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Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Sues Trump and Giuliani for Conspiracy Related to Capitol Insurrection; Tonight, Biden Faces Questions as Nation Battles Pandemic; U.S. Reports Lowest COVID Case Count Since October. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 16, 2021 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. We're so glad you're with us this Tuesday. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

We do begin with breaking news this hour. A sitting member of Congress is now suing former President Trump over his alleged role in last month's insurrection. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Trump, as well as his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, of conspiring to prevent Congress from discharging its duties in the certifying the 2020 election results, which, of course, that took place on January 6, the day of the insurrection.

HARLOW: As a result, Congressman Thompson is seeking an unspecified amount of money, monetary compensation, and he's seeking it directly from former President Trump.

Let's begin this hour with our CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider. Jessica, this is -- it's really interesting. The question is will it prove successful for him? Can you explain what he's basing his argument on?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The chance of success is what is in question here, Poppy, because this is really a novel and unprecedented lawsuits in many respects. This is a top Democrat suing the former president, along with Rudy Giuliani, accusing both of them of conspiring with far-right groups to incite the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Now, this is significant, because not only is this lawsuit seeking monetary damages from Trump and Giuliani, but if this case moves forward, it could subject the former president and others to depositions and the disclosure of other information that might expose more details about what Trump knew about this attack.

It is also notable that Thompson is actually basing his claim on a post-civil war era laws that that has never been used like this before. This is a law he's suing under, it's known as the KKK Act. It was actually designed to stop the Ku Klux Klan from interfering with federal law enforcement in the post-civil war south.

But in this case, Bennie Thompson, congressman, he's alleging that Trump and Giuliani worked in concert with the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, those far-right groups, to incite that violence at the Capitol, to stop Congress from certifying the election results.

So this is a very high bar to meet. Congressman Thompson is alleging here that there was a conspiracy. But, of course, we've heard from Trump's attorneys, they have repeatedly argued that everything that Trump said is protected by the First Amendment.

Now, I've gone through this complaint, it's about 30 pages, it traces months of Trump's rhetoric. At one point in this lawsuit, it even accuses Trump of delaying his speech that day on the Ellipse so members of the Proud Boys could advance to the Capitol and better plot their attack.

Now, this is a claim that is not backed up by any evidence in this lawsuit, so we'll see how that claim proceeds. But I did talk to Congressman Thompson's attorney, Joseph Sellers, he tells me that their argument is that the insurrection was a carefully orchestrated plot that was over seen by Donald Trump mostly by his words and actions.

And he also told me that while this KKK statute has rarely been used, it's Joseph Sellers, the attorney's view, that that really only adds to the credibility of this lawsuit because of the scant precedent here. It is a reflection of just how extraordinary the events were surrounding January 6.

So, Jim and Poppy, we are reaching out to the lawyers for Trump and Giuliani but I am told this morning that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been briefed on this lawsuit and Congressman Thompson, though, he is suing Trump and Giuliani in his personal capacity, not necessarily as a member of Congress, guys. But definitely an unprecedented lawsuit here.

SCIUTTO: We should note that Mitch McConnell and other Republicans said specifically, even as they voted to acquit, that this could be dealt within the courts. This is where it should be dealt with.

HARLOW: Right. And that is cited in this lawsuit as the reason they're putting this out there now.

SCIUTTO: Yes, notable. Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

For more on what this means, the legal ramifications, the basis in this case, Elliot Williams, former Deputy Assistant General at the Justice Department. Elliot, good to have you on.

So this is a civil case, I believe, which does have a lower standard of evidence than a criminal case, does it not? I mean, do you expect this to be the first of many in this category? After all, you have the family members of, say, for instance, Officer Brian Sicknick, people who lost -- not just people who lost their lives, right, life and limb?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. And so I would not have predicted that a member of Congress would have been the first person to file a civil suit because you have the obvious civil suits that could be brought by Officer Brian Sicknick's family, frankly, anyone who was there, who was injured or, frankly, the city of the District of Columbia could even have a civil suit would be a bit of a stretch for resources they needed to expend in response to the president's behavior.

