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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Potter Guilty On All Counts In Fatal Shooting Of Daunte Wright; Early Studies: Risk Of Severe Illness Lower With Omicron Versus Delta; Biden Defends Pandemic Response As Omicron Surges Nationwide; Trump Files Supreme Court Appeal To Block Records Release; Putin Blames The West For Russia-Ukraine Border Tensions. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Jim Sciutto in again today.

Guilty on both counts.

THE LEAD starts right now.

A jury finds former Police Officer Kim Potter guilty of two counts of manslaughter in the killing of Daunte Wright. Prison time she is now facing.

Plus, omicron may be spoiling some holiday gatherings but there is a lot of good news. A new COVID fighting pill as well as positive signs about the threat from omicron.

President Trump takes his case once again to the highest court in the land, a look at the push to have the Supreme Court keep his White House records secret.


SCIUTTO: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news, former Minnesota Police Officer Kim Potter found guilty of manslaughter after roughly 27 hours of jury deliberations. Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last April. She mistook her firearm for a Taser. It was all caught on body cam video.


KIM POTTER, FORMER POLICE OFFICER: I'll tase you. Taser! Taser! Taser!

I shot him! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!


SCIUTTO: So chilling to see those images. Potter's sentencing is scheduled for February. Since she has no criminal history, the state of Minnesota's guidelines recommend a sentence between six to eight and a half years in prison and/or a $30,000 fine.

She is unlikely to face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

CNN's Omar Jimenez is following the case since earlier this year and joins us live from Minneapolis. Omar, I wonder how did Kim Potter respond to hearing this verdict?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, Kim Potter, when this verdict was read, was very calm, did not show much emotion as this jury or the judge went through these verdicts. In this courtroom though when the first verdict was read that she was guilty of manslaughter, Katy Bryant, that's Daunte Wright's mother, burst into tears as Wright's father began to comfort her. As things moved forward you can imagine the emotions are already there, but after Kim Potter was taken into custody, we heard a loud "I love you" from her husband. She shouted, "I love you back" and she was taken out as she is going to be held without bail until her sentencing next month.

The mother of Daunte Wright continued to cry but now embraced by the prosecutors. We just heard from her a few moments ago as she walked away. She simply said they had been ask the asking for accountability from the beginning and that is what they got today, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yeah, the defense asked if she could be allowed to go home awaiting sentencing and the judge rejected that.

We heard a short time ago from the prosecution as well as Daunte Wright's family. They were there. It was a tense, heartbreaking moment for them. What was their reaction?

JIMENEZ: Well, at the end of the day as much legal accountability that we saw here, their bottom line is they won't have Daunte Wright home for the holidays.

Keith Ellison, the attorney general here in Minnesota, painted a bottom line saying Kim Potter while incarcerated can correspond with her family. Daunte Wright can't.

I want you to hear from Katy Bryant, Daunte Wright's mother, with her reaction right after the verdict was read.


KATIE BRYANT, MOTHER OF DAUNTE WRIGHT: Oh, my gosh. The moment that we heard guilty on the manslaughter one, emotions, every single emotion you could imagine just running through your body at that moment. I kind of let out a yelp because it was built up and the anticipation of what was to come while we were waiting the last few days. And now, we've been able to process it.

KEITH ELLISON, MINNESOTA ATTORNEY GENERAL: My thoughts are also with those who work in law enforcement and public safety. We hold you in high regard and we also hold you to high standards. We don't want you to be discouraged. Your community respects and appreciates you. We want you to uphold the highest ideals of our society and ideals of safety. (END VIDEO CLIP)

JIMENEZ: And this, of course, is the second high profile conviction of a Minneapolis area police officer or former police officer that we've seen.


Of course, back in April, it was Derek Chauvin that was convicted in the murder of George Floyd.

And Ellison was asked about that. What kind of message does this send? He said it was clear that juries here hold high standards for police officers and that's the message he wants to be especially resonant when people look back at both of these cases that happened over the course of this year.

