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Inside Politics

U.S. Energy Department Reports COVID Likely Leaked From China Lab; Bipartisan Lawmakers Push Pass Paid Family And Medical Leave; Biden: Committed To Passing National Paid Leave; Toxic Waste Shipments Out Of East Palestine, Ohio Resume; Dems Launch Billboard Campaign To Tie NY GOP Freshmen To Santos; Rep. Elissa Slotkin Running For Senate In Michigan; First Lady On Biden's Plan To Run In 2024: "I'm All For It". Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 27, 2023 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Does it matter if it was a lab leak or human transmission from the market?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, PROFESSOR OF EMERGENCY MEDICARE: It matters because it can inform our steps for the prevention of the next pandemic. But we're not going to know likely, perhaps ever, but certainly not in time for things like H5N1, which we're already facing down.

I think we can take the lessons from a public health perspective whether this was an unintentional lab leak, which points to the fact that we need better biosecurity protocols for labs across the world and we need better monitoring of labs across the world. Or whether this was animal to human transmission like what we're seeing with H5N1.

There again, we need better monitoring, surveillance, and a better ability to respond quickly. Regardless of what the answer is, we know the next step. And I'll tell you, John, while we're focusing on where COVID-19 started, we're not spending time thinking about how to keep America from ever having to go through the last three years again.

KING: So fighting the last fight isn't necessarily helpful when you're trying to move on to the next fight. You were in the Trump administration serving in the intelligence community when all this happened. You were part of the original conversation in the intelligence community about, can we say definitively how this started.

Jake Sullivan, the President's National Security Adviser in television over the weekend, even after this, is the Biden Energy Department saying it is moving to low confidence. But its assessment is labeling. Jake Sullivan says, doesn't prove anything.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: There is a variety of views in the intelligence community. Some elements of the intelligence community have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other. A number of them have said they just don't have enough information to be sure. Right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question.


KING: So with all the time passed from when you were trying to answer this question to when they're trying to answer this question and he still says not a definitive. Does the Energy Department assessment move the ball at all, in your view, or is it still an open question?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It doesn't really move the needle, but I think it's really great news in one way and that it shows the intelligence community continues to look for, seek out and analyze information. And so they continue to try to ferret this out. And when they take that information in, it means that some agencies are changing their views. Others aren't, because it's still quite fragmented and inconclusive, it seems to me.

KING: So if you listen to Mike McCaul, who's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he says this, "I'm pleased the Department of Energy has finally reached the same conclusion that I had already come to. Now is the time for the entire Biden administration to conclude what common sense told us at the start. COVID-19 pandemic originated from a lab leak."

He says common sense says this. From the very beginning, though a number of Republicans have not only said lab link, but they blame Dr. Anthony Fauci. Listen.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: You can see how moral responsibility or culpability attaches to Dr. Fauci because he had the poor judgment to fund this lab.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: Why don't Democrats on this committee want to know how the virus started? Was it a leak from a lab, a lab in Wuhan, China? American people probably like to know. After all, they've had their liberties assaulted.

REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREEN (R), GEORGIA: Anthony Fauci was using American tax dollars and sending it to the Wuhan lab. They created a virus, and this virus clearly escaped the Wuhan lab and killed people.


KING: I want you to help me at the end. Public health perspective first, intelligence perspective second. Is that at all helpful in the sense that you would like the answer to this question if you could get it to hear them, it's Dr. Fauci's fault.

RANNEY: Give me a break. What I want to concentrate on is how are we going to build back up healthcare so that we have adequate numbers of doctors and nurses and other health care providers. I want to know how we're monitoring to make sure that the next animal to human transmission or maybe another unintentional lab leak doesn't happen and doesn't spread.

And I want us to have better international cooperation in the public health space that we never have the kind of clear hiding of the original outbreak that happened in Wuhan. We should be talking about that and building up our international surveillance systems rather than continuing to focus on, as you said, a fire that's already started.

KING: But you can bet in the next campaign some Republican candidates will say, no, U.S. assistance should go to Chinese labs because of this. Fair point?

SANNER: I'm going to leave it up to others to decide whether that assistance is meaningful in terms of research. But I will say just very clearly if you want to blame somebody in terms of how this all unfolded, it's very clear that China hid this, did not move quickly enough, and now is blocking investigation.

And Ambassador Burns, the U.S. Ambassador to China, said that again today. So that's fair. But like to say that the intelligence community is like the average person, you know, this is where we're blessed, actually, no. We don't just take information or just take a feeling and turn it into analysis. We're actually doing a rigorous process. And that's why we don't know yet. The evidence isn't there.


KING: Beth Sanner and Dr. Ranney, appreciate you both being here.

Up next for us, compromise on Capitol Hill ahead. Lawmakers on opposing sides cheer the goal of passing family and medical leave. But can they do this in the age of divided government?


