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U.S. on Verge of 'Economic Collapse' as Congress Fights; CIA Director's Staffer Reports Havana Syndrome Symptoms; Biden to Speak to U.N. for First Time as President; Search Intensifies for Gabby Petito's Fiance After Body Found; 675,000+ Americans Killed by COVID, Surpassing 1918 Pandemic. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 21, 2021 - 06:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Brianna Keilar with John Berman, and it is Tuesday, September 21.


On this NEW DAY, the U.S. is racing toward what Janet Yellen calls economic catastrophe, thanks to Congress and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle engaging in a game of chicken, with the economic recovery at stake.

America is on the verge of default unless Congress raises the debt limit. House Democrats expected to vote today on a bill that would essentially dare Republicans to vote against it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell indicating he's not budging.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Since Democrats decided to go it alone, they will not get Senate Republicans' help with raising the debt limit.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Default or economic catastrophe would be the worst birthday present ever for Brianna Keilar. It is her birthday today.

Happy birthday, Brianna.

KEILAR: Thank you.

BERMAN: On top of that, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the fate of President Biden's economic agenda faces a critical 48 hours. She is trying to lock down a deal on the huge spending package. Also the bipartisan infrastructure deal.

But as our Manu Raju reports, it is currently open warfare between progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party. Pelosi has set a deadline of next Monday to vote on the infrastructure deal, but progressives say they won't vote on that bill until the budget deal is passed, something that will be virtually impossible to get through in under a week.

Still, Pelosi publicly is expressing optimism.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): We're just moving in a forward direction. I'm very pleased with the hard work that the members have done. And it's a question now of finalizing. And everything is on schedule.


KEILAR: CNN's Lauren Fox joining us now to talk about the crucial days and weeks ahead here. OK, Lauren, tell us about the first deadline here that Congress has to deal with.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Congress has less than a week, Brianna, to actually get through their infrastructure and social safety net agenda. And that's for a few reasons.

Remember, the speaker promised moderates that she would bring that bipartisan Senate-passed infrastructure bill to the floor of the House by Monday of next week. But now progressives are saying, unless she can also muscle through that $3.5 trillion social safety net bill, they're going to vote no on the infrastructure bill.

And that's a problem. Because if progressives start voting en masse against the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, then Republicans would have to make up the difference in votes. And right now, they're saying that's on Democrats. If they can't get their party together, we're not going to provide the votes to get this out of the House of Representatives and to the president's desk.

So the infrastructure agenda, the social safety net agenda, that's really in peril right now. And the next six days are going to be critical to getting Republicans and Democrats on the same page on that infrastructure bill, and progressives and moderates on the same page on that social safety net bill.

And a lot of differences remain. You have the fact that you have two moderate members of the Senate still saying that that price tag is too high. Three point five trillion dollars, Joe Manchin says, isn't going to be something he can vote for on that social safety net bill.

You also have differences over the tax increases, as well as differences over a provision to lower the cost of prescription drugs, Brianna. So a lot of moving parts here and not much time to get these differences resolved.

KEILAR: I always love this twofer that Congress can set up with the debt ceiling and then with a looming government shutdown. Can you tell us what's happening there with this critical moment that House Democrats are testing today?

FOX: Well, look, Democrats are basically daring Republicans to shut down the government, because they do not want to vote to increase the debt ceiling.

So here's what Democrats have done. They've tied these two things together. You have the September 30th deadline to fund the government. That has to happen, or you get a government shutdown.

So now, Democrats are saying, Republicans, you don't want to raise the debt ceiling? Too bad. If you want to keep the government open, which a lot of Republicans do, then you're going to have to vote yes on this entire package.

So we're going to see a little test vote today in the House of Representatives. I expect that not many Republicans, if any, are actually going to vote with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government, because so many are opposed to increasing the debt ceiling. They're arguing Democrats need to just do this by themselves.

But this becomes a real problem, once you get to the U.S. Senate. Because over there, you need Republican votes. You have to get to 60 to fund the government.

Now, Republicans are arguing, we are not going to do this under any circumstances. You have now someone like Mitt Romney who told me last night, no way. He's going to be a no, no matter which way you shake this up. He's not raising the debt ceiling. He's arguing Democrats could do this just on their own with the special budget process.

You also, of course, have the minority leader, who's telling his members, vote no on this. We're going to be united. And he has said that every which way: on the Senate floor, press conferences, publicly, privately. He's not changing his mind on this. So a showdown is coming by the end of the month, Brianna.

KEILAR: Oh, the theater, and not the good kind. Lauren Fox, thank you so much for that.

BERMAN: All right. Joining me now is Catherine Rampell, CNN economics commentator and "Washington Post" opinion columnist.

