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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Biden and Putin Agree to Return Ambassadors to Posts; Biden Says He Outlined 16 Entities That Are Off Limits for Cyberwar; Experts Warn Highly Transmissible, More Severe Delta Strain is Spreading Rapidly in U.S.; Putin Again Refuses to Name Navalny, Says He Wanted to be Arrested; Israel Launches Airstrikes in Gaza in Response to "Incendiary Balloons". Aired 4-5p ET

Aired June 16, 2021 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:25]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: How do you say what-aboutism in Russian?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Glimmers of hope that moves right out of the old Putin playbook as President Biden sits down for the first time with a longtime Russian leader. What this could mean for frosty U.S.-Russia relations in the Biden years.

And a new warning on the dangerous Delta variant, especially to those still hesitant to get the COVID vaccine as it begins to take hold in the U.S.

Plus, ceasefire in jeopardy. Israel bombs Gaza days after a new government takes shape. How a balloon led to this latest flare-up of violence.

(MUSIC)

BROWN: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Pamela Brown in for Jake Tapper.

And we begin today with our world lead, and that historic high-stakes summit between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The summit lasted roughly three hours with both leaders describing it as constructive and positive. They said there were no threats or ultimatums.

And Putin called Biden balanced, professional and experienced.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I did what I came to do. The tone of the entire meetings, I guess it was a total of four hours, was -- what was -- was good, positive. There wasn't any -- any strident action taken. Where we disagreed, I disagreed, stated where it was. Where he disagreed, he was stated but it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Te meeting was actually very efficient. It was substantive. It was specific. And it was aimed at achieving results.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: One of those results, ambassadors from the U.S. and Russia will return to their diplomatic posts. But when it came to controversial issues like cyber security, human rights and Ukraine, Putin remained defensive.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports from the site of the summit in Geneva.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Biden summing up his first summit with President Putin.

BIDEN: I did what I came here to do.

COLLINS: The two leaders met behind closed doors for under three hours in Geneva and cited progress on their way out.

PUTIN (through translator): The talks were quite constructive.

BIDEN: The tone of the entire meetings, I guess it was a total of four hours, was -- what was -- was good, positive.

COLLINS: But it was clear that divisions on critical issues like cyberattacks and human rights remained.

BIDEN: The bottom line is I told President Biden than we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.

COLLINS: Putin summed up the summit first, praising Biden while denying any role in recent ransomware attacks and brushing off concerns about jailing his political opponents.

PUTIN (through translator): They have said that most of the cyber attacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States.

COLLINS: Biden said he pressed Putin on multiple fronts and would continue to do so.

BIDEN: I also told him that no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have in our view. That's just part of the DNA of our country.

COLLINS: Biden expressing confidence that Putin would not continue to ratchet up tensions with the U.S.

BIDEN: The last thing he wants now is a Cold War. COLLINS: The two agreed to send their respective ambassadors back to

their countries in an attempt to establish guardrails on cyber attacks.

BIDEN: I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to attack, period, by cyber or any other means.

COLLINS: At times, Biden rebuked his Russian counterpart after he acquitted jailing political opponents with arresting rioters who stormed the Capitol.

PUTIN (through translator): As to who is killing whom or throwing whom in jail, people came to the U.S. Congress with political demands, 400 people.

BIDEN: My response is kind of what I communicated, that I think that's a -- that's a ridiculous comparison.

COLLINS: Biden saying they will know in three to six months if there can be a productive dialogue but growing visibly angry when asked if it would real to real change from the aggressive Russian confident leader.

Why are you so confident he'll change his behavior, Mr. President?

[16:05:02]

BIDEN: I'm not confident. What the hell, what do you all the time?

COLLINS: So --

BIDEN: When did I say I was confident?

COLLINS: You said the next six months we'll be able to --

BIDEN: I said -- I said -- what I said was -- look, let's get it straight. I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I'm not confident of anything, I'm just stating the fact.

COLLINS: The president later apologizing for his response.

BIDEN: I owe my last questioner an apology. I shouldn't -- I shouldn't have been such a wise guy with the last answer I gave.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (on camera): Now, Pam, back to what was actually discussed behind closed doors at this summit when the came to the cyber attacks, President Biden told that us that there were no threats made as they were meeting, but he said that the U.S. is fully capable of responding with its own cyber attacks and he said he believes the Russian president knows that.

