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STATE OF THE UNION

Interview With Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA; Interview With Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Interview With Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA); Interview With U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired March 28, 2021 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:18]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN HOST (voice-over): One person, one vote? Georgia's Republican governor signs a new law to limit voting.

SEN. RAPHAEL WARNOCK (D-GA): We're going to stand up for that sacred American right, one person, one vote.

BASH: But is there anything Democrats will be able to do? I will speak exclusively to two Georgia Democrats, Senator Raphael Warnock and Congresswoman Nikema Williams, next.

And the world stage.

President Biden works on America's relationship with allies.

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We need alliances now as much and maybe even more than ever.

BASH: As tensions with Russia and China grow, how will the U.S. push back on escalating threats? Secretary of State Tony Blinken joins me exclusively.

Plus: Final stretch? The U.S. sets a new vaccine goal.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe we can do it.

BASH: Now stunning news from top doctors on the early handling of the pandemic with CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta ahead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Hello. I'm Dana Bash in Washington, where the state of our union is ready for renewal.

After the momentum of his first weeks in office, President Biden is now facing several urgent national crises, immigration, gun control, and voting rights, and the reality of limited options to bring about the sweeping change he wants.

This week, the assault on voting rights took on a new urgency, as Georgia's Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed a new law Thursday making it more difficult for thousands of Georgians to vote. The law imposes a new voter identification requirement, several of them, for absentee ballots, empowers state officials to take over local elections boards, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, and makes it a crime to approach voters in line to give them food or water.

In his first solo press conference since taking office, President Biden assailed the efforts by Republicans across the country to restrict voting as -- quote -- "sick and un-American" and said Friday the Justice Department is taking a look at the measure.

But with such a narrow majority in the U.S. Senate, the options for Democrats to take legislative action voting rights are, realistically, slim.

I want to note we invited Georgia's Governor Brian Kemp to join us this morning, and his office did not respond to our request.

Joining me now is Democratic Georgia Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock.

Senator, Reverend, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

I want to put up that picture of Governor Brian Kemp signing this law in a room full of white men. And here's what he had to say about the law shortly before that ceremony.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. BRIAN KEMP (R-GA): We're actually expanding the right to vote in Georgia. Now, you're not hearing that from the other side, but that's what the truth is. We're securing the vote.

I think most people want that, whether they're Democrat, Republican or somewhere in between. Everybody wants to have confidence in the elections. I believe that's what we're doing in Georgia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: What's your response to that, sir?

WARNOCK: He knows better.

And, unfortunately, Georgia has a long history of voter suppression. And when I say a long history, I mean in recent -- in recent years. And, certainly, it has ramped up with this bill that he signed into law the other night, as you pointed out, in the presence of all white men.

And on the other side was a state legislature -- state legislator elected by her people to represent them, and she was lightly knocking on the door, and was arrested and charged with two felonies.

Georgia needs to understand, that is, those in the state legislature, the governor, that it wasn't just this state legislator who's a member of my church. And I went to see about her that night. She's not the only one knocking at that door. The people are knocking at the door of their democracy, and they will not be denied. They're raising their voices. I'm going to do everything I can to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act, so that we can expand our democracy, rather than contract it. The governor is taking us back. We intend to go forward.

BASH: And I want to ask about that legislation in a moment.

But, first, you are the first black man from Georgia and the first black Democrat from a former Confederate state ever elected to the U.S. Senate. You have to run again next year to keep your seat. Do you think this law restricting voting rights in your state is a backlash to your election specifically?

WARNOCK: Well, I am very clear that this is not about me. This is really about preserving the voices of the people in their democracy.

[09:05:00]

And I honestly think, Dana, that politicians focused on their own political ambition is what's gotten us here in the first place.

BASH: Yes.

WARNOCK: You have legislators who are running scared.

And so, rather than having the people select their politicians, the politicians are try to cherry-pick their voters. This is an assault on the covenant that we have with one another as an American people. And it's my job to protect it.

BASH: And I understand what you mean. I guess maybe the question isn't about you personally, but about what you represent.

