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At This Hour

President Biden Addresses Governors on Omicron Surge; Vice President Harris Says, U.S. Prepared to Impose Unprecedented Sanctions on Russia. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 27, 2021 - 11:30   ET


AMARA WALKER, CNN AT THIS HOUR: Live in Denver with more.


What can we expect, Lucy.

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Amara, this is a status hearing, so we aren't necessarily expecting a ruling. We are likely to get new dates for the court to reconvene on this. But we're talking about more broadly as a plan that could get Rogel Aguilera-Mederos' 90 years off of that sentence, according to the district attorney, Alexis King.

Just to remind our viewers, He was 23 years old at the time of the accident. He was driving 85 miles an hour. His brakes failed. He was convicted of vehicular homicide amongst other charges. The D.A. is not looking to overturn this conviction but she is asking the court to reconsider that lengthy prison sentence, potentially reducing it to 20 or 30 years. And in a statement, she said Mederos made multiple active choices that resulted in the death of four people, serious injuries to others, adding that the shorter sentence reflects an appropriate outcome for that conduct.

And, of course, at issue are these mandatory minimum sentencing laws that require sentences for each count to be served consecutively, which is how those 27 counts turned into more than century in prison for the now 26-year-old driver, a sentence frankly twice as long as some murder convicts. The judge himself even said, and I quote, if I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence.

Some Colorado lawmakers now calling for legal reforms. Take a look.


ALEX VALDEZ, COLORADO STATE ASSEMBLY: Our system here at this building has created a situation where a judge, at their own discretion, who doesn't want to issue a sentence, has had to issue that sentence. What we hope to achieve is reforms. That's really what this is all about. We have to reform the system that is creating a situation where we are creating more victims of our justice system. We have to do that now.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KAFANOV: And this case has gotten national attention with nearly 5 million signatures on a petition asking the Colorado governor to reduce the sentence or to grant Mederos clemency. Kim Kardashian even got involved, tweeting about this. The governor's office tells CNN that they are reviewing the clemency request, but we don't expect the governor to weigh in before the legal proceedings. Amara?

WALKER: All right. Lucy, thank you for that. We'll be watching that closely.

Also developing at this hour, police expected to release today body camera video of a deadly police shooting that claimed the life of a 14-year-old girl, Valentina Orellana. She died after longs police officers opened fire on a suspect inside a department store.

And we do have breaking news that we want -- actually, we are going to Josh Campbell for more on this story.

Josh, this is such a tragic story. What more are we learning about what happened inside that department store?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Amara, tragic and devastating is how the city's police chief is describing that incident. We know on Thursday, law enforcement in North Hollywood here in the Los Angeles area received a call of an assault in progress at a department store. Now, as officers were on the way, that call was escalated to shots fired.

As police arrived, they found a woman who was suffering bleeding. Witnesses say a man had assaulted her with a bike chain. Police made contact with that suspect. Something happened that caused one of those officers to open fire on that suspect. He was shot and killed. But as police began a sweep of that department store looking for other potential victims, they found something truly heartbreaking. Have a listen.


ASSISTANT CHIEF DOMINIC CHOI, LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT: The call was upgraded to possible shots fired.

Officers encountered the suspect and during that encounter, an officer-involved shooting occurred.

And behind the dry wall, a solid wall you can't see behind, we went behind it, it turned out to be dressing room there. And what we did is we were able to locate a 14-year-old female who was found deceased in that dressing room.

Preliminarily, we believe that round was an officer's round.


WALKER: I'm going to have to cut off you there. I'm sorry, Josh Campbell, because we do have breaking news. President Biden is addressing the nation's governors in a call with his COVID response team about the omicron surge. Let's listen in.

JEFFREY ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: Welcome, Mr. President. This is actually the 40th time we've convened this group of governors. And in addition, we're in constant one-on-one contact with the governors and their teams.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: More times than I've seen you.