Remember, the Daunte Wright shooting happened in the middle of the Chauvin trial. One statement to encapsulate the emotion this family is feeling. Katie Bryant said that the number 23 was Daunte Wright's favorite number and here he is getting justice on December 23rd -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Indeed. Omar Jimenez in Minneapolis, thanks so much.

Joining us now to discuss the implications of this for police, retired Los Angeles Police Sergeant Cheryl Dorsey and defense attorney, Caroline Polisi.

Carolyn, I'll begin with you. You spent a lot of time in the courtroom. Were you surprised by guilty verdicts on both first and second-degree manslaughter here?

CAROLINE POLISI, FEDERAL AND WHITE COLLAR CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: So, Jim, I was surprised frankly not because I think the jurors got it wrong on the law but because honestly this is, has been traditionally the type of prosecution that has been difficult for prosecutors to get a guilty verdict on. It is just the truth.

And so I think here you saw the state AG have to go back when this was originally indicted and add the top charge of the first degree manslaughter. This case was hard. Nobody was arguing that Kim Potter intentionally did this act. And so I think that there is a real difference here between as you were just noting say the Derek Chauvin trial.

Kimberly Potter's case was much different. I think that it is true that the bigger picture here shows that jurors are willing to hold police officers accountable even in the context where it was a mistake.

SCIUTTO: Yes, notable.

Sergeant Dorsey, I wonder, in your experience are police departments or police commanders around the country looking at the results not just of this case but the Derek Chauvin case, again, very different circumstances but two cases where juries held police officers criminally responsible, in ways that juries always, haven't always have, right? I wonder, do you see police departments looking at this, watching and listening?

CHERYL DORSEY, RETIRED LAPD POLICE SERGEANT: This should certainly give them pause. But whenever there is an incident, you know, police departments typically -- I mean what we do is debrief. This trial is no different. You want to look at what the officers could do differently going forward. What do we need to do in terms of changing policy and procedures so we don't have another incident like this? And so, while I am surprised, I thought the jury was going to hang on this, I am glad they came to the verdict that they did. I think it was the right verdict. And now, we'll have to wait and see what happens with sentencing.

SCIUTTO: You raise an issue, Sergeant Dorsey, which goes to policies, right? These are individual trials. It is policies that affect the broader behavior of officers of the law. I wonder, Sergeant Dorsey, if we could step back a moment to remember why Daunte Wright was stopped. He was stopped because he had one of those Christmas tree shaped air fresheners on the rear view mirror which is against the law locally because it might distract the driver.

But, you know, yet another case and it is not the first time we've seen this of a traffic stop for something not violent that leads to a violent encounter.

Do police, Sergeant Dorsey, have to look at those policies for when and how they stop people?

DORSEY: Well, we have great deference and autonomy in terms of traffic stops. While that is a violation, it is here in California, you heard the term pretext stop, the little tiki tack Mickey Mouse things that give an officer a reason to stop a particular individual, somebody who generally looks like me when you wouldn't ordinarily stop someone. And so, we have a young man who lost his life because he was driving in a car that they thought wasn't registered, maybe wasn't, and had an air freshener hanging from his rear view mirror.

And to say it was his fault because he didn't comply and tried to run, they knew who he was. They had run his license plate. They could have followed up at his house.

This wasn't even a misdemeanor. This was an infraction. It should never have occurred.

SCIUTTO: Yeah, you made that point before on the air. I remember. Saying they knew where he was. It didn't have to happen that moment.

Caroline, sentencing is going to happen in mid February. In Minnesota, we know the maximums here but we have to take it into account the individual person here. If the person has no previous criminal history guidance is six to eight and a half years I believe. When you look at the sentencing guidelines do you have a sense of where this might go in terms of the total sentence? POLISI: So, you're right. The judge will be bound by those guidelines

and based off of certain characteristics of the defendant here. Ms. Potter has no previous offense so is in a criminal history category that puts her in the lower level.