WARNOCK: Oh, I think we have seen this over the history of our country. Our democracy expands and it contracts.

We have this amazing idea, when you think about the long march of human history, this experiment in self-government, one person, one vote. And it was stated in the charter documents of our nation, but we have always had to fight for it.

When Jefferson offered up those ideals that all men are created equal, I guess he meant all men, because women weren't included. People of color, black people have had to fight for their vote. And, honestly, it is -- it is disconcerting that here we are again fighting for what's basic.

But we will not be worn down. We intend to stand up to this moment. And I think it's important that people understand that, while race certainly is a part of this equation, young people and others are being marginalized, at the end of the day, this is about our democracy.

This is about the covenant we have with one another as an American people. We have big arguments in our country about the direction, about the things that we need to do. But, at the end of the day, the four most powerful words in a democracy are "The people have spoken."

And we cannot allow politicians to silence the people, crowd them out of their own democracy.

BASH: So, let's talk about some of the potential solutions for what you're talking about.

President Biden, of course, called efforts to restrict voting in your state of Georgia and elsewhere an atrocity. He said it was Jim Crow in the 21st century. But he also said the next big initiative is still going to be infrastructure.

So, should the president prioritize federal voting rights and legislation to do that over infrastructure or anything else?

WARNOCK: Oh, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

We have got to work on the infrastructure of our country, our roads and our bridges, and we have got to work on the infrastructure of our democracy. After all, the only reason we're able to get anything done, have the prospects of getting more done this Congress, is because people were able to show up and express their voices in their democracy.

We wouldn't have passed the American Rescue Plan had the people of Georgia not stood up in the way that they did, historic turnout. And, as a result of that, we were able to pass a historic piece of legislation, shots in people's arms, checks in their pockets.

BASH: Right.

WARNOCK: And so we got to do both of those things.

BASH: Yes.

And that makes sense, but a president's time is limited. And, in 2006, the Senate voted 98-0 to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Many of those Republican yeses are still there. So, does President Biden need to get personally involved, step in, get Republicans and Democrats in a room to find bipartisan legislation and a path forward?

WARNOCK: Oh, I think the president is engaged on this issue.

And when I have talked to him, he's agreed that voting rights are foundational, that this is the work we have to do.

And I have to tell you that I was heartened when I heard him speak so clearly about how urgent this is, recognizing that this is Jim Crow 2.0. It reminded me of another president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, when he saw what was going on in the South, people standing up for their rights, he gave that famous address to the nation.

And he ended it by lifting up the words from the anthem of the movement. And he said, "And we shall overcome."

BASH: And he also... WARNOCK: His words -- go ahead.

BASH: He also twisted arms, big time, to get that done.

WARNOCK: Yes, absolutely.

BASH: So, does President Biden need to follow that lead as well?

WARNOCK: I don't -- I think that the president is very much engaged, and we're having these conversations all the time.

And I think -- I think you're going to see that we are going to find a way to secure voting rights and pass the kind of legislation that expands, rather than contracts, our democracy.

BASH: And I know you have said that the focus should be on Republicans, and not on changing the filibuster. And I hear you on that.

But the reality is, unless Republicans get on board, the filibuster is a big obstacle to this legislation becoming law. At his press conference, President Biden indicated he's open to some reforms and said he considers the filibuster a relic of Jim Crow, but he still won't call for eliminating it outright.

[09:10:09]

Does he need to do that?

WARNOCK: I think that we have to pass voting rights no matter what.

And the reason why I have insisted that we talk to our Republican sisters and brothers on the other side of the aisle is because, if we don't do anything else in the Senate, we have to stand up for the democracy.

The filibuster, at the end of the day, is about minority rights in the Senate. How are you going to insist on protecting minority rights in the Senate, while refusing to protect minority rights in the society?

BASH: So is that a yes?

WARNOCK: So, the buck -- look, the ball is in their court. They could vote the bill up. But, if they don't, we have to pass voting rights no matter what.

