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Erin Burnett Outfront

Police Chief Warns Extremist Groups Eyeing Biden Speech, Want to "Blow Up the Capitol and Kill as May Members as Possible"; Police Chief: 10,000 Trump Supporters Entered Capitol Grounds During Attack, About 800 Breached Building; Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) Discusses About the Threat of Blowing Up the Capitol in the Upcoming President Biden State of the Union; Trump Plans to Repeat False Election Claims at CPAC; U.S. Carries Out Airstrikes on Iran-Backed Militia Groups;. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired February 25, 2021 - 19:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WOLFBLITZER. You can tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

Erin Burnett OUTFRONT starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, a bone-chilling new security threat now tied to the State of the Union talk of blowing up the Capitol by the same people who took part in the deadly insurrection.

Plus, Trump 2.0, tonight Republicans kicking off their largest gathering since the election and they have picked Trump to headline it. Tonight, we are learning he is looking for revenge.

Plus, wage wars demand for a $15 federal minimum wage could threaten the COVID relief bill. Should Democrats demand 15 or bust? Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, a chilling threat. The acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief telling lawmakers that some of the extremist groups involved in storming the Capitol are preparing for another attack and this one even deadlier.


YOGANANDA PITTMAN, ACTING U.S. CAPITOL POLICE CHIEF: We know that members of the militia groups that were present on January 6th have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible with a direct nexus to the State of the Union.


BURNETT: Wow. "They want to blow up the Capitol." That is the quote. Now, there is not a set date yet for President Biden's State of the Union, but the fact that these are the same people who participated in the deadly insurrection, talking about a very specific event and a plan really should stop us all in our tracks.

It comes as we're learning the number of people who stormed the Capitol that day was much bigger than previously known. Acting Police Chief Pittman revealing there were more than 10,000 rioters who entered the Capitol grounds, 800 of them breaching security at the Capitol building itself.

And according to Congressman Tim Ryan who was in that hearing today and will be my guest in just a moment, the U.S. Attorney's Office is now looking at allegations that members of Congress or their staff gave tours to rioters before the attack. An attack that was bigger and more violent than what officials were prepared for.


REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): A witness insurgents beating police officers with fists, pipes, sticks, bats, metal barricades and flag poles. These criminals came prepared for war.

CARNEYSHA MENDOZA, U.S. CAPITOL POLICE OFFICER: I received chemical burns to my face that still have not healed to this day.


BURNETT: These are the words of a Capitol Hill Police Officer and the former Capitol Police Chief, members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans have heard this testimony about an insurrection that was incited by President Trump and yet tonight a growing number of Republicans in Congress refused to even acknowledge that Trump's lie that the election is stolen is exactly that, a lie.

CNN speaking to more than two dozen House and Senate Republicans, many of them refusing to speak the truth and called Trump out even now.

Manu Raju is OUTFRONT with this new reporting. Manu, these lies from Republicans still blindly defending Trump, even more stunning since we're now being told there's a threat of another attack, tied to a specific event and incredibly specific in its premise.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And a lot of these Republicans are in the corner of Donald Trump, making very clear that the former president still has a commanding hold on this party. So for all the talk of this party being divided, there's really only a small fraction of Republicans who either speaking out or calling out Donald Trump or say to the party should move on from the Trump era.

A wide variety of them are either saying that there's something there to Donald Trump's lie that the election was stolen, neither are saying that there are irregularities that need to be investigated or saying that there's nothing to push back on. They would not say that Donald Trump should not say that the election is stolen because we expect him to do just that when he goes before the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend. The conservative activist group just in the last few days when Donald

Trump has emerged, he still is contended that the election was stolen. But that still is something that he could say this weekend, bringing the issue back into the fore. And the number of Republicans are simply saying, look, it's time to move on, time to focus on something else, but they will not say directly that the election was not stolen. We saw that happened over the weekend with the number two Republican, Steve Scalise refused to say the election was not stolen and that is because a vast majority of House Republicans are in a similar position.

So Erin, the clear sense is that Republicans despite what happened here, despite what they all experienced, the deadly riot, everything that Donald Trump did in the run up to January 6th still don't say he has any blame for everything that happened here, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Manu, thank you.

And OUTFRONT now, one of the lawmakers you just saw out there hearing, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the Capitol Police.


So Congressman, I appreciate your time. I want to ask you more about Manu's reporting in a moment. But first, this is a disturbing warning from the Acting Capitol Police Chief. Trump's supporters are planning another attack to coincide with President Biden's addressed to Congress. Trying to blow up the Capitol was some of what the Capitol Police was warning about. What else do you know about this?