But, you know, Jim, we did hear the prosecution say they were going to argue for aggravating factors which essentially means they are going to be arguing for a longer sentence than typically would be seen in this type of case. Some of those aggravating factors include we saw in that body camera footage, you know, Kim Potter immediately after she discharged her weapon did not seek to render aid. Instead she sort of stepped back and really monopolized the other two officers at the scene with her own remorse and guilt and, certainly, that remorse and guilt will be used by the defense saying that should be a mitigating factor. But I think the prosecutors have a point here that she had a chance to render aid and she didn't do it.

SCIUTTO: Yeah, it's remarkable. I wonder, when we look again at other issues connected to this case, it is a training issue, right? Here is someone who served on the force for many years. Sergeant Dorsey who mistook a firearm for a Taser.

By the way, they are built to be different, right? Different colors. Worn on different sides of the body consistently. Different weights.

Does this get to a training issue as well do you think?

DORSEY: Listen, I don't buy the whole "I didn't know what I had in my hand" for a minute. Listen, we train and we practice looking, down the barrel of a gun so we line up our sites. In the four or five seconds that she's yelling, "Taser, Taser, Taser," she is looking down the barrel of that gun as we are trained to do as she has done for 26 years like I did for 20.

And to think that she looked down that barrel of that gun and didn't realize it wasn't yellow, it wasn't a Taser, the weight was different, and then fired it anyway, is really inconceivable.

SCIUTTO: One other issue. This had been a question, Caroline, was the testimony on the stand in her own defense in effect throwing herself on the jury saying I am deeply remorseful, crying on the stand. But legally the trouble was in effect confirming there was negligence involved which is the standard for the first and second-degree manslaughter charges.

I wonder in retrospect, was that a mistake by the defense?

POLISI: Well, that is exactly right. One of the real difficulties in this case has always been, you know, there is a difference between the law and sort of your heart here. I don't think people don't believe Kim Potter that she is remorseful. Clearly, you know, we saw what's known in the law as in-excited utterance right after she fired she said something to the effect of "oh, my gosh, I'm going to prison. I shot him." So, clearly, there is an acceptance of guilt. There was no -- nobody

is trying to say here that this wasn't a mistake which is why I think, you know, it sort of -- a first impression for jurors to be able to put that aside and understand that yes, this woman is remorseful but nonetheless she handled her firearm recklessly with a degree of criminal negligence.

SCIUTTO: Yeah. it's a deadly weapon, as we saw.

Caroline Polisi, Sergeant Dorsey, thanks so much to both of you.

DORSEY: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next this hour, some good signs when it comes to severity of the omicron variant. Just as the FDA has given the okay to yet another COVID fighting pill.

Plus, Vladimir Putin's new warning about those troops near Ukraine, Russian troops by the way. Also he opens up about something that perked the ears at the Pentagon.



SCIUTTO: In the health lead, good news/bad news scenario for the highly contagious omicron variant.

First, the good news, and there's lots of it. Two new studies back up milder cases caused by the new strain but there is bad news. Omicron does spread very easily. Therefore it is driving up the count of new infections nationwide up 36 percent in a week. In New York City alone today, people waited for hours in freezing cold temperatures to find out if they are infected to get those precious tests.

Experts say boosters and vaccines are the best protection against omicron. The guidance has not changed. Only 30 percent of those fully vaccinated or boosted.

And today, two days before Christmas, a welcome gift to prevent severe illness.

CNN's Athena Jones with more on what is now the second antiviral pill authorized by the FDA in the last two days.


ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Omicron is now confirmed in all 50 states but there is good news. Three early studies how adding to the evidence it may be less likely to cause severe disease. Still, experts warn it is too early to say for sure.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY & INFECTIOUS DISEASES: It's dangerous business to be able to rely on what you perceive as a lower degree of severity. JONES: Doctors fear even if omicron is milder than delta, the huge

spike in case numbers, particularly among the unvaccinated, could still strain hospitals in some places like Cleveland, Ohio.