BASH: Georgia-based corporations like Coca-Cola and Delta are facing intense criticism for not doing more to publicly oppose this law.

Organizations like the PGA, the MLB are also under pressure to move high-profile events, like the Masters and the All-Star Game, out of your state of Georgia.

Does corporate America need to be more forceful in denouncing this law? Should boycotts be on the table?

WARNOCK: I think we all have to use our voices.

And I have to tell you, as the pastor of Ebenezer Church, I have seen these corporations falling over themselves every year around the time of the King holiday celebrating Dr. King.

And, yes, I think that the way to celebrate Dr. King is to stand up for what he represented, voting rights. And so we will see how all of that plays out. But I'm focused on what we can do in the United States Senate.

We have a responsibility to make sure that we secure the franchise. And we -- when we do that, we protect the democracy. And I think, also, we set the climate for business. We want to see people prosper, particularly who have been suffering for months under this pandemic. We need to pass this legislation, protect the right of the people to be heard in their own democracy, and to make sure that Georgia is open, open for business and open for voting.

BASH: So, no boycotts?

WARNOCK: Listen, I'm not focused on that.

BASH: OK.

WARNOCK: I am focused on what I can do as a United States senator.

BASH: One last question before we go, today is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week.

You are leaving here. You said you -- as you mentioned, you are going to lead your congregation in worship at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. What's your message going to be after this incredibly difficult year?

WARNOCK: Well, it's Palm Sunday.

And Jesus confronts the powers. And we all have a decision to make. There was a governor that he confronts in that moment named Pilate. And the governor has a decision to make.

And I think that all of us have a decision to make. Are we going to stand on the side of truth and righteousness and justice? Are we going to stand up on the right side of history? This is a defining moment in the American nation. And all of us have a role to play.

BASH: Senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate it.

WARNOCK: Thank you.

BASH: And up next: What country does the Biden administration consider to be America's greatest adversary?

I will ask Secretary of State Tony Blinken in an exclusive interview.

Plus: shocking revelations from public health officials about the early days of the pandemic and the hundreds of thousands of lives those early decisions cost.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:17:49]

BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Dana Bash.

Tensions between the U.S. and China are rising, after officials clashed in a rare public confrontation earlier this month, and the U.S. and the E.U. imposed new sanctions over China's human rights abuses.

The growing threat from China is one of several reasons the Biden administration is working to reinvigorate America's relationship with allies.

We spoke exclusively to the U.S. secretary of state, Tony Blinken, as he wrapped up a NATO summit in Brussels, about the Biden's -- Biden administration's new approach.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary, for joining me.

I want to start with a speech this week that you gave. You listed China first among the military and non-military threats to the United States. This comes, of course, after you clashed with Chinese officials in Anchorage last week.

China is challenging the U.S. on cybersecurity, economics and with its military and committing what you called genocide against the Uyghurs.

So, do you consider China the United States' biggest adversary?

BLINKEN: Dana, I wouldn't simplify it to one label.

There are clearly and increasingly adversarial aspects of the relationship. There are certainly competitive ones. There are also still some cooperative ones. But the common denominator is the need to approach China from a position of strength, whether it's adversarial, whether it's competitive, whether it's cooperative.

And that's a big part of the reason that I was in -- in Asia last week, in Japan and Korea and a big part of the reason that I'm here in Europe and at NATO and the E.U. this week. It's about making sure that, as we engage China, one of our biggest sources of strength, our alliances, our partnerships, when we approach the challenges that China poses together, we're going to be much more effective in dealing with them.

BASH: You said at your confirmation hearing, Mr. Secretary, that you believe the Chinese government misled the world about coronavirus.

Given that and the millions of people, of course, who have died around the world, should China be punished for that?

BLINKEN: You know, I think the issue for us is to make sure that we do everything possible to prevent another pandemic, even as we're working through this one, or at the very least to make sure that we can mitigate in much more effective ways any damage done if something happens in the future.

And a big part of that is making sure that we have a system in place, including with the World Health Organization, that features transparency, that features information-sharing, and features access for international experts at the start of something like this.