RYAN: Well, this is the first we're hearing about it. We get the threats all the time, Erin, as you know. And unfortunately, some of us we just get used to hearing them. But this was especially egregious and it's scary.

I mean, the scariest part about the whole thing, these are American. This isn't some foreign entity. This isn't the al-Qaeda or the Taliban or some other group that is trying to strike and hurt the United States. These are our own citizens. And so we've got a lot of work to do here in our own country and our job is to make sure that this capital is protected and that's the job of the committee that I chair, and we're going to make sure that it is protected.

BURNETT: So our great reporter, Donie O'Sullivan, he's been talking to a lot of people who were going to these rallies towards the end, QAnon believers and he's talked to them. And he's reporting they're now pushing a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is going to regain the presidency on March 4th and then there's going to be executions. Let me just play what some of them have told him.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Trump will take office as the 19th President of the United States on March 4th under the restored Republic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Executions will be happening on March 5th. That's a big statement and I'm really looking forward to it.


BURNETT: So Congressman, just so people understand, this conspiracy theory, bear with me, everybody, is rooted in the belief apparently that in 1871 law turned the United States into a corporation. So any president elected after that is illegitimate, that's how they get to the 19th president. So the last person to be sworn in before this law passed was Ulysses S. Grant and that was on March 4th. OK.

It sounds crazy. It is crazy. This is make belief. But the idea of an insurrection sounded like make believe before January 6th. So how concerned are you, Congressman, that the GOP's continued refusal to call out Trump's lies could cause something else to happen?

RYAN: Well, two points, we're going to make sure that this capitol is protected. That's why we are continuing to keep the fencing up. The National Guard is still here. We're going to keep it that way until we have a real plan to move forward that General Honore and others are helping us put together and then that's funded. This capitol is going to be safe.

But this gets down to leadership in the fact that Steve Scalise's other very powerful Republican lawmakers will not condemn this, will not tell these people that this is an illusion, that they're creating this out of thin air, that it's not true, they're continuing to perpetuate the big lie that the election was a fraud. This is a problem with leadership. Because if the leaders don't give them oxygen, if the leader say, no, this is wrong, like John McCain did at that one town hall when he was running for president.


RYAN: No, ma'am. I could hear the words right now. No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He stood up. That's what leadership is about. And we can't find a leader like that here. Even the leaders that say the right thing still vote the wrong way.

BURNETT: All right.

RYAN: So we need some leadership in the Republican Party right now.

BURNETT: I'm sure your friend there, too, Sen. McConnell. Let me ask you one other thing, though, speaking of your colleagues. Our KFILE has reported that Anthony Aguero who is a conservative activist and a close ally of Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene was a member of that pro-Trump mob at the insurrection. He's bragged about it on social media. Here he is.


ANTHONY AGUERO, CONSERVATIVE LIVESTREAMER & ALLY OF REP. GREENE: We were all there. It was not antifa. It was not BLM. It was Trump supporters that did that yesterday. I'm the first to admit it. Being one myself.


BURNETT: So there he is and here she is talking about him in the past.


REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-GA): I told you my friend, Anthony Aguero, he's so, so amazing.

To my friend Anthony, he's my dear, dear friend. I love him so much. He's one of the greatest guys I know. Anthony is my great, great friend. He's one of my best friends. I am telling all of you, support this man. Support him.


BURNETT: So Congressman, what do you do with that, a sitting member of Congress calling a man who admittedly stormed the Capitol in a violent mob one of the greatest guys I know, one of my best friends?

RYAN: I don't know. I mean, I don't know what you do. This is obviously her probably saying this before she was elected member of Congress and she was elected.



RYAN: And so we're limited as to what we can do. And in America, you're free to say pretty much anything you want that's not going to hurt somebody and she - but is endorsing this person's values and that person attacked the Capitol and was part of the insurrection and part of the domestic terrorist attack.

So we just don't know what to say. We're in uncharted waters here and that's why we got a fence around the Capitol right now, because we have members of Congress like her that are condoning and basically pumping up people who stormed the Capitol. And like let's hope that there wasn't any deeper connection there. That's being investigated now around the tours. That's in the hands of the U.S. Attorney here in D.C. that is looking into those tours that were given maybe on January 5th by members of Congress. So we'll see what happens if there's any connection there.

BURNETT: Right. And obviously referring now to the investigations of these tours that members of Congress may have given to people who were part of the riot the day after, in those days just after. Thank you so much, Congressman, I appreciate your time.

RYAN: Thanks, Erin.