KING: A new bipartisan group in Congress hopes, hopes to prove Conventional Wisdom wrong. The CW at issue is the belief that with divided government here in Washington, that means forget about passing any major new policy initiatives.


But Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan and Stephanie Bice are leading a working group whose goal is to pass a new law guaranteeing, guaranteeing paid family and medical leave.


REP. CHRISSY HOULAHAN (D), PENNSYLVANIA: We have an opportunity rich environment right now to use a military term, to make sure that we take advantage of this really special time honestly where the majorities and minorities are so small and so slim that it really requires that we work together.

REP. STEPHANIE BICE (R), OKLAHOMA: The time is now that it's time for us to, you know, find a solution and take action. 30 years is too long.


KING: That was a conversation with you. Congresswoman Houlahan actually making the contrarian argument that because Congress is so divided, because the margins are so small that that creates the opening, not the opposite. Does she really believe that?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: She -- well, she believes that that is a possibility. I do think so. And the reason is because in the last Congress, she was able to work across the aisle to get paid family and medical leave for government workers, which shockingly didn't even exist for federal workers and in the military.

And, you know, it was interesting to hear the Republican there, Stephanie Bice. These are conservative Republican talk about the fact that now there are 33 House Republican women. And that should make a difference when it comes to the conversation and pushing these issues to the front of the table and to the front of their ideas. Because these are issues that matter to every family, man and woman out there.

And whether it is, if they have children or if they have somebody in their family who is ill and they need to take time off, they have to leave. And the fact that 75 percent of the workforce does not have a capability to do so while being paid, it puts us so far behind America, so far behind the -- almost the entire globe.

KING: You say almost the entire globe. The United States is one of seven countries without some form of universal paid leave. The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau. Papua New Guinea, Tonga. It's almost embarrassing to a degree.

Let's look at the working group because it's an interesting group. You see the Democrats. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Colin Allred, you have a man in the group, Democrat of Texas. He's the first member of Congress I believe to take paternity leave.

BASH: Yes.

KING: To take paternity leave. Haley Stevens of Michigan and then the three women Republicans. You mentioned, conservative Stephanie Bice, so is Julia Letlow, so is Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa. So it's interesting if they can actually come to an agreement to present it to both of their leadership. What are the politics here?

If you're the Democrats, it's going to be smaller than you like, without a doubt. You're going to have to concede some Republican conservative principles. Maybe it's market incentives as opposed to government aid or something like that. But if they can come to an agreement, can they get their leadership to sign off?

MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I mean, that's going to be the big question, and you can insert any policy issue into that. And I do think to your point, for Democratic leadership, they really are calculating right now. Where can we sign on with Republicans? And would that be too much of a win for them? They're already thinking about the midterms. This might be something they could easily message on and say, well, if Republicans aren't signing on, this is actually something that a Democratic leadership would want to bring forth. The Republican leadership is a completely different question, because this is not necessarily in their wheelhouse (ph) as much as it is.

And if they can get there, it would be monumental for them to strike any kind of policy agreement. But it's unclear right now, just given how those margins exist among Republicans, there could be some who say, oh, my gosh, this could, I don't know, contribute to inflation. This could just not help the economy in one way or the other, which are a lot of the arguments that you're hearing nowadays from Republicans.

So it could be tricky. It would be a good win, I think, for Republican leadership to get something done. But we'll see exactly what this would look like.

KING: And so, Joe Biden would love to move into the reelection campaign saying, hey, I prove I can get things done. He'll have the bipartisan infrastructure act in the rear-view mirror. He was at an event with Bill Clinton earlier in the month. 30 years ago, Bill Clinton signed unpaid family leave. Unpaid family leave. And Joe Biden said, let's make it paid.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The economy is growing. Wages are up. A critical part of that is creating an economy where all workers, including women, have access to jobs, education, training, and support they need to seize the opportunity.

And the United States, still one of our only countries in the world that doesn't guarantee paid leave. I remain committed to changing that and bringing the line with every single other major economy in the world by passing a national program.


KING: I assume that he'd be thrilled to get to sign something like this. I also assume it's probably best politically for him not to touch this group, right? Let them do their work. Don't get presidential politics involved in at the beginning.

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, USA TODAY: Well, the White House's M.O. has been generally to let Congress work these things out among themselves. But when it comes to paid family leave when he spoke to the Democratic National Committee members earlier this month, this was also on the list of things he said that he wanted to get done as he started to make that reelection case for the long list of things he hasn't finished yet that he'd like to continue to do.

[12:45:14] So it certainly is a priority for this president in the White House. When it comes to making an agreement with Republicans, though, in the last presidency, there were a number of Republican senators who had, you know, working groups and try to come up with ways to get this done also.

