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Growing GOP Resistance To Financially Aiding Ukraine; Murdaugh Sentenced To Life In Prison For Killing Wife, Son; Photographer Gets Life Advice From 1,000 Strangers; Confidence In Medical Scientists Has Declined Since COVID. Aired 9-10a ET
Aired March 04, 2023 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: Has America support for Ukraine peaked? I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, America and politicians on both sides of the aisle here were pretty much united in their support of the besieged underdog.
But with Congress having approved 113 billion in aid in 2022, a rebellious and growing wing of the GOP has decided it's time to draw a line in the sand and poll show that the public support may also be softening. Consider this, when the invasion first occurred, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley was all in writing, "Russia's brutal assault on Ukraine and invasion of its territory must be met with strong American resolve. President Biden must act now to hit Vladimir Putin where it hurts."
But on the first anniversary, just last week, he was singing a different tune, quote, "The Republican Party can be the party of Ukraine and globalists or the party of East Palestine and working Americans. Not both."
Hawley was immediately invited on to Tucker Carlson's Fox News TV show the same night. Florida Governor and likely presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, went on Fox and Friends to condemn our current support as, quote, an open ended blank cheque which he called not acceptable.
At CPAC on Friday, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene got the crowd to boo Zelenskyy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R), GEORGIA: I'm still committed to saying no money to Ukraine, and that country needs to find peace, not war.
And while I will look in the camera and directly tells Zelenskyy, you better leave your hands off of our sons and daughters because they're not dying over there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Former President Trump claimed in a fundraising video that because of President Biden's policies, America is, quote, teetering on the brink of World War III. He promised that if elected, he would, quote, end the Ukraine conflict in 24 hours.
But there's also been strong pushback from many in their own party. Michael McCaul, the GOP Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee told ABC News that picking between the Ohio derailment or supplying Ukraine was quote a false choice. Both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Mike Pence have reasserted their support for helping Ukraine against Putin.
And presidential candidate Nikki Haley has been arguing for a more forceful U.S. role in the conflict. Recent polls do show a decline in American support for Ukraine. According to AP/NORC, public support for aid to Ukraine, which was 60 percent last May, is now down to 48 percent.
According to Pew, the share of Americans who think the United States has given quote, too much to Ukraine has grown from 7 percent a year ago to 26 percent last month. And breaking down the numbers by party affiliation, Pew finds the following. 40 percent of Republicans think America has given too much compared with 15 percent of Democrats.
President Biden has shrugged off any concerns, blaming what he calls MAGA Republicans. This is what he told ABC's David Muir.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not sure how many are asking. I know the MAGA crowd is. The right-wing Republicans are, you know, talking about we can't do this. you find ourselves in a situation where the cost of doing a walking away could be considerably higher than the cost of helping Ukraine maintain its independence.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: And in fact, if you drill down, Governor Ron DeSantis seems a little unsure of his footing on the issue. In a recent interview with the friendly outlet, The Times of London, I say friendly because it's owned by Rupert Murdoch, the reporter asked DeSantis how he would handle relations with Ukraine differently than Biden.
Governor DeSantis replied that Biden was, quote, weak on the world stage and at failing deterrence. The writer then pushes DeSantis to actually answer the question, how would he handle relations with Ukraine differently? And DeSantis responds as follows. "Perhaps you should cover some other ground? I think I've said enough."
Nevertheless, the GOP schism that displays a willingness to question America's approach is new, and it's a complete reversal for the party that used to be known for its hawkishness.
Joining me now is Peter Feaver, he's a political science professor at Duke University. He has studied the relationship between public opinion and military operations. He advised President George W. Bush during the Iraq War, and he's co-editor of the new book, "Handoff: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama."
Dr. Feaver, thank you for being here. You advise W on how to hold public support. How would you advise Joe Biden relative to Ukraine?