BURNETT: And next, Sen. Mitch McConnell who tore into Trump saying that he provoked insurrection and he's entirely to blame for it. Well, wait until you hear what he just said about whether he'll back Trump if Trump is the party's nominee in 2024.

Plus, the battle over the minimum wage, some Democrats threatening they won't vote for the COVID relief package at all if it doesn't include $15. Is that the Hill to die on?

And the researcher who led the study on a new COVID variant in New York City and the Northeast said it has probably now reached the Mid- Atlantic. That doctor is my guest.



BURNETT: Breaking news, former President Trump resurrecting his big lie. A Trump advisor telling our Jim Acosta that the former president will push his false claims about the 2020 election in his first public speech since leaving office. And that speech is coming when Trump headlines the Conservative Political Action Conference, it kicks off today.

Sources tell CNN Trump has been spending his days at Mar-A-Lago contemplating the run in 2024, plotting revenge on anyone who's crossed him as he prepares to make his return to the national stage this weekend. Jim Acosta is OUTFRONT live in Orlando where Trump will be speaking at CPAC.

So Jim, look, this is a huge event on the calendar every year. This is the real coming out party for the Republicans every year, who are they going to put out on that stage. He's the headliner. What more are you learning?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Oh, that's right, Erin. And I think the theme of the CPAC could be the mouth will rise again. I mean, this is going to be the return of Donald Trump to the political stage. It is going to be the return of the big lie.

Jason Miller, a senior advisor to the ex-President told me earlier today, yes, Donald Trump will be talking about his false claims that the election was stolen from him. But Jason Miller said it will be talked about in the context of election reforms.

But Erin, I mean, that's really using code words. If you look at the agenda for the CPAC that's taking place here in Orlando, it usually takes place near D.C. but because of the pandemic, it's down here. If you look at the agenda, several of the sessions that are going to be taking place here are really built around these ideas that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, that Joe Biden stole the election. And that's obviously not the case. We've been talking about this for many weeks now.

In addition to that, Erin, if you look at the speakers' list, they are almost all speakers who have the Trump seal of approval, Donald Trump Jr., his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, even Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. Two Republican senators who essentially tried to assist Republican House members in their efforts to overturn the results from the 2020 election.

Typically, that kind of behavior would be punished at a political conference that CPAC has rewarded. Who's missing from this CPAC, you're not going to see Vice President Mike Pence and you're not going to see the former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley who has gotten into it with Donald Trump in recent weeks.

I've talked to Nash Lopp (ph), the organizer for CPAC earlier today. He said they were given the indication that Nikki Haley was going to appear at CPAC and then she pulled out another sign of this rift, this fracture inside the Republican Party.

But inside Trump world, Erin, there is not unanimity as to whether or not this is a good idea for all of this to take place. In the words of this advisor, yes, it's good for Donald Trump, but no it's bad for the Republican Party. And when I asked this advisor, do you think Donald Trump is going to go ahead and bring up these election lies. Once again he said, of course, Donald Trump is going to bring up these election lies.

When is he ever face any consequences for what he does, why stop now? Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Jim, thank you very much. Just depressing. Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican former Governor of New Jersey is with me, also was the former EPA Administrator under President George W. Bush and Michael Smerconish.

Governor Whitman, I say depressing because you look at this conference which is an opportunity for Republicans to define what their party is and here's the list, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle and Donald Trump. I mean, this is Donald Trump's group of his nearest and dearest, essentially, at this point. What do you make of this, Governor, that Trump is the king of CPAC?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, (R) FORMER GOVERNOR, NEW JERSEY: Well, right now, those who define themselves as Republicans have decided they're Trumpers. There is no Republican Party. They haven't set up a - they stand for nothing except what Donald Trump tells them. And unfortunately, right now, he's becoming more dangerous.

It is dangerous to keep repeating this great lie. We've had cases over and over the Supreme Court just dismissed, two of the allegations. Nothing happened. This was one of the fairest, best election, given all that was going on that we've had in years.

And by CPAC doing this, buying into this, giving these far-right people, the QAnon people, the Donald Trump people this kind of a platform is hurtful to the country. I mean, it's worse than hurtful to the party. There is no party anymore. It's Trump. It's a personality code, but it's dangerous for the country.

BURNETT: So Michael, you hear Jim Acosta, a Trump advisor telling him Trump is going to continue with the big lie on Sunday. Go ahead with that. CPAC is going to include that lie in many different ways. I'm sure Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley will cloak it in their election irregularities, language as they like to do to signal what they want to signal. How dangerous is it, Michael?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, CPAC is damned if they do and damned if they don't, because this is where the base of the party rests. [19:20:05]

I mean that interview tonight that Mitch McConnell gave were within two weeks of being so condemning of former President Trump's role in the insurrection on January 6th, then when asked, oh, but if he's the nominee, will you support him? Oh, sure, I'll support him if he's the nominee.