ZIENTS: Their leadership on the ground, they are on the frontline, as you know, has been essential to the progress we've made so far. I'm going to turn to Governor Hutchinson, who has done an outstanding job as chair of the National Governors Association, leading this group and ensuring we're all working together every step of the way.

Over to you, Governor Hutchinson.

GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R-AR): Thank you, Jeff. And I want to thank all of the White House team for being such great support of the governors. And I want to thank Mr. President, your address to the nation last week. Thank you for your comments designed to depoliticize our COVID response.


I think that was helpful.

As we face omicron, the governors and your administration must be working together more closely than ever. I particularly appreciate your comments about increasing the supply chain and rapid COVID tests. This has become a real challenge for the governors. And your task force led by Jeff Zients has been responsive and has kept us informed every step of the way. A good example is this last week, I asked for more monoclonal antibody treatments. We received them last week. Still, we have a limited supply, but the responsiveness is very much appreciated.

I'd like to give you a glimpse of Arkansas today. First, hospitalizations are down by half from where they were this time last year, but our omicron case count and the demand for testing has increased. In Arkansas, we have a test to stay, a school program, it's a pilot in 50 schools. We want to expand that. Right now, we have sufficient tests to be able to do that. But we also, as governors, are getting pressure to do more, and the need is great to do more in terms of the rapid tests and the availability of it.

And so one word of concern or encouragement for your team is that as the -- as you look towards federal solutions that will help alleviate the challenge, make sure that we do not let federal solutions stand in the way of state solutions and the production of 500 million rapid tests that will be districted by the federal government is great. But obviously that dries up the supply chain for the solutions that we might offer as governors.

And so just that brief comment before I turn it over to you, Mr. President, I want to say personally I've enjoyed working with you when I was in Congress, as head of the DEA, and I appreciate your leadership and thank you so much for giving us the time today to hear from us but also so that we can hear from you personally about the challenge that we face. So, Mr. President, the microphone is yours. Thank you, President Biden.

BIDEN: Thank you very much. Look, there is no federal solution. This gets solved at a state level. I'm looking at Governor Sununu on the board here. He talks about that a lot. And it ultimately gets down to where the rubber meets the road, and that's where the patient is in need of help or preventing the need for help.

Look, Gov, thank you for what you're doing. Thank you for the National Governors Association, and Vice Chair Murphy across the river, all is well in New Jersey, I assume, Gov.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Amen, Mr. President.

BIDEN: And here today, Democrats and Republicans, we've discussed the rising COVID cases especially coming out of the holidays. And as I said last week, omicron is a source of concern, but it should not be a source of panic. If you're fully vaccinated, you get your booster shot and you're highly protected. If you're unvaccinated, you're at a high risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19, being hospitalized and in rare cases even dying.

And this is not like March of 2020, the beginning of the pandemic. We're prepared and we know what it takes to save lives, protect people and keep schools and businesses open. We just have to stay focused and continue to work together.

My message to the governors is simple, if you need something, say something. And we're going to have your back in any way we can. Last week, we took steps to bolster support for you in, number one, more capacity to get shots in arms with more places, more vaccinators, more times for folks to get vaccinated or get a booster shot. And we've added appointments for booster shots, adding hours, getting more convenient to get a booster every day.

The second thing we're doing is more testing. Seeing how tough it was for some folks to get a test this weekend shows that we have more work to do, we're doing it. First, let's talk about how we got here. When I took office ten months into the pandemic, and even so, we had no, zero, over-the-counter home tests in the United States, none. And if you wanted to get one, you had to go to a clinic or a drugstore to have someone give you the test, and there were very few places to go. So, we got to work. We quadrupled the number of pharmacies offering free test, and there are now 20,000 places where you can get tested for free.

In many locations, you can book an appointment online in advance to minimize your wait.


We've worked with Google so you can search COVID test near me on Google to find a location. And now I know the lines have gotten very long in some states. That's why I ordered FEMA to set up pop-up sites in places with high demand to shorten the wait. We stood up six new sites in New York City in five days, and there are more coming.

