Mueller investigation. I want you to listen to this, this is what he said about career prosecutors, some of them who work under him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Name one successful organization or institution where the lowest-level employee's decisions are deemed sacrosanct. They aren't, there aren't any. Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Well, he just dismissed a few thousand federal prosecutors. CNN legal analyst -- and former federal prosecutor himself -- Elliot Williams joins us now.

Elliot, you're a veteran of the Justice Department, and I know that folks have alleged in the past that attorneys general are political, right? And they have. There's something different here, in that you have the attorney general undermining the Justice Department's own investigations -- for instance on Michael Flynn or Roger Stone.

And you have Neal Katyal and Joshua Geltzer writing in the "Times" today, both alums as well, that they've never heard of career civil servants resigning like out of those kinds of moves (ph).

Just tell us what's different about what you're seeing now.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, well, my 3-year-old daughter attends a Montessori preschool. The difference is, she didn't swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. And so that language -- if we're talking about the morale of the people who work at the Justice Department -- that's incredibly dangerous language, and it's not good for anybody there.

But here's the thing -- and the problem with these resignations that we're seeing, all of these matters that are causing so much consternation within the department are matters that seem to touch the president's personal interest or his political interests. That's what's so troubling to these career officials and career officers.

And if you just run down the list of them -- so you know, the Russia investigation that was at the heart of the Mueller probe -- you know, people resigned there -- Ukraine, which the president was impeached for, where there were resignations there. These all touch the president's personal interests.

And what's happening is that the Justice Department and the attorney general seem to be blurring that distinction, between what serves the president as a man -- Donald Trump as a person -- and their fidelity to the Constitution.

HARLOW: So specifically, Elliot, when you talk about -- and Jim rightly brings up all these resignations we've seen under Barr, you've got Nora Dannehy, right? And she resigned just two days ago from the Durham investigation. She is someone who has had a long career in this stuff, she had a big investigation she led under the George W. Bush administration into the firings of those seven U.S. attorneys.

TEXT: Who is Nora Dannehy? Resigned as top prosecutor on John Durham's Russia probe for A.G. Bill Barr; Source: Stepped down in part due to concerns over political pressure; Had long working relationship with John Durham

I'm just interested now in what she can say, right? So -- because she resigned totally, so does that mean that Barr can't muzzle her beyond sort of attorney-client privilege? Like, what could she tell Congress?

WILLIAMS: That's an excellent question. So obviously, anything she worked on, that, number one, is subject to attorney-client privilege or number two, that is protected by national security matters, she can't get into. And frankly, there are many communications she would have had in the context or her work that she's just not, as a responsible professional, able to disclose to Congress.

[10:50:01]

This said, if there are allegations of political influence or misconduct within the Justice Department, then absolutely she is free. And again -- like you touched on, Poppy -- it's striking that she didn't just ask to step down from the case -- HARLOW: Right.

WILLIAMS: -- when (INAUDIBLE) --

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Yes --

WILLIAMS: -- the department outright --

SCIUTTO: -- she left.

WILLIAMS: Now, people do it all the time --

SCIUTTO: Very quickly, Elliot, before we go, the attorney general compared a nonexistent national stay-at-home order to slavery.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Just your reaction?

WILLIAMS: I mean, it's -- look, he ought to cool it with the -- as a black man in America, yes, I think the attorney general ought to cool it with the references to slavery. We are talking about a health crisis and what the Centers for Disease Control have indicated. Even in the absence of a national ban, they've indicated that masks work for stemming the crisis.

So when we're talking about, you know, a dark point in American history that continues to have profound impacts on us today, that's hugely irresponsible, hugely just -- let's just say irresponsible and tragic-minded and yes, I'd say (INAUDIBLE)

HARLOW: Elliot Williams, very good to have you. Thanks for coming on.

WILLIAMS: Thanks always, thanks. Take care.

HARLOW: So President Trump says there could be a vaccine in a matter of weeks, he said three to four weeks. But when will it widely be distributed? A very important answer from the CDC director on that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:56:20]

HARLOW: OK, time for our favorite part of the show, something to make everyone feel good. CNN has been highlighting changemakers who are redefining what's possible in our "Champions for Change" series.

SCIUTTO: Yes, listen, these stories will give you hope. This morning, we meet a video game designer who spent most of his life in a refugee camp. Now, he's the CEO of a video game company using the power of gaming to help others running for their lives.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LUAL MAYEN, CEO, JUNUB GAMES: I first saw a computer for the first time in 2007 during a refugee registration. It was an amazing moment for me.

I came to my mother and I was like, I want to buy a computer. She kept quiet, and she saved money for like three years, looking for $300.

After my mother bought for me the computer, I then realized I could walk three hours per day to be able to charge my computer. And I would do it daily, every day.

LEO OLEBE, GLOBAL DIRECTOR AND GAMES PARTNERSHIPS, FACEBOOK: It's three hours to charge his laptop, so he can walk three hours back, so he can work for two hours. He's sitting in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda, teaching himself how to code and building and creating a game.

MAYEN: My name is Lual Mayen, I'm the CEO of Junub Games and I am creator of video game Salaam.

Salaam is an Arabic word that means peace. Salaam is a game that is really personal to me. When you're playing the game, you're actually putting yourself in the shoes of somebody. We realize that games are a very powerful tool that can bring our global communities together.

I was born on the way as my family was fleeing South Sudan. As they settled in Northern Uganda, I spent over 22 years in the refugee camp. It became like a really permanent home for us. The only thing we could do was wake up in the morning to go and find foods to eat because, like, all you need is -- is to survive.

CHRIS BOIAN, GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, UNHCR: We're looking at approximately 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, and that number is higher than we have ever seen. What we're talking about are people who are really running for their lives. They're seeking safe ground.

MAYEN: Salaam is a high-tension runner game. Your focus as a player is to take a refugee from a war-torn country to a peaceful environment. We have in-app purchases in the game. When you buy water in the game, you're actually buying water for somebody in the refugee camp.

BOIAN: What Lual's game does, is it provides people engaging in that game an opportunity to contribute actual relief and assistance to refugees.

MAYEN: Better than me.

BOIAN: Lual's game is going to bring people that are not necessarily a traditional audience for messages about refugees, it's going to bring them into the room and they're going to be learning about this at a younger age. It's really a game-changer.

OLEBE: I talk to game developers all of the time. They want to create incredible experiences for people. 99.99999 percent of the time, those experiences are: it's swords and sorcery, it's going on this grand adventure. But when you talk to Lual, he says, let me tell you about how we can help disadvantaged communities and refugees find food and find water. He can use his unique vision literally to change the world.

MAYEN: My hope is, I want other refugees to understand that we're not here just to survive, we're also here to thrive.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Wow.

HARLOW: Told you, incredible. We will continue these inspirational stories all week on this show. Be sure to watch "CHAMPIONS FOR CHANGE," the one-hour special. It's this Saturday night, 10:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

[11:00:07]

Thank you so much for being with us today.