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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Biden Makes First Stop to Promote COVID Relief Bill; First Kids Vaccinated in Moderna's Pediatric Vaccine Trial; Interview with California Governor Gavin Newsom. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 16, 2021 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: He stepped back from public life in 2017 and has been taken to the hospital several times in recent years.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me. I'm here in New York. Let's go to Washington.

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the health lead.

Moments ago, President Biden made his first of several stops on what the White House is billing at its "Hope is Here Tour", a cross-country show of force to try to build up public support after the passage of the massive COVID relief bill.

There are new promising signs in the fight against the coronavirus today. Moderna just announced it has vaccinated the first children in its pediatric vaccine trial which will study just how safe and effective the COVID vaccine is for children as young as 6 months old.

And there are new signs of life returning to somewhat normal. For the first time in nine months, restaurants can resume indoor dining in some parts of California, and museums, zoos and even sports stadiums can reopen for limited in-person crowds over the next few weeks.

In just moments, California Governor Gavin Newsom is going to join me live to talk about his state's reopening efforts and the recall effort against him in part over his handling of the virus.

But we're going to start today with CNN's Nick Watt in Los Angeles and a closer look at the push to roll back restrictions.


MAYOR LONDON BREED (D), SAN FRANCISCO, CA: Bars and gyms will close effective midnight tonight. NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One year ago

today, California's Bay Area announced the first stay-home order in the land. This week, a new dawn in the Golden State.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're thrilled. We're thrilled to be back open.

WATT: Angelinos in limited numbers can now eat inside restaurants again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We hope that the state doesn't yank it us from again.

WATT: Some movie theaters in Tinseltown also reopened after 362 days.

MOOREA ROCCO, MOVIEGOER: We're watching "Tom & Jerry" and, well, we know it's going to be really funny.

WATT: Meanwhile in Mississippi, starting today, anyone 16 or older, can get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Get your shot, friends, tweeted the governor, and let's get back to normal.

Moderna just injected the first children in a late-stage trial of its vaccine in the baby to 11-year-old demo.

DR. PAUL OFFIT, MEMBER, FDA VACCINE ADVISORY BOARD: I think if we're going to get to 80 percent population immunity, at some level, our children are going to be -- need to be vaccinated.

WATT: In part because nearly half of Republicans say they won't try to get a shot.

MAYOR DAN GELBER (D), MIAMI BEACH, FL: We've politicized mask usage which was obviously absurd. Now, we're politicizing vaccine, you know, taking the vaccine. It's -- it's crazy.

WATT: Something else the mayor of Miami Beach is worried about. Mask- shy spring breakers.

GELBER: Every time we open up without the mask mandate, we've had a surge that has caused more people to die.

WATT: Average new case counts are now rising in as many states as they are falling. A month ago, Nebraska was the one and only state where cases were climbing. The country now nearing 30 million confirmed cases. The real number of cases likely double that according to a study published today in a leading medical journal. How many more?


WATT (on camera): Now, every time we hear a governor roll back restrictions, they say, well, we trust our people to make sensible decisions. Exhibit A, the sweet butter kitchen here in Los Angeles, the governor says they are allowed to have people eating inside, but they say not yet. We don't think it's safe quite yet.

Now, listen, Governor Gavin Newsom is getting it like all governors from all side. Some people saying he hasn't been strict enough. More people saying he has been too strict -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Nick. Thanks so much.

Let's take that up right now with the Democratic Governor of California, Gavin Newsom.

Governor Newsom, thanks so much for joining us.

You're facing a recall effort in part because of your handling of the pandemic. Recall organizers say they have more than the 1.5 million signatures needed to meet tomorrow's deadline to get the recall on the ballot.

I covered one of your recalls before in California, and at the end of it, there was a brand-new Republican governor. Are you worried?

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): Yeah. I mean, look, they - we have the lowest threshold of the 19 states that allow a recall in the country, and all you need is about a quarter of the people that voted for Donald Trump getting this recall petition to the voters this November.

So, I'm anticipating it goes on. We're taking it very seriously. This is the sixth, sixth recall effort in just 25 months since I've been governor. This one appears because they got an extension from a judge to have the requisite signatures, and, absolutely, we're taking it seriously.

TAPPER: You've been characterizing your - the recall supporters in a certain way. Recall backers say that more than two million people have signed the petition.


You can't think that all two million are, as you characterize them, anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and anti-immigrant Trump supporters, can you?