Catherine, what's the problem if they don't extend the debt limit? What's the problem if the U.S. essentially defaults?

CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN ECONOMICS COMMENTATOR: So it is never a good time to default on your debt, especially right now when we have so many other crises going on.


So I would put it into a few different buckets. One is we have difficulty paying Social Security checks, military service members' salaries, any kind of creditor who has ever lent us money before who is now expecting repayment. That's problem No. 1. Pretty biggie -- pretty big deal.

No. 2 is it would violate the Constitution. The Constitution says the public debt shall not be questioned. And so might be a little bit of a problem there.

No. 3, and the biggest one, I would argue, is that it could set off a worldwide financial crisis. And that's because right now, U.S. debt is considered the safest of safe assets, basically risk-free. If we prove that we are not a reliable borrower, and all other assets are kind of benchmarked to our -- to our debt as being the safest of safe, then that can set off panic, not only through treasury markets but through every other financial market in the world.

Again, never a good time to have a financial crisis. Probably not right now.

BERMAN: That all sounds incredibly bad. Like an economic catastrophe, as Janet Yellen says.


BERMAN: Look, this almost happened but didn't in 2011, 2013. Why is there reason to believe it could happen this time?

RAMPELL: Well, Republicans held it up in the past, and we got to this sort of brinksmanship period where we almost hit a crisis and then didn't.

The Republican Party has gotten only more nihilistic since then, I would argue. And Mitch McConnell is right that Democrats can do this on their own. They don't need Republican votes.

Now, the way that Democrats would do this on their own is a little bit complicated. It might expose them to some more political blowback, because of the way that they actually have to raise the dollar number of the debt limit rather than just sort of suspending it for a while, which is what both parties have been doing for the last few years.

And it's also legislatively complicated. There are a bunch of intermediate legislative steps that they have to take in order to do it. And we don't know when we're going to hit that drop-dead deadline when=re the government runs out of money.

So if it requires a lot of floor time, and we are unable to pay our bills sooner than expected, that's where you hit catastrophe.

BERMAN: And Democrats say, Look, we voted to suspend or extend the debt limit when Trump was in office. How come you're not doing this now when there's a Democratic president?

You say to that, yes, but.

RAMPELL: I mean, it's true. Of course, Republicans are being hypocritical here. They should take their own share of responsibility for the fact that, again, this is paying for bills already owed. This is not authorizing new spending.

But Republicans don't seem to abide by any principle here. They don't care that Democrats staved off default in the past, that they've joined in with Republicans to suspend the debt limit. I think Mitch McConnell is basically happy to let the world burn as long as Democrats take the fault.

BERMAN: And you think Democrats are going to have to do it?

RAMPELL: I think they have to. I understand the frustration. I know that they think it's unfair that they have to always be the grown-ups on this.

But Republicans have proven that they don't care. They don't care if we're on the brink of default, and possible financial crisis, and raising our borrowing costs for the rest of time, which is another possible consequence of all of this. They don't care. They think that it's better to put Democrats in the uncomfortable position of having to do this on their own.

There's a lot of public confusion about what the debt limit is. People seem to think that it's about authorizing new spending. Again, it's not.

BERMAN: It's for paying what they already promised, what they voted for in, you know, the last several years.

RAMPELL: Yes. Including the $7 trillion of debt added under President Trump.

But Republicans are happy to take advantage of the fact the public is generally confused about this and say, let's make Democrats take full responsibility and confuse, you know, sort of conflate the issues of, again, paying our old bills versus Democrats' forward-looking spending agenda, which are two different things.

BERMAN: Catherine Rampell, thank you for laying out the stakes here, which are enormously high, to be clear.


BERMAN: Appreciate it.


KEILAR: Yes, huge. So consequential here.

We do have some new reporting, new CNN reporting this morning about another incident of Havana Syndrome. This time, it involves a member of CIA director Bill Burn's team, and it happened during a trip to India earlier this month.

CNN's Kylie Atwood is joining us now on this story. Kylie, what's the latest here?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Brianna, earlier this month, the CIA director, Bill Burns, traveled to India. And during that trip, a member of his team reported symptoms similar to, consistent with Havana Syndrome.

Now, we should remind folks Havana Syndrome is that mysterious illness that has impacted U.S. diplomats and U.S. intelligence officers around the world since 2016, starting in Havana, Cuba. Hence, the name Havana Syndrome.

But I'm told that this specific incident truly set off alarm bells within the U.S. government, left Burns himself fuming with anger, according to one source.

And we should note, this is the second time in less than a month that these reported incidents at the location have impacted the travel of senior administration officials in the Biden administration.


Vice President Kamala Harris went to Vietnam at the end of last month. There were reported incidents around her travel, as well, which slightly delayed her visit.

