Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Omicron Variant Now Dominant in U.S.; Biden-Manchin Talk; Biden Agenda Looks on Verge of Defeat; Representative Scott Perry Declines Request to Speak with January 6 Committee. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 21, 2021 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Kate Bolduan. Here's what we're watching at this hour.

New surge, new plan: in a few hours the president will announce new measures to tackle the latest surge of coronavirus as Omicron takes over as the dominant variant.

On again, off again and now back on, maybe: the White House isn't giving up on its Build Back Better plan. The options now, after senator Manchin makes clear he's not budging.

And weighing a verdict: juries are deliberating in three high-profile cases. We'll go inside the courtroom.


BOLDUAN: Thanks for being with us, everyone.

In a little more than three hours President Biden will address the nation. The president will be announcing his plan to tackle the winter surge of coronavirus as the Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain in America.

Three weeks ago, Omicron made up just 1 percent of cases and now the CDC says it is 73 percent of cases. We're learning of the first known U.S. death linked to this variant, a Texas man, who was unvaccinated.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci is stressing this morning that people should not panic and can still celebrate the holidays as long as they're taking the right precautions.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF COVID-19 MEDICAL ADVISER: If people are vaccinated and boosted and do the things that I said -- you want to be prudent and always be extra special careful, because you're dealing with an unprecedented situation, of a virus that has an extraordinary capability of transmitting.

You want to make sure, for example, when you travel to see relatives who are vaccinated and boosted, that you don't get into a situation where you go to an airport, you don't have a mask on, you're in an indoor congregate setting.

That's what I mean about being careful. But when you're in the home with vaccinated and boosted people, you can feel comfortable enjoying the holiday celebration.


BOLDUAN: The new wave is hitting virtually every part of the country now, including at the White House, where President Biden was in close contact with a staffer, who later tested positive. The White House says that the president has tested negative.

Let's start at the White House. Jeremy Diamond is there and standing by for us.

What are you hearing about the president's speech, coming up in a few hours?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Kate, President Biden is going to try and accomplish a few things with this speech today, the first of which is to try and provide some assurances to those Americans anxious about this Omicron surge and the coming holiday season.

For that, the president has a message to the vaccinated, which is that you are well protected from serious illness and death, particularly if you have that booster shot. You can continue to go ahead with your Christmas and holiday plans.

But to the unvaccinated, beware, essentially, making clear that you are at higher risk if you are unvaccinated of those bad outcomes with COVID.

The president will also announce a series of new actions that he is taking to try and address this surge of coronavirus cases, including the most notable of which is this shipment, this purchase initially, of half a billion rapid at-home tests, which Americans can request beginning next month, using a website that the administration is setting up, and receive those tests free of charge.

The White House is also sending additional teams to states hardest hit, including mobilizing 1,000 service members to help hospitals that are overwhelmed with cases in the coming weeks and months.

Those are the steps we're expecting President Biden to announce. The details on those at-home tests, we're waiting on when this website will launch. But officials say it will be sometime in January.

BOLDUAN: Sometime in January as the surge hits now. Thank you, Jeremy. Really appreciate it.

As Jeremy has laid out, testing is a big focus of the White House and it's also urgently needed right now in places like New York, which is, once again, becoming an epicenter of infection. The state reporting new cases jumped more than 80 percent in the past two weeks. CNN's Jason Carroll is outside one New York testing site and joining us now.

Jeremy -- Jason, rather -- people were lined up before sunrise, hours before that site even opened.


JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, and they knew they had to do that from experience because, the day before, Kate, they were waiting hours and couldn't get an appointment.

So they showed up this morning before things even opened just to get on a wait list; 158 people ended up on the wait list and, at this point, the wait list is closed. They are no longer accepting appointments at this particular location.

The mayor is saying that, by the end of the week, there will be 2 dozen additional testing sites set up. This as COVID numbers across the state and in the city continue to go up.


CARROLL: The New York state breaking a record for new infections for the fourth consecutive day; 23,000, more than 23,000 new cases reported statewide. Most of those cases are right in New York City, more than 15,000 cases again.