Which is it? Do you believe that he perpetuated an insurrection? And if so, how in the world could you say you'd ever be supportive of that individual? There's the conundrum.

BURNETT: All right. So you bring that up, I want to play it. So I know we're going a little out of order here than what we planned, but let me just play what Mitch McConnell just said, to your point, about how he's going to support Trump if he's the nominee. He just said moments ago in an interview on Fox News, here is Sen. McConnell.


WILLIAM BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS HOST: If the President was the party's nominee, would you support him?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Oh, the nominee of the party? Absolutely.


BURNETT: OK. Here's the whiplash that Michael is referring to. Because here is Mitch McConnell, the man who just gave the speech of his life condemning Donald Trump for breaking apart the country. And here is Mitch McConnell just weeks ago.


MCCONNELL: A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags, and screaming their loyalty to him.


BURNETT: Gov. Whitman, what in the world does McConnell get by now saying, OK, forget the speech of my life and what I said, I'll support the guy.

WHITMAN: No. Look, Mitch McConnell is the ultimate politician. All he cares about is keeping his position and he wants to be back in leadership. So he'll play whatever side he thinks he can. This is a very narrow hole in the needle that he's trying to thread. I don't know that he can get away with it, because the one good part of all this is if you look at registrations, Republicans have been losing registration, people are moving to the independent column because they just don't support all of this.

Yes, his being Trump supporters are vehement and that's why the senators and Congress people want to know, they know how dangerous these people are. They didn't care. If they had gotten into the halls of Congress before the members had been taken away, they would have gone after and beaten up all of them. They didn't care Republican, Democrat, they wouldn't have known the difference.

So they got to be concerned about this, but they're not. It's all about just their political future, never mind the country, never mind the rule of law, never mind the Constitution, we'll perpetuate the lie if that's going to get us vote. At the end of the day, though, I think that it won't be enough votes in a general election.

BURNETT: And we'll see, Mitt Romney was saying in terms of the nomination today, Michael, that he thought if Trump wanted it, if the vote was now, he would get the nomination, separate from what the governor is saying. But we have reporting from Jim Acosta, Michael, that one of the things Trump is most worried about is all of these legal issues that he faces.

The New York District Attorney, we found out today, is in possession of those tax records that Trump had fought to keep up private. They're out. They now have millions of pages, millions of pages. OK. You obviously have a legal background, is there possibly something there that could doom him?

SMERCONISH: Well, I've been saying consistently that if he's healthy, if he's solvent and if he's unindicted, then he stands to be the heir apparent, again, to be the nominee in 2024. But you've got to believe in millions of pages of tax returns in a relatively subjective area, for example, the appraisal of commercial real estate, if they want to find something there, they'll probably be able to find something there and it'll be a lot more than just the way in which for accounting purposes hush money was treated on a tax return.

BURNETT: Right. Right. Very much to your point, these things would be - some of these are obviously criminal. Thank you both very much. I appreciate your time.

As we're speaking here, we do have breaking news, the U.S. launching an airstrike against Iranian-backed militias in Syria. A significant event tonight. This is the first known military action taken by President Biden. This strike coming after three separate rocket attacks in the past couple of weeks against American forces in Baghdad, in which a civilian contractor was killed, an American servicemen along with eight other contractors were wounded in another one of those attacks.

Let's go to Oren Liebermann OUTFRONT at the Pentagon. So Oren, we understand these are the first strikes here taken by President Biden. Tell us about what you're hearing.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. This is the first known strike under President Joe Biden and it comes against Iranian militias and the sites they use in Syria. We've learned from a U.S. official that just a short time ago a U.S. aircraft targeted one target with multiple sites on that target used by Iranian-backed Shia militias for weapons smuggling.

[19:25:00] There was no immediately available battle damage assessment as a

result of those strikes, but that would be something we'd expect perhaps in the coming hours or the coming days to get a better sense of, A, what was targeted and B, what the result was.

It's important to get a sense of the scale of the attack. This was not apparently an attack on a major site. It was an attack on a site meant to send two separate messages. First, trying to deter these Iranian- backed Shia militias away from launching future attacks against U.S. and coalition forces. And second, a response to the previous attacks over the course of the past week and a half or so, one in Erbil, one in Baghdad and then one in Balad Air Base just north of Baghdad.

