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Threats Against Officials, New Laws May Destabilize Elections; Russian President in Isolation After Inner Circle Members Tested Positive for COVID; Black, Hispanic People Underrepresented in Testing, Vaccinations; Police Prepare for Armed Rallygoers at Saturday's D.C. Event; Secretary of State Antony Blinken Defends Biden Administration's Afghanistan Withdrawal. Aired 7:30-8a ET
Aired September 14, 2021 - 07:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Republican legislators passed a law that bans drive-through and 24- hour voting favored in heavily minority Houston and creates new hurdles for mail-in voters. The Texas legislation also makes it a crime for election workers to interfere with partisan poll watchers.
STATE REP. CARL SHERMAN (D-TX): We're at a tipping point as a nation and our democracy is at stake.
GRIFFIN: Democratic legislators like Carl Sherman fled the state trying to prevent a vote on the bill. The standoff ended after 38 days.
SHERMAN: It matters because we've got a long history of cherry picking who can vote and who cannot vote.
GRIFFIN: If all these election laws being surfaced in Republican-led states seemed like a coordinated effort, that's because it is.
JESSICA ANDERSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HERITAGE ACTION FOR AMERICA: We have honed in on these eight specific focused states.
GRIFFIN: A former Trump administration official who now heads up the conservative Heritage Action for America said the group had made recommendations to several states, which ended up in election related bills.
ANDERSON: From there, as we create this echo chamber, we're working with these state legislators to make sure they have all of the information they need to draft the bills. In some cases we actually draft them for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, you know, from the bottom-up type of vibe.
GRIFFIN: Donald Trump's big lie and his party's willingness to go along with the facade is now the biggest threat to free and fair elections we face.
RICHARD L. HASEN, LAW PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE: It used to be unthinkable to contemplate election subversion in the United States. It's now not only become thinkable but become something that we need to spend the next few years guarding against. It is the greatest danger facing American democracy today.
GRIFFIN: It's dangerous, John, because it's destabilizing according to all the election officials and experts we talked to. A democracy depends on the losers agreeing that the election was conducted in a fair way and agreeing to fight another day. If you don't have that acceptance, you don't have democracy, and right now with Donald Trump and his followers, we don't have that -- John.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Dangerous for the country and also dangerous for a lot of individuals involved.
Drew Griffin, thank you again so much for your reporting.
Joining me now is Al Schmidt, the Republican Philadelphia City commissioner. He oversaw the 2020 election there.
Al, always great to speak with you. Commissioner, look, we spoke a few times, but as the votes were still being counted in Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia, where you were, and you at the time said you saw no evidence of mass fraud there. What was the impact of that comment from you? What did people then say to you after you refused to say that this election was stolen?
AL SCHMIDT (R), PHILADELPHIA CITY COMMISSIONER: Well, immediately after that interview, the president tweeted at me by name, referring to me as a RINO, saying that I was being used and refusing to look at voter fraud in Philadelphia. Of course there was no widespread voter fraud in Philadelphia. But that's really what led to a series of death threats and, you know, efforts to coerce.
BERMAN: Death threats and efforts to coerce. Not just, I imagine you, but also your family?
SCHMIDT: Right. I mean, this rhetoric, these threats that we're all too familiar with, and unfortunately, as you know, and your report shows and the Brennan Center report shows, I'm not unique at all. It's going on across the country. But the rhetoric isn't empty rhetoric. It has a purpose and that purpose is resulting in good, professional fair-minded election officials across the country not running for reelection or being defeated by people who have partisan political intentions to disrupt or discredit legitimate election results.
BERMAN: So what happens then? I mean, what happens if the civics minded people get pushed out?
SCHMIDT: Well, I mean, that's the big danger is that if people who intentionally want to discredit fair and free elections are successful, then that undoubtedly destabilizes our entire democratic process when a majority of my party believes that the election was stolen, believes that when we lose, it's because the election was rigged, it's really left to just one party right now to uphold the democratic process.
If that falls and it goes from a majority of a party to a majority of Americans, then I think that's an even greater danger. And I'm afraid we're facing that right now.
