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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, 2/19/2021

Guest: Andy Slavitt, KP George, Rhonda Burnough�


MSNBC`s continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Millions in

Texas remain under boil water advisories. Georgia Republicans introduced

elections bill liming early, absentee voting. President Biden assures

European leader of commitment to alliances.


CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, "ALL IN": Under conditions of extreme stress and

uncertainty, sometimes making the wrong ones. And then, there`s -- are you

being honest and transparent about what you are doing? And it`s like the

first are much more forgivable than not the latter, which has been sort of

one of the stories of this, broadly not just in this case.

Jesse McKinley, who is doing great reporting on this for "The Times", the

Albany bureau, thank you so much for your time.


HAYES: That is "ALL IN" on this Friday night.

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now with Ali Velshi, in for Rachel.

Good evening, Ali.

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Have yourself a great weekend.

Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Rachel`s got the night off,

but she`s going to be back on Monday.

And for a Friday, in the dark days of winter, there`s certainly a lot going

on today.

Let`s start with the team that President Biden is trying to assemble and

try is the operative word here. A month into his presidency, fewer than

half of Joe Biden`s cabinet nominees have been confirmed. Only seven

cabinet officials have been seated. The Senate still has not voted on the

other 16. Four of them are still waiting to get a hearing.

And tonight, they have hit another bump in the road. Neera Tanden is Joe

Biden`s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget. She`s worked on

numerous Democratic presidential campaigns. She worked in the Obama


Now, Republicans have said Tanden should be disqualified to run OMB,

essentially, because her tweets about them were too mean, which is pretty

rich coming from some of Donald Trump`s most ardent supporters. Now,

President Biden`s cabinet nominees. They don`t need Republican support to

pass but with the Senate in a 50-50 split, without any Republican on-board,

Biden`s team can`t afford to lose any Democratic support, either. And

that`s where we get the speed bump today.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced tonight that he

will not vote for Neera Tanden to lead OMB. Zero Republicans right now are

expected to support her nomination. And so, barring some kind of surprise

on that side of the aisle, Joe Biden`s nominee to lead the Office of

Management and Budget appears to be DOA.

Barack Obama`s nominee to run the Commerce Department had to withdrawal

from consideration, in 2009, for this reason, due to lack of support in the

Senate. Same with Donald Trump`s pick to lead the Labor Department. As

Rachel likes to say, watch this space.

We have also got our eyes on Texas tonight where tens of thousands of

people are still without power in what is turning out to be a slow-rolling

catastrophe for the state. Millions of people in Texas are under a boil-

water advisory. That`s complications from these rolling-power outages that

have made the water unsafe to drink for millions of people because the

water-filtration plants don`t have power. We are going to have a live

report out of Texas, in just a moment.

But also, today, we got a 591-page document, reading material to cozy up

with this weekend. House Democrats have released the long-awaited text of

their COVID-relief bill.

Now, this bill would provide qualifying Americans with $1,400 relief

checks. It would extend the federal-unemployment benefits. It would provide

much-needed assistance to small businesses.

The bill provides much to the states, to speed up the vaccine effort and

help schools reopen safely. It also calls for increasing the minimum wage

to $15 an hour, over the course of a few years. The total price of the

package is $1.9 trillion, which many Republicans say is too expensive.

So, today, President Biden addressed those concerns about the price tag of

the COVID-relief bill. He said he was open to discussions about how to make

the bill better, and more cost-effective. But he dared Republicans to be

specific about how they want to cut costs because lowering the price of

that bill means depriving Americans of a much-needed, financial lifeline.

It means denying states what they need to start returning back to normal.

So what, exactly, what Republicans cut back?


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me ask them. What would they

have me cut? What would they have me leave out? Should we not invest $20

billion to vaccinate the nation? Should we not invest $290 million to

extend unemployment insurance for the 11 million Americans who are

unemployed so they can get by? While they get back to work?

Should we not invest $50 billion to help small businesses stay open, when

tens of thousands have had to close permanently?

Pass the American Rescue Plan, 40 million Americans will lose -- lose

nutritional assistance through a program we call SNAP, the old food-stamp

program. Do we not invest $3 million -- $3 billion to keep families from

going hungry?

This is United States of America, for God`s sake. We invest in people who

are in need.


VELSHI: President Biden made those remarks, today, at a Pfizer plant in

Michigan, where they are manufacturing one of the two COVID vaccines that

are currently approved for use here in the United States. He got a tour of

the facility, and he reiterated his promise that the United States would

have enough vaccine on hand for the entire country, by the end of July.