This is the Biden ministration, it seems, sending a message to those Iranian-backed militias. Even if the Biden administration hadn't pointed a finger and said, yes, it's this specific militia that's responsible, it was clear from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon that they held Iran largely responsible for these attacks and said it was Iranian weaponry used in these attacks.

It also seems because of the relatively small scale of the attacks, it was an attempt not to escalate the situation, especially as the U.S. and Iran tried to figure out the diplomacy and the moves around Iran's nuclear program. So a small calculated strike, it seems. We'll certainly keep you posted as we learn more about what is the first known military strike carried out by the Biden administration, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Oren, thank you very much.

I'm want to go to Phil Mattingly at the White House. And Phil, this is the first known strike under President Biden. So what are you learning there as to why they chose now, why does now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think it needs to be viewed through the context and Oren laid out a piece of this right now, but how the administration is viewing Iran, how our administration is viewing Iran's proxies as it tries to juggle two different elements right now. And obviously, that is the elements of Iran's malign activities with their support from malign activities outside of their country, in this case in Syria, in the rocket attacks that have targeted U.S. and coalition forces, but also through the context of what the U.S. is trying to do related to the Iran nuclear deal.

Obviously, Erin, it was just last week that the White House, that the administration announced that they were open to having talks with Iran, again, through the P5+1 that led to the original Iran nuclear deal. So trying to do two things at once here, trying to try and keep the proxies in check, trying to make clear to Iran, even in a small calculated scale, that they are paying attention, that they will strike back while they're also trying to reopen talks themselves.

This has been a delicate balance over the course of the first couple of weeks as the administration has tried to do what the President said he was going to do during the campaign, which was an effort to reestablish or realign themselves with the JCPOA while also being cognizant of the fact that the JCPOA didn't necessarily address many of the issues that not only the U.S. but the U.S. allies have about Iran's actions outside of the deal, in particular, ballistic missiles, in particular, the malign activities outside of the Iranian space itself.

So you can see the balance starting to play out right now. I think the big question right now will be is this it from the United States in terms of the action, do they believe that this matches up with the rocket attacks that have occurred over the course of the last couple of weeks and also what does this mean in terms of Iran's willingness to sit down with the P5+1. They have not yet responded to the invitation. And, obviously, they have shut out nuclear inspectors over the course of the last week, continuing to move away from the deal.

And so those are the questions that need to be answered. But obviously, the administration answering back now and we'll have to see what happens next, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much.

So I want to go to Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former Army Commanding General for Europe and the 7th Army and David Axelrod, our Senior Political Commentator and, of course, former Senior Adviser to President Obama.

So Gen. Hertling, what do you make of the timing of this strike? Obviously, doing your first strike is something that you know is going to be significant, pick up headlines, make a statement. This is what President Biden has chosen to make that statement with.

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I'd say it is a proportional response based on the attack at the Erbil airport that Oren talked about back on the 15th of February where a contractor was killed, several people were wounded. And it was an attack on a U.S. base in a very peaceful part in the Kurdish Republic.


HERTLING: And what's interesting about this is there have been other attacks. There is continual harassment by Iranian militia. This is a signal. So it is a proportional response to the Iranian government. It is disconnected to a degree from the nuclear efforts that President Biden is going to attempt probably in the near future is as Phil just said.

But I got to tell you, this is just interesting to me, because there are dozens of Iranian-backed militias within Iraq and within Syria. They have been harassing U.S. forces. The Iraqi government is tired of these Iranian militias, but they can't do as much about them because of the political implications there. But it, in my view, is a very good response by the new administration to what has been happening in terms of the Iranian-backed militias tempting these kinds of strikes against the United States force, the 2,500 or so that are still in Iraq.

[19:30:03] BURNETT: So what the message, David, is that also that they're trying

to show, OK, we're going to be tough on you. Just because we may want to renegotiate, we may work on that nuclear deal again, don't misunderstand that for, okay, do whatever you want with impunity. I mean, is that what they're trying to accomplish with it and will it work?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's a message to them and it's a message to other allies in the region and to players here in Washington as well that just because they want to move forward on an agreement to try and limit the nuclear program in Iran doesn't mean that they're going to turn a blind eye to aggressive behavior on the part of Iran. So, it is both as the general says, a proportional response to an attack or a series of them, but to one in particular, but it also is a message that they're not going to get a pass simply because these talks have been offered.

BURNETT: So, General, let me also ask you, it comes in the context of David Ignatius' column in "The Washington Post", he laid it out very well. The progress Iran has made on its ballistic missiles capabilities is pretty stunning. They have made significant progress.

So, what does this do regarding -- regarding that, right? You're going to try to renegotiate the nuclear deal. That wasn't even included inside it.