BERMAN: So Republicans in your state are trying to launch a 2020 election audit of sorts. What's your feeling about that?
SCHMIDT: Well, as a former senior auditor for the federal government, for the GAO, I have very strong feelings about it in that really what's been discussed isn't an audit at all. It's a partisan political enterprise, and as an election administrator, that concerns me greatly as well because it's really not about finding answers. It's really about trying to discredit the fair election results.
And I would add that since we've been discussing threats, you know, those threats really spiked around election time leading up to certification. They go away, but whenever this talk of audits and bringing to other states what has happened in Arizona occurs, the threats resume as they have here in Philadelphia with my fellow commissioners and I.
BERMAN: Al Schmidt, Republican, Philadelphia city commissioner. I have to say, being an election official is not a job that you require hazard pay, but at this point, it might. Appreciate what you do.
SCHMIDT: Thank you, sir.
BERMAN: New COVID concerns surrounding Russia's Vladimir Putin. We are live in Moscow, next.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And new data on who's being left behind when it comes to testing and vaccines in the U.S.
KEILAR: The Kremlin says Russian president Vladimir Putin is self- isolating because of coronavirus cases in his inner circle. It says the Russian leader who is vaccinated has tested negative and is healthy.
CNN's Matthew Chance is live for us in Moscow with more.
Matthew, what can you tell us here?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brianna, he's tested negative. He is healthy as you say, but it's still extraordinary for the Russian president to have been exposed in this way to somebody who has been found to have COVID, but he has had a lot of meetings over the past 24 hours raising sort of the question about where he could have gotten this from.
For instance, he's been on military exercises in the west of the country, meeting members of the armed forces and inspecting them. There have been cases of, you know, coronavirus running rife throughout the ranks of the Russian military. He's been meeting Paralympians, congratulating them and awarding them after their performance at the games in Japan so that's a possibility as well.
I think most intriguingly, just 24 hours ago, Vladimir Putin met the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad who flew to Moscow unannounced and they had a sort of one-on-one, face-to-face meeting. The Kremlin aren't saying the sort of culprit when it comes to this potential exposure, this exposure, but as you say, they are saying that Vladimir Putin isn't in any danger and that he has tested negative for COVID- 19.
KEILAR: They'll probably need to test him again, Matthew, I would think, right, to be sure?
CHANCE: Yes, I think they probably will. There's obviously a regime that's set in place to make sure people who are confirmed to having COVID-19 are confirmed as not having it but of course remember, Brianna, Russia has a massive problem with the disease. There are more than seven million people who have been infected. Nearly 200,000 dead, and that's official figures, the real figure are higher than that.
KEILAR: Indeed. Matthew, thank you so much for that report from Moscow for us.
New this morning, data exclusively shared with CNN by Johns Hopkins University that shows despite the elevated risk, the black and Hispanic people in the United States face for COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death, both groups are largely underrepresented in testing and vaccination.
Joining us now CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Sanjay, tell us a little bit more about what we're learning and also why this is a big problem?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, this is a problem that's been really going on since the beginning of the pandemic, and frankly in terms of health inequities long before that as well.
Let me show you the numbers, first of all, looking at the impact of this disease, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, overall, on blacks and Hispanics versus the general population. 1.1 times more likely to be diagnosed if you're black. Two times more likely to die. For Hispanics, the inequities are even greater.
What this new data shows, though, is then you look at that and you try to match up the idea of vaccination rates, and again, you see inequities in the wrong direction. So they looked at, for example, in California and Texas, they looked at Hispanic population in California, and found that despite these numbers, despite the case rates, 54 percent likelihood of cases in California, you had about 28 percent of the population being vaccinated.
So you're not vaccinating the people who are having the highest burden of this disease. They saw this in Texas as well. Again, 15 percent of the cases represented by blacks but only 8 percent of vaccinations. It's a problem. I mean, you obviously want to make sure vaccinations are widespread, but as we've talked about for so long, the people who are the most vulnerable, the most at risk certainly need to be targeted.
So this is new data, as you point out. We're just reporting that this morning. Hopefully it's going to lead to some increased outreach efforts around the country because even though these are two specific places, it's probably reflective of a much bigger problem.
