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Trump Creates Confusion, Contradicts Scientists on Masks, Vaccines; U.S. Adds 36,000+ New Infections on Wednesday; Trump: Blue States Drag Down U.S. COVID Response; GOP More Dismissive of Trump Controversies as Election Nears; Cohen: A.G. Barr is President Trump's New Fixer. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired September 17, 2020 - 11:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: We will continue these inspirational stories all week on this show. Be sure to watch "CHAMPIONS FOR CHANGE," the one-hour special this Saturday night at 10:00 eastern right here on CNN.

Thank you so much for being with us today. We will see you back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm getting that game for my kids.


SCIUTTO: I'm Jim Sciutto.

"NEWSROOM" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. And a busy news day it is.

Joe Biden tonight answers voters as a CNN town hall. Kamala Harris spends the day campaigning in Pennsylvania.

The president this evening heads to battleground Wisconsin for a late- night real. The president's recent events, both on the trail and at the White House, have the look of a different pre-coronavirus normal, featuring few masks, even less social distancing.

The president's new COVID mantra, the country is rounding the corner. The data though is not that definitive.

But listen to the president's attorney general, William Barr, make clear there will be no return to the shelter-at-home strategies we saw back during the spring spike.


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


KING: More on the attorney general and eye-opening words ahead.

First, though, the president creating new coronavirus confusion, and in a remarkable public debate with his own top scientist.

Consider just two of the big questions right now in American life. When can I get a vaccine? How can I stay safe until then?

In congressional testimony the director for the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Robert Redfield, says vaccines won't be widely available until sometime next year.

And Redfield held up his own mask to make this point, masks, if everybody uses them, are better weapons against the virus than vaccines.

Pick a public health expert you trust. The odds are overwhelming they agree with Dr. Redfield.

But the president of the United States takes issue.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think he made a mistake when he said that. It's just incorrect information.

And I called him, and he didn't tell me, and I think he got the message maybe confused. Maybe it was stated incorrectly.

No, we're ready to go immediately as the vaccine is announced. And it could be announced in October, could be announced a little bit after October. But once we go, we're ready.


KING: Now, Dr. Redfield is hardly alone. Tension between the president and his own scientists is something we've seen for the past several months but the divide is sharper and more public than ever right now.

The president questions the wisdom of masks, stages events with big crowds in close quarters. Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx say it is critical to wear a mask. And they say, all three of them, it's critical to avoid large crowds.

The president says we've already turned the corner. Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx instead see us at another coronavirus crossroads.

Let's take a look at the data. Decide who you want to believe here.

This map turning again for the worse. This map has taken a turn for the worse in recent days. And 23 states in red and orange. That means more new infections today than compared to a week ago. And 23 states trending up right now. And 21, the beige, holding steady. And six states, in green, trending down. Six states reporting fewer new infections now than a week ago.

But 23 -- five of them, 50 percent more infections this week than last week. And 23 states trending in the wrong direction.

The national positivity rate, when people take coronavirus tests, nationally, number at 6 percent right now. It is a seven-day moving average. That's been pretty steady, right around 6 percent, 7 percent for quite some time. nationally.

State by state is where you get the different view, where you get the understanding of the complexity of the challenge.

If you look at the positive rankings, these states up in New England and New York, the northeast, the ones that went through coronavirus early, they have done a remarkable job. Look at the positivity rates, quite low.

More of a mixed picture, Mississippi and Alabama in the mid-teens. Wisconsin in the mid-teens. And Kansas and Idaho, the leading states right now, meaning highest positivity. That's not a race you want to be leading.

Let's look at the case trend. And here's the big question. Where are we? Where are we? We're halfway down from the summer peak, 20,000 cases, new infections today coming into the summer. Up around 65 and close to 770,000 at the height of the peak.

Right now, below 40,000 the last couple of days. But you can see a little uptick in that line. This has been a plateau, a little drop, but mostly a plateau at around 40,000 since the end of July. A long time back.

The experts tell you must shove this down, especially heading into the fall. Instead, a stubborn plateau, right around 40,000 cases. Let's watch that play out as we go through the week.

The death trend map, again, the saddest graphic because this is life lost, a plateau of around 1,000 pretty much from the middle of July into early September.

A bit of a drop here, just below 1,000, still very painful but getting below down 1,000. A little trickle up the last couple of days. We'll see.

And 997 Americans died yesterday from coronavirus. Can we shove that down under 1,000 and keep it there? A challenge for the days ahead.

The states reporting the most deaths, New York, North Carolina, California and Texas. New York, New Jersey and California, earliest hardest hit, and Texas and Florida more part of summer surge coming up.