DR. HASSAN KHOULI, CHAIR, DEPT. OF CRITICAL CARE MEDICINE, CLEVELAND CLINIC: We are overwhelmed. Our ICUs, our hospitals are overwhelmed.

JONES: The Cleveland Clinic recently joining five area hospital systems pleading with residents in this ad to get vaccinated.

KHOULI: Our emergency rooms are really being over crowded because of the recent surge we have seen with COVID-19 hospitalizations. And this is preventable. This is what is important.

JONES: But the hospital picture nationwide appears more promising. Doctors are applauding the FDA's decision today granting emergency use authorization to a second antiviral pill, this one from Merck, that people can take at home, adding another COVID fighting weapon to the nation's armory.

DR. NGOZI EZIKE, DIRECTOR, ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Being able to have something oral is so easy. Easier than giving an IV infusion that you can get before you get to the hospital. That will help decompress the hospitals and save lives.

JONES: So far, while new daily cases average nearly 165,000, 36 percent higher than a week ago, and nearly as high as the mid- September peak of the delta surge, hospitalizations and deaths remain well below their peaks during delta.


Washington, D.C. and New York state each setting single day records for new COVID cases this week. But New York's governor says the hospitalization rate is only two-thirds what it was this time last year.

GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D), NEW YORK: We're not panicking. We have the resources we need.

JONES: The state's high vaccination rate may be helping to keep those numbers down. As experts continue to stress getting vaccinated and boosted is the best way to fight the latest COVID threat.

KHOULI: Ninety plus percent of the patients we see in our intensive care units are unvaccinated. You know? Among mechanically ventilated patients, the sickest one, the number is even slightly higher. It is close to 92 percent are actually unvaccinated. We know vaccines are the way to do it.


JONES (on camera): And here in New York city, Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing a scaled down New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square. Fewer people, about 15,000, instead of nearly 60,000 to allow for social distancing with revelers required to show proof of vaccination and photo ID and they must wear masks.

SCIUTTO: The show is still going on. Athena Jones, thanks so much.

Let's speak now to Dr. Chris Pernell. She's a public health physician in New Jersey.

Good to have you, Dr. Pernell.

So the data is increasingly positive, right? On the seriousness of the illness that omicron causes. It tends to in South Africa, Israel, the U.K. and what we've seen here early on not to cause as severe illness as previous variants. How should folks at home still planning to travel for the holidays take this? What should they do with this information?

Because the president is saying keep your plans. What do you say to them as doctor and how should they protect themselves?

DR. CHRIS PERNELL, PUBLIC HEALTH PHYSICIAIN: Hi, Jim. Thanks for that. What I tell people is you want to know whether or not you are going to be traveling with people who have vulnerabilities. Are you traveling with people who are elderly or visiting people who are elderly? Those with chronic health conditions? And do people have any active symptoms that could be consistent with the coronavirus infection?

That is going to change your risk profile differently. Are you vaccinated and boosted? If you're vaccinated and boosted you are more likely to be able to travel without as many concerns as someone who is unvaccinated. If you're unvaccinated, I don't recommend that you travel or mix households.

SCIUTTO: Yeah. That is what we hear from the president, from Dr. Fauci, et cetera. As a doctor, though, you have to deal with this. You're on the front lines. And you see how many ICUs, etcetera, are still overwhelmed. There are a lot of vaccinated people getting very sick.

Are you sensing some relief, though, based on the early data on omicron in terms of how bad this surge is going to be?

PERNELL: I wouldn't say I would describe it as relief yet, Jim. I say we are still vigilant especially those of us in health care because we are actually dealing with multiple surges. We are dealing with a non- COVID surge. Our hospitals are full with patients who delayed care for months because of the pandemic.

