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U.S. Energy Department Says COVID-19 Likely Resulted From Lab Leak; 62 Dead In Migrant Shipwreck Off Italian Southern Coast; DeSantis Releases New Book Ahead Of Expected 2024 White House Bid. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired February 27, 2023 - 07:30   ET





Coming up for us there's a new poll and it suggests one thing economists can agree on is that there's no agreement on where the U.S. economy is heading. Our Christine Romans is here to make sense of these varying outlooks.

Also, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis releasing another book this week. Is this a step in his bid for the White House?

And snow in Southern California and tornadoes in the middle of winter. We're tracking this powerful storm as it tears through Oklahoma. Take a look at this -- this new video -- wow -- just in from Norman. Two homes with roofs ripped off and neighbors will now have to pick up the pieces. We are live from Norman, Oklahoma just ahead.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Also this morning, new intelligence has prompted a notable change in the Department of Energy's report on what most likely caused the coronavirus pandemic. The Energy Department now says that a lab leak is the most likely origin, according to this updated report.

But there is some really important context here. Sources tell CNN that the agency says it has, quote, "low confidence" in the assessment. A low-confidence assessment usually means that information is not reliable enough or really kind of just too fragmented to make a more definitive judgment.

The FBI has come to the same conclusion as the Department of Energy with moderate confidence. But several other American agencies believe that the pandemic started with natural transmission, though they also have low confidence in those assessments. The CIA -- it's still undecided.

So, of course, a major question is will we ever know the origin for sure -- something that is obviously vitally important.

CNN's national security reporter Natasha Bertrand and our CNN correspondent David Culver who actually reported from the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic are both joining us this morning. No two better to talk to this -- people to talk to this about.

Natasha, when we get this update from the Department of Energy the major question that I had and that a lot of people have is what changed? Why are they now making this assessment even if it is with low confidence?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: It's a great question, Kaitlan, and the bottom line is that we just don't know what new intelligence the Department of Energy has gleaned to here to make them change their opinion, right, because previously they did seem like they were undecided. Now it appears that they have shifted their assessment to a low-confidence assessment that this virus did originate in a lab.

However, as you mentioned at the top there, it is a low-confidence assessment and that indicates that the intelligence really was not strong enough for them to make any kind of more definitive judgment about where this virus actually came from.

But it is notable because it just adds, right, to the split that we're seeing in the intelligence community about where this virus originated. And right now it seems like we just don't have any good answers as to where this came from primarily because the U.S. has had a lot of difficulty in getting China to cooperate with this investigation, right, without that kind of on-the-ground presence by the U.S. intelligence community and by scientists in Wuhan where this virus is believed to have started.

It's really difficult for the intelligence community to have any kind of real kind of smoking gun as to where this virus originated short of, say, intercepted communications, for example, which the IC does not seem to have at this moment.

HARLOW: David, you went. I mean, you are one of the few people who has actually gone to that lab in Wuhan. Can you speak about how difficult --


HARLOW: -- it was to get any information there and how you think about that visit given this new information?

CULVER: Poppy, three visits to Wuhan since the start of this outbreak for us.

And I look at some of the video that you've been playing and you can see just how many security guards are often out front of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That's one of actually two labs that is suspected as a possible location from which the virus originally leaked from; the other being the Wuhan CDC.

And you've got so much security there and the presence there, perhaps more secure than any other office building or government location here in D.C. and that shows just how sensitive of an issue this is for the Chinese.

And when we would go, for example, we would have, in the lobby of the hotel that we'd be staying at, at least half a dozen security agents who as soon as they would see us would continue to follow us out the door and then around the city in Wuhan -- a city, by the way, that's larger than New York. You're talking about 11 million people.

And trying to get information there was next to impossible. As soon as we would get close, of course, security would wave us along. I made more than half a dozen attempts to talk to some of the scientists involved at the WIV -- the Wuhan Institute of Virology. You don't get a response beyond saying we'll consider your request. And then after that they stopped responding altogether.


It is interesting to note, though, the location. If you look at the circumstantial evidence it is overwhelming. So while the concrete science data may not be there and, as Natasha pointed out, there's no smoking gun, the circumstantial evidence is there, and that is mostly looking at the geography here.

We were at the Huanan Seafood Market. That is the place that is believed to be the original epicenter and the original outbreak location. That place was secured as soon as we were there in January of 2020 and remained that way until this day really. They're starting to reopen it slowly.

But then you look at where the Wuhan Institute of Virology is compared to that market. It's about a 30-minute drive. Take the CDC -- the Wuhan CDC lab. That's two blocks from that market. So that in and of itself, Poppy, is one of those things you have to look at and it raises a lot of questions to this day.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: It's interesting that you are saying this because if you -- I remember the beginning of this and --

CULVER: Right.

