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CDC Director On Reopening Schools Safely: "We Have Work To Do"; McConnell: Trump Is "Still Liable For Everything He Did"; New York Dem Leaders Discuss Drafting Bill To Repeal Gov. Cuomo's Expanded Powers. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 15, 2021 - 12:30   ET




DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: We 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 padding so that there's a restriction of disease if it were to be transmitted. I'm a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations. But we don't believe it's a prerequisite for schools to reopen.


JOHN KING, CNN HOST: With us to share her expertise and insights on this very important subject, Annette Anderson, she's the Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. Thank you so much for your time today. This is the dominant issue around the country. I know you are grateful that you see more federal engagement on this question. There have also been some concerns about whether the White House and the CDC have been on the same page about the pace of reopening schools. What do you see as the pluses and the minuses so far, in the new Biden approach?

ANNETTE ANDERSON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOHNS HOPKINS CENTER FOR SAFE & HEALTHY SCHOOLS: Well, first of all, John, thank you again, for having me. I think that there are lots of reasons to be optimistic that we are trending in the right direction to see that the federal government has finally decided to jump into the fray around all of the chaos on school reopening. It's a signal. It's a bellwether that suggests that we can get this done in a timely fashion.

I know that everyone thought that maybe we would get started in the first 100 days. But I think that there's a longer term plan. And so one of the things that I've said is that we've got to have a czar, a school reopening czar, that's going to help us to organize this, because as you just mentioned, there lots of pluses to having the federal government be part of this but part of the challenges the bureaucracy that has to be waded through in order to make this happen.

So I do think that we're going to need to have all hands on deck, but there has to be a place where the buck stops in order to coordinate as well. KING: And so let's go through the new CDC guidelines and tell me what you find most significant, and if anything, and there's most significant in terms of a change right there. Universal incorrect wearing of masks, you heard Dr. Walensky, talking about that too, physical distancing, washing hands is critical, cleaning facilities and improving ventilation, and then contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, when you do have cases.

One of the -- as you as you know, you know, we have a federal conversation, but then you have thousands of school districts across the country with different challenges. In rural America, the challenges are going to be very different than they're going to be in an inner city, where you may have older buildings and the -- it's a ventilation question there.

ANDERSON: Yes, the ventilation question, it does hang in the balance about whether or not we are really prepared to fully reopen our schools. I mean, we know that the Biden administration is pledging $1.9 trillion. And that seems like an enormous sum of money. But so much of that is already pledged to things like keeping and retaining our current teachers and trying to meet school budgets across the country.

And there is some funding for PPE, for example. But we've got to make a concerted effort around this ventilation issue. We've got to make sure because there are classrooms that don't have windows. And we need to think about the size of those classrooms in terms of social distancing. We know that the landscape of public education has changed permanently forever because of the pandemic.

But we've now have an opportunity because of this to rethink how we want to respond and to think about some new innovations and how we want to move forward with this. So, you know, the ventilation question is a significant one. And I do think that the Biden administration will need to have some additional resources available for districts and schools. But what is encouraging is that, you know, we've had 14,000 districts with 14,000 plans.

And now because we have the federal government involved, and they're talking about collecting this data, on the transmission rates and the positivity cases, it will be critical for people to start seeing that data, because part of the real key issue right here is that we've got to rebuild the trust amongst so many families and among educators as well, John, because those families want to believe that we have a great way to get all of our kids back to school.

KING: And again, you mentioned rebuilding trust, but so many of these decisions you can have, you can have federal guidelines, or you have so many different school districts have to implement them. We know so far from existing research, we can show our viewers out there, schools that strictly following precautions had the same or lower infection risks in their communities. So if you have a school and you have masking, you have distancing, the kids are not at higher risk, well, that's been proven.

Middle and high school students are more likely than younger students to catch or transmit COVID. And close contact and indoor sports activities that involve shouting or singing significantly raised the risk. From what we know so far, how do you take, you know, we're a year into this now, how do you take what you know and apply it and then say, OK, we can do this, but we must not do that?

ANDERSON: Oh, that's where I think having this color coded system will be very integral to helping to build back the trust amongst families in particular. What we do know is that where schools have provided some seats for in person learning that many of our most vulnerable students have not come back yet. And so that's a significant concern. So we will not feel like this process to reopen our schools is successful until we have reached those families and convinced them the schools are safe to reopen.

So part of what we have to now do is to figure out how we get those families back. Those families have already said that they are concerned. And many of our urban districts they already concerned about having an economic pandemic on top of the global health pandemic on top of a racism pandemic. And now you've added an educational decision making pandemic.


So parents want to be able to trust that the districts and the federal government and the states are all aligned with the information that they're giving to everyone so that there's consistent transparent decision making so that they can be comfortable about buying back into what we're offering in public education.