We're still dealing with a delta surge which led to such peak hospitalizations and deaths. And now, we have this explosive omicron variant. While omicron may cause milder disease in those vaccinated and boosted and have natural immunity for the unvaccinated the data is not so conclusive.

SCIUTTO: Understood.

OK, in the midst of this folks just can't get tests. There is a regional disparate. In places like New York and D.C. people want to be tested. Other places, they're not bothering.

But in places where people want to get tested, they're having trouble getting those tests. You've seen the long lines here.

How does the testing crush impact the ability to respond to this surge and to follow the advice you're giving to know who you're hanging out with, right, know if they're positive?

PERNELL: Look, testing is a rate limiting step. If we don't have ready access to tests where people can get responses and results within 24 hours, the public health tool is not being leveraged to contain spread and have those isolate who may need to. We need to do more having rapid tests available. I welcome the White House saying in January families who would like tests are able to ask for them through a website.

What about now? What about these weeks where omicron is exponentially growing? We need to do something about that. Our public health response system has to be advanced and make light speed better than it is today.

SCIUTTO: Okay. On the good news side as well, we now have two pills in the span of 24 hours that have been authorized, one by Merck and one by Pfizer. Basically a pill you can take home if you're infected that shows extremely high efficacy in keeping folks out of the hospital, which helps on a couple fronts, one, folks don't get really sick but, also, helps hospitals from being overwhelmed.


How big a deal are these authorizations?

PERNELL: It's a big deal. Whenever we can add solid tools to the tool chest, it's a big deal. But you got to remember these would pills while they are oral antivirals, you take them early in your course of infection so within three to five days. Pfizer's pill has a considerable edge over the Merck pill because it's a higher efficacy rate, around 90 percent at preventing hospitalization or death, the Merck pill around 30 percent.

But there are drug-to-drug interactions with both of these pills and there are some concerns with the Merck pill around those who are younger. It could impair bone cartilage and growth and as well as those who are pregnant or those who are reproductive age.

So a physician does have more tools but we have to decide what is the best fit for the person sitting or standing in front of them.

SCIUTTO: Okay. Booster -- vaccination, boosters, you said it, everybody says it. Data shows it. It saves lives. It is the way forward particularly with omicron.

And yet today it is just about one-third of the fully vaccinated in the country who have taken advantage of boosters. 30.8 percent. You've dealt with a lot of patients and I imagine with vaccine hesitant patients. How do you break through to them? How does the country break through?

PERNELL: You stay persistent. I talk about the efficacy and safety of vaccines and boosters on a daily basis, whether that is in a health care setting or on my phone or through text. Whenever you get those victories, those victories loom large. When you get the text from a person or family member like I did today, hey, my daughter went out and got her first dose. She had been adamant she would not get vaccinated.

It works dealing with people's fears and concerns and remaining consistent in your message. Don't say what you don't know with certainty. And help people to dissect the misinformation and disinformation that they've likely heard that is contributing to their lack of confidence. We can overwhelm people with truth by doing it with empathy.

SCIUTTO: I hear you. I wish you luck. Dr. Chris Pernell, I hope you get a break over the holidays.

PERNELL: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: President Biden admits that nothing has been good enough to stop the virus but his administration is considering now a new move. Tell you what that is. That's coming up.



SCIUTTO: Topping our politics lead, the nationwide scramble to find COVID tests before Christmas and the White House ramble to explain the shortage. This is a line of cars waiting to get a test in central Florida.

In Washington, D.C. where infections are now at an all time high, residents waited for hours in the cold at local libraries to collect free at-home tests which were sold out in many local stores and pharmacies.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond reports that critics say President Biden's promise to ship out half a billion tests to Americans is too little and a little late.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: How did we get it wrong? Nobody saw it coming, nobody in the whole world.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A new tidal wave of COVID cases has Americans scrambling for tests before the holidays and President Biden on defense.

