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Biden Speech Tonight to Lay Out Six Pillars for COVID Response; Justice Department to Sue Texas Over Restrictive Abortion Law; First Commercial Flight Departs Kabul since Taliban Took Over Airport. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 09, 2021 - 10:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: Well, Biden's speech comes right as cases are surging. Take a look at this, ICU beds becoming increasingly scarce in a number of states around the country, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, all with 90 percent or more of the ICU beds now full. Of course, that means if you come into the hospital, something else too, you might not be able to get an ICU bed.

We have a lot to get to this morning. Let's begin though at the White House. CNN White House Correspondent John Harwood as well as CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, also happens to be a doctor himself, as you know.

John, let's start with you though first. The White House knows this is a problem. They're trying to get a handle on it. What are they going to propose today?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jim, I think the way to think of this speech is that, in response to changing conditions and the dire conditions that you mentioned, they're sliding along that continuum that starts with encouragement and ends with requirement a little bit closer to requirement. It was easy in the beginning, when people were flocking to pharmacies to get those vaccines. Now, you've got a hard core of reluctant, resistance some political, some superstitious, some based on disinformation, and they're trying to get over that.

So, for example, requirements, hard requirements for federal employees and contractors of the federal government to get vaccinated as opposed to you can opt out of the requirement by getting testing. Vaccination is by far, I think Sanjay will affirm this when you talk to him in a moment, is far in a way the most important thing that could be done. There will be additional steps is it the plan, encouraging masking and encouraging testing, health care steps for people to deal with COVID who already have it, ways to keep the economy flowing and keeping the economy going is part of the cost benefit test that they applied to as they slide down closer to requirements.

You were talking, Jim, in the last hour with Dr. Wen, who was saying we'll require it on airplanes. A senior administration officials has told me they considered that but decided against it because they thought the cost benefit was not that much. There is not much COVID being spread on airlines, which have good filtration systems, good mask compliance, high percentage of people who are on airplanes are already vaccinated and they're worried about big jam-ups in airports. So that's a step they're not doing but there are other steps that we expect to hear from the president to try to encourage, push very hard private businesses to join the federal government in requiring vaccinations.

SCIUTTO: Sanjay, I wonder as you hear that, what you think of that, so encouraging rather than requiring vaccinations and as well as it seems a big part of this is a greater amount of testing to get a handle on just how far the variant has spread. Do you look at those as impactful changes?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes. I think they would be hugely impactful. As John was saying, first of all, just if we increase vaccinations, you're 17 times more likely to end up in the hospital with COVID if you have been unvaccinated. It is not even close. I mean, it is very clear. And it is our best way out of this pandemic. I mean, I think people have known for some time.

It is not a question of production anymore. There were concerns about shortages earlier on, like masks and things like that. There are plenty of tests available. There are plenty of vaccines available. That's not that the issue. So, it is all about now at this point making these things just such an integral part of life. Like even flying thing, maybe less about the fact that COVID doesn't spread that much on planes, that is true, but more that it encourages even more people to get vaccinated because so many people do fly. So it's things like that. But I think really finding that sort of inflection point, I think, is going to be important. And he's got to really explain that well. Telling people to do this, you have got to explain why.

But also I think another thing that keeps coming up is that we're not going to get to zero COVID in this country. We're not going to -- it is here. It is endemic. So, what does that mean? What are we willing to accept? Flu, up to 60,000 people could die in any given year of flu. We accepted that. We don't wear masks during respiratory season pre-pandemic. So, will those sorts of things change, I think, as well? How does he forecast that, I think, will be important.

SCIUTTO: We also understand that Biden is going to talk about booster shots, the administration's plans perhaps clarified because there has been some back and forth, some moving timelines here on boosters, Sanjay. What are you looking to hear? What should the president be getting at here to provide some clarity?

GUPTA: Well, first of all, just on the macro level, and I've been doing a lot of reporting on this and talking to people at senior posts within the FDA and other places. You know, the message about boosters originally came from the White House, right, and they even put a date on it, September 20th. The FDA, they weren't -- there were people within the FDA, I should say, that said, hey, look, we need to evaluating this data first before you make that clear, a proposal to the American people.


So I think that is some of the back and forth. And there are people who think the data is not there for everybody to get booster shots. And I think that is where the president should focus on, who should get a booster shot and why. We know that people who are older that develop breakthrough infections are much more likely to get sick and even hospitalized versus younger people, people with preexisting conditions.

