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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Interviewed on EPA Regulations for Transfer of Hazardous Waste and Republican Calls for His Resignation; Prosecution Calling Reply Witnesses in Alex Murdaugh Murder Trial; Department of Energy Issues Low Confidence Assessment that COVID-19 Virus Originated with Lab Leak. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired February 28, 2023 - 08:00   ET



DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Tell us about this process. And is this shipping process safe, Mr. Secretary?

PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: The EPA sees to making sure that all of this is held to an extremely rigorous standard. Those certifications are not something that they just give out. And they work with parties that are very experienced in dealing with exactly these types of materials. Certainly not something that is taken lightly. And I know this is getting direct attention from the highest levels of EPA because it is a concern in the community, and of course people have questions about where this material is going, how it's being disposed of. But again, it's being handled by organizations that are experienced in dealing with exactly this kind of material.

LEMON: A little bit more about the timeline here, because the waste removal was paused over the weekend following complaints from Texas and Michigan officials who say that they didn't know the waste would come to their jurisdictions. Why didn't they know what was coming their way?

BUTTIGIEG: I don't know all the details of the environmental cleanup process. What I know is that there are ways that are set up for states to communicate with each other about this. And there is often a private sector role as contractors who have that extremely rigorous EPA certification step up to do some of that challenging work. This is something that both in responding to disasters like this and in more routine operations happens a lot, which is why it is regulated so tightly, so carefully, and so closely. And EPA has taken over the process that was originally led by Norfolk Southern to make sure that it's going to be handled well.

BUTTIGIEG: Of course, in every situation, politics playing a role in this. Some Republicans are calling for your resignation. The Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn't go that far. Listen to this and then we'll get your response.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Unfortunately, this leadership has cut a sharp contract with the Biden administration's secretary of transportation. Even amidst a catalog of crises on his watch, from this and other recent train derailments to the meltdown in air travel back during the holiday season, Secretary Buttigieg has seemed more interested in doing press coverage for woke initiatives and climate nonsense than in attending to basic elements of his day job.


LEMON: Woke initiatives and climate nonsense. What's your response, Mr. Secretary?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, first of all, Leader McConnell was there celebrating the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, a major infrastructure project that we are funding in his state. I would not call the Brent Spence Bridge a woke initiative.

As for climate, climate is not nonsense. Dealing with climate change is one of the biggest things that people like me and people like him will be remembered for after we're gone.

And third, he is the caucus leader in the Senate. He could be a partner to us right now in making sure that there are fewer rail disasters in the future. As I mentioned earlier, the rail -- the freight rail industry has wielded a lot of power here in Washington. I would love to see Leader McConnell join us in standing up to them.

There are specific things that could be done right now. He is a Senate leader. He could work with us to do things like raise the cap on the fines. Right now, major safety violation that our department discovers, the most we can fine a multibillion-dollar railroad company is in the six figures. He could work with us right now to accelerate the timeline for bringing in tank cars, fortified tank cars that are less likely to spill when there's a derailment. He could work with us right now to give our department a freer hand on things like breaking regulations and regulations on hazardous material transportation. So if he is serious about this, if anyone, Republican or Democrat or independent is serious about this, they can work with us today.

LEMON: Have you reached out to them?

BUTTIGIEG: The rest is just politics. Absolutely. We have made it very clear publicly what Congress can do. I know there is some talk of legislation coming together. We are actively proposing the things that we think need to happen in addition to doing the things that we can do with the powers that we do have, like a program for stepped up inspection along some of the routes that are impacted by these kinds of materials. And something that I re-upped my call for the railroads to do that they could literally do today, which is to join a close call reporting system that protects whistleblowers who spot issues that could lead to accidents. Right now, not one company participates. I have given them until the end of the week to let me know whether they're going to accept my call for them to join this or reject it.

LEMON: I want to make sure that I get as much in as possible. I want to ask you about this, as with the border, there's lots of consternation about going there and seeing firsthand. Now that you have been to East Palestine, you have seen the devastation firsthand, is his decision ultimately, but I have to ask you, do you think the president, President Biden should visit and speak with families there?


BUTTIGIEG: Well, what I know is he has been very concerned throughout this process about what the people of East Palestine are going through. I think also a visit at that level can sometimes have a lot of disruptive effects. It would need to be thought of carefully. But I am certainly glad that I went. Michael Regan, our EPA administrator, has been there twice and I think is preparing for a third visit. That's probably the most cabinet level on the ground presence for a rail disaster in recent memory with good reason, because the people of the community are going through a lot. They need to sew that their administration is working for them, as we have been, with personnel from the EPA, from my department and others on the ground from the first hours of the situation unfolding.

