Return to Transcripts main page

The Lead with Jake Tapper

2021 Ending With An Unprecedented Spike In New COVID Cases; The White House Searches For Path Forward On Build Back Better Plans; TV Icon Betty White Dead At 99; Putin Gives New Year Address After Tense Call With Biden; Thousands Evacuate As Fast-Moving Fires Burn Hundreds Of Homes In Colorado. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired December 31, 2021 - 16:00   ET




THE LEAD starts right now.

Medical experts are encouraging Americans to stay home tonight, hospitals are slammed and schools aren't sure how to reopen safely. Is the New Year looking too much like the last one?

Hundred-mile-per-hour winds spread flames across neighborhoods burning hundreds of homes in the blink of an eye. Now we may know what started the sudden fires in Colorado.

And thank you for being a friend. Beloved actress and American icon Betty White has passed away, just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.


COLLINS: And welcome to this special edition of THE LEAD. I'm Kaitlan Collins, in for Jake Tapper.

We start today with our health lead. A New Year and new records as the omicron variant explodes across the United States. But there is some encouraging news today out of South Africa where the omicron variant was first detected. South Africa now relaxing some of its COVID restrictions as cases and hospitalizations have sharply fallen off leading experts to believe that South Africa has already passed its peak of this horrible wave.

After seeing that data, Dr. Anthony Fauci now thinks cases in the United States could peak by the end of January.

CNN's Tom Foreman starts us off with a look at how states across the United States are calling out for help.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The federal government is deploying disaster assistance teams and ambulances to New York. New Year's Eve crowd in Times Square will be held to about a quarter of the usual. Masks and proof of vaccination required. All this as the city is once again an epicenter of the pandemic and statewide cases are up more than 80 percent since Monday.

ERIC ADAMS (D), NEW YORK MAYOR-ELECT: We must learn to live with COVID, adjust and pivot at the right times. And we're doing that in New York. I'm extremely optimistic on how the city is going to respond.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, CENTER OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE AND POLICY, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Clearly, New York and Washington, D.C., are ahead of the curve, but not by much. And so, expect in the next three to four weeks we'll expect everyone hit with this.

FOREMAN: The risk of New Year's Eve celebrations becoming coast to coast spreaders is for health experts terrifying.

DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, PROFESSOR, INFECTIOUS DISEASES, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA AT BIRMINGHAM: I'm really worried that we're going to be in for a tidal wave of admissions particularly for kids in the coming weeks.

FOREMAN: Hospitals in many places are already flooded with patients, even as nurses and doctors fall ill, prompting desperate measures. In New Hampshire, yet another federal medical team, the Department of Defense deploying around the country for months will arrive next week to help with the overload. In Oklahoma, the National Guard is barring unvaccinated members from joining in drills. In New Jersey, Princeton University will delay the return to class by one week. In Alabama, Auburn will require masks whether you're vaccinated or not, even as primary schools struggle to reopen amid hopes that masks, testing and more will keep the virus at bay.

MIGUEL CARDONA, EDUCATION SECRETARY: I think parents have had enough of school closures due to poor policies, so let's protect our students. Let's protect our staff. Let's keep our communities thriving.

FOREMAN: A glimmer of hope. Studies and reports on the omicron variant continue to suggest it may not be as lethal as delta, even as it spreads wildly.

DR. PAUL SAX, PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: These numbers are very, very striking. But nonetheless, I am optimistic that most people who get this infection will not become critically ill.


FOREMAN (on camera): That will not stop the giant rush happening on hospitals right now. In Texas, it's just become one of the latest states to request more federal help, more experts to come in and help with their caseload there. More treatments, more testing capabilities, more, more, more to deal with this where the numbers seem like they'll just get worse before they can get better -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Those are not the headlines everyone wanted to see as they're trying to ring in a New Year. But hopefully, that South African data will be promising.

Tom Foreman, thank you so much.

FOREMAN: You're welcome.

