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State of the Union

Interview With Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI); Interview With Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD); Interview With Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT); Interview With CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired February 14, 2021 - 09:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Acquitted again. Former President Trump gets a second pass, after the Senate abruptly reverses course on witnesses.

DEL. STACEY PLASKETT (D-VI): The defense counsel wants to blame everyone else, except the person who was most responsible for what happened on January 6.

TAPPER: Did the Democrats miss a chance to strengthen their case? I will speak exclusively to House impeachment manager Delegate Stacey Plaskett and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy next.

And what now? Almost all Republican senators vote not to convict former President Trump, despite overwhelming evidence his words ignited the mob. Where does the Republican Party go from here? Republican Governor Larry Hogan joins me to discuss in moments.

Plus: Back to school? Vaccinations across the country slowly increase, as evidence mounts that it is safe to reopen some schools.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: If we want to get our schools open, the best way to do that is to decrease the community spread.

TAPPER: But when will all children be back in the classroom? I will speak to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky ahead.


TAPPER: Hello. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington. Happy Valentine's Day.

In Washington, the state of our union is shaking our heads. Former President Donald Trump is off the hook again this morning, the Senate voting 57-43, 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him of inciting the deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill.

But some leaders, including Vice President Mike Pence, escaped by only a few feet. This was also the most bipartisan impeachment in history, with seven Republican senators voting to convict, Senators Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey. Still, the majority chose the easier way out for their political

careers. And some tried to have their cake and eat it too, like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who basically filed a late audition for being a House impeachment manager, slamming Trump for a disgraceful dereliction of duty after McConnell voted not guilty.

The end of the trial came after a chaotic scramble Saturday over witnesses. The Democratic impeachment managers made a surprise decision to call Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler as a witness. She said she was told by House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy that not only did Trump refuse to call off rioters during the attack; he seemed to side with them.

But then, suddenly, Democrats dropped their demand after it became clear the decision could extend the trial for weeks, meaning the trial concluded, the shortest in history, without a full accounting of what happened on January 6.

Joining us now, one of the House Democratic impeachment managers who led the trial, Delegate Stacey Plaskett, who represents the Virgin Islands.

Thanks so much for joining us, Delegate Plaskett.

So, 57 to convict, 43 to acquit, but Donald Trump basically walked. What's your reaction?

PLASKETT: Heartbreaking for those of us who put -- and not just the impeachment managers, but for the staff, professionals just working around the clock, as well as the American people.

It's frustrating, but the founders knew what they were doing. And so we live with the system that we have. But, thankfully, it was bipartisan, the greatest majority voting to convict a president, as well as the American people seeing truly who Donald Trump was.

TAPPER: You and your fellow House impeachment managers wanted to call Republican Congresswoman Herrera Beutler from Washington state as a witness to describe Kevin McCarthy's call with Trump in which the president effectively sided with the terrorists while the attack was going on.

Take a listen. This is what she told a town hall.


REP. JAIME HERRERA BEUTLER (R-WA): He said: "Well, Kevin, these aren't my people. These are Antifa."

And Kevin responded and said: "No, they're your people. You need to call them off."

And the president's response to Kevin, to me, was chilling. He said: "Well, Kevin, I guess they're more upset about the election theft than you are."


TAPPER: I mean, siding with the terrorists while they were attacking the Capitol.


TAPPER: You also want it to subpoena her notes of that call.

But, ultimately, Democrats did neither of those things and accepted the public statements she made. Why did you back down?

PLASKETT: I think we didn't back down.

I think what we did was, we got what we wanted, which was her statement, which was what she said, and had it put the record, and being able to say it on the record out loud, so that others would hear.

Just so the American public is aware, witnesses in a Senate hearing do not come and stand before the senators and make any statements. It's a deposition. It's videotaped. And that is brought before the Senate.


So, I know that people are feeling a lot of angst and believe that maybe, if we had this, the senators would have done what we wanted.

But, listen, we didn't need more witnesses. We needed more senators with spines.

TAPPER: Why do you think you didn't need more witnesses? I mean, I think there are a lot of people out there who think, wow, I really would have liked to have known from somebody next to Trump or from whomever...


TAPPER: ... what was going on at that moment. There were unanswered questions, I mean, ones that Trump's lawyers could have answered, but chose not to.

Were you being pressured by Senate Democrats, because they wanted to get on with confirmations and the COVID relief bill?