It was just shy of a year ago that this nightmare began. And it comes at

the end of a week of what was really sustained good COVID news. The United

States saw 29 percent decrease in COVID cases this week, compared to the

same time seven days ago. This is the steepest, one-week decline since the

pandemic began.

The director of the CDC said today that COVID cases have been on the steady

decline for the past five weeks in a row. It`s too early to say exactly why

we are seeing such a steep decline. It could be a passing rush of cases

from the holiday season. It could be stricter-mask wearing and social

distancing, the earthly effects of the vaccine. Could be all of the above.

It`s going to be a while longer, though, before we can let our guard down

because we need more vaccines in arms before we do that. And today, there

was promising news on that front as well. One of the logistical hurdles has

been keeping it cold enough. Both, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be

kept at freezing temperature before they are put into syringes, otherwise,

the doses will spoil.

Right now, the Pfizer vaccine, in particular, has to be kept remarkably

cold. Somewhere, between minus-112 and minus-76 degree. But that might be

changing. Pfizer`s announced that its data shows the vaccine may not need

to be stored in an ultra-cold freezer in order to be effective. But could,

instead, be kept in a normal freezer, the kind that are more commonly in


Now, this would significantly untangle some of the logistical hurdles that

have slowed down the vaccine distribution, so far. And Pfizer has

officially asked the FDA for permission to allow its vaccine to be stored

at a higher temperature.

Right now, the Pfizer vaccine requires two doses, and on that front, we`ve

got, yet, more promising data. A peer-reviewed study out of Israel found

today that just one dose of the Pfizer vaccine was 85 percent effective at

preventing symptomatic cases of COVID-19, 85 percent immunity. That`s

practically the whole ball game.

The faster we could vaccinate people with a vaccine that`s 85 percent

effective, the faster we could achieve herd immunity and that`s what they

have been experimenting with in Great Britain.

In the United Kingdom, they are waiting several months to administer second

doses instead of the recommended several weeks like we are doing here in

the United States. The idea is to try and offer a lower -- lower level of

immunity to a larger group of people. by vaccinating more people, once.

Instead, of fewer people, twice.

That decision was controversial, at the time. But this new data out of

Israel seems to vindicate that strategy, which begs the question, should we

be considering that, too? Joining us to help make sense of this is someone

who is going to advise the White House in making these decisions. Andy

Slavitt is the White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 response.

Andy, this is the first time we have spoken since your appointment. Thank

you for -- for joining me tonight. Can we talk a little bit about this?

We were told, in the beginning, that`s really important that you get the

vaccine, the first dose. You get the second dose, at prescribed time

interval. You certainly can`t mix it with another vaccine.

And now, we are getting this evidence about greater levels of protection

than we thought. Explain this to me as an expert. Is -- what`s the math on

that? Is it better to -- to -- to inject more people with one dose than it

is to inject fewer people with two doses?


be with you, Ali.

Let me give you the bottom line, first. The bottom line, first, is that

everybody should still be getting their second dose. Now, it is good news

to hear and the new data comes in.

And I think, you know, I spoke with the FDA today. I spoke with NIH today.

They pore over new data that comes in, you know, multiple studies.

But the thing, I think, to keep in mind is not just the efficacy of the

vaccine but the durability of the vaccine. And with -- with only one shot

of Pfizer and Moderna, the current view is that the -- that the vaccine

just doesn`t last long enough. So the second dose is really, really


The other thing that Dr. Fauci mentioned to me, today, is that with the

second vaccine, you have a much-better chance against variants. The second

vaccine of Pfizer, as -- as we know, does pretty well against -- against

the South African variant. And all of the vaccines, we know, do very well

against the U.K. variant. But that`s with two doses.

So they are going to continue to look at the data. But right now, people

shouldn`t be confused. The current recommendation from the FDA and it will

be, for some time, is to take two, not one.

VELSHI: Andy, let`s talk about that term you just used, durability. We are

approaching a year, from the first case, first widespread cases. And, boy,

last March and April and May were a really difficult time. So there are

people who got coronavirus, then, who are now approaching a year.

How -- how effective -- how long do we believe these viruses last, at the


SLAVITT: Well, the antibody protection, we know, wanes. And -- and how long

it lasts. Well, we can`t precisely say but we do know that it -- that it

lasts at least 90 days.

And at six months to nine months, it`s not as clear. What we, also, know,

anecdotally, is that some of the variants, potentially the one from South

Africa, the one from -- from Brazil. There may not be antibody protection

from -- from a first dose. That`s why the recommendation, of course, is

that people still wear masks. Why people who have had COVID should still

get vaccinated, because the vaccines offer the strongest protection.

VELSHI: Andy, let`s talk -- let`s talk a little bit about the rate at which

people are being vaccinated. We are at about 1.6 million doses a day. But

it seems that, if we were not constrained by supply, we could be at a

higher number than that.