NEWSOM: Just the lead proponents. The lead proponent of this - the lead proponent of this recall effort, by the way, that pre-dates the pandemic, is someone that believes we should microchip immigrants.

You have people that are part of the lead coalition that started this petition that are avid Proud Boy members. They're part of the Three Percenters, the right-wing militia group. They are supporters of QAnon conspiracy theorists, white supremacist groups. That's not - just that -- that's factual.

And so, at the end of the day, that's the origins of this, and you combine that with Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee and Devin Nunes, and now the RNC nationalizing this recall, time and money, you're going to get something on the ballot.

TAPPER: Well, what do you think of the two million or so Californians who have signed it - who have signed this petition? I'm not talking about the leaders that you just went after. Certainly all two million Californians who signed this aren't all Trumpsters.

I mean, we have interviewed people who were supporters of yours who are now supporting the recall effort, in large part, at least according to anecdotally the - or the interviews our reporters on the ground have been doing, because they think that the measures you took were too harsh, too aggressive.

NEWSOM: No, look, I respect that. It's been a difficult year. In hindsight, you know, we're all experts.

The reality is, it was about a year ago -- was a year ago this week, California was the first state to initiate a stay-at-home order. I think we saved thousands and thousands of lives.

At the end of the day, though, we're making progress now. I'm just at a school -- 9,000 plus schools have either reopened or about to reopen. We've administered 12.6 million doses of vaccine, 464,000 just yesterday, a record amount.

We're investing billions of dollars to help get our small businesses back on their feet, and now 47 out of our 58 counties have reopened.

There's bright light at the end of the tunnel, but I'm deeply mindful and I'm deeply respectful to all the anxieties that people have felt over the last year.

TAPPER: It's been observed that the recall petition had only around 50,000 signatures until you infamously attended that dinner with multiple other households at that fancy restaurant, French Laundry, or whatever it's called -- a birthday party for a lobbyist, no less, all while you were telling Californians that they should be staying at home.

So with about 50,000, 55,000 signatures before you had that dinner. Then a month later, that 50,000 signatures had become something like 500,000.

Now, I know, Governor, you have apologized for that dinner. You called it a mistake to go. But what I was wondering at the time, and I don't think you've answered, what on earth were you thinking?

NEWSOM: Well, as a friend of over a quarter of a century, he was having his 50th birthday. Restaurants were open in the state. I wasn't suggesting people should not eat.

Where I was wrong, and I've owned this, and I've held myself to a higher level of accountability of even my worst critics, is there were too many people at table, and that was a mistake.

At the end of the day, though, this recall petition was aided not just by that, it was aided by a judge who also - ultimately doubled the amount of time that they could get this recall supported, and ultimately on the ballot.

And they received almost $3 million of money, some coming from different parts of the country, not just from the state of California.

So, at the end of the day, it's complicated as to why this is on, but that's not determinative.

TAPPER: So you're - you don't regret going to the dinner, you regret the fact that there were too many people at the table, like, you would have gone if it had been six people or something, or four people?

NEWSOM: Restaurants were open in the vast majority of the state. That's neither here nor there. It was a mistake, and I should've gotten up and left when I sat down at that table and there were too many people at the table, and that was inconsistent with what I was expressing.

I've made this crystal clear on ad nauseam occasions, it was a mistake. And I haven't made a mistake like that before or since, and we own that. We're human. And you have to move on.

And I've been moving on, doggedly to (inaudible) - fight every single day to get our kids back into school, get people vaccinated and get this economy moving again.

TAPPER: So let's talk about the economy.

California's unemployment rate is the second highest in the nation right now at 9 percent. Before the pandemic, the number was at 4 percent. Do you think that any of your COVID restrictions went too far?

I understand that hindsight is 2020, and that we're all experts a year into it and we weren't a year ago, but looking back on it, were any of your COVID restrictions too tough?

NEWSOM: Well, we have 1.8 positivity today. That's lower than all but three states in the country. We have lower death rates than the vast majority of states in this country, certainly much lower than places like Florida and Texas.

I believe we've saved lives. We're led by science. We're led by health. Led by data, not ideological (inaudible) interested in evidence.

There's no question though, Jake, to your point, the hospitality and leisure industry -- two industries I know well as a small business person myself, have been disproportionately impacted, and that's reflected in those unemployment numbers.


Here's the good news, we're running record reserves in the state. We're running one of the highest surpluses in our state's history. We just led the nation once again in our innovation index, and our economy is going to absolutely come roaring back.