COLLINS: Here to discuss those headlines laid out by Tom is Dr. Peter Hotez. He is dean of school of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. He has on a lovely bow tie today.

Dr. Hotez, I want to start with you on today, what it means for so many people because we're just a few hours from ringing in the New Year.

So, for people watching at home and are hesitant about their plans tonight, what do you recommend that they do?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR VACCINE DEVELOPMENT, TEXAS CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL: Well, a couple of things. First of all, this omicron variant is so transmissible. It's like nothing we've seen before, among COVID variants. It's almost as transmissible as measles which is probably the most common highly transmissible infectious agent that we know.

So the message is, if you don't want to get COVID, keep your gatherings really small. Surround yourself with vaccinated people. This is not the year for big New Year's parties.

I know it's disappointing, but that is the reality. And the hope is, as Dr. Fauci said, this won't last too long. It's a matter of keeping it all together for the next month. And this is going to be the very tough time. A tough way to start the year because we should anticipate widespread social disruptions over the next few weeks. First of all in the transportation hub. We're already hearing about TSA workers being knocked out of the workforce, not because they're getting very sick but home sick with COVID.

In addition, the air traffic controllers, the ground crew, it's going to be tough to do air travel for the next few weeks. We should think about hospitals and number of hospital workers, health care providers, doctors offices. They're going to be depleted. The service industry is going to be depleted. And our fire and rescue is going to have a really lot of problems fully staffing over the next few weeks.

So the bottom line is to try to be patient. Try not to be overambitious over the next few weeks. We will get through it but it's going to be tough sledding now for the next month or so.

COLLINS: Yeah, and the CDC facing criticism for their new guidance but they said that did factor into it. The collapse of society because so many essential people would have to be out of work given how infectious this is. And I think another big question is what's coming up after the New Year holiday is that a lot of students are going back to class after being home for the holiday break.

And earlier this week, you said that trying to open schools at this point, it's hard to see how things can go well. So, why not? Why can't they go well given what state we are in the pandemic?

HOTEZ: Well, you know, for instance, with K through 12 you're going to have a lot of teachers who are exposed who have -- to the virus who may have to stay at home, bus drivers, all of the cafeteria workers and, of course, the students as well. So that's going to be very disruptive. I think it's noble to try, but the reality is, with this highly transmissible variant, you're almost better off just saying, let's delay the opening for a couple of weeks and maybe fill it up on the back end and have a longer summer term.

You know, nobody wants to hear that. We know the effects of not having kids in school. We just had the surgeon general issue a very important report on the mental health aspects of having kids at home, out of school and in terms of their mental health.

But, you know, the reality is -- the reality, it's going to be really challenging to open schools on Monday.

COLLINS: Yeah, of course, it's a big concern when it comes to boosters and vaccines, period, whether or not their kids have gotten them. We've seen some school districts here in Washington, D.C., public schools are going to be required to have all students have a negative COVID test before they go back to school next week. That isn't really something that a lot of schools, I think, have the infrastructure to enact. In D.C., the mayor says they're offering free tests, rapid tests to families to go and pick up. But it's a one-time policy.

So how do you balance this if you are an educator and you are in charge of a school and you're trying to balance this fear of COVID spreading in the classrooms but with those effects you're talking about when kids are at home and they aren't able to go to school?

HOTEZ: Well, I think there's two components of this. First of all, we're underperforming in terms of vaccinating our kids. The 12 to 17- year-olds in the Northeast pretty good, around 75 percent. Down here in the southern states in Texas, it's half of that. So we have a long ways to go before we can get our adolescents vaccinated.

In the younger kids, it's far worse. Parents have really been holding back on vaccinating their younger kids. Had we done better, I think we would have had a better chance of getting through this first few weeks, but that's going to be an added difficulty.