SLAVITT: Yeah. I mean, we are going to continue to ramp up the production

of vaccines, and states are getting better and better at being able to --

to move through the vaccines that they have.

You know, when -- when we got here on January 20th, we didn`t have enough

vaccines. There weren`t enough -- there were no vaccines in inventory. We

hadn`t, yet, ordered enough and purchased enough vaccines for the American

public. The president directed us to do that.

There weren`t enough vaccination sites. And there weren`t enough

vaccinators. We have taken action, on all of those and as a result, since

January 20th, we have increased the amount of vaccines we have shipped to

states, by 60 percent. We have also been -- we also started retail-pharmacy

program. We`re setting up 100 community-vaccination sites.

And -- and we`re moving vaccines into community-health centers, to make

sure that we get the equity, not just that we get more people vaccinated

but, that we get people fairly vaccinated, including those that are most at

risk, in vulnerable communities. So that`s a lot of progress but we know

it`s not fast enough.

We know that we are still in a shortage situation. Be very blunt. We are

going to be in a shortage situation for some matter of time, probably,

measured in months. Not likely, weeks. Certainly, not more than --

certainly, not beyond the middle of the year.

And until that time, we know there is going to be more people that want

vaccines than we have vaccines available.

VELSHI: Andy, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us tonight.

Andy Slavitt is the White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 response. We

appreciate your time tonight. Thanks, Andy.

Well, another part of the Biden administration COVID response that is

getting extra attention this week is how the storms are delaying

distribution. The storms that are pummeling the country have delayed

distribution of 6 million doses of the vaccine. But while those problems

are expected to be dealt with in the coming days, residents of Texas and

other southern states could be feeling the effects of this weather for

months to come.

After living without power and heat for days on end, something as basic as

water is now a major issue in the state. In Harris County, which is home to

Houston, county officials say tens of thousands of buildings have burst

pipes. Not only causing extensive-property damage and flooding, but also,

making it hard to get access to clean, drinkable water.

And look at what happened in San Antonio. This was the scene last night

after a fire broke out within the flooring of an apartment building, just

outside the city. Flames, quickly, consumed the entire building. After a

few hours, the building collapsed.

But not before cars, parked on the street and in front of the building,

also, caught fire, eventually, forcing residents of other nearby buildings

to evacuate. Dozens of firefighters were on the scene throughout the night

trying to tame this blaze. But once again, access to water became the

issue. When they went to tap the nearby fire hydrants, they were all

frozen. They were basically useless. The water in them didn`t come out.

They had to call on dozens of water tender trucks from across the region

for reinforcement. Even still, hours passed before they were able to put

out the flames. One firefighter told me today this is a firefighter`s worst

nightmare. You are there on the scene and you can`t put the fire out.

That`s the situation in Texas right now as much of the state has been in

crisis every day this week. Millions of residents are still under boiled-

water notices. Residents have to boil tap water before consuming it, which

might work in a pinch if the taps worked, if water came out, if pipes

weren`t burst.

People have been forced to wait in line to fill containers with the water

they need for their families given their pipes have been shut or broken.

Twenty percent of San Antonio still has no water pressure. Meanwhile, more

than 100,000 people in the state are still without power and heat.

Temperatures were, once again, below freezing throughout much of the state

last night as they have been all week.

People have been doing everything they can to get warm, wrapping themselves

in winter gear and blankets, burning paper and artwork as kindling,

sleeping in their cars, turning on their car engines, indoors, to try to

warm up which is incredibly dangerous. That has caused a spike in carbon-

monoxide poisoning. At least five people have died from it.

Texas is in crisis. Much of this was possibly avoidable. We knew weeks ago

this winter storm was headed straight for Texas. Texas never designed its

power grid to withstand the high-demand extreme winter weather that they

get. But the board of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, met

ahead of the storm. They said they were ready for winterization, that they

were ready for the storm.

This is how the president and chief-executive officer of ERCOT began the

board meeting on February the 9th.


BILL MAGNESS, PRESIDENT & CEO, ERCOT: And one thing I want to say before I

really get into the presentation is it it`s actually going to be winter

here, pretty soon. As many of you and those of you in Texas know, we do

have a cold front coming this way. We`ll probably see our winter peak later

this week or in the very early part of next week, and operations has issued

an operating-condition notice just to make sure everyone is up to speed

with their winterization. And we`re ready for the several days of pretty

frigid temperatures to come our way.

So, more on that, over the next few days. But it does look like we will

have a little bit of winter weather to contend with during the course of

the rest of this week. So, I want to go onto the next slide, if we could

after that.