PLASKETT: Well, one, we did have eyewitnesses.

Remember, there were three police officers who gave their testimony by video during the hearing. To have individuals who were close to the senator -- close to the president, former president, testify would have required subpoenas.

Recall that we're still in court fighting over the McCann testimony being admitted into the first impeachment trial. That's a year later. We still do not have his testimony that we wanted. And we knew that these were hostile witnesses. They were not going to testify.

Has anybody even heard from Vice President Pence? The man tried to assassinate him, and he still hasn't come forward.

TAPPER: So -- but was the idea, though, we just can't drag this out anymore, because we have got other stuff to do?

PLASKETT: I think the idea was, we had sufficient evidence to prove that the president did what we said he did, which was incite an insurrection to overthrow our government, to retain power for himself. And there was overwhelming evidence of that.

I think that all Americans, when we rested our case, believed that we had proved our case. And the nonsense that the defense put out did not dispute that.

As you heard from Mitch McConnell, his closing statement was what we said. He agreed with us.


PLASKETT: They all agreed.

They just decided that they wanted to give him a walk. And they found a technicality that they created to do so.

TAPPER: OK. I mean, I hear what you're saying. I mean, I do think more witnesses might have made the case more compelling.

But I also...

PLASKETT: Do you think more senators would have voted?

TAPPER: I don't know.

And I also heard -- and this is what I want to ask you. I heard from a Democratic senator that there was word going around that, if you guys don't wrap, you're going to lose senators, like Richard Burr from North Carolina.

PLASKETT: We heard that.

TAPPER: But -- you did hear that.

So, it was an idea -- so, that was -- more might have actually made the -- lost you votes?

PLASKETT: It's possible.

TAPPER: Was that part of the decision-making?

PLASKETT: No, I think we wanted to get in what we wanted. And we did. We believed that we proved the case. We proved the elements of an article of impeachment.

It's clear that these individuals were hardened, that they did not want to let the president be convicted or disqualified. They are afraid of his base. They are afraid of losing power, of losing their seats. They made a calculation that retaining power, remaining a senator was more important than their country.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question, because you just mentioned Mitch McConnell, who gave this blistering statement after voting not guilty...


TAPPER: ... saying that Trump, "As an ordinary citizen, unless the statute of limitations runs out, is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. He didn't get away with anything yet."

Do you agree with that? And, if so, is there any plan to talk to the D.C. attorney general or the Biden Justice Department about charging Trump or Don Jr. or Giuliani for incitement?

PLASKETT: Well, I will leave that to leadership.

At this time, I'm just trying to take a breather...


PLASKETT: ... go back to my committees. We're still doing -- in between the impeachment trial, in -- later in the evening, I was still involved in markups on Ways and Means, trying to take care of the budget.

I have got family to take care of. My constituents still need work. I'm sure leadership are going to be having those discussions. And God bless the attorney general of Georgia, New York, district attorney's office here in D.C. as well.

TAPPER: So, you're unique among the House impeachment managers, who are pretty -- generally speaking, pretty partisan crew of Democrats, Ted Lieu and Jamie Raskin and Eric Swalwell.

You're a former Republican. You were a Republican until, I think, 2008. You worked in the Bush administration. You actually were a staffer on the House Ethics Committee when Senator Rob Portman, then a congressman, was a member of the House Ethics Committee.

PLASKETT: Sure, was my mentor.

TAPPER: You -- I think your colleagues used to -- would joke with you that you speak Republican.


TAPPER: You know how to appeal.

The presentation, especially for these very sharp-elbowed partisan Democrats, was fairly Republican-friendly, very Republican-friendly, talking about President Trump, extolling the patriotism of Vice President Pence.

PLASKETT: I think we were trying to speak to 100 senators.


And did you kind of like vet their language to make sure -- did they run it by you, hey, you -- Delegate, you speak Republican? Does -- how does this go?

PLASKETT: I think what we tried to do was really be a very inclusive team.


We talked among each other every day, hours at a time, having discussions, reviewing each other's works. And so, yes, I think that discussions generally went around with all of us.

TAPPER: You were also the only black female lawmaker present, not only in the House impeachment manager team, but in the entire Senate chamber, for the trial.

At one point, you emphatically criticized the defense team's use of video from the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, some of which turned violent, as part of the presentation. Why did you take issue with that?