LEMON: -- we were doing all these diagrams and maps about where could it have started. And there was a pangolin involved and do you --

CULVER: Right.

LEMON: -- remember all of those things? So it's gone from --

CULVER: Oh, yes.

LEMON: It's gone from the market to now the lab, the lab to the market, and back and forth, and back and forth.

And even this weekend the national security advisor Jake Sullivan is saying that -- you know, that the intelligence community remains divided on the matter.

I am just wondering what China is saying right now about this Natasha, because, again, there's been so much back and forth about how this started.

BERTRAND: Yes. Well, they are actually responding just this morning, saying that it is still in their opinion very unlikely that this emerged from a lab. But, of course, the WHO, the Biden administration, Western governments writ-large have said look, it is impossible really for us to get a definitive explanation here without your full cooperation.

And I just want to read you a sentence from the 2021 intelligence community report that found really no definitive evidence either way primarily because of Beijing's lack of cooperation. It said, "The IC and the global scientific community lacks clinical samples or a complete understanding of data from the earliest COVID-19 cases. China's cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19."

So again, without this kind of on-the-ground analysis by the U.S., by Western governments, by really anyone who wants a definitive explanation here of what happened, it's going to be really difficult to come to that final judgment guys.

HARLOW: Can we --

COLLINS: And David, everyone --

HARLOW: Go ahead.

COLLINS: Yes. Everyone wants to know what to --


COLLINS: -- prevent this from going -- from happening again.

CULVER: Yes, yes. I mean -- and so in order to know that you'd like to know the origins of this. But it's become so politicized within China -- one of the most sensitive issues -- that it's very unlikely that you'll ever get to that level of cooperation that Natasha was talking about.

I mean, the Chinese look at this as something that has become so severely politicized and become a geopolitical issue from the U.S. perspective that they've launched their own propaganda campaign against it that has been relentless.

I mean, they point to a lab outside of Washington, D.C. at Fort Detrick, that they say yes, there is a lab leak we're talking about but it's one in the U.S. And then the U.S. Army -- one spokesperson for the Minister of Foreign Affairs in China had said -- brought it over to Wuhan in 2019. No evidence of that. And, of course, that's just something that they've been putting out into the narrative to muddy the waters, to sow doubt, and deflect blame here.

That cooperation that you talk about in trying to get international scientists together -- they did have a field study. It happened in January of 2021. The WHO went there and yes, as the Chinese pointed out this morning, they said it's highly unlikely this started from a lab in Wuhan.

But the WHO also asked to go back for a phase two. The Chinese said that is not going to happen. They denied that request.

And even early on, as the WHO field team was there on the ground in Wuhan, guys, they were denied a lot of the data firsthand.

So imagine trying to investigate a crime scene -- and this was pointed out to me by one of the investigators -- and you're sent there a year later after it was heavily sanitized and essentially wiped clean.

LEMON: Yes. Obviously, there's an origin of it but it could have been -- look, there could be a number of things but it could have started in the lab and then the market could have been a spreader so to speak --


LEMON: -- maybe into the community. Someone carried it from the lab to there. So we'll -- hopefully we'll figure it out -- hopefully.

CULVER: Maybe. I don't know.

COLLINS: All right. Natasha and David, thank you both for that. Great conversation. It really is an interesting look.

The intelligence leaders will actually be testifying before Congress --


COLLINS: -- in about a week and they are definitely going to get asked about all of this.

LEMON: Thank you, guys.

Well, this morning, 62 migrants are dead and dozens more feared missing after a shipwreck in the rough seas off of southern Italy. The vessel broke apart after hitting rocks off the coast of Calabria. Migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Iran were on board. Rescuers say around 80 people were saved from the water, clinging to pieces of the wooden boat.


The Calabria region president says that the tragedy could have been prevented.


ROBERTO OCCHIUTO, CALABRIA REGION PRESIDENT (through translator): It is a day of grief for Calabria. This is a struggle that falls into a general indifference. Calabria is a region that welcomes people. Last year we welcomed 18,000 migrants. But we can't be abandoned by Europe. This type of tragedy should have been avoided the day before and not lived how we are living it today and how we will live it tomorrow. (END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Many of the migrants were fleeing very difficult conditions, including poverty, violence, and war.

HARLOW: Well coming up, is the economy primed for robust growth or a recession right around the corner? Economists cannot agree. Christine Romans, though, is going to help us understand where we are.