VELSHI: A little bit of winter weather to contend with. We`re ready. Next

slide, if we could.

The head of ERCOT made that statement about the then-upcoming storm. Took

him 40 seconds. That`s all he needed to relay the message about the energy

grid`s preparedness for the storm, 40 seconds.

One of the many Texas officials outraged by this story is county judge, KP

George. A judge in Texas the top-elected official in a county. Fort Bend,

Texas, is just outside of Houston.

Earlier today, KP George, Judge George, tweeted: Forty seconds. Years of

deregulation and lack of care led to this abject failure.

Judge KP George also took a shot at state officials like Governor Abbott

and Ted Cruz, writing, ERCOT, brought to you by the people who are blaming

windmills, vacationing in Cancun and saying Texans chose blackouts instead

of federal partnerships.

Joining me now from Fort Bend County, a huge county right next to Houston

is Judge KP George.

Judge George, I appreciate your time tonight. This is what you call

gaslighting for people who don`t understand the term.

When you go out, and you tell somebody something that`s a lie, to distract

from whatever it is that you are trying to distract them for. The idea that

Texans chose not to be part of a larger grid because they`d rather be

freezing and cold and without water, than have federal involvement in


The idea that it was alternative energy that caused this. Because of frozen

windmills, you don`t have power in Texas. It`s gaslighting.


And -- and I tell you this. A 90-year-old senior citizens calling me saying

I am on my last oxygen cylinder. A mother calling me and saying that my 4-

week-old baby, I am driving around in a car to keep that baby warm.

And then, people struggling with burst pipes. And people struggling to keep

themselves warm, and 850,000 of my residents, I don`t think not even a

single one said or agreed with what that statement is all about.

VELSHI: You also have a very strange situation. You got the governor and

others making these statements. And then, you have got the situation where

your -- your senator, Ted Cruz, got himself mired in a situation, which he

-- which he left the state.

What is -- what does the solution actually look like in Texas? What needs

to be done right now to get people out of the emergency that they`re in, in

which people are actually dying? And what needs to be done -- done in the

longer term, to accept the fact that you are going to have weather

instances like this and you have to be prepared?

GEORGE: I just -- I just think, you don`t -- you don`t need to be a rocket

scientist to figure this out. Also, understand that you mentioned, sir,

before, we are Lone Star State. And I just wanted to very -- be very clear.

I just wanted to say I am so proud of being in Texas. We love Texas. And

it`s a -- it`s a unique state.

But at the same time, when it comes to this kind of weather events, we

cannot manage it alone. And -- and also, right now, I`m -- I`m calling for

a full investigation. And Texans need to know why this happened. What is

the reason why it happened?

And -- and there should be some kind of answers coming. And also, I

understand, that our legislators are in session right now and next

Thursday, I believe they will take hearing on this issue. In between,

Governor Abbott issued investigation on to ERCOT. And also, we asked the --

the leadership to resign.

But he appointed these people. And obviously, I believe should have known

better. And so, my point is I am right here at the ground. You know, I am -

- I`m the -- I`m the boot on the ground. And I am seeing this.

My citizens are calling me with these issues, I mentioned. And I`m -- I`m

going to the shelters, and I am setting up warming centers. And -- and I`m

talking to people. And they are saying, last night is the first time, in --

in a week, I -- I slept.

Hearing from an 80-year-old person, it is heartbreaking. And, you know,

Texas is a unique place. But this is -- this -- many of this would have


VELSHI: Judge George, good to see you. Thank you for joining us. Our wishes

are with you and the people of Texas that you stay warm. Had a couple power

outages in the northeast, this winter, and we`re much-better prepared for

it but they are not pleasant under any circumstances, to be cold in your

open own home and then to not have water.

GEORGE: Yeah. I, personally, got my -- my home flooded. So -- so I can

understand exactly how my residents feel.


GEORGE: Thank you.

VELSHI: Our heart goes out to you and our thoughts are with you and our

support is with you. Fort Bend County judge, KP George, thank you for your

time tonight. We wish you the best of luck.

A lot more to get here to tonight. Up next. An example of Republicans in

another state trying to pull some slight of hand and stack the deck in

their favor. Stay with us for that story.


VELSHI: Over the past year, the state of Georgia has done more than any

other state to shape the political future of this country. After all, it

was that grassroots-driven voter mobilization in Georgia that flipped the

state blue for the first time in nearly three decades, helping Joe Biden

become president. It was that historic result in Georgia that led then-

President Donald Trump to try and pressure Republican-elected officials in

Georgia to help him reverse the outcome of that election, a move, that may,

yet, land him in prison, as Georgia prosecutors continue to investigate the


It was, also, Georgia, where just one day before a violent, right-wing mob

stormed the U.S. Capitol, Democrats, once again, managed to turn out voters

in historic numbers, electing not one but two Democratic senators, handing

Democrats control of the Senate.