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But this is a member of Congress suing on behalf of his duties and the Congress' duties being interrupted by the president conspiring, that's the term used in the lawsuit, conspiring with Proud Boys and so on.

HARLOW: Elliot, Jim smartly brought up McConnell's comments on the floor on Saturday after his vote to acquit the president. If anyone missed them, here is what he said.

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SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.

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HARLOW: Politically, it is significant to hear McConnell say it, although you should watch his actions. But, legally, I wonder if you think it matters at all that he said that and if you can connect the dots for us to what Congressman Thompson is doing here.

WILLIAMS: Do I think Congressman Thompson is filing a suit because Mitch McConnell sort of created a green light for the federal courts? No, certainly not. But getting back to Jessica's reporting and talking about the KKK Act, this obscure provision, when you look at the language of the statute, which I pulled right here and we're just going through it quickly now, it is not that much of a stretch. It is when an individual seeks to, and here is the language, prevent any person from discharging their duties, that is Congress, by force intimidation or threat.

Now, those things were there certainly by the Proud Boys. Now, the question is did the president, under the law, conspired with them? Did the president take steps in furtherance of helping in, in common language, what conspiracy is, help them or aid them in the commission of the offense? And that is not -- based on the language of the statute, that is not a stretch.

Now, the question is what evidence is going to be there and what can Congressman Thompson, Chairman Thompson, and his attorneys establish beyond, I guess, will be a preponderance of the evidence here. We'll just have to see.

SCIUTTO: As President, Elliot, Trump deliberately gotten away of investigations, you look at the first impeachment trial, blocking witness testimony, et cetera, he's a private citizen now. So if he's called to be deposed here, does he have a recourse?

WILLIAMS: He doesn't. Now, he will claim, and if his lawyers are smart they'll claim still either executive privilege based on communications that he had while he was in the White House, and this is tied to conduct that the president -- now, remember, this is what they said during the impeachment trial, it's First Amendment protected conduct and you can't after him for it. But he is a private citizen and doesn't have the protections of the White House and the White House Counsel and so on around him to shield him.

But it will be the same arguments. They telegraph them in the impeachment proceedings that he's somehow immune in some way. And so we'll just see how it plays out in the court.

HARLOW: Elliot, thank you so much for helping explain it to us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: You should watch likely the first of many cases we'll be covering here. President Biden will be taking the message about his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package on the road tonight and he will face questions, hard questions during a CNN presidential town hall in Milwaukee.

HARLOW: The president narrowly won Wisconsin in November. Now, he'll have to bring his message of unity there as he tries to push through the biggest item on his legislative agenda thus far.

Let's go to our colleague, Jeff Zeleny, he is in speaking with people in Wisconsin in the lead up to tonight's town hall. Listen to what they told him.

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CAROLINE QUINLAN, WISCONSIN VOTER: Yes, I'm giving him a shot.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Caroline Quinlan didn't vote for Joe Biden but she's pulling for his success.

QUINLAN: I think he's just a very nice man. I think he's very good, one of the last politicians, I think, can go across the aisle and meet with people, and I think that is a big plus.

ZELENY: When we first met Quinlan in the heat of the campaign last fall, she was torn.

QUINLAN: I get it why people don't like Trump, but at the same time, he has done a few things that I thought were important.

ZELENY: But said she ultimately decided Trump would do a better job fixing the economy.

QUINLAN: I voted for Trump. ZELENY: In the end, Biden won Wisconsin by less than one point and the city of Cedarburg by only 19 votes, turning the reliably Republican suburb of Milwaukee blue for the first time in a quarter century. With most signs of the election long gone, it is a new season. And many voters here say a fresh start from the acrimony of the Trump era.