Not seeing an alarming spike in hospitalizations. The mayor saying he is committed to having the city, state open through all of this.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D-NY), NEW YORK CITY: We've got to beat Omicron, we have to avoid shutdowns and restrictions and keep moving forward. Vaccination is the key.


CARROLL: In terms of vaccinations, the major just announcing, Kate, just a short while ago, that he's now offering a $100 incentive for New Yorkers, who have been vaccinated, to go out there and get their booster shots at one of these locations. That offer is in effect from now until December 31st -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Jason, thank you so much for that.

Joining me is Dr. Paul Offit from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the FDA's vaccine advisory committee.

Let's start with what we'll be hearing from the president in a few hours.

At this point in the pandemic, what do you think the message should be from the White House?

DR. PAUL OFFIT, U.S. FDA VACCINE ADVISER: I think the message should be that all politics is local. What's the problem with this pandemic?

The problem is people who have chosen not to vaccinate themselves. Israel, for example, has a vaccine rate of roughly 91 percent of the population. And they have dramatically slowed the spread of that virus. They average one death a day, 33 deaths a day here. That's the key, vaccinating the unvaccinated.

How to do that?

It won't happen at the federal or state level but at the local level. For example, here in Philadelphia, we're fortunate to have people like a doctor, who works at Temple, is an African American pediatric surgeon, who goes into that community and does everything she can to convince that community to get vaccinated.

Or people like Barbara Block (ph) or Sage Meyers (ph), who do just that. I think that's what has to happen.

If you look at a conservative talk show host, like Hugh Hewitt, he talks about here's how you talk to conservatives if you're going to try and get them vaccinated. He's vaccinated.

And it works the other way. RFK Jr. goes into Lancaster County community, a community full of those who are Amish and convinces them not to be vaccinated.

There has to be a force, a mobilization of people going into these communities and answering their questions, holding town hall meetings, whatever it takes, to try and get people vaccinated at the local level, because that's the only way to get on top of this pandemic.

I'm a little tired of talking about monoclonal antibodies, antivirals and booster dosing and how to further protect those who are already vaccinated with two doses of vaccine. We need to vaccinate the unvaccinated. That's the message that has to come out here.

BOLDUAN: It's an excellent point and really kind of refocusing, with all the data and information out there, really what you're saying is, we need to refocus on exactly what the core mission has been all along but seems to have just, I don't know, if it's kind of gotten lost in the noise, because, yes, the message from the White House is important.

But why -- is it just that it's harder to organize?

All politics is local, to organize these town halls, these conversations?

Because what you just laid out seems very rational and understandable.

OFFIT: So where does it have to come from?

I think it has to come from hospitals and medical schools, university centers. They have to essentially mobilize a group of citizen scientists and activists to get out there. Remember in 2000, when there was a scare that the measles, mumps or other vaccines caused autism?

There were a lot of parents in suburban Philadelphia who were choosing not to vaccinate their children. So Children's Hospital of Philadelphia sent an army of physicians out there to hold town hall meetings, to meet with parents and answer their questions.

I think that helped. That's how this has to happen here. I think there will be a lot of different strategies based on who that community is. But that is what has to happen.

BOLDUAN: So vaccination is key and central. The other part of this is testing. That is part of the focus of the White House. Let me play how Dr. Fauci described it today.


FAUCI: We're putting up about 20,000 testing sites, we're getting half a billion tests very quickly, literally within the next few days. And then have a situation where you could get anywhere from 200 million to a half a billion tests per month. So we will be able to very soon have all the tests that people need.


BOLDUAN: You said you're frustrated because people are talking about monoclonal antibodies and booster shots.


BOLDUAN: I think there's understandable frustration, why the White House is still talking about ramping up testing availability, at this point, still talking about that.

Is that already a failure?

OFFIT: Well, sure. This was something we should have done a while ago. Obviously the U.K. was way ahead of us on this one. I'll be curious to see the data. If you choose to get tested or you want to, it says you're interested in your own health and presumably in the health of those with whom you come in contact.

Are we, in these testing centers, selecting for people who are primarily already vaccinated?