HERTLING: I think if you recall back during the Obama administration, the JCPOA was the first step to negotiate with Iran. They knew quite frankly that the nuclear deal was broken from the rest of the malign activity of the Iranian government in the area. It's going to be very difficult to renegotiate some of those things to get back into that agreement. But I think this is President Biden signaling we are for separating the nuclear activities that we have to discuss with the potential for the malign activities in the region.

I think this is -- we want to come back together with Iran, but we will not allow these kinds of harassing attacks on U.S. forces and the disruption of the Iraqi government as well.

And if I may, Erin, I said before the Kurdish republic. I meant the Kurdish regional government, I'm sorry for misstating that. But it was interesting that Secretary Blinken spoke to Prime Minister Masrour Barzani about the attack on the 15th of February.

So, I think we're probably getting the green light not only from the Iraqi government, but also the Kurdish regional government on these attacks.

BURNETT: So, David, in the context of this it's pretty significant. President Biden also today spoke to the king of Saudi Arabia. And this is ahead of a highly anticipated report from the director of national intelligence, right, where they're going to be, they're going to be telling us a lot of background information, what gave them reason to say the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was directly responsible for the massacre -- the murder of "The Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Now, President Biden spoke with King Salman, President Trump, you

know, spoke with the crown prince, right, essentially giving him all the authority. So Biden wouldn't do that, but yet, the readout of the call tonight says nothing about Khashoggi. It would appear it didn't come up in the conversation, which, of course, Trump would have been crucified for not doing, and in fact he was appropriately so.

So, what is President Biden trying to do here?

AXELROD: Well, first of all, human rights was mentioned and I'm sure that they are aware that he's about to release this report that is very damning.


AXELROD: And, so, you know -- and that report is undoubtedly going to stir some interest in Congress about taking further action. So I think they're trying to balance -- the Saudis are, in fact, strategically important in that region. Interestingly, by the way, another thing that came up there was the president's assurance that he would help try and prevent attacks on the Saudi -- on Saudi Arabia by Iran. They have also been subject to missile attacks.

So I think he's trying to balance accounts here, but there's no doubt that the release of the report itself is pretty heavy blow to the Saudis and there is likely to be action that follows that.

BURNETT: Yeah, there certainly will. And, of course, highly anticipated come as early as today. Obviously, those airstrikes are today. So, it could come tomorrow, any time now, we're going to be getting that full report.

I appreciate both of you. Thank you.

AXELROD: Good to see you, Erin.

BURNETT: And next breaking news, Senate parliamentarian just ruling in what is a highly anticipated decision about raising the minimum wage, saying it cannot be included in Biden's COVID relief package.

And I'm going to talk to a doctor who helped discover a new strain of coronavirus in New York City, the Northeast, now maybe the mid- Atlantic. Tonight, he's warning this new variant could affect the body's response to vaccines.



BURNETT: Breaking news: the Senate parliamentarian ruling that Democrats will not be allowed to include a minimum wage increase in their COVID relief bill. They, of course, have been pushing for one to $15. It is a big setback for some Democrats who were hoping to get this increase by using the reconciliation process to get this whole thing through.

Manu Raju joins me on the phone.

Manu, this is a big blow for many of the progressives who have been pushing for this hard. Tell me what you're hearing.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, a huge setback because the Democrats made this a key part of the larger $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. Even Joe Biden the president has pushed for the $15 increase in the minimum wage. But what is ruled tonight by the Senate parliamentarian that this cannot be part of the process that Democrats are employing to advance the COVID relief bill.

Remember, the Democrats are using a budget relief process that is essentially avoiding Republican efforts to block this bill. They are trying to pass along party lines. And because they are using the budget to pass the overall $1.9 trillion package, they have to adhere to the very strict rules under the Senate to ensure that no, quote, extraneous measures are added as part of the underlying bill.


And what was ruled tonight by Elizabeth MacDonough, who's essentially the Senate rule keeper, she determines what is allowed and what is not allowed. She determined that it was not allowed to include the minimum wage increase as part of this overall package.

So, now, what does this mean? That means that the House will still move tomorrow to pass the overall $1.9 trillion bill that will include the wage increase, but then it will come over to the Senate where it will essentially be stripped out. The question will be what did Democrats do from there?

Their options, Erin, are very, very limited. Almost certainly this will not make it into the final package and progressives who have been pushing for this hard will have to decide whether they can live with everything else in there because at the moment this is not going to survive and almost certainly won't get onto Joe Biden's desk -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Manu, thank you very much.

So, let's go to Phil Mattingly at the White House.

