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Joe Biden Saying The Pentagon Still Refuses To Brief On The Massive Hack Of Government Agencies; Packages At The Post Office Are Creating Backlogs; The U.S. Saw Its Third Highest Number Of COVID Deaths In A Single Day Yesterday. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired December 24, 2020 - 09:00   ET




PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Well good morning to you. I am Pamela Brown. Jim and Poppy have the holiday off. And this is a holiday like no other. As the nation fights coronavirus, the president uses his final days in office to throw Washington into turmoil; 26 new pardons overnight. Among them Russia probe fellets (ph); Roger Stone and Paul Manafort also his son-in-law's father; one sitting republican senator calling the move rotten to the core.

GOP loyalty already on thin ice as the president vetoes a bill that funds the military and upends a stimulus negotiated by his own administration. The president's relief bill threat (ph) comes as millions are just two days away from seeing benefits expire. And as we learned; the U.S. just had its third highest single death toll in this pandemic. Look; 3,359 lives lost because of coronavirus. That is the number of Americans who died just yesterday; that was reported yesterday. Hospitalization also now the highest they have ever been as holiday travel ramps up.

But we begin with the chaos in the final days of Trump's presidency. Suzanne Malveaux is on Capital Hill, Joe Johns just outside Mar-a-Lago for us. And Joe, today, what more are we learning about these pardons?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela, first impression is so much for draining the swamp. The president, once again, showing his willingness to make good on what was essentially a promise, you could even say a get out of jail free card to people who were involved in the Russia investigation. Twenty six total pardons last night but the focus this morning is on some of the biggest names.

At the center of that list is Paul Manafort. That, of course, is one of the campaign managers for Donald Trump during the 2016 cycle. He was investigated, charged, convicted; actually tried in two courts in Washington D.C. area. Now he was in fact locked up for about two years then put on house arrest due to coronavirus when the pardon came.

The other name a lot of people are going to know is Roger Stone. A close confident of the president. He was convicted for essentially obstructing the United States Congress. His sentence actually was commuted back in July and then the pardon came for him.

The outlier on that list is Charles Kushner. He is the father of the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Now he was convicted back in 2005 on what was essentially a tax case but he was also in fact found guilty of retaliating against a federal witness.

So 26 pardons; there's still 27 days to go in this administration and we expect more before it's over. Pam.

BROWN: Yes, retaliating against his brother and sister-in-law. All right, Joe, thank you, very much. Suzanne, as we know the president vetoed this defense bill. This really puts republicans in a tough spot. Could they deliver the president their first presidential override as he's heading out the door?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pam, it's really seen as another Litmus test, perhaps even a loyalty test for republicans and so for some it is a difficult decision. You have the 2/3 necessary both in the House and the Senate to override the presidential veto. If you look at a breakdown with the votes here; in the House side 335 yays to 78 nays and the Senate side 84 to 13. So it's the House that's going to take this up first to see if they actually will go ahead and override that veto.

We have heard from republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, who says," Don't necessarily except that even those republicans who voted for the Defense Authorization Act will vote to override the veto." That that might not happen; republicans might not be able to cross the president. Also look at the 37 democrats who also voted against this. That is what is going to be played out in the days ahead. Pam.

BROWN: We'll be keeping a close eye on it. As I know you will. Suzanne, thank you, very much. Let's bring in Ron Brownstein, Senior Editor for the Atlantic and Tammy Allison, former senior attorney and prosecutor at the Justice Department. Good to see you guys. Merry Christmas Eve.

Tammy, let's start with you. This is a very busy holiday; obviously with these pardons coming from the president last night. One person yet to receive a pardon is President Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Last night this is what he tweeted. "What happened tonight shows how broken the whole criminal justice system is."


BROWN: "Despite me and family begin threatened by POTUS, real (ph) Donald Trump. I still cooperated with a dozen federal state agencies; Mueller, congress and all these criminals receive pardons. This is wrong." Does he have a point there?

TAMMY ALLISON, FORMER SENIOR ATTORNEY AND PROSECUTOR, JUSTICE DEPARTMENT: You know, Pamela, thank you for having me this morning. I think that Michael Cohen's point is on point with the pardons that we're seeing that the president is issuing right now. The president has the right, under the constitution, under Article 2 Clause 2, that he can exercise his pardon powers for any one that he deems fit. No one is guaranteed a pardon. And the words pardon are always used interchangeably with commutation.