PETER FEAVER, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR, DUKE UNIVERSITY/FMR. ADVISER TO PRESIDENT G.W. BUSH: Well, I'd remind him that while public support has softened it certainly has softened over the year, it hasn't reached a point where President Biden has to abandon Ukraine. You don't have to just leave the field when polls dip below 50 percent.
What matters most is whether there's success on the battlefield for Ukraine, and as long as there is, public support will hold, regardless of the mounting financial cost.
SMERCONISH: W, of course, had the events of 911 in his recent rearview mirror. Did he have an easier job keeping the American people on the same page, then does Biden for that reason?
FEAVER: Well, you're right, there are eerie echoes to what President Bush faced in the second term, as the situation in Iraq was getting more difficult. And Democrats were making partisan attacks on the policy. But I actually think that President Biden has an easier run of it.
First, Biden has in the Ukrainian army, what the Bush administration was trying to build in Iraq, that is an effective local partner that is willing to fight and die for the cause. So Americans don't have to. We have financial resources in the game, but we don't have American lives at stake. That means that the public tolerance is going to be higher.
Secondly, President Biden has very strong Republican voices that support the policy. Leader McConnell, who you mentioned in your topper, is very strong on Ukraine. And President Bush didn't have anyone on the Democratic side of the aisle with the clout of Leader McConnell and with the support for the policy that Leader McConnell has.
And then the last reason I'd flag is that the arguments against Ukraine, the arguments to abandon Ukraine are just weak on the face of it. When you drill into it, there's -- they collapse. And indeed, they are Chinese propaganda, talking points.
China wants us to abandon Ukraine, because that then would undermine America's standing. It will create a catastrophe in Eurasia, that will preoccupy the Biden administration and distract them from confronting China and East Asia. That's why China is sending these talking points. And it's distressing to hear the isolationist wing of the Republican Party echo them.
SMERCONISH: What accounts for the change as between the parties? I remember 1980. I remember '81. You know, on Ronald Reagan's watch, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. I can remember, Dr. Feaver, being in a room as a conservative Republican gathering, where there were so called Afghan freedom fighters. And, you know, these men in turbans were being championed by the Republican Party.
Now, it's Russia invading Ukraine in 2022. And it seems like there's been a shift and it's the Democratic Party, more supportive of Ukraine. I love the old GOP.
FEAVER: Exactly. I think President Reagan would -- is spinning in his grave if he's able to hear the -- some of the arguments. And indeed, former President Trump is criticizing people for sounding like Republicans. So Reagan and the approach of a strong muscular, American foreign policy strong abroad, so we can be strong at home, strong at home so we can be strong abroad, that Reagan approach is -- would lead you to support the Ukrainian people.
And that's why McConnell, you mentioned former Vice President Pence, presidential aspirant Nikki -- Governor Haley, there are strong Republican voices who walk in that mainstream. But if you ask -- and one of the isolation said, what would you do, what then? They don't have a good answer for the, and then what question.
OK, we abandon Ukraine, and then what? Then what do you do? They don't have a good answer for that.
SMERCONISH: Quick final question, if I might, is the key here for President Biden to sell the American people on this being or involving a vital U.S. interest?
FEAVER: Yes, he has to remind the American people why it matters. He has to also though, reassure the American people that there is a strategy that will lead to success. So it's -- it can't merely be -- this is important. He also has to make the case that Ukrainian army can prevail. And I think that second one is where he has the most work to do.
SMERCONISH: I'm sure that Vladimir Putin is studying the numbers that I used, as you say in the topper, about that decline in American support. Dr. Feaver, thank you so much. I really appreciate your expertise.
FEAVER: Thank you for having me.
SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Hit me up on social media? I'll share some responses and reply to them during the course of the program.
From the world of YouTube, I am told, what do we have. If we don't support Ukraine now, the U.S. and allies will have to fight the war themselves later.