So is it for older people who have certain pre-existing conditions, are they the ones that should get boosted or are we really recommending this for everybody across the board? Is it providing a lot of protection for half of the country while the other half still remains largely unprotected, unvaccinated? So, how does he address that? We can keep talking about adding more layers of protection to already good protection or focus on the other part of this.

SCIUTTO: No question. And as you say, it is a good point. They're trying to follow the science and the process here, right, roll out the plan when they have all of the approvals, et cetera.

John, just quickly, but before we go, you know the politics of this, right? The president is very aware his approval ratings are dropping and the delta surge is part of that. Can you describe the pressure the president feels under right now?

HARWOOD: Jim, getting this pandemic under control is the linchpin of presidential success for Joe Biden right now. His approval ratings stood above for months. He was seen as competent in dealing with COVID. That was the easier part when he could by efficiently rolling out the vaccine, getting people who were willing to take up the vaccine. You saw steady progress and he made that statement about we're getting close to independence around the 4th of July.

Unfortunately, the delta variant and vaccine resistance have combined to put us in this very dire situation that we're in now and so now he's got to reset. He's got to explain again and push harder against those people who are resisting him on vaccines, resisting public health science, resisting what will get the nation out of this nightmare that we're in to try to get us out of that nightmare. That is going to be the critical thing.

We've seen his assessments and his competence on COVID go down. That is a function of circumstances. And he has to get on top of that.

SCIUTTO: Can he pierce those information bubbles though, right? Will folks be listening? It's a big question. John Harwood at the White House, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks so much to both of you.

Well, in this vain, Los Angeles public schools are on the verge of becoming the first major school district in the country to mandate COVID vaccinations for students ages 12 and up, those who attend in- person classes. The district's school board will vote on the measure later today. The mandate is expected to pass. This comes as school districts in other major cities are prioritizing different mitigation efforts. In Detroit, schools are implementing ambitious COVID protocols, including weekly tests for all 40,000 students and faculty, as well as making masks mandatory in the classroom.

Joining me now is Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. Thanks so much for coming on this morning.


SCIUTTO: So, different approaches. Los Angeles mandating vaccines, where you are looking to mandate masks but also relying on a testing program. Why that as opposed to mandating vaccines?

VITTI: Well, the reality is that the negative disproportionate impact that COVID had on the community certainly has led to more fear, distrust and not just about opening schools. We did it last year but gave teachers and students a choice. This year, all of our teachers are back. It looks like maybe 90, 95 percent of our students will be back, but we had to do something more than other school districts in the country. That meant masking, three feet of distance, deep cleaning but also testing.

Right now, there is just too much distrust about and uncertainty about the vaccine in Detroit. We are discussing, considering a vaccine mandate for employees. 72 percent of our employees are vaccinated. We offered up a $500 incentive. So we haven't gotten there yet with mandating it for employees and certainly haven't reached that point for students yet.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Vitti, of course, there is concern because we're seeing increased infections among kids as they go back to school, as was expected, frankly, but, of course, no one wants to see that. And you're seeing a modest rise in hospitalizations. Are you concerned as we get closer to the fall and winter, right, typical flu season, that the changes you're implementing will be able to keep the delta variant under control?

VITTI: I'm certainly concerned. I think we always need to be concerned. I think it is the proactive steps to identify positive cases. As we said earlier, we're not going to ever get to a zero COVID status. It is really about mitigating the spread. And I think as a district, we're doing everything we can. You mentioned masking but the testing is essential because it can identify those asymptomatic cases and asymptomatic outbreaks. With the weekly testing, I believe that we can keep schools open and keep employees and students safe.


But, inevitably, I think, as a district and as a country, we need to talk about the vaccine being mandated for employees and students once communities and stakeholders feel comfortable with that decision.

SCIUTTO: You mentioned your rate among staff being above 70 percent. Detroit, more broadly, lags many other cities in terms of vaccination. So, how have you managed to buck that trend?

VITTI: Well, it started last year. The city health department did a wonderful job of prioritizing our teachers and employees, in general. And then working with our unions, we incentivized employees at $500 up until June 30th to be vaccinated. We ran a lot of awareness campaigns, a lot of sessions on just understanding the facts and benefits of the vaccine. And all that led to 72 percent. Obviously, we've hit a bit of a ceiling now with that number. And we're continuing to create awareness and understanding of it before moving to a mandate.

