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What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?; Interview With Former Acting CDC Director Dr. Richard Besser; Remembering 9/11; Vaccine Mandates. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired September 10, 2021 - 15:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Brand-new hour. Thanks for staying with us. I'm Victor Blackwell.

Have at it. That's the message from President Biden today, as Republican governors begin their legal pushback against his new vaccine mandate. Now, the new rules will apply to the workplaces of an estimated 100 million Americans, federal workers, health care staff, employees of large companies.

Now, the governors of Texas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, they have vowed to use every resource they have to take this mandate to the courts. But the White House says expect it to be enforced in a matter of weeks. More than a third of adults in the U.S. are still not fully vaccinated.

And we know it's the unvaccinated who are overwhelming hospitals across the country.

CNN chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny is with me now.

Jeff, so, companies could face thousands of dollars in fines per employee if they do not comply. Tell us about how the White House plans to enforce all this.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Victor, the Labor Department could impose fines of nearly $14,000 per infraction, which, as you said, would be per employee.

Now, there are many questions about the enforcement of this, but it does fall under the OSHA Act. Of course, that is a federal law, program, department designed to keep workers safe. And that's why the White House believes they are on solid legal ground here.

They say that this would protect workers from grave danger. It's a law about a half-century-or-so old. So we will see how all that plays out. But the president clearly believes that he is on solid footing here. He essentially said have at it to these Republican governors who are threatening a lawsuit.

But, beyond that, this is going to take some time to work out. It's going to take the Labor Department in the next few weeks to issue this emergency rule. So we are talking several weeks or even months for this to be enacted.

But, before that, the president is going to require all federal workers, as we know, to get vaccinated. They have some 75 days to complete this. So it does raise the question. This is a change in policy for the president.

For the last several months, he's been saying that he did not believe mandates were the way to really tame this pandemic. He changed course because the virus simply has kept spreading and he does not see another option out there.

But speaking of option, Victor, we also got a sense of what this administration is thinking in terms of flying. Of course, you do not have to be vaccinated to fly. So the head of the COVID task force, Jeff Zients, was asked about that earlier this morning. Let's take a listen to what he said.


JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: As to travel, we're taking further action, as you know, to double the fines for non- compliance of masking on airlines. So that's a TSA action that was announced yesterday.

And, overall, I think we have a very strong track record that shows we're pulling available levers to acquire vaccinations and we're not taking any measures off the table.


ZELENY: So not taking any measures off the table, but, for now, vaccinations are not necessarily on the table or expected to be implicated soon.

But, Victor, at the end of this week, this certainly is the most aggressive steps President Biden has taken to try and tame the pandemic. You can bet most of this will end up in court -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Yes, requiring testing to fly domestically, as we heard from Dr. Jonathan Reiner last hour, that could change some minds.

Jeff Zeleny for us there at the White House, thanks so much.

President Biden's new vaccine requirements could affect as many, as I said, as 100 million American workers. So far, we have seen a mixed reaction from the business community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable both welcomed the president's action. Some business owners, though, have voiced concerns over the burden they say that this mandate will bring.

CNN's economics and political commentator Catherine Rampell joins me now.

So, as this was going on, as the president was delivering these remarks, you tweeted out: "Hallelujah. It's beyond time."

Explain why.


CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I wish he had done this months ago. I'm glad he did it yesterday.

But more vaccination mandates are exactly what this country needs to save lives and to save livelihoods to get the economy back on track.

BLACKWELL: Now, what about that element that Jeff mentioned there at the White House, that the White House had said that this is not our role, this is not something we think we should do or need to do, and now they have flipped on that?

RAMPELL: Well, I think a few things have changed.


RAMPELL: One is the Delta variant, right? I mean, we have this much more transmissible version of the virus that has put people's lives at risk. And two is that we know that the people who are holdouts at this point don't seem to be persuadable. It seemed like, initially, maybe you could encourage people to get the shot. You could have these lotteries. And that, for example, would incentivize people to go out and get shots.

But the people who have had months and months and months and are still refusing to get the shot, it seems like the only lever still available are requirements of some kind.

BLACKWELL: But there are still levers out there, as we heard from Jeff Zients there at the White House, potentially requiring testing. We have heard from other medical experts that you should not be able to fly or take trains unless you are vaccinated and can prove it.

If this is the full-court press, why not press that?

RAMPELL: I would love to see those actions as well. I agree.

I think that the White House should be using every tool in its arsenal to make sure that people get vaccinated. And that could mean, among other things, targeting employers. And, of course, there are carve- outs in this as well.


RAMPELL: Employers with fewer than 100 workers do not have to abide by this vaccination or testing requirement. And I have heard questions about why that is.

Usually, OSHA doesn't have carve-outs for health and safety requirements, because they say, if it's a hazard in a big business, it's a hazard in a small business.

BLACKWELL: So, why do you think that is, then? RAMPELL: I suspect it has to do with, well, A the political

palatability of it, are they going to get a lot of pushback from small businesses, and, B, the cost.

