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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Sullivan: U.S. Does Not Believe Putin Has Made Decision On Whether To Invade Ukraine; White House: Biden Told Putin There Will Be "Strong Economic Measures" If Russia Invades Ukraine; Sources: Biden Admin Weighing Options To Evacuate U.S. Citizens From Ukraine If Russia Invades & Creates A Dire Security Situation; Gas, Oil Prices Come Down After Weeks Of Increases; Rep. Nunes Chooses Trump Job Over Possible Top House Chairmanship; Meadows Book: Trump's Blood Oxygen Level Hit "Dangerously Low Level" During 2020 COVID Diagnose; New Data: Pfizer May Only Partially Protect Against Omicron Variant; "Empire" Actor Blasts Admitted Attackers As "Liars"; Supreme Court Commission Votes To Send Final Report To Biden; Indonesian Rescuers Look For Survivors After Volcano Erupts; Veterans Return To Pearl Harbor 80 Years After Surviving Attack. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 07, 2021 - 17:00   ET



JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: I will look you in the eye and tell you as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tensions between the United States and Russia have only gotten worse in the months since Biden and Putin sat down for talks in Geneva. At that meeting in June, six months ago, Biden predicted he would know soon if he had made real progress with Putin.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What is going to happen next is we're going to be able to look back, look ahead in three to six months and say, did the things we agreed to sit down and try to work out did it work?


COLLINS: Of course, Jake, we are now at that six month mark since the President said those comments in Geneva in June. We should note when it comes to timelines that the White House says President Biden will speak to the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, on Thursday to talk about this two hour conversation he had with the Russian leader. Today, that follows, of course, conversations he also had with other European allies this afternoon.

And Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser said they are going to stay in touch with their Russian counterparts to go through detail by detail what the consequences would be if Russia did invade Ukraine.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right. Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

Let's bring in the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland.

Secretary Nuland, thanks for joining us.

So this afternoon, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the U.S. does not think that President Putin has yet made a decision on whether to invade Ukraine. Why not?

VICTORIA NULAND, UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Well, among other things, I think that President Putin wanted to talk to President Biden, wanted to better understand where we are and where our allies are on some of these issues. And that was why it was extremely important for our president, and for other leaders in Europe to be very clear about the extreme consequences that will result for Russia if they move aggressively against Ukraine again.

TAPPER: In the previous hour, we interviewed Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio, he was on the House Intelligence Committee. And he said a lot of the threatened steps in terms of lethal aid for Ukraine, in terms of sending U.S. troops to allied countries, in terms of having sanctions ready. That all sounded good, but it all sounded too much in the future, that these things should be happening now. Why, in fact, are they not happening now to deter Putin from the invasion?

NULAND: Jake, what is happening now is intensive consultations with our allies and partners on a the kind of response that could come immediately, and in a very painful way should Putin move. And then to put those things in the window so Putin can see them and so that his people can also understand that this highly unnecessary war will not only be bloody, it will also be extremely painful economically for the average Russian and for the Russian state.

TAPPER: A half dozen sources tell CNN that the Biden administration is considering evacuating U.S. citizens from Ukraine. Should Russia actually invade? How many Americans are we talking about? Do we know how many American citizens or legal permanent residents are in Ukraine?

NULAND: Well, the number of Americans in Ukraine fluctuates around Christmas time, we tend to have more as people come to visit. There are also a number of dual nationals, but you know, it's in the 10 to 15,000 person range. But you know, obviously, with regard to any kind of military contingency, we also have to be thinking ahead and not be caught flat footed.

TAPPER: Would that evacuation process happen immediately after an invasion? Is there some specific place where those citizens and dual citizens and legal permanent residents should go? Should they all go to Odessa? What's the plan?

NULAND: As has happened in the past, Jake, if we are concerned about imminent hostilities in Ukraine, we will begin warning U.S. citizens as we do all around the world as we are currently in Ethiopia as we did months and months and months ahead of the evacuation in Afghanistan, that it's time for them to find their way home.

TAPPER: This afternoon, you testified that the U.S. is watching for the potential that Russia could invade Ukraine through Belarus, which is just north of Ukraine. Or, you said, Russia might mask its forces as Belarusian forces. So, is Putin using the Russian Ukrainian border or something of a smokescreen potentially?