PLASKETT: Well, I believe that, as a black woman, and being there, it's my duty, my responsibility, to have that opportunity, to speak up in spaces like that when necessary.

I have been doing it my entire life. And I was offended because, listen, I am the daughter of a police officer. My dad was a New York City police officer for 30 years. My grandfather was deputy commissioner of police in the Virgin Islands.

We understand police who care for their communities. And it's important for us to also be aware that black people are being killed. And to muddy that, to destroy the message that I think was inclusive of all of us, Jake, white people, white children, Amish people, speaking on behalf of black people and saying that our lives matter, senators who were there on the Republican side marching with us as well, and to muddy that and besmirch that was something that I couldn't let stand.

TAPPER: All right, Delegate Stacey Plaskett from the U.S. Virgin Islands, specifically from Saint Croix, not my favorite.

Saint Thomas is my favorite.

PLASKETT: I'm definitely a Croixian, but we're all V.I. strong.

TAPPER: All right.

Well, thank you so much. And good luck with your committee work. I hope you get back to Saint Thomas sometime soon, one of my favorite places on Earth.

PLASKETT: This week.

TAPPER: All right, thank you so much. And...

PLASKETT: And happy Valentine's Day.

TAPPER: Thank you so much. I appreciate it, Delegate. Thank you so much.

I want to turn now to one of the jurors who was in the room throughout the trial, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

You just heard Delegate Stacey Plaskett. The House impeachment managers, they wanted to call Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler to testify about that McCarthy call with Trump; 55 senators, yourself included, voted to hear witnesses. Then, after all that, the Senate decided not to call witnesses.

I want to play something you said during Trump's first impeachment trial. Take a listen.


SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): It would it be constitutional malpractice for the Senate not to ask for witnesses.


TAPPER: Constitutional malpractice for the Senate not to call witnesses.

That's when Republicans controlled the body. Now Democrats control the body. Was it malpractice? Should you have actually heard from witnesses?

MURPHY: Well, in the case of the trial a year ago, the House was begging for witnesses. The House managers didn't believe that they could put on a case without being able to bring people like John Bolton to testify to facts that weren't in their possession.

And so what I said in this trial was that, if the House managers asked for witnesses, I would support those requests. That's why I voted to move forward with the debate on witnesses yesterday morning.

In the end, the managers decided that they were going to be able to get what they needed by putting Congresswoman Herrera Beutler's testimony on the record. And, frankly, I think they did get what they wanted. They, frankly, got the whole country's attention tuned in for most of the day yesterday on the actions of President Trump during that critical moment and testimony that he, in fact, delighted in the mob storming the Capitol and was prepared to do nothing about it.

So, in the end, the managers made the decision that it probably wouldn't have helped their case. They might have lost votes if they had moved forward with a week or two or three weeks of argument over witnesses. And, in the end, I agree with Delegate Plaskett. They had proved their

case by yesterday morning. They weren't going to get any more Republican votes than they had. I think they made the right decision to move to closing arguments.

TAPPER: Do you agree that, if they had extended the trial with more witnesses, that they might have lost Republican votes? There's talk that Senator Richard Burr was ready to convict, but his vote was -- he was on the bubble, as it were.

I mean, was that the right call to get the highest number of Republican votes to convict?

MURPHY: I don't know that they would have lost votes.

I just am pretty confident they were at their high watermark yesterday morning. I just -- I know that Senate Republican Caucus well. I can't figure out who their eighth or ninth vote was going to be.

The rest of them I think had effectively made the decision that Donald Trump's going to be in charge of their party for the next four years. As they were deathly afraid of him for the last four years, they are going to continue to be afraid of him for the next four years.

There were seven of them that were willing to stand up for the Constitution, but I don't know that there were more than seven, no matter what they did or how much longer the trial went.

TAPPER: It was the shortest presidential impeachment trial on record, less than a week from start to finish.

According to Politico, your Senate Colleague Chris Coons said -- quote -- "The jury is ready to vote. People want to get home for Valentine's Day."


There was also some concern, obviously, that dragging this out might impact Biden's agenda. But the Senate's on recess this week. You're not working or voting, rather, on COVID relief. You're not confirming Cabinet nominees.

Did Democrats just want to get this over with as quickly as possible for political reasons?

MURPHY: No, I mean, this was certainly maybe the shortest trial, but also the simplest trial. It was one article of impeachment. It played out on live TV.