BROWN: All right. Kaitlan, stay with us. Let's bring in CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward,

CNN senior political correspondent Abby Philip, and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor.

Clarissa, let's start with you. Both Biden and Putin talked about the meeting positively, but we just heard Biden reveal to Kaitlan he's not confident Putin will change his behavior.

What was your takeaway?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think none of us should expect President Vladimir Putin to change his behavior. He has modeled himself now as an adversary to the West and I don't think that's going to change. The metric of expectation that we were given by people who watch and follow the Kremlin closely ahead of the summit was that they were hoping for a relationship that was hostile but respectful, OK?

So, no one is talking about adjusting fundamental behaviors. What they both seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, about is this idea of injecting an element of predictability into the relationship with the hopes that a further degradation of relations can be prevented. And given some of the areas that they outlined there talking about Syria, humanitarian corridor, Iran nuclear negotiations, Afghanistan, a potential prisoner swap dialogue, cyber security dialogue, it does appear that possibly, if both sides are committed to it, there could be room for an improvement in the relationship.

But I don't think either side is expecting anyone to dramatically change their behavior. This is about averting a further deterioration.

COLLINS: And as President Biden said we won't know more until the next six months or so, right? Ambassador, we won't know what will actually come from this meeting until we see how these working groups meet together and what comes out of that.

Biden said that he raised human rights issues, of course, like the imprisonment of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny. But when Putin was asked about this at the press conference, he turned it right back onto the U.S.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PUTIN (through translator): Look at the streets of America. Every single day, there are shootings and killings. You don't have time to do the math of those shot dead after the murder of or the killing of the African-American and Black Lives Matter ensued. We sympathize with the Americans, but we do not wish that this kind of thing should happen on our territory.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: President Biden called this a ridiculous comparison, but what do you make of this moment? AMB. WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: I think

President Biden was exactly right, a ridiculous comparison. But what you said earlier is important, Pamela, and that there will be a way to measure if there's anything good coming out of this. They were remarkably specific. I think President Putin was particularly specific but I thought President Biden was very specific -- surprisingly so on listing the number of things that he had raised with the Putin. Very specific like 16 specific parts of the infrastructure of the United States that are -- should be off limits.

BROWN: Including energy and water, yeah.

TAYLOR: Energy and water, talking about election interference, someone mentioned the humanitarian quarters. They also mentioned Ukraine, of some interest to me. And so --

BROWN: Of course.

TAYLOR: -- I'm very glad to hear them talking about the possibility of the United States playing a bigger role there in Ukraine. So I was impressed with at least President Biden's specific list of actions.

BROWN: And are you actually hopeful that anything will come out of it?

TAYLOR: Hopeful is too strong. I think there's a lot to be skeptical about when you're dealing with the Russians.

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

TAYLOR: However, if in six months, we see a -- a group of people sitting down talking about strategic stability, talking about nuclear weapons, talking about the new technologies that President Biden talked about, and he said they got fairly specific about rapid response times. They are talking about very fast weapons that -- so apparently they got pretty specific.

[16:10:03]

If those translate into some real talks that get to real discussions and negotiations on a new START treaty that they got five years that goes pretty quickly, that would be a good sign.

BROWN: And as you mentioned one of the topics, Abby, was election interference. President Biden said he brought that up. He told Putin that if happens again, there will be action. The bottom line as we know there's already been action from the U.S. on that front and it hasn't deterred Russian behavior. Is that enough?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I think Biden knows that it's not enough. He's pretty transparent that this was a warning that he knows is probably going to fall on deaf ears to some extent, but it's one that he felt needed to be said, both as a former contrast with the prior administration but also as he said not just in the context of election interference but also on human rights as a statement of American values about what he expects out of Russia. I don't think the White House believes that Putin is suddenly going to

throw up his hands and say, hey, we're not going to do this anymore but the idea that an American president would allow it to go forward without challenging it and in the case of former President Trump taking Putin's version of events, it's something that I think the Biden administration felt that they could not let that stand.

