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Flu Outbreak Spreads; Biden in Meetings with Gun Debate Stake- Holders; Interview with Quevenzhane Wallis; Whales Trapped in Iced Hudson Bay

Aired January 10, 2013 - 11:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, ANCHOR, "CNN NEWSROOM": Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. Thanks for being with us.

The flu is on a tear and people you would never expect are dying. It is the story of the hour, if not the season.

And, also this hour, we're watching the White House as sportsmen, video game makers and, yes, the NRA, all coming together to talk about guns.

Vice President Biden is hosting another day of back-to-back meetings with so-called stakeholders in the firearms debate.

The vice president has already set off a firestorm in conservative ranks by suggesting that the president might not rely, necessarily, on Congress, at least not entirely, to crack down on gun violence in America.

Enter, the executive order. Enter, the instantaneous backlash.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: So, when Biden, himself a liberal Democrat, says that himself and the president, cabinet, attorney general, all a bunch of leftist Democrats, are talking about using executive orders, when you say for what, it could only be to take guns away from people.

Who knew that an executive order could trump a constitutional amendment?


BANFIELD: Nope, nope. Sorry. No, Rush. You are very entertaining and I'm sure a lovely man, but you are wrong.

And Jeffrey Toobin is here ...

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I'm not sure about either of those things but, OK, go ahead.

BANFIELD: Well, listen, I will say this. What Rush Limbaugh is saying is something that is being echoed across this country. People are panicking. They hear, oh, rule by fiat. Our guns are going.

An executive order, Jeffrey Toobin, is very powerful, but it cannot supersede the Constitution.

TOOBIN: Nor can it supersede a law that Congress has passed, for example. I mean, there was an assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004.

President Obama on his own by executive order cannot impose an assault weapons ban because Congress has to do that. Only Congress can pass a law.

All an executive order can do is use power that Congress has already given to the president in a different law.

BANFIELD: And, even the most ardent and feverous of the NRA supporters will say, for crying out loud, enforce the existing laws out there. And isn't an executive order an excellent tool to do just that?

TOOBIN: That's what presidents do with executive orders? For example, one executive order that is apparently under consideration is the federal government does do some background checks on some weapons purchases.

They might want to streamline that process and make it more useful, get it into the hands of law enforcement faster. That's something that a president could do on his own authority.

BANFIELD: Virtually thousands upon thousands of people who've lied on their background checks and that is against the law and they're not prosecuted.

TOOBIN: That's right. And that is something else that the president could direct the attorney general -- start prosecuting those people or at least following up with them and find out what they're doing with their weapons.

BANFIELD: All right, what about the notion that mental health is another big part of these conversations that Joe Biden will be having? There needs to be something else done about attention to mental health in this country.

Is that something where the president could bring in executive order and make a difference?

TOOBIN: Yes. He could tell the Department of Health and Human Services to shift money into mental health in one way or another. The Department of Education could do something like that.

He can't impose a new requirement. He can't say that people have to be registered, which is something -- an idea that's been floating out there. That would have to be done by a law.

But within the existing authority, within the existing budgets, the president could do something.

BANFIELD: A lot of people have talked about the possibility that perhaps this executive order discussion has something to do with the now-expired assault weapons ban that was in place between 1994 to 2004, as you mentioned to me earlier off camera.

Can an executive order somehow reinitiate that ban, bring it back somehow, use a loophole, anything or nothing?

TOOBIN: I think nothing. You know, I can't imagine every possibility but this was a law, passed by Congress ...

BANFIELD: And expired by Congress.

TOOBIN: And expired. And only Congress can pass a law. That almost certainly is going to be a big part of this legislative fight that will go on in Congress, but I don't see any way that the president could do this on his own.

BANFIELD: Well, and I think it's critical to make that point. There are a lot of nerves that are frayed just on the utterance of "we've got executive order and we're not afraid to use it."

TOOBIN: And presidents do it all the time. That's one reason why it's good to be president because you can ...

