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Erin Burnett Outfront

Biden To Migrants: "Don't Come" Amid Surge At U.S.-Mexico Border; Interview With Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ); Extremist Group Member Pleads Not Guilty To Capitol Riot Charges; U.S. Intelligence Report: Russia Used Trump Allies To Influence 2020 Election With Goal Of "Denigrating" Biden; Florida Governor DeSantis Pandemic Response Gets A Second Look; At Least Seven People Killed At Multiple Atlanta Area Spas, Four Of The Dead Appear To Be Asian Women. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired March 16, 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 always tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, President Biden speaking out for the first time about the surge of migrants on the border as his Homeland Security Secretary warns of a 20-year high surge. This as CNN has new details about the facilities housing migrant children.

Plus, business in Florida is booming despite the pandemic. The state faring better than others that were under more stringent restrictions, why?

And a Texas pastor convinces his congregation to get vaccinated. Three out of four members are on track to be vaccinated by Easter, how did he do it? He's my guest. Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, border surge. President Biden answering questions tonight for the first time about the growing problem at the southern border.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS CHIEF ANCHOR: Migrants coming in saying they're coming in because you promised to make things better. It seems to be getting worse by the day. Was it a mistake not to anticipate this surge?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, there was a surge the last two years. In '19 and '20, there was a surge as well.

STEPHANOPOULOS: This one might be worse.

BIDEN: No. Well, it could be but, here's the deal, we're sending back people. First of all, the idea that Joe Biden said come because I heard the other day that they're coming because they know I'm a nice guy and I won't do what Trump did.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They're saying this.

BIDEN: Yes. Well, here's the deal, they're not.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you have to say quite clearly don't come?

BIDEN: Yes, I can say quite clearly don't come over. In the process of getting set up, don't leave your town or city or community.


BURNETT: All right. This coming as the Secretary of Homeland Security warns today, "We're on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are encountering six and seven-year-old children arriving at our border without an adult."

And we're learning tonight from case managers, attorneys and border patrol agents that some kids haven't seen sunlight in days. Others are taking turn showering often-going days without them. CNN is told some children are in jail-like facilities as the administration scrambles to find appropriate housing.

As of tonight, there are now 4,200 children in custody, which dwarfs the number at the peak of the 2019 border crisis. Now, officials say an increase of children at the border was expected but a surge of the current magnitude was not and let's just be honest. They were not ready for this. President Biden himself has not yet


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, do you have any plans to travel to the southern border, sir?

BIDEN: I'm not at the moment.


BURNETT: But right now even some members of the President's own party want to see action.


REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ (D-TX): The message can't be that if you get to our southern border and get across, we're going to process you and release you into our communities. The federal government needs to certainly do more.

REP. HENRY CUELLAR (D-TX): It has to be a strong message because without due respect, the administration's message is not coming through. That's the reality of it.


BURNETT: Well, the problem is despite Biden's message tonight that he just said, you saw on George Stephanopoulos, don't come, don't leave your town or village don't leave your community. The reality is that the message that has been coming through for months is a very different one. It's this one.


BIDEN: We're going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally not figuratively rip children from the arms of their families, their mothers and fathers at the border.


BURNETT: Kaitlan Collins is OUTFRONT tonight in Wilmington, Delaware where President Biden is spending the night. Kaitlan, it seems like the Biden administration is having trouble explaining exactly what's happening here. And I mean, this is a very sobering and concerning warning coming from the Department of Homeland Security Secretary that they expect more people coming than they've seen in the past 20 years.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That's a pretty stark warning coming from the Department of Homeland Security Secretary who was just recently confirmed to the job. And, of course, he's coming and saying that in a statement this morning and that was before President Biden, during that interview with ABC News, was pointing to past surges, kind of seeking to explain what's happening right now.

But he did concede this is a surge that could be worse than the ones that we've seen in the past. And so the question is how are they dealing with it. And we know that President Biden is coming under increasing scrutiny right now because his administration is struggling and scrambling to find places to put these kids. A lot of them are in border patrol facilities for longer than they are legally allowed to be there.

These are jail like Border Patrol facilities that children are not supposed to be in for more than about 72 hours while they're processed to go to a facility that's instead run by the Health and Human Services Department.


And so you saw President Biden there kind of seeking to talk about why they believe this is happening. We've seen several reasonings coming from administration officials. But he was saying that it's not because he's 'a nice guy', as he says he's seen some people say. But it's not just critics like Republicans saying that it's because of his policies that all of these migrants are now trying to cross the border.