You talk to me in six months. Those numbers are going to be radically different than they are today.

TAPPER: Recall supporters also fault you and your administration for presiding over $30 billion in suspected unemployment fraud, while, obviously, so many Californians were suffering economically.

I understand you weren't signing off on all that, but you are in charge as the governor. This was taxpayer money, apparently billions of it going to scammers. What went wrong? Do you take any responsibility for this?

NEWSOM: Yeah, it's happened all across the United States. International rings.

Its - it deserves a lot more attention candidly than it's getting. The difference in California, we did an audit, and we presented all of the evidence. Now, most other states have not done that.

By no stretch of the imagination, mark my words, is what happened in California unique to California.

What was unfortunate, however, there wasn't a focus on this, and it had to come out of the PUA program, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, unemployment insurance, there was a modest amount of fraud. But the PUA program was novel and new, and this is something that every state, most states, that is, have experienced.

And the difference is we got ahead of it. We've been able to push back and at least push back against $60 billion of additional fraud. We put a program in called

This is difficult stuff. And I can assure you this, if we don't get our arms around this now, today -- and we made this crystal clear with the Biden administration -- through a national coordinated effort, we're going to continue to see these international rings continue to defraud the American people.

TAPPER: You were heralding the vaccine progress you're making in California. You yourself have not gotten the vaccine. You say you want to wait your turn, and I can respect that. I can't imagine the reaction if you jumped in line.

But let me ask you, at what point do you plan to get this vaccine? And when you do, will you show yourself taking it, since hesitancy is, frankly, an issue all over the country, and in California, it's not just the MAGA folks who are anti-vaxxer, but you have a bunch of liberal progressive anti-vaxxers in your home state -- so are you going to show yourself getting the shot?

NEWSOM: Yes, we're no different than most other states, anti-maskers, not just anti-vaxxers. And the reality is, yes. No, at the end of the day, I certainly look forward to that. My turn comes up hopefully by May 1st, everybody's turn will come up by May 1st, and - and I look forward to taking whatever vaccine's available.

And one of the vaccines I do look forward to taking, to the extent I will have a choice by that time, is the J&J vaccine, one shot and done.

That said, I think at the end of the day, politicians matter, but no one matters more than peer to peer. No one matters more than someone, someone else trusts, and that's really where our focus is -- to deal with hesitancy, which is changing, but to deal also with people that are just - they're inclined not to do it -- or just declining these vaccines.

That's a more challenging and vexing issue, as you suggest, now that's becoming more of a partisan and ideological issue, as opposed to originally it was an issue based upon history of racism and ethnic and racial lines.

TAPPER: And so, you talked about that May 1st deadline. President Biden has directed all states to open up vaccine eligibility for every American adult by May 1st. Some states have already done so. You think you're going to make the May 1st deadline, or will you even exceed it, maybe you'll get there before May 1st?

NEWSOM: Yes, we've been stair-stepping our eligibility. We just increased the opportunities this week for everyone 16 to 64 that have certain pre-existing conditions, as well as people with intellectual disabilities. And this is something we need to talk more about as well, as it relates to vaccine allocations in this country.

But, again, we're looking at scarcity still. 1.7 million vaccines were delivered doses last week. We administered two million. Our only constraint is supply, manufactured supply. As that manufactured supply over the next five, six weeks presents itself, then we can remove these limitations.

I'm absolutely looking forward to doing that, and hopefully we can do it before May 1st.

TAPPER: You talked about schools reopening. You set this April 1st goal to reopen classrooms for young children by offering financial incentives for schools.

When do you expect most students, K-12, to return to in-person learning?

And what do you see as the single most important holdup to that happening, since we have seen so much science suggesting that with masks and ventilation, et cetera, there's no reason for schools to be closed?

NEWSOM: Yeah, look, I've been a strong advocate for safely getting our kids back in person for instruction.

I have four young kids myself. I've been living through Zoom school and all of the challenge related to it.

TAPPER: It's brutal.

NEWSOM: We (ph) put out a detailed proposal to our legislature.


It's brutal.

And it's -- it - and one has to be mindful of, I mean, the social, emotional impacts, not only of the kids, but the parents themselves.

And so, we prioritized our teachers in terms of vaccines -- one of the first states to do that. Ten percent of all our first doses going to our educators, over 400,000 now have gotten at least one shot.

We also provided $6.6 billion to deal with the issues of learning loss and to safely reopen our schools. We finally got that done. 9,000 of our 11,000 schools now either have a date or are open already for in- person instruction. We won't be satisfied until we close that gap and get all 11,000 schools open.