Thomas Duvernay, I wonder if this issue, the reason I wanted to bring it up today. Because now, you know, the starting gun has fired for 2024. And I see this issue and the schism within the GOP in particular, growing wider and wider and I wanted to call people's attention to it now, because as the presidential race gets further down the road, I think it's going to become even more of an issue. And it's a serious one.
So the poll question this week, it's a bit unusual, and it's related to what I'm asking. Go to my website at smerconish.com. Here it is. Answer this week's poll question. By the way, we've got a QR code again, you can hold up your phone during the course of the program. I want to know, who will be the last to leave office? President Biden? Will it be Putin? Will it be Zelenskyy?
Go vote at smerconish.com on that question. I'll give you the result later in the hour.
Up ahead, so did COVID originate with a lab leak after all? Signs point to yes, but there's still some confusion. Three years in as with so much about the pandemic, what do we know today that we wish we'd known then.
And after a drawn-out trial, Alex Murdaugh convicted with lightning speed of murdering his wife and son and sentenced to life in prison. We're going to hear the inside scoop from reporter Valerie Bauerlein, not only in the courtroom every day, but also the pool reporter who was assigned to visit the crime scene with the jury. There she is in that image.
SMERCONISH: Alex Murdaugh's sentenced to life in prison for the killings of his wife and son in June of 2021. Given the opportunity by Judge Clifton Newman to come clean after he'd been convicted, Murdaugh maintained his innocence.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JUDGE CLIFTON NEWMAN, SOUTH CAROLINA CIRCUIT COURT: You're not compelled to say anything. But you have the opportunity to do so.
ALEX MURDAUGH, CONVICTED OF KILLING WIFE AND SON: That I tell you again, I respect this court but I'm innocent. I would never, under any circumstances, hurt my wife Maggie. And I would never, under any circumstances, hurt my son Pawpaw.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Juror Craig Moyer, a carpenter told ABC News about the juries swift three-hour deliberation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you first got in the room, you took a vote.
CRAIG MOYER, JUROR FOR ALEX MURDAUGH MURDER TRIAL: It was two not guilty. One not sure and nine guilty.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was your vote?
MOYER: Guilty. Started deliberating going through the evidence. Everybody was pretty much talking. And about 45 minutes later we, after all are deliberating only figured out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: So really, it was a 45-minute deliberation. Earlier in the week, when the jury visited the crime scene at the family's South Carolina homestead, our frequent guest Valerie Bauerlein of The Wall Street Journal was selected to cover it and report back for the pool. She's been covering the case from early on as been in the courtroom every single day.
She's also a key voice in the new Netflix documentary series "Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal." Valerie Bauerlein is back with me now and I'm so glad that she has. So Valerie, you were the pool reporter when they went to Moselle. What was that like?
VALERIE BAUERLEIN, REPORTER, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Honestly, it was an eerie experience to go to Moselle and get a glance at the jury as they toured and the judge, and then also just to walk the property ourselves, me as the print reporter, a photographer, and a videographer.
And I got to tell you, it is truly a haunted place. And I spoke with a different juror than the one whose audio you just played. I spoke with him last night, and he said that visit did not work out the way the defense had hoped it would. He said, if anything, it made the jury more convinced of guilt.
SMERCONISH: The purpose, right, according to the defense team was to try and convince the jury that he could have -- that Alex could have been taking a nap and not heard the gunshots down at the dog kennels.
BAUERLEIN: That's right. So the purpose of the visit in the eyes of the defense was to show that the kennels and the shed where Maggie and Paul were killed are at quite a distance from the main house where Alex said he was. And it's true that it is. It's a good minute to minute ride up a winding dirt road.
And there's some trees that separate the kennels and house. So you really can't see well from the house to the kennels. That was the purpose. But I think that the heaviness that's in the air out there, the fact that it's pretty much no one has lived in it since June 7th. 2021 and the grass is overgrown and you can really feel the weight of what happened there. I don't think it went the way the defense had hoped based on my discussion with this juror.
