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At This Hour

Schumer Requests $8.5 Billion Emergency Funding to Combat Coronavirus; Lawmakers Grill 2 Trump Administration Officials on Coronavirus Response; Former Deputy Assistant HHS Secretary, Chris Meekins, Discusses Trump Administration's Response to Coronavirus; S.C. Voters React to Raucous Democratic Debate; American College Students in Limbo in Italy over Coronavirus. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired February 26, 2020 - 11:30   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is requesting $8.5 billion for emergency funding to combat the coronavirus, which is far more than the $2.5 billion that the Trump administration has requested so far.

Also happening on Capitol Hill right now, two administration officials responsible for the government's response to this virus are facing really tough questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for a second day.

Here's a little bit of what happened yesterday with the acting secretary of Homeland Security.



UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: You're the head of Homeland Security. Do we have enough respirators or not?

CHAD WOLF, ACTING SECRETARY, HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT: For patients? I don't understand the question.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: For everybody, every American who needs one who gets the disease.

WOLF: Again, I would refer you to HHS on that.


WOLF: My budget supports --


UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: You're supposed to keep us safe.

WOLF: My budget supports the men and women --

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: You're the secretary of Homeland Security.

WOLF: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR: And you can't tell me if we have enough respirators?


BOLDUAN: So what's happening there today?

Let's go to Capitol Hill. Manu Raju is standing by.

Manu, what are you hearing this morning?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Democrats and Republicans are going to have to reconcile the differences in the amount of funding being requested for this emergency funding for the coronavirus outbreak here.

What the administration has proposed is $2.5 billion. Chuck Schumer this morning saying that they want $8.5 billion. But this process will ultimately start in the House. The House Democrats have yet to detail exactly how much money that they will initially push and, ultimately, they'll have to reconcile that with the White House to get a deal.

So there are a lot of negotiations that will have to happen. And that's why we're seeing these hearings take place today, questions being asked of these top administration officials.

Now, at the same time, Democrats and Republicans are reacting to the administration's response so far to the virus outbreak and especially the president's comments downplaying the virus and downplaying the impacts this could have on the public.

Earlier today, I caught up with Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and asked her about the president's comments that the virus is under control.


RAJU: The coronavirus is under control according to the president. Your reaction to that?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I don't think the president knows what he's talking about, once again.


RAJU: So, ultimately, Kate, the question is going to be, can the president, can the speaker agree to a deal. Of course, they have not talked in quite some time. There's expectation that there will ultimately be a deal, given the seriousness of the situation, but how that turns out still remains to be seen -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: You sure hope this is one area -- and I know I'm Pollyanna on this -- that would be beyond a partisan divide when you're talking about a public health threat like this.

Thanks, Manu, man.

Joining me right now for more, is Chris Meekins, health care policy analyst for Raymond James and a former deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services under President Trump.

Thanks for coming in.


BOLDUAN: I really appreciate it.

So we're talking about reconciling these differences that we're hearing in statements coming from the administration and elsewhere. The president said yesterday, Chris, that the virus is under control in the United States. One of the heads of CDC says it's not a matter of if anymore but when that this virus spreads in the United States.

How do you -- you've had experience on the inside of this big -- an issue as big as this. How do you explain that disconnect coming from the government?

MEEKINS: I think they're answering different questions. I think that the CDC's question was, is this going to be an issue going forward, and the answer is it could be.

There are responsible activities that the public can take, like making sure you wash your hands, making sure you don't touch your face often. You know, if you're sick, stay home from work, get an extra 30 days of prescription drugs, all the responsible activities and things that you should be doing through normal planning.

Whether it's a pandemic influenza or a chemical biological nuclear attack, all those wonderful fun things I would think about each and every day when we were at the department. There's just responsible planning to do.

The president is making a statement of fact, which is, over the last two weeks, the number of cases have not really increased in the United States. It doesn't mean that could change. We have a one-in-three chance we'll have a widespread outbreak in the U.S. But they're not necessarily competing in my opinion.


BOLDUAN: Yes. I think a kind interpretation is that they are answering different questions.

The president also had said when he was in India that this is a problem that's going to go away.

And then your former boss, the secretary of Health and Human Services, he went to Capitol Hill and was answering a lot of questions from Senators. And he said, simply and honestly, we cannot hermetically seal off the United States to this virus. We need to be realistic about that. Again, that does not seem to be the same message.