LEMON: While we have you here, more politics to discuss. There is an internal audit of your use of FAA jets for official trips following a request for review by Senator Marco Rubio, also to scrutinize Elaine Chao's private jet travel as transportation secretary. Do you have a response to that?

BUTTIGIEG: Yes. Here's how we handle my travel. The vast majority of the time I travel on commercial airlines and economy class. But there is a portion of the time, I would say about 10 to 20 percent when we use our agency's aircraft. This is not chartering a private jet. This is a government aircraft that is assigned to the FAA. Usually when we use it it's because for me to travel with staff turns out to be cheaper than buying all of those airline tickets. Occasionally it's because of a security or logistical issue. But the number one reason we would use that agency aircraft is that is actually works out to be less expensive for taxpayers than the commercial airline tickets would be. We keep very meticulous records on that, so precisely so that if somebody wants to at it, somebody wants to audit it, it's well documented. So I welcome that independent look so that we can get past the politics of this and make sure everybody understands the facts.

LEMON: So no concerns about this. You welcome it?

BUTTIGIEG: Yes, it's good for it to get an independent look. I won't say anything about the motivations of the senator. I will just say that we are here with the facts, and we'll put forward the math, and I think people will see how we make these decisions, why we make these decisions, and I think it's a good thing for people to understand that.

LEMON: Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thank you.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This morning court is set to resume in the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial. Prosecutors are expected to call reply witnesses. This is after the defense rested its case on Monday. The jury will also visit the family hunting property where Murdaugh's wife and son were killed, and that is rare that the jury is going out of the courtroom. Let's talk about this with Dianne Gallagher. She joins us live from

Walterboro, South Carolina. Interesting, the defense wanted that. The judge granted it. Where are we in all of this?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so Poppy, look, that was something the defense requested that the judge allow the jury to do. They are going to take that trip to the Moselle, the Murdaugh family property where the murders happened on June 7th, 2021. But that's not going to happen until after the prosecution finishes its reply, which will begin in about an hour-and-a-half here at the Colleton County Courthouse behind me. This is after the defense has spent about a week presenting its case, trying to poke holes and create doubt around what the state says happened the night of the murders.

The closing witness was an emotional one, Alex Murdaugh's younger brother John Marvin Murdaugh, who talked about basically what happened around the murders and afterwards during interviews with law enforcement. He described cleaning up the morning after at the dog kennels, making a vow to his nephew Paul who had been killed, that he would find the killers. When asked if that happened, he said no, that he believed that they were still out there.

But they also presented a pathologist and a crime scene expert on the stand, and that crime scene expert went into talking about the weapons that were used, what the lay of the land was like, and how the shooting had to have occurred to once again introduce what's kind of been known as now the defense's two-shooter theory.


TIMOTHY PALMBACH, DEFENSE WITNESS: To me, there is structurally difficult for the same shooter to have two arms, and no practical reason for that to happen. Add to that what I believe happened to the shooter who fired first with the shotgun, and I think it tips in favor of the probability of two shooters.


GALLAGHER: Now, we do know the prosecution says they believe they have about four to five witnesses. Poppy, they think they can get through them all today. Once they do that, the jury will take that trip and we would move on to closing arguments.

HARLOW: Wow, fascinating. Dianne, thank you for the reporting.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Also this morning, the Department of Energy now believes a lab leak was likely the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. That's a low intelligence assessment they are making. We're going to ask the former White House COVID response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, if she agrees with that assessment and what she thinks. That's next.


[08:13:25] COLLINS: New CNN reporting this morning on why the Department of Energy has shifted its assessment on the possible origins of the coronavirus pandemic as the department now believes with low confidence that the virus originated with a lab leak. Three sources tell CNN that was based in part on information about the research that was being conducted at the Wuhan lab, which was studying a coronavirus variant around the time of the outbreak.

But this only deepens the divide among U.S. intelligence agencies over the virus' origins, with the Department of Energy and the FBI saying that it likely came from a lab, while the national intelligence council and four other unidentified agencies did not update their assessment that the virus was the result of a natural exposure. The CIA, we should note, is still undecided.

The former director of the CDC, Dr. Bob Redfield, said that he believed that this was the case, that it was because of a lab leak, nearly two years ago.


ROBERT REDFIELD, FORMER CDC DIRECTOR: I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory escaped.