SMERCONISH: So I'm holding your most recent reporting for The Wall Street Journal, the headline says that the Murdaugh trial lasted six weeks, two days mattered most I'm sure everybody knows what two days they were. What's the short version of why you think those two days mattered most?
BAUERLEIN: I think the two days that Alex Murdaugh took the stand in his own defense really were, you know, the turning point and in a case which, you know, frankly, he's had a lot of turning points, but it was a major moment. You know, Alex Murdaugh really wanted to get on the stand. He told the jurors, I want you to hear it from me why his alibi had fallen through, why he had told lies to the investigators in the early hours after the shooting.
So he really wanted them to hear from him what happened there. But the the flip side of that is if you're a criminal defendant, we take the stand. You waive your right to the Fifth Amendment. You have to answer the questions in the cross examination by lead prosecutor Creighton Waters was pretty brutal at times.
SMERCONISH: Jim Griffin and Dick Harpootlian say he really didn't have a choice. I want you to watch this clip and then comment on their explanation for Alex taking the stand.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIM GRIFFIN, ALEX MURDAUGH'S DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The thinking of it at that point in time is, what is it or lose? They've heard about all of these financial crimes, they really hadn't heard why he committed financial crimes, and they need to hear about his drug addiction. But putting me on the stand, I think the jury also got to see his emotions about Maggie and Paul, which are very raw and real.
And they were moving out. I think the jurors we moved by his testimony. But then, you know, the next day on cross examination, got to give credit where credit's due. I mean, they clearly painted Alex as, you know, a liar who can just look you in the face and lie to you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Did they counsel him not to take the stand?
BAUERLEIN: You know, early on, I asked Dick Harpootlian in the hallway one day. I said, hey, is your client going to take the stand? And he said, it's an audible, I'll know when I get, you know, to the line of scrimmage.
But I'm told by many, many people close to the defense that they did counsel him originally not to take the stand. But as the case progressed over weeks and weeks and weeks, the jury heard so much testimony about this long running financial fraud, that Alex has now admitted to you on the stand.
That what Jim said he's some things also said to me, that in the end, they felt like Alex wanted to take the stand. What was there to lose? He is a convincing lawyer in his past work. And maybe he could tell them the story in his own words and convince some jurors.
SMERCONISH: Valerie, we played the clip at the outset where Judge Newman invites Alex to come clean after he's been convicted. And before the hammer comes down of sentencing. Now, of course, had he come clean? And said, yes, I did it. And here's why. There'd be no appeal. Like that would all be over. But like, how did you read that moment?
BAUERLEIN: You know, I think I was sitting there. And I think I actually gasped, it was one of the heaviest and most fascinating moments of my career. And the judge really put a lot of thought and what he had to say he's very experienced, who will be 72 in November and will retire. He's done this for 20 years.
And he knew the Murdaughs, he knew Alex and his past life as a well- regarded trial lawyer. And he took this very personally. He said he took it as an assault on the judicial system and assault on law enforcement, these various lies that he said that Alex had told.
And he really, he gave him the opportunities that I, you know, I -- it's rare for a defendant to tell me what actually happened. But I know you know, in your heart what happened. And I know when you fall asleep, you see your son Paul, who I'm sure you loved, you see him in his last moments and what you did to him. And Alex said he sees Paul all day, every day. It was an incredible moment.
SMERCONISH: I liked -- I admired via watching this every day, the way in which the judge handled this case. And the end the way it was lawyered. I mean, as an attorney, it was really something to watch. Although I have to say I believe that the admission of all of that financial crime information is going to be a very interesting issue on appeal. So we'll see where it all ends up.
Thank you so much for your willingness to come on weekend after weekend and I am looking forward to the book that I know you are writing on this subject. So you'll come back when you write the book.
BAUERLEIN: I'd love to. Thank you.
SMERCONISH: OK, thank you for that.