BIDEN: No, I don't think it is a failure. I think you could argue that we should have known a year ago, six months ago, two months ago, a month ago. Nothing has been good enough. Good afternoon.

DIAMOND (voice-over): Days after his administration announced plans to purchase and ship 500 million at home tests to Americans, the president acknowledging he wishes he had thought about ordering half a billion test kits two months ago. Now, the tests he called for earlier this week won't be in Americans' hands until at least next month, after the holiday season.

It is the president who said he wishes he had thought of this idea two month ago. So why did nobody think of this? Did the president miss the mark here?

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president and the team did take steps to increase capacity. Of course, if there would have been 500 billion tests and we'd have known there were these very transmissible variants, that's one thing. But the president knew that we needed to increase testing capacity.

DIAMOND: As for whether the U.S. will follow Israel's lead and green light a second booster shot for some --

BIDEN: I listened to the scientists. And I'm sure the scientists are paying very close attention to that. There may be a need for another booster but that remains to be seen.

DIAMOND: So it remains a possibility.

BIDEN: It remains a possibility.

DIAMOND: Biden has another new year's resolution, turning his broader domestic agenda into law despite Senator Joe Manchin voicing opposition.

BIDEN: I still think we'll be able to get a significant amount of what we need to get done done particularly as the American people figure out what is in this legislation. It is extremely consequential.


DIAMOND (on camera): And President Biden also offering his most direct support yet for reforming the filibuster to create a carve out for voting rights legislation allowing it to pass by a simple majority, but the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki making very clear the White House knows they don't have the votes right now to reform those Senate rules and also made clear the president sees this as a last resort when he said if it is the only thing standing between voting rights getting done then he would support that reform -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Hadn't offered an alternative either.

Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thank you.

Also in our politics lead, former President Donald Trump's fight to keep his White House records away from the January 6 select committee has reached the Supreme Court. CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider has been following.

So Trump doesn't have a great track record in court, every effort to block the release of these records. Any expectation it's different this time?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It could be, Jim. You know, this is solely in the hands of the Supreme Court to decide how to proceed despite lower courts saying Trump's arguments were weak here. And Trump's legal team, they're asking for two things specifically. They want the justice to take up the case and schedule arguments since Trump's lawyers argue this case raises novel issues of executive privilege, mostly how much weight a former president has to assert privilege.

But more importantly and more pressing for the former president, his lawyers are also asking the justices to keep any turnover of the documents on hold while they decide whether to take up the full case. So, specifically, their filing says this. The limited interest the committee may have in immediately obtaining the requested records pales in comparison to President Trump's interest in securing judicial review before he suffers irreparable harm.

Now, Trump's legal team have been successful so far for blocking hundreds of documents from being handed over to the committee, despite losing at both lower courts. And these records, they would really be key for the committee to find out what Trump was doing on and leading up to January 6th because these records include handwritten notes from his then chief of staff Mark Meadows, also drafts of speeches, visitor and call logs from the White House, all of it Trump wants kept secret.

Of course, the current President Joe Biden, he said he will not block the documents. So far, Jim, the two courts below have said he gets to make the decision not Trump. So we'll see if the Supreme Court takes up this case and if they block those documents in the meantime -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, how quickly could the Supreme Court move on this?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they could move quickly but the point is they don't actually have to because these court documents will remain blocked until the Supreme Court acts here. Now, their next conference is actually scheduled for the last or first week, end of the first week in January.

That's when they could decide whether to take up this case. But they probably will move pretty quickly once we get into January because they must know that time is of the essence here. These documents are key to the House investigation which they're ramping up in coming months.

SCIUTTO: And a delay you could argue would be a win for the Trump --

SCHNEIDER: Yeah, it already has been.

SCIUTTO: Jessica Schneider, thanks so much. Coming up next a CNN exclusive. U.S. ally Saudi Arabia actively making

its own ballistic missiles now and with the help of the adversary, the U.S. and Defense Department cite as America's biggest adversary.



