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Joe Biden Likely to Nominate Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense; Congressional Republicans Push Trump to Avoid Conceding; Florida Police Raid Rebekah Jones' Home. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired December 08, 2020 - 10:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. After much anticipation, President-elect Biden is expected to nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin, former head of Central Command, to serve as his secretary of defense.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And if confirmed, he would be the first African-American to lead the Defense Department. Let's go straight to the Pentagon, our Barbara Starr joins us for more on what is an historic pick for sure. Good morning, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to both of you. Well, this is really President-elect Joe Biden's first commander- in-chief-level decision, picking Lloyd Austin to be his secretary of defense. And, if confirmed, yes, the first black Pentagon chief in the nation's history. The president-elect by all accounts, very devoted to putting diversity into his cabinet.

Austin has extensive experience in the Middle East when he served as the head of the U.S. Central Command, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

TEXT: Who is Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin? Former commander of U.S. Central Command; Former commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq; On board of defense contractor Raytheon Technologies

STARR: But one of the key questions is, what kind of political buzzsaw Austin may run into on Capitol Hill in this confirmation process because he will need a congressional waiver, he has been out of the military less than seven years.

And if -- for the ranks, it's an important point. The law requires a seven-year waiting period, if you will, because the idea has always been in this country that there is strong civilian leadership in the U.S. military, that they didn't want recently retired generals in these top civilian positions.

Always a risk, if you will, being too cozy with those who you might have recently served with, not being able to step back and take a fresh look at things: These are the reasons the law's in existence. And there's been a lot of concern because it was supposed to be a very

rare thing to grant such a waiver. They recently did one, of course, for James Mattis to be President Trump's first secretary of defense, and the real question in Congress right now is do they want to approve another waiver so soon? Before Mattis, they hadn't done it since 1950 with President Truman, and now the real question is, is this what you want to do again.


So nobody questioning General Austin's service, his record, his honorable record, but a political question perhaps arising, is he really the person that Congress will approve for the job? And we just don't know yet -- Jim, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Barbara, he commanded Central Command forces in the Middle East during some crucial times in the war in Iraq, but also in Syria. Are there issues there that will come up in a confirmation process?

STARR: Well, he had a tough time explaining to the Senate, very early on, back in 2015, why the U.S.-funded program to try to train Syrian rebels was falling apart. And that was a pretty significant problem he ran into with the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But one of the things about -- that General Austin is facing is the Pentagon, the military that he left just a few years ago, has a very different set of challenges right now. It has been, for so many years, all about the Middle East, and it still is about deterrence against Iran. But it is also very much a military that's being refashioned to be able to have strong deterrence against rivals like Russia and China --


STARR: -- maybe not military adversaries, but true rivals. And will Austin, clearly, will have to try and reshape the military for that and try and have the political savvy to push through some very significant budget cuts that are now expected given the economic situation --


STARR: -- with the pandemic and all of that. Expect to see budget cuts at the Pentagon, and will he be able to get those past Congress.

HARLOW: Barbara, thank you for the reporting on that on both fronts.

All right, close allies of the president are imploring him not to concede: Why some Republicans want a big fight on the House floor, next.



HARLOW: This morning, conservative allies on Capitol Hill are urging President Trump not to concede, itching for a fight, it appears, on the House floor, even perhaps after Joe Biden wins the Electoral College vote officially next week.

SCIUTTO: Yes, by the way, it's not based on the votes, the votes have been certified by state officials in both parties. CNN's Manu Raju joins us now.

So what is the goal, Manu, of House Republicans here? Are there enough, right? For the party to follow through on this, a floor fight in January?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It remains to be seen, because there are a number of House conservatives who are not ready to say that Joe Biden is the president-elect, even after next Monday, when the Electoral College votes and makes it very clear that Joe Biden indeed won the presidential election.

I talked to a number of them over the last several days, and they are pushing for a floor fight in January, they can do that if they get support from at least one senator to have a debate on the House floor about each state's election results.

That includes Congressman Jim Jordan who's a close Trump ally, others including the House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs, also indicating there should be some sort of debate, as well as Matt Gaetz, the president's ally in Florida, saying there should be some floor debate.

Now they're not going to be able to change the results here, it's very clear where this is all headed. But they at least want to stow -- raise their concerns with this process even though the -- even as the president has been rejected time and again in court, and has even failed to produce evidence to show widespread fraud would change the election results.

The president's closest allies including Lindsey Graham went on TV earlier this week, demanding that the -- some changes here including criticizing what's happening in Georgia. And today, this morning, the South Carolina Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn pushed back on Lindsey Graham.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So Senator Lindsey Graham, your senator, said there's a civil war brewing in the country, promoting what the president is doing. What's your message to Lindsey Graham this morning, Congressman?

REP. JIM CLYBURN (D-SC): Get a grip, get a grip. I think he's lost grip on reality.


RAJU: So the big question right now is what the president ultimately does, because a number of top Senate Republicans say after next Monday it is over, even though it's been clear what the result has been for weeks. Top Republicans like Chuck Grassley as well as Senator John Thune and Senator John Cornyn have all told me that, come December 14th, it's over for this president.

But if he continues to get encouragement from his allies on the right and the House conservatives, almost certainly the president's going to use that to continue to push his case even though it stands virtually no chance of succeeding here -- guys.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's a P.R., it's a political game, right? I mean, let's call it what it is, it's not going to overturn the results but it does create doubts in the minds of tens of millions of Americans. Manu Raju, thanks very much.