But they wanted to use Social Security money in order to be able to do this. And Democrats said, no, you can't touch entitlements. We won't pay for it that way. So how they would pay for it is really the big question.

KING: Be fascinated to see if they could figure it out at a time when most people, this anchor included, think hard to do anything big with government so divided. But we like surprises, don't we?

Next for us, the EPA stepping up its oversight of the cleanup in East Palestine, Ohio, as Republicans in Washington vowed to dig into what they call a flawed response from the Biden White House.

Plus, a defiant George Santos wants to keep his seat in Congress, but some Democrats say not so fast. And they are launching a new billboard campaign aimed at embarrassing fellow New York Republicans.



KING: Contaminated soil and water shipments out of East Palestine have resumed. That after the EPA halted that process on Friday so that it could review the disposal plans. That waste will now head to two Ohio cities for processing and disposal. Meanwhile, both parties in Washington say they want answers, though they seem to be asking different questions.

The Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants the CEO of Norfolk Southern to testify at an oversight hearing. House Republicans, though, are focusing on what they label a flawed response by the Biden administration.

Let's bring in CNN's Miguel Marquez, who's been following this story for us. Miguel, what's the latest?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, toxic train derailment seeps into our toxic politics, essentially. Look, there's a lot of activity right now in East Palestine, Ohio. Federal teams are going door to door conducting health surveys, getting out information about everything from health screenings to, if you need your water or air tested.

They are testing the air in homes and in the town. They have those air monitors set up everywhere. So far there have been no signs of contamination. They're drilling wells around the most toxic areas of that train derailment to see if the groundwater has seeped into the ground. And if that plume is moving, this is likely to take, if not months, probably years, before they know sort of where that -- how much toxicity there is in that water and in the ground and where it's moving and what it might threaten.

You know, all of this as the Congress is taking up those hearings on the House side and on the Senate side, both focusing on different things. John?

KING: Miguel Marquez, keeping track of the source. Miguel, thank you very much.

MARQUEZ: You got it.

KING: Here in Washington, Democrats looking to make another New York -- other New York Republicans, excuse me, pay for the repeated lies of the Congressman George Santos. Today, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rolling out new billboard ads looking like this one here, targeting five freshmen Republicans who took donations from Santos.

Let's bring in CNN's Melanie Zanona, who's tracking this and has some new reporting. Democrats, little mischief here.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, Democrats are trying to make this George Santos saga as painful as possible for Republicans. They really think he is going to be a huge liability for the entire GOP, especially in key swing districts in New York, and Democrats are starting to put their money where their mouth is.

CNN has learned that the House Democratic campaign arm is launching a new billboard campaign beginning today that is calling out five New York House Republicans who took campaign donations from George Santos. Those five lawmakers are Nick LaLota, Anthony D'Esposito, Mike Lawler, Marc Molinaro and Brandon Williams.

All of them are freshmen and all of them are thought to be top targets for Democrats in the next election cycle. Now, we should point out that Molinaro and D'Esposito both did return the campaign donations once some of these financial issues for Santos came to light. But those billboards are still calling them out anyway for taking the donations in the first place. And they're just trying to really link George Santos to these Republicans as tightly as possible.

Now, it's worth noting that these five House Republicans have been some of the most vocal critics in their party, either calling to condemn Santos or calling on him to resign. In fact, Nick LaLota, a congressman, he took it even further today in a tweet calling for Santos to be expelled and saying this is one of the most provable cases of election fraud that he had ever seen.

So clearly, House Republicans trying to put a lot of distance between themselves and George Santos as Democrats are looking to takeback those critical swing seats in New York. John?

KING: Mr. Santos will stay front and center as long as the Democrats can keep him there. As long as he keeps himself there.

ZANONA: Exactly.

KING: Melanie Zanona, I appreciate that reporting. Thank you.

Up next for us, more 2024 campaign rumblings. The Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin wants to be a senator, and the First Lady offers CNN her take on the President's plan.



KING: Topping our political radar today, the first Democratic entry into the campaign to replace the retiring Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Congressman Elissa Slotkin announcing her bid today just months after she was reelected in a highly competitive House district.


REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN (D), MICHIGAN: Look, we all know America is going through something right now. We seem to be living crisis to crisis. But there are certain things that should be really simple. This is why I'm running for the United States Senate. We need a new generation of leaders that thinks differently, works harder, and never forgets that we are public servants.


KING: Here's a clearer sign President Biden gearing up for reelection. This is the First Lady in an exclusive interview with CNN.


JILL BIDEN, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: And we support whatever he wants to do. If he's in, we're there. If he wants to do something else, we're there too.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is there any chance at this point that he's not going to run?

JILL BIDEN: Not in my book.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're all for it?

JILL BIDEN: I'm all for it. Of course.


KING: We'll see you tomorrow. Abby Phillip picks up our coverage right now.