BROWN: And, Kaitlan, the White House wanted to keep expectations low. Biden repeatedly said his goal was stability and predictability from Russia.

Does it appear to you that Biden got that?

BROWN: I do think that they tried to keep the expectations low because they knew going into this they weren't going walk out of this with a 180 in Putin's behavior, but I think that's why the question is what happens down the road? Because he's not changed his behavior down the road before.

We've seen this even when it comes to the SolarWinds hack which was responded to with U.S. sanctions and everything that followed there, and yet we know that that behavior from Russia continued. It's not just in addition to the ransomware attacks that the White House says it being done by criminal groups that are based in Russia and Russia is harboring those, of course. They would be able to stop them if President Putin wanted to. That is the thinking even inside the White House.

And so, I think the ultimate question about whether or not they change their behavior really remains to be seen and if they modify in a way because they know it's a different president in the White House who does take a different approach than what we saw from his predecessor. Putin had been dealing with someone very different for the last four years but, still, there were sanctions that happened under that, and President Biden has said they'll continue to do that if they feel it's necessary. The question is if those sanctions actually deter Russian aggression and that behavior.

One thing that is really notable that came out of this that could have been real bad I think if they didn't was the fact that these ambassadors will go back to the post. The respective ambassadors to the U.S. and to Russia have been back in their home countries, Pam, for the last several months after tensions got really high between the U.S. and Russia in April, and they were going to go back, they said. They never did before the summit actually happened and now Putin said and the White House confirmed that they are going to be returning to their countries.

BROWN: Certainly some progress on that front.

Clarissa, this morning, Biden made reference to the U.S. and Russia as two great powers. This type of language obviously elevates Moscow status.

Do you think that that was intentional on Biden's part to say what Putin wanted to hear and set a more positive tone heading into the day?

WARD: I think -- I think President Biden made several conciliatory gestures to President Putin ahead of this conference. One of them was referring to him as a worthy adversely. He called him bright, I believe. And so, he also said in the press conference that he gave after the NATO summit in Brussels, he talked about the idea, that you know, Ukraine was not on track yet to join NATO, that that is not something that's going to happen imminently. That would be very important for the Russians to have heard.

And back in May, the Biden administration actually waved sanctions on this Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany. That's been the source of a lot of concern for many people in the administration, but this was seen not just as a sort of concession to Germany but also as a way of trying to diffuse the situation slightly with the Russians and perhaps make it clear that the agenda is not one of hostility, and we heard that again from President Biden today. He said, quote, my agenda is not against Russia. It's for America. It's not against Russia.

That is an important distinction. But I don't think, Pam, that he was successful in persuading President Putin of that because if you listen to Putin's press conference, he said again and again, the U.S. sees Russia as an enemy, and the goal is not to strengthen Russia but to contain it. This has always been very much the Russian mindset, particularly, of course, in the last ten years or so.

And I -- I don't think that that's changed. But I do think that with small gestures and words, there was an attempt to pave the way for a more positive conversation from the Biden administration.

[16:15:04]

BROWN: Mr. Ambassador, do you agree?

TAYLOR: I agree, although I would say that several of those steps were not taken. For example, the Nord Stream waiver, the waiver that allowed Nord Stream apparently to go forward. I don't think that was a concession to the Russians. I think that was an attempt to shore up an ally.

In my own view, it was a mistake. I think they should have continued the sanctions on Nord Stream, but I can understand them wanting to have a better relationship with the Germans. I think that was the motivation. That said, I don't think there was an intent to be hostile to the Russians or to President Putin. I think it was cordial. It was business-like, and that was a -- that was a good thing.

BROWN: Abby, you had mentioned the comparison with the Helsinki summit. How much do you think that this summit was about setting a new tone?

PHILLIP: Yeah.

BROWN: With President Putin and just laying out, because you heard President Biden talk about, you know, telling Putin about the more or less and values and founding of this country. How much of this do you think was about setting a new tone?

PHILLIP: Yeah, I think a lot of it was. The tone was maybe, you know, 30 percent of the picture here. I think the rest of it really was just trying to hammer out some very discreet details that they wanted to get some kind of, you know, agreement to move forward on so that they could say coming out of this, that this wasn't just about the optics and smoke and mirrors.