BANFIELD: President Bush used it 291 times in eight years if anyone thinks that President Obama has used it more. Nope, only 144 times so far in just four years.

So, Jeffrey Toobin, thank you. It's good of you to clear that up.

Take a look at this. You see the numbers. Those are all of the president's orders, the executive orders by face, by name and by number, so you can make your decisions as you will when people say "ruling by fiat" means.

But Jeffrey Toobin was here to tell you it does not mean that the government is coming to take your AK out of your hands.

Before I move on, I do want to give you a postscript and that is that Walmart first made some pretty big news by declining the invitation to meet with Vice President Biden's panel and then abrupt switching of gears. Christine Romans breaking that on the air yesterday.

They accepted the invitation and now the nation's largest firearms retailer says its representative is going to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder, but not Vice President Biden himself. So, there you go.

I've got another piece of news here that is making very big headlines. It's a silent killer sweeping across this country right now. After a mild season last year, the flu is back, but this time with a vengeance.

The Centers for Disease Control reporting that 18 children have died so far this year, among them, a young man from Texas named Max Schwolert. Take a look at his picture, literally, the vision of health, this strapping young teenager.

His mom said he went from being a healthy young boy -- or a healthy young man to a very sick child and then to dying in just a matter of days.


MELANIE SCHWOLERT, MAX'S MOTHER: He said, Mom, I'm scared. I said, I know, buddy. I am too.

And then, he saw me crying. He said, mom, it's going to be OK. You're going to be OK. I love you.

And that's really the last really coherent things that he said to me.


BANFIELD: We're going to have more on Max's story a little bit later on in this program, but Texas is one of the 41 states being affected by the influenza virus. Take a look at the map, the red obviously showing the most widespread problems.

More than 2,000 hospitalizations already across the country and our chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, has been monitoring this very closely.

I feel like we just began the week saying, it's an earlier season and it seems like a bad season and you can still get your flu shot. And I feel like in just a few days, things are getting far more serious.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: They are and, you know, the thing is it takes a couple of weeks after someone is exposed to start having symptoms.

So, normally, you do have the worst part of flu season sort of in February, for example, but we are seeing it early as you point out, Ashleigh. And the numbers, obviously, pretty significant.

Those states, by the way, where there's not as much activity, my guess is they're going to turn red over the next few weeks or few days, as well.

The question, Ashleigh, a lot of people need to know and are trying to figure out is, the numbers have gone up. Are they going to stay up throughout the whole flu season until spring or is this just an early peak and it's just going to taper off more quickly as well? We don't know.

What I will tell you is that this particular strain, H3N2 -- you don't need to remember the name -- but we have seen this before, Ashleigh. It was a pretty severe virus back then and it's behaving very similarly this time, as well.

BANFIELD: Can I ask just you? When I saw that picture of Max -- and I'm hoping I' pronouncing his last name appropriately, Schwolert -- I just couldn't believe it.

This was a healthy, vibrant teenager, the last person you think is going to be among the annual statistics of several thousand people who die of the flu. Why would someone like Max succumb to this virus?

GUPTA: Well, yeah, it's very sad. And, you know, luckily, you know, his story is going to be more the exception than the rule, but it goes to show, you know, that when people talk about flu deaths in any given year, there can be tens of thousands of flu deaths. Most of them are going to be people who have underlying illness or weakened immune systems, the very elderly.

But it can affect young people, as well, and sometimes it's because the person gets to the point where they've had this flu, they've weakened their immune system and, on top of it, they get a bacterial infection in their lungs, usually something known as staphylococcus.

It's that bacterial infection that most often causes death, especially in the younger population. So, again, it's tough to think about and, you know, listening to his parents, it's really -- it does make you think.

But I think for the vast majority of people, the answer is still going to be stay home, self-isolate, take care of yourself, don't spread it to others.