So social media reaction, what do we have Catherine? From the world of YouTube on this case. We have not heard the last about Murdaugh's. Hoping now for some closure on Stephen Smith. Where did all of Alex's money go? Are opioids that expensive?
You know, it's interesting. I could speak so long about everything you've just said, Kelly, but on that issue of the opioids, I mean, I was waiting for the medical testimony. Because all we really had in the trial record of the case was what Alex said his intake was. I would have liked to have heard from a physician, namely a treating physician of his somebody who treated him when he was in detox to say, OK, on the admissions papers, here's what he told us he was taking.
And for a patient who takes, you know, this amount, this is what it would do to them cognitively. But come on. In the end, it was the dog video. It was the dog video, you know, placing him at the murder location within minutes of the murders taking place, although final thing if I can just say this.
Farhad Manjoo, in the New York Times today, really interesting insight, wondering if maybe the jury was just too accepting of the case that technology made. Go read that. I want to remind you, go to smerconish.com. Who will be the last to leave office? Will it be Biden, Putin or Zelenskyy? That is the poll question of the day.
I know a little bit offbeat. I thought of it yesterday. I'm just kind of wondering like, who will be the last man standing in office.
Up ahead, a Washington Post editorial bluntly stated China should answer how COVID-19 began. Propaganda, no substitute. Three years into the pandemic. It's just one of many questions still out there. Why we need answers to restore confidence and trust.
And my next guest asked for life advice from 1,000 strangers in all of the lower 48 states taking their portraits while he was living out of his car for 12 weeks. OK, what did he learn about America? We're about to find out.
SMERCONISH: What crucial piece of life advice do you wish you'd been able to share with your younger self? That's the question that my next guest asked a thousand Americans all across the country while also taking their portrait. In May of 2022, Imran Nuri, a 20 something son of two Indian immigrants, quit his job at the nonprofit he founded and embarked on a journey across America. Nuri lived in his Toyota Camry for 12 weeks. He traveled to all 48 continental states, slept in rest areas, casino parking lots, Walmarts, occasionally on friends' couches.
He approached a diverse swath of strangers asking them to impart life advice and then could he take their picture. And he chronicled all of it on his Instagram and YouTube pages. Here are some snippets of lessons he's been collecting.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
IMRAN NURI, ARTIST AND STORYTELLER (voice-over): You can't get back time. I spent most of my life chasing it down or worried about paying bills. Now my daughter has grown. I've got time but she has grown. She's on her own time now.
I would tell myself not to worry so much about what other people think and really trust my gut to do what I felt was right. Accept the things you can't control and adapt. These days it seems like people who have common sense don't even use it. You look at the sky and it's obviously blue but someone else will say it's purple. At the end of the day that's their problem not yours.
Save money. I was negligent. I did a lot of traveling following fish. You think the money will always be there but that's not always true.
Don't get married. That's it. Just don't get married. (END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Imran Nuri joins me now. He's an artist and storyteller. Imran, you put some miles on that Toyota Camry of yours. What made you do this?
NURI: You know, Michael, first of all thank you so much for having me. But there were two major reasons for me doing this. The first one being that I wanted to push myself as far out of my comfort zone as I possibly could in the most extreme fashion. Because as I'm sure you understand the greatest strides in personal development, personal growth happen when we push ourselves out of our comfort zone but -- number two, and probably more importantly, I wanted to figure out the meaning of life.
I wanted to figure out what it meant to make the absolute, most of life and I wanted to figure that out according to complete strangers. Ordinary people that I bumped into on the street, people like you and me. And I ended up photographing them so that I could share this life advice with people.
I photographed them on my 50-year-old camera, which I'm sure your viewers will enjoy seeing. And I feel like the life advice that I got showed me a lot of key themes about what it means to make the most of life.
SMERCONISH: Well, what is the common denominator? Because you were asking each person the same question. What's the advice you wish you could have given to your younger self? What was the take away?