[11:05:11] The president says it's blue states, right? The president says it's blue states causing the problems with deaths in America. And if you took them out, we'd look great in the world.

Here's a different way to look at it. Confirmed death per 100,000 residents. Yes, the president is the right in the sense that New York is red.

And Louisiana is red. They hit it early. Both have Democratic governors. And Massachusetts has a Republican governor.

And New Jersey and Rhode Island have Democratic governors. The lighter red, dark pink, Republican led states, Illinois has a Democratic governor and Illinois, these are deaths per 1,000 residents.

The best way to look at it is this virus has hurt all of us regardless of political party.

If you want to look at it this way, the president views things politically sometimes. Solid Democratic 2020 states, yes. Yes, those big blue states, including California and New York have had more deaths.

The states President Trump won in 2016 fast catching up. Again, Republicans want to win, right? And we should look at this as all Americans and the president likes to break it down.

Right now, solid Republican states down here. The larger more rural states, like your Dakotas and Kansas. Fewer residents, fewer deaths. They are down here.

If you look at the map right now, the scientists say we're at a low level. The question is, can you keep it there?


TRUMP: If we do a really good job, we'll be at about 100,000 to- 240,000 deaths and we're below that substantially. And we'll see where that comes out. And that would be if we did the good job.

The not so good would be between 1.5 million -- I remember these numbers so well -- and 2.2 million. That's quite a difference. So we're down in this territory.

And that's despite the fact that the blue states had tremendous death rates. If you take the blue states out, we're at a level the in the world would be at. We're really at a very low level.


KING: Joining me now, our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, and professor of epidemiology at UCLA, Anne Rimoin.

Anne, I want to start with you, Professor.

And the president's chart blaming blue states for the fact that we have a conversation in the United States about how many coronavirus deaths there are and the president says if you took those numbers off the chart we eastbound doing great.

Number one, we're all Americans and, number two, Democrats have died and Republicans have died and Independents have died and the president is trying to cherry pick data here to try to present a more positive case as we get closer to the election.

DR. ANNE RIMOIN, PROFESSOR OF EPIDEMIOLOGY, UCLA: John, you're absolutely right. This is not a political issue. It shouldn't be a political issue.

We're talking about virus transmission in a country where we have open borders. We need to be looking at this across the board.

And what we really need is a national strategy, which we have not had, in being cherry picking data, singling states out. And it only creates confusion and a blame game, which is not what we need right now.

We need national strategy. We need to be working very closely together, and we need to be doing everything we can right now to be pushing rates even further down.

We saw the big spike that you showed over the summer. Now we've just had Labor Day. We're running into the school season. We have universities where we're seeing cases start to really rise. We're seeing opportunities.

We're coming to be the fall. We're seeing people going indoors and creating more opportunity to spread.

And if we look to Europe, if we look anywhere else in the world, we can see that there's a point where the virus goes down, when people are doing a good job and then it's going to spike right back up.

So I think we need to stop thinking about the politics and start thinking about virus transmission and science.

KING: I appreciate that point and I agree with you.

But, Dana, the president -- and part of this is understandable in the sense that the election is now just a few weeks away. He's up for reelection and he wants to put the best possible shade. And there's a different between the best possible shade and facts and data.

What's remarkable, in the most recent days, as the president has gotten more optimistic, the scientists are going out of their way to counter him, Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, among others. Essentially, my translation, don't listen to the president.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY & INFECTIOUS DISEASES: We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter because it's not going to be easy. DR. DEBORAH BIRX, COORDINATOR, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS TASK FORCE: In

October and November and December, there will be less vaccine available.

ADM. BRETT GIROIR, SECRETARY FOR HEALTH, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: Exercise personal responsibility, especially wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

REDFIELD: Face masks is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.


KING: Now, those are the experts. They all work for the president of the United States.

This is the president of the United States.



TRUMP: We have round the final turn, and we have -- we're going to have vaccines very soon.

Wow. Beautiful. What a crowd this one is. And you've got thousands and thousands of people outside.

I said to them, what's with the mask? He said I think I answered that question incorrectly. I think maybe he misunderstood it.


KING: It -- it is just a remarkable -- we've had this tension from the beginning, but experts, the scientists are going out of their way now to get themselves in public settings where they can say things that are directly contradictory to what the president is saying and what he is doing.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It's not an accident. And clearly, the president wanted to have that press conference in order to put his spin on things and to publicly contradict the head of the CDC the way he did yesterday.