You've also seen Democrats be critical of President Biden's response and you've even heard from the Mexican president himself saying that they view Biden as the 'migrant president'. Now, we should note that one of Biden's top immigration officials was on CNN earlier today. They said that is not how they view it. It is not an open border situation. They're just trying to take a more humane approach than former President Trump did.

But the reality is this is happening under his watch. He has to deal with it now. And so right now, no current plans for him to go to the border. But Erin, we'll see if that changes.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Kaitlan.

I want to go out front now to Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego from the border State of Arizona. And Congressman, I appreciate your time. So you just heard President Biden there speaking to George Stephanopoulos saying, the idea that people would come because I'm a nice guy, don't come, don't leave your town and community. That's what he's saying.

But obviously, you've got the Secretary of Homeland Security saying you're going to see a 20-year-high in people coming to the southern border. Is the administration doing anywhere near enough right now?

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D-AZ): Well, from what I've seen, it's not just Vice President Biden, Secretary Mayorkas, they're saying don't come, they're also spending money buying advertisements in TV, radio in Central America telling don't come, that this is not an open border. So they're actually backing this up with money. They're also backing up with money with programs to encourage people to stay through stabilization, law enforcement.

And look, this is a problem. We do have a surge coming. It's a pent up surge that had started under Donald Trump and we have to deal with the issue that we have children coming over unaccompanied. We have to separate them from whoever they come along with to make sure that they're not being child trafficking (ph) and put into a stable situation and this administration is doing the best they can.

BURNETT: So let me ask you, though, and I understand your point that perhaps just the simple contrast between Donald Trump's rhetoric and actions with the wall and what Joe Biden said about being humane has created part of this problem, just that stark contrast. But isn't it part of the problem that there was a perception, rightly or wrongly, there was a perception that when Biden won, the border situation was going to change dramatically?

GALLEGO: Well, I don't know if that's the case. There's no way that this administration was going to continue the old administration policy of separating parents from their kids. It was just not something that we could do honestly and morally as a country and the ramifications of the fact that we're still trying to reunite 500 families. We just couldn't continue that.

At the same time, this administration is putting the investment both in country as well as on the border to try to deal with the humanitarian situation right now where we do have a lot of kids coming through. Look, I'm a border state Democrat.

BURNETT: So let me ask you about those - yes.

GALLEGO: I'm a border state Democrat. I saw this happen under both administrations, under Obama and under Donald Trump. So I've seen the true unfortunate situation of face-to-face where these families are just trying to get to a safe situation. At a minimum, we have to make sure that these kids are being taken care of in a safe situation.

BURNETT: But let me ask you about the kids though, because what we're seeing a record in here as well, way higher than anything Trump saw at any point during his peak is kids coming unaccompanied. So this isn't U.S. government having any decision to make about whether to take them from their families, these are six and seven year olds coming on their own.

GALLEGO: Absolutely. It's our responsibility when six or seven-year- old kids come here that we have to put them in a stable situation. We have to test them for COVID. We have to make sure that they have at least some point of contact or someone they could stay with, because we don't want them to stay in the housing that they have right now.

So this administration is actually doing the best that they can considering that situation. And look, again, it's a totally different situation from when we had under Donald Trump. We are not ripping them away from their parents. These are people that are coming - these are children, I should say, that are coming unaccompanied and it's a horrible situation.

And plus the added COVID stress that we can't have them all crowded into small places like we used to do in the past under the past administration.

BURNETT: So some Republicans, including the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, who was just at the border are saying suspected terrorists are trying to cross the border. Here is Congressman McCarthy.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): They talked about the 100 and 200 people at night that you saw in their eyes, they talked about they're on the list. What list are you talking about? The terrorist watch list.

REP. MARIANNETTE MILLER-MEEKS (R-IA): They're coming here and they're on the terror watch list.

REP. AUGUST PFLUGER (R-TX): We have folks who are on the terrorist watch list that are being moved into this country illegally.


BURNETT: Congressman, I know yesterday you said you had not heard this and I quote you, you were pretty sure McCarthy is either wrong or lying.


Axios though today is now saying that the Customs and Border Protection agency confirmed to Congress that four people who were arrested at the southern border since October do match names on the FBI terror-screening database. Do you know anything about this?