NULAND: Well, Russia currently has forces on three sides of Ukraine, which is not a scenario we've seen before. Some 100,000 troops now with an estimated plan for almost double that. And as you know, Belarus has a very long border with Ukraine. What we have not yet seen but which we could see are Russian forces coming down towards Ukraine, from Belarus or as I said today masking as Belarusian forces. We've seen the increasing dependence that Belarusian President Lukashenka has on Putin so Putin could demand that he returned the favor.


TAPPER: It's only been a few months since the chaotic U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan. If the U.S. ends up sending troops to Ukraine in any way, as advisors, as trainers or whatever, how concerned are you that we could be watching a repeat of Afghanistan in our near future?

NULAND: Jake, that's four levels of hypothetical that I'm not going to go into. But what I will say is that the U.S. has provided some $450 million this year alone in security support for Ukraine. And they are going to need that if they are confronting Russian forces. And they are a very strong security partner of ours, because our commitment to their sovereignty and territorial integrity and independence is unwavering.

TAPPER: Undersecretary Victoria Nuland, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's discuss with my team here.

Julia Ioffe, let me start with you. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, today the U.S. does not believe that Putin's mind has been made up about invading Ukraine. You've covered Putin for years. Do you think that's true? And is this somebody whose mind can actually be changed by the threat of serious action by the U.S. and NATO?

JULIA IOFFE, RUSSIAN-AMERICAN JOURNALIST: Well, as we saw with the first time he invaded Ukraine in 2014, when he illegally annexed Crimea and started this drawn out conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine, he tends to make his decisions quite quickly in a kind of knee jerk manner. And I think he is, as is his want, weighing his options. And I think we'll know if he has decided to invade Ukraine when he invades Ukraine. And that's how we'll know he's decided.

TAPPER: And Evan Osnos, you wrote a great biography on Joe Biden. How momentous was this conversation today for Joe Biden? This is somebody who has been a little bit more hawkish than his former boss, President Obama, not in terms of direct military confrontation, but in terms of more direct aid to the Ukrainians, et cetera, when it comes to Putin.

EVAN OSNOS, BIDEN BIOGRAPHER: Yes, I mean, part of this is that he has a fundamental lack of trust in Vladimir Putin's intentions, his word. I mean, there's this famous moment, which we sometimes recall back when Joe Biden visited Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin and said, I looked into his eyes, and he didn't -- you don't have a soul, is what he said. And you know, you don't say that to that many foreign leaders.

Now, here they are a decade later facing this moment of incredible negative potential. This could put a cloud over the Obama -- sorry, the Biden administration. They are trying to prevent this from becoming a catastrophe. But it's not a case in which he's working with somebody who we trust, who can says, look, let's try to work around the edges. He's fundamentally trying to threaten a guy without doing it as directly as a threat might sound.

TAPPER: It's interesting because a top Bush official said on this show a few years ago that they wish they had stood up to Putin more after he took away part of Georgia, the country of Georgia. It sounds like by Biden almost today was almost suggesting that like, we're going to -- I'm going to be tougher against you than my -- than Obama was when he said like, we're going to do things that we didn't do in 2014.

IOFFE: Well, it is interesting that Jake Sullivan mentioned what Obama did and didn't do in 2014. Because the point man on Ukraine, under the Obama administration was none other than Joe Biden. And he was intimately involved in managing the Ukraine portfolio after the invasion of 2014.

I think the Georgia analogy is an apt one. In fact, you have the Russians, you have the foreign minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov saying, you know, this could be like Georgia for you guys. And what happened then was Russia turned up the pressure with troops on the border, handing out Russian passports to people in Georgia across the border, and turned up the pressure so high that the Georgians inevitably stumbled, shot at some peacekeepers and gave Russia the pretext to invade. And so Lavrov is overtly warning, we can try doing this thing again. So I think that's the reason Georgia in 2008, and what could have been done then is on people's minds.

TAPPER: Although I think it's pretty clear that U.S. troops are off the table for Joe Biden, don't you think?