Phil, let's just to be clear, President Biden I think knew that this -- he was the one who I think expected this to happen. But the progressive Democrats, they were banking the farm on this and getting this through. So, what is the reaction from the White House tonight?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Look, Erin, you hit a key point. The president has alluded several times over the course over the last couple weeks he expected this to occur. As a 36- year veteran of the United States Senate, he has some idea how the rule operates.

But it's not just the president. White House advisers I've been speaking to the last few weeks were expecting this to happen, they were counting on this to happen. And the big reason is because they knew if the $15 minimum wage was in the bill the Senate Democrats attempted to pass, they had a votes problem. They did not have 50 votes to pass a bill, a $1.9 trillion bill with the $15 minimum wage.

There are two Senate Democrats that are opposed to this provision, and so to some degree they were banking on this happening and did not necessarily have a great plan B if it was allowed into the bill itself. I think the big question, and Manu kind of hit on this, does this create problems with progressives particularly in the House. I've been talking to a number of congressional Democrats in the last several hours as everybody was waiting with bated breath for this decision to come in.

And the expectation is, in the Senate, this would be okay. Democrats in both chambers have made clear they will try and move a stand alone minimum wage bill, one that will be blocked in the Senate.

But the bigger picture here of this is President Biden's cornerstone legislative agenda item, this is $1.9 trillion. This is --


MATTINGLY: -- several major, major sweeping policy initiatives to address the dual public health and economic crises that this one provision being struck won't sink the bill.

But I think the big question right now is in the House. I will say from the White House perspective, at least what I've been told by advisers over the course of the last several weeks, they expected this to happen to some degree. They were hoping this would happen.

They are supportive of the $15 minimum wage. The president put it in the proposal. But they understood the math issues that they had in the Senate and almost needed this to occur. It has occurred now and I think the big question right now, particularly with the House set to vote as soon as tomorrow is where the progressives come down given they know this is not going to be in the Senate proposal and they know that President Biden and the White House are still going to be behind this with or without the $15 minimum wage.

BURNETT: Right. So, the question is they have to have the ability to put the minimum wage separate. I would presume that's a whole another fight, but easily could fail, but it's whether they have the votes for this without it now.

All right, thank you so much, Phil. I appreciate it.

All right. That breaking news.

And next, a warning that a new strain of coronavirus that is likely more resistant to treatment is now spreading through the Northeast.

And California's Governor Gavin Newsom facing the possibility he could be recalled. It is not just Republicans upset now with the once popular governor.


[19:47:26] BURNETT: New tonight, the director of the NIH saying new variants pose a risk of another coronavirus surge. This has concerns tonight about a new coronavirus variant that carries a mutation that may weaken the body's response to vaccines as well as the effects of antibody treatments in COVID patients. It comes after two teams of researchers have detected the variant as growing across New York City and the Northeast.

OUTFRONT now, David Ho. He is director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University. He led one of the research teams that detected this new variant.

So, Dr. Ho, you told our producer that the variant has probably spread beyond New York City and the Northeast. Tell me more about it and why you think that may be.


Because we know that there are many, many cases that we have detected. And by the time we find so many cases, undoubtedly, the virus has spread beyond. And then if you look at the global database that contain the sequences, from isolates, viral isolates, one can see some of the viruses being reported from the mid-Atlantic region.

So we know it has spread beyond just the New York area.

BURNETT: So, tell me about the variant. We hear it could be more resistant to vaccines and to other antibody treatments. What are you seeing specifically with it that has you so concerned?

HO: Well, for the past couple months we have been studying the variants from abroad, from U.K., South Africa and Brazil. We thought we would poll the samples in Columbia Medical Center do see if we had such variants.

And when we polled and detect the variants, and once we sequence the entire virus, we noted that yes, indeed, there are some U.K. cases, South African and Brazilian cases. But the predominant variant we found was a local homegrown variant with a critical mutation that resembles the mutations found in the Brazilian and the South African strain.

And we have characterized those variants before. We know that mutation would knockout three of the four monoclonal antibody treatments with emergency use authorization. And we have previously shown that that mutation would decrease the activity of the antibodies in folks who have been immunized with the vaccine.


So that a substantial decrease in virus neutralizing activity could translate into loss in vaccine efficacy.

BURNETT: So look, these are very troubling things, right? It's important to know about them, but of course it's very troubling. Let me just ask you one other point because you talk about, you know,

you found the South African variant, you found the Brazilian variant, you found the U.K. variant, but the real one that you found was just a homegrown local variant. You've talked about an alarming rise. My understanding is looking at your research in just the past two weeks in the number of cases.

So do you think it's more transmissible or just now you're looking for it?