NURI: You know, I'll give you a specific example. I think one of my favorite interactions and somebody who mentioned something that was a common theme across the board, something that I think everybody else will understand more is -- this was stranger number 549, a man named Don Caskey.
Don is somebody who is from Ohio. I'm also from Ohio. We met during my one hour in Colorado Springs, which kind of speaks to the serendipity of this entire process. But to make a long story short Don got diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer a few years ago and decided that while he couldn't take anything with him when he went he could make memories. And so he chose to make as many memories as he possibly could with his remaining time by getting matching tattoos with complete strangers.
And unfortunately, Don passed away just a couple weeks ago. I ended up getting my first tattoo with him. I was stranger number 435 for him. He was 549 for me. Before he passed, of course, he gave me life advice which is a huge theme.
He said, I wish I wouldn't have spent so much time working because I really missed out on a lot of things. When I look back and I lost everything when I got the diagnosis, that's when I got more than I ever had in my life. I got human connection at a grand scale that I never had before.
And what he said was, one of the most important things in life is to have that human connection.
SMERCONISH: How approachable were people? I mean, you show up. You're a young guy. You've got this odd-looking camera. Hey, I want to take your picture and I want to ask you a question about the meaning of life. Did a lot of people blow you off?
NURI: No, I think the camera added to the friendliness of it. But I was very careful to make sure that I looked as approachable as possible. I always kept a clean shaven face. I wore my bright yellow Crocs. I always had a big smile on my face. I'd say of all the people I talked to, 99 percent of people were willing to at least chat with me. And about 90 percent were willing to be a part of that final series and have their photo taken with all those thousand strangers.
SMERCONISH: Imran, you know the media -- well, I'll say in my opinion, the media and the politicians keep telling us how divided we are in this country. Are we as divided as they make us out to be?
NURI: My answer is a resounding and firm, "No, we are not." And it really looks that way when you're just paying attention to the news, when you're just paying attention to social media. I think it's really important for people to take a step back and remind themselves that what you see in the news, what you see on social media is the worst of the worst of the worst things that are happening at any given moment on any day.
NURI: The vast majority of interactions are positive or at least neutral.
SMERCONISH: I smell coffee table book.
NURI: Absolutely, a 100 percent. I'm hoping to launch a book later this year. People can get notified when it's ready on my Web site, imrannuri.com.
SMERCONISH: OK. Imran, thank you so much for that. That's really cool. And I love the project. And I love the conclusion.
NURI: Thanks so much for having me.
SMERCONISH: I want to remind everybody make sure you're answering this week's poll question at Smerconish.com. A little out of the box but fun, right? Who will be the last to leave office? Will it be Biden? Will it be Putin? Will it be Zelenskyy?
Use that QR code. Just hold up your phone and you will go right to the polling page at Smerconish.com. While you're there, register for the free newsletter, which is worthy.
Still to come, so three years now into the COVID-19 pandemic, I mean, it was three years ago this month when everything hit the fan, there are still debates over everything from the origin, whether masks work, the effectiveness of the vaccines, what's the latest. Dr. Leana Wen is here to talk.
SMERCONISH: This month marks the third anniversary since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. What have we learned and what more do we still need to understand? More government officials from the FBI, to the energy department, they have been saying it's likely that origin of the disease was a lab leak and not that wet market in Wuhan.
Opinions, they are still divided. There's discussion of whether we have reached herd immunity and what role vaccines will play or won't in moving forward
Joining me now is CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen. She's a "Washington Post" columnist, public health professor at George Washington University, former Baltimore City health commissioner and emergency room physician. Dr. Wen, thanks so much for coming back. Confidence in medical scientists and the CDC has declined since COVID. Could that have been avoided?
DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, I have to say first of all that there has been a lot of misinformation and disinformation. There are people who perpetuated that and it's not from reputable scientists and public health officials. But at the same time, I also think that the public health establishment has made some unforced errors including, for example, not acknowledging as much as we should have that science evolves. And when science changes and new data come out, our recommendations also have to change.