For over-the-counter at-home tests, as I said, there were none when we took office, none. Now, we have eight on the market. And just three days ago, another test was cleared. We went from no over-the-counter tests in January to 46 million in October, 100 million in November and almost 200 million in December. But it's not enough. It's clearly not enough. If we had known, we would have gone harder, quicker if we could have, because steps we have to take in increase the number of authorized tests, we're now able to purchase 500 million at-home rapid tests to be sent to the American people for free if they request it.

And we're going to continue to use the Defense Production Act to produce as many tests as possible. And starting in two weeks, private insurance will reimburse you for the cost of at-home tests. We're providing access to free tests for folks who don't have insurance. But we have to do more. We have to do better. And we will.

The third point I'd like to make is more support for your hospitals. On hospitalizations, let me start with this, because we have so many unvaccinated and unboosted, we're not seeing hospitalization hospitalizations rise as sharp as we did march of 202 or even this past fall.

America has made progress. Things are better. But we do know that with the rising cases, we still have tens of millions of unvaccinated people and we're seeing hospitalizations rise. It means our hospitals are some places are going to get overrun both in terms of equipment and staff. That's why we stock peopled and prepositioned millions of gowns, masks, and ventilators. We're mobilizing additional 1,000 military doctors and nurses and medics to help staff hospitals.

FEMA is deploying hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews to transport patients. We've already deployed emergency response teams in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire and New Mexico. We're ready to provide more hospital beds as well.

The bottom line is we want to assure the American people that we're prepared. We know what it takes. And as this group of bipartisan governors has shown, we're going to get through it by working together. I want to thank the governors for their partnership. I mean, that sincerely.

With that, I'm going to turn it back over to Jeff, and I understand you guys may have some questions. Jeff?

ZIENTS: Good. I think we're going to clear the press first.

WALKER: Okay. You were just listening live to President Biden addressing the nation's governors in what has become a weekly call since around the pandemic. I think this is the first time President Biden joined in on this call.

But let's talk more about what he had to say with CNN's John Harwood. He is joining me now live from the White House.

Look, John, we heard President Biden kind of lay out what he's doing to support these states when it comes to the rising hospitalization rates, of course, vaccinations, but also testing. And we heard there from Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas, saying, look, it's been challenging when it comes to access, to not just testing at these sites where it's free but also at-home testing. Can you talk to us a little more about how the Biden administration is planning to ramp up accessibility of COVID-19 testing?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're doing a couple of things, Amara. One is providing those 500 million tests that people can order off a website and get sent to their house for free. Secondly, they've implemented the Defense Production Act to try and increase manufacturing of testing. But the president acknowledges, as Tony Fauci has acknowledged, that it's not enough and the combination of the demand generated by the omicron variant, the holidays, all that sort of thing, has way outstripped what they're able to do.

He did get some welcome words from Asa Hutchison, the governor of Arkansas, saying that he -- the governor said he appreciated President Biden's remarks last week trying to depoliticize the response to the pandemic, said that was a welcome step. Of course, every aspect of the pandemic has been politicized including vaccinations, where we're seeing a much higher rate of non-vaccination among Republicans, much higher rate of vaccination among Democrats.


And that's one of the challenges for the Biden administration because it's the combination of both things, vaccination and testing, that will allow the country to weather this particular surge that we're encountering this winter.

But the administration is hoping that reduced demand, once we get past the holidays, will mean that supply and demand will come somewhat more into balance, but they're also trying to ramp up that production of those testing, generate those pop-up sites that the president talked about, which is designed also to relieve some of that testing pressure.

WALKER: Yes, which is very much needed now. John Harwood, I appreciate you. Thank you very much for that from the White House.

Coming up, Russia says its troops are on the move again, this time away from the Ukrainian border amid fears of a Russian invasion. We're going to discuss this next.