GALLEGO: So I actually just had a briefing about 90 minutes ago regarding this issue and none of what I heard in that interview, I'm sorry, in that briefing matches this information. So I don't know where that staffer who leaked that, by the way, information. It didn't come from Kevin McCarthy's office. It came from some unknown staffer that it just doesn't match what I'm seeing right now.

But again, like this is a problem that we're having with Kevin McCarthy. I actually constantly had my first hearing today on misinformation and let me just say none of this is brought up, but it was very similar to some of the problems I've heard. Again, it doesn't match what I hear. And as chairman of the intel and special operations, I just didn't see it there.

BURNETT: So intelligence is telling you that this is not true, that these names did not match, right? Just to be clear, that's what you're being briefed.

GALLEGO: What I'm telling you right now is that without going into specific details, because I don't want to violate my duty here ...

BURNETT: I understand.

GALLEGO: ... is that there is no correlation from what I'm reading to what Mr. McCarthy and other people are talking about.

BURNETT: All right. Well, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much, Congressman.

GALLEGO: Thank you.

BURNETT: I want to go now to the host of CNN SMERCONISH, Michael Smerconish and Priscilla Alvarez, who has been doing extensive reporting on immigration for CNN POLITICS.

So Michael, let me just start with you, because President Biden just had to address this issue in a national interview. He is saying to migrants stay in your communities, don't come and he's saying the idea that anybody would be coming here because they thought that he was a nice guy is bogus. Is his message now going to be effective when he says stay home?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: No. Not where it had to be pulled out of them in that interview. I think the whole thing is so sad, 4,200 unaccompanied minors now in CBP custody or protection and you listen to the back and forth between the Congressman and then the tape from Kevin McCarthy, it's all a partisan volley and the issue seems to be one of semantics, what should we call it and who can we blame more, the Trump administration or the Biden administration.

To me and I know it's very complicated, it seems commonsensical that where Trump had this very bellicose nature with regard to this issue, that all of a sudden the feeling was one of more acceptance that Joe Biden would be more, I'll use the word of the administration, humane. They didn't deliberately set this afoot. I don't think you can say,

well, that's Biden's fault, but it is what it is and he needs to get out front and deliver a much more firm message that we are not open for business and don't come here. Not don't come here now, don't come here.

BURNETT: So Priscilla, when we hear about these unaccompanied minors coming, six and seven year olds and almost double anything seen at the peak in 2019, you've got new reporting on the conditions that these children's are experiencing in Border Patrol facilities and it is incredible reporting, what are you learning from your sources on the ground?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Erin, we're really starting to get a glimpse of what these conditions are like in the Border Patrol facilities. Sources tell us that children are alternating sleeping schedules to allow one another to get rest. Border Patrol agents are putting up bunk beds, so that children can also get rest as well as setting up cots and mats.

So these are facilities that are just not meant for children. They're meant to process adults and so they're having to make do to try to accommodate these children given just sheer number of minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone. And really, this is the problem the administration is facing. They just can't keep up with the number of children coming as they look for shelters to place them in.

BURNETT: Wow. This is incredible when you when you talk about it and all of your reporting about not seeing sunlight in days and triple bunks. I mean, these are images of camps.

Michael, Republicans are saying, Biden is to blame. Biden says not true. As you say, there's a lot of blame game going around. Let me just replay the part where President Biden says he's not to blame.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Was it a mistake not to anticipate this surge?

BIDEN: Well, first of all, there was a surge the last two years. In '19 and '20, there was a surge as well.

STEPHANOPOULOS: This one might be worse.

BIDEN: No. Well, it could be.


BURNETT: Just to be clear and you heard Congressman Gallego a moment ago, Michael, say, oh, that's the line. This started under Trump. Just to be clear, the Secretary of Homeland Security is saying this is going to be the worst in 20 years, which would definitionally mean worse than the past couple of years.

SMERCONISH: And the data seems to suggest that these are individuals who did not make a mad dash on January 20 and all of a sudden create this crisis. But that rather they've been in hiding that they'd already left those triangle nations that are the point of origin and had been hiding in the shadows and waiting for an opportunity for a more welcoming environment and right or wrong, they perceive this to be a far more humane administration and so they're going to take their shot.


And as the politicians argue back and forth, you've got 4,000 kids in those horrific conditions. And let's be fair, if they were on Trump's watch, then all of a sudden there'd be a hell of a lot more attention on those conditions and people would be laying blame at his feet.