BANFIELD: Oh, it's just so distressing for any parent out there, whether you have young children or children of Max's age and, of course, our parents, as well, the elderly.

All right, Sanjay Gupta, thank you.

GUPTA: You've got it. Thank you, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Appreciate that update.

Elizabeth Cohen is also going to join us a little bit later on from our medical unit and she's going to have more about Max Schwolert's heartbreaking story, his case and about this story, in general.

Back after this.


BANFIELD: So, we broke the news yesterday during this hour that President Obama had plans to nominate his chief of staff, Jack Lew, for treasury secretary and now the official announcement will be made at 1:30 p.m. Eastern today.

And, if confirmed, Lew would succeed Timothy Geithner, the last member of the original economic team that took office four years ago. And that was, of course, you'll remember, at the height of the world economic crisis.

Dan Lothian joins us live at the White House. Boy, did you ever have the news yesterday. You were the first on the air with it. What's the reaction been, though? Because you know it doesn't take long before the knives comes out.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It doesn't. Well, you know, first of all, the White House still believing that he is the strongest candidate to succeed Timothy Geithner, the White House talking about his extensive experience not only in the private sector -- he worked at Citigroup -- but certainly in the public sector, serving as the president's budget chief and the former president, former President Bill Clinton, as well, during a time when they balanced the federal budget.

So, they think that, when you put that all together with being around in this administration during a difficult economic time, the fiscal challenges as they dealt with the debt ceiling, that he's the right person for this job.

But, as you pointed out, there is some resistance from some of the lawmakers. Already Republican Senator Jeff Sessions saying that he should never get the job because he claims that misrepresented the president's 2012 budget during testimony before the Senate by saying that the budget should not add to the debt.

So, there is that -- you know, you always find that, when the president puts forward a name like this, there is some push back and we're seeing that even before the president officially makes the announcement.

Nonetheless, Jack Lew, widely expected to get confirmed.

BANFIELD: And I'm sure we are only beginning to hear the bona fides and also the criticism.

Can I just bring one really tiny thing up and I know this is ...


BANFIELD: But it's very ubiquitous. It's his signature. That thing's going to appear -- if he becomes the treasury secretary, that thing's going to be everywhere and it's those series of crazy loopty- loos.

LOTHIAN: That's right. You see right there.

BANFIELD: Hasn't it become a thing, Dan? I mean, aren't they actually talking about this being an issue?

LOTHIAN: You're right. I mean, I look at that. I thought mine was bad, but that's just a lot of little loops there. And, you know, it's unclear whether they will have to send him to school again to figure out how to write his name so you can actually read it when it shows up on the currency.

Timothy Geithner had kind of a loopy signature in the past and then said that he had to tweak it when it showed up on the currency because you couldn't really read it in the way that he normally signs his name.

So, unclear yet whether or not they'll send him back to school to learn how to sign his name.

BANFIELD: I like how our colleague, Carol Costello, referred to it this morning. I think, like a slinky gone out of control or something. It was pretty cute, but ...

LOTHIAN: Hey, that's a good one.

BANFIELD: That's a good one, right? I think we can come up with a whole bunch. We'll tweet them.

So, I want to switch gears a little bit and that is about another nomination that's going to have to be made because we've had another resignation, Hilda Solis, the labor secretary, announcing she's probably wanting some more family-time, I can only guess.

Give me the low-down on that.

LOTHIAN: That's right and, you know, this comes at a time when there's been some criticism against this White House for not having enough women enter high positions in terms of the president rolling out his new team. There's been that criticism.

You know, I think when you look at who the president has around him, you look at Valerie Jarrett, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, also, at HHS, Sebelius, Secretary Sebelius, he does have women in top positions in this administration, but nonetheless, there is that criticism and it gets new life when someone like this, again, steps aside.

She said in a letter to her employees that she had been at home in California over the holidays, had a chance to reflect, to talk with family members and that, quote, "after much discussion with family and close friends, I have decided to begin a new future and return to the people and places I love and that have inspired and shaped my life."