And that's where I think China, like every other country, has real obligations that it needs to make good on. So, I think what we need to be focused on is making sure we're protecting ourselves and protecting the world going forward.

And that's going to require a lot of reform. And it's going to require China to do things that it hasn't done in the past.

BASH: That sounded like a no when it comes to repercussions for what happened in the past, and maybe even that is happening currently, which is the damage that is being done around the world because of this pandemic. No repercussions? No punishment?

[09:20:00]

BLINKEN: Look, I think that we've got to -- there's a report coming out shortly by the World Health Organization.

We've got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.

But let's see what comes out in that report. But we do need to have both accountability for the past, but I think our focus needs to be on building a stronger system for the future.

BASH: OK, let's talk about what's going on in Europe right now.

The U.S., as you well know, is threatening sanctions over a new natural gas pipeline known as Nord Stream II. It's between Germany, which is a key NATO ally, and Russia. You made really a big show and point of saying that unity is important with European allies, as you just said just now, during the trip that you're on in Europe.

This pipeline is already about 90 percent done, so how worried is the Biden administration about the influence that this pipeline could give Russia in the region?

BLINKEN: Well, first, just to put this in context, because it's true we have a difference with Germany over this.

But Germany is one of our closest allies and partners anywhere in the world. And one of the things that really came out from the conversations this week is that, in so many different areas that are having an impact on the lives of our citizens, we are working closely together.

And the fact that we have a difference over this pipeline is not going to change that. But we do have a difference. And President Biden's been very clear for a long time that he thinks the pipeline is a bad deal and a bad idea.

It undermines European energy security. In fact, it undermines the very principles that the Europeans agreed on about the need to diversify energy sources and supply to make sure they're not reliant on any one country, especially not Russia. It is potentially harmful to Ukraine, to Poland, to other countries.

It gives Russia more of a weapon, using energy as a tool of coercion. So, we think it's a bad idea.

And it was important for us to be able to tell that directly to our close partners in Germany. And that's what I did. And, of course, Congress feels the same way. And we have sanctioned companies, based on the law, that are participating in trying to build the pipeline. And we've made clear that we'll continue to do that.

We just wanted to make sure that there was no ambiguity in our position, that our friends and partners understood us. And it's really unfortunate that the pipeline is in any way a source of division. But, despite, again, that difference, it's not taking away from the fact that in virtually every other area, we are working more closely together than ever.

BASH: Is there anything you can do to stop its completion?

BLINKEN: Well, ultimately, that's up to those who are trying to build the pipeline and complete it.

We just wanted to make sure that our position, our opposition to the pipeline was well-understood.

BASH: Understood.

So, I want to ask about Russia. The U.S. and Russia is an incredibly tense period right now. After President Biden called Vladimir Putin a killer, the Kremlin called back its ambassador.

Under Putin, of course, Russia has interfered in American elections, put bounties on U.S. troops, hacked into the U.S. computer systems. President Biden has said that Russia will pay a price for those actions. So, what will that price be, and when will that happen?

BLINKEN: Well, you're exactly right.

You've -- I think you touched on some of the most important points. And we've seen across the board these different examples of Russia's aggression. There's also what's still going on, tragically, in Eastern Ukraine, to add to the list.

And the president has been very clear that there will be consequences for these acts. And we are in the process of completing reviews of the cyberattack through SolarWinds on us, the interference in the election, the use of a chemical weapon to try to murder Alexei Navalny.

We've already spoken and acted -- acted on that. The bounties on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And there will be cost and consequences.

And I think you're seeing as well -- and what I heard here at NATO was a shared concern about Russia's actions across the board and a shared commitment to stand together against them.

At the same time, as we're very clear-eyed about that, we also find areas where it's in our mutual interests to try to cooperate. We extended the New START nuclear arm reduction treaty, one of the first things we did.

There are other areas in the realm of so-called strategic stability where we might find a place to work together because it's in our mutual interests. But it really starts with being clear-eyed about the challenge that Russia poses and addressing that challenge together.