BURNETT: And thanks to, Priscilla, your reporting. We now know exactly how bad those conditions are. Thank you very much Priscilla and Michael for your time.

And next, a family torn apart after a Capitol riot suspects children turned on their father.




BURNETT: What would make a man allegedly threatened to kill his own children?

Plus, under attack. The nationwide push to make it harder to vote. Republicans are behind the effort in 43 states, more than 250 bills in the works.

And Gov. Ron DeSantis taking a victory lap in Florida. These pandemic policies now getting a second look.



BURNETT: Tonight, a family torn apart after the insurrection on Capitol Hill. Guy Reffitt, an alleged member of the Three Percenters extremist group appearing in court today after his 16-year-old daughter testified about threats he allegedly made. She claims her father told her not to turn him in saying, "Traitors get shot." Jessica Schneider is OUTFRONT.



JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): An accused Capitol rioter with extremist ties, Guy Reffitt, remains behind bars after pleading not guilty today in part because of the testimony his children gave in court against him. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REFFITT: He said choose a side or die.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): His son, 18-year-old Jackson Reffitt, spoke to CNN's Chris Cuomo. His 16-year-old sister echoed the allegations in court detailing the comments she says her father made when he came home to Texas after allegedly storming the Capitol on January 6th.

She says Reffitt told her he would put a bullet through her cell phone if she posted about him on social media and if she or her brother turned him in, they would be traitors and traitors get shot, his daughter testified. But Jackson Reffitt talked to police anyway.


REFFITT: It just felt like the right thing regardless of my emotions and how I felt and how much I love my family and my dad. I didn't think he would actually do anything bad. But him saying anything even remotely threatening to me, and my sister, and my family and government officials, it was just too much.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): Reffitt is allegedly a member of the Texas Three Percenters group, an extremist paramilitary group. The Three Percenters view themselves as defending the American people against government tyranny and their name reflects the inaccurate claim that only 3 percent of the people in the colonies fought against the British during the revolution.

Prosecutor say Reffitt drove to Washington with guns in his car days before January 6th and took part in the Capitol attack clad in body armor and carrying plastic cuff restraints. His kids say they didn't realize he was headed to D.C. until the day he left, but said his behavior became extreme over the past four years and they blame Trump.


REFFITT: Obviously, the man in charge at the time I feel like just really manipulated him into thinking what he is thinking now. That's the only thing I can blame this, the politics he follows and idolizes.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): Reffitt's daughter insisted in court that he's not a violent person. But prosecutors say they have audio of Reffitt captured in the days after January 6th that tell a different story. They say Reffitt promised a reprise of the Capitol attack and sent messages to members of the Three Percenters talking about going to the Capitol again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REFFITT: I feel disappointed in him for making that decision even at

all to go out there and risk his life and endanger others. It put his family in the situation.



BURNETT: It's really just incredible to hear children saying that, how hard it is, how courageous it is for them to say those things. I mean, Jessica, what are prosecutors saying now, after this moving and painful testimony by Reffitt's children?

SCHNEIDER: Yes. So they're doing more digging into exactly who Guy Reffitt is and any violent plans that he was possibly making. So we've learned that prosecutors, they've taken 28 electronic devices from his home. They're looking into that. And Erin, they're also considering maybe other charges against him, including conspiracy.

BURNETT: Wow. All right. Jessica, thank you very much.

And next, a new intelligence report just out tonight, officially finding that Russia did try to help former President Trump win again in 2020 by denigrating Biden's campaign.

And Gov. Ron DeSantis has been second-guessed many times over about his handling of the COVID crisis in Florida. Tonight, a second look at his policies.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R) FLORIDA: I mean, this place is booming. It would not be booming if it was shut down.




BURNETT: Tonight, a new intelligence report officially declaring Russia attempted to help former President Trump in the 2020 election. The report saying Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized operations aimed at 'denigrating President Biden's candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating socio- political divisions in the United States."

All right. That is an attack on America and American democracy. Yet tonight, Republicans in 43 states are acting like Don Quixote, tilting an imaginary windmills otherwise known as imaginary widespread voter fraud. Tom Foreman is OUTFRONT. And, Tom, you've been following this nationwide effort by Republican legislatures to tilt at windmills and they then say to limit access to voting. Walk me through what's happening right now. TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is just the story of the times

unbelievable. More than 250 bills have been proposed to reform voting procedures in 43 states, in the words of some lawmakers to secure the elections. That's what they say.