Every major piece of legislation that comes out of this Congress and this

White House, including the sweeping-coronavirus-relief package, that was

just announced today. All of it is possible because of what happened in

Georgia in November, and then in January.

And so, it makes sense, that now, just as the rest of the nation finally

thought it could stop focusing on Georgia. Republicans in Georgia are

taking aggressive action to try to stop anything like that from ever

happening, again.

Yesterday, Georgia Republicans introduced a set of sweeping, new bills to

limit access to polls in that state. Among the provisions, in these new

bills, is a move to significantly restrict absentee voting in Georgia. All

Georgians have been able to vote absentee, since 2005, without any

problems, under laws that were created, and passed, by Republicans. Itself

it was all good while Republicans were winning elections, I guess.

But now, the Democrats have won three statewide elections in Georgia where

the absentee ballots tended to favor Democrats. Suddenly -- suddenly,

Georgia Republicans have decided to significantly restrict who can and

cannot vote absentee. One bill would also end early, in-person voting,

voting on Sundays. Days, when black churches have historically held

something called souls to the polls drives to turn out their members.

I will give you three reasons why Republicans or three guesses as to why

Republicans want to end early voting on Sundays, in particular.

Of course, all of this comes just after Georgia held two elections with

record levels of both early and absentee voting. Elections where Georgia`s

own secretary of state, has stated emphatically, there was no widespread-

voter fraud. And Georgia Republicans do not appear eager to debate merits

of the bill, before passing it.

According to NPR, the text of one voter suppression bill was introduced

just one hour before it was passed out of committee giving the Democrats on

that committee barely any time to find out what was in it. So what happens

next in the state of Georgia? Georgia Democrats are still in the minority

in the statehouse and the Senate. So, is there anything they can do to stop

these changes?

Joining us now is Democratic Georgia state representative, Rhonda Burnough.

Representative Burnough, thank you for joining us.

Tell me the status of this. This is a remarkable and interesting matter, in

that Republicans, until this election, were all about early voting and

absentee voting. They wrote that law into being. They -- they are the ones

who passed these laws into being.

STATE REP. RHONDA BURNOUGH (D-GA): Thank you for having me tonight.

Yes. We did receive this bill, yesterday. And today, during our committee

meeting, it was a hearing in which fellow Georgians were able to talk to us

about their concerns about HB-531. As we know, Georgia has been a leader in

providing voters more options to vote than most states. So, why would they

undermine -- why would we undermine our own success?

And as you said, it`s basically because we did win those three elections.

And so now, they want to change all of the rules.

VELSHI: And ostensibly, it`s to stop illegal voting, fraudulent voting. But

your own secretary of state, I have seen him itemize the cases they are

investigating. There are very, very few. There`s no evidence, at all, of

widespread-voter fraud, despite the fact that that secretary of state, a

Republican, is under remarkable pressure from allies of Donald Trump to

find voter fraud.

BURNOUGH: Yes, you are correct. There is no widespread-voter fraud in the

state of Georgia. So, for that reason, we don`t understand why, all of a

sudden, we received a bill that was 48 pages. And it was a combination of

all the worst bills that they could come up with. It would now prevent us -

- it would limit the days for -- for early voting.

It would, of course, as you said, block Sunday voting. And one of the --

the very popular things that happened during our elections, what it would

limit ballot drop boxes, and also, outside funding. That they don`t want

the election supervisors to apply for the various grants that were offered

during the election season.

VELSHI: There`s -- there`s an element in here, which is kind of interesting

because one thing we have watched in Georgia not just in these last two

elections but in the previous election, which Stacey Abrams was running. Is

the degree to which people would stand outside, for hours, to be prepared

to vote. There`s -- there is a part in it bill that prohibits the handing

out of food and water to voters.

It says that no person shall solicit votes in any manner or by any means or

method, nor shall any person display or distribute any campaign material.

Nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of

any money or gifts, including but not limited to, food and drink to an


So, people who would take water to people who were standing for hours in

lines. This bill would make that a crime?

BURNOUGH: Yes, it would. But part of the bill -- yes, it would make it a

crime. And those people who were passing out water were passing it out to

everybody. They didn`t go up and ask anybody if you were Republican or

Democrat. And with all the changes that they are trying to do with this

bill, we would go back to having long lines. People standing in line, not -

- seniors not being able to have seats. And so, with all these changes,

they are trying to take us backwards, instead of forward.

VELSHI: It is remarkable development. We will watch it closely with you.