The correct terminology is clemency and clemency is what the forgiveness for an incarcerated or even formerly incarcerated individual. An incarcerated individual, as we've here in some of these pardons that he's recently issued; they have the right, once they receive clemency or commutation to be release from prison or have their fines or restitution's reduced or fully removed.

A pardon essentially gives them their rights back once they've served their time at the Federal Bureau of Prisons and restore some of those civil liberties such as the right to vote, to sit on a jury and the most popular is to possess a fire arm.

BROWN: Right and for Michael Cohen's sake we do expect more pardons to Ron (ph) but we do not expect Michael Cohen to be in that batch, as of now, because he is one of the only ones who testified, cooperated with authorities against the president. Now you have GOP Senator Ben Sasse who has been critical of some of the president's post election actions, as we know. He called the president's latest round of pardons, "Rotten to the core."

Do you think this has any political repercussions for the GOP?

RON BROWNSTEIN, SENIOR EDITOR THE ATLANTIC: Well look, he's absolute right but he's absolutely complicit. I mean you don't get to this point, as I've said before, you don't get to this point in a day and you don't get to this point on your own. The only way that the president will feel comfortable undertaking pardons that so egregiously violates, so flagrantly violate the rule of law. That are so transparently corrupt in the sense of preserving and protecting those who refuse to provide evidence to the investigation while leaving in jail those who did.

The only way, Pam, you get to do that is because each step along the way to this point; republicans in Congress have enabled, abetted (ph) and defended each time he has pushed through the rule of law. Only one republican in either chamber thought that what he did in - with the government of Ukraine was worthy of sanction. Very few spoke up when he weaponized the postal service or intervened in the Justice Department or tilted the census toward the benefit of the GOP.

You know every time something like this happens; I'm reminded what Susan Collins said after impeachment. She said "The president has learned a big lesson." And indeed the big lesson that he learned was that republicans in Congress would not stand up to him no matter how flagrantly he traduced (ph) really the rule of law and the limits on the presidency. And you are seeing the fruits of that everyday now and will like to do so all the way through the inauguration.

BROWN: All right, I mean even in the wake of the president vetoing the defense bill, torpedoing the stimulus bill we're not hearing a lot from republicans on this. As million of Americans, right now as we speak, are nervous. I think their livelihoods are up in the air.

But on pardons, Tammy, "The New York Times" highlighted this interesting point from Harvard Law School Professor, Jack Goldsmith, noting that of the 65 pardons and commutations that Mr. Trump had granted before Wednesday; 60 have gone to petitioners who had a personal tie to Mr. Trump or who helped his political aids (ph). Now there have been controversial past pardons, Mark Rich with Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was investigated for that.

But how does all of this compare to past presidents and their pardons?

ALLISON: You know, the thing is here that the political aspect of the exercise of federal executive clemency it doesn't have anything to do with the Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney. Look, I spent 12 years at the Department of Justice as a senior attorney there under the Bush, Obama and Trump adminstrations. There's two different sides to clemency.

There are those where the president can exercise his constitutional right to grant clemency to whomever the president sees fit; no matter who the president is. But for the majority and what I really want the American people to know, the majority of those petitions go through the Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney where there are very hard working attorneys there evaluating each and every single petition that comes through that door. So that they can be favorably recommended to whoever the president is and present it to the president.

But keep in mind, the president does not have to listen to what those attorneys say. So the president can still, again, exercise his right under the constitution to grant or deny whoever he sees fit.


ALLISON: He or she sees fit.

BROWN: And what do you think about that, Ron? The fact that a majority of the pardons we've seen from this president, so far, have gone to people with personal ties or who have tried to advocate for him politically. And does it open the door, perhaps, for investigations after the president leaves, such as bribery? That's something that I know officials are talking about.

BROWNSTEIN: I think Jack Goldsmith, who you cited, Former Bush - W. Bush administration, head of office of legal council has calculated 91 percent of all of his clemency actions had some either personal or political tie. And it's an extension of the way he has viewed the presidency, the entire federal government as an instrument of his personal will and his personal interest. And, again, I come back to you don't get to this point in a day where not only the ones that we're talking about where he in effect is rewarding the people who affirmatively refuse to cooperate with an investigation.

