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COVID Cases, Hospitalizations Declining; Dems Defend Biden's Actions As Generals Testify For Second Day; Treasury Secretary: Default Would Be A "Self-Inflicted Wound". Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 29, 2021 - 12:30   ET



DR. JAY VARKEY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE, EMORY UNIVERSITY: And get us back to some semblance of normal.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: When you say back to some semblance of normal that's it. Let's follow up on that point, it's essentially the where are we question. If you look at new cases, new COVID infections, the seven-day average is the lowest since early August. So you see August here when we were going up this fall hill, starting to come down 115,782 on Tuesday, you starting to come down, but you're still well above 100,000 new infections a day, Dr. Varkey.

And then you look at the case trend here. If you look across the country, you see a lot of green. Green means fewer. Green 26 states, fewer new infections now compared to a week ago, 20 states holding steady meaning about the same, only four heading in the wrong direction. So is it safe to say Dr. Varkey, we're in a better place but by no means a good place if you're still above -- if you're in the ballpark of 90,000 or 100,000 new infections a day.

VARKEY: Yes, I think it's 100 percent accurate, John. I think then most of our communities are on the downslope of this Delta wave. But as you said, we're still having 100,000 new cases every day. And there's still over 80,000 Americans are in the hospital, we can't normalize that. Every day in September 1,500 to 2,000 Americans have died of COVID. And again, most of these have been an unvaccinated individuals, which means that most of these deaths have been 100 percent preventable.

This Delta wave has been brutal for hospitals across the country, including my own. And we've been trying to run a hospital within a hospital for about a year and a half. And it's simply impossible to care for people the way we want to when you've got 100 people with COVID, including half that are critically ill in an ICU. So on behalf of everyone that I work with in the hospital, my plea is that we, you know, to the general public, is we continue to work together to drive down these rates.

We can actually get rates our community back to where they were at the end of May and June, when things again seemed to actually get normal. And if we do that, we can actually liberalize things in terms of mask and actually make things safer for all of us. We get into the winter and keep school safe.

KING: You're helping me with the segues quite well there. You say the winter let's -- I want to bring up the case map. This is the National Map now seven day average for 100,000 residents. And you don't want to be red. You see the reddish pink colors over here.

And then orange is worse. If you look, it's everywhere. But the states that are in the red, many of them are in the northern half of the country. Is it the calendar, is it weather, is it fall into winter, now another complication in addition to whether it's vaccines or mask policies in the like?

VARKEY: It can be, John. And again, this isn't a reason to panic. But it's a reason to prepare for those of you remember the holidays or if anybody worked in the hospital, January was brutal, the winter wave that we had after the holidays. We can't do that, again. The system, our healthcare system is built to deal with flu season.

And again, remember, only 50 percent of eligible Americans actually get their seasonal flu vaccine. We need to do better for actually get actually keep this winter safe. So, again, just a plea to the general public, if you're more than six months old, you should get your flu shot.

And then the other thing to remember is that, you know, COVID is more contagious and 10 times more deadly than the flu. So again, for those that are eligible to be vaccine for a COVID, the best way to prepare for the winter and actually keep the healthcare system from collapsing, keep your family safe, get your flu shot. If you're unvaccinated against COVID, get your COVID shot.

KING: Dr. Varkey, as always, thank you very much. Appreciate your insight, sir.

VARKEY: Thanks, John.

KING: Thank you.


Up next for us, America's top military commander back on Capitol Hill defending America's exit from Afghanistan and explaining why he thought it was important to call the Chinese to talk them off the ledge.


KING: Day two of testimony today from America's top military officials up on Capitol Hill, much of it today on the House side pivoting on a day one admission made over on the Senate side, we learned yesterday, the generals recommended that President Biden keep Afghanistan troop levels at 2,500 not as the President decided to go down to zero. Well, today, Democrats on the House side trying to put some cover for the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA), ARMED SERVICES CMTE. CHAIRMAN: People are saying that the President said nobody offered, no one said that we should keep 2,500 there, when what the President actually said was there was no option on the table to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan in a stable environment. That's what he said not that no one presented that option. That option didn't exist in reality.


KING: The panel is back with me. You have some serious policy questions being asked of these generals. But as you can see there from the chairman, also some politics, you know, the Democrats trying to say the President did the best he could here maybe messy, but it was time to get out.

KASIE HUNT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Yes. And I think that one of the things here that has gotten a little bit confused and has been part of the debate all the way along is the Biden ministration has said, OK, well, what would you have had is done stay in Afghanistan forever setting it up, as you know, anyone that that thought we shouldn't have done it this way would have supported the war continuing, when in fact perhaps there was this other option available. And that's what many of his critics have been saying, because of course, it was President Trump who set all of this up.

So but the Afghanistan issue combined with everything else that's going on for this President has made the political environment for Democrats incredibly difficult. And it's been hard for a lot of them to defend the President.

KING: Which is why Republicans do see an opportunity, most Americans supported getting out of Afghanistan. One of the prompts to the President is he promised this would be extremely orderly, and it was not. It was beyond messy, and there are legitimate questions about, should you have had a better plan, how did it go out, what did you do in the moment, those are questions Congress should be asking.