KING: Annette Anderson, grateful for your time and insights today and as in the past, and please keep in touch as we walk through this. We're going to be out this for months, obviously, as we go through this. And to me, it's the most important question on the table as we deal with the pandemic, our children. Annette, thank you so much for this.

Coming up for us, Trump got an acquittal in the Senate trial, but his legal worries far from over.



KING: Former President Trump escaped Senate conviction again. But the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell did give us this weekend reminder.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office as an ordinary citizen. Couldn't get away with anything, yes, yes.


KING: Impeachment far from ends the 45th President's legal troubles. There are at least seven lawsuits pending, criminal investigations pending and civil lawsuits combined aimed at Mr. Trump or his family business. Joining our conversation, former Democratic Senator from Alabama and the former U.S. Attorney, Doug Jones. Senator, it's great to see you on this day.

Let me ask you first to wear your former U.S. Attorney hat, you know, we can just put up a list of the former President's legal troubles. The Manhattan district attorney we know has been probing for some time, Trump's family finances. The Fulton County, Atlanta district attorney probing now the phone call to the Secretary of State, now the Georgia election officials, the Georgia Secretary of State looking into these, there's a D.C. Attorney General, U.S. Attorney possible incitement of violence charges, then there are these civil cases which include defamation lawsuits by two women who allege bad conduct by the then private businessman Trump and the New York Attorney General investigation.

When you look at that list, does anything jump out at you as a particular parallel? Or does he just have a whole slate of potential problems?

DOUG JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it's a combination. He's certainly got a whole slate of potential legal problems. And he has been for years and annuity for law firms. And so he's going to have to deal with each one of those. The ones that jumped out to me the most, though, I think, are the ones that have been going on that involve the financial records in New York. Those where there is a paper trail that is not necessarily tweets and speeches.

I think everything needs to be looked at from January 6th certainly. Everybody that was on that platform needs to be examined as part of this overall investigation, which seems to be moving at a rapid clip. But I think the ones in New York are the ones that stand out the most, those are ones that the paper will be there for. You don't have to get into somebody's mind and look at intent, which is very, very difficult to do in a criminal case.

KING: Now, let me ask you to put back on your Senate hat and helped me understand the unique politics of the United States Senate. The Republican Leader Mitch McConnell voted to acquit. Then he came to the floor and he gave a lengthy speech in which he said essentially, Donald Trump is responsible for what happened at the Capitol. He's a horrible human being and he shouldn't be involved in the Republican Party anymore, and that the Democratic prosecutors, the managers made their case and Mitch McConnell was quite clear about that. And yet he voted to acquit.

George Will, the veteran columnist puts it this way. He says, one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's many admirable traits is that he is uninterested in being admired. He has his eyes on the prize, 2022. Is that what you see there? He didn't want to break with the majority of Republicans who were going to vote to acquit. But he also wanted to make clear that he thinks Donald Trump is a reprehensible human being. Is that the straddle to get back in power? Is that was that about? JONES: I don't think there's any question about that. Senator McConnell, you can say what you want to but he's a very smart, cunning, and shrewd politician. And political power is the name of the game in getting back the majority. And he in effect, was able to have it both ways. He doesn't do anything in which is not calculated. And he knew that if he delay this, if he delay the trial until after the President left office, that his caucus could have it both ways.

They could vote their conscience if they wanted to and defend democracy and defend the union. Or they could hide behind a technicality and go on a jurisdictional ground. He gave it to him both ways. But clearly, I think his speech at the end was designed to try to put some distance between Donald Trump and the Republican Party. We'll see how that goes. I think it's going to be a real holy war within the Republican Party right now, given Senator Graham's comments and some others. But that's clearly what he exactly what he was trying to do.

KING: And as that holy wars, you call it, the Republican Party plays out. What do you think the best tact for Democrats is? And I asked specifically in the context of Merrick Garland, Judge Garland is about to get his confirmation hearing to be the next Attorney General of the United States. Progressives are mad and they want the former President investigated.

This is from the Progressive Change Committee. If we want accountability for Trump and his criminal network, we cannot just depend on Democratic leaders. We need to push them a lot. How does Merrick Garland answer the question when he's asked in his confirmation hearing? Is this a Justice Department role to keep investigating Donald Trump or do you leave this to the States?

JONES: I don't think he'll answer that question right off because he's not going to be briefed on the facts. He's not going to know what has been going on. There's a lot of investigation that has been going on in the U.S. Attorney's Office I think in New York as well as now in the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. But Judge Garland is not going to be briefed on that. And Judge Garland is going to follow the law and he's going to look and see where this will lead.


And I don't think he will push back on necessarily investigating the former President. But he's not going to embrace it either. He's going to let the facts and the law of follow that. And that's where it needs to be. He will end up doing the right thing, regardless. That's my view. And I believe he will stick to that. But you're not going to see him combat. I don't think anything one way or another at his confirmation hearings, except to follow the facts and the law as he should.