Prior impeachment trials were about secret proceedings inside the White House. This was about the president publicly assembling, inciting a mob, to storm the Capitol that the entire world watched.

So, I don't know that we needed as long as we took on Ukraine or others to try to get to a result. And, also, Jake, as you know, we passed the beginning part of the COVID relief package, the budget reconciliation instructions, two weeks ago. We're now in the process of writing that bill, as we will all next week.

We also were able to move at the beginning of the trial nominees forward. We voted in the Education Committee and Labor Committee two of the nominees during the morning last week. So, we have been doing three things at once. We have been moving the COVID negotiations. We have been continuing the confirmation process, and we have been dispensing with these articles of impeachment.

TAPPER: Your colleague Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who voted to convict former President Trump, said in a statement -- quote -- "Here's the sad reality. If we were talking about a Democratic president, most Republicans and most Democrats would simply swap sides. Tribalism is a hell of a drug, but our oath to the Constitution means we're constrained to the facts" -- unquote.

Is he right?

MURPHY: I have a lot of respect for Ben, but I don't think he's right. I do think that this cult of personality that's been built up around President Trump is fundamentally different. I really don't believe that Democrats would rush to the defense of a president of our party that was essentially trying to overturn an election.

There is -- something has happened inside the Republican Party, in which they have decided to abandon democracy. They are no longer defending the right of the people to choose who should be president. I don't think that that would happen inside the Democratic Party.

To an extent, Senator Sasse is true. We have become too -- too tribal. I mean, we have lost the ability to sit down and negotiate big things together. And we should have a conversation about how our campaign finance system, how our method of drawing districts in the House of Representatives, how the news media, as constructed today, pushes us apart.

But I don't think there's an equivalency between how Republicans have acted to try to overturn democracy and how Democrats would react if a president of our party was trying to do the same thing.

TAPPER: Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, good to see you again, sir. Thanks so much for your time.

MURPHY: Thanks a lot.

TAPPER: After the heavy majority of Republicans give President Trump a pass, where does the GOP go from here?

Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, never afraid to call out Trump, joins me next.

Plus: back to school without an outbreak, the CDC now telling you how to make that happen. The CDC director will join me live to explain why the science says it's safe.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper.

If there was any remaining doubt, last night's vote by the vast majority of the Republican Party to acquit gives some final clarity to the question of where the GOP stands in regards to its former leader.

There are some Republicans who have stood up for accountability, the seven senators who voted to convict. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, who revealed President Trump's complete reluctance to call off the rioters, according to her account of a call between Leader McCarthy and President Trump.

But they are, sadly, the exceptions.

Joining me now is a leading Republican who's never been afraid to break ranks with Trump, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland.

Governor, the Senate fell short of the 67-vote threshold for conviction. But seven Senate Republicans did break with their party, voted to convict former President Trump. Would you have voted to convict? And what does the final vote count say about the GOP?

GOV. LARRY HOGAN (R-MD): Well, first of all, I think there were a lot more people who didn't have the courage to vote that way who may have been convinced and moved by the argument.

But you're right. There weren't enough people willing to stand up. There were 10 members of the House and seven members of the Senate who did. I'm proud of them, because, sometimes, it's not -- it's not easy to go against your party and the base of your party and the former president.

And -- but it's hard to do the right thing sometimes. But I think -- I'm proud of those folks that did take that decision and put the country ahead of party or personal affection or whatever.

It reminds me of when my dad was -- took that same position back in the '70s in the Nixon impeachment. It wasn't very popular with some of his friends, but it was the right thing to do.

TAPPER: Yes, I want to get to your dad in a second.

But just to be clear, you would have voted to convict had you been a senator?

LARRY HOGAN: I would have.

TAPPER: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ultimately voted to acquit Trump, but he had this to say afterwards. Take a listen.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office, as an ordinary citizen, unless the statute of limitations has run, still liable for everything he did while he's in office.

Didn't get away with anything yet.


TAPPER: Do you think that Donald Trump should potentially face criminal charges, as McConnell appears to be suggesting should happen?

LARRY HOGAN: Well, it was interesting to hear.

Leader McConnell's words were pretty strong. It didn't match how he voted.


LARRY HOGAN: But I think he was moved by some of the arguments. And I think there was yesterday's vote, but there's definitely a number of court -- potential court cases. And I think he's still going to face criminal courts and the court of public opinion.