OSNOS: That's absolutely right. I mean, I think one of the things, even though you hear him making tough statements now, the truth is Joe Biden has been very skeptical about the application of American Force, specifically troops on the ground in Ukraine. I remember in 2014, I traveled there with him, interviewed him on the way back, he talked about the conversation he'd had with Ukrainian officials where he said, look, in effect, we are not going to be putting troops here and they weren't happy about it. So he has -- and this is consistent with his broader approach, he does not want to extend American Forces more than he has to. So the goal now is to try to use these other tools, financial instruments, sanctions, other ways you might be able to get the Russians to change their behavior.

IOFFE: Well, to that end, you know, he just ended one war, right? He just took Americans out -- American Forces out of Afghanistan. Starting another one in a foreign country that a lot of Americans I think couldn't locate on a map would not really be in keeping with that mission.


The other thing is that highlights how absurd this crisis is, and how much it is a product of Putin's kind of paranoid imagination. He imagines that NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine, that American rockets are in Ukraine pointed at Russia, and they're not. None of that is true.

TAPPER: Right.

IOFFE: Nobody was talking about admitting Ukraine to NATO. NATO doesn't really want Ukraine. And Putin is saying, well, OK, but give me a legally binding guarantee that you won't do it. And is creating all of this -- over something that isn't happening, if that makes sense.

TAPPER: Yes, no, absolutely.

And Evan, I mean, it just -- it does seem to me like this will be a test of the Biden doctrine and Biden as somebody who has been very skeptical of the use of American Force when it comes to Afghanistan, when it comes to Iraq, when it comes to Ukraine. Not that the U.S. military couldn't accomplish the mission, just that it's, you know, this isn't World War II.

OSNOS: Right, exactly. And I think also, this is a proof of his ability to read the other person across the table and figure out what is actually going to pick the lock. And Julia has written brilliantly about Vladimir Putin's paranoia. And paranoia is the central ingredient here. What Joe Biden had to do today was to get him to understand the United States is not seeking to invade Russia anytime soon.

And I know that can sound like a thing that we don't even need to announce here, but if you're Vladimir Putin, you're insulated, you're cut off from a lot of other information, that's something you need to hear from an American president.

TAPPER: Great to have you here. Julia Ioffe, Evan Osnos, appreciate it.

Coming up next, new details about just how sick Donald Trump was with COVID. Revealed by his own chief of staff. We're going to talk to a top Trump officials who was there.

Plus, dramatic moments with the actor on the stand the tense moments today in the Jussie Smollett trial as the defense rests. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our money lead, finally some economic relief, however minor, Americans are paying a little less at the pump after weeks of rising energy prices. A new report finds the national average price of gas dropped four cents in the last week to 335 a gallon. Still pretty high. Natural gas prices are down 40 percent since October's peak.

Let's get right to CNN's Matt Egan.

And Matt, let's start with the gasoline prices. Why is this going down now?

MATT EGAN, CNN REPORTER: Well, Jake, that's right, gasoline prices have finally stopped going straight up. And this trend really began last month on rumors that President Biden would release barrels of oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. By the time that break, the glass moment actually happened, oil prices were down by 10 percent from their peak. And that has started to trickle down to gasoline prices which move with a lag.

Now the national average is down to $3.35 a gallon. That is not cheap. But it is a seven week low and it is moving in the right direction.

But you know, the other big factor here is COVID. Fears about Omicron really sent oil prices crashing after Thanksgiving. There were really big worries about what that would do to the economy. Thankfully, some of those COVID fears have started to fade in recent days. But that is also driven oil prices back up. So Jake, the fact that we're seeing oil rebounded cause into some question, you know, how sustainable the relief at the pump really is going to be?

TAPPER: This dramatic decline in natural gas is a bigger deal, I think then then these four cents a gallon for gas going down. And it's a good sign for home heating costs as we come into the winter here, right?

EGAN: Yes, absolutely, Jake. That is a bigger deal. It's much more dramatic.

If just two months ago, we saw natural gas prices hit a seven year high, there were all these worries about a shortage of natural gas. And what we've seen, and you can see it on that chart, is that they're actually down by 40 percent, 40 percent in two months. Now natural gas is still up sharply on the year but it's finally been knocked down.

This is mostly due to Mother Nature, families haven't had to crank up the heat as much as usual because temperatures have actually been warmer than usual. So that has lowered demand. Also, we've seen stronger production of natural gas. This has allowed inventory levels to get back to kind of normal levels, and it's reduced those fears about natural gas and running out of supply.