But to your point about the Republicans piling on one thing General Milley did confirm today is that President Donald Trump had signed an order to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by January 15th, 2021, so before he left office back in January. So the Republican argument is that Biden did this precipitously and rushed them out without a plan. It looks like the former President wanted to go even quicker. Republicans will say he would have done it better. But he wanted to get out too.

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: Right. And it's also the concern, once Trump made that agreement with the Taliban is that if U.S. troops had stayed longer, that there would have been more attacks and possibly more bloodshed. And that's the thing I think that resonates most with Americans is they don't want to see the young people in our armed forces coming back in coffins. And so again, it's easy to look in hindsight and say what should have been done. And legitimate questions, of course, about the evacuation process. But the concern is, if U.S. troops it stayed after that agreement was struck, the Taliban could have attacked our men and women.

KING: Right. And not only the troops, but American citizens left in Afghanistan. It's the key point. That was the point that generals making yesterday. So once we got to that point, it was more dangerous to stay, especially given the -- unless you're going to send in tens of thousands of more troops and start a war again.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and the other thing that Milley said both yesterday and today because there has been a lot of attempt by both sides of the aisle and I'm not trying to both sides it here. But to try to assign blame to either Trump or Biden and one of the things Milley has said is this has been 20 years of missteps of missions that have changed and that have this war was lost. Not two weeks ago, not two years ago. But -- and little by little every year that the United States stayed in Afghanistan.

KING: The historical context part sometimes it's hard in Washington, especially in today's Washington. Another thing is, it is remarkable. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs normally immune from politics, they serve, they carry over from one president to another sometimes, one party to another it happens with General Milley here from Republican or Democrat. But he does now admit, it was first revealed in several books about the Trump presidency that he got on the phone in the days after the election with his counterpart in China.

General Milley says he was worried that the Chinese had some intel that Donald Trump was being erratic, that there might be an attack, General Milley, listen here says I was doing my job.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: As part of that conversation, I said, General Lee, there's not going to be a war, there's not going to be attacked between great powers. And if there was, the tensions would build up because going back and forth from all kinds of senior officials. I said, hell, General Lee I'll probably give you a call but we're not going to attack you, trust me. We're not going to attack you.


KING: Milley says, again, this is part of his job. And it was well documented that the Secretary of Defense knew about it, the White House Chief of Staff knew about it, several Republicans are saying you're going outside of the norms, outside of the lines, you should resign.

HUNT: I think it was helpful to hear this from General Milley's voice itself because obviously there's been a lot of conversation about the reporting. And, you know, we've all trusted Bob Woodward and now Bob Acosta to write history for us, but now we have it out of his own mouth, his understanding, his explanation of why he did what he did. And I just will say that there are a lot of Republicans that I talked to privately who were very, very glad that General Milley was doing that that day.

KING: It's an excellent point. What Republicans tell you privately is often very different from what they say publicly in these hearings. Appreciate it everybody.


Up next for us, a brand new commitment just out from the House Speaker, a vote to suspend the debt ceiling and to try to do it today, the promise comes just a little more than 24 hours until the United States collides with another deadline, this one to fund the government.


KING: This just in a brand new commitment from the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she says the House will deal with the debt limit and deal with it today. The United States is set to hit its borrowing limit in about three weeks. Joining me now to discuss this and other big issues, CNN economics and political commentator, Catherine Rampell, and CNN congressional correspondent, Jessica Dean.

So October 18th, the Treasury Secretary says is when the United States runs out of authority to borrow more money. So that means paychecks for federal workers, it means paychecks for the military, you'd get an IOU instead of your check. But it also means the United States would default, which would send a wow signal not only to Wall Street, but around the world. The Speaker says I'm going to bring it to the floor. They don't have any plan to pass this, do they?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the House can get it through, right, because they've got the votes. But you still got to deal with the Senate where Republicans have just looked them straight in the eye of the Democrats and said we're not doing this. So they're still kind of where it all began, John.

They've got to find a way through. And other people have said, well, why not, you know, Mitch McConnell said in the beginning, put it in this economic package, you can pass that along party lines, and Democrats can do this themselves. There's two issues with that. They don't want to do that, number one, number two, there's -- that take some time. And they don't have a lot of time right now.

KING: And again, Washington always needs a deadline. This is the world's most dysfunctional town in my view on Capitol anyway, at least. And you always need a deadline to get there. And so today, finally, with the shutdown deadline, the government would shutdown tomorrow. It looks like they'll have a plan to deal with that they needed a deadline, it looks like they're going to get there. So they have three weeks to deal with this debt ceiling issue.

As Jessica just noted, the House can pass it, but if the Senate Republicans keep saying no, and keep refusing to let it go in or even on a majority vote, let all the Democrats do it. We'll just stand aside, then we don't know. And the Treasury Secretary says that would be dangerous.


JANET YELLEN, TREASURY SECRETARY: This would be a manufactured crisis we had imposed on this country which has been going through a very difficult period is on the road to recovery and it would be a self- inflicted wound of enormous proportions.