And this is not over. And it's -- we're going to decide over the next couple of years what the fate of Donald Trump and the Republican Party is.

TAPPER: You and I have talked before about your dad, Larry Hogan Sr., who, as you noted, was the first Republican to support impeaching Richard Nixon.

He paid a steep political price for that courage. Here is a little clip from something he said in a 2015 interview. Take a listen.


FMR. REP. LAWRENCE HOGAN SR. (R-MD): I lost a lot of friends, a lot of supporters, a lot of contributors by voting against them, and lost the nomination for governor because of my vote against Nixon, not to say that I would have changed in any way, because I think I did the right thing.

But many Republicans at that time were very unforgiving.


TAPPER: What your dad did was the right thing to do. It was also not easy.

What is your message to Republicans who listen to that and say, yes, I don't want to end up like that?


Well, first of all, I'm so proud of my dad for that moment, when he did have the courage to stand up. I learned a lot about integrity in public service from him. But he paid a political price. And I understand. I think that is the

-- not everybody has that kind of courage. I mean, those seven senators did yesterday, the 10 members of the House, those of us who are willing to stand up and speak out.


But some of them are -- they -- I think there are far more people who agree that we have got to move on from Donald Trump, that agree that he was a part of inciting this mob at the Capitol, that they're disgusted by how he treated Mike Pence, and as they're building gallows and talking about hanging Mike Pence.

A lot of Republicans are outraged, but they don't have the courage to stand up and vote that way because they're afraid of being primaried, or they're going to lose their careers.

I mean, I think you have got to look at what's good for the country, and not worry about the next election or whether you're going to be elected to something or not.

TAPPER: What is next for the Republican Party, do you think?

I mean, look, to be frank, a majority of the Senate, a majority of the House, a majority of the American people all agree with what you have said about Donald Trump, about the insurrection, about how he incited it.

But a majority of the Republican Party voters do not feel that way.

LARRY HOGAN: I -- that's true, Jake, but I think that that's going to change over time.

I mean, let's say -- this is -- we're only a month into the Biden administration. I think the final chapter of Donald Trump and where the Republican Party goes hasn't been written yet. And I think we're going to have a real battle for the soul of the Republican Party over the next couple of years.

And we're going to say, are we going to be a party that would -- that can't win national elections again, that loses the presidency, the House and the Senate in a four-year period, and loses governors and state legislative bodies? Or are we somehow going to get back to a real traditional Republican Party of commonsense conservatives that want to argue and put up -- to push for the things that we have always believed in and to try to compete with Democrats?

Because I think that a competitive two-party system is so important to our democracy, and we're losing it. There's no question about that.

TAPPER: I want to turn to coronavirus.

You were part of a bipartisan meeting at the White House with President Biden over the pandemic response.

In a statement afterward, you said -- quote -- "There is no reason why he" -- meaning Biden -- "and Republicans in Congress cannot forge a compromise that addresses the nation's top priorities in this crisis. I will continue urging Republicans in Congress to be willing to compromise. And I urge the president to lead by finding the common ground where we can all stand together" -- unquote.

The fact is, though, there does not really appear to be any chance of a compromise right now. Biden thinks the Republican plan is insufficient. It's just not enough money. And many Republicans don't even think another stimulus is necessary.

As the governor of a hard-hit state, is it safe to assume you would prefer the $1.9 trillion package over the Republicans' $600 billion package?

LARRY HOGAN: So, look, I -- I was repeatedly giving my advice to the president. On Friday, we had about an hour-and-a-half meeting in the Oval Office.

And I said to him, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. And I said that I thought that it was good for his agenda over the next four years if he started out by getting some Republicans on board in a bipartisan way.

If you just jammed it down your throat, if it's a take-it-or-leave-it Democratic bill, we have Republicans that are being obstructionist, you have Democrats that are that are enforcing their will, it's not going to be as easy to get things done, like on infrastructure or rebuilding our economy.

I left, and he was very receptive to the message and said he agreed with that message and wants to try to find a way to reach some kind of a compromise. And then I left the Oval Office to come back to Annapolis, where I passed, in my 70 percent Democratic legislature, nearly unanimously a billion-dollar relief bill.

So, I'm putting my money where my mouth is about you can get people on the other side to come together when -- in the middle of a crisis, when people desperately need help. And -- but you have to be willing to give and take and listen to the other side.