I think the CDC could have done a better job of explaining the rationale behind their changes and I also think that we shouldn't have been so quick to dismiss certain hypotheses that actually turn out to be valid. For example, natural immunity is actually a thing. But I think that there was fear initially that if we talked about natural immunity, it might dissuade people from getting vaccinated. But actually in not being truthful, although it was for a good reason, it was to try to get people vaccinated, still I think that ended up breeding distrust. Because people thought if you're not being honest with me about this one thing, why should I trust you on others?
SMERCONISH: I can remember -- I mean, I can remember putting Jay Bhattacharya and Scott Atlas on CNN, both from Stanford, and the blowback about how in the world could you allow them to talk about natural or herd immunity was unbelievable. But like in your case just speaking to the contentiousness of this, you correct me if I'm wrong, somebody sitting in prison today because of threats they made about you for expressing your own opinions.
WEN: That's right. And unfortunately, I and many other public health experts have received threats to our lives, even to our families because of what we're trying to do, which is to explain this evolving science to people in a very frightening time. I mean, ultimately everybody wanted the same thing especially early in the pandemic there was so much we didn't know about COVID. People wanted to know how they could best protect themselves and their families. And we're trying our best to try to explain that.
But over time, I have also seen that initially the threats came from anti-vaxxers. But over time, I have seen that it's the other side, if you will, that also became really incensed because they probably thought that I was on -- quote -- "their side." And when my views also evolved, for example, I initially supported vaccine mandates and mask mandates. But then the data changed about the efficacy of vaccines.
We know that vaccines are still very effective at protecting you against severe disease, but they are not that effective at protecting you from any infection. And therefore, they are not so good at protecting against transmission, so my views about that changed. But then it became the other side that became incensed.
And so, I think, there has been a major problem when people are now latching on to a belief in certain public health ideology and that becomes, in a sense, their identity. And we are now having the forever maskers who are not willing to change their views either. And on the other hand people who still deny the effectiveness of the vaccines at all, I think it has really become a problem. And I fear for the future of public health because if public health is now in these political crosshairs, partisan crosshairs, then how are we going to get people together if we have a next pandemic?
SMERCONISH: Well, I share your concern, and I would just say that from my perspective, it all took on a red state/blue state mentality, when it seems like we were arguing for the science that we thought was going to make our side look better or worse.
Look, the lab leak is a great example. I can tell you I was treated as if it was heresy on radio and television if I even paid attention to the idea that it came from the virology lab instead of the wet market. And yet look where we are today. Christopher Wray this week in an interview said he believes that it came from a lab leak.
WEN: Michael, I think part of the problem is that some of the people initially, not you, but some of the other people initially who are speaking in favor of a lab leak were talking about it as a bioweapon.
They were suggesting that this was somehow intentional on the part of China or scientists or something in creating this pathogen. That was wrong. And in fact, all the intelligence agencies, including the FBI and the energy department, have said they do not believe that there was intentionality behind it. I think that's part of the problem that lab leak -- now we are saying it could be an accidental lab leak versus it could be animal spillover.
And I also think part of the issue is, of course, China has been obfuscating they are totally wrong in not allowing independent investigations. But at this point, I really don't see what level of evidence will have to be produced in order to convince both sides that they are wrong. I don't know if we're ever going to come to a definitive answer, because people are so dug in in how they think about the origin of COVID. And so, what I'm proposing, I just wrote a "Washington Post" column about this, is that we can think both are possible. I'm not saying stop investigating, but rather we need to move forward. We need to prevent the next pandemic from coming.
SMERCONISH: And be ready for the next time.