SCIUTTO: Tell us just before we go, what aid do you need most, right, to make this happen and what -- which aid to this point helped the most in these many COVID, right, relief bills that have been passed?

VITTI: Well, I have to say, I've been doing this for many years always in traditional, a larger school district, from a teacher, principal to a superintendent. And I can say the first time in that 20 years, I feel like we have equitable funding with the COVID relief funding that was passed by the president and the Congress, DPSED, we're receiving $1.2 billion. And without that funding, we couldn't hire more teachers to reduce class size, we couldn't offer the incentive for the vaccine, but most importantly, we couldn't implement weekly testing.

I do not believe that without weekly testing I could feel comfortable that we can mitigate the spread of COVID so we can do that for the next two years. But I think the question is how long are we going to accept this new normal, if you will, of masking and weekly testing, and I think that is the question that you're raising today with the vaccine.

SCIUTTO: It's a big question especially to some folks who won't even accept, right, some of those simple health measures. Dr. Nikolai Vitti, we wish you the best of luck. We know you want to keep kids in school.

VITTI: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SCIUTTO: Well, a major blow overnight to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' push to ban mask mandates in schools. A Florida judge ruled against the governor's appeal Wednesday that allow schools to continue enforcing mask mandates while the case is appealed to a higher level. It's effective immediately.

Some local officials are praising the decision but expressed frustration in the lack of support from the governor as delta has surged in Florida.


CARLEE SIMON, SUPERINTENDENT OF ALACHUA COUNTY, FLORIDA PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Everyone of us who run school districts want to have school for our students and we know that we need to have the masking. And so it is disappointing when we aren't getting that level of support and we have some ironic times that occur and statements that just don't quite jive with the realities that we're trying to navigate. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Well, we heard DeSantis claim that vaccines are just about people themselves, not others, when, in fact, they help protect others too. 13 Florida school districts have now implemented mask mandates on their own without parents' opt-outs, defying an earlier executive order by the governor.

Still to come this hour, as Kentucky hits pandemic records for hospitalizations, we go inside one of its most overwhelmed hospitals.

But next, an escape for some Americans still in Afghanistan, what we're learning about the people the Taliban are letting out and what is says about the U.S. negotiations. A flight just took off.

And right now, House Democrats are marking up President Biden's $3.5 trillion budget proposal. What will make the final cut? We speak with one of the congressman making those budget decisions.



SCIUTTO: This just in, officials tell CNN that the Justice Department is preparing to sue Texas over its new abortion law. That announcement could come as soon as today. The Wall Street Journal first to report this earlier in the day.

Paula Reid joins us now from Washington. Paula, so good to have you. The challenge with this law, as you well know, is that because it empowers private citizens to enforce it as opposed to government officials or institutions, it is not clear who opponents sue. It sounds like the Justice Department believes it could say it illegally interferes with federal interests in some way. I mean, do we know what the legal strategy is here to challenge?

PAULA REID, SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: No. At this point, the Justice Department will only say that they are in tending to file a suit but they're not saying exactly how they're going about this. And as you just noted, this law was designed to deflect legal challenges. That is a feature, not a bug.

When they crafted this particular law, they looked back at how abortion challenges, two restrictive abortion laws have been handled in the past and they really seized on a lot of specific procedural nuance, on loopholes and described this law to make it very difficult for anyone to get what is called standing or the right to sue before the courts. Because, historically, when you wanted to challenge a restrictive abortion law, you would go to the courts and you would argue that the judges needed to stop the enforcement of the law.


And, usually, that enforcement was done by state officials. They were the ones who would implement any punishment. But here in this law, it effectively deputizes any citizen to try to bring a civil action against anyone who aids or abets a woman seeking an abortion after six weeks. So it is unclear right now how exactly you get standing and that is part of the challenge here. And so far, the Justice Department has really been more bark than bite in terms of the ideas, the specific ideas that they have floated.