And then, you know, Kaitlan, the other big problem is we depleted our health system so much in terms of state and local health departments, that what we're doing essentially is asking the schools to do this, asking the educators to do this. We're asking the schools to function almost like mini public health departments with testing and contact tracing. And with teachers that have been so overburdened the last two years, I just think it's incredibly unfair and unjust to ask teachers to have that function on top of it.

So we'll see how it goes and the message is, let's not be overambitious. Let's be patient and if it doesn't work for the first few weeks, for this year, it will get better as we move into the spring. And I do think this wave will subside.

COLLINS: Yeah, it has been an incredibly difficult year for teachers. We do know when you're talking about booster shots, the FDA is expected to authorize booster shots, the Pfizer shot for those kids aged 12 to 15. We'll see how that looks.

Dr. Peter Hotez, thank you for joining us. And we hope you have a great 2022.

HOTEZ: Thank you. You, too, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Meanwhile, entire neighborhoods were destroyed in the blink of an eye as hurricane-force winds fueled wildfires in Colorado.


Plus, the legendary actress and comedienne Betty White has passed away. For decades, she made the young and the old laugh.


BETTY WHITE, ACTRESS: I think she's a gerchominochen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What exactly does that mean?

WHITE: Literally, it's the precise moment when dog doo turns white.



COLLINS: In our politics lead, President Biden is heading into 2022 facing many of the same challenges he vowed to tackle when he stepped into office this year. COVID cases are rising. His agenda largely stalled.

And as CNN's Jeremy Diamond now reports, a threat from Russia is looming large.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We made it clear that he cannot -- emphasize cannot -- move on Ukraine.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Biden closing out 2021 with a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

BIDEN: If he makes any more moves and goes into Ukraine, we will have severe sanctions. We will increase our presence in Europe with our NATO allies. And it will have to be a heavy price to pay for it.

DIAMOND: Biden laying out that heavy price during a 50-minute phone call yesterday, urging Putin to deescalate ahead of U.S./Russia security talks scheduled for January 10th.


BIDEN: I made it clear that they only could work if, in fact, they deescalate it, not escalate.

I always expect if you negotiate, you make progress. But we'll see.

DIAMOND: Beyond the potential war in Eastern Europe, Biden steps into 2022 facing an uphill battle against an unrelenting pandemic and criticism of his COVID response. On testing at least, the president acknowledging he's come up short.

BIDEN: It's not enough. It's clearly not enough. If we'd have known we'd have gone harder quicker, if we could have.

DIAMOND: Meanwhile, top health officials defending CDC guidelines shortening the isolation period to five days for those who test positive.

BIDEN: Those five days account for somewhere between 85 percent to 90 percent of all transmission that occurs.

DIAMOND: Skyrocketing COVID cases also now threatening the economic recovery. A record 6.1 million jobs added in the first 11 months of the year. And average unemployment claims dropping to a 52-year low.

But now, economists worry jobs gains could slow as omicron hits key sectors.

JARED BERNSTEIN, MEMBER OF COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS: When you have these different strains upon the land and uncertainty that brings with it, people are going to feel somewhat unsettled. Whatever problem we face, whether it's COVID, whether it's inflation, we're going to work relentlessly on behalf of working Americans to do everything we can to ease those pressures.

DIAMOND: As for Biden's legislative agenda --

BIDEN: I haven't given up on this. I haven't given up on it.

DIAMOND: The New Year gives Biden his last shot to pass his sweeping social and climate spending bill before the 2022 midterms.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): This is a no on this legislation.

DIAMOND: As long as he can unite his party.


DIAMOND: And as the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine still looms, we're now learning that President Biden is set to speak with the Ukrainian President Zelensky on Sunday. The White House announcing that the two men will discuss those upcoming security talks beginning on January 10th. And that follows the principle the White House laid out this week, nothing without -- nothing about them without them -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: That's certainly a reassuring message to Ukraine. Jeremy Diamond, thank you.

Let's discuss all this with Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. She's a member of the progressive caucus.

Thank you for joining us on New Year's Eve.