TAPPER: All right, Governor Newsom, stick around. I have more questions for you. I'm not going to let you go yet. I want to discuss with you Senator Dianne Feinstein's response to some news you made about her possible replacement. Stay with us, we'll be right back.



TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead and continuing our conversation with Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom of California.

Governor, thanks so much for staying with us.

Just one more question on the schools issue. What is the reason that they're not open? Is it because you haven't been able -- or the school districts haven't been able to provide the mitigation efforts with the masks and the ventilation?

Is it because of teacher's very understandable fears that they're going to get coronavirus, even if it doesn't hit kids as much, and their unions are standing up for them, and in some - the view of some people, preventing this from happening? Like, what's the biggest impediment?

NEWSOM: Yeah, I think it's a combination of all of those factors. Just consider the size, scope and scale of California. We have 1,000 plus school districts, 11,000 plus schools in this state. It's unlike any other system in the United States.

And so, in each and every one of those circumstances, each and every district, you have unique challenges, unique criteria of consideration that we have to first overcome -- fear, doubt, and anxiety. People that are obviously concerned -- not only teachers are concerned, but custodial staff is concerned, and, obviously, parents are still concerned.

But, look, we provided three months of free PPE. We put up $6.6 billion to address learning loss issues related to ventilation. We were the first state in America to get a waiver from the federal government just recently to provide testing through Medicaid and through our Medi-Cal system to low-income students, and we prioritized our teachers, 10 percent priority off the top for teachers to get vaccinated as well as educators.

And so, we think we're overcoming that. And it's like a muscle, people have to start the small cohorts, TK to two, three to six, and then six to 12. And we're going to start seeing this move pretty quickly.

But here, Jake, and forgive me for extending this, here's the critical point. We gave the money to reimagine the school year and to continue - to continue the prospect of looking into the summer a little bit differently and moving away from the agrarian calendar, looking at the school day differently.

We gave them the - the flexibility and resources. You add that to $16 billion coming from the federal government, I'm confident you're going to see things move pretty quickly here.

TAPPER: Well, I hope so, because, as you know, the emotional and psychological damage, the kids that are dropping out of school all together because of remote education is - is exacting its own health toll.

NEWSOM: That's right.

TAPPER: I want to talk about the situation on the border. There are more than 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children in Border Patrol facilities. I'm not sure how much this is affecting California versus other border states. Do you consider this a crisis?

NEWSOM: It's going to become one unless we don't address it head on.

Look, just a few weeks ago, I put $30 million in emergency appropriation because we started to see activity on our border, the southern border here in California.

And while it's impacted, you're right, Texas disproportionately, we anticipate it impacting our border, and we wanted to get ahead of it.

Here's what we got ahead of, and here's what I continue to be concerned about. It's not only providing for safe accommodations for these asylum seekers, but we have a lot of people that weren't getting tested, and those that were being tested positive weren't getting isolated or quarantined. So we put up state money to provide to Jewish Family Services, Catholic Charities and other non-profits, wrap-around services and accommodations.

We'll do everything we can with an open hand, not a closed fist, to support the Biden administration. We are pleased to see them moving with FEMA, who are experts in logistics and can help, at least temporarily, with accommodations.

There's $100 million coming from the next stimulus. That should help, but it won't be enough, I think, to ultimately address what will be a mounting challenge through the summer.

And so, we are looking forward to engaging with the administration more collaboratively and closely, but this is a serious issue, and it's not a partisan issue. We've got to address it head-on.

TAPPER: Well, and there's - the increase in unaccompanied minors in the San Diego Sector is up something like 64 percent in the last year.

How much do you think this is because there's a new administration with more lenient border and immigration policies? How much is this because of the human - human rights crisis going on in Central America? What more does the Biden administration need do?

I remember during the Obama years, Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson flew down to the triangle countries and said stop, stop letting these people come to our country, we can't handle it. It's a crisis, these people obviously fleeing poverty, fleeing human rights issues, fleeing violence in many cases. But he tried to keep it down there with aid, with other efforts.

What does Biden need to do?

NEWSOM: I did the same thing. I flew down to El Salvador to make the same case.

And at the end of the day, you've got to deal with root causes, issues related to the Northern Triangle, and to start re-engage and reinvest in that area.