SCIUTTO: In our world lead, this afternoon, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki flatly rejected what she calls the bellicose rhetoric from Russia's Vladimir Putin earlier today. During his end of year news conference, Putin repeatedly blamed the West for the crisis along Russia's border with Ukraine.

Psaki insisted the aggression is Russia's alarming military buildup there along the border.

CNN's Melissa Bell, she's live in Moscow.

I wonder as you listen to those words from Putin and others did, it sounded like he is making the case for war, right? The administration here is talking about diplomatic off ramps. Not sure I heard welcoming words for those from the Russian president.

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. Beyond the aggressive words toward NATO and that laying of blame at NATO's feet, you are quite right. In many ways, Vladimir Putin sounded like he was making the case for why an intervention might be needed at some point, talking about the historical need to protect the Russian speaking parts of Ukraine from what he said he believed, his impression was that an aggression, intervention might being planned by Ukraine itself.

But, of course, the harshest words of all for NATO, for the United States, and really what we're talking about is one reality, two completely different readings of it, with each side blaming the other for being responsible for the rise in tensions, each side saying they are prepared to go in if need be against the other.

And, really, Vladimir Putin even though afterwards we heard from the White House secretary saying NATO is not an offensive organization. This is about defense. That is not the way Vladimir Putin sees it. Have a listen.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): How would the Americans react if we placed our missiles on the border between Canada and the United States? Or on the Mexican border? Not a single inch to the East they told us in the '90s.

And what do you know? They cheated. They deceived us blatantly. Five waves of NATO expansion. And there you go. Now in Romania and Poland, weapons systems appear.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BELL: That gives you an idea of the level of distrust Vladimir Putin has toward NATO. The only thing the two sides seem to agree on at this stage is that talks should happen in January. The basis of them, what might come of them, more unclear perhaps even than it was after the nearly four hours of press conference from Vladimir Putin.

SCIUTTO: Of course, one thing that Putin ignored in his comments there is it is Russia that's actually taking territory over in Europe in recent years, in Georgia, and in Ukraine. Look at Crimea.

I wonder, do we know what would be on the agenda of any such talks?


Because Russia is making demands that the U.S. calls nonstarters. What is the room here for discussion? They spoke via video conference a few days ago.

BELL: That's right. The more talk there is the more rhetoric comes out, the less idea, the less sense there is any room for negotiation. He said so today. Vladimir Putin saying that he was asked directly, Jim, will you invade Ukraine? His reply, it will not be a function of those discussions or negotiations. It will actually be all about whether or not the West, the United States, NATO, accept those demands that NATO announced, decide, that it will not expand east ward. That is not going to happen. Very difficult to see what will come out of the talks at all.

SCIUTTO: Yeah, if that's the deal breaker for them.

Melissa Bell in Moscow, take care.

Putin also spoke about working with China to develop high precision weaponry. This turns out to be just part of China's push to spread its military influence around the world.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann has an exclusive look at how the Chinese apparently are helping a key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, develop ballistic missiles.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: A building arms race in the Middle East with Chinese fingerprints.

These satellite images show the Al Dawadmi site in central Saudi Arabia where U.S. intelligence officials say Riyadh is building its own ballistic missiles. Unable to get U.S. help on developing the weapons, the Saudis have turned to China. U.S. officials across multiple agencies have been briefed on classified Intel, revealing multiple, large scale transfers of sensitive ballistic missile tech from Beijing to Riyadh, two sources tell CNN. The used burn pit for rocket fuel a clue the Saudis are at work.

China's foreign ministry called the two countries comprehensive strategic partners telling CNN in a statement, such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This comes as the Biden administration is trying to negotiate a return to the nuclear deal with Iran, a bitter, regional rival of the Saudis. Iran has already taken a hard line approach to the talks and has refused to talk about limits on its own ballistics missiles. Proliferation of ballistic missiles in an already unstable region threatens to trigger a Middle East arms race where just about any outcome is dangerous.