But Jake, you know, we do have to point out the obvious, it's early, winter hasn't even actually officially begun yet. So, if we do see temperatures drop and stay low, we could see natural gas move up.

A big picture, Jake, I do think that there is some positive news, some glimmers of hope for inflation we're Americans.

TAPPER: All right, Matt Egan, thanks so much.

Let's discuss with my August panel. Jackie Kucinich, happy birthday.


TAPPER: The Biden administration has been on the receiving end of some blistering criticism over the rise of gas prices in recent week along with other inflation. Will this be enough to stave off some of the criticism, these developments in natural gas and small reduction in gas prices?

KUCINICH: I think it just -- you have to look at what's going to happen, you know, week after week, right? One week of relief when it comes to gas prices isn't going to matter if come February, your home heating prices are through the roof. And even places where people are making more money, their wages are up. It doesn't really -- you don't really break even if, you know, all the everything else is more expensive, it cuts into even money you can save. So, I think it's too soon to tell and they can message as much as they would like, but until things actually stabilize and come down, it's going to be problematic for them and for their allies in the House and the Senate.

TAPPER: In the previous hour, Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio, who's the number two Republican on the House Intelligence Committee told me he would be interested in taking the number one job now that Congressman Devin Nunes, who is the ranking Republican Intelligence is going to become CEO of this Trump Media and Technology Group, whatever this is.


But what's so amazing about this is, Nunes was in line to be the next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Explain to our viewers for just a second --


TAPPER: -- how big a gig that is, that Devin Nunes is walking away from.

BARRON-LOPEZ: I mean, it's really stunning, because the Ways and Means Committee is one of, if not the most prestigious committees in the House. It has, you know, purse string power, it just has power in general. You know, it has control over tax policy.

I mean, you see how influential the Ways and Means Committee has been over the course of Biden's agenda just this year. You know, the current chairman, Neal, is one of the top negotiators in the House in terms of what has gone into Build Back Better.

TAPPER: He can kill something just with a wave of the hand.

BARRON-LOPEZ: He can. And so, that is the kind of power that Nunes would have had. It's something -- even when you're a rank and file member, you really fight to get on Ways and Means. It's a very exclusive committee. And so, it's just shocking that someone who was in line, knowing that Republicans are favored to win the House would decide that they have other priorities.

TAPPER: What do you make of it?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS UNDER TRUMP: Well, in famously, Paul Ryan wanted to be Ways and Means chair more than he wanted to be speaker.


GRIFFIN: That was seen as a more appealing role. People wait for 10 years to be chairman.

TAPPER: He'd probably still Congress if he had done that.

GRIFFIN: People wait 10, 20 years for that kind of a role. I think it's kind of indicative of the decline of Congress. I mean, they've exceeded a lot of the power of the purse to the Executive Branch. They exceeded more powers to the executive branch.

And I think more broadly, that the House in particular kind of looks like, you know, a crazy town these days with some of the members, the discussions that are being had. So on the one hand, I could see why it's not as appealing. For Devin Nunes, I think he will look back and regret this decision and realize he could have had a much bigger stake in U.S. history, had he stayed on Ways and Means and not gone to this upstart venture, but we shall see.

TAPPER: And there's also talk that one of the reasons might be that they're redistricting in California, and they might have made his district, which is a pretty strong Republican district into a more competitive one. But they haven't made any final plans out there. So I -- how much do you think that was a factor?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I'm not one of the people who's lamenting or sorrowful that Devin Nunes is leaving Congress. I think it's probably good for the Republic.

TAPPER: I didn't hear any lamenting. Stable (ph) for the record.

SIMMONS: That's true for the record.

But it just shows you the bizarro world that we live in. Sure, I'm sure redistricting and personal future has something to do with it. But it's the bizarro world that we live in. We're going off and running as kind of a startup. Media company is more important than being the most powerful tax writer and trade negotiator in Congress.

And so, I think what we're seeing is on behalf of the Republicans, they just -- the Republicans in Congress, the elected leadership, seem to be afraid of the population they're supposed to be governing. They're afraid of Donald Trump. There's this sort of whiff of fear about all of them in how they engage the national politics. And there -- they'd rather be outside throwing bricks than inside building a House that everybody can live in.