But, Congresswoman, I want to start off because last week, you tested positive for COVID-19, a breakthrough case. I want to just ask how you're feeling today.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D-CA): Sure, Kaitlan. Thank you for having me with you. I'm feeling fine. I'm passed my ten days. I isolated for ten days and had mild cold symptoms.

But I'm telling you, I had a chance really to do a deep dive into all the research and all of the messages and all of the issues around COVID, and I am telling you, we have got to get everyone vaccinated, boosted, get the testing protocols out there and make sure tests are available because it is for certain that the impact of COVID is much less if, in fact, you addressed the issue of vaccines and boosters.

And so I'm encouraging everyone. I've talked to several members who also tested positive and we all agree that we've got to rev up our messages to the public, to our constituents. I've been working to make sure we know where the resources are in my district during this period. And it has just been a remarkable moment for me to really compare notes and to say, look, we've got to do more to convince people to get vaccinated and tested and boosted as quickly as possible because this virus is raging.

COLLINS: Yeah, it's a very important public message especially with the numbers we're seeing from omicron. So I'm wondering if you step back and look, President Biden has tied this so closely with the success of his presidency. And it's a challenge that he was facing when he was inaugurated last year. A challenge he's facing now.

So, I'm wondering what you think of how he's handled the pandemic since he's taken office now that we're approaching one year of his presidency.

LEE: Sure. And first, no one said it would be easy. This is a novel virus. And so the science and the CDC and our health officials and scientists are really doing a remarkable job given how novel this is.

The president is doing absolutely the right thing. He's helping to save lives and livelihoods. Remember, we passed the CARE package, the American rescue package. We put resources into community based organizations for testing, vaccines, making sure that contact tracing is available, trusted messengers and communities of color.

And so, this is the hand he was dealt and he's doing a remarkable job and, of course, there are bumps in the road but now I think the public understands why testing, why taking -- getting the vaccines and why the boosters are so important. And the president continues to talk about this, to try to help educate the public as to why this must happen. [6:20:05]

And his administration is doing everything they can do to make sure we combat this and save lives and livelihoods.

COLLINS: You know, acknowledged this week they've not done enough on testing. They're trying to ramp that up, hoping to get half a billion tests out for free in the month of January.

But moving back to when Democrats are back in Washington, lawmakers are back in Washington, you have said that getting Build Back Better passed is going to be a major priority. Of course, that's the big part of the president's climate and economic agenda.

So I'm wondering what you envision for that going forward given what we heard from Senator Manchin over the holiday break about how he can't support it as it looks right now.

LEE: Well, first of all it was very disappointing to me that Senator Manchin went back on his word. But I think, and I hope, that he is reconsidering because we have to pass Build Back Better. It's going to reduce the costs of living for everyone. It will reduce the household costs given inflation.

It will help with prescription drugs. I mean, the cost of insulin will come down to about $35. It will help with child care. It will help with our caregivers. Provide for good-paying union jobs, climate provisions.

And, you know what, in West Virginia, there are over 350,000 children who will -- who need the child tax credit. They'll fall below the poverty line. And that check, those checks ended at the end of December.

This is a moral issue. It's an ethical issue that we have to step up to. So I'm hoping that Senator Manchin will understand that his constituents, like man of mine, live below the poverty line. They need this child tax credit. They need to be able to get a good-paying job. They need to be able to get into the workforce, especially low-income women, black and brown women.

Finally, let me just say a priority has got to be voting rights. Our democracy is in peril. We've got to pass the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act as well as the Freedom to Vote Act. And I think that the president is absolutely correct in saying we have to have a carve- out. I support ending the filibuster, but we have to do both and we've got to do both quickly.

COLLINS: We'll see how quickly they move on it. Senator Schumer wants to bring a voting rights bill to the floor. We'll see how that goes.

But, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, thank you so much for joining us. We hope you have a happy New Year.

LEE: Thank you very much. Happy New Year to you and all of those who are watching. COLLINS: Thank you.