Which certainly seems like it fits the broad definition of obstruction of justice as others have suggested. AG William Barr has suggested, at one point in testimony. But when you look at the others on the list, it all says that he believes he is acting with total impunity and he believes that. Because each time he has broken a window, over four years, congressional republicans have obediently swept up the glass. Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Lindsay Graham (ph), Marco Rubio; all the rest of them they have led him to a point where he believe he can behave in this manner without consequence. And it something that is likely - the parallel to the pardons are - is his erratic behavior on the legislation. It is likely January 20 is not going to be the end of that for republicans. I mean he is going to be on the sidelines kind of commenting on what they do, pressuring them over what they do.

And they have put themselves in this position by failing to stand up to him at any point over these four years.

BROWN: All right, Ron Brownstein, Tammy Allison, thank you.

ALLISON: Thank you for having me.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you. Merry Christmas Eve.

BROWN: Well U.S. officials promised to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of the year. But it's going to take longer than that. The CDC says 9.5 million doses have been distributed and just over 1 million people have been vaccinated. Operation Warp Speed officials say they might not reach 20 million people until next month.

CNN Senior Medical Correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, is following these developments. So what's going on here, Elizabeth, that right now we know that the - there is an urgent for people to be vaccinated. But we have all these vaccines not being used. What's happening?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think we want to take really a close look at these numbers before we jump to any conclusion. So let's look at these numbers. So what we've seen is that over 1 million people have been vaccinated and that program just started December 14; so that's more than 1 million people in 10 days. Doses distributed, the number of doses that have actually been put out there is more than 9 million, almost 9.5 million. And so I think it's easy to look at these numbers and say "Wait there's more than like 8 million doses just sitting around."

They're not just sitting around. This can't - the doses have been distributed in large numbers. That's actually a good thing. But the federal program to vaccinate nursing home residents just started on Monday, four days ago. So that is not up and running fully at this point. I mean they're getting there.

And as far as healthcare workers go; it just takes time. You can't vaccinate every healthcare worker in the United States all at once. These things just take time. Pamela.

BROWN: That's really important context there. And you also spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci as new infections and hospitalizations continues to rise to record levels right now. What is he telling you about practicing what he preaches?

COHEN: Right. So today is actually Dr. Fauci's 80th birthday, Happy Birthday, Dr. Fauci.

BROWN: Happy Birthday.

COHEN: And tomorrow - and tomorrow of course is Christmas. And what he told me is that he, as you said, is practicing what he preaches. He would love to have his three daughters fly in from where they live in various parts of the country and celebrate with him and his wife. But he is not doing that. Let's take a listen to what he told me.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: I definitely feel sad. I have three daughters ranging in age from late 20 to early 30's. This is the first holiday season of Christmas and my birthday that I have not spent with my daughters since they were born.


COHEN: So as we just heard, Dr. Fauci said "The first Christmas he's been away from his daughters." But he said "This is what we have to do." He doesn't want to put them on airplanes, he doesn't want to get them sick. He doesn't want to get other people sick. And so he said "This is what we're doing now and he said next year they're going to make up for it, make the most of it. Hopefully by then we can all be together. Pamela.

BROWN: That is certainly the hope. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

COHEN: Thanks.

BROWN: Well still to come the chief advisor for Operation Warp Speed says "Allergic reactions to Pfizer's vaccine are greater than expected." What that means for vaccine rollouts.


And President-elect Biden's team doubles down saying the Pentagon still refuses to brief on the massive hack of government agencies.

Plus, a perfect storm at the Post Office, a historic number of packages creating backlogs that could lead to significant delays for those holiday gifts. I'm sure many of you are experiencing those delays right now. We'll be back to discuss all of that.


Well new this morning the CDC now projects that there will be 419,000 deaths due to coronavirus by mid-January. That is just sobering. Look at this, this is the U.S. saw its third highest number of COVID deaths in a single day yesterday.

Joining us to discuss is Dr. Paul Sax, he is Clinical Director at the Infectious Diseases Division at Brigham & Women's Hospital. Thanks for coming on Dr. Sax. You look at that chart that we just put on the screen, it is trending in the wrong direction. Do you expect it to continue to trend in the wrong direction with the holidays and people traveling right now? [09:20:00]

DR. PAUL SAX, CLINICAL DIRECTOR AT THE INFECTIONS DISEASES DIVISION AT BRIGHAM & WOMEN'S HOSPITAL: Yes unfortunately this is something that we did expect with the seasonality of the coronaviruses, that it would get worse in the winter.

What's different this time compared with previous surges in the United States is that it's happening in all regions. It's not happening in certain regions and that's why the death numbers and the hospitalization numbers are so high.