KING: This town has been down this road many times, and it's often looked bleak, but you always kind of knew they were going to figure it out. It's different this time, right?

CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm much more worried this time. And I think financial markets themselves have not priced, adequately priced in the risk that things could go really wrong. Yes, it's it feels like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," there have been this brinksmanship before. And somehow they figured out how to raise the debt ceiling.

The difference this time around is A, I think Republicans have gotten more nihilists. In general, they're willing to let the world burn. And B, Democrats can do this on their own but it's really complicated this time, it's much more complicated to pass it through reconciliation at this point than it would have been several months ago, or had been the case in previous years because they have to go back and do a bunch of other intermediate steps.

They have to amend the budget resolution. They have to have many hours of floor time and voteramas and all sorts of other complicated things that the American public doesn't care about. But that takes time that meet -- that time that we don't have, essentially. And there's a little bit of uncertainty about even the October 18th deadline,

KING: Not the way you would do it at home or at your business. If you are facing big financial questions, you have a better plan than this town has. Let's move on to another question. You have some important reporting. I know this issue is very important to you. One, Democrats have a lot they're trying to fit into this so-called reconciliation bill which is their agenda bill.

One of the items is expanding the child tax credit, which they put in, there's a temporary version of it now, they want to make it permanent, these are some numbers cost $110 billion for 2021, it would be $556 billion if you extended it just through 2025. The Democrats want to make this permanent in the reconciliation bill. But that costs a lot of money. And you got to get some key votes.

DEAN: Right. So sources are telling me it's on the list of things they could cut, because as we know, Manchin and Sinema are saying we're not going for $3.5 trillion. So they're going to have to narrow that down. The thing with the child tax credit is, you know, there are so many Democrats really see this as a legacy issue, it's something that can actually lift children out of poverty.

You know, millions of children out of poverty, John. So there's -- I sat down with Senator Cory Booker, who's been one of four that are really fighting for this. And he did tell me, he said, I'm frustrated, I have to make this case to my fellow Democrats. But he's hoping they can get it in.

There's a couple parts of it. One, it's keeping it fully refundable. And that sounds like a lot of jargon. But what that means is for the poorest Americans, they're going to be able to get that and that would be permanent, they would get the full tax credit.

The second part is what you were talking about extending those enhanced benefits through 2025. And getting these monthly checks, which remember, as we saw during the COVID relief bill, they make the argument that's a lot more effective for these families to get $300 a month, you can budget it in like income in a way.

KING: And you wrote about this in your "Washington Post" column the other day about, well, there's a number of things in the Democratic proposal that would be game changing. In terms of the government's role in the economy, the government's role in your life, you heard about this is a -- it's very wildly popular. The question is, can the Democrats figure out the math to make it happen?

RAMPELL: I think the challenge for Democrats right now is that their eyes are bigger than their stomach. Even that $3.5 trillion figure that we keep hearing about the, you know, the total amount of their spending and their tax cuts, they've wildly exceeded that box that they have placed for themselves.

Right now, we don't have an official Congressional Budget Office score, but probably we're looking at about $5 trillion worth of programs, and much less in terms of offsets than Biden had initially proposed, because Democrats have actually gotten cold feet about taxing the rich in a number of ways.

And so the question is, how are they going to fit all of their agenda items into this one tiny, one box that they've set for themselves, and it's going to be challenging because every vote counts.

KING: One box the size of the box to be determined.

DEAN: That's right.

KING: It's definitely only one box. Thank you both for coming at the very important issues.


When we come back, fireworks at the final debate in the Virginia governor's race, each candidate accusing the other of lying to voters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: Topping our Political Radar today, drama in the Virginia governor's race. In their final debate, the Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Republican Glenn Youngkin, fighting over abortion, Donald Trump, and vaccine mandates, a key issue in the hotly contested race.


GLENN YOUNGKIN (R-VA), GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: I actually believe that everyone should get the vaccine. Despite the fact it's the most egregious untruth that my opponent continues to say about me.

TERRY MCAULIFFE (D-VA), GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: Let's be clear. Glenn Youngkin is one who has been lying to you. And he could have send a child to a school where the teachers not wearing a mask and the teachers not vaccinated.

YOUNGKIN: I do believe the COVID vaccine is one that everyone should get. But we shouldn't mandate it.


KING: COVID and civil rights are two big things in a new digital ad blitz in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Democratic group Priorities USA spending $1.7 million, it hopes to boost turnout in the upcoming midterms. The ads encouraging early in person voting, they'll run in both English and Spanish.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who are we voting for? We're voting for each other. For those who struggled before us, for those we've lost, and for the next generation, that's who we're voting for. What about you?


KING: And congratulations today to the Bush family, former first daughter Barbara Bush giving birth to her first child on Monday, baby girl named Cora Georgia Coyne. Barbara's twin sister Jenna shared this photo of her new niece on Instagram. She is now the fourth grandchild of the former President George W. Bush and the former First Lady, Laura Bush. Congratulations to the Bush family.

And thanks for joining us in Inside Politics today. We'll see you tomorrow. Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage right now.