I can tell you, from the NATO meetings, there's an absolute commitment to that.

BASH: Right.

[09:25:00]

But are you saying that you are not going to act and punish Russia for everything that it's done to the United States without NATO or European partners? Or are you saying that you, the U.S. will do it unilaterally, if need be? And, if so, how quickly? What's the timeline?

BLINKEN: I'm saying two things. I'm saying that the president has been very clear. We will take necessary actions at a time and place of our choosing.

But whether it's with regard to Russia, whether it's regard to other countries that pose a challenge, we are stronger and more effective when we're able to do it in a coordinated fashion. You've seen examples of that just in the past week, with coordinated sanctions by the United States, by the -- and the European Union, the U.K., Canada, when it comes, for example, to China and its human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

You'll -- you've seen that in the case of Russia as well. But we will take the steps necessary to defend our interests, and I think -- again, what I take away from meetings this week and all of the conversations we've had with our allies and partners is, there is a real determination to make sure that, to the greatest extent possible, we work together.

BASH: Yes.

Let's turn to Afghanistan. We are getting closer and closer to the May 1 deadline put in place by the Trump administration to withdraw all remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

So, the question is, considering the fact that President Biden said that it would be tough to meet that deadline -- CNN is reporting that he's considering an extension -- what specifically does the administration need to see before you decide the time is right to safely withdraw U.S. troops?

BLINKEN: Well, as you know, we're reviewing the policy very actively right now.

One of the reasons that it was so important to come here this week was to do two things. One was to share our thinking with our allies and partners. There are actually more European forces in Afghanistan right now than there are Americans, so they're deeply invested in this with us, and they've been shoulder to shoulder with us from the very start.

The one and only time NATO's Article 5, an attack on one is an attack on all, has been evoked was actually in defense of the United States after we were attacked on 9/11. So, we have a deep sense of gratitude to our European partners for that.

But one of things that was important was not only to share our thinking as we're going through this review, including the May 1 deadline, but to listen, to hear from our partners who are so invested their ideas, their thoughts, their analysis.

And that's exactly what I did. I listened very carefully. I phoned back to Washington, spoke to the president to relay the views of our allies and partners. And that's going to factor into his thinking and into the decisions he makes.

BASH: So, as a candidate, as you well know, Joe Biden promised to end the forever wars and bring all U.S. combat troops home.

Will he keep that promise here?

BLINKEN: He will.

The -- and we've been very clear and NATO's been very clear that the approach that we're taking to this is, we went in together. We've adapted to circumstances together. And we will come out together when the time is right.

And what we're focused on now is looking at the May 1 deadline. But, beyond that, and as we're doing that, it was also very important to try to accelerate the diplomacy, because, ultimately, everyone recognizes that there's no military solution to Afghanistan. There has to be some kind of political settlement. And it has to be a settlement reached by the Afghans themselves.

So, we've put some energy into the diplomatic effort in sharing some ideas with the Afghan government, with the Taliban, in bringing them together, including at a conference that will take place in the weeks ahead in Turkey, having the U.N. play a more prominent role in bringing people together, and also getting all of the neighbors and other countries that have both an interest and influence in Afghanistan to actually engage and get into this effort.

So, all of that is happening at the same time. And, you know, the -- what is ultimately necessary for Afghanistan to have a just and sustainable peace is for the parties to come together and negotiate one.

BASH: I have to ask about Saudi.

The Biden administration did not directly punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite an intelligence report saying that he was directly responsible for approving his murder.

And President Biden didn't hesitate to call Vladimir Putin a killer. Do you consider Mohammed bin Salman a killer?

BLINKEN: Dana, here's what we did. And it's important.

The report that you refer to, we put out in the full light of day. It's not a report that was written a couple of weeks ago. It had been sitting around for a little while. And we put it out. And that, in and of itself, is significant, because it's not that there was anything new in the report in terms of what had previously been reported.

[09:30:06]

But the fact that the government of the United States put its imprimatur on that report and on that information, including responsibility for the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, I think is, in and of itself, important.