BROWN: And what about ages, is it still mainly impacting the elderly or what can you give us in terms of the picture of who it's really hitting the hardest right now?

SAX: So, right now it's -- it's occurring as it was before most commonly in younger adults and that's particularly the case now. And as a result the number of severe cases is lower than it was in spring.

However, I should just emphasize that when we start seeing large number of cases in younger adults very shortly after we start seeing in more vulnerable populations, in particular the elderly, people with other medical conditions, people who are overweight, people who are immuno-compromised. And those are the people who we really need to protect because COVID-19 for them can be life threatening.

I do want to underscore also --

BROWN: And so then those are the people -- oh, go ahead --

SAX: -- there are people who are young and healthy who get quite sick from COVID-19 too. So, it's really important that we not put this -- this -- this virus in our rearview mirror quite yet. We have to be very careful.

BROWN: Right. And -- and the elderly, I mean you look at the death numbers record yesterday, more than 3,300. I imagine a lot of those people are reflected in those numbers and you have Operation Warp Speed working right now as we speak with states to plan delivery of the second doses of COVID-19, but we know the U.S. is already behind on distribution of the first doses. What needs to happen to speed up distribution and what are you thoughts overall on the distribution process so far?

SAX: Well, on -- on the positive side is that over a million people have already been vaccinated in the United States and we really just started this process about 10 days ago. So, that's -- that's the good news.

The challenge, of course, is that after we do that people kind of in the first response, in the hospitals, perhaps people living in skilled nursing facilities, then a much more complex rollout is going to be required to get it to the next range of people who need it the most and that would be elderly and other -- other first responders who are not healthcare workers. So, this last mile, the last mile of getting the vaccines to the

people who need it is an extremely challenging process and one that really needs to be coordinated not just at the state level but at the -- at the federal level.

BROWN: I want to ask you this, just to put this into context so we're educated about the vaccine. The Chief Scientific Advisor for Operation Warp Speed said the frequency of allergic reactions to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is great than what would be expected for other vaccines.

How should we view that? Is that concerning? What do you think?

SAX: Well, on -- on the one hand, yes these allegoric reactions have occurred more commonly since the vaccine rollout than they did in the clinical trials, but it's still a very small number overall and to try to put into context it looks like the risk of a severe allergic reaction to this vaccine is actually lower than it is, for example, taking the drug penicillin.

So, as a result I do feel like we can go forward and strongly recommend this vaccine to people and say to them, look, if you follow the protocols and you're observed for 15 minutes after the vaccine is given, then if you do develop an allergic reaction you can be safely treated. And that so far is what has happened in all the cases.

So in context, the risk of severe reactions is very low and it still protects you from this potentially life-threatening disease and one that you could transmit to others.

BROWN: If you would, as we wrap up this interview the day before Christmas, bring us behind the scenes of what's going on in your hospital, what are you seeing. What do people need to know who are not in your shoes about how this pandemic is ravaging hospitals and healthcare workers on the front lines and what they're seeing with patients?

SAX: Well -- well, first happy holiday. I think we have to try to say that to all the -- all of -- everyone has to try to say that now, because it's -- it's a tough year. But now that we've sort acknowledged that the holidays are here, these are different holidays from previous years even though we'd really like to gather with our loved ones, we have to limit our gatherings as much as possible.

The same advice that we gave months ago applies now even though it's the holiday season. And -- and it really can't be stressed enough. Avoid large gatherings, avoid being in crowded settings. If possible avoid travel.

And then I do want to say, since some people must travel and must get together, there is a rule for testing. Testing before gathering does make sense, it may not be 100 percent protective, but it's better than nothing.

And then if you are getting together with people, if possible do so outdoors, stay six feet apart and limit the risk of transmitting this potentially deadly virus. So, that's the strongest message I'd give.


The hospitals are, of course, struggling with COVID-19 cases right now and we have other care we need to deliver. So, we want to minimize the impact as much as possible during the holiday season and afterwards.

BROWN: OK, Dr. Paul Sax, Merry Christmas. It is important, I think, to have hope.

SAX: Happy Holidays.

BROWN: That people are, like you said, million people vaccinated, there is help on the way. Thank you very much for coming on to discuss though the reality of what we're all facing.

SAX: You're welcome.

BROWN: Well, there is tension growing between the Biden transition team and the Defense Department, this is as the President-elect's team accuses Pentagon officials of refusing to brief them on massive cyber attack. A live update up next.