NATASHA LOOS, OWNER, CEDARBURG TOY CO.: Just the tone down of the rhetoric, the not having to be glued to the T.V. or social media to find out what the latest is going on has been very refreshing.

You're welcome.

ZELENY: Natasha Loos is a small business owner who supported Biden but senses a new era of calm.

So you can really tell that there is more civility now than there was last year?

LOOS: Yes, without a doubt, Jeff. I feel that has already stated come back even just as it pertained to mask.

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As a business owner, I come to work every day wanting to share joy and happiness.

ZELENY: You sell toys.

LOOS: I sell toys and I was not interested in being part of any kind of political anything in my store. That is just one thing we don't try to do here.

ZELENY: The headwinds facing the administration on coronavirus come into sharper view at a nearby vaccination center.

PAUL FARROW, WAUKESHA COUNTY, WISCONSIN EXECUTIVE: Our goal is to provide a thousand vaccines a day seven days a week. The only limitation we currently have is getting the vaccine.

ZELENY: Paul Farrow is the Waukesha County executive, who said he received only 900 doses this is week instead of 7,000. Farrow voted for President Trump but praised Biden's pledge to restore unity.

FARROW: For me, it is compromise. And by that, I mean it is working together to come up with a solution.

ZELENY: Yet compromise also comes with complications for Biden. Angela Lang and her group, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, helped push Biden over the finish line, as black voters did across the country.

ANGELA LANG, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, BLACK LEADERS ORGANIZING FOR COMMUNITIES: We elect people knowing that they are not going to be perfect and that means that we have to hold them accountable. ZELENY: She said she is patiently waiting for Biden to take steps to combat systemic racism, a chief criminal justice reform and broader equity.

LANG: I always get kind of skeptical and a little nervous when people say that they want to unite everyone and bring everyone together. I think sometimes that means watering down progressive policies for the sake of unity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Mr. President.

ZELENY: And for Biden that is the challenge, trying to be a successful leader in the eyes of Lang, Quinlan and all others who hunger for change.

QUINLAN: He is the president, so it is like let him do his job. And then we can decide in four years if we want him or somebody else.

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ZELENY (on camera): So the overriding sentiments when you talk to voters who supported Joe Biden and those who did not, there is a sense of people are pulling for his success, particularly on COVID-19, getting the vaccinations out and economic relief as well. They're also are questions here as we talked to voters about opening schools, about other agenda items moving forward.

But there is no question now, as Mr. Biden heads into the second month of his presidency, this is a key one as he tries to build support in the country for that economic relief plan. It is one of the reasons he is coming here to Wisconsin to take those questions tonight, Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: And those will be the big tests, the health one and the economic one. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

A reminder, President Biden's exclusive town hall with Anderson Cooper starts tonight at 9:00 Eastern only here on CNN.

Still to come this hour, the seven-day average of new coronavirus infections is down 72 percent in just one month. Are we finally seeing signs of progress? Dr. Anthony Fauci is going to join me live to talk about vaccinations, variants, reopening of schools. That's coming up.

HARLOW: Plus, shunned by his party and his family, Congressman Adam Kinzinger gets a scathing letter from family members essentially disowning him.

And then later, they're accused of being part of the insurrection on Capitol Hill. Now, CNN is learning members of a dangerous extremist group may have some ties to some in law enforcement.

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[10:15:00] SCIUTTO: This just into CNN. Connecticut says it has now identified its first case of a variant that originated in South Africa. But, overall, the news is good. New coronavirus infections are plummeting in the U.S. Monday, more than 52,000 new infections were recorded. It's about a fifth of where it was in October.

Last month, we were seeing, you may remember, 200,000 new infections per day at its peak, 236 cases per day since then, the drop by about 72 percent.

We're joined now to discuss this and other headlines this morning with the White House's Chief Medical Adviser and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony fauci. You may have heard of him. Dr. Fauci, thanks for joining us this morning.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Thank you, Jim, good to be with you.