The attorney general, look, he is under enormous pressure. The Democrats have been calling for the administration to do something. But the ideas that have been floated, so far, the attorney general, Jim, he said that we'll protect access, entrances to abortion clinics, but the problem is right is now abortion providers in the state of Texas have said they're not going to challenge this, they're not willing to take on multiple civil lawsuits. So right now, clinics say they're not even going forward with procedures after six weeks. So it is really unclear how they're going to challenge this.

SCIUTTO: And the law is in effect now. I mean, the end result, at least for now, is women, by and large, cannot get abortions in the second largest state in the union. Paula Reid, so good to have you break it all down.

Well, this is just in. And new video, these are passengers boarding. The first commercial flight has just departed Kabul, Afghanistan. This is the first since the Taliban took over the airport. A U.S. official tells CNN the Taliban had cleared around 200 people. Crucially, this includes American citizens to leave the country. It is not clear how many of those Americans were on the plane. You see there it just took off. It is the first flight carrying foreign passengers out of Kabul since the U.S.-led evacuations ended with the departure of U.S. forces.

Joining me now is Brett Bruen. He's president of the Global Situation Room. He's a former director of global engagement for the Obama White House. Brett, thanks for joining us this morning.


SCIUTTO: So, first question, I mean, this took some time, it took days, it took a certain amount negotiation, it appears. Does the departure of this flight, in your view, signal that we'll see more of them, right, that there could be some sort of working arrangement between the U.S. and the Taliban to get these people out of the country?

BRUEN: I'll tell what you is concerning is we don't have a deal. This was a one-off. The Taliban basically told the Qataris, okay, we'll let you board this plane and depart. But what worries me is that because we have left Afghanistan, we've lost a lot of leverage and the Taliban is going to expect an IOU for each one of these planes.

SCIUTTO: I mean, it sounds like a racket to me, right? I mean, In effect, I know there is a lot of sensitivity to using the term, hostage. But if the Taliban has the power to let flights go or not, and as you say, wants something in return, I mean, isn't that, in effect, what they're doing, is holding those people hostage?

BRUEN: Well, and this is the issue with how the Biden administration has approached our withdrawal and now trying to manage the refugee crisis, is they departed without having put in place the process, the plan and they are trying to negotiate without having the benefit of a lot of leverage or for that matter even anyone on the ground.

And as a recovering diplomat, I can attest to the fact it is really difficult to do these negotiations via Zoom, virtually, over phone, and the administration, unfortunately, just doesn't have those eyes and ears on the ground. And we are going to try, I think, our best to get folks out but it is difficult.

SCIUTTO: You are a veteran of the Obama administration, as are many senior officials -- sorry, the Obama administration, as are many senior officials in the Biden administration now. Of course, Biden himself was vice president. Is it amazing to you, perhaps even frustrating, given the experience of the Obama administration with the Iraq withdrawal in 2011, which then helped lead to the rise of ISIS, U.S. forces had to go back in, to watch the lack of preparation here that you describe?

BRUEN: Yes, it is interesting, Jim, because these were supposed to be the process people. They understood how you develop the runway and don't do this so recklessly. Unfortunately, I think one of the issues with this national security team that Biden has assembled, I have great respect for a lot of them but there is not a lot of diversity, of experience in that situation room. They all sort of come from the same background, the same Washington think tanks, and that I think has led to a lack of challenging some of these assumptions, looking ahead at some of the potential consequences and collateral damage. I think Biden, now that we're out of Afghanistan, really needs to take a hard look at how we got into this situation.

SCIUTTO: Yes, one writer described it as Biden's team of non-rivals in reference to that.


Final question before we go, what you will hear from the Biden administration is that their leverage is money, in effect. That now the Taliban is running a country. Afghanistan doesn't make a lot money. It relies on foreign aid. It needs that aid and, therefore, the U.S. could use that as leverage. Is that a credible path forward?

BRUEN: I don't think so, Jim. Because while we certainly look at it through the lens of traditional diplomacy and say diplomatic recognition, foreign aid, all of these are things that they should want, but let's not forget the Taliban governing for several years without the benefit of either of those and their expectation, quite frankly, may be we don't need it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, listen, Brett good to have you on, your straight talk. Thanks so much for joining us.

BRUEN: You bet. SCIUTTO: Coming up next, what will make the cut as House Democrats mark up, as it is called, President Biden's spending bill and how much is Senator Joe Manchin looming in their thoughts as well as other Democrats raising objections? We're going to get Congressman Dan Kildee, his take, next.