But this specific incident also has some really serious potential implications here. And U.S. government officials are concerned about those implications. That's because the CIA director's travel is very tightly held. They don't announce where he's going ahead of where he's going. So there are concerns about how the perpetrator here would have known, potentially, where he was traveling and then been able to plan and carry out such an aggression, if they were, indeed, targeting those that were traveling with the CIA director.

Now, we should note the CIA spokesperson said they don't comment on specific incidents of Havana Syndrome or specific officers. There are protocols in place for anyone who experiences these symptoms, including medical attention that they receive. And I am told that this person did receive medical attention on the trip and when they returned to the United States.

But the U.S. still doesn't know who or what is the perpetrator behind these mysterious illnesses that are now impacting U.S. diplomats and U.S. intelligence officers. I'm told at what looks like a faster pace than they were in the earlier years.

This is something that continues to be under investigation, and we'll continue to watch this, because it does seem that this could be getting closer and closer to top Biden administration officials -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, it's so alarming, and so little is known about this. Kylie, thank you for staying on this story.

BERMAN: In just a few hours, President Biden will address a critical meeting of world leaders at the United Nations. The stakes are so high after the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, and extreme tension with allies like France in recent days.

As CNN's Steve Collison wrote overnight, the question is not whether America wants to lead the world any longer but whether it can.

Joining me now is my friend and former colleague, Reena Ninan, host of "The Recount Daily" podcast and founder of Good Trouble Productions, who has reported extensively abroad.

Reena, great to see you here.

REENA NINAN, HOST, "THE RECOUNT DAILY": Good to see you, John.

BERMAN: What does the world want to hear from President Biden today?

NINAN: Can America continue to lead the world? So much of the focus will be on a lot of issues that are front and center. Climate change, human rights.

But I think we're looking through the lens of COVID. You know, stockpiling vaccines. What's the plan that the U.S. has to help other countries?

But also looming in the background is China, John. And I think when we saw the blowup between France and the U.S. over these nuclear-powered submarines that are going to Australia over the course of the next few days, while President Xi won't be attending the U.N. General Assembly, there will be a lot of messaging coming from the White House on this.

BERMAN: President Xi doesn't need to be at the United Nations this week in order for China to dominate or overshadow, overhang everything. How much can President Biden accomplish today?

NINAN: You know, that's a great -- I think setting the tone really matters in this moment. But I think people, more than words, will be looking to actions from the White House. What exactly are they planning to do on issues like climate change, on human rights? The democracy summit that's taking place in a few months, what will that mean for the world? What is the White House trying to achieve?

But, you know, I really go back to China and that relationship, of what people are looking through that lens, while the White House has made this calculus that there's this blowup between France and the U.S. What they are building with this situation with the Australians and with the British.

You know, there's reports out of the U.K. today that they, too, are going to move their nuclear-powered submarines over to Australia. This is a larger play. And this is just sort of many ways the first building block.

And while President Xi isn't there, you can be certain that that message, having the two other countries, the two other bigger economies beyond China, Japan and India, they're at the White House with Australia, the quad, later this week, is sending a significant message to China. This is a bigger play the White House is hoping to make.

BERMAN: Joe Biden told the world, America is back. That really, I think, was an intentional, specific contrast to the previous administration, the Trump administration. Does the world believe it? Or what are the -- To what extent does the world believe that, now that they've seen what happened in Afghanistan, that they've seen what's happened with Australia and France?

NINAN: You know, John, when the whole pullout was happening in August, my son, my 10-year-old son asked me, Mom, do you think the Taliban will show up at our door, at our home?

And I keep thinking about that question that Jack posed to me. Because that is what we're waiting to see. Is can extremism and counterintelligence be dealt with from afar? You know, what is the plan?

You've got to get more countries involved in that meeting with India later -- later this week, as well. You know, they're concerned, does this become -- does Afghanistan become an extension of Pakistan?

So I think a lot of people will be watching to see how does the U.S. continue to deal with counterintelligence in a country that they've pulled out of? And also, a country that you're worried about extremism and poverty. And the U.N. will have a huge hand in helping deal with that. The Taliban is not allowing the U.S., but the U.N. is welcome there, and rightfully so. Because they know that they need the help and the assistance.


BERMAN: It'll be fascinating to watch the president today. And I think the world is watching with a more critical eye than they might have been a few months ago.

Reena Ninan, thanks. So nice to see you.

NINA: You, as well.

BERMAN: Some new evidence in the Gabby Petito investigation, including odd text messages that her mother says made her concerned that something was wrong.

KEILAR: Plus, the first lawsuit has been filed against a Texas doctor who says he violated the state's near-ban on abortions on purpose.

And disturbing new video sparking an investigation into the aggressive tactics used at the border. The head of the Department of Homeland Security will join us this morning.