TAPPER: It's certainly easier, right, than actually legislating? SIMMONS: Right.

TAPPER: Jackie, we've been getting more and more details about Trump's coronavirus diagnosis from former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. First we learned that Trump tested positive before the debate against Biden, we learned that last week. Now we know that Trump's blood oxygen level dipped to dangerously low levels and the White House tried to hide all of this. Are you surprised?

KUCINICH: I think there was a lot of reporting at the time and the White House was trying to say that it wasn't true, that a lot of this was happening. But you know, the fact of the matter is that, you know, the American people deserved to know what was happening with the President's health for so many reasons. And his obsession with not looking weak, apparently trumped everything.

I mean, Alyssa could speak more to it than I could --


KUCINICH: -- because she was there and can probably explain what the thinking was. But it certainly seems like that his personal -- I mean, you saw the doctor even lying for him.


KUCINICH: His personal feelings, really outplayed with the country -- the best interest of the country.

TAPPER: And you were here last week, you're expressing outrage that this was hidden from the American people, hidden from you even though you were the communications director. Meadows said he had arranged for four doses of the monoclonal antibody drug to be sent to the White House in secret. He got approval from the FDA for the President to receive the treatment.

We have reporting that Trump is not happy with Meadows about revealing all this. Why do you think Meadows is doing this?

GRIFFIN: Well, what I'm most stunned by is, I mean, the commander in chief, anyone in the chain of command or the line of succession, their health is not just about their health. It's the public's information as implications for the whole nation. And for some reason, some around President Trump did not understand that back when this was taking place.

I do recall that day extremely well when we were told he is in bad shape. The President is not doing well. I stood out to walk to like see --

TAPPER: This is after it's been revealed?

GRIFFIN: At this point, it's public.

TAPPER: OK. GRIFFIN: It'd been public the day the night before. And seeing him walk, I feared for his wellbeing and if he'd even make it. I mean he's an older man.


So to hear all this in retrospect is, why did we not tell the public that then? There's no justification for it, there's no good rationale. And I'm not surprised that former President Trump is disappointed to hear it. He doesn't like to look weak.

But that was the reality. He was very sick, as are millions of Americans who get COVID. And he needs to be willing to say that.

KUCINICH: And that was the thing. And there was some speculation then he had COVID, that perhaps it would change his mind and the messaging he was putting out into the world might change and it didn't. So the fact that this could have been a teachable moment --


KUCINICH: -- was completely squandered as so many Americans were sick and dying from the coronavirus.

SIMMONS: This is indicative of how they see the world and how they do their politics. I mean, they're -- they have this vision of America that's so brittle, that we can't take the truth about the president being sick, that something everybody has. Americans can take it. We're strong enough country that we can figure it out.

I think this is, though, indicative of how they govern all over the place. And I think the difference between Republicans and Democrats this moment is like, are we going to hide from the things that are going to make the country stronger and face our flaws and deal with them? Are we going to have the courage to sort of stand up and fight for the things that --

TAPPER: And it's pretty notable, Laura, that we should note that when Biden went to get, I think it was a colonoscopy a few weeks ago and he was under, that they did the whole thing where, you know, Vice President Kamala Harris took control and she was in charge. And not only did Trump have a colonoscopy, we've learned subsequently, and did not do that with Mike Pence.

I mean, he was really in bad shape. I mean, luckily, he survived, but he was in bad shape. And they didn't, again, didn't do that with the vice president, which would have been appropriate.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Right. And they did not make clear to the American public and to the press, how in bad of shape he was, which just shows all these institutional norms, these steps of being transparent about the office and the most powerful person in the country. That the Trump presidency -- the Trump administration decided not to do that the whole way through.

GRIFFIN: And just real quick, I remember saying to the president and his team at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu is wearing a mask, Vladimir Putin is wearing a mask, it's not weak. It's showing leadership and doing the right thing is not weak. It's unfortunate that position didn't prevail, but people were telling him that.

TAPPER: Thanks, one and all for being here.

Coming up next, new data just released on how effective the COVID vaccine is against the new Omicron variant. Stay with us.