You got a sense from Putin in his press conference that he believed that this was more or less all business and for Joe Biden that's a big deal. As you know, Pam, Joe Biden is a people person. He likes to kind of, you know, do the small talk thing, but this was a pretty business- like environment. It was efficient. It went fairly quickly for these types of meetings, and it's because the United States wanted to have certain things.

Those 16 targets that they want to take off the table, that was very explicit and very deliberate and concrete, something to come out of all of this, not just the idea that if there's a tonal change, that part was pretty obvious, and I think in some cases from the Putin side maybe a little bit welcome. He feels like he understands Biden, how he operates and Biden is a pretty seasoned actor on the world stage.

BROWN: You know, you pick apart that little thing, right, because words are chosen so carefully and it's all choreographed.

But just the fact that Putin brought up Biden's mom and Biden made reference to that again, you know, it's just -- and Biden called it colloquial.

All right. Thank you all so much.

Well, much more on the summit, including President Biden's warning to future about top critic Alexey Navalny, that's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:21:56]

BROWN: There was one name clearly on President Biden's mind walking into his meeting with President Putin, Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist currently being held in a Russian jail. Once again today, Putin refused to each say his name all together.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PUTI (through translator): This man knew that he was breaking the law of Russia. He is somebody who has been twice convicted, and he consciously ignored the requirements of the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Let's go back to CNN's Clarissa Ward in Geneva. So, Clarissa, you have been covering the Navalny story for months.

What did you make of Putin's answer?

WARD: I thought it was very interesting. I thought it was the first time that we've ever heard Putin try to stay explicitly that Navalny deliberately broke the law by coming back to Russia, that he somehow had consciously done that. That it was an act of provocation.

Let's be clear, Navalny understood the risks of going back to Russia, I even pushed him on that issue when I interviewed him back in December. He understood that it was possible that he was going to be arrested. But it certainly wasn't his objective or his goal, and he was, rightly or wrongly, actually optimistic that perhaps there would be some way to avoid that happening.

I think more broadly speaking, if we're talking about the tone that we heard from President Putin today with regards to Alexey Navalny, I don't think it will have been much comfort to any of Navalny's supporters. Clearly, President Putin is sticking to his guns and he went so far as comparing the opposition leader to the rioters who staged the insurrection on January 6th in the U.S. Capitol which, of course, is preposterous on many levels and a false equivalent and Navalny hasn't engaged in any illegal activity or any obvious illegal activity beyond what Russian courts might find. So it's unclear to me, nor is he engaged in any violent activity.

There you heard it from Putin with the classic what-aboutism, essentially telling President Biden to back off on this topic because, as he calls them, the unauthorized opposition in your country are as bad if not worse as mine, and we don't want to have the same problem as you is what he said.

BROWN: Yeah, that is typical Putin to put it right back on the U.S.

So, Biden was asked about his message to Putin on Navalny. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: So what do you think? Will that have any impact at all on Putin and his handling of Navalny?

WARD: It's really difficult to say. I mean, certainly in General Putin doesn't seem to respond well to ultimatums or threats. The U.S. has said on several occasions now that, you know, it will be a disaster if Alexey Navalny dies while he's in Russian custody.

[16:25:06]

And he did nearly die at one point when he was on hunger strike protesting the fact that he wasn't getting any real medical attention from a number of problems that he still has, Pam, from being poisoned with Novichok last August.

I mean, if you look at the broader context of what's happened with Navalny over the last years of particularly, of course, since his poisoning, it doesn't really seem that Putin is going to change his attorney generals and the U.S. sanctions that were leveled against certain Kremlin officials as a result of Navalny's poisoning were really seen by the Kremlin as being largely symbolic rather than having any real teeth.

And so my guess is that the Kremlin believes on a fundamental level that even though the United States government and President Biden are always going to talk tough on issues of human rights and issues of strangling the opposition, that ultimately, they will concede that there's a line essentially that they are unwilling to cross with regards to what Putin would call his domestic political internal affairs.

BROWN: So as you point out, there's not much optimism when it comes to Navalny, but what about the families of Americans Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan? Do you think that they found any comfort in today's meeting?