KEILAR: There's new evidence this morning about the relationship between Gabby Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, as the search for Laundrie intensifies.

Investigators have obtained a search warrant for an external hard drive that was found in Petito's van. The warrant mentions text messages that Petito sent her mother, showing more and more tension with Laundrie.


CNN's Leyla Santiago is in North Port, Florida, which is where the Laundrie family lives, and she has more on this.

What is the latest here, Leyla? LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, the home here where

the couple lived with Laundrie's family is still roped off, even though the FBI says it has concluded its search here.

In the meantime, today we expect the autopsy of the human remains believed that could be Gabby Petito. We're hoping that that gives more insight as to the identity, final confirmation.

In the meantime, the question remains, where is Brian Laundrie?


SANTIAGO (voice-over): Investigators are working to track down Brian Laundrie this morning, intensifying their efforts just days after authorities say they discovered a body that could be his fiance, Gabby Petito.

The FBI searching the Florida home Laundrie shares with his parents for hours. Agents removing items, towing away this Ford Mustang, and seen here escorting Laundrie's parents back inside the house.

STUART KAPLAN, FORMER FBI AGENT: We're looking for potential DNA evidence, fiber evidence and, of course, maybe most importantly, any evidence with respect to something that would leave a digital footprint. Hard drives, iPads, smartphones.

SANTIAGO: Petito vanishing last month while traveling with Laundrie.

GABRIELLE "GABBY" PETITO, MISSING WOMAN PRESUMED DEAD: I think our plan for today is to just hang out here in the tent.

SANTIAGO: The couple posting their crisscross drive in a white Ford transit van on social media.

PETITO: I love the van.

SANTIAGO: But there were reportedly some problems between the two during the trip. A witness dialing 911, saying he saw a domestic dispute between Laundrie and Petito.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We drove by, and the gentleman was slapping the girl.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was slapping her?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, and then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.

SANTIAGO: This call sending police to pull Petito and Laundrie over on August 12. Responding officers writing in their report that it was Petito that was slapping Laundrie, and concluding the situation was more likely a mental health crisis than a domestic assault.

PETITO: We have been fighting all morning, and he wouldn't let me in the car before. SANTIAGO: That van could also provide some insight on just what

happened to Petito. Investigators executing a search warrant last week, finding a hard drive inside the vehicle they say may contain viable digital forensic data that could have helped find her location.

According to the affidavit, Petito communicated regularly with her mother and there, quote, "appeared to be more and more tension between her and Laundrie."

The documents also saying Petito's mother says she received an odd text from her daughter on August 27. This final text writing, quote, "Can you help Stan? I just keep getting his voice mails and missed fathers." A reference to Petito's grandfather by his first name, which her mother said she didn't call him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here he is on the left.

SANTIAGO: And on Sunday, YouTube bloggers posting this video appearing to show Petito in Laundrie's van near the Grand Teton National Forest. The same date Petito's mother received her final text. The location not too far from where investigators say they discovered human remains that could be the missing 22-year-old.


SANTIAGO: And Brianna, the attorney for the Laundrie family was supposed to have some sort of press conference or make a statement to the media this afternoon. We have now learned that he has canceled this at the FBI's request.

KEILAR: All right. Leyla, thank you so much, live for us from Florida.

The death toll from coronavirus in the U.S. just surpassed that of the 1918 flu pandemic. We're going to talk to a doctor who says he's scared about what comes next, as his hospital rations care.

BERMAN: And a newly-revealed memo shows just how much planning went into former President Trump's scheme to overturn the 2020 election.



BERMAN: As of this morning, more than 675,000 Americans have been killed by coronavirus. That is more deaths than in the 1918 flu pandemic. It's approximately 1 in 490 Americans, mothers, fathers, friends, brothers, all gone.

That many people could fill almost ten NFL stadiums. Nearly 2,000 Americans are dying every day now.

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes a look at how we reached this devastating toll.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A little more than a century ago, an influenza pandemic ravaged America.

DR. HOWARD MARKEL, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN CENTER FOR THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE: There were four waves of the 1918/1919 pandemic. The two greatest occurred in the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1919.

GUPTA: Dr. Howard Markel has studied epidemics in American history.

MARKEL: This was an era where there were no medications; there were no vaccines for influenza. We didn't even know it was caused by a virus.

GUPTA: Best projections, 675,000 people died.

Fast forward to today, a grim milestone. Deaths from the coronavirus pandemic have surpassed that figure. More than 675,000 people have now died of COVID-19 in the United States.

MARKEL: Just sadness. Because it didn't have to be this high.

GUPTA: It is true that back in 1918, the population was a third of what it is today. But that entire population was at the mercy of the pandemic, because there were no vaccines.