WALKER: Developing right now, Russia says more than 10,000 military personnel have withdrawn from the Ukrainian border, returning to their permanent bases, but there are still as many as 100,000 Russian troops on the border. Vice President Kamala Harris says the White House has told Russia not to invade Ukraine, vowing that the U.S. is prepared to impose unprecedented sanctions if they do. Joining me now is CNN Analyst David Sanger. He is a White House and National Security Correspondent for The New York Times. David, good to see you.

First of all, where do things stand right now, especially with these rising concerns of an invasion into Ukraine? Is it imminent?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Amara, I think that most of the estimates, even from a few weeks ago, suggested that it wouldn't happen if it does happen until later in January because Putin would need more troops there, and as you say, he's withdrawn 10,000, we'll come back to that in a moment, and because the ground needs to freeze if his tanks and other heavy equipment are going to be able to make it through that marshy land across the border.

That gives some time for diplomacy. And the big question is that 10,000 move or withdrawal, about 10 percent of the troops, is that significant? Is it just a gesture? Is it something to make shower that negotiations get going in Geneva, and we just don't know how to read it yet.

WALKER: So, talk to us about what Russia wants, right? I mean, we know that Putin has been lamenting the fall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union for the past 30 years, and he obviously despises the expansion of NATO. Is there room for diplomacy? Is there room to have common ground with Russia?

SANGER: Well, that's a big question. I mean, yesterday was, in fact, the anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 30th anniversary, and Putin, as you note, has called that the greatest disaster of the 20th century.

I think it's pretty clear that he would like to be the Russian leader who begins to reverse that. He started on that way by seizing Crimea in 2014. He survived the sanctions since. And so what would he like in Ukraine? I suspect that he would just like to have a friendly government that can basically be his puppet and that is not orienting itself towards the west.

Now, that may be what he settles for. Whether or not he insists that the United States and NATO stop providing arms to Ukraine, that's what we don't know and that's maybe where there's room for diplomacy.

WALKER: We mentioned this earlier. Vice President Kamala Harris saying that the U.S. will take action against Moscow if they do invade. Here's her comments.


KAMALA HARRIS, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: We are very clear that Russia should not invade the sovereignty of Ukraine, that we must stand up and we are standing up for its territorial integrity. We are working with our allies in that regard, and we've been very cleared that we are prepared to issue sanctions like you've not seen before.


WALKER: Okay. Well, sanctions, as you've seen, have had little or no effect in the past, right, especially when we saw what happened after the 2014 land grab of Crimea, basically, you know, Putin flouting all international norms and laws.

So, when it comes to the U.S. and what action America could take, I mean, this is quite a delicate balancing act, isn't it? I mean, how does the U.S. support Ukraine without, you know, threatening or feeling -- making Russia feeling threatened?

SANGER: You're exactly right, Amara. This is a really delicate balling act, and that's what Putin is counting on, because Putin knows that NATO and the United States are not going to commit troops to Ukraine's aid. And so the only thing we real very left is sanctions. And as you point out we imposed sanctions after 2014 and the Russians are still in Crimea seven years later.

So, the question is what could you do that would really make the difference? Well, you could do a few things? You could disconnect Russia from the global financial system, by cutting them off from the SWIFT system, the system that basically does international transactions. You could go after the oligarchs who help fund Putin. You could go after Putin's own money as well.

The problem is once you have done that and Putin reacts, what's your next step? You always want to leave something in place so that you can basically cap off the escalation.


And it's not clear what that is, or, as you point out, whether Putin would say, if that's all you've got, I'm willing to live with it. And then there's a question of how much would the Europeans actually go along with, you know, in a cold winter when they still need Russian gas?

WALKER: Exactly. You also have that gas dependence from Europe as well. It's such a complicated conundrum.

SANGER: It really is.

WALKER: It continues, the Putin watch continues. Thank you so much, David Sanger, great to see you.

SANGER: Always great to be with you.

WALKER: Thank you, David.

And thank you for watching. Inside Politics is next. Phil Mattingly is in for John King. It starts right after this break.