DR. JEFFREY LEWIS, DIRECTOR, MIDDLEBURY INSTITUTE EAST ASIA NONPROLIFERATION PROJECT: We're seeing all of this really fancy military technology showing up in the region and we don't have in place any of the kind of institutions or security norms that you'd like to see to prevent it from getting used.

LIEBERMANN: As the Saudis are apparently working quietly with the Chinese, the Russians are boasting about their relationship with Beijing. President Vladimir Putin telling journalists at his year end presser about all the areas the two work together.

PUTIN (through translator): The Chinese army is equipped with the most advanced weapons systems. We even developed some high tech weapons together. We are collaborating in the fields of space technologies, aviation, planes, and helicopters.


LIEBERMANN: Credit to my colleague Zachary Cohen, the reporting there about Saudi Arabia and China. You see this dynamic playing out in other fields as well such as the diplomatic front. The U.S., for example, will boycott diplomatically that is the upcoming Winter Olympics in China. Meanwhile, the Russian president Vladimir Putin says he is looking forward to meeting face to face with China's president -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: More and more cooperation between Russia and China. Thanks so much.

Coming up next, the tough decision so many families are now facing. Whether to gather with loved ones this weekend even as COVID spreads. How can they do it safely?



SCIUTTO: There's been a painful reality for many Americans. That is COVID forcing them to cancel holiday travel plans or personal plans. In some cases plans to visit family they haven't seen in two years thanks to the pandemic.

Joining us now is Jasmine Maisonet who lives in Washington state. She and her fiance had to scrap their Christmas trip because of her positive COVID test.

And, Jasmine, I'm sorry to hear. I've got friends and colleagues in the same boat. It's tough. First, I want to ask you because you tested positive, how are you


JASMINE MAISONET, CANCELED HOLIDAY TRAVEL PLANS AFTER CATCHING COVID- 19: So I would say I'm lucky, definitely fortunate to have mild symptoms. I have a cough, bit of a headache, fatigue. But other than that I know there have been worse cases out there. Just receiving the news the only decision we could make is to stay home for the safety of everyone else.

SCIUTTO: I get it. I mean, listen, it's a responsible decision but, of course, you leave a lot of people disappointed. Tell us about making that decision. How did they react? Did they understand?

MAISONET: Yes, yes. Family was very understanding throughout the entire pandemic. We've had family calls every week which is really nice. Uplifting for my grandma who's dealing with my grandpa and his health issues that he's going through.

So, being able to have that support though we are not able to go in person is helpful to see us through every day being in quarantine.

SCIUTTO: You're in one of the places that actually was one of the first to experience the pandemic at all. Kirkland, suburb of Kirkland -- Seattle suburb in Washington state. You've seen this before. I wonder what it is like to be going through it so much later, months and a couple years since it all started.

MAISONET: Kind of funny because Carman (ph) and I, my fiance, were joking about we wish we could just go back to the beginning of the pandemic when everything was a good break from the mundane, every day life. Now that we are forced to be in it, kind of like okay, you kind of think about maybe there is a bigger reason why we're not supposed to travel right now.

There is. There is a pandemic happening.


MAISONET: Folks are not taking it as seriously, still wavering about the vaccine or getting the booster or whatnot.


It's -- it seems like an option until you are running out of options. This is the only thing that can for the most part guarantee --

SCIUTTO: Yeah, it is frustrating, right? Because the advice has been so consistent and strong throughout. Get vaccinated. Get boosted.

Listen, Jasmine, I hope you guys find a decent plan b to connect with folks over the holidays. And we do wish you a happy holidays.

MAISONET: Thank you very much. Yeah, we still have our zoom. We still have technology to get in contact with folks. It is just a little bit of a change but going with the flow. We're happy to still be healthy. SCIUTTO: Well, send our best as well.

MAISONET: And, Jim Sciutto, in again today for Jake Tapper.

Our coverage begins next with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."