Representative, thank you for joining us. Georgia`s State Representative

Rhonda Burnough --

BURNOUGH: Thank you for having me.

VELSHI: -- we appreciate your time tonight.

Still ahead. A very real example of the change Georgia voters decided on,

in November. Stay with us.


VELSHI: All right. Here is proof of how much difference an election makes.

During president Trump`s first G7 meeting, back in 2017, he was the last to

show up for the traditional photo op, forcing the other world leaders to

wait around for him.

He was also noticeably absent when the group decided to walk through the

Sicilian town that was hosting the summit. You can see them walking here,

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,

and the British prime minister, Theresa May.

Trump, meanwhile, decided he would go it alone, waiting behind for a golf

cart to carry him the 700 yards. That`s four-tenths of a mile.

From there, that partnership only got rockier as the years went on. Not

because of his isolationalist impulses but that was part of it, but also to

some degree because of this rather bizarre insistence that Trump tried to

insert Russia back into the G7, which when it had Russia in it, was called

G8. But Russia was banned from the group after invading and seizing part of


That remarkable act of aggression didn`t seem to matter to Donald Trump. He

called the move common sense. He then said when it was his turn to host the

G7, he wanted Putin there. Never mind the fact that Canada and Germany and

France and the United Kingdom all disagreed with that.

Well, today, we got a searing reminder of what a difference a change in

leadership can make. President Biden, this afternoon, set a new tone in

terms of how the United States plans to deal with Russia. With remarks that

took place as he attended his first virtual, G7 summit.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Putin seeks to weaken European -

- the European project and our NATO alliance. He wants to undermine the

transatlantic unity and our resolve because it`s so much easier for the

Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states, than it is to negotiate

with the strong, closely united, transatlantic community.

That`s why -- that`s why standing up for the sovereignty and territorial

integrity of Ukraine remains a vital concern for Europe and the United



VELSHI: President Biden is making a clean break with Trump`s America-first

foreign policy. No more pandering to Russia, no more not going it alone

anymore, riding in a golf cart while the rest of the world walks together.

This comes, as the U.S. voices a willingness to restart diplomacy with

Iran, and talks regarding that country`s crumbling-nuclear deal, and amid

this country plans to reenter into the Paris climate agreement. There is a

real sense that America is back on the world stage or at the very least,

trying to put humpty dumpty back together, again, and back on top of the


Joining me now to talk about this, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security

adviser under President Obama.

Ben, good to see you.

I think, one can`t overstate what has happened in the last couple of weeks,

with respect to Joe Biden engaging on the world stage, but in particular

ways. It`s not -- it`s not pink cloud to pink cloud with everybody. In

fact, he had a tough conversation with Israel`s prime minister, Benjamin

Netanyahu. And the lack of a conversation with the Saudi-crowned prince,

Mohammed bin Salman -- sort of sending a message to both of them, too, that

America will have a clearer role, even in the Middle East.

BEN RHODES, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: No, that`s right, Ali. If you think

about it, you know who were Trump`s favorite leaders? Mohammed bin Salman

was perhaps at the top of that list. The first trip Donald Trump took as

president overseas, he broke precedent. Instead of going to one of our

neighbors, he went to Saudi Arabia.

And, of course, the leader that Donald Trump would never criticize was

Vladimir Putin. I think, what you see is Joe Biden, very deliberately,

picking venues. This -- the Munich Security Conference where he gave that

speech today virtually, that`s the venue in the heart of Europe signaling,

you know, you are our friends, you are our allies. Not these other guys.

The agenda is very different. He is talking about democracy, standing up to

Russia, climate change, diplomacy to get back into the Iran nuclear

agreement. So, both the tone, the settings, and the substance, is entirely

different than what we`ve seen the last four years.

VELSHI: So, Ben, this is the moment to determine whether some of those

alliances have been damaged. Obviously, G7 is a -- is a key alliance. NATO

is one, that was undermined by -- by Donald Trump. Is everybody happy to

take America back, again? Are they okay to say, hey, let`s just forget

about the last four years and we`re -- it`s back to business?

RHODES: Well, yes and no. On the one hand, it just shows you how extreme

the Trump policy is or was that Joe Biden`s had to go out of his way to

reaffirm, we are a member of NATO. We honor commitments to NATO. We are

back in the Paris agreement, which the U.S. led in negotiating. We are

prepared to have diplomacy to go back into the Iran agreement that we took

the lead in negotiating.

So this is a sea change. I think the rest of the world, particularly our

allies, have thought, you know, on the one hand, we very much want America

back. Back at the table. Back defending a set of values. Back, working to

solve problems like climate change or dealing with pandemics, where Trump

had been totally absent.