Now, there is no evidence, as you just noted, that there was any kind of widespread fraud. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump fair and square according to state and federal officials, according to courts. But in many states, where Republicans control both the State House and the governor's office, a lot of GOP voters still think the election was stolen and that's where the most robust attacks are underway.

For example, in Arizona which flipped from red to blue, there are new laws would purge those who don't vote in consecutive elections. In other words, you miss one election, you get cast out. Require more paperwork for mail-in voting and shorten the early voting period.

In Texas, just next door, they want to standardize and cut voting hours. They want to prohibit drive thru voting and ban the mailing of absentee ballot applications. What's that all about? Well, that's pandemic. That's what everyone had to do, that worked. A lot of people turned up and now they want to push it aside.

And then in Georgia, which also was a flip state, they want to narrow eligibility for absentee voting, limit mobile voting sites and cut back on early voting. Again, Erin, attacking the very things that worked and turned out so many people in this election.

BURNETT: Well, it's amazing because all that did was enable more people to vote which is what we also would want. I mean, banning people who don't vote in consecutive elections, that is stunning. That is a stunning development.


All right. So, Tom, when you look, you talk about some of these states specifically, how many people would be affected by these types of rules and who are they?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, supporters of the measure say everyone is affect affected. We all have confidence in the voting process. But critics say no, what you're really doing here is targeting minority groups who largely support Democrats.

Case in point, take a look at Georgia once again. There we analyzing the voting and some of those early voting days they wanted to cut theirs. CNN found 48,000 black voters cast their ballots on those very days. And since Biden won by just 12,000 votes, if you were able to get these people to not show up by any large measure, that could have caused him the election in Georgia and other changes and other places could have caused him the election across the country -- Erin.

BURNETT: It's pretty incredible, just that one example right there. Keep it up for the screen for everyone to pause. If that had changed, there is that many days, there you go. Trump would have won Georgia.

All right. Thanks very much to you, Tom.

I want to go to Ben Ginsberg. He's a Republican election lawyer, has been, of course, for four decades. And Ben Jealous, who's doing a lot of work on voting rights with his group People for the American Way and Foundation. He's also the former president and CEO of the NAACP.

Ben Ginsberg, let me start with you. You know, just -- so many things are stunning and hard to understand, you know, kicking people out who don't vote in consecutive elections, so then they'd show up and oh, you can't vote, because, you know, you didn't vote on whatever, mayoral election was before this one, so you lose on the presidential. Are Republican legislatures making a big mistake by pushing these restrictions?

BEN GINSBERG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think they are. It is bad as a matter of policies and politics. Policies because this is a democracy. Every legal voter ought to be allowed to vote and you should not put up barriers to people voting.

And voters take up notice of people who get into their way of voting. And the politics because Republicans instead of proposing conservative policy solutions to make their lives better, are trying to stop the emerging groups in the electorate from voting. And that's going to pay a bad costs overtime.

BURNETT: You know, Ben, we just look at -- Ben Jealous, you both have the same name, Ben Jealous, just look at that screen that Tom put up about Georgia, right? That in days of the legislation being considered would become ban voting days. You had 40,000 of African-American votes in the state of Georgia, obviously, overwhelmingly for Joe Biden.

So, you know, if those new rules applied, those votes would have counted, Donald Trump would have won the state.

Georgia Democrats, Stacey Abrams calls the voting bill in Georgia, quote, Jim Crow in a suit and tie. Do you agree with those words?

BEN JEALOUS, PRESIDENT, PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY AND FOUNDATION: Certainly. It is a dark contrast. We saw Virginia today, Governor Northam issuing an executive order re-enfranchising every formerly incarcerated person of the state.

The reason is a lifetime ban in Virginia because of a Jim Crow law from 118 years ago that was put in place with an expressed purpose of assuring that ensures that white supremacy would be the law of the land in every county in Virginia. That's the quote from the argument to pass that law.

And then you look at Georgia, you look at Texas, you look further out in the Southwest, and what you see is very similar laws in spirit and in purpose to what was put in place to facilitate the rise of Jim Crow. And these are laws that are intended to make it disproportionately difficult to vote for people of color, for working women of all colors.