One of the tests that they would have to meet in issuing a regulation like this is how economically feasible it is. So maybe they think bigger businesses could potentially absorb the costs of this testing. We don't know what the rule says yet. To be clear, it hasn't come out. We don't know if employers are going to have to deal with that surveillance testing cost.

Probably, they will. I assume that they will. But we don't know what the language is. If, in fact, employers do have to absorb more cost, maybe they figure big companies can absorb it more easily than small companies.

BLACKWELL: Let me ask you about big companies.

This trade group that represents General Mills, Procter & Gamble, and others released a statement: "Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, government has often failed to implement well-intentioned policy. As with other mandates, the devil is in the details. Without additional clarification for the business community, employees' anxieties and questions will multiply."

Logistics for even a company as large as Procter & Gamble or one that has 100 employees, that's going to be a major challenge.

RAMPELL: Yes, they will have to figure out how they're going to implement this.

But, again, I think this is the right course of action. I think these businesses know it's in their interests to have their employees safe, so they don't have to worry about shutdowns, they don't have to worry about scaring off customers, et cetera.

And, in fact, I think a lot of companies will be relieved that they now have big, bad government to blame for an action that they may have wanted to take, but worried about taking, because it might alienate their workers or alienate their customers.

So, in some sense, I think this will be a relief to firms because the heat is no longer on them to make this very polarizing decision. They get the benefit of having to require their workers to be vaccinated to have a safer workplace and, hopefully, a more fluidly operating business, without having to take the heat for making that very controversial decision.

BLACKWELL: And, of course, as you said, we got to wait for more of the specifics.

Catherine Rampell, thank you.

RAMPELL: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: All right, let's bring in now Dr. Richard Besser. He is the former acting director of the CDC and the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Doctor, good to be with you.

Let's start here with just the scope of the opposition, because it's something that was brought up in the last hour, that this is not one- half of the country vs. one-half of the country on the pro and the opposition to vaccines and mandates.

This is a small minority that we're talking about that's pushing back in holding out.


We're seeing across the country that 75 percent of adults have received at least one dose of vaccine. And so this is not the majority of people. It's a small group of people who are pushing back here.

But it baffles me as to why we're seeing this pushback. When you look at new data that CDC has put out, the states with the lowest rates of vaccination have four times the rate of children visits to the emergency room, four times the rate of children's hospitalizations.

So, in a sense, you see states that are that are fighting for the right to keep their children in harm's way. And, as a pediatrician and a parent, I just don't understand that, when it's clear we have a way to really get this pandemic under control.


Yes. And the breaking news just a few minutes ago that the schools in Florida will not be allowed to enforce these mask mandates, at least as long as the case in -- goes through the courts there in the state.

Let me ask you about the tone of the president's remarks yesterday. There was Professor Gostin, who was with me at the top of the last hour, who said that this should not be something through which people are scolded, that you want to nudge, although it seems like the White House is beyond nudging people to get vaccinated.

Let's play a bit of the president's remarks and then talk about the tone.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The unvaccinated overcrowd our hospitals, are overrunning the emergency rooms and intensive care units.

We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.


BLACKWELL: What's your assessment of the president's tone and the audience of this? Was this directed toward the unvaccinated, or was it a speech for those who are vaccinated and frustrated with the direction of the country as we look at these poll numbers that have come out?

BESSER: Yes, I think it was directed more at those who are frustrated.

And I think it's still really important to keep up the efforts to meet people where they are, to understand each person's concerns and try and address those. And the individuals in our country who have not gotten vaccinated are not monolithic. There are different reasons.

When you look at the rates of vaccination here in New Jersey, a very high vaccination, state, 75 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, in the town I'm in of Princeton, a predominantly white community at 79 percent. In Trenton, where I volunteer as a pediatrician, it's 55 percent.

And that, I think, has a lot to do with it with a long history of mistreatment by the black community by the medical establishment. And you need to address those concerns in a real way.

I think putting mandates in place, though, will move some people who are movable, people who are on the fence, haven't been really excited about getting vaccinated, but with the requirements in place for work, if we keep up the effort to reach people where they are.

I'm excited to see that one of the things the president called for is that the requirement that businesses will give people paid time off to get vaccinated. For some people, that's very important, because there is no sick time to take to do that. That will be a real plus.

But I wouldn't give up on anyone on this.


BESSER: I was encouraged to see the increase in uptake in some of the Southern states that were hit the hardest this summer.

Let's meet people where they are, treat with respect, and help people roll up their sleeves.

BLACKWELL: Well, as you point out the racial disparity in vaccinations, reporters have certainly brought us the stories and specific anecdotes of people who are in states that don't have black -- high black percentages who are holding out for political reasons as well.

Dr. Richard Besser, thank you so much.

BESSER: Thank you, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, remembering 9/11 this weekend.

Joseph Pfeifer, he was the first fire chief to arrive at the World Trade Center on September 11. He's going to join us to look back on the day as we approach the 20th anniversary. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BLACKWELL: President Biden has a message for the Republican governors who are threatening to sue his administration over new vaccine mandates:



Look, I am so disappointed that particularly some Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities. This is -- this is -- we're playing for real here. This isn't a game.


