Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Congress Grills Defense Secretary For Diverting Funds To Border Wall; Lawmakers Grill Two Trump Administration Officials On Coronavirus Response; S.C. Voters React To Raucous Democratic Debate; Jamie Self, "The State" Political Reporter, Discusses Clyburn Endorsing Biden Ahead Of S.C. Primary, Steyer Spending Big On Advertising. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired February 26, 2020 - 14:30   ET




BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: A rare display of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill. The top Democrat and Republican on the Armed Services Committee are slamming a Pentagon plan to divert nearly $4 billion in military funding to pay for the U.S. border wall.


REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA): This effort to keep stealing money for the wall is really undermining the Department of Defense and something, regardless how you feel about the wall, we should have a bipartisan consensus that that should not be done.

REP. MAC THORNBERRY (R-TX): This is a deeper issue than the wall. I support physical barriers on the border. I support walls. But I am deeply concerned about it where we're headed with the constitutional issue about Congress's role in national defense and whether that is being overridden.


BALDWIN: Defense Secretary Mark Esper was in the hot seat on Capitol Hill earlier today at this committee meeting. And he was left to defend the administration's actions, which would -- I should say, could strip funds from stealth jets and transport support planes and drone programs.

With me now, CNN military and diplomatic analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby. He's always the former spokesperson over at the Pentagon.

Admiral Kirby, always a pleasure to have you on, first and foremost.

You know, Pentagon and officials there say that they don't need Congressional approval to reprogram the funds, and they say this money is being redirected from military aircraft and other projects that DOD had not requested. Is any of this concerning to you?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, it's very concerning to me. And I think you can see just how deeply concerning this is for national security by the fact that both sides of the aisle in the House Armed Services Committee have come out against this decision.

They do have -- the Pentagon does have the authority reprogramming authority to move money from one bucket to another bucket to deal with emergent needs. The difference is that, in the past both, Republican and Democratic administrations have always worked with Congress before those moves are executed.

I can think of two examples, the Ebola crisis in West Africa and we had to go to Congress and say, we've got these emergent needs, we need some money, and we worked with them to do that. There's no desire, there hasn't been any desire by the Trump administration to do that.

The other argument by the Pentagon is, hey, we did this last year for building the wall. That money was excess money that wasn't going to be spent because the Army didn't meet recruiting goals, for instance, or because there were military construction funds that had not been allocated for building on installations, so that money was available.

This is money that the Congress said to the Pentagon you need because we want you to have X number of F-35 jets. And the Pentagon's saying, no, we don't want that many, we want only 12, so we're just not going to spend that money.

It really does get into a constitutional issue about the roles and prerogatives of Congress and the power of the purse.

BALDWIN: So President Trump's officials argue, and I'm quoting, "Border security is national security." But then, at the same time, you know, the southern border doesn't appear in the Pentagon's national defense strategy. So how do they justify this?

KIRBY: Yes, this is where you see some differences on both sides of the aisle. I think the Democratic side of the aisle is more inclined to also criticize not just the process but the expenditure of military funds on the border when there doesn't appear to be a national security crisis there.

On the right, they'll tell you there is. It's not just about immigration. There are drugs. There are transnational crime networks. And there are, of course, terrorist threats that can penetrate the United States from across the border.

There's a real different kind of rhetoric and debate going on about the need.

I think -- and that's where Esper's lining up on border security is national security.

It's difficult, though, when you look at what's happening at the southern border to really make that case, I think. Yes, there are certainly transnational elements we need to be worried about, but is the wall necessarily the best approach and is military funds the best way to spend on that approach? And I think that's where the real divide is in terms of a philosophical approach to the expenditure of these funds.

BALDWIN: Got it.

Admiral Kirby, thank you, sir. Always great to have you on.

KIRBY: Thank you.

BALDWIN: In just a short time, the president addresses the nation about the spread of the coronavirus. And after days of assuring Americans there's really nothing to worry about, what is his plan now?


And a former Homeland Security adviser weighs in on how the Trump team has handled the crisis thus far.


BALDWIN: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been grilling members of the Trump administration about the nation's readiness for a sudden coronavirus outbreak.

Louisiana's Republican Senator John Kennedy was especially critical of acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf. The Senator was asking if the U.S. had enough masks on hand to protect Americans. Watch.



REP. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): 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.

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

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

KENNEDY: Mr. Secretary --

WOLF: My budget supports --


KENNEDY: -- you're supposed to keep us safe.

WOLF: My budget supports the men and women --

KENNEDY: You're the secretary of Homeland Security.

WOLF: Yes, sir. KENNEDY: And you can't tell me if we have enough respirators?

WOLF: For the entire American public?


WOLF: No, I would say probably not.

KENNEDY: OK. How short are we?

WOLF: I don't have that number offhand, sir. I will get that for you.

KENNEDY: OK. But I want to be sure I understand. Somebody --

WOLF: Yes, sir.

KENNEDY: -- is doing modeling --

WOLF: Yes, sir.

KENNEDY: -- on how many cases were anticipated?

WOLF: Yes, sir.

KENNEDY: Just not aware --


WOLF: You're asking me a number of medical questions that --


KENNEDY: I'm asking you questions --


KENNEDY: -- as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and you're supposed to keep us safe?

WOLF: Yes, sir.

KENNEDY: And you need to know the answers to these questions.


BALDWIN: Lisa Monaco is a CNN Senior National Security Analyst and former Homeland Security adviser to President Obama.


Lisa, those were perfectly valid questions. Just bottom line, is the U.S. ready?

LISA MONACO, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Look, Brooke, I think what you've seen in the response thus far from the administration has been and can be characterized as being pretty chaotic and pretty confused. I think what we need to be doing here is listening to the experts.