TAPPER: New in our health lead, the first glimpse of an answer to a question on many people's minds. Will the existing vaccines protect us against the new Omicron variant? Researchers in South Africa just released new insight.

Let's bring in CNN Senior Medical Correspondent. Elizabeth Cohen. Elizabeth, this new study is focused on the Pfizer vaccine. What does it have to say?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I actually just got off the phone with Alex Segal, who is the lead researcher in South Africa on this study. And he said, look, what our study showed is that, first of all, a small study, and it was in a lab, but it suggests that this is an escape variant. This is a variant that knows how to, to some extent, out with the vaccine.

But he said he feels pretty confident that if you're fully vaccinated, you will see that this vaccine will -- that the vaccines will help protect against severe disease. And that's what we really look for vaccines to do. He said significant protection. That's when he expects from the vaccine against this variant.

Now, will it protect you from getting infected and a little bit sick? He's not as confident on that. He doesn't think that's necessarily going to happen. But he does think that even with this variant, that people who are fully vaccinated will get significant protection.

That was interesting, Jake, because they don't have Pfizer as a booster in South Africa. So he couldn't test it that way. But he did say that he thinks a booster would be even better, would give even more protection.

TAPPER: What about people who have already had coronavirus?

COHEN: Right. So he said that if -- what he found was that people who had coronavirus and got vaccinated that that was better, that that was really a good situation to be in. So again, this vax -- this variant, it knows how to be an escape artist to some extent. It is giving a challenge to the vaccine much more so than the Delta variant did.

But he still is confident that vaccination will provide significant protection to people against severe disease. Still has more studies to do. But that's what he's thinking based on this one small study in the lab.

TAPPER: A new Axios-Ipsos poll found that only one in four Americans are planning on canceling holiday travel plans because of the Omicron variant. Only one in three are planning on skipping indoor dining due to the new threat.

Now I heard this in the play devil's advocate here. We don't know that Omicron is more dangerous. Is it really wrong that so few folks are planning on changing their plans or their behavior?

COHEN: You know, Jake, that's a great question. And I think the answer is it's not really so much about whether or not you travel, it's about the precautions that you take. So let's go through what those precautions are.

First of all, the CDC is clear. If you are not vaccinated, you should not be traveling. It is not safe for you, it is not safe for other people. And when you do travel, you need to wear a mask whether it's at the airport or on a train or in an airplane and also protect immune compromised family members.

I think we we forget about this group way too much, folks with cancer, other people. Protect them. Make sure that you're wearing a mask around them. Take other precautions with them. They're very vulnerable.

TAPPER: All right, Elizabeth Cohen, thanks so much.

Jussie Smollett, the actor accused of staging a hate crime against himself was on the stand again today, where things got a little tense. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our national lead, the defense has now wrapped its case and testimony has concluded in the trial of actor Jussie Smollett. The former "Empire" actor faced tough questions from prosecutors today, as he attempted to dispute the accusations that he staged a fake hate crime against himself and then lied to Chicago police about it.

CNN's Sara Sidner joins us now live from outside the courtroom. And Sara, things got pretty tense between Smollett and the prosecutor during cross examination today. What happened?

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You got that right, Jake. You know, yesterday Smollett was on the stand. This is a second day on the stand. Yesterday, he kind of spilled a lot of his personal and intimate details. Today, it was fireworks, as you might imagine in the courtroom because the prosecutor was cross examining him.

Now, as you know, Smollett is facing six counts for disorderly conduct for allegedly planning and participating in his own fake hate crime and then saying it was perpetrated by Trump's supporters and then lying to police. Those are the allegations against him which he has repeatedly refuted saying that he is innocent of the charges.


Now, Smollett said it was his former trainer and his trainer's brother, the Osundairos, who were the liars and he said that again in court today. Now, he -- the prosecutor was trying to, as prosecutors do, find inconsistencies in his story and make those very clear to the jury. And here's how he did it in one instance. He talked about what the Osundairos testified under oath that the Osundairo brothers said that, yes, indeed, it was just Smollett who planned this and that they were simply carrying out an attack that they were paid for.