Second, we sanctioned a number of direct participants in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. And maybe as significantly, going forward, to make sure that to the best of our ability this doesn't happen again, we put in place...

BASH: And I understand...

BLINKEN: ... something called the Khashoggi ban, which makes sure that anyone who, on behalf of a government, tries to intimidate, silence or do harm to someone speaking out against that government, whether it's a dissident, a political opponent or a journalist, well, we're going to make sure that that person does not set foot in the United States.

And that applies not just to Saudi Arabia. It applies around the world. And so, I think...

BASH: And...

BLINKEN: ... we can care about that. At the same time...

BASH: And I understand all of that -- all of that transparency...

BLINKEN: But transparency is usually important.

BASH: I understand all about transparency. But the fact is that...

BLINKEN: And beyond the transparency, these...

BASH: ... that you said -- sorry. The delay is a little much.

Let me just get in and just say, that you have been transparent and you have been very clear about his role, the Saudi crown prince's role. So, is he a killer?

BLINKEN: Here's -- here's the other fact that's very important.

We have to -- we have to and we do deal every day around the world with leaders of countries who do things that we find either from objectionable to abhorrent. But, in terms of actually advancing our interests and advancing our values, it's important to deal with them.

The crown prince is likely to be the leader of Saudi Arabia far into the future. We have a strong interest, for example, in working to end the war in Yemen, probably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. That's going to take meaningful engagement by the Saudis.

And doing so -- we've actually made real progress in that direction in the last -- in the last couple of months. Doing so is going to advance values that we hold dear in terms of protecting the lives of innocent civilians.

There are -- in terms of advancing human rights and progress in Saudi Arabia itself, are we better off recalibrating the relationship, as we did, or rupturing it?

And I think that, in terms of actually making a difference on the things we care about, the recalibration was very necessary. And the president's been clear about that. But rupturing the relationship actually won't help us advance our interests or values.

BASH: U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I have so much more to talk to you about.

Please come back. I appreciate you giving us this time today.

BLINKEN: Thanks for having me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And up next: Last summer on this very show, Dr. Deborah Birx told me something President Trump, he just didn't want to hear, that COVID was -- quote -- "extraordinarily widespread in the U.S."

What the president said to her after our interview, that's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:36:58]

BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Dana Bash.

The beginning of the pandemic feels almost unimaginably long ago.

But thanks to some extraordinary reporting, we are learning some shocking new information about former President Trump, the doctors who advised him during the pandemic, and the fallout for the American people.

Joining me now is our very own Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

And, Sanjay, I'm going to get to that amazing reporting in a moment.

But, first, I want to talk about what's going on right now in the pandemic. Families across the country are observing holidays this week, Passover, Easter Sunday. Some people are vaccinated. Some people aren't. And the numbers are starting to tick up again.

What is your advice for Americans getting together this week?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I would say, on a practical level, we obviously have a lot more people who are vaccinated, but there's still the majority of the country who are not.

If you are vaccinated, and you want to spend time with other vaccinated people, do that. And you can do it indoors, and you can give each other a hug and all that. And if you are vaccinated, like grandparents who are vaccinated, visiting with a single household that is low-risk, that's OK as well.

So, those are two things you -- the CDC is now saying you can do that you couldn't do a few weeks ago.

But I think, sort of broadly speaking, Dana, it's kind of like this. If the country were a patient, it's like the treatment has started. The treatment started. And the treatment is a very effective treatment. But you have got to get the entire treatment before you can say, hey, look, we are now treated.

And we're sort of -- we're at the first third of that treatment now. The good news is, 75 percent of people over the age of 75 have received at least one dose of the vaccine now. That's great news, because they're the most vulnerable.

BASH: Right.

GUPTA: But it's kind of like we got to hang on a little bit longer.

And, as you point out, the numbers are going up a bit. And that's worrisome. But I do think, on a positive note, that the corresponding proportional hospitalizations and deaths hopefully won't happen, because we have increasingly vaccinated the most vulnerable.