HO: Well, I could only share with you our observation.


So the first detection was in November. And then there are scattered cases in December. And then by early January, it was about 3 percent of the COVID-19 positive samples within our hospital that we studied. And then we just saw it going up and up. And the recent couple weeks it's up to 12 percent, 13 percent.

So the rather rapid increase is alarming. You could suspect that it might be more transmissible. But we don't have evidence to prove that at this moment.

BURNETT: All right. Incredibly sobering information but important information for us all to hear.

Doctor, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

HO: Thank you.

BURNETT: And next, California Governor Gavin Newsom could soon be fighting for his political life as a recall fueled by his handling of COVID gains steam.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Newsom is the one that's running California right now with an iron fist.




BURNETT: Tonight, California preparing for the real possibility that Governor Gavin Newsom could be recalled. The last governor to be recalled was Gray Davis, who was replaced then by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Much of the outrage against Newsom is centered around his handling of the pandemic, which has now claimed 50,000 lives in the state of California.


KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fuel for these mailers, for the volunteers trying to recall California's governor -- frustration.

STACY EDWARDS, VOLUNTEER, RECALL GAVIN NEWSOM 2020: I reached my final straw when I lost my job for the third time in November.

LAH: Stacy Edwards works in restaurants, an industry devastated in the pandemic. The object of her ire? Governor Gavin Newsom, who has mandated statewide restrictions on businesses to stop the spread of COVID.

What do you want to tell the governor about the kind of pain that you're in?

EDWARDS: Oh, gosh. Yeah. That's an interesting question. Yeah. It's been very hard. You're going to make me emotional. But we're talking about starting a family and buying a house, and those are all things that are having to wait because of this.

LAH: On the other side of the table --


LAH: Andrea Hedstrom. She says she's a life-long Democrat who so admired Newsom that she named her son Gavin.

Do you blame the governor for the condition that the state is in?

HEDSTROM: I do at this point. Newsom is the one that's running California right now with an iron fist.

LAH: These Californians seething after a year of shut downs have found a political outlet.

ORRIN HEATLIE, LEAD PROPONENT, RECALL GAVIN NEWSOM 2020: These look like three valid signatures on this form.

LAH: The recall petition.

This is just in one day.

HEATLIE: This is only part of one day.

LAH: Petitions sorted by county, then delivered to be officially counted.

Orrin Heatlie launched the Recall Gavin 2020 campaign, the sixth recall attempt. The other five failed to qualify for the ballot, against the Democratic governor who won by a landslide in 2018.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is your five-star spot for a smorgasbord of information. LAH: Public records show this recall is dominated by conservative

donors. Money that pays for this radio program broadcast from the heart of liberal Los Angeles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's Friday night at the French laundry.

LAH: That's a dig at Governor Newsom's blunder, caught dining maskless at this exclusive restaurant while telling his residents to stay home.

He since apologized but it is dinged his popularity.

But with California's COVID case numbers dropping, Newsom is pushing to reopen schools, easing restrictions on outdoor dining and opening the first joint state federal mass vaccination sites in the country.

And in a sign of Newsom's political strength -- Napa Valley restaurant owners like Cynthia Ariosta who says she lost half a million dollars in wage production and sued Newsom for the shutdown is not willing to sign on to the recall.

CYNTHIA ARIOSTA, NAPA VALLEY RESTAURANTA OWNER: What would take his place anyway? I would like to see this as a real wakeup call that I've got some things to fix.

LAH: The recall leader says his group hasn't backed a replacement. First up, getting enough signatures.

HEATLIE: We don't know who's going to take the seat. We feel very strongly that somebody more competent is going to take that position.


BURNETT: So, Kyung, how feasible is realistically that Governor Newsom will lose his job?

LAH: Well, let's start with the registration numbers, the voter registration numbers. Democrats essentially outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. Gavin Newsom won by a landslide in November. So it is going to be difficult, especially with Democrats consolidating around Newsom, for a challenger, especially if that challenger is Republican and backed Donald Trump to win in this overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Now, the other question, though, is will it make the ballot? Will this recall make the ballot? What you see here is this is one of the many sites around the state where they're collecting signatures. Recall proponents say they've collected 1.8 million signatures. That exceeds the 1.5 to make the ballot. They have to verify those signatures. They're aiming for about 2 million signatures and are on pace to do so, Erin.

So, they are feeling confident that they will indeed make the ballot. But again, a very different question than whether or not the governor survives this politically, Erin.

BURNETT: That's pretty incredible, all of this happening.

All right. Kyung, thank you so much.

And thanks so much to all of you.

"AC360" starts now.