COLLINS: Joining us now is one of his former colleagues, the former White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, who is also the author of the book "Silent Invasion." Good morning, Dr. Birx. Thank you for joining us. Can you just give us from your perspective how significant it is that the Department of Energy has updated this assessment?

DR. DEBORAH BIRX, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: Well, I take the DOE assessment very seriously. Why? This group that has 17 laboratories. But one of their laboratories is really known for having extraordinary molecular virologists who do this very work, who look at viral mutation over time, they were the ones that were critical in identifying the origin and site of HIV.


So, they're really evolutionary molecular virologists, and we have three years of data now that really shows us how this virus mute moves and mutates. And I think they use that data plus the key evidence about the research to really revise their opinion.

COLLINS: And so even though it's a low confidence assessment, you still think it's significant that they -- that they've gone out of their way to update it?

BIRX: I do, and the reason is low confidence is because there's no transparency about what China was actually working on samples from the laboratory, and most importantly, those early human samples. And let's be realistic about this, we have learned a lot about this virus. And so, we know that in order to have high numbers of hospitalizations, the virus had to be circulating in the community for long periods of time, weeks. And we've seen that over and over again, in the United States, even that original outbreak. And that's because we didn't have tests and we need to get to the place where we're testing for all respiratory diseases.

So, we know what's there and what's not there. Third, I think you referred to Bob Redfield, and I think molecular biologists and biologists that work in the lab, know that if you're working on a Coronavirus, or you're working towards a vaccine, you're growing that virus in tissue culture in cell lines and that virus to adapt that virus to those cell lines. And so, it makes sense that the research was working towards a vaccine against Coronavirus, maybe a whole killed are a live Attenuated Vaccine. And it's all about adapting that viruses and growing it in cell lines. And so, it's very possible these kinds of lab accidents do happen there unfortunate. And that's why all of us who work in the lab are extraordinarily careful.

COLLINS: Yes, but yes, I think actually, they happen more commonly than people generally think, I think this has brought a lot of attention to it. But Dr. Redfield was kind of criticized when he made that comment two years ago, like the idea that it could be a lab-like has gained only traction recently.

BIRX: Yes, and I think that's, you see that throughout this pandemic, that we have vilified individuals who had real questions about the science and the data. And what makes a good scientist is willing to question their own has assumptions, their own perceptions, as data comes in. And I think, once we really understood how this virus circulated, and that there were laboratories working on this very, very similar virus.

That a lab accident is very plausible because viruses have to adapt to their host. And we all know that this virus has infected domestic animals and zoo animals. But it doesn't cause outbreaks among those animals, because it's really adapted to humans in a way that this virus really took time to do. And it's very unusual for a zoonotic virus, as Dr. Redfield said to come out of the box, ready to dramatically infect humans and cause this level of devastation. We're still over 300 Americans dying every day, but across the world, we've lost over 7 million Americans.

And to me, what's really important is we went through this after SARS. And the World Health Organization's develop treaties, we spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars on saying we were ready, and we would prevent the next pandemic. And it happened. So, let's be very clear that what we have done today has failed. And I worry that we haven't put the new things in place that will keep us and protect us from the next pandemic.

COLLINS: Do you think that it would be helpful if they declassified the new intelligence that is around this that has caused the DOE to change its assessment?

BIRX: You know, I think it's important that a group gets together of scientists, particular molecular biologists. And moves past all of the politics and say, what do we really know? What do we know now about this virus, how it mutates, how it spreads through humans? What do we know that China was doing? And it makes total sense that China was working on a vaccine and growing these -- growing these viruses in tissue culture that changes the virus over time? That's what you do in the laboratory. And so, it makes sense. And I think really getting people together.

Now, we're never going to get the data from China. China has not been transparent we saw that, in their recent outbreak. They weren't telling us how many people were actually succumbing to COVID. We knew it was dramatically higher than the numbers they were providing. That's been going on for three years now. And we have to be very clear. China and an actor from they did not learn from SARS. They were not transparent with COVID in 2019. They're not transparent today, in 2023. And we just have to understand that we're not going to change China's behavior and put into place processes and accountability across the globe to ensure that other countries are protected.


COLLINS: But given that, Dr. Birx -- given if you say we're never going to get it from China, are we doing enough now as a country? Is the United States doing enough to prevent this from happening again?

BIRX: No, and just like we learned after 9/11, we have to carve a coalition of like-minded countries that work together and bring the private sector to the table. Because they are the groups that have multinational employees all across the globe. And we need a surveillance system that works with the private sector, to really understand what's happening in countries that are not transparent.