We need to not panic but the administration needs to be communicating clearly, and it needs to be doing so with facts and not with politics, so are we prepared?

I would be listening to Tony Fauci, our expert in the National Institutes of Health, and hearing from him that we need to be preparing for this disease and for the virus to spread.

The experts here, one of the problems, Brooke, here is that the response has been basically chaotic and lots of mixed messages, right?

On the one hand, you have the experts, our experts here in the CDC, telling us that spread is inevitable. Tony Fauci has said we are likely on the cusp of a pandemic with this virus. And political advisers in the White House and the chair of the National Economic Council said we've got this contained.

I think we need to be listening to the experts and we need to have our communication grounded in facts.

Look, the fact that the administration has not been really able to shoot straight on this issue may result in lives being lost and that's a real concern.

If we don't address this by doing, frankly, three things, we need to organize ourselves and treat this issue, pandemic disease as a national security threat that it is.

We need to be restoring funding for the Centers for Disease Control that has suffered double-digit cuts in the last several years. And we need to be executing on a strategy to assist state and local public health officials who frankly are on the front lines of any response.

BALDWIN: So, to your point about this administration and how downplaying may be this crisis, and some of our reporting is that it's because the president is concerned about markets, right? Markets, thus the economy, thus, the re-election. He is speaking, he's addressing the nation at 6:00 this evening.

What do you want to hear him say?

MONACO: Well, he needs to level with the American people and communicate clearly about this issue. He needs to be talking about the efforts we are undertaking, right? What -- where is he assigning responsibility in the federal government to coordinate what is a complex response both globally and here at home.

You know, Brooke, after the Ebola response, which I helped lead --


MONACO: -- the U.S.'s response to the Ebola crisis in 2014.


BALDWIN: Including creating the position of an Ebola czar.

MONACO: That's correct. Even before that, the position I occupied, the Homeland Security adviser, is a position that was started after 9/11 to have one person in the White House focused 24/7, and reporting directly to the president, focused 24/7 on major transnational threats that face this country, terrorism, cyber, pandemics.

Today, that position has been downgraded, sidelined, and, frankly, erased. So who is the person who is coordinating that?

We did put in place an Ebola czar. Ron Klain did a fantastic job at coordinating the response. And he focused all of his efforts on coordinating the government's response across all different agencies.

And he recommended to the president, after the Ebola response got under control, you should never need to have another czar. Let's have a structure within the White House, within the national Security Council. So we created a Global Health Security Pandemic Response Unit dedicated to preparing for just this type of event.

What happened in 2018? That unit was dismantled. The career expert who headed it was reassigned. So for the first time since 9/11, you don't have a single person focused on transnational threats in terms of the Homeland Security adviser. And you don't have a unit in the White House dedicated to focusing on pandemic preparedness. That is a problem.

BALDWIN: Yes. No, I appreciate you coming on and calling it out. And we'll see if the president does what you say and levels with the people tonight. Again, he's speaking, 6:00 Eastern.

Lisa Monaco. Thank you very much.

MONACO: Thanks, Brooke.



South Carolina is just days away from the primary. The gloves are coming off. We are with voters talking about what they need to hear from the candidates.


BALDWIN: Back to 2020. South Carolina in the spotlight after last night's debate in Charleston, CNN got a group of voters together, most of them undecided. And what our correspondent heard from them could be pretty great news if you're Joe Biden.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (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?




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: The South Carolina primary is this Saturday.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Allendale, South Carolina.


BALDWIN: So great to hear from voters.

And now, Jamie Self, a political reporter for "The State" newspaper there in Columbia, South Carolina.

Jamie, thank you so much for being with me.

Let's just dive on in. The big news this morning for the former vice president is the fact that Congressman Jim Clyburn, you know, gave him the thumbs up. He's endorsing Joe Biden. How much weight does that endorsement hold?

JAMIE SELF, POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE STATE": Well, certainly, I think it holds a lot of weight for Democrats in South Carolina. I mean, sure there are Democrats out there who have made up their mind who say that there's no one who can influence them.

But getting the hat tip from the highest-ranking Democrat in the state, a long-standing Democrat in the state, certainly is a good thing for Joe Biden at this point.

BALDWIN: I'm curious, in all the voters that you talked to, day in and day out, looking ahead to Saturday, how many voters are still undecided?

SELF: Well, recent polling shows that nearly one in five Democrats haven't made up their mind yet, and I think that's a result of there being so many candidates in the field.

There are a lot of options this time around, unlike in 2016. So I think that there definitely are Democrats who are waiting out the next couple of days to decide who they're going to pick.

BALDWIN: I was just talking to Jeff Zeleny. He's in South Carolina. He's one of our senior Washington correspondents.

And he was just relaying some numbers that he just got on, you know, pennies, nickels, and dimes, that you know, you compare a Tom Steyer to Joe Biden in terms of money they've spent on ads, and Tom Steyer's number was something like $22 million in South Carolina, and Joe Bidens was in the neighborhood of $875,000.

And so is that the reason why there's so much buzz about Tom Steyer? Is it because he's flooded the air waves? Or is it more than that?

SELF: I think that -- I think you're hitting on something. You know, Tom Steyer, he's not polling very high in South Carolina, but he certainly is making a difference.

And some folks are blaming him for chipping away at support that Biden could be having right now. And it all goes back to Democrats saying that they've been seeing his face on ads for months. And even last year, when he started his Trump impeachment efforts as well.

So Steyer has been here, at least digitally and through televisions, reaching voters for some time now. And I think that is helping him tremendously.


BALDWIN: Jamie Self, with "The State. Jamie, thank you.

SELF: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Breaking news now in the coronavirus outbreak. There are even more new cases reported today outside of China than inside China. In just a few hours, President Trump presents his plan for protecting Americans.



BALDWIN: We continue on hour two. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being here.