BLACKWELL: My colleague Jake Tapper, anchor of "THE LEAD" and "STATE OF THE UNION," is with me now.

Jake, good to have you.

Let's start here with these Republican governors, who are in this interesting position in which, on one hand, they're slamming the administration, saying that this is interfering with private sector, with businesses.

On the other hand, many of these same governors have been refusing to allow these businesses to require masks, to require vaccines. This smacks of hypocrisy.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It sure does.

I mean, it how you try to thread the needle on saying that what President Biden is doing, stepping aside from constitutional issues, just talking about it as a principle, the idea of telling businesses what they can and cannot do, how somehow that is offensive, if he's trying to mandate testing or vaccines, but the instruction by Republican governors to tell school districts that they cannot take steps for safety, such as masking, or telling businesses that they cannot require masks, I mean, it's entirely inconsistent.


And, really, a lot of this seems to be rather performative about trying to appeal to the Republican base, and not about what is in the best health interests of the citizens of these individual states.

Now, look, you can make a constitutional argument, a principled argument that you don't think that, under the Commerce Clause, the Interstate Commerce Clause, that the president has the right to do this or that it oversteps OSHA -- OSHA's regulatory authority, and that's fine. Courtrooms will hear those arguments. But beyond that is the idea of, what are you as a leader doing to try

to end the pandemic? And, quite frankly, there are exceptions to this, but there are a lot of governors, Republican governors, that are -- actually seem to be more hindrance than help when it comes to trying to save their populations.

BLACKWELL: Yes, Governor Hogan, in Maryland, Governor Justice in West Virginia often trying to get out to get people to get vaccinated.

I want to talk with you about your documentary that is airing here on CNN on Sunday night, "What Went Wrong in Afghanistan."

Of course, we have all watched the heartbreaking pictures of the withdrawal. But the scope of the special and really the answer to the question is far broader than that. So let's take a look. And then we will talk.


TAPPER: Afghanistan was the war that there was worldwide support for. There was goodwill for it in a way. NATO invoked the article, so that all members were behind to help the United States for the first and only time in history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The council agreed that an armed attack against one or more of the allies in Europe or in North America shall be considered an attack against them all.

TAPPER: What could have been done differently, with the benefit of 20 years of experience?


Right after the 9/11 attacks, I would have made a decision inside the U.S. government to do nothing substantive for a year. What I mean by nothing, no bombing, no strikes, et cetera. I would have gone around the world as the aggrieved party and built up a firm coalition for what ought we do about al Qaeda.

I would have done a mass effort to train Americans in Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Dari to get ourselves ready to do something that we knew would be very, very difficult.

TAPPER: I can't think of any president that would just, OK, let's take a year and wouldn't be impeached.


TAPPER: I mean, the bloodlust was so strong.

MCCHRYSTAL: I freely admit it. I know it would have been a hard -- almost impossible case to make. But I still think that's what we should have done.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLACKWELL: Jake, I have only seen a couple of clips as you have been promoting this, and the people have you spoken with seem to be extraordinarily candid.

TAPPER: It's really remarkable.

And a lot of what they're saying -- that was General McChrystal, obviously. We spoke to eight of the 11 commanding generals, and all of them have been thinking a great deal, especially in the last few months, as you might imagine, about what went wrong, about what they could have done differently, about what the United States could have done differently.

And, obviously, General McChrystal there with a very interesting idea, one that goes against everything that I think it would be publicly acceptable, but the idea that the United States should have done this smarter, not quicker, smarter.

It's a really interesting way to think about how this could have been a more successful endeavor. And there's a lot of that from the generals throughout this documentary.

One of the things that it occurred to me while reporting on this was the degree to which commanders -- and this came actually from a veteran that we interviewed for the documentary. He talked about, how can it be that everybody got A's for their work, but the war got an F?

And there's something to be said about the fact that people in Afghanistan would get promoted and get medals for saying that they had succeeded in building this school or training this group of Afghan troops, when, in reality, what they did may have not actually accomplished anything.

But you can't get promoted or get a medal for being candid and being honest in the military. You get a metal for achieving something and checking something off on a piece of paper.

So, I mean, I do hope that this documentary makes people in the military, people who run the military think about the incentive structure that they have in the Pentagon and how much is about succeeding for the mission, as opposed to succeeding for an individual.

BLACKWELL: Smarter, not quicker.

Jake Tapper, good to have you.

TAPPER: Thanks, Victor.

BLACKWELL: I will hand it over in about 35 minutes. Thank you.

TAPPER: All right, good to see you, buddy.

BLACKWELL: Likewise.

[15:25:00] All right, be sure to join Jake as he asks the tough questions about "America's Longest War: What Went Wrong in Afghanistan." The new CNN special report begins Sunday at 9:00 p.m.

And as America marks 20 years since the attacks on 9/11, I will speak to the battalion chief who was the first on the scene when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.


BLACKWELL: It'll be 20 years tomorrow since the attacks on September 11.