WARD: I mean, I can imagine there's comfort in at least knowing that a dialogue may begin, and it sounded optimistic and positive on that side. What actually will happen as a result of this dialogue remains to be seen. It's -- it's got to be understood this whole summit in the context of this is the beginning point.

This is the start. This is the easy bit in a strange sense, Pam. Now the hard bit begins which is getting those two parties to continue the hard work of continuing this dialogue, of hashing out compromises, of agreeing upon areas of much restraint and that's not easy. For the thing that President Putin is asking for in return of releasing these Americans is to release a hardened arms dealer, Victor Bout. That's also going to be a really tall order for the U.S. to comply with that.

So, it's a positive start. It's good to start the dialogue. I'm sure the families find some comfort in that, but there's a lot of work to be done yet.

BROWN: Clarissa Ward, thank you so much.

Well, one thing the two leaders focused on, the war going on right now in cyber space, but will the Russian threat diminish? I'll talk with two of the world's top intelligent experts.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:32:24]

BROWN: Cyberattacks and cyber security front and center during today's meeting between President Biden and Russian President Putin. Biden told his Russian counterpart that certain areas of critical infrastructure should be off limits.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I talked about the pipeline that cyber hit for $5 million, that ransomware hit in the United States, I looked at him and I said, well, how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? He said it would matter.

This is not about just our self-interest. It's about a mutual self- interest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Here to discuss, former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper and former CIA chief of Russia Operations, John Sipher. Great to see you both.

I first want to get your reaction Director Clapper on what we heard there from Biden. Do you think that kind of approach would work with Putin saying, how would you feel if this happened in your country?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I'm sure he thought about it. I think though, for Putin, it's -- if that can be backed up with some specific action that would really get his attention. So, if we actually took an action similar to what occurred to us with the pipeline or the meat processing.

But I think overall the summit, I had very low expectations about it. It was a success at least in tone and form if not substance. The substance remains to be seen, you know, whether any of this will actually come to pass, particularly with respect to cyber.

BROWN: How do you see it, John?

JOHN SIPHER, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: Well, I don't think there's going to be big changes. I do think Putin has a little bit of a weapon he can use here, because on cyberattacks he can turn that up and turn that down in a way that the United States can.

Because he has his intelligence services that can do state sponsored attacks, then he has these, you know, private groups that he claims he has no control over, they may not be state sponsored but they're certainly state enabled, because they're allowed to go after Western targets. So, he can turn it up and turn that down.

So, if he does want to ratchet down a little bit, he probably can push back a little bit there. Part of the problem is the Russian system is very corrupt. And this -- those hackers are a way of people in the security services can make money on the side. So, they may continue even if President Putin doesn't want them to.

BROWN: So, let's talk about that. Because President Biden came out and outlined these 16 specific entities, he included energy and water, for example, that should be out of bounds for the cyber warfare with Russia. Is it realistic to believe that the Russians after the summit will stop targeting those areas? And if they don't, what will that say about President Biden and having this meeting with Putin and what it was all about? [16:35:06]

CLAPPER: Well, maybe the telegraphy here between the lines is that espionage, you know, passive collection is permissible, because we both do that. I think what the President's getting at is actually interfering with disrupting or even destroying a part of our critical infrastructure. And that's a red line. I think that's what the way he presented it.

Now, if the Russians cross that red line, the issue is what are we going to do about it? And that -- all that remains to be seen.

BROWN: So, do you think it was strategic then that there wasn't any overt action after the colonial pipeline in JBS to then come to this meeting, lay out the 16 areas, let's say?

CLAPPER: Well, there may have been a pause, perhaps, in the run up to this meeting. The question for me is what happens now? If we have another such attack along the lines of the pipeline or meat processing, then, you know, U.S. has an issue to deal with.

BROWN: And if that happens, which it sounds like, John, you think, and very well could?

SIPHER: Well, I don't think these agreements mean much in of themselves. We've had tons of agreements with the Russians or existing cyber agreements with the Russians and they just flaunt them. It's going to be a matter of what kind of pushback there will be.

So, maybe for -- to try to get some other things pushed back on his domestic issues or something, Putin will try to ratchet back things here on the ransomware attacks. But he is still going to do things.