Coming up, already strained lab technicians are sounding the alarm as the demand for more testing -- not talking about vaccines here, but testing -- grows.


SCIUTTO: Listen to this story because it's concerning. Florida's former top coronavirus data scientist, Rebekah Jones, says she will not stop reporting COVID-19 information including infections in the state. This, even after Florida police raided her home while her family was there. Jones was fired by the Florida Department of Health in May.

HARLOW: Our Drew Griffin joins us now for more on this. Wow, what more is she saying and what is the state claiming as to why they raided her house?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this goes back to May, Poppy, when she was fired from the state after she says she was trying to expose state officials basically covering up the true damage that the coronavirus was doing in the state of Florida. The state of Florida says she was basically fired for insubordination.

But this brings us to what happened yesterday morning in Tallahassee. When you take a look at this video -- it's crazy -- these are state law enforcement officers actually going into her home, guns drawn, to serve a search warrant and basically pick up a computer and her phone and some thumb drives.

She's been running this COVID tracking site on her own, she says that this was done purely to try to silence her and lead to intimidation. Here's what she said to Chris Cuomo last night on CNN.


REBEKAH JONES, FLORIDA DATA SCIENTIST: This is just a very thinly veiled attempt of the governor to intimidate scientists and get back at me while trying to get to my sources, as he's been firing DOH staff left and right.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GRIFFIN: The governor's office told us they had no involvement with this, had no information on this, were not involved -- in fact, know nothing of this investigation at all, according to Governor Ron DeSantis' spokesperson.

There was no arrest made last night, but we do know from an affidavit that the law enforcement department there in Florida is trying to find out if she may have illegally used an emergency alert system to basically solicit information from inside state workers' e-mails -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Wow, Drew, I have a sense there is more here. I'm sure you'll get it and bring it to us. Thank you for that.

Well, to a group now of often-really unsung heroes, right? How often do we actually thank the lab workers, the people processing our tests? The already fatigued technicians across the United States who are now facing, again, grueling winter ahead and the demands for even more testing.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now is April Abbott, she is the director of Microbiology at Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Indiana.

So good to have you on, April, and thanks for the work that you're doing, you and your colleagues are doing there. I wonder, I mean, enormous amount of demand right now for testing, really hasn't been available as widely as any health expert has recommended. Is it getting any better where you are?

APRIL ABBOTT, DIRECTOR OF MICROBIOLOGY, DEACONESS HEALTH SYSTEM: Yes. I mean I think for us here, we've been very fortunate. We really realized very early on in this that we were going to have to build a structure and put that in place for the fall and winter, so we've really been laser-focused on getting and building what we need for what's going to occur here in the next few months.

And so for us here in our area, although we've experienced significant shortages and we're still sending out some testing, we're looking at bringing all of that back in-house here at Deaconess very shortly.

HARLOW: April, you're very humble but for anyone who has not met you or read the "New York Times" piece on you, you have been working around the clock, one day off since the pandemic started, rolling a hospital bed into your office to sleep at night -- and oh, by the way, you have three little kids, the oldest is eight years old. I mean, that is hard work.

You guys really are in many ways the invisible workforce. What do you want people to know about what you are doing, and your team, day-in and day-out?

ABBOTT: Yes. I mean, this is something that's occurring across the nation, so although, you know, I was able and fortunate to tell my story, this is really probably the norm for many of us right now.

So unfortunately for us, this happened at a time where we were experiencing a national shortage of skilled workforce, and that's been a problem for us and hospitals for the last several years. And to layer that on top of -- as you pointed out earlier -- some of these struggles with just getting basic supplies, I mean, it really has made it where people are having to step up and work hours that they're just not accustomed to doing.

And that's really everyone from those individuals that are collecting your specimen at the drive-through locations and the rain and the cold, to the people that are processing maybe an additional thousand specimens a day over what they're normally doing. We have staff that now have to pick up shifts on the weekend that they're scheduled to be off because maybe someone's sick.

And as you pointed out, we have directors all across the country who are going things like sleeping at work just to make sure that we're keeping those in our community safe. So it really is a team effort, and you know, it's something that we don't get recognized for very often.

SCIUTTO: So what help do you need most right now so that you can do the job you need to do, testing really at the center, at getting this under control, this pandemic?

ABBOTT: Yes, I mean, testing is definitely a cornerstone to what has to happen in this country, but we definitely need a more unified, comprehensive testing and containment plan. I think that that's been definitely a struggle.

And as we see people that are going out into society not wearing masks and not doing the things to protect one another, it just adds to the strain in the laboratory because for every person that's out there spreading this infection, they're possibly exposing dozens of others. And so that just amplifies the number of tests that we have to perform and the hours that we have to work here in the lab.

HARLOW: We need to do our part. And thank you so much for doing yours --


HARLOW: -- April Abbott, we appreciate you and your team very, very much.

And thanks to all of you for joining us today, we're glad we could bring you some good news. We'll see you back here tomorrow morning, I'm Poppy Harlow.


SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto. NEWSROOM with Kate Bolduan starts right after a short break.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Hello everyone, I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining us this hour. [10:59:52]

There is a flood of news on the vaccine front coming in this hour. The FDA just released new data on Pfizer's vaccine, and confirming that it is surprisingly -- has a surprisingly good efficacy rate.