BERMAN: Sanjay, there's news about boosters, and this is the discussion that I think you have a keen interest in. Two departing FDA leaders are among a group of scientists who say COVID-19 vaccines don't show a need for boosting at this moment. What can you tell us about this, and how does this figure in with the data and the reports we're getting back from Israel about the boosters there?
GUPTA: Yes. There's a real division here, John. You and I have talked about this for some time.
It's not a slam dunk sort of decision on boosters. With vaccines overall, obviously a slam dunk, really, really effective. But the idea of what exactly are you getting for your booster, should it be recommended to the general population, that's seems to be what this division is about. I think where this is heading, just cutting to the chase for a second, is that the boosters are likely to be recommended for certain people, for people over a certain age, for example.
Already recommended for those who are immune compromised. But maybe for people who are vulnerable because of age or preexisting conditions as well. But really what this comes down to is a graft that I think you may have seen before, looking at how well the current vaccines work, which is really well. You look at hospitalizations, for example, this came out of a CDC study, and what you find is that if you are unvaccinated, you are far more likely to end up with severe illness.
The flat line at the bottom, that you can barely see, that is a hospitalization rate among the vaccinated. The unvaccinated is the line that sort of the roller coaster ride and going up there on the right side of the screen, much higher likelihood, and that's always been the issue, so what these FDA advisers who are leaving the agency have said, they wrote a letter along with lots of other scientists, basically saying that there's not enough evidence across the board to recommend boosters. Maybe for certain people.
They also bring up the idea that, look, if you're going to start boosting people, and this is going to be a regular thing, should it be specific to the variant, kind of like the flu shot changes every year, should they be doing that for the COVID vaccine as well. And what's the right time frame here? Is this a yearly thing? So I think that they basically thought this was happening without
enough data to sort of support it across the board.
KEILAR: All right, Sanjay I hate to go there, but one, we think it's important to debunked disinformation especially when it comes to people with huge social media followings, and two, I think I drew the short straw here. So this is the question. Rapper Nicki Minaj says that her cousin's friend, and she put this on social media, she has 22 million followers, she said he has swollen testicles after taking the vaccine.
She cited that actually as one of the reasons that she has yet to be vaccinated. She claims that she's not against the vaccine but she says she wants to do more research. What do you say to that, Sanjay?
GUPTA: Well, so her cousin's friends who has orchitis, is the term, medical term for swollen testicles, you know, I have no doubt that this something that has happened to this individual, and also have no doubt really that it's not related to the vaccine. I mean, that's the thing, is you get a lot of people out there who have these -- you know, you've got 32 percent of the country vaccinated, you're going to have people who have concomitant issues with the vaccine that have nothing to do with the vaccine.
So I don't think that that's problem. People are going to read about that. Vaccine causing orchitis or swollen testicles. That's not a thing. That's not something to worry about. Now in terms of being impotent or, you know, fertility issues, that has been a misconception almost since the vaccine rolled out. There's all sorts of different, you know, reasons why that became a misconception. But there are plenty of studies. Nicki Minaj says she wants to do a research. There's plenty of research out there.
The "Journal of the American Medical Association" looked specifically at fertility issues and didn't find fertility issues. You have nearly 200 million people now who have received the shots in the United States, billions of people around the world. This is not an issue. So, you know, I appreciate her wanting to do the research. It's out there. I wish her cousin's friend well, but that's not related to the vaccine. It may be related to another type of infection that could have been prevented by a vaccine, but not the COVID-19 vaccine.
BERMAN: Look, and I think that's the serious analysis, Sanjay, of what this is, which is if she does the research that she says she wants to do she would have found out that this isn't an issue, fertility, and there's no connection whatsoever to orchitis, which is a word I've never heard before but now we'll use.
KEILAR: I'm definitely using that instead of what I said. I appreciate it.
BERMAN: Sanjay, thank you very much.
GUPTA: You got it. Thank you.
BERMAN: Up next, police preparing to protect the U.S. Capitol on Saturday from armed right-wing demonstrators.