His superpower is disruption, right? And so, this is one way he can influence things because I don't think the United States and the West would pay a lot of attention to Russia, if they weren't using these sort of tools of disruption. So, this is something he can ratchet up and ratchet down. I think he will try to ratchet down for the near term. But unless we follow up our words with action, I think there's going to continue to be cyberattacks.

BROWN: It was interesting that came up during the press conference with President Biden that Putin is known as a disrupter. And Biden made clear that he tried to convey to Putin, it is in your best interest, not just our best interest in America, your best interest to stop these kinds of attacks. Do you think that was effective?

CLAPPER: Well, it remains to be seen. John's more of the expert than I am. But we'll just have to see.

I don't think basically Putin's going to change his stripes just because of this meeting. He made -- if he does change behavior or cause a change in behavior, particularly with respect to cyberattacks, it will be because he decided that at least for the time being is in Russia's best interest.

BROWN: OK, James Clapper, John Sipher, thank you both.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Pam.

SIPHER: Nice. Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

Coming up, as a new COVID variant rapidly spreads in the U.S., I'll ask a former top Biden aide on the pandemic about its impact on all of us. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:25]

BROWN: Turning to our health lead now with Los Angeles in New York fully open. It is clear America is getting back to normal.

But the new Delta variant, which is more transmissible and more severe than the U.K. variant is worrying top health experts. It is rapidly spreading across the country already accounting for roughly 10 percent of all U.S. COVID cases. And health officials say the variant is yet another critical reason for all Americans to get vaccinated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH DIRECTOR: Think about this as a race track. You know, we've got the vaccines in one lane, and they've been coming along pretty good.

But the virus is racing too, and now there's a new horse on the track called Delta, and it's coming up fast. And our best chance is to really activate this vaccination system to get us to the point where the virus is going to lose, which is what we all want.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Former Biden White House Senior Advisor for COVID Response and author of the book "Preventable," Andy Slavitt, joins me now. Hi, Andy, good to see you. How concerning is this Delta variant?

ANDY SLAVITT, FORMER BIDEN WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER FOR COVID RESPONSE: Well, if you haven't been vaccinated, or you live in a community where there's a lot of people that haven't been vaccinated, this is a more virulent strain. This is like COVID on steroids. You can be around people for less time and still get exposed.

So, it's yet another reason why people should, if they haven't been vaccinated, should think about getting vaccinated. If you have been vaccinated, you got very little to worry about.

BROWN: But if we don't reach a majority of Americans being fully vaccinated, and these variants continue to spread and mutate, what does that mean for people like us who are vaccinated?

SLAVITT: Well, look, it's not a good thing for this virus to continue to spread, whether in the U.S., whether overseas, and we do have to vaccinate the globe more quickly. So, you know, the people out there who are thinking, do I want to -- do I not want to get vaccinated? Is it low priority or high priority?

I hope this sends the message. If you were living in a country overseas, you wouldn't have the opportunity to get vaccinated as quickly. But here, the Biden administration has got and procured the vaccines, we've put them in locations where people can reach them.

And so, they're -- you know, I would encourage people, talk to your physician, and have them review with you all of the questions you might have, because I think you'll make the decision that it makes a lot of sense to get vaccinated.

BROWN: How likely of a scenario is it for these new variant to spread and America would have to reverse course, and have to close the country backup. What is the likelihood of something like that happening? Does that concern you at all?

SLAVITT: I think what you will see is in communities, perhaps in the southeast where vaccination rates are lower, I think you'll see outbreaks particularly come fall.

[16:45:09]

And, you know, we'll see these in amusement parks and we'll see them in churches and we'll see them in weddings. We'll see them in places where people are not vaccinated.

So, look, a lot more responsibility is back on to the public because we're moving from COVID as an existential threat to COVID as what I call a manageable challenges and we have lots of manageable challenges in our lives. We've got lots of things and this will just add to that list. But that means you have to manage it.

That means if you're getting married in a place where a lot of people are vaccinated, you want to make sure people are vaccinated or have a negative test or wear masks.

BROWN: Right now, only 44 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. Are you confident President Biden can reach his July 4th goal of 160 million Americans vaccinated?