The president praised her for her work, saying in statement her efforts have helped train workers for the jobs of the future, protect workers health and safety and put millions of Americans back to work.

At this point, unclear who the president plans to nominate for that position.

BANFIELD: All right, you've got work cut out for you. These things just keep coming at us, fast and furious.

Dan Lothian, thank you. Appreciate it.

Since we're on the subject of nominations, do you like that segue? All right, this little one is the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Actress, 9-year-old Quvenzhane -- gosh, I hope I said that right -- Quevenzhane Wallis is the star of the film, "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Get used to that because it's really going to be popular. The director of that film, Benh Zeitlin, they are both on the telephone with me now.

Congratulations to both of you. First question and I think it's extremely important, Quvenzhane, did I pronounce your name properly?


BANFIELD: Yay! Yahtzee! That's great. Well, because I think a lot of people are going to be saying your name a lot, Quvenzhane, and they're going to be reading it for the first time and thinking, man, that's cool.

You must have thought this was the coolest thing ever. Were you surprised?

WALLIS (via telephone): Yes.


BANFIELD: And how about you, Benh?

Yeah, she's very under-spoken about this.

Benh, congratulations, this is great news for you.

ZEITLIN (via telephone): Yeah, we are going absolutely crazy. We are totally shocked and just -- I don't know. This is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

WALLIS (via telephone): Woo hoo!

BANFIELD: So, listen, you are in the industry and you're privy to a lot more of the conversations and the whisper rumors an all of those other award-season events than a lot of other people.

Did you think this was going to be a reality or were you truly just shocked?

ZEITLIN (via telephone): No, I mean, I had sort of prepared myself that we were going to be celebrating the end of our publicity campaign today. And, now, we're celebrating a whole new era, so, I mean, we were shaking. We were so surprised. And it just -- it's wonderful.

BANFIELD: So, Quvenzhane, you are nine-years-old and you are from Louisiana and you are officially the youngest nominee for this award.

Do you know what a big deal that is?

WALLIS (via telephone): Do I ever!

BANFIELD: That's awesome.

Tell me about doing this movie. I think you were only five-years-old when you auditioned and, what, just six when you filmed it?

WALLIS (via telephone): Yes.

BANFIELD: So tell me how tough this was. Was it hard work?

WALLIS (via telephone): Yes.

BANFIELD: Explain to me what the best parts and the worst parts were like.

WALLIS (via telephone): Best parts were the seafood. Worst parts were the mud and the mosquitoes and all the hard stuff.

BANFIELD: All the hard stuff, yeah. Because, at six-years-old, do you -- gosh, that's three years ago. That's a third of your life.

Do you remember a whole lot about all the work you did to make that movie?

WALLIS (via telephone): (INAUDIBLE).

BANFIELD: Quvenzhane, could you hear that question? Do you remember a lot about making the movie?

WALLIS (via telephone): Yes.

BANFIELD: So, tell me about your memories of making this movie.

WALLIS (via telephone): I remember like, if I would watch the seafood part, I would remember that we were on the set and he said, cut, and everybody heard him but we were still eating. We never stopped.

BANFIELD: Benh, this must have been an extraordinary experience to work with such a young and as many people say, extraordinarily talented young lady.

ZEITLIN (via telephone): Absolutely. I mean, you know, when we sort of started telling people with he were going to make the film that was going to ride on the shoulders of a six-year-old girl, you get this sort of gloomy, blank stare like you told someone you are about to jump off a cliff without a parachute.

We didn't know we would find this miraculous actress. She put the whole film on her back and carried it. It just was the most miraculous thing to watch.

BANFIELD: Well, Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhane Wallis, congratulations. A lot more people are going to know your name and your work.

Good luck to you during Oscar season. Thanks for calling in to both of you. Congrats!

ZEITLIN (via telephone): Thank you so much.

WALLIS (via telephone): Thanks.