BASH: Finish your treatment. Good advice.

I want to talk about your special report airing tonight right here on CNN. You sat down with the top doctors who led the COVID response under the Trump administration.

And you had a very revealing exchange with Dr. Deborah Birx. What did she tell you?

GUPTA: Yes, I mean, it was very interesting.

So, we got a sense of what was happening behind the scenes. And it involves actually an interview that you did with her, Dana, on this program about what was happening in the country at that point. You're going to hear that in a second, but also hear what happened in the immediate aftermath of that interview that she did with you.

And it raises these questions, Dana. What kind of pressure was being exerted on people, how did they feel that pressure?

But also a larger issue, Dana, which is, if you're in a big job like that, and it's not going great, do you stay in the job and try and just keep forging through, or do you quit, and possibly let someone even less effective come into the job? It's a tough question. But here's how it all played out.

[09:40:00]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: I knew I was being watched.

Everybody inside was waiting for me to make a misstep, so that they could, I guess, remove me from the task force.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIRX: It is extraordinarily widespread.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BIRX: The CNN report in August, that got horrible pushback.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIRX: Everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune or protected from this virus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BIRX: That was a very difficult time, because everybody in the White House was upset with that interview and the clarity that I brought about the epidemic.

GUPTA: I can tell, just by reading your face, that was a really tough time.

What happened?

BIRX: Well, I got called by the president.

GUPTA: What does he say?

BIRX: Well, I think you have heard other conversations that people have posted with the president.

I would say it was even more direct than what people have heard. It was very uncomfortable, very direct, and very difficult to hear.

GUPTA: Were you threatened?

BIRX: I would say it was a very uncomfortable conversation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: That gives you a little idea of just sort of, Dana, what happened right after that interview that she did with you.

And I will tell you -- and you will see tonight -- it was a pattern of things. Dr. Birx was incredibly introspective, perhaps the most of all the -- all the doctors that we spoke to.

All of them, except for Dr. Fauci, are now private citizens, so they felt more unbridled to be able to talk about this, talk about their mistakes, be very self-aware about how their reputations have been tarnished by this. It's extraordinary, really, Dana, to hear from them like this.

BASH: It really is.

I remember, in the moment, Sanjay, the -- hearing her be more candid than we'd heard any of the medical professionals around the former president, and thinking, wow, that was amazing. And then my next thought was, she's going to get pushback. But, boy, did she.

Such tremendous reporting. I cannot wait to see this documentary tonight.

GUPTA: Thank you.

BASH: And you can see more from Dr. Birx and the other revelations about the COVID crisis in Sanjay's two-hour special, "The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out," tonight at 9:00 p.m.

And a Georgia state representative spent Thursday in jail after being arrested at the Capitol, but she's not the first.

Congresswoman Nikema Williams opens up about what it felt like when the same thing happened to her.

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:47:06]

BASH: Welcome back.

America lost one of its heroes last year, Congressman from Georgia and civil rights activist John Lewis. His replacement in Congress, Representative Nikema Williams, is making history herself. As she settles into the role, she's looking to press ahead with Lewis' legacy.

We talked to her as part of our series "Badass Women of Washington."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I do want to acknowledge Nikema Williams, who is here, because, in some ways, she made today possible.

Thank you.

BASH (voice-over): High praise for Congresswoman Nikema Williams, who was also the first black chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party.

REP. NIKEMA WILLIAMS (D-GA): We not only delivered Georgia's 16 Electoral College votes for Joe Biden, but we delivered not one, but two United States Senate seats, to change the course and trajectory of this country

BASH: Williams is a freshman member of Congress, so new that, when she got an e-mail inviting her to the congressional signing of the COVID relief bill, the enrollment ceremony, she had to look it up.

WILLIAMS: I was like, yes, but then I had to go to Google, because I didn't know what an enrollment ceremony was.

BASH (on camera): Oh, I love that.

(voice-over): With voting rights under fire, she's learning the ropes fast, using her new role as congresswoman to fight for nationwide voting protections, as Republicans back home in Georgia pass a law limiting access to voting.