The prosecutors focused in -- on this particular inconsistency. It has to do with that noose. We all saw that video, when police came in of the noose around Jussie Smollett neck the night that he said he was attacked. The prosecutor said, why did you or did you take this noose off and then put it back on so that you could dishevel the noose to make it look like there was a potential lynching that night?

And Smollett answered him, yes, I did take the noose off. And I put it aside, and then put it back on when police arrived, because I was told by one of my colleagues that I needed to preserve the evidence. So prosecutors then said to him, well, then how do you explain this particular thing that you told ABC's Good Morning, America?


JUSSIE SMOLLETT, ACTOR: So when the police came, I kept the clothes on. I kept the rope.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you had the rope on the entire time --

SMOLLETT: I mean, it wasn't like wrapped around. But yes, it was around because I wanted them to see, I wanted them to see what this was.


SIDNER: He simply acknowledged that he did say that in the interview, but it was inconsistent with what he said on the stand. And the prosecutors said that was an inconsistency he could not explain. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Sara Sidner, thanks so much.

The progressive push the change, the Supreme Court is getting more attention today. The bipartisan commission established by President Biden to look at reforming the Supreme Court unanimously voted to adopt its final recommendations this afternoon. But progressive Democrats might be a bit disappointed. A draft of the report shows intense disagreement over the idea of adding more seats to the High Court.

CNN's Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic joins us now. And Joan, the draft of this report is nearly 300 pages long. What are the main things we should be paying attention to here? JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SUPREME COURT ANALYST: OK. On the court expansion question, which is exactly why this commission was even set up because this is President Biden's compromise. You have a commission rather than say he supported court expansion or what some people call court packing, profound disagreement on that one, essentially a nonstarter their term limits.

So, there was some bipartisan support for term limits, for example, like 18 year terms, but that's a really practical problem for them. How would they roll them out? And also there's a constitutional problem.

TAPPER: Yes, you have to amend the Constitution.

BISKUPIC: Yes, the Constitution says that a justice is appointed for life conserved for good behavior, and the only time the -- a justice could be removed is through impeachment. So, you know, exactly how would people cycle -- how would justices cycle in and out? So those were the two big ones.

But then the panel also looked at things like court transparency, recusals, when the justices might have a conflict of interest and not tell anyone anything. So, you know, even though they couldn't even agree on whether there's a legitimacy problem with the Supreme Court right now, they put a lot of issues on the table on those 300 pages.

TAPPER: Do we know why the commission doesn't seem to be making any concrete recommendations?

BISKUPIC: Well, it says that wasn't part of its charge. And as you probably remember, Jake, when President Biden set it up, he initially said he was going to ask for recommendations. But then in April, when the Commission was established, then 36 members, they finished with 34 members, their charge was not to make recommendations. And I think that's because they weren't going to be able to make recommendations, frankly.

TAPPER: And the report was put together by a commission of legal experts appointed by --


TAPPER: -- President Biden.


TAPPER: What's the real world impact of their conclusions do you think?

BISKUPIC: Well, to do anything really big and substantive, you'd need Congress and the President. There's no real buy in from Joe Biden to change things, or from a majority in Congress. But, Jake, you know who this could change slightly? Are nine people on the Supreme Court.

They could look at this and -- look at some of the issues that have been raised about mysterious late night orders, lack of transparency on issues, and they could actually, maybe start addressing those things internally. For example, one issue that was raised was the fact that the justices do not abide by an ethics code, at least formally that lower court judges have. And they might internally start to think about actually having an ethics code that is at least as formalized for them.

TAPPER: Joan Biskupic, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

Coming up, dozens killed, houses buried under ash. Thousands of innocent people displaced after a massive volcano eruption. That's next.



TAPPER: In our world lead, rescue workers in Indonesia continue to dig through thick layers of hot ash after a volcanic eruption on Saturday left dozens of people dead and thousands homeless. Let's get straight to CNN's Paula Hancocks. Paula, are rescuers still finding survivors at this point?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they were for the first couple of days. We're really not hearing about that so much anymore. And everything is working against the search and rescue team at this point. There is very bad weather.


Strong winds and heavy rain and, of course, the volcano did erupt once again on Tuesday which had to suspend those efforts. And that mixed with heavy rain has officials worried that they could see new rivers of hot lava. Now at this point, we know that at least 34 people have been confirmed dead. There are dozens though still missing.