SCIUTTO: So we are watching new infections drop, as well as new hospitalizations. That is good news. But I wonder what is behind it. One of your colleagues, White House COVID Adviser Andy Slavitt, earlier this morning, he said that this drop could be misleading. I wonder, is it misleading or is this a sign that we're getting this under control?

FAUCI: Well, I think that maybe what Andy was referring to is that we just have got to be careful about getting too excited about that because we do have the challenge of variants. But I think you correctly said, Jim, this is good news. I mean, there were times, as you mentioned, where we a few hundred thousand per day and now we're below 100,000 and continuing to go down in the sharp downward trajectory, which hopefully that will continue.

One of the things we need to make sure we do is we don't get complacent when we see those numbers go down. We've got to continue with the public health measures as much as we've been doing it for a long time and people are fatigued with it, we have got to continue until we get it so low that it is no longer a threat. And simultaneous with that downward trajectory are more and more people getting vaccinated, every day, every week, more people are getting vaccinated.

So those two things together, I hope, are going to get us to the point where we're going to keep going in the right direction. As we mentioned, we have to keep our eye on the variants, namely the mutations.

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But good news is that the one that is the more dominant, the U.K. variant, the 117, that the model is telling us will be probably dominant in our own country by the end of March. That is pretty well protected by the vaccines that we're using. So that is pretty good news in that regard.

SCIUTTO: Okay, that is good news on that. I do want to ask you bigger picture here. I spoke with Dr. Paul Offit last week. I know you speak to him sometimes. And he said that he believes the drop could mean that perhaps three or four times as many Americans were actually infected with the virus as the numbers of confirmed cases show 27 million, he thinks it could be as high as 100 million, which, in addition to vaccinations, is giving a larger portion of the population some immunity. And I wonder if you agree with that.

FAUCI: it is a possibility, Jim. I can't say I agree with it. What Paul is saying is that there is possibility that there have been many more people that have been infected. And if that being the case, then if you add the vaccine component of herd immunity together with the infection, protection that you get from infection, the only way to know that is to do surveys to get a feel for what percentage actually anybody, which would indicate that they had been previously infected. So it is certainly a possibility but I don't think we've proven it yet.

SCIUTTO: There has been some whiplash in the public, because they're hearing conflicted messaging about, for instance, when large portions of the population, most of it, will have access, for instance, to the vaccine. You have said that perhaps we're going to begin to see some normalcy by April, you hear from the CDC director perhaps later in the summer.

I get that a lot of these questions are not written in stone here, but I wonder if those timeline predictions create more confusion than they help.

FAUCI: Yes. Well, in some respects, they do.

But let me clarify it a bit, Jim, and I think there is a compatibility with what each of these individuals, myself included, are saying. If you start talking about when vaccine would be more widely available to the general population, I was hoping that that would be by the end of April. Meaning they have gone through all of the priorities and now say, okay, anyone can get it.

That was predicated on J&J, the Johnson product, having considerably more doses than now we know they're going to have. So that timeline will probably be prolonged maybe into mid to late May and early June. That is fine.

But what you've got to be careful of is when vaccines become available, and when they have actually been successfully administered, and I think the apparent conflict in statements is not really a conflict. Because you can say, let's say in May, vaccines are going to be widely available to almost anybody, May and June, but it may take until June, July and August to finally get everyone vaccinated. So when you hear about how long it is going to take to get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated, I don't think anybody disagrees that that is going to be well into the end of the summer and we get into the early fall.

When are we going to be able to start on that process is probably going to be in the springtime, because the whole process is going to take a few months to actually get implemented. So, therefore, I don't think there is in consistency with what people are saying. SCIUTTO: You're still hopeful though that by the end of the summer that large portions should feel they have got a pretty good shot of being vaccinated by then?

FAUCI: I do believe that, Jim, yes. Unless there -- things happen with supply, this is a biological, there could be some glitches. But if things go smoothly, I believe what you just said could come out to be an eventuality.