TAPPER: All right, Governor Larry Hogan, Republican of Maryland, thank you so much.

Good to see you, as always, sir.

LARRY HOGAN: Thank you.

TAPPER: The CDC now says there are five key strategies that communities need to follow to reopen schools. So, what does that mean for your family?

The CDC director will be here next.


[09:33:04] TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper.

A road map to reopening schools.

The CDC now says we can do it, and we can do it safely for students and teachers and also parents, some who have been forced to leave work, as many children struggle to keep up virtually and their mental health suffers from the social isolation.

The five key steps, per the CDC, wearing masks, staying six feet apart, washing hands, cleaning the schools regularly, and contact tracing.


TAPPER: And joining us now is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

Dr. Walensky, thanks so much for joining us. Good to see you again.

So, you have said -- quote -- "Schools should be the last thing to close and the first thing to open" -- unquote.

Should all students be back in classrooms before the end of this school year?

WALENSKY: Good morning, Jake. Thanks for having me again.

Really, what we have said in our guidance is that the amount of classroom activity really depends on the amount of spread in the community. We know that the amount of disease in the community is completely reflected as to what's happening in school.

If there's more disease in the community, there will be more in school, and that most disease in school does not come from in-school transmission, but comes from outside the -- in -- from into the community.

So, what we would advocate for is to have more kids in school, as our community spread comes down.

TAPPER: So, the CDC guidelines suggest schools could opt not to reopen in person classes if they're in a red zone with the high community spread that you just referred to.

According to our analysis of federal data, that includes 99 percent of American children. But you have said -- quote -- "There's very little transmission happening in the schools." CDC researchers just wrote in "JAMA" that -- quote -- "There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."


So, why give schools that opt not to open up?

WALENSKY: In -- it's a really great question. In that red zone that you're referring to -- and, in fact, yes, many

of our current counties are in that red zone, our -- although our numbers continue to decline. But, in that red zone, we advocate for hybrid elementary school, because we believe those K-5 kids are, A, transmitting less, and, B, really essential to have back in the classroom.

And if you're in middle school or high school, we would advocate for virtual learning for that group or, if you're able to do six feet of -- strict six feet of distancing in those classrooms, to open remotely in a hybrid way.

TAPPER: But President Biden has promised to always follow the science.

Can you put to -- can you point to any scientific reasons for students in the United States not to return to in person classes tomorrow, as long as schools are taking the five steps that we referred to earlier, masking, cleansing, et cetera? Why not open the schools right now?

WALENSKY: You know, I think if you look at what's -- as you noted, there's 90 percent of communities with this high rate of transmission going on right now. And we really don't want to bring community disease into the classroom.

We also know that mask-breaching is among the reasons that we have transmission within schools, when it happens. And so, really need to do the hard work to make sure that there's universal masking, there's strict six feet of distancing between, that there's cohorting or podding, so that there's restriction of disease, if it were to be transmitted, you know, and all of the contract tracing and whatnot that needs to be done.

And all of that is really hard to put together.

TAPPER: Well, I -- but what's the science?

Because you have said there's -- I mean, not just you, but Dr. Fauci, others have been saying for months that the schools should be opened as long as there's masking and cleansing and social distancing, everything that we talked about.

If a school is doing that -- I understand if there's a mask violation, that's a problem. But if a school is doing that, I mean, the damage, as I don't need to tell you, on kids, the isolation, the psychological damage, the educational loss of a year for many kids, not to mention the thousands of kids who are just slipping through the cracks, I mean, it's -- it's hard to even calculate.

And there are a lot of people out there watching who think, like, I thought the science said we should open the schools ,as long as we take those safety steps. We're taking the safety steps, and we're not opening the schools.

WALENSKY: Yes, it's -- so there are numerous research studies that have demonstrated that if -- with universal masking and six feet of distancing and de-densification of the classrooms, that it's possible to get schools back safely, with all that happening.

Ninety-two percent of people on those studies wore mask.

We have other data that was just published in CDC's MMWR that demonstrate that somewhere around 60 percent of students are reliably masking. That has to be universal. So, we have work to do, especially when the country remains in the red zone of high community transmission. As the transmission comes down, we'll be able to relax some of these measures.

But the real point is to make sure that the science is consistent with our guidance, which is consistent to say, until we can ensure that we have all those measures happening, that there was -- schools wouldn't be safe.