And search and rescue teams are not giving up. They are still trying to dig through the thick layers of ash and debris. That ash though is now starting to harden. So it is making it more difficult.

We know also that a Key Bridge was taken out, just hampered the efforts. But when you look at some of these images, Jake, coming, you can see the hardened dash reaches to the rooftops in some of these neighboring villages. We've heard from survivors who were trapped in their homes, but were then able to come out.

Unfortunately, we've also heard from officials of those in vehicles that were unable to get out. There was just no chance of escape as this happened also quickly. Other survivors as well talk of having to run through hot ash and lava to get to safety.

Now many of the injuries we are hearing about in keeping with what you would expect from a volcano are of burns. But at this point, the search and rescue teams are simply not giving up, even though they do have to continue to suspend their efforts. Now the issue with this was the fact that it was so unexpected. It is one of the more active volcanoes in Indonesia. But it simply wasn't predicted which did not give many a chance to evacuate.

Now at this point, we know thousands have been displaced. We know thousands of homes have been destroyed. Dozens of schools have been destroyed. Indonesia's President Joko Widodo is touring the area to see what the government to do -- could do to try and help. But at this point, it is still very much a search and rescue operation.

But officials do point out that there are many dangers for those teams trying to find survivors. And quite often, they do have to suspend their efforts. Jake?

TAPPER: All right. Paula Hancocks, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up next, how some World War II veterans are marking today's 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Stay with us.



TAPPER: ADF (ph), anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than a quarter of a million U.S. World War II veterans are still alive out of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II. As CNN's Pete Muntean reports for us now, every passing anniversary of the date which will live in infamy, grows more and more important.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a heroes send off eight decades in the making. Jack Holder was enlisted in the Navy as a machinist. Frank Edmund was a Navy musician. David Russell was on the USS Oklahoma, and 101 year old Cass Phillips.


MUNTEAN (voice-over): Was a radio man on a flying boat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That the Japanese that attacked Pearl Harbor.

MUNTEAN (voice-over): When Japanese fighters and bombers started their attack on Pearl Harbor. They are among 63 World War II veterans boarding this American Airlines flight to Hawaii.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pearl Harbor means a lot.

MUNTEAN (voice-over): This is an all-volunteer mission that organizers say is critical when they started planning four more Pearl Harbor veterans were supposed to be on board.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to get you out here.

MUNTEAN (voice-over): 97-year-old Walter Lebetsky flew large transport plans in the Pacific Theater.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is it. MUNTEAN (voice-over): Now his daughter is flying him to Hawaii.

NANCY WUDTKE, AMERICAN AIRLINES FIRST OFFICER: I can't even -- I don't have words for it because it's just such an honor and never in my wildest dreams would I think that I would be doing this.

MUNTEAN (voice-over): In Hawaii, they paid homage to the sunken USS Arizona, where more than 1,000 sailors remain in tomb. 101-year-old Ira Shabh watch the attack in horror from the nearby USS Dobbin.

IRA SCHAB, PEARL HARBOR SURVIVOR, U.S. NAVY (RET.): It's hard to say what the feelings that run through your mind are. You're scared. You don't know what's going to happen next.

MUNTEAN (voice-over): A GoFundMe for his visit to Pearl Harbor exceeded its goal by more than $6,000. One more member of the greatest generation grateful to see this 80th anniversary.

SCHAB: Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. It was very generous, and unexpected and very kind. And I am forever grateful.


MUNTEAN: The President and the First Lady commemorated the day by visiting the World War II Memorial here. They laid flowers in honor of her father who was a Navy signalman in World War II.

By the way, Jake, that trip from Hawaii returns on Thursday, and time is of the essence to honor these veterans. The youngest in that group is 93 years old. 12 of them are over 100. Jake?

TAPPER: Pete Muntean, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Before we go, it is that time of the year when the stars come out to honor some of humanity's best. Now, more than ever, the world needs heroes. This weekend, please join Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa live as they named the 2021 Hero of the Year. It's the 15th Annual CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute. That's Sunday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok at JakeTapper. You can tweet the show at TheLeadCNN. If you ever miss an episode of THE LEAD, you can listen to THE LEAD wherever you get your podcasts.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.