I'd like to know that. Maybe that's not true. But again, I think it's certainly important to test and important not to get out there if you're infected. But I think if we're going to get on top of this, we need to find some way to vaccinate 50 million or 60 million people, who are simply saying, no, thanks.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Fauci also told CNN today that an important consideration being discussed right now is cutting the time period that vaccinated and boosted people -- sounds weird even to say -- that they need to isolate after testing positive, especially when it comes to health care workers. Right now, it's a 10-day isolation, kind of across the board. What do you think of cutting that time?

OFFIT: It's a good idea. There was a study out of Singapore, looking at people who were vaccinated but then had a mild infection, to answer the question, for how long were they shedding infectious virus.

They found if you were vaccinated you shed virus for less long and in lower quantities than if you were unvaccinated but had a mild infection. So I think that's perfectly reasonable. It's very wearing, being in a hospital, seeing all these children with COVID-19 now. It's really burdensome and morale is low. So anything that enhances morale is a good idea.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Offit, good to see you, thank you.

OFFIT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, the Build Back Better bill has become a tale of the Two Joes, Joe Biden and Joe Manchin.

Did a Sunday evening phone call fix everything?

That's ahead.





BOLDUAN: At this hour, does the president's legislative agenda have nine lives?

Sources say the president and Joe Manchin had a friendly phone conversation Sunday after Manchin torpedoed the Build Back Better bill Sunday morning.

What's not known is whether that call did anything to fix the relationship between the duo, now nicknamed the Two Joes, while trillions of dollars in spending, re-election hopes and the president's agenda hang in the balance.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House.

Great reporting by you and Kevin Liptak.

How do things look today?

Are these negotiations on or are they dead?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: The tensions have definitely cooled and both sides are taking a positive tone, particularly at the White House. The measured tones yesterday from White House officials across the

West Wing about senator Manchin made one thing clear: they still need Joe Manchin to get anything done in this divided Senate. That is still essential here.

So we are learning, you know, a little bit more about what led to this feud. Joe Manchin was simply furious at the fact that he was singled out in a statement from the White House last Thursday about, you know, the disagreements on this bill.

We're told that his name was -- he asked that his name not be included. Our Manu Raju on Capitol Hill is reporting that Joe Manchin was furious about this.

And we've been hearing similar things for the last several days. So this is what he was talking about yesterday when he said, it's not the president but it's the staff around the president that led Joe Manchin to do this.

What does this all mean for the future?

The reality is, there is still a path to doing some type of a domestic agenda, covering these vast social spending programs, on pre-K, perhaps extending ObamaCare subsidies, some climate programs. That path is very much unclear.

This is going to be back to the drawing board in January for potentially a smaller or different bill. But the challenge here is Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said yesterday, he wants to put all of this on the floor for a vote.

That is simply going to, you know, reactivate this fight, if you will. At the moment, the White House is more focused on COVID than they are this stalled agenda. But, Kate, stalled it absolutely is.

But as you know from covering the Hill for many years, never declare anything dead because we simply don't know what next year will bring. Kate.

BOLDUAN: Just a whole bunch of zombies walking around, dead and alive at the same time. How we all feel at this point in the year. Good to see you, Jeff. Thank you so much.

Joining me for more on this, what this year-end blowup means for Joe Biden, his presidency now and next year, Evan Osnos is a staff writer with "The New Yorker" author of "Joe Biden: The Life, the Run and What Matters."

And CNN presidential historian Tim Naftali.

Evan, Biden talked about uniting the country. He ran on uniting the country. He's now tasked with trying to unite his own party, is kind of the themes we see throughout this negotiation.

How does he do that?

Can he?

EVAN OSNOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: In a way, I think that part of the challenge for him is that he was running at time where being the anti- Trump was the defining element of his politics. And that was enough in a way to kind of paper over some of these deeper divides within his own party.

And now as we get deeper into the term, these issues, the legislative demands, as you heard from Jeff Zeleny, are getting complicated. We're down to the fine points. So those kinds of differences within the party are kind of blowing up.