Here is the interesting thing, Erin. If you go back to Jim Crow. The folks who actually pushed through those laws, they conceded and a lot of poor white whites would be impacted. But what was the appointed today was more blacks impacted, and you are seeing a similar type of math here. It's the math of Jim Crowism.

BURNETT: So, Ben Ginsberg, Ben Jealous has mentioned Texas. And the Texas Governor Greg Abbott is also, you know, pushing this legislation. He calls this as an emergency.

Here's what he said yesterday.


GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R), TEXAS: Election fraud takes place and have no doubt it took place here in the state of Texas. Right now I don't know how many or if any elections in 2020 were altered because of voter fraud.


BURNETT: According to the "Houston Chronicle", Texas A.G. Ken Paxton spent 22,000 hours, Ben Ginsberg, 22,000 hours looking for fraud of the 2020 election. What he came up with 16 cases of false addresses, 16 case of false addresses out of 11 million votes cast in the state of Texas. Governor Abbott knows this. He knows there was not widespread voter fraud. So, he's saying something that's false. He's speeding a narrative for whatever political purposes.

That's the question. Do you think we're now seeing the real impact -- the real impact of Trump's big election lie?

GINSBERG: Well, I'm not sure there's a real impact, it is a really bad impact. The catastrophic impact is if we have elections in 2022 and 2024 in the future and the significant portion of the population refuses to accept the election election's results.

This is really bad. But these laws can be overcome either in litigation or just people wanting to vote and working with the rules. But the real problem with making these frau allegations without any sort of evidence to back it up is that people lose faith in the electoral outcome. That's what the long-term problem is.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you both very much, as always. Glad to see you both.

And, next, Florida is open for business and never really shutdown. The pandemic did not take a deadly toll on the state compares to others. So, we're going to look at it, why.

And should churches be leading the way when it comes to vaccinations? The impact of one Texas pastor's message may pave the way for others. You want to hear his story and his message. He's my guest.


[19:40:00] BURNETT: New tonight, Gavin Newsom, the embattled Democratic governor of California, defending his response to the coronavirus pandemic amid growing criticism that his restrictions went too far.


GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D), CALIFORNIA: We have 1.8 percent positivity today. That's lower than all of three states in the country. We have lower death rates, the vast majority states in this country, certainly much lower than places like Florida and Texas. I believe we save lives.


BURNETT: This is his response now being compared to the governors of those states specifically of Florida, Republican Governor DeSantis, who did all he could to keep Florida open and is now getting a second look.

So, what are all the facts?

Jeff Zeleny is OUTFRONT.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: If you look at what's happening in South Florida right now, I mean, this place is booming. It would not be booming if it was shutdown.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is standing unabashedly tall.

DESANTIS: Los Angeles isn't booming. New York City is not booming. It's booming here because you can live like a human being.

ZELENY: A year after the pandemic began, Florida is not only back in business, it has been in business and the governor's gamble to take a laissez faire approach to coronavirus appears to be paying off, at least politically, at least for now.

Florida ranks about in the middle of all states on coronavirus metrics. More than 32,000 people have died of COVID-19, and the state's per capita death rate ranks 24th. New York is far worse. And California only slightly better, despite stringent lockdowns.

DESANTIS: While so many other states kept locking people down over these many months, Florida lifted people up.

ZELENY: DeSantis is standing out among governors on the front line of the coronavirus fight. A new measure for politicians of all stripes.

He's not facing a potential recall like California Governor Gavin Newsom, or under investigation like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, or being second-guessed for lifting a statewide mask mandate like Texas Governor Greg Abbott. DeSantis refused to implement one of those in the first place. And Florida's unemployment rate is 4.8 percent compares to 6.8 percent

in Texas and 8.8 percent in New York and 9 percent in California.

TOM GOLDEN, FLORIDA BUSINESS OWNER: When he went into office I was not sure what to expect, but he did not do anything to hurt me as a business owner or me as a Floridian. So fine with me.

ZELENY: Tom Golden did not have much on DeSantis a year ago. But what this St. Petersburg bar and restaurant not only surviving but thriving, he credits the governor. Even as a new test for Florida is looming with spring breakers crowding beaches, so far, the state has weathered the pandemic stronger than most experts expected.

Is it the disaster that some people predicted it would have been?

JASON SALEMI, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF EPIDEMIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA: No, again, I think, everything deserves context. What I love to ask about Florida is, if we had done things differently in Florida, what would it have looked like?