TAPPER: So, schools should not be -- schools are not going to be safe unless everybody is masking.

I mean, I certainly hear that and understand that, but how do you open the school? I mean, I don't even -- I'm just really confused.

It seems to me like you're saying, the schools are safe to open as long as everybody takes these steps, but not everybody is taking these steps; therefore, we're not going to open the schools?

Do I have that right?

WALENSKY: Well, there -- we need to make sure that all of those steps are happening.

And it's masking, it's distancing, it's podding and cohorting of the younger children. It is cleaning of surfaces. It's handwashing. And it's contact tracing and diagnostic testing in an efficient manner, in collaboration with the departments of public health.

Not all schools are able to do all of those things right now, and many of those schools are in red zones. So, we need to make sure that, as we come out of the red zones and do our part as a society to get down from red to lower area -- rates of transmission, and we need to do the works to get all of those mitigation strategies up and running in all of these schools.

The American Rescue Plan has resources, $130 billion of resources, to facilitate and help schools get there. And that's really why we wanted -- we're pushing from the Rescue Plan, so that we can facilitate getting our schools, all of those mitigation measures, so that they can open safely.


TAPPER: You say that vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening the schools.

But a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that one in four teachers nationwide -- so, that's 1.5 million people -- are at higher risk of serious illness because of either age or comorbidities. What should be done about those teachers who are at higher risk?

WALENSKY: We have in the guidance -- thank you for asking this.

We have in the guidance clear language that specifies that teachers that are at higher risk -- teachers and students that are higher risk and their families should have options for virtual activities, virtual learning, virtual teaching.

I also want to articulate that, while it's not in our school guidance that it's a prerequisite for schools to open, our ACIP, Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, guidance does put teachers in the 1-B category for vaccination. That is vaccination of the same group as greater than 75-year-olds.

So, I'm a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations, but we don't believe it's a prerequisite for schools to reopen.

TAPPER: The CDC and you in this interview keep recommending six feet of distance between students.

This is, of course, one of the barriers keeping some schools closed, because classrooms aren't big enough. Class -- teachers are already overwhelmed by the number of students in their classroom.

Over the summer, you suggested in a private e-mail to the mayor of Newton, Massachusetts, that three feet of distance was -- quote -- "quite safe" if people are masked.

So, is six feet absolutely necessary, or can students be safe at closer distances?

WALENSKY: Great question. And thanks for asking.

Over the summer, we were at much less disease, and our guidance is a bit more flexible in terms of the distancing if you are at low rates of transmission, those rates that we were seeing over the summer.

The other thing I want to just highlight is that a lot's changed since July. We know -- we have a lot more science. We have over 60 references accompanying our school guidance. Many, if not most of those references have been experiences that have happened in the fall, both here in the United States and in Europe, as well as new data on variants, which we weren't talking about over the summer.

So, I think one of the lessons learned here is, we have to be humble as to what we're learning and be willing to be flexible as we learn more.

TAPPER: I have to say I feel a little dispirited after this conversation, because I had high hopes that schools would be able to resume in person learning, because so many scientists and health officials, including you and Dr. Fauci and others, had been talking about the science supports opening the schools as much as possible.

I know that a lot of teachers are very concerned ,and I know the teachers unions have been pushing back on this. But it sounds to me like you're asking for 100 percent mask compliance and a number of measures that we're never going to be able to achieve. And that makes me feel like, boy, I don't know if the schools are ever going to open until everybody's vaccinated.

WALENSKY: Our -- there's literature out that suggests that over 90 percent of people, when they're masked, you can have safe opening of schools.

What I will say is, this is directly related to how much disease is in the community. We have more flexibility in opening schools as our disease rates come down.

So, I would say this is everybody's responsibility to do their part in the community to get disease rates down, so we can get our schools opened.

TAPPER: All right, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, thank you so much.

Appreciate your time today.

WALENSKY: Thanks so much.



TAPPER: We just saw a small but respectable number of politicians willing to break with their partisan allegiances and criticize an intimidating leader in the face of loss of life.

I'm not talking about the seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict Donald Trump; Senators Burr, Cassidy, Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Sasse and Toomey. I'm talking about the small number of Democratic officials in New York publicly expressing outrage after the latest development in the scandal surrounding New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the numbers of New York nursing home residents who were fatally infected with COVID.