WILLIAMS: When I talked leading up to the election, people were like, oh, that's cute, they think that they're going to win.

Republicans are pushing back, and they're upset that we were able to win. And so they're going to do everything in their power right now to restrict access to people who mainly look like me from voting.

BASH (on camera): You are the first black woman to represent the Fifth District in Georgia.

WILLIAMS: I just know that there are so many people that are looking to me to make sure that I move us, like, one step closer to full equality.

And like Congressman Lewis often said, each generation has an obligation to move us one step closer. And so it's my turn to pick up the mantle.

BASH (voice-over): Williams is truly picking up the mantle from the late John Lewis. She holds his congressional seat.

(on camera): You and Congressman Lewis were very close.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

He was my mentor, my friend, my shopping buddy. And...

BASH: What do you mean shopping buddy? Where did you shop?

WILLIAMS: So, Dillard's in Atlanta was our spot at Atlantic Station.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: But the pressure is there. And it absolutely is, because I don't want to let anyone down. And I know that there are a lot of people counting on me.

BASH (voice-over): Like Lewis, Williams grew up in rural Alabama.

WILLIAMS: I never imagined, just from my upbringings, that I would be here in the United States Congress. I literally grew up in a home with no indoor plumbing and no running water.

Once a month, we drove to Opelika, and we got food stamps, and we got the government assistance. And so when I hear people here in the United States Congress talk about cutting those programs or those programs not being needed, I think about how much of an impact it had on me and us just being able to make it.

[09:50:01]

BASH: Activism is in her blood. Her great aunt was the first black student admitted to the University of Alabama.

WILLIAMS: I remember them working at the polls on Election Days and the left-over little cards that they would bring where you would have to register if you were a Democrat or a Republican.

And I would play school with those when I brought -- when they were brought home.

I stood peacefully next to my constituents because they wanted their voices to be heard.

BASH: As a Georgia state senator in 2018, she says she went to check out a protest in the Capitol and ended up getting arrested. It was not John Lewis-style civil disobedience.

WILLIAMS: In our state constitution, legislators are free from arrest. Like, we're not even allowed to be arrested in our constitution.

And that day they took me to jail in zip ties and booked me in the county jail, I was told that I needed to remove my clothes, so that they could strip-search me.

BASH (on camera): Would that ever have happened if you were a white man? WILLIAMS: So, not only would it never have happened, but it didn't happen, because there were colleagues of mine standing there with me in the rotunda.

BASH: This is still a town full of white men. What's it like?

WILLIAMS: I think that January 6 put it in perspective for me.

To see that Confederate Flag going through the Rotunda of the Capitol was like someone was trying to send a reminder that, no matter how far we get in this country, that -- trying to put us in our place.

BASH: And what do you do with that reminder?

WILLIAMS: I push forward. And, I mean, it makes me want to do more.

Georgia is a state moving forward.

BASH (voice-over): In 2016, Williams held her baby boy as she announced Georgia's delegates at the Democratic Convention.

Her son Carter is now 5 and, like working moms everywhere, stays involved a lot by FaceTime.

Oh, not your mask, baby, your math at school.

CARTER, SON OF NIKEMA WILLIAMS: Oh, I did great on it.

WILLIAMS: You did great on it?

CARTER: Uh-huh. I rocked it.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: The area of Atlanta Williams represents is drenched in history, including the Ebenezer Church, where Martin Luther King preached.

WILLIAMS: While all seats have the same weighted vote here in the United States Congress, this is a very special seat in a very special district. And I don't take it lightly.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

9:57:14]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH,: Two heavy tugboats are on their way to help crews struggling to dislodge a giant container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal on Tuesday. Right now authorities are hoping they can dredge enough sand from under the ship to move it today. The boat that launched a thousand memes is currently causing a traffic jam of more than 320 ships carrying billions of dollars of cargo.

Stay with CNN all day for the very latest. Thank you so much for spending your Sunday morning with us. The news continues next.