ZELENY: Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, said comparing one state to another is completed, with Florida's humidity, for example, and New York City's density. And local ordinances on mask and the sizes of gatherings have also played a role.

Now, DeSantis has outraged many city and county officials by trying to take away their authority to put such roles in place.

Throughout the pandemic, it's that defiant and combative DeSantis.

DESANTIS: We succeeded and I think that people just want to recognize it.

ZELENY: Who has become a darling of many Republicans.

He declined most interview requests, appearing only on propaganda programs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please come back soon.

DESANTIS: We will. Thank you.

ZELENY: Charlie Crist, a Florida congressman and former governor, is among the Democrats thinking about challenging DeSantis for reelection next year.

In hindsight, do you think he deserves any credit for what he did?

REP. CHARLIE CRIST (D-FL): Like I said, it's early to tell. Thirty- three thousand of my fellow Floridians are dead. Does he deserve credit for that? Probably not. But could it have been better? Maybe so.

ZELENY: Crist and other Florida Democrats calling for a Justice Department investigation into whether DeSantis gave preference to donors after investigation only vaccination clinics were set up in at least two upscale communities?

CRIST: Was a preference given to certain Caucasian, wealthy Republican communities in my state, because it certainly looks like it.

ZELENY: A spokesman for the governor called the accusation ridiculous and has dismissed critics who've accused him of mischaracterizing COVID data.

DeSantis campaigned and governed in the mold of Donald Trump. Now, he's seen by many grassroots conservatives as a potential 2024 candidate.

DESANTIS: We are an oasis of freedom in the nation that's suffering.

ZELENY: His future depends on the outcome of the rest of the pandemic. But it's clear he hopes to make that his new calling card.


ZELENY (on camera): Now, the full story of how states handled the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, is still being written as COVID cases rage on.


But, Erin, talking to so many voters here, one Floridian last night who said her grandchildren in California have not attended school more than a year, she found herself grudgingly praising Governor DeSantis, not a fan initial, but said it is good that Florida has been reopened -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right, Jeff. Thank you very much.

And next, one Texas pastor's quest to get his congregation vaccinated. He says more than three quarters of them on tracks to get vaccinated by Easter. How does he do it? He's my guest.

And we have breaking news right now. Reports of seven people dead at three different spas in the Atlanta area. We are learning more about this horrible and developing story.


BURNETT: Tonight, 15 states across the country showing an increase in coronavirus cases over the past week. And as United States races to get vaccines into arms, the NIH director, Dr. Francis Collins, himself a practicing Christian, says religious leaders can play a powerful role combating vaccine hesitancy.



DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, NIH DIRECTOR: The church can play a leading role by educating and modeling and encouraging. There is nothing to fear here and there's much to be gained. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: There's been a lot of skepticisms out there and that caused my next guest, a pastor of a Texas church, to confront vaccine hesitancy in his own congregation.


JIM DENHAM, PASTOR, CHAPEL IN THE HILLS: I got my shot, first shot to deal with the COVID-19 disease, this pandemic. This past week. 65 percent have had at least one shot. I mean, that's fabulous. This is way ahead of the national average. I encourage you to get your shots if you have not.


BURNETT: OUTFRONT now, Pastor Jim Denham of Chapel in the Hills in Wimberley, Texas. His church will reopen Sunday for the first time since the pandemic. And I know now, Pastor, more than 70 of members of your congregation have gotten at least one vaccine dose.

Pastor Denham, I really appreciate you being with me. I want to credit Matthew Dowd, the former Bush chief campaign strategist, with talking to you tonight. He attended your church. He told me last night about your story so we called you right away.

The one thing he said which was fascinating, was he said, your congregation happens to have a lot of Republicans and we see about half of Republican men and half of Trump supporters say they won't get the vaccine. Your Parishioners, though, are getting vaccinated because of you. How did you breakthrough to them?

DENHAM: Well, I don't know that they're getting it because of me, but I do believe that I have been very supportive of it. I was a hospital chaplain for a number of years and I worked with doctors and nurses and very much believe in what they're trying to do.

And so when the science says get a vaccine, this will make a difference, whether it's the flu or shingles or anything else, I have always tried to do that, and I believe you lead by example. So I told the folks that I'm getting my shots and I've encouraged them to get theirs.

We're not a political church. So it's not really about politics and I don't go to politics, I just try to follow the science.