KING: Well, what's that one play out? He's going to get a lot of advice. You can be guaranteed of that from people in all sides of the spectrum. Senator Jones, grateful to see you, good to see you and grateful for your time and your insights.

JONES: My pleasure, John, thanks.

KING: Thank you.

Up next for us, President Biden gives uninsured Americans a special chance to sign up for Obamacare.



KING: Topping our political radar today, the Affordable Care Act exchange reopens today for a special three month enrollment period. President Biden signed an executive order last month to reopen the exchange in hopes that some of the 15 million uninsured Americans eligible for coverage for Obamacare will now sign up. The Biden administration is going to pump $50 million into outreach and education to get people to sign up in the exchange.

And just in for us, New York State Democratic leaders now in active discussions about drafting legislation to repeal New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's expanded executive powers. This development coming on the heels of allegations the state undercounted nursing home deaths from COVID-19. Let's bring in CNN's MJ Lee with this development. MJ?

MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Governor Cuomo is facing serious blowback, including from members of his own party, as you just said, our reporting now is that New York State Democratic leaders are in active discussions right now to draft a bill that would essentially repeal the Governor's expanded emergency powers. This is reporting from my colleague, Lauren del Valle. A source telling her there's momentum moving in the direction of removing his powers.

Just to put this in plain English, John, what this means is that they are signaling that they have sort of lost faith in Governor Cuomo's handling of the pandemic, that they don't think it is appropriate now for him to have these kinds of unilateral decision making powers when it comes to COVID.

As far as the timing of this goes, it is likely that a bill like this could be introduced sometime this week, and that a vote could happen sometime next week. And all indications are that there is broad support behind a bill like this whenever it comes up for a vote. This is just one more sign, John. As you know that this is very serious for Governor Cuomo that there are folks who are demanding answers and they're going to be asking these questions about what exactly happened, was there a cover up and why. And they're clearly not going to stop until they feel like there is accountability, John.

KING: Accountability being the key word. And, again, you've heard lots of Republican criticism now that we know that Democrats are also involved in these discussions tells you quite a bit. We'll watch this one as it goes forward. MJ Lee, grateful for the hustle to bring us that just in reporting.

And up next for us, it is called an emergency COVID relief package. What the Biden White House is also looking to make some long term changes regarding income inequality.



KING: The Biden emergency COVID package includes some temporary measures the White House hopes become too popular to simply let them fade away. It is part of a deliberate White House strategy deal with the current COVID emergency in a way that makes them dense in a systemic problem, income inequality. I want to bring in our CNN White House correspondent, John Harwood. He's done some important reporting on this, John.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, you know, we all remember in the early Obama administration when they -- we had a financial crisis, and Rahm Emanuel said, never let a good crisis go to waste. So they had a stimulus package that had some provisions in there that had a long tail on them, things -- incentives for green energy, for example.

In this bill, the Biden campaign is taking exactly the same approach, the dominant issue revolving around Democratic politics over the last couple of decades has been the gap between rich and poor and income inequality, wealth inequality. They take big steps here with subsidies for the purchase of Obamacare for people who were not previously eligible, expanded child tax credit that would send $300 monthly checks to low income families with kids under six, childcare subsidies up to $8,000 for people who are low income families that have two children requiring care, also expansion of the earned income tax credit for adults without children.

A lot of money that they've put in this bill, not directly related to COVID relief. And of course, the political risk is always as you know whether you load it up with too much more than the market will bear. So far with a Democrats-only approach, they appear to be able to hold their party together in the House. They need to hold all 50 votes in the Senate. There's been some controversy in the Senate about things like the minimum wage, but that's likely to be tossed out of the package.

It does not appear from what we know so far, that the unity of those 50 Democrats is threatened by any of these proposals. But we're going to see as this package moves down the track. They hope to pass it in the House by the end of next week in the Senate by the middle of March.

KING: And is my calculation here, correct that we've seen this before, whether it's the Bush tax cuts or even the Trump tax cuts, to score them, if you will, to fit them, they have a 10-year window, but then what you hope is they become so popular that a future Congress has to say we need to keep them, is that the idea?

HARWOOD: Exactly. You create these cliffs. And so when the Bush tax cuts were going to expire, when Barack Obama was president, Republicans say you're going to let those expire. That means you're going to raise taxes. Similarly, Democrats will say if you're going to let this child tax credit expired, you're going to take benefits away from low income families. They're hoping that will work as well for them as the argument from Republicans did on those Bush tax cuts.


KING: One of the fascinating calculations as we watch this legislation in the next several very important days ahead. John Harwood, grateful for the reporting right from the White House. I'm grateful for your time today. We'll see you back here this time tomorrow.

Don't go anywhere. Brianna Keilar picks up our coverage right now. Have a good day.