I thought it was very noteworthy that -- that Robert Redfield sent out in a tweet that, although he obviously believes and hopes that vaccines will be the most effective way to fight coronavirus once they are approved and able to be distributed, in the short term, he doubled down on fact that masks are the best way to do it.

And I get what you're saying about the understandable way that the president is trying to put the best -- his best face forward on how coronavirus is going.

But what he has done, from the jump, except for maybe a couple of times where he has, you know, kind of leaned into the science over -- over the spring, for the most part, he's trying to will it away as opposed to getting people behind him.

Even when it comes to raw politics by showing leadership, that he is going to lead the country through this. And it could be tough but he is going to do it.

He doesn't have that in him obviously. And it's not the way that he is approaching it even now.

KING: Right.

Ad epidemiology is your business. You can't will away, you can't tweet away or you can't talk away a virus, especially a stubborn one like this one.

You made the point earlier and I want you to expand. Around a plateau somewhere around 40,000 infections a day and let's hope it's closer to 35,000 infections a day than 40,000. That's still a high baseline as we go into this troublesome fall season.

You mentioned Europe. Cases starting to go back up again. What is around the corner -- what is does the science tell you, not the president -- is around the corner?

RIMOIN: I want to amplify what you just said. What science says is, if you give the virus an opportunity to spread, it will.

We do not have herd immunity. And we do not have enough people -- we do not enough people who have immunity to the virus where we can all start to relax. We just don't.

So I agree with Dr. Fauci, that what comes around the corner is we need to be hunkering down and doing everything that we can to be keeping these levels low.

We're plateauing but we're plateauing, growing at 100 miles per hour. We're not plateauing at a very low level. And Europe was. And they are starting to spike. So you can imagine what's around the corner.

Listen to the science, listen to all the scientists who are telling you we need to wear masks, social distance and hand hygiene. It's what we have.

And even if we have a vaccine, it's not going to be 100 percent effective and, therefore, we still need to be using these measures.

But even if a vaccine becomes available at some point in -- in the future, we have thousands and thousands and thousands of lives to save by wearing a mask, social distancing, hand hygiene. It works.

And I want to make one more point, is that another piece of data that's just come out showing that if you wear eyeglasses, it is possible there's some evidence that suggests that that also could provide some protection.

Which just adds to this evidence, this very clear evidence that these kinds of blunt measures preventing the virus from entering the mucus membranes makes a difference.

KING: Science matters.

Anne Rimoin, Dana Bash, appreciate the reporting, insights and perspective very much. We'll continue this conversation. And the numbers will tell us, the president has said we've turned the final corners. The numbers will tell us in the days and weeks ahead.

The Republicans know coronavirus is the defining election issue and know that the president gets miserable grades for his handling of this pandemic, but don't think for a second that means GOP lawmakers want to take issue with the president.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.

You ask and ask to try to get the Republicans to talk. You're not asking them to criticize the president. You're just want them to talk about it. What should he do, what should he do better, what is he doing right? They don't like the story.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The story of the Trump presidency, in a lot of ways here on Capitol Hill, the president gets engaged in controversies, self-inflicted controversies, offensive tweets, scandals. Republicans often look the other way and hope that the news cycle moves on.

And this is becoming more pronounced as we get closer to the election. And as the fight for the battle over the Senate is red hot, as well as the fight for the White House, the Republicans certainly don't want to be on the wrong side of the president's Twitter finger.


And the controversies have piled up in recent weeks, whether it's the president suggesting that some of his voters in North Carolina should go to the polls twice, whether it's the indoor rally that he held in Las Vegas on Sunday, to the alarm of the public health experts.

Or whether it was his comments to Bob Woodward, in which he said he intentionally played down the virus and essentially misled the American public about the gravity of this.

When we try to get reaction from Republican Senators oftentimes it's met with -- it's not a big deal or a shrug or not a response at all. Particularly Republicans up for re-election.

Our colleague Ted Barrett asked Kelly Loeffler, the Republican Georgia Senator, about this. She's in a very difficult race back home. She said -- she was asked if she had concerns about the president lied to the American people, she said, no, it's fake news.

The president's comments were on tape, of course.

Arizona Senator Martha McSally said, you guys are awful, when asked if it was a mistake for the president to mislead the public about the gravity of this threat. Ad Joni Ernst, Republican Senator, told us, not right now, when we tried to ask three times over the last week to get a response.

Steve Daines, Republican Senator from Montana, also in a difficult race, said he wished the questions would be asked to Joe Biden instead, when I asked him specifically about the president saying privately to Woodward that the flu is not as deadly -- the virus is five times deadlier than the flu and saying the opposite publicly.