BURNETT: So tell me about that because it been so effective. I know you've heard from members of your congregation who have said flat out that aren't going to get the vaccine. They don't want to get it.

What do they tell you is the reason for their decision and how do you reason with them? How do you try to get them to change their mind if you try?

DENHAM: Well, one of the big issues in our church is harmony. Can we just all get along? Our church is an inter-denominational church. So, we got Catholics, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopals and so on.

I mean, that's hard enough without throwing politics in it. So we really try not to talk about politics or deal with politics.

What I have tried to say is simply this is what I'm going to do, and I encourage you to do it. Twelve months ago, we set up a COVID committee and two of the physicians that are in our church, Pat Caffey (ph) and David Morales, I asked them to be on the committee and they have been a big help to us in guiding us and letting us know what's safe and what isn't.

BURNETT: Wow, that's pretty incredible, though, that you set that up a year ago, that you worked with them and that level and planning and thought is incredible.

So, you know, science does show these vaccines are incredibly safe and effective, right? You know that, that's the science. But it doesn't stop some voices. You say you live by example. There are some who could choose to do so who are showing doubt about them, unnecessary doubt.

Here is a sound byte from Fox News host Tucker Carlson last night. Let me play it for you, Pastor.


TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: How effective is this coronavirus vaccine? How necessary is it to take the vaccine? The administration would like you to take this vaccine. Joe Biden told you last week if you don't, you can't celebrate the Fourth of July. But it turns out there are things we don't know about the effects of this vaccine.


BURNETT: So as you've been a leader in your community on this issue, you've talked about the science, pastor. You know, what do you think when you hear someone with a powerful platform sowing doubt and discouraging people from stepping up and getting this vaccine?

DENHAM: Well, it's a free country. Everybody has a right to their opinion. I've always believed that.

The -- I don't try to argue with people. If somebody says they're not going to get the vaccine, then that's their choice, but I have tried to be very vocal that I'm going to get it and I've been trying to be very vocal that others should get it, but it's still up to the individual.


What has happened in our church is that people are getting the vaccine. We're now up to, I think, the number yesterday was 73 percent have had at least one shot and I'm delighted. I thought it would be a lot less than that. So once we found that out and that was through our phone care team that also was set up 12 months ago, so we could keep in touch with each other when the church is shut down, we did a survey and that's the number that came back.

BURNETT: Well, that's incredible, and I think one of the things that I take away from this, Pastor, is just the organization with which you approached this and having that phone care, the care you gave to your community is incredible during all of this. Thank you very much. I know your congregation, whatever domination they come from must appreciate you so greatfully, great -- so much. Thank you.

DENHAM: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

BURNETT: All right. And next, we have reports of several Atlanta area spas and trying to figure out what is going wrong. We have more information now. Seven people are dead, including four women that appear to be Asian. We have an update for you on the ground.


BURNETT: This disturbing story is coming into CNN right now. Investigators on the scene of three deadly shootings at spas in the Atlanta area. Police say four people who appear to be Asian women were killed at two of the locations. Three others killed at a third. An Asian massage parlor.

Ryan Young is on his way to the scene and joins us on the phone.

Ryan, what are investigators saying whether these shootings could be connected?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, that's what their working on right now. (INAUDIBLE) officials in two different counties are definitely trying to see if they are connected. The first shooting happened in Cherokee County about 47 minutes outside the city of Atlanta, and while police were investigating that case, that's when the two shootings happened here at the spas in the city of Atlanta where four women were shot at two different locations.

Right now, there is a large police presence and one highway being shut down but they're definitely looking for a vehicle. They put out pictures of a car that might be involved in this. Police are looking for that vehicle. There is a conversation right now between all the different jurisdictions here about trying to coordinate the next efforts because no one has been captured in this right now.

There is no significant description given of a suspect just yet. There have been some robberies in the area but people don't -- are not sure if that's connected at all but right now, the numbers in terms of this is what is shocking to people. You have four women shot. Pretty much in the middle of the afternoon here, and then also in another location 45 minutes outside the city, you have three other women shot now.

So, all those investigators are working to try to figure things out. There was just a news conference in the city of Atlanta where they are pushing all their resources into this to figure out exactly what happened but obviously, this is breaking details as we try to figure out exactly what happened. BURNETT: And seven killed as we see this in the context of this rising

anti-Asian violence across this country. So much we don't know on this. We'll continue to cover this breaking news.

Let's hand it off now to "AC360."