Meanwhile, people are paying tribute to America's Golden Girl at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For decades, Betty White has been making us laugh.


WHITE: I never told you a story about an exploding pig, Dorothy. It was a peg-legged pig. Our possum was the one that exploded.




BIDEN: That's a shame. She was a lovely lady.

JILL BIDEN, U.S. FIRST LADY: Really loved betty white. We're so sad about her death.


COLLINS: First Lady Jill Biden summed it up well there. The reactions pouring in to the very sad news that the legendary actress Betty White has died just a few weeks shy before she was going to celebrate her milestone 100th birthday. White was a trailblazing television star fondly remembered for her roles on "The Golden Girls", "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and in her own golden years she became a cultural icon enjoying a career renaissance in her 80s and 90s.

CNN's Stephanie Elam has a look back at her extraordinary life and career.



STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Betty White's career began in her teens and by her 20s, she was a fixture on television with her own daily talk show.

Ahead of the times, White co-founded her own production company in 1952. She worked on a variety of television and film projects over the years before turning a 1973 guest appearance on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" into a permanent role.

White was a scene stealer as the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens.

WHITE: I think a man should be virile and macho and is reeking with masculinity.

ELAM: Her second signature role was on beloved series, "The Golden Girls", as the comical Rose Nylund.

WHITE: And they attacked chickens.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't care about chickens, Rose. She didn't call me chicken. She called me peacock.

WHITE: You look more like a chicken when you're angry. Your neck sticks out.

With "The Golden Girls," I got to play with those silly ladies every week, so that -- and I loved Rose Nylund. She was positive and she wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she wasn't dumb. She was just terminally naive.

ELAM: Off screen, White married three times. She called her third husband, TV host Allen Ludden, the love of her life. They were together almost 20 years before Ludden died of stomach cancer in 1981.

LARRY KING, TV HOST: And you never remarried.

WHITE: Nope. When you've had the best, who needs the rest?

ELAM: A devoted pet lover, White was a longtime advocate for animal welfare. She called television her hobby and animals her work.

Yet her hobby kept her busy. White's talents as an actress and comedienne were in demand well into her senior years.


Following a grassroots Facebook campaign in 2010, White became the oldest person ever to host "Saturday Night Love" at the age of 88.

WHITE: You know what's an accomplishment? Staying awake on the toilet.

ELAM: The show earned huge ratings and White, her seventh Emmy Award.

Later that year, White took on another role on TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought you weren't coming?

WHITE: I ran out of vodka. And I thought i'd come over here and freshen up my drum.

ELAM: In her 90s, white was as popular as ever with several ongoing film and television projects.

WHITE: How lucky can a 90-year-old broad be? I have no idea. And I'm still working. That's the thing that's such a thrill.

ELAM: Love for her warm smile, wit and off color, White didn't miss a beat when asked if there were any Hollywood projects she would still like to do.

WHITE: I usually answer that question with Robert Redford. No, I think I've been lucky enough to do just about on -- so much that if I start complaining about anything under the sun, throw me out of the business.


COLLINS: Let's talk about Betty White's legacy with a TV legend in his own right, Henry Winkler.

So, you first met Betty White on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". What was your first impression of her?

HENRY WINKLER, ACTOR: The warmth and the humor because her humor was so spontaneous. You know, it is very sad that she has passed away and that we have lost her energy.

But her life is to be celebrated. You know, everything that you said, every clip you just played was genuinely funny. The woman was genuinely funny, genuinely warm and an amazing activist for the animals on this planet. COLLINS: Yeah, that was something so near to her. She did this

profile that I was rereading earlier where they went to the zoo with "The New York Times." She was just talking about her favorite animals there. This elephant that she loved and that was such a big part of her life.

But, you know, in Hollywood, she is so well liked and respected among her colleagues. Carol Burnett said that -- she said, I loved Betty very much and the world lost one in a million.