On the other hand, they just lived through the last four years and they are

looking over Joe Biden`s shoulder and thinking, well, who are those crazy

people behind you who stormed the Capitol on January 6th? Can we trust that

the Americans won`t do that again, in four years? Can we trust that they`ll

keep their word?

If we want to negotiate a complex agreement, like the Paris agreement was

or the Iran-nuclear deal, can we trust that the Americans won`t just tear

it up?

So his task is -- is much harder than just making a speech and setting the

right tone. He`s going to have to build back credibility, month by month,

year by year, initiative by initiative, because of the wrecking-ball

approach that Donald Trump took to our alliances and our role in the world.

VELSHI: We shall watch to see how that goes.

Ben, good to see you, as always. Thank you for joining us, tonight. Ben

Rhodes, deputy national security adviser under President Obama, we

appreciate your time tonight.

Tonight`s show is special because tonight we`ve got two big science stories

in the show. Both of which, blow me away. And the first of which, is right

on the other side of this break.


VELSHI: All right. I want to show you something. Science is amazing but

it`s, also, as you know, very complicated. Sometimes, we need someone to

break it down into simple terms for us, lay folks, to understand.

When it comes to the emerging threat of the COVID variants from the United

Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil, there is a lot that we still don`t know.

And I`m, certainly, not a vaccine expert or a doctor or an immunologist.

But I do understand video games.


RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS: Each vaccine is created to instantly recognize a

virus, by its shape. Once the vaccine identifies the shape it`s been

programmed to look for, it blocks it, very efficiently.

But when a virus mutates, it changes shape, making it more difficult for

the vaccine to identify its target. And if a vaccine can`t recognize what

it`s trying to block, we`re all in trouble.


VELSHI: That was my NBC News colleague, Richard Engel, host of "On

Assignment", breaking down in layman`s terms, how the virus mutation

slipped by the immune system.

The CDC warns that these new variants spread more easily and quickly, which

could lead to more cases of the virus, which would, in turn, put even more

strain on the health-care system, leading to more hospitalizations, and

potentially, more deaths.

Now, there is some hopeful news about our current vaccines. The so-called

mRNA vaccines, providing protection against these mutations. There is also

research showing them to have reduced effectiveness, when compared to the

original strain of the virus. But, don`t despair.


ENGEL: But hope is not lost. Science may come to our rescue. The new type

of mRNA vaccines, developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and others, are so

revolutionary, they can be quickly reprogrammed to adapt, as viruses


UGUR SAHIN, CEO, BIONTECH: Just a modern way of making -- making vaccines,

which gave us, also, the ability to respond with an effective and safe


ENGEL: Ugur Sahin invented the Pfizer vaccine. He is the CEO of BioNTech.

Is it almost like you are cutting and pasting like a computer?

SAHIN: Yeah. A little bit. It`s a copy of the virus. But in this copy, of

course, there`s no genetic piece of the virus. It is just information.

Which is safe and which is not able to replicate. It is so easy. I -- it

is, of course, not easy but it is -- it is a process that allows us to make

it fast.

ENGEL: So it`s a copy and paste of the genetic material.

SAHIN: Copy and paste. Yeah.

ENGEL: And no matter how many times it changes, you just copy a new image

and paste it?

SAHIN: Copy and paste. Copy and paste.

ENGEL: It`s a transformative way of making vaccines.


VELSHI: Kind of amazing. It`s now a race between an evolving virus and the

scientists on the front lines working to make flexible vaccines.

Joining me now, Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent and

host of on assignment. This weekend, he is going to be hosting a special

edition of "On Assignment", focused on the race to stop those COVID

variants in their tracks.

Richard, I always appreciate you staying up so late. You are always far

away somewhere before it`s the middle of the night to be with us. But this

is really, really important.

This race between the virus that is evolving and mutating to escape the

vaccine and the vaccine, that can be copy pasted, and adapted, to the -- to

the virus. Who wins this race? How does it look? How does it look?

ENGEL: Well, so far in this race, we are winning, but the virus is evolving

very, very quickly. The vaccines that we have right now that are currently

available do work against the main variants. They don`t work as well, but

they still work. And that is the key thing to know.

So it is a race to get the vaccines out before this virus continues to

evolve because this is a battle against evolution. We understand evolution

sort of in human terms or in mammal terms, it happens very, very slowly.

You and I evolved. It happens over generations. It happens over millions of

years. Because we are made of DNA, DNA is relatively stable, we have long

life spans, relatively speaking, and there aren`t that many of us, so

evolution takes a long time.

Viruses are made of RNA. They mutate more easily, and there are trillions

and trillions of viruses out there and they only live generally a few

hours. So with each production, each generation of viruses, there are

opportunities to mutate, opportunities for improvements, and that`s we`ve

seen now.