There was a time, during the campaign, you remember, when AOC said, if we were in another kind of political system, I wouldn't even be in the same sort of party with Joe Biden.


OSNOS: That's how much ideological diversity there is. But what you heard in the last couple of days is he is more or less willing to go back into the trenches, as is Joe Manchin, and try to figure out where you go from here after you've blown up the latest attempt to try to reach a resolution.

BOLDUAN: This is not how Joe Biden envisioned rounding out this first year of his presidency. This is a man who's seen dark days in his political career, we know, and seen very dark days in his personal life.

Not trying to equate those to kind of a legislative agenda but what does Joe Biden do in these moments?

Because they're not -- they don't seem publicly -- they're not giving up on this Joe Manchin negotiation, even though it seems a lot of people, outwardly looking in, seemed to think, where are you finding hope here?

OSNOS: Yes. This is, look, as close to a world view or almost a level of religion for Joe Biden. The idea of resilience is the core of his thing. There was a fascinating moment during the 2020 campaign, when he was so close to bailing out of that race, actually, that one of his aides was tasked with the very unpleasant process of having to call him and say, you may not succeed in this race and you need to keep money in bank to close down the campaign.

I asked, how do you respond to that?

She said he said, "I've lost bigger things than this in my life."

That is the defining idea. He carries that with him. It doesn't allow him to be complacent but essentially gives him a basis for experience to say, there will be a tomorrow and a day after that and I've just got to keep soldiering on.

BOLDUAN: Tim, offer some historical perspective on this. There are very clear ups and downs in every president's time in office. What does history tell you -- or should tell everyone -- about what a

challenging first year for a president means for the presidency?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton reached lower lows in public approval in their second year. And, of course, they both bounced back, although they had very bad midterms, both of them.

We don't have historical parallel, a modern one for a pandemic. The country is unsettled. And unless the fear is an external one, these moments do not lead to people rallying around their president. They blame their president in times when they're unsettled.

Since we don't know what COVID has for us in the next few months, we can't really tell whether six months from now we'll feel like COVID is an endemic problem, it's much milder, that we can live with or it's an even worse variant.

I think the president's fortunes depend on what the pandemic looks like in six months. And soldiering on is really his only approach at the moment. I think it's the only sound one and the only one.

BOLDUAN: You're getting at something I wanted to ask you about, Tim, because, in your view, if you thought Biden's presidency is just -- no matter what the topic is, is entirely tethered to what happens with the pandemic and with COVID, because if Biden finds a way to make progress on the pandemic but we see -- let's say we see more inflation, gas prices keep rising and he still struggles in the midterms coming up in the general election, do you still see that happening?

NAFTALI: Well, people hold their presidents accountable and responsible if the tools they use to make our economy stronger and to make us feel more at ease fail.

And right now, there's a debate among economists over whether the stimulus package fed the current inflation or whether the current inflation is just a product of the pandemic.

If it's a product of the pandemic, it's going to go away with the pandemic, perhaps in the middle of next year; in which case, Joe Biden will be seen as a hero.

If, on the other hand, we overstimulated the economy and inflation is a real problem, then we'll see higher interest rates. And Joe Biden and his party are going to be hit very hard next November.

BOLDUAN: Tim, good to see you.

Evan, thank you so much.

Coming up for us, at least 74 current or former U.S. military service members have been charged in the January 6th attack. Now the Pentagon is taking urgent new steps to address extremism within its own ranks.




BOLDUAN: Breaking news just in to CNN: Republican congressman Scott Perry has declined the request from the January 6th House committee to voluntarily come in to speak with investigators. CNN's Paula Reid has more on this, just coming in.

What is Scott Perry saying?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: So interesting because the committee did not subpoena him. They sent him a letter, requesting he come in and cooperate with their investigation into January 6th. He has declined that request. And this sets the committee up to potentially have to subpoena him if they want to speak with him.

He was the first lawmaker to receive a letter like this from the House Select Committee, investigating the Capitol insurrection. And, in this letter, they detailed the things they want to talk to him about, including efforts to install former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark as the acting attorney general. -