And Sandra Bullock who, of course, was on the movie "The Proposal" with her, told CNN, quote: I don't drink vodka, but I will tonight, on ice, with a slice of lemon with a hot dog on the other side and just be okay being sad, and I'll have to buy some rose colored glasses because Betty was that for all of us.

Can you talk about what she was like and what people viewed of her or how they thought about her, clearly so highly.

WINKLER: So I met her in my first week arriving in 1973 in Hollywood. And over the years, when you met her, it didn't matter how long it had been in between. It was as if, first of all, you were the only person in the room. And second of all, it was as if you had seen her yesterday.

It was -- she was amazing. Her generosity of spirit is the reason everybody talks about her in this way is because her generosity was unequaled, just an amazing person. Luminous. She glowed. And that's not even hyperbole. It just is the truth.

COLLINS: It's not hyperbole at all. And another thing so impressive is just her staying power.

She started her career in 1939. She was 17 years old. She's had one of the longest television careers of a female entertainer. You don't always see longevity like that in Hollywood.

How did she keep it going and have this kind of resurgence of her popularity with people who didn't even know her early work? WINKLER: I would have to say authenticity because she was always who

she was. You know, on screen, off screen, she was bluer than blue. Also will. If you want to be in the world and a contributor, then you can, as long as your body allows you. And your mind allows you.

And in her case, both of them did. She was -- she loved what she did. She loved what she did. And just was not going to give up until she had to.

COLLINS: And she had this amazing attitude. I saw where she was saying, if I ever start complaining, throw me out of the business because it's been this amazing time. And, you know, her friends told reporters who were interviewing her or writing about her that she wasn't -- she didn't self-analyze a lot.


She just accepted this amazing career that she had had. One part that's so cool is this resurgence that she had where she attracted these fans that weren't super familiar with her past work. She had, of course, that famous petition on Facebook where she hosted "Saturday Night Live." She was the oldest person ever to host "Saturday Night Live."

I was rewatching some of the skits earlier. And they -- it's like what you were saying, it's genuinely laugh out loud funny in almost every single scene.

WINKLER: The other part of it is her gratitude just for being alive. That has a lot to -- keeping you grounded, allowing you to enjoy what's in front of you and not always look beyond to see what bigger or more important event or person is over somebody's shoulder.

COLLINS: You know, we talk about resolutions and what you want to do at this time of year. And I think that kind of attitude that you just described there, the way she just appreciated what she had and had this level of gratitude, it's maybe a good one that some people should consider bringing in 2022.

WINKLER: I would like to think that America right now can use the inspiration of a Betty White. The gratitude for being alive and not -- not having to be so angry about everything.

COLLINS: Yeah. Henry Winkler, you really summed it up well. Thank you for joining us on this New Year's Eve and to remember her life and her legacy.

WINKLER: Thank you for asking me. I'm sorry it is for this, but I am very happy and proud to talk about Betty White.

COLLINS: All right. And tell your dogs we hope they have a great 2022 as well. Thank you, Henry Winkler.

WINKLER: Thank you.

COLLINS: And, Betty, thank you for the years of laughter and cheer. You will always be golden. And here's a look at Betty hosting "Saturday Night Live" back in 2010.


WHITE: When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host "Saturday Night Live," I didn't know what Facebook was. And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.




COLLINS: In our politics lead, playing with fire and fireworks usually doesn't mix.

Minutes ago, Russia rang in the New Year with a lengthy speech by President Vladimir Putin hot off its call with President Biden where he told Russians he'll vigorously defend their nation's security interest.

Let's discuss with our panel.

And, Alyssa Farah, I want to start with you because President Biden has had a different tone, obviously, with President Putin than his predecessor did. And so, you worked in the Trump White House. I wonder how you judge Biden's handling of what's been a tense relationship so far and more at the forefront of his foreign policy agenda than Biden initially expected coming into the White House.