HARLOW: OK, take a look here. You've got two scenes. This is the Midwest. You've got Eu Claire with some rain in Chicago as well. Snow in Eu Claire this morning.

This is this big storm that has been just barreling across the country. We'll keep a close eye on it. Just devastation in Oklahoma, in particular.

Meantime, the consensus about the U.S. economy right now seems to be confusion, right? Everyone's confused. A new national survey of economists shows that the outlook for the future varies widely from recession to robust U.S. growth.

CNN anchor and chief business correspondent Christine Romans is here.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I've been doing this a long time. I've never seen such a diverse set of forecasts for the economy. It's really wild and I think it sort of vindicates what we talk about every day here -- how confusing so many of these numbers are.

I mean, you look at -- these are business economists, so these people work for companies and big think tanks and their job is to inform corporate America about what's happening in the economy.

This is their forecast for GDP for this year -- 2023 should be that first one there, right? Down 1.3 percent and that a recession -- a recession that hurts -- to up 1.9 percent, which is meaningful growth. And for next year, barely moving. A stall in the economy to a robust 2.6 percent.

So you really have the most divergent bunch of statistics I think I've ever seen in my career.

HARLOW: Tomorrow is a huge day at the Supreme Court.

ROMANS: It is.

HARLOW: Tell us why.

ROMANS: President Biden's student loan forgiveness. This was a campaign promise kept, right? He was going to forgive $20,000 in student loan debt for people who meet a certain income range. This is what he said was so important about that student loan forgiveness -- listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All this means is people can start to finally crawl out from under that mountain of debt to get on top of their rent and their utilities. To finally think about buying a home, or starting a family, or starting a business. And by the way, when this happens the whole economy is better off.


ROMANS: Well, when this happens -- it's more like if this happens because the Supreme Court has to take this up this week. It has been -- it has been challenged here on constitutional grounds.

What is really interesting to me is that for almost 40 months now the student loan payments have been paused and that has been really important for a lot of -- a lot of families -- a lot of people who are really living close to the -- to the budget, right, where the money doesn't last the month.

At the end of this process it could be the Supreme Court makes this decision and then those Supreme Court -- those payments -- student loan payments have to pick again. That could be happening at a time when we're looking at a lot of economic uncertainty this summer. So it's really a crucial moment here for the president's student loan paydown plan.

COLLINS: Yes. OK, so they're hearing arguments tomorrow.


COLLINS: Forty -- this is important to 43 million people --

ROMANS: Exactly.

COLLINS: -- who have student loans, including me.


COLLINS: But when it -- when they're going to hear this tomorrow we're not actually going to find out until June or July --


COLLINS: -- what the actual decision is, right?

ROMANS: Yes. We'll find out for sure this summer.


ROMANS: And we'll be looking for any kinds of indications. Look at what kind of questions the justices are asking about this particular thing. I will say that the energy -- or the education department has been working on income-based repayment changes and asking for feedback from the public on those. So there are some things the White House is trying to do -- some fixes behind the scenes -- some simplification that I think will matter a lot to people with student loan debt.

But there is more than a trillion and a half dollars in student loan debt in this country. It is a big, dangerous bubble. And even if there is this student loan forgiveness plan that the president has here, if the Supreme Court were to allow it, you still need to talk about what's the problem that made all that debt in the first place and how we're going to fix it going forward. So this is a conversation that's really still just beginning.

LEMON: And it affects people who can't afford it the most.


LEMON: Poor people, minorities.


LEMON: Just --

HARLOW: Yes, that's exactly right.

LEMON: -- saddled with debt. There are others but for the most part -- the majority.


LEMON: Thank you.

ROMANS: Nice to you see, guys.

LEMON: Good to see you as well.

COLLINS: Always good to see you.

LEMON: So, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis releasing a new book this week. Is this an unofficial launch to his much-anticipated bid for the White House?




MICHAEL CHE, CAST MEMBER, NBC "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is releasing a new memoir called "The Courage to Be Free" even though the courage to be free sounds like a Black history book he's banned.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: That's right. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis releasing a new book and it comes ahead of a highly anticipated 2024 bid for the White House. And just in this morning, DeSantis releasing a video that seems like a presidential campaign ad without actually being one -- watch.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: Florida is proof positive that we the people are not destined for failure.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If DeSantis wins he has made a promise and he's making good on a promise.

DESANTIS: Florida is leading the nation. We are the nation's fastest- growing state. We rank number one in education freedom. We are number one in economic freedom.


LEMON: So, Steve Contorno has been reporting on all of this and he joins us now. The music is a little crazy there but Steve, we'll talk about the -- all of that. But the point with this book and this new video -- that's the question. When will he announce his run? Not is he going to but when will he?