We`ve seen the virus over time because it has had so much room to

replicate. It has had improvements accidentally, and those improvements are

propelling themselves forward, creating these new and improved strains. So,

then you have these amazing scientists who are trying to quickly adjust the

technology so that they can compensate as the virus evolves at the speed of

viral evolution.

VELSHI: Richard, at some juncture, our attempts to get herd immunity and

lots of people vaccinated, we hope, we overtake the fact that the virus is

mutating and it will be affecting fewer and fewer people and we will have

developed is certain immunity.

Is there a point at which we look like we`re in control of this situation?

ENGEL: Well, herd immunity is a funny concept because with the variants,

herd immunity doesn`t always apply because -- there was a city in Brazil,

Manaus. They had huge percentage of the population that was infected, about

70 percent, some say 80 percent of the population had the coronavirus.

Then a new strain came, and the fact that they had been infected before

didn`t help them. Their previous infections gave them no protection because

they were protected from something that was no longer relevant. The virus

had changed.

So the most important thing is not necessarily just herd immunity. If you

just let this virus go and don`t battle it with the vaccines, it will

continue to change and your previous infections might no help you very

much. But the key thing is to drive down the numbers because the rate at

which the virus mutates is a factor of how much there is out there.

So if you can shrink it, if you can reduce the general amount of virus on

the planet, it will still mutate, but there will be less of it. It will be

much more controlled and it will mutate less frequently because there will

be fewer options for it to do that.

So the way to achieve the herd immunity effect is by getting people

vaccinated and reducing the number of virus particles out there.

VELSHI: This is amazing. I`m so grateful for the time you`ve taken to

explain it. I set my Sunday evening to watch your special. Richard Engel is

our NBC News chief foreign correspondent and the host of "On Assignment."

This special hour on COVID mutations airs Sunday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern. Don`t

miss it. I`m not going to.

Richard, we appreciate you making time tonight. Hope you get a little sleep

before the sun comes up. Thank you, my friend.

ENGEL: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

VELSHI: Coming up next, a story that both Rachel and I are very geekily

excited about. Stay with us.


VELSHI: All right. This last story is not just a departure from the world

of politics, but indeed from this planet. But Rachel and I are very excited

about what NASA is doing on Mars these days.

Today, NASA released the first color images from the landing of their

rover, the "Perseverance", on the planet`s surface.

Now, as a layman, this photo is definitely the straight out of Hollywood

winner. It shows the moment perseverance touches down, kicking up plumes of

dust from the planet`s surface. But after listening to NASA`s team of

scientists talk today, I`m blown away by every single one of the images

they released.

This, for instance, is not the most eye-catching photo until you realize

it`s the first high had much resolution color photo ever taken from the

surface of Mars.

Or this photo taken from a satellite circling Mars of the "Perseverance"

parachuting down to the surface. This feels like any other Google Maps

photo you`ve ever seen, until you learn that the satellite from which the

photo was taken was traveling at 6,750 miles per hour and had the time and

angle itself exactly right to get this shot in a single pass from over 400

miles away at the very moment that "Perseverance" was as long as from going

1,300 miles an hour to 200 miles per hour as it got ready to land, and they

got the shot.

Or this photo which is literally just a photo of the front wheel of the

rover and bunch of rocks, but the scientists at NASA already think that the

rocks right there in the upper left-hand corner, feet from where the rover

landed, may be able to tell them how old the dried out area near the

landing site is, giving us a huge data point about the history of Mars.

NASA says we should start to expect far more photos like that and color

videos, and even, I kid you not, color videos from a small detachable

helicopter to be transmitted back to earth in the coming weeks and months.

I used my phone to deposit a check the other day. I had to retake the photo

because it was blurry, so color me impressed, NASA.

All right. That does it for us tonight. Rachel is back on Monday, but you

can catch me all weekend live from Birmingham, Alabama, with a special

series of shows that honor Black History Month. You`re going to see my

conversations with activists and ordinary citizens from all walks of life,

from a city that is steeped in America`s struggle for racial justice and



TAKAYA MADDOX, SMALL BUSINESS OWNER: All we want is for you to see us as

humans. We`re humans. We want to be treated with the same dignity and

respect that you would give somebody white or anybody else. All I did was

came out of my mother`s womb just like you and trying to make the best out

of this life that God has given me.


VELSHI: More of that this weekend, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. I am live from

Birmingham, Alabama.

It`s time now for "THE LAST WORD." My friend Jonathan Capehart, in for

Lawrence O`Donnell this evening, something I get used to doing on Saturday

and Sunday mornings, I get to do now.

Good evening, Jonathan.




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