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, listen, I'll give credit to President Biden that he did come out and say that severe sanctions would follow if Russia continues its incursion into Ukraine, but this is the situation we're in that's sort of this crisis of Vladimir Putin's own creating. I believe it's a direct result of President Biden's handling of Afghanistan.

So by that precipitous withdrawal from our longstanding NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, I think he signaled to the Kremlin that he's willing to take more of a back seat on foreign policy, whereas former President Trump was regularly accused of being, you know, just thinking about America, being an isolationist, but I think there was a sense that he was willing to be tough when he needed to be and that's sort of an open question now with President Biden.

So, we'll see what comes in Brussels and Vienna. I do think it's positive he's promising sanctions but it may require something stronger than that.

COLLINS: Yeah, White House officials have actually faced questions about the Afghanistan aspect of this and how it's played out on the world stage. They don't think it's a factor into it, not a major one at least.

Congressman Kennedy, talking to the domestic agenda that's happening for Democrats. They're back in Washington next week following this holiday break. They have a lot on their to-do list in 2022.

And workers in 21 states tomorrow are going to see minimum wage increases. Your state of Massachusetts is raising the minimum wage to 14 bucks and 25 cents. But the federal minimum wage is still only $7.25 an hour.

And so, I'm wondering where this priority -- where it ranks on the list of these very many Democratic priorities.

JOE KENNEDY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It has been a priority. It's going to continue to be a priority. And you've seen a number of states act essentially where the federal government hasn't been able to and as you know, this isn't a -- this is a challenge that a number of my former colleagues in the House and Senate have tried to push through. But given the rulings of -- they weren't able to get it to $15 an hour.

You mentioned $7.25. That's a federal minimum wage. For tipped workers, it's still $2.13 an hour. We've got an enormous way to go to make sure that every American has a guaranteed pathway to meeting the -- I think it's going to maintain that priority for Democrats going forward.

COLLINS: Yeah, if you get to the midterms in 2022, this is something that Democrats are going to be wanting to see progress on.

Phil, switching subject with you almost entirely. This is maybe one of the strangest endorsements I've ever seen, but Alaska's incumbent Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy, he's running for a second term. He just accepted former President Trump's endorsement with one condition.

He said: Alaska needs Mike Dunleavy as governor now more than ever. He has my complete and total endorsement but this endorsement is subject to his non-endorsement of Senator Lisa Murkowski who has been very bad for Alaska.

I guess that doesn't mean it's a complete and total endorsement after all.

PHILIP BUMP, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yeah, no, it's exactly right. It's very Trump to try and exercise this sort of leverage over a sitting United States governor. I'm not sure that it's going to play that well in Alaska. I mean, Alaska is not the reddest state in the Union and certainly has this independent streak. Murkowski famously won a write-in candidacy. This is someone who has a strong relationship with Alaskans or did prior to January 6th. It's probably safe to assume still does.

I'm not sure that Dunleavy, it gives him an opportunity to say I'm my own person and I'm not necessarily going to respond to this. But it will be interesting to see if President Trump does this sort of play with other candidates moving forward. Obviously, trying to re-center his party on the primacy of what he says was a stolen election, which, of course, it wasn't, in 2020 and trying to use whatever leverage he has to get Republicans to focus on that.

COLLINS: I think it's probably almost a given we can expect that in other Trump endorsements.

But, Alyssa, we're coming up less than a year from the -- about a year from the insurrection. We know Speaker Pelosi has outlined how they'll mark it next week. A portion of the day will include testimonials from lawmakers and so I'm wondering the role that you expect Republican lawmakers to take next week given they really are trying to avoid this or the ones who have very close to former President Trump have defend what's happened that day and their actions.

So I'm wondering how you think they'll play a role next week.

GRIFFIN: Well, it's an interesting question because, keep in mind, the former president, who has also announced he'll be hosting a press conference that day which, if anything proves he's still getting terrible advice from folks around him, this would be a wise day for him to stay silent, to let those who were victims on Capitol Hill talk about that very important and solemn day.