By the way, when I was down there, we saw China investing extraordinary amounts of money for geopolitical benefit and for other benefits, and I think we also should be mindful of that just from an international perspective. But from a humanitarian perspective, we have a lot of work to do, but nothing more impactful or important than that illusory thing called comprehensive immigration reform.

We're as dumb as we want to be as a nation, and I could care less at this stage who the heck is to blame. We've got to own up to this responsibility. No more theatrics at the border, no more finger pointing. It is a humanitarian crisis.

We have to deal with the root cause, at the same time that we have to deal with the situational challenge that persists six weeks into a new administration.

At the end of the day, Jake, I'm not interested in, again, to assign blame, but the reality is I think it was inevitable coming from the last administration, in particular to a new administration, that we're going to see this kind of increase. And we're all going to take responsibility to do more and do better, but none more important in terms of our responsibility than Congress to get off the dime and get serious about putting bill together that has bipartisan support.

TAPPER: Well, President Biden obviously presides over a Democratic White House and has a Democratic House and Senate, so he really could take the lead in such an effort.

Do you think he needs to? Do you think as part that, he needs to visit the border? He said today he doesn't have any plans to.

NEWSOM: Well, he has a plan for comprehensive immigration reform and he laid that out. There are two bills pending in Congress, one on farm workers and DREAMers. That should be low-hanging fruit for folks to move those forward. So I think he's shown demonstrable leadership.

I can just assure you this -- in the six weeks that he's been president, I've talked to the vice president, I've talked to members of his administration, and for four years, we didn't hear from the Trump administration except through the court of law and the court of public opinion in terms of some of the rhetoric that was hot and heavy.

But at the end of the day, I have confidence in this administration. Their approach, but the moment we're in, it's challenging. And I can assure you this: they have to take it -- I know they are taking it very, very seriously because I don't see this getting better in the short run. I see it getting much more challenging, not just for Texas, Arizona, California included over the course of the next few months

TAPPER: You made some news last night. You said you'd nominate a black woman to fill Senator Dianne Feinstein's seat if she were to retire from the Senate ahead of schedule, ahead of the end of her term. You now say Feinstein should stay in the Senate. Today, Feinstein says she has no plans to leave.

So given that, why did you tell MSNBC that you had multiple names in mind to fill the seat given the fact that she doesn't plan on leaving that seat?

NEWSOM: Jake, I did something that in politics everyone wants you to do but you're not supposed to do, and that's -- I directly answered a question. It was a yes/no question at the end of a segment and the question was if she resigned, would you commit, and I said if, yes, I would, and so that led to this.

Now, if I was given a little bit more time and maybe I'll take advantage of it here, I would make this point -- if anyone knows California politics, they know the relationship that I have with Senator Feinstein going back to when I was a young child growing up in San Francisco. She was an extraordinary mayor, extraordinary California -- San Francisco supervisor and she's been a mentor of mine, not just a friend.

And I say that, and you know when politicians talk about friends, you roll your eyes. She's a friend. I have enormous respect for her. She's not going anywhere. I talk to her all the time.

But in the context of that question about a hypothetical, yeah, I answered it, and I stick by my answer, but I have all the confidence in the world I'll never have to make that decision.

TAPPER: Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York who's the chairman of the National Governors Association rights now, he's facing multiple sexual harassment allegations as well as criticism over his handling of COVID-19 deaths in state nursing homes. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, I think something like 16 out of 19 House Democrats from New York, they're all calling for him to resign, impeachment proceedings or impeachment investigations are beginning in the state legislature.

Now, I'm sure you've heard the firsthand descriptions of his behavior. There was a CBS interview with a 25-year-old staffer, former staffer Charlotte Bennett, in which Cuomo -- and he hasn't denied this -- asked her if she dated older men, told her that he dated younger women. I think he's 63. Asked her as a survivor of sexual assault if she was capable of intimacy.

That -- these are the kind of questions I don't ask younger staffers on my staff.

NEWSOM: Yeah, of course.

TAPPER: Does that sound like sexual -- textbook sexual harassment to you, or do you not believe her?

NEWSOM: No. I didn't like anything I heard, not just in that interview but from many of the accusers. And, you know, one just has to applaud those victims, those that are accusing the governor of these acts. You've got to applaud them for their courage in doing so because they open themselves up to the conversation we're having here at the moment, so I applaud them for that. They have the right to be heard.

And more importantly, the governor and everybody else, has a responsibility to advance the truth, and that's what this independent investigation should advance. On that basis, that's what we're looking forward to. But no one liked anything they heard, and our hearts go out to each and every one of those victims.