What should Americans be doing with this?

MEEKINS: If you look, historically, and you look at the SARS virus, by the time it got to summer, it largely went away.

Now, what the public health officials, like the CDC director, like the secretary of HHS, like Dr. Fauci, who is the nonpartisan worldwide leader -- I'd encourage all your listeners to listen to what Dr. Fauci is saying. He's an independent arbiter, has been doing this for 30- plus years.

When you look at that, there are questions about whether this could continue to become a seasonal virus like the normal seasonal influenza or normal common colds or will this reach a global pandemic level. If it reaches a global pandemic, it likely spreads until you reach herd immunity.

So from my position, I would say, listen to Dr. Fauci. He's the expert. And, otherwise --


BOLDUAN: That's so important. That was my next question for you. When it comes to a public health crisis, especially talking about a global pandemic, trust is paramount.

You have worked on the inside of this administration. You are working on the outside of this administration. This is your level -- your area of expertise. Who are you -- who should folks look to for the right answers? It is the nonpartisan experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

MEEKINS: I think it's Dr. Fauci. I also think Secretary Azar -- and this is just historically. This is a guy who was secretary after the anthrax attacks on -- or was at the department after the anthrax attacks at 9/11, was at the department during SARS. So he has experience in infectious diseases.

Dr. Fauci, Ann Schuchat from CDC, I think, Secretary Azar are people I'm watching what their rhetoric is because I think it's measured while also explaining to folks this has a decent chance of getting worse before it gets better.

But remember, the fatality rate is, we believe, around 1 percent, which is way less than what we've seen in other infectious diseases.

BOLDUAN: But, Chris, in the end, in the end, you should also be able to trust what the president of the United States says on this.

MEEKINS: I think there's no question that the administration should be speaking with one voice. And I think that voice should be the public health experts and the folks at the department.

I think that it's important to remember what questions are asked. And later today, we'll see at the press conference whether the government is actually speaking with one voice and consistent in their message. So people should stay tuned tonight at 6:00.

BOLDUAN: Stay tuned to stay tuned.

Thanks for coming in, Chris. I appreciate your time.

MEEKINS: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, the Democratic debate last night, heated, yes. Feisty, yes. Downright mess, yes. But did it help any voters help make up their minds? CNN has a very unique view, on the ground in South Carolina, speaking to those all-important voters. And we'll bring it to you, next.



BOLDUAN: Voters in South Carolina will head to the polls this weekend. And for many, last night's debate in Charleston will be the last that they hear from the candidates before Saturday's primary, unless, of course, they turn on a TV.

So after all the yelling and the hand raising and the finger pointing, did the debate help voters decide?

CNN's Gary Tuchman joins me now with much more on this.

Gary, have a unique perspective. You talked with a dozen South Carolina voters right after the debate. What did they tell you?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, they told us this. They said the debate was very lively, it was very contentious. And many of them said, many of the voters we sat with, they felt it was very significant.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): We watched the debate with a large group of loyal Democrats in Allendale County, South Carolina, a very blue county in this very red state. Afterwards, we talked with 11 of them.

(on camera): Eleven of the 12 of you were undecided which Democrat you were going to support. In the middle, in the front row, she already voted absentee for Biden.


TUCHMAN: Some of you told me, based on this debate, you were no longer undecided.

First of all, the first question I want to ask you, who did you think did the best during this debate?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Mike Bloomberg did, compared to his performance last week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel Vice President Biden did the best.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think Vice President Biden did the best.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mayor Pete Buttigieg.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mike Bloomberg based on his previous performance. I saw a lot of improvement this time.

TUCHMAN: In the back?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going with Warren.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure he won the most arguments, but I thought Biden looked the most presidential.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Six of the 12 selected Joe Biden. Nobody else got more than two.

(on camera): How many have now based on this debate decided who they're going to vote for?

One, two, three, four. So four of you have now made your decision. Who have you decided you're going to vote for?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vice President Biden.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mayor Pete Buttigieg.





Anyone else? The rest of you remain undecided? You already voted?


TUCHMAN: So this is good news for Joe Biden.

Why do you think Joe Biden did so well?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Showed character, integrity and leadership skills.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Biden looked the most presidential because in this world's climate, we need someone who really understands how to deal with world leaders and not create chaos but create more harmony.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): The impressions here of Mike Bloomberg varied.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The most important moment was Mike Bloomberg being able to clear up this Stop-and-Frisk. And also --

TUCHMAN (on camera): You think he cleared it up, though?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he did a good job at it.