And then you have some Senators, John, who are trying to avoid answering questions. Cory Gardner for one, the Colorado Republican Senator, taking those back staircases in the Senate to avoid reporters, staying on the phone to avoid answering questions.

But that's just the situation right now. Republicans are hoping that they can maintain the majority. And they don't believe a fight with the president will do just that -- John?

KING: They need the Trump base. Fascinating. Several of those Senators you just showed, you might not be here come next January. Final weeks of the campaign.

Manu Raju, appreciate the important reporting.

Coming up next for us, the president's old fixer says the attorney general appears to be his new fixer.



KING: The attorney general, Bill Barr. is, well, provocative. He equates coronavirus stay-at-home orders to slavery.

He rails against mail-in voting and joins his boss in saying, contrary to all the evidence, mail-in voting opens the door to massive fraud.

And in a speech last night, the attorney general made it clear he runs the DOJ show, in the process, insulting, insulting the rank-and-file prosecutors.


BARR: Name one successful organization or institution where the lowest level employees' decisions are seemed 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's no way to run a federal agency.


KING: CNN crime and justice correspondent, Shimon Prokupecz, is in New York and CNN's John Harwood at the White House. Shimon, you know the DOJ building very well there. Have already been

resignations under the attorney general, some morale issues under the attorney general.

I suspect calling your career prosecutors essentially preschoolers not going to sit very well.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and these are career prosecutors who, in some cases, you know, what he's referring to here in the end is the entire Mueller investigation.

And he's doing everything he can, and since he's taken office to discredit the Mueller investigation and discounting many of the junior prosecutors and attacking the prosecutors who served on the Mueller team.

Specifically at the Roger Stone investigation, and that trial, and his feelings towards them because they spoke out. They resigned in protest over the fact that they felt Bill Barr was interfering in the sentencing of Roger Stone. So he -- here he is attacking them this.

Other prosecutors who are basically saying that they have no place to speak out if they see anything wrong, if they feel anything wrong is happening.

These are lawyers. Some of them career prosecutors and some of them giving up big jobs at law firms to serve of the public interest and here he is attacking them, John.

Of course, yes, this is going to have issues and will reverberate across the country. All U.S. attorneys' office whose prosecutors go in and investigate every day very complicated and difficult cases.

KING: And they don't go to Montessori school, they don't, at the U.S. Department of Justice. At least, I know they don't see it that way.

John Harwood, we know that the attorney general is loyal to the president. We know that like the president, he sort of frowns at this idea that you might want to stay at home or wear a mask or stay away from crowds to be safe.

But there's no national lockdown order in place. There never has been. White House guidelines went to the states.

But listen to the attorney general's take on COVID restrictions.


BARR: Putting a national lockdown stay-at-home orders is like house arrest. It's -- it's -- other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.


KING: In the House, James Clyburn, who is the highest-ranking black American in the House of Representatives, a member of the Democratic leadership essentially says to the attorney general, how dare you.


REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): I think that that statement by Mr. Barr was the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, godawful thing I've ever heard.

It's incredible that the chief law enforcement officer in this country would equate human bondage to expert advice to save lives.



KING: Smart perspective from Mr. Clyburn.

But, John Harwood, Bill Barr has made it clear, I run this show and I will say what I want.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. But I think when we listen to the extreme statements from Bill Barr, we have to remember he has presented himself to the American people as a particular kind of zealot in resisting social change.

He's a conservative Christian. He gave a speech at Notre Dame last year where he said that people of faith were facing an onslaught from what he called militant secularists trying to destroy the traditional moral order. He lumped in the media in all of that.

And he's now aligned himself with President Trump, who has aligned himself with white conservative Christians who feel the same way as Bill Barr does.

So Barr is lumping a wide array of adversaries into that group of militant secularists that he's battling, so that includes public health authorities.

Barr complains that they closed down churches. It includes Black Lives Matter protesters. He said they don't really care about black lives. They have a broad political agenda.

It includes those junior lawyers in the Justice Department. Plus Democratic mayors, like Jenny Durkan of Seattle. The "New York Times" reported that he's speculated or talked to his aides about potentially prosecuting her for how she handled protests in Seattle.

The striking thing about this is that there's no evidence that Donald Trump has strong political or religious beliefs of any kind.

But Bill Barr has very strong beliefs. Trump is an instrument for him in pursuing those beliefs, and he's doing it.

KING: John Harwood and Shimon Prokupecz, appreciate the important reporting and insights. Gentlemen, thank you very much.

Coming up for us, President Trump's new attacks. Another one today on mail-in voting. And, yes, we have to do this on why they are completely untrue.