KEILAR: And Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez trying to send a message at a gala event with an elite guest list. Did it work?
KEILAR: The U.S. Capitol is about to be fenced off once again after police declared an emergency ahead of a right-wing rally this Saturday. And CNN has learned that police are preparing for some demonstrators to be armed.
CNN's Whitney Wild has the latest on that. This is a concerning development.
WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Especially considering what we saw earlier this week, someone arrested with weapons here in Washington, D.C. so concerns certainly ramping up. Hundreds of people are planning a protest around the Capitol this Saturday in defense of people who were arrested for taking part in the January 6th insurrection. Law enforcement officials are expecting counter protesters to show up as well.
And Brianna, as you mentioned, they are preparing for some of these people at this event to possibly be armed. That's according to a source who is part of a briefing on preparations. The possibility of violence brought about that emergency declaration, which means that temporary fence put up around the Capitol after January 6th going back up. The Capitol will be able to -- Capitol Police, rather, will be able to deputize outside law enforcement officers as backup, something they desperately needed on January 6th, but we know came too late.
They are clearly trying to be better prepared than they were on that horrible day especially given that there is violent online chatter surrounding this event. Capitol Police Tom Manger said yesterday, "We are here to protect everyone's First Amendment right to peacefully protest. I urged anyone who's thinking about causing trouble to stay home. We will enforce the law and not tolerate violence."
His announcement came not long after police arrested a California man near the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They said he had a bayonet, a machete in his truck which was covered in white supremacist symbols. This is just another example of why Capitol Police are not taking chances this Saturday. The department now under new leadership promising better communication, better intelligence sharing with officers and other law enforcement agencies. Internal reviews we know had partially blamed intelligence sharing failures for the lack of preparedness on January 6th.
Brianna, I think it is worth noting that it is very likely the fact that Tom Manger is a local guy which gave him the edge in selecting him as a chief because he can round up the local law enforcement quickly because he knows everybody here. So that's one advantage they have going into this. This may be one of the first major tests for his administration at the police department, so we'll see how it shakes. But they're not taking any chances.
KEILAR: Yes. Look, that violent chatter is very concerning, so we'll be watching this ahead of this rally.
Whitney, thank you so much.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken grilled on Capitol Hill about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Hear how he responded next.
BERMAN: And the story behind the "Tax the Rich" dress worn by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she --
BERMAN: Schmoozed, schmoozed with wealthy guests at a gala event. Was this hypocritical?
BERMAN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken defending the Biden administration against harsh criticism of the handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. In a contentious hearing Monday Blinken argued that the president was faced with two difficult options, ending the war or escalating it.
CNN's Kylie Atwood has this report.
KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Secretary of State Antony Blinken defending the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment and training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another 10?
ATWOOD: Blinken, the first Biden administration official to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pushing back against criticism of how the war ended.
BLINKEN: He made the right decision in ending America's longest war. We made the right decision in not sending a third generation of Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan.
ATWOOD: The secretary of State highlighting the massive evacuation of over 124,000 people, one of the biggest airlifts in history. But with that effort, chaos during the evacuation ultimately leading to the death of 13 U.S. service members in an attack outside the Kabul airport. Blinken saying the United States had no choice but to withdraw by Biden's August 31st deadline under extreme pressure from the Taliban.
BLINKEN: It made very clear that if we move past that deadline, it would resume the attacks that it had stopped on our forces and on our allies and partners.
ATWOOD: Republicans slamming Blinken's defense.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You should resign.
ATWOOD: And the Biden administration's handling of the pullout.
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban.
ATWOOD: But the top U.S. diplomat deflecting blame to President Biden's predecessor instead.
BLINKEN: We inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan.
ATWOOD: Emphasizing the Trump administration made the deal with the Taliban in the first place, without making any plans for the withdrawal.
BLINKEN: Had the president not made good on the agreement reached by the previous administration, the attacks on our forces and partner forces would have resumed, and the offensive to take over Afghanistan's cities would have commenced.
ATWOOD: GOP Congressman Adam Kinzinger saying both the Biden and the Trump administration --