BANFIELD: Thanks, Quvenzhane.

And we're back right after this.


BANFIELD: Eleven whales are trapped in Canadian ice way up north in Hudson Bay. The pictures are remarkable.

Normally, killer whales leave the Arctic well before this big, thick icepack moves in, but this pack of whales includes two large orcas and nine smaller ones. Apparently, they waited a little too long and that whole area began to freeze over.

You can see the exception being the very small hole right now where they continue to take turns coming up for air, some of them breaching, some of them dolphin-like.

But we are now getting some different news, hopefully, encouraging news that the ice has cracked a little bit this morning and that the whales have not been spotted since sunrise.

Now, that could mean that because the ice is cracking somewhat from the wind shifts that they have moved on and are getting to a safer area. Let's hope it doesn't mean anything else.

So, joining us now Ray Lee, who is the president of Kasco Marine. Why is Ray Lee talking to me? Because his company helped to free three other whales that were stuck in a very similar situation in 1988. It was the story that inspired the film, "Big Miracle."

And you are, Ray, on standby to help, actually making your travel plans to try to get up to this very remote area.

First, tell me, are you still in that mode where you're going to get there to try to lend assistance or is this news this morning better news that you may not be needed?

RAY LEE, PRESIDENT, KASCO MARINE: Yeah, I've talked to both the mayor and the emergency coordinator and they both believe that the whales have been freed or at least no longer trapped.

So, we're in a stand-down mode, but we are still ready to go, if needed.

BANFIELD: What's so amazing, Ray, is literally what some of those villagers have been doing to try to keep that small hole in the ice -- I think it's only about 30-by-30 -- open -- and that is chipping away. I think even possibly even using chainsaws.

This is not unlike what you experienced back in 1988 way up on the North Slope of Alaska where those three gray whales were trapped.

But you had something else. When no one could get anything to work, you took a little device up there. Show it to me if you can and tell me how that thing worked.

LEE: It's a de-icer. I don't know if you can -- how well you can see it.

It's -- this is the size of the unit. It's -- it would be sitting underneath a float in this application, but it's an electric motor encased in a stainless steel can. It's an oil-fueled unit. It's sealed. And then, there's a propeller on top.

And how it works is it pulls the water from the depths. The water in the depths is warmer and it pulls that up and it can keep an iced-over area -- it can keep water open in an iced area or you can actually start with a smaller hole and the warmer water will actually melt the ice. And it can be very thick ice that it will melt.

BANFIELD: So, Ray, we're looking at pictures -- as you show that device, we're also, at the same time, looking at pictures of those whales in '88 and the opening that looked extremely similar to the one that we are experiencing currently in northern Quebec.

But with that device, you were able to continuously make a large, almost like a landing strip, of open water to get those whales to swim to where icebreakers could finally reach them.

And, if anyone is looking at the pictures and wondering why they see blood is because those whales, fighting for air, would knock up against the sharp ice and get cut, which could be a possibility with the orcas in northern Quebec.

So, tell me why they can't get to where these current -- this current pack of whales is struggling in northern Quebec.

LEE: We don't have direct information on that. What I heard from the mayor and emergency coordinator is that the Canadian icebreakers were some distance away. And, really, that's all the information I have on that.

BANFIELD: Well, you know what? It's great that you were able to join us and show us the -- do I have it right, the hook-end de-icer? Is that the device?

LEE: No, no, no. That was the name fabricated by the movie. It is a Kasco De-icer. Yes.

BANFIELD: All right, well, good luck. Keep your eye on this for us. And, if, in fact, you are going to mobilize into action and head up to northern Quebec to help out, we'd like to follow your progress and let's just all hope the best for those whales up there. Thank you, Ray.

LEE: And we're ready to go. Just waiting for the call.

BANFIELD: All right, Godspeed and we'll talk to you soon hopefully or maybe hopefully we won't talk to you and that things are already OK.

We'll be back right after this break.