COLLINS: All right, Dr. Birx, that's a scary warning that the United States is not doing enough. But thank you for joining us this morning and tells us is that you do believe this is a significant update from the Energy of Department. We appreciate your time.

BIRX: Thank you, Kaitlan.

HARLOW: Great to hear from her such a big voice during the height of this pandemic. All right, as you prepare your morning coffee or your tea, there is a new health concern about a very popular zero-calorie sweetener. Why couldn't be dangerous? We'll tell you ahead.

LEMON: And some guy named Jake Tapper is going to.

HARLOW: Sit down with another guy?

LEMON: Yes, sit down with another guy, another comedian. Telling the country, you know, why he is telling the country I told you so, I'm talking about Bill Maher. Joe (PH) Jake Tapper is going to join us live.



LEMON: Wow, that is a lot of candidates, up on that wall for Chicago Mayor or Chicago as I was trying to say before I move that. So, today is election day Chicago mayoral primary, a hotly contested race for the mayor and come at Lori Lightfoot is fighting for her political survival against eight challengers. Lightfoot, defied expectations four years ago, becoming the first black woman and first openly gay person to win the race for mayor in Chicago. Let's bring in our CNN Senior Political Commentator, host of The Axe Files and longtime Chicago in David Axelrod. It's actually where we met 2003.


COLLINS: Did you?

AXELROD: Yes, hey, guys.

LEMON: Well just basically we're just -- so, good morning. Hey, what's the weather like there? Oh, you're in Pennsylvania. So.

AXELROD: I'm in Pennsylvania (INAUDIBLE) but it's nice in Chicago. So, I'm told it's nice in Chicago today. Good voting weather.


AXELROD: I hope everybody takes advantage of it.

LEMON: Yes, well, that's why I'm asking because that means usually better weather means a bigger turnout. So, it looks like it could be a run-off in April. What do you make of Lori Lightfoot's chances of being one of the top two contenders in advance, a two advances I should say to that runoff?

AXELROD: Well, that is -- that is the big question of the day, Don, it is seems pretty clear that one of her opponents Paul Vallas, will finish first in the runoff in this primary. And he will move on to the runoff, and the big question is, who will join him in that runoff? And it's not certain that the incumbent mayor of the city, Lori Lightfoot, will be one of those two. She's in a very pitched battle with a couple of other candidates Brandon Johnson, who is a county commissioner, backed by the Local Teachers Union. And Congressman Chuy Garcia, who ran last time, and one of those three is likely to be in the runoff. It may not be the mayor, and we'll have to wait and see.

And here's the hitch, we may not know for weeks, because this could be very, very close for second place. If it is, they may have to wait for all the absentee, are now all the write-in ballots, I should say to arrive. This March 14th deadline for that, if it's posted by election day. So, we'll see, there also could be a recap for that second spot. So, April 4th is the general, half that time may be spent figuring out who the candidates are going to be.

COLLINS: Yes, there's a real chance of her being shut out, we'll see. What happens is we track that. David, what we have you here, you know, also Governor Ron DeSantis new book comes out today. Often, that is what we see candidates do before they declare they're actually candidate for president. But Jeff Zeleny was highlighting something that I thought was really interesting from it. Trump been always talks about his endorsement of DeSantis saying that's what helped boost him. And DeSantis writes in his book, "I don't think Republican primary voters are sheep who simply follow an endorsement from a politician they like without any individual analysis." Really seeming to downplay a particular endorsement that he got. What do you make of that?

AXELROD: Well, I, you know, I think he's rewriting history a little bit people in Florida, I think, remember how instrumental the Trump endorsement was at the time for DeSantis. Trump's not wrong about that we've seen examples around the country and Republican primaries where Trump's endorsement has been meaningful. So, you know, I think DeSantis, he wants to rewrite his origin story here in Florida politics and national politics. But I'll tell you guys, what's amazing to me is the brazenness with which this guy is running his nine campaign.

He just was, he's coming to Chicago, or it just was in Chicago talking to the Fraternal Order of Police there. He's making a national tour around the issue of law enforcement under the guise of trying to attract police to come down to Florida. He's got this book tour. He is what's the subtitle of his book Florida's blueprint for America's revival. This is about as (INAUDIBLE) screen door on a submarine. It's very clear what's going on here, but he says he's not going to announce until due.

LEMON: So, you're saying he's not running? Is that what you're saying?

AXELROD: Yes, right. You know, what's interesting is he's in a position where he's not a candidate. So, there's certain legal requirements --

HARLOW: Right.

AXELROD: -- that he doesn't have to abide by until he's (INAUDIBLE).