SCIUTTO: Okay. Let's talk about schools, because school reopening is the other issue of not just contention but some confusion. Because if you look at the number of districts that are now in that what we call a red category where you have lots of transmission or substantial transmission, that is like 89 percent, right?

Now, you and I have had many conversations about this, and to your credit, you've been consistent. When community transmission is under control, it's safe to reopen those schools. But the fact is, in most communities, it's not by those CDC standards. So explain to folks why it is safe to open the schools even when those community transmission rates, community spread, rather, is still high.

FAUCI: Yes. But you're right, there can be some confusion there. What the guidelines are saying, that there are a number of things that you can mitigate to make it safer regardless of what level you're in. Obviously, you know, the blue, yellow, orange, red zone, and you're absolutely correct, that if you look at the country, a considerable proportion are in that zone, well, you really have to be careful because that is a higher risk.

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But what the guidelines are saying is that there are a number of things that people are asking for help and guidance of what can we do to make this more safe. And you saw them. There is masking, there is distancing, there is contact tracing, there is cleansing of the areas, but there is also vaccination of the teachers. And I think that is important.

And it is become clear that that is not a sine qua non. I mean, you can't say, we're not going to open any schools unless all the teachers get vaccinated. It would be very helpful and all of us are very empathetic and want the teachers to get vaccinated. They are a priority when it comes to essential personnel. But we think we can move forward as we vaccinate teachers but it doesn't have to be that, if they're not vaccinated then, you don't open the school. So I think, hopefully, that clarifies it a little bit.

SCIUTTO: Final question, you're a New Yorker yourself, though you don't live there right now. Andrew Cuomo is coming under a fair amount of criticism for the big move back to long-term care facilities in the midst of this crisis here. He's argued that his state was following federal guidelines when he ordered those long-term care facilities to accept patients returning from hospitals.

I wonder, can you clear that up. Was he following federal guidelines to do that?

FAUCI: You know, Jim, I can't. I mean, I'm sorry. I really am honestly not trying to evade your question, but I'm not sure of all the details of that. And I think if I make a statement, it is probably could either be incorrect or taken out of context. So I prefer not to comment on that.

SCIUTTO: Okay, final question then on vaccinations, because on the issue of whether there was a plan in place before the Biden administration took over, Kamala Harris, she spoke -- the vice president, of course, spoke to HBO/Axios over the weekend and she said -- she used this phrase again, we're starting from scratch. And I wonder if you agree with that, that the vaccination plan come January 20th of this year, that you were starting from the beginning there or was there something in place that just needed improvements?

FAUCI: What I think the vice president is referring to is that the actual plan of getting the vaccine doses into people's arms was really rather vague. I mean, it was not a well-coordinated plan. Getting the vaccines made, getting them shipped through Operation Warp Speed was okay.

But I believe what the vice president is referring to is what is the process of actually getting these doses into people. That is something that we had to get much better organized now with getting the community vaccine centers, getting the pharmacies involved, getting mobile units involved. So that is what I believe she was referring to.

SCIUTTO: Okay. Do we have a plan now, in your view, a workable plan to get -- a significant enough plan to get vaccinations into people's arms?

FAUCI: Yes, absolutely, Jim. The critical issue is that the demand far outweighs the supply. That is the issue. As these vaccines start coming in in greater quantities as we get into March and as we get April, with both Moderna and Pfizer increasing the amounts of doses they'll give us in addition to J&J. I'm a little disappointed that the number of doses that we're going to get early on from J&J are relatively small, but as we get further into the spring, there will be more and more, that is what we need, Jim. We need more doses.

We have a good plan how to get the doses into people's arms, we just need more vaccine.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching closely. Dr. Anthony Fauci, thanks so much for the work that you do.

FAUCI: Thank you, Jim. Thank you for having me.

SCIUTTO: And we'll be right back.

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