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Exactly, Don. You don't release a book like this unless you are seriously considering running for president, and all of the steps he is taking lately seem to point in that direction as well.

Last week he held what looked like campaign rallies in Pennsylvania, in Staten Island, just outside of Chicago. Last weekend he huddled with a bunch of his political advisors and donors in Palm Beach where the subtext of the entire event was his political and presidential aspirations.

And now this book comes out tomorrow. He's got a whole book tour planned so he's going to be across the country rolling it out. He's already promoting it on conservative media. Really, you're seeing the sort of cogs working on what a presidential campaign might look like.


HARLOW: I was, Steve, reading your great piece last night about DeSantis' book that he wrote more than a decade ago, which was interesting. It was like basic -- not really about him. It was like it was a sort of step-by-step critique of President Obama's ascent to the presidency.

But here is your line that struck me. You wrote, "It's an instructive window into DeSantis' governing beliefs which, at times, seem to collide with his current leadership style but may soon inform his platform as he seeks higher office."

What does it tell us? CONTORNO: Yes, and that book was called "Dreams From Our Founding Fathers," which obviously sounds a lot like President Obama's memoir "Dreams From My Father." And it was a full-throated defense of the Tea Party, of limited government, of separation of powers. It was really critical of President Obama for -- you know, he said overreaching and using the bully pulpits to force his political views on people and using executive powers in ways that we have not seen before in the country -- and that was his case.

You know, flash forward more than a decade later and Gov. DeSantis has often led in that style. He is using the power of the executive branch to force his will on a lot of state institutions and businesses here. He was critical of Obama -- the sort of messianic language around Obama. And the last ad of his presidential -- or excuse me, his campaign for governor last year was a suggestion that God made him on the eighth day.

So really, you see the evolution from someone who was very committed to sort of constitutional limited principles --


CONTORNO: -- to what he has become, which is very much in the Trump style of using as much of the executive power as you have to get your agenda across.

COLLINS: And obviously, one big question that remains about DeSantis the Republicans have is what he looks like on the national stage. How he's tested there.

A main audience for this book Steve also seems to be donors, which is going to be something that all these Republicans who are running for president will be going after. He talks about how his view on corporations -- how they should respond to what he refers to as this woke culture. Obviously, we saw what he did with Disney and the way he's basically framing Florida.

What did you read into that over how he handled that and how that translates to what he would look like on the national stage?

CONTORNO: Well, when you talk about donors, Kaitlan, it certainly hasn't scared any of them away so far. We've seen some of the biggest donors in the Republican Party from the last midterm cycle already pouring money into his campaign. He has received $4.5 million from three different donors in the last month alone. He has $71 million left over from his previous campaign. A lot of that came in the form of checks that were greater than $100,000.

So as far as scaring off the titans of industry who are -- who might be a little perturbed about what he did with Disney, so far we're not seeing that in terms of how much money is rolling into his campaign. In fact, this past weekend in Palm Beach, like I said, a lot of these people were huddled up with him right in Trump's backyard. These are people who gave to Trump in previous cycles now aligning themselves with DeSantis as he ramps up his activity.

LEMON: All right, Steve Contorno. Thank you very much, sir. Appreciate it.

CNN THIS MORNING continues right now.


FRANCES TABLER, RESCUED FROM HOME AFTER TORNADO: I got up and then the wind just threw me back, and I'm screaming. It was like a blizzard inside the house with all the debris flying. And I was screaming for my kids because they were in their bedrooms. I didn't know if they were hurt or anything.


COLLINS: Just awful to hear that. It's the worst feeling to wake up to.

Good morning, everyone.

That is Oklahoma City where tornadoes, floods, and more than six feet of snow. We are seeing a destructive winter storm that is wreaking havoc as it moves east. We're going to take you live to Oklahoma where a powerful tornado touched down, as you just heard from that woman there.

HARLOW: Plus, there is growing fear that China may sell weapons. So, lethal aid to Russia to help turn the tide in Ukraine. What we're now hearing from the head of the CIA.

LEMON: And where did COVID actually come from? The White House is responding to a new U.S. intelligence report that points the finger at an accidental lab leak in China.

COLLINS: We'll get to that in a moment. But we're going to start this morning with the massive winter storm that is unleashing extreme weather as it tears across the United States. Multiple tornadoes touched down overnight in Oklahoma, in Kansas. One of them ripped through the city of Norman just south of Oklahoma City. It shredded homes, picked up cars and tossed them.

The storm pummeled Southern California with huge amounts of snow and rain. Some places were buried under more than six feet of snow.