But I think instead you'll hear a very sort of, you know, the tone from him that this was reiterating the lies that the election was stolen, saying that those who are being tried for the insurrection are political prisoners. So it's going to put Republicans on Capitol Hill in a very -- at very tight position to be in. What side of this are they going to come down on?

I don't anticipate we'll have a lot of brave folks that will come down on the right side of this, but I hope that's what we see from some of the sitting Republican members.

COLLINS: Yeah, of course, we know former President Trump is not going to be very quiet on the anniversary of January 6th. He's planning to hold a press conference.

Alyssa and Phil, thank you for joining us. Congressman Kennedy, we're sorry we lost you.

Don't forget, Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen are kicking off CNN's New Year's eve party tonight at 8:00 Eastern.

Winds up to 110 miles per hour spread wildfires across Colorado destroying entire communities. And now officials say they may know what sparked those fires.



COLLINS: In our national lead, two fast-moving wildfires fueled by hurricane-force winds ripped through Colorado. Almost 1,000 homes have been destroyed, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. Scientists say the dry conditions brought on by extreme drought set the stage for what officials are already calling the most destructive fires in the state's history.

As CNN's Natasha Chen reports, the full devastation from the wildfires is just now becoming clear.


GOV. JARED POLIS (D), COLORADO: Nearly a thousand homes in two very tight-knit, beautiful communities that our state has are gone.

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Winds up to 105 miles an hour fueled catastrophic fires that blasted through two Colorado communities Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're all in a group text, do we leave? Do we stay? What's everybody doing? Everybody is rushing around with their phones taking videos of their home inside just in case.

CHEN: Now just as 2021 is coming to an end, thousands of people in Superior and Lewisville, Colorado, have lost everything. The full scope of the devastation is becoming clear from the air.

MAYOR CLINT FOLSOM, SUPERIOR, COLORADO: We just witnessed incredible devastation around the town, and then also witnessed houses just exploding right before our eyes.

CHEN: The fire spread rapidly over more than 6,000 acres. About 35,000 people had just hours and in some cases just minutes to evacuate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's like a tornado.

AARON RIGSBY, STORM CHASER: It looked like something I'd only ever seen out of an apocalyptic film.

CHEN: One resident looking back at the home she left behind. The wind threw her back. She described debris flying everywhere saying a trash can flew into her car as she drove away. The cause of the fires is still unknown.

POLIS: It was a suburban/urban fire. The Costco we all shop at. The Target we buy our kids' clothes at. All surrounded and damaged.

CHEN: No one saw it coming.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I grew up in Louisiana. I've seen hurricanes. Nothing like this.

CHEN: Not shoppers fleeing the local Costco.

HUNT FRYE, EVACUATED COSTCO STORE: I just remember a little boy on the way out said it's a fire drill to me and I said, yes, it is. It's a fire drill.

CHEN: And according to one resident, not even the first responders on scene.

FRYE: The thing that really struck me was the fear in the police officers' face who were trying to kind of get traffic going.


They were legitimately scared.

CHEN: On a day that should be marked by celebration, instead there's destruction and devastation.

Colorado's governor says he is now just trying to focus on anything that's positive.

POLIS: Two major hospitals in the area were spared. Looks like schools were spared and we might have our very own New Year's miracle on our hands if it holds up there was no loss of life.


CHEN: And we're going from flames to snowflakes. You can see it's snowing here. Very much needed moisture to help in that fight against the fires and remaining hot spots.

In talking to some of the residents who have lived here a long time, they described how little snow they got compared to typical years in the fall. And one person described that making this area like a tinderbox conditions for this devastating fire to occur -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: It's just awful to see those families what they've gone through and now what they'll have to deal with, this rebuilding process.

But, Natasha Chen, thank you so much for being there.

And coming up, CNN will talk to the governor of Colorado about what has happened in his state and what it's going to look like moving forward.