WEN: That's exactly right. So, let's improve lab --
SMERCONISH: Dr. Wen, stay with me. Stay with me. You know I love to respond to social media in real time. I'm ill equipped on whatever might come in on COVID. And I have the expert in you. So, Catherine, give me something and I can involve Dr. Wen in responding to it. What do we have? OK.
We need to embrace where the experts got it wrong. Our children were never at risk compared to elderly or those with preconditions. A one- size fits all approach did serious irreparable harm. Again, experts need to embrace this, not deny and defend.
That's not necessarily directed at you. But what thought do you have about that?
WEN: I think the issue is that we keep on saying follow the science. And of course, I agree with following the science and being evidence- based in our decisions. The problem though is that science alone is usually not going to give us the answers.
For example, even if we knew at the very beginning that school closures would result in this much harm in children, but also additionally especially before we reached such levels of high immunity from vaccination and infection, before it is true that closing schools probably reduced a level of transmission and may have saved lives. But if you have those same data, different people are going to come to different conclusions. And I actually think that so much of what's gone wrong in people's trust of public health officials is that we keep on saying follow the science as if there's one right answer. There isn't. It's all about tradeoffs.
Public health is extremely complex. It's really nuanced. And the more we can lean into that nuance and talk about tradeoffs, the more we're able to convey the actual -- actually how complicated this whole situation is including around school closures.
SMERCONISH: Do you think -- Dr. Wen, do you think in retrospect we should have given more consideration to isolating those who were most at risk, the elderly and people with comorbidities, and allowing people to lead their lives knowing they would get it and embracing more herd immunity?
WEN: I think we could have started doing that once the vaccine became widely available. Before the vaccines were widely available and we had such little population immunity that kind of strategy would have resulted in a lot more death. As it turns out, after the omicron variant came out in December of 2021, at that point, I think we really understood that this is so contagious that we're all going to get it.
I think that is the point at which we could have said, let's stop with the -- keeping schools closed and other mitigation measures that are causing a lot of harm and instead embrace that the science has changed. And also we have a new variant that both, a lot more contagious, and causes less severe disease.
SMERCONISH: Can I say that I find your reflection to be healthy, necessary and in the public's best interest? Thank you so much for being here as always.
WEN: Thank you, Michael.
Still to come, more of your best and worst social media comments. And we'll give you the final result of my off the wall poll question from Smerconish.com. Who will be the last to leave office? Biden, Putin or Zelenskyy?
SMERCONISH: All right. Here's the result of this week's poll question at -- isn't that interesting? Thirty thousand have voted. Who will be the last to leave office? President Zelenskyy wins, with 49 percent of the vote. And I don't know what the right answer is. Obviously, a guy like Putin doesn't go voluntarily into that night. Right? So in his case, he either leaves in a box or because there's a coup.
Biden's term is defined. It means one term, maybe it's two terms, but people think that it's Zelenskyy. Keep voting, I'll leave it up for the rest of the day at Smerconish.com. More social media reaction. What do we have? This came in during the course of the program.
Your results will be skewed towards Zelenskyy because of the advanced age, poor health of the other two. Perhaps. By the way, that doesn't make it the wrong answer. But I'm sure that was a factor. Here's more social media reaction from today's program.
If we don't stand with Ukraine and assist them in victory we will pay the price with our own sons and daughters.
Yes, and if we don't continue to stand with Ukraine, I would argue that in the end, God forbid it takes a different turn, then, you know, the Ukrainians also will have antipathy towards us, and for the right reasons if we didn't continue to stand with them. One more, I think I've got time. Maybe even two.
Should people be fired for not taking the vaccine be able to sue for restitution? Should people fire for not taking the vaccine -- I think everybody -- Captain Gravy, everybody should have taken the vaccine. The right call then was for everyone to get vaccinated. If the implication is that we've learned something now about the vaccines that caused us to make the wrong choice in getting everyone vaccinated, I can't agree with that.
Go to Smerconish.com if you didn't already vote, cast a ballot, register for the newsletter. I'll see you next week.