SLAVITT: Well, I think we're going to be around the Fourth of July very close to Biden's target of 70 percent of Americans vaccinated. Maybe it will be 68, maybe a little bit more, but at that point, we're going to keep going.

The real danger is that at 68 percent or 70 percent will look much higher in some parts of the country and much lower in other parts of the country, and if we really want to bring this country together, if we really want to defeat COVID, we've got to be focusing on those areas of the country with low vaccination levels.

BROWN: I'm going to turn to your book "Preventable," you outline how since the early days of the pandemic you and other top health experts warned the Trump administration how catastrophic this virus could be. Why do you think lives were lost because the Trump administration didn't follow those warnings?

SLAVITT: Well, look, is pandemics are hard. So if -- if someone makes a real effort and is trying to help and makes a few mistakes, I think everybody forgive that.

But there were a few things that the Trump administration did that are very hard to get past. One was, as we know, his ability to deny the reality of the virus which he did until such time as the NBA went out and the stock market went down was real dangerous. So his ability to deny real hurt us. If he had said we have a problem, we'd be in much better safe.

And then he squashed all dissent. There's a part of the book where Alex Azar, the head of Health and Human Services, wanted to say the word on "Fox & Friends" that the virus wasn't a problem but could deteriorate rapidly. And because of that, the White House pulled him from the show and banned him from doing media for 45 days.

So here we are in the middle of a global pandemic and our Department of Health and Human Services isn't allowed to talk to the press or the public, and there's a number of examples like that, and I go through my conversations with Jared Kushner and with Debby Birx, et cetera, which lets you see what's going on on the inside.

BROWN: All right. The book is "Preventable." Andy Slavitt, thanks so much.

SLAVITT: Thank you, Pam.

BROWN: New developments in a bizarre yet violent confrontation involving bombs and balloons. That's next.

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BROWN: In the world lead, the first big test for the new Israeli prime minister and his coalition government. For the first time since the cease-fire three weeks ago, huge explosions rocking Gaza. Israeli warplanes launched air strikes in response to Palestinians sending balloons rigged with explosives into southern Israel.

CNN's Hadas Gold with the latest from Jerusalem.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas-led militants in the Gaza Strip rocked Tuesday. Militants in Gaza launching incendiary balloons over the border earlier in the day. Colorful party decorations often attached to explosive devices or just lit on fire, sparking at least 20 blazes in southern Israel, according to Israeli officials.

The Israeli air force responding overnight, striking what it says were Hamas military complexes and meeting places. Palestinian media reporting material damages but no casualties. Hamas calling the Israeli air strikes a failed attempt to stop our people's solidarity and resistance in the holy city.

Militants say they sent the balloons in reaction to a right wing Israeli flag marked in Jerusalem on Tuesday where demonstrators danced and sang in front one of the main entrances for Muslim worshippers to the older city chanting Jerusalem is others and some even saying death to Arabs.

The annual march which celebrates Israel gaining control of the Western Wall in East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, rescheduled to Tuesday after it was cancelled last month when Hamas launched markets towards Jerusalem, helping to trigger the eleven-day bloody conflict. The airstrikes overnight a harsher response to the incendiary balloons that in the past were toll rated. A test and a message from the newly installed government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who has previously advocated for greater military action in response to these incendiary balloons.

More balloons launched Wednesday sparking at least four more fires, according to Israeli officials, showing the possibility that an imminent and serious escalation cannot be ruled out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GOLD (on camera): Pamela, just three days into Naftali Bennett's term as Israeli prime minister this is a crucial early test. And as these incendiary balloons continue to be sent into Israel today, the big question will be how and whether the Israeli military will respond tonight -- Pamela.

BROWN: All right. Hadas Gold in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

And up next, bipartisanship with a glass of chardonnay.

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BROWN: Ladies night at the veep's house. In a rare moment of unity in Washington, Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a bipartisan group of female senators for dinner. All 24 female senators were invited. From pictures posted by some of the lawmakers, we can see at least 21 of them accepted the invite.

Republican Marsha Blackburn describing the event as an evening of relationship-building.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): It was a lovely event. She was gracious to host. She invited us all even though she knows when she was in the Senate, I was the most conservative member of the Senate and she was rated the most liberal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Our coverage -- our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM from Geneva, Switzerland.

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