TUCHMAN: Did you believe Mike Bloomberg when he tried to explain his position today on Stop-and-Frisk?


TUCHMAN: And why is that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because of the way he said it and his facial expressions.

TUCHMAN: You don't trust his face?



TUCHMAN (voice-over): Notably, the Democratic frontrunner, Bernie Sanders, had nobody here who thought he did the best and nobody who had yet committed to voting for him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wasn't impressed with Bernie Sanders or Mike Bloomberg at all the first 10 or 15 minutes.

TUCHMAN: With the tiff they had?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: With the arguing. It reminded me of third graders.

TUCHMAN: There's great concern here about Democratic divisiveness.

(on camera): Are any of you in any way more sympathetic to Donald Trump? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.



TUCHMAN (voice-over): They don't want Democrats to argue themselves out of victory in 2020.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We should be about coming together as one cohesive unit to move the country forward.


TUCHMAN: Each of these voters told us they will enthusiastically support whoever gets the Democratic nomination, but they do wish they would stop arguing with each other so much -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Good luck with that ending any time soon.

Great stuff. Gary, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Still ahead for us, Italy is struggling to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus there, the biggest outbreak in Europe. It's now having an impact, hitting much closer to home, American students abroad. Details on that, next.



BOLDUAN: American college students studying abroad in Italy thrown into limbo over the coronavirus. The students are being urged to come home by some universities as Italy struggles with the biggest outbreak. The country is now at the center of Europe's biggest outbreak of coronavirus. More than 300 cases confirmed.

CNN's senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is in Milan covering this, as well as CNN national correspondent, Jason Carroll. He's here with me.

Ben, let's start with you on the ground.

How bad is it in Italy right now? Do they say they have a handle on it?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It does appear they do have a handle on it. They set up so-called red zones in which about 50,000 people live and are not allowed to leave and no one allowed to enter except exceptional cases.

Earlier, about an hour and half ago, we were at one of the hospitals in Milan where they are treating some people suffering from the coronavirus. The head doctor, who deals with infectious diseases there, says perhaps the numbers are starting to plateau. What's interesting is that today we heard the first two cases, the

first two people who were afflicted with this virus in Italy, a pair of Chinese nationals, have now recovered from the disease.

It's important to keep in mind Italy has a well-developed public health system. It's a country that does have the resources to deal with it.

In addition to those resources being put to the test, certainly in this country, in this part of Italy in Milan, basically, the financial capital of the country, schools, universities, museums are closed to avoid people assembling and perhaps spreading the germs.

Today is Ash Wednesday. There are no Ash Wednesday masses taking place.

So there are measures taken to try to stop the spread of the disease. And after a rather dramatic increase -- it's really only a week since it started in this part of the country -- as I said, the head of infectious disease here at the main hospital here in Milan said perhaps the numbers are starting to level off -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Interesting.

Ben, thank you.

Jason, you talked about schools being closed in Milan and other places. What are you learning about American students?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Now, it's starting to happen here. The list keeps growing. A number of universities have decided the time has come to pull back staff, to pull back students. And the list just keeps growing

I mean, we can start with Syracuse University. Just this morning, the chancellor put out a statement saying the decision was made with short notice but consulting with health authorities.

They put out a statement that said, in part, "To be clear, we do not perceive an immediate health risk to students but rather are concerned about the imposition of restrictions and movement by the Italian government as they take steps to combat the spread."

There are 342 students there that are now being told time to come home.


Fairfield University in Connecticut, also students there in a program in Florence, they're being told, time to come back. Elon University in North Carolina, 21 students told time to come back.

NYU, right here in New York City, announced earlier this week that it's cancelling classes for the rest of the semester in Florence and suspending operations at its Florence campus starting tomorrow. That's in addition to University of Southern California, USC, and

Florida University, both of which have programs not only in Florence, but in South Korea and Japan.

BOLDUAN: When you think about it, the semester is just getting under way. What do the students do for the rest of the semester?

CARROLL: Good question.

BOLDUAN: Welcome to what is becoming a new normal at this moment.

Good to see you. Thank you, Jason.

CARROLL: You bet.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

Still to come, last night's fiery and contentious Democratic debate, the last before South Carolina and Super Tuesday, did it bring clarity for South Carolina voters?