You may recall the Cuomo administration last March told nursing homes, quote, no resident shall be denied readmission or admission to the nursing home solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19, unquote.

Nursing homes took in thousands of seniors with COVID, potentially infecting thousands more, such as 89-year-old Norman Arbeeny. After the Cuomo directive, his family pulled him out of a nursing home after he had already gotten a fever. And Arbeeny died at home from COVID.

Now, did he get COVID because of Cuomo's directive? We don't know for sure, but his family says it's not rocket science.


DANIEL ARBEENY, LOST FATHER TO CORONAVIRUS: It was the absolute worst decision anybody could make in a time of a pandemic.


TAPPER: It's, of course, impossible to exactly ascertain how many nursing home deaths are linked to the Cuomo directive. And certainly part of the reason is that the Cuomo administration's quote "published nursing home data reflected and may have been undercounted by as much as 50 percent," according to fellow Democrat and New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Now that's because infected nursing home residents who were then taken to hospitals where they died, they were omitted from the data. An interesting decision for an administration under fire for months for the nursing home directive.

So Governor Cuomo, who has declined to appear on this show despite dozens of requests over the past year, including this past week, made a bad decision that may have cost lives. And then his administration hid that data from the public. Cuomo issued an executive order changing the advisory on May 10th requiring patients to test negative before returning to their nursing homes, but that was obviously too late for those already infected.

Last August, New York legislators pressed Cuomo for more information, and that's where this latest private admission, this latest development in the scandal from his Secretary Melissa DeRosa comes in. She said that the data was withheld because, quote, "right around the same time," -- they were asking for it -- "President Trump turns this into a giant political football. He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes. He directs the Department of Justice to do an investigation into us. Basically, we froze," unquote.

In a public statement Friday, she also blamed the second wave of the virus for the delay in reporting. But this all fit in perfectly with what Governor Cuomo himself said on January 29th when asked about the damning report from the state attorney general.


GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, (D-NY): It's not about pointing fingers or blame. It's that this became a political football, right? Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home, it's -- the people died. People died.


TAPPER: But where those people died and why they died and if they died because of Cuomo's March directive, that is information in the public interest. And fear of political enemies using the data against you, that's not an excuse for covering it up from the public.

This was Democratic New York City Mayor de Blasio's reaction after reading about DeRosa's comments in The New York Post, which broke the story.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, (D-NY): It's a really disturbing report. It's very troubling. We've got to know more. We now need a full accounting of what happened. Think about seniors who -- their lives were in the balance.


TAPPER: "Because of your decisions, thousands of people died who did not have to die," tweeted a Democratic state legislature. "This is a betrayal of the public trust," wrote another. "This is criminal," said yet another.

Among the governor's chief critics is New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Republican who refused to hold Trump accountable for the loss of life under his watch because of the mishandling of the pandemic or the January 6th MAGA terrorist attack at the Capitol.

Stefanik, in fact, helped spread Trump's big lie. So you might find it difficult to take seriously Stefanik's stated outrage because if you are only upset about bad, even fatale leadership decisions and behavior based on the partisan affiliation of that leader, you are not operating from a place of righteousness. You are operating from a place of craven self-interest.

Which brings us back to what happened in the U.S. Senate. Yesterday, and frankly all week, the Trump defense team lied to the senators. They berated the senators. They made claims about Trump that we all know to be false about an attack on the Senate that could have killed any of them.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R), MINORITY LEADER: Former President Trump's actions preceded the riot or a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.


TAPPER: And, yet, Republican Leader McConnell and 42 other Republicans voted not guilty. Some of them denying to this day what we all saw with our eyes and heard with our ears.

One wonders if anything would have been different had the mob actually achieved their desired end and, God forbid, actually hung Mike Pence. I honestly don't think so.

Now the situations with Governor Cuomo and Former President Trump are obviously very different. But I will never understand the instinct that prompts someone to check the party affiliation of those acting abhorrently or indecently before figuring out how they should react.

It would be nice if every elected official could behave as if indecent behavior is empirically indecent behavior no matter the party affiliation of the one responsible. Dead bodies, they're all just as dead. For leaders not lacking in courage, join us tonight for a new CNN

original series that chronicles President Abraham Lincoln's life and the compromises he made to save the union and free the slaves. Lincoln: Divided We Stand premieres tonight at 10:00 p.m. only on CNN.