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The Lead with Jake Tapper
Dems Take Victory Lap After Securing 51-49 Senate Majority; Source: Trump Lawyers Hired Outside Team To Search Four Properties; Sources: January 6 Committee Weighs Criminal Referrals For Trump; Putin: Threat Of Nuclear War Is "Increasing"; China Scales Back Some Of Its Strict COVID Policies; Idaho Police Remove Slain Students' Personal Belongings From House. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired December 07, 2022 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: Yeah.
VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: He certainly is deserving of that honor. Just a few years ago, Vladimir Putin was the person of the year as well for different reasons.
GOLODRYGA: For different reasons, yes. Well-deserved honor, indeed.
THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: For the first time since 1934, the party in the White House picked up Senate and governor seats in a midterm election.
The lead starts right now.
Senator Raphael Warnock keeps his seat, giving Democrats a slight edge in the next Congress. Is this because of Biden's strengths or a Trump albatross?
And a former Republican congressman arrested, accused of secretly signing a $50 million contract to be a foreign agent for Venezuela. What CNN is now learning from a new federal indictment.
Plus, arraigned today, uncovering a dangerous plot to overthrow the government. The suspects described as far right terrorists who subscribe to the derange beliefs of QAnon. This time thankfully, the plot was not in the United States.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
And we start today with our politics lead. The midterms dust has finally settled and we have a clear look at the exact make up of the next U.S. Congress. Moments ago, Senator Raphael Warnock met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after Warnock won his runoff election in Georgia last night, giving Democrats a cushion, a space to lose a vote and still have the simple majority in the chamber. And as much this was a victory for Democrats, it also seems a rebuke
of Donald Trump, with his handpicked candidate, Herschel Walker, falling short. And now, Republicans are pointing fingers. Senator Mitt Romney called the Trump endorsement the kiss of death and other members of the Republican Party are adding their voices to the chorus of criticism.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LT. GOV. GEOFF DUNCAN (R), GEORGIA: We can never let Donald Trump let us get to this spot again. We've got two years to get our act together. We've got to coalesce around the fact we want to win the White House in 2024 and it's going to take a serious-minded, policy- minded individual that truly wants to be a leader. Not just win a campaign and be a hero on Twitter.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: CNN's Manu Raju starts off our coverage today from Capitol Hill on more details on the Republican reckoning after another disappointing loss.
MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Senate Republicans are reeling after a disappointing election cycle, leaving them deeper in the minority. And now trying to figure out what went wrong.
SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): It was frustrating. I was optimistic that we would get a majority.
RAJU: Herschel Walker lost to Democrat Raphael Warnock in Tuesday's Georgia runoff, giving Democrats an additional seat and a slim 51-49 majority in the chamber. It comes after Republicans also fell short in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Nevada, all states they had hoped to win.
SEN. ROY BLUNT (R-MO): We need better candidates.
RAJU: At the heart of the GOP criticism, the role of Donald Trump, who handpicked Walker and several other candidates who faltered in the general election.
Stumping late on the campaign trial for Republicans who ultimately lost.
Was Donald Trump a problem this year?
SEN. JOHN THUNE (R-SD): Democrats in many cases were able to kind of turn it into a choice election because of Trump's presence out there, because a lot of the candidates that had problems in these elections were running on the 2020 election being stolen. And I don't think independent voters were having it.
RAJU: Utah GOP Senator Mitt Romney calling Trump's endorsement the kiss of death. And retiring Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey saying Walker's loss is another example that, quote, the Trump obsession is very bad for Republicans.
Trump defenders pushing back.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): No. I think we're losing close elections not because of Donald Trump. So if the answer to everything in town is it's Trump's problem, then you're missing the boat.
RAJU: Some directing their anger at Mitch McConnell for refusing to embrace an election year agenda.
SEN. JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): No agenda, no agenda.
SCOTT: I believe we ought to have a Republican agenda and give people a real purpose for how to vote -- why to vote for us.
RAJU: And many blame Rick Scott's Senate campaign arm for staying out of GOP primaries in 2022, with GOP leaders calling on the party to intervene in primaries in the 2024 cycle where Democrats are depending 23 seats and Republicans just 11.
Should you have taken a more active role and tried to prop up the candidates who have been more electable?
SCOTT: Well, I think you've got to rely on the voters and their states. I trust the voters.
RAJU: The additional seat now gives Senate Democrats more power to issue subpoenas and breathing room to confirm President Biden's nominations.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Turn left, Republicans.
Or at least don't turn hard right.
RAJU (on camera): Now, I just asked Raphael Warnock as he came back to the Capitol, whether or not Donald Trump had a role in helping him by propping up a candidate who had turned to be weak in the general election. He brushed that aside and said I think the people of Georgia deserve a great deal of credit for seeing the differences between me and my opponent.
And as far as Trump and his future in the Republican Party, Lindsey Graham told me today that it will be up to Trump to prove that he can win in order to win over Republican voters ahead of 2024 -- Jake.
TAPPER: Okay. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill for us, thanks.
Joining us now to discuss, Congressman-elect Maxwell Frost of Florida, the first member of Gen Z ever elected to Congress, and hopefully not the last. REP.-ELECT MAXWELL FROST (D-FL): Yeah.
TAPPER: I would hope.
Thanks so much for being here. I know you campaigned with Senator Warnock in the days leading up to the election. After his win last night, you tweeted, quote, what's that about progressive values not being able to win the South again?
What do you say to critics who say, you know, this wasn't really an endorsement of progressive values, it was that Herschel Walker was just a horrific candidate?
FROST: Yeah, well, I'd tell them to go out on the campaign trial with someone like Senator Reverend Warnock. You know, being out there, feeling that energy, especially from young people. A voting block that traditionally has had trouble going to vote. We see them going out voting in droves for great candidates, and the energy that we saw, we had to do one event that wasn't standing room only.
Young folks are really excited to hear the message from him. So what we found, too, from a lot of the research we did when I was at March for Our Lives, is that young people want someone to vote for and not against. The less concerned about people like Walker and who's going to be -- who's going to be our champion. And I think that's what we saw last night.
TAPPER: On the other hand, you could argue that Reverend -- I'm sorry, Senator Reverend Warnock, he's definitely a progressive, but he ran as somebody who was in the center more. His pitch was kind of look at what I'm doing for veterans. I work across the aisle. I'm really into bipartisanship.
His general election pitch wasn't about LGBTQ rights, although he did run a lot of ads about Roe v. Wade. So, with that one exception.
FROST: Yeah. I think what we saw is that he leaned into the values out of our party and it wasn't about red versus blue, Democrat versus Republican. It was about the people versus the problem.
For me, that's what progressive values mean to me, ensuring we're all coming together to fight against these issues we're up against -- climate crisis, gun violence, protecting the right to safe and legal access to abortion. And so, that's what I meant by progressive values. I saw that with campaign trail with him and it's really something that brings people together and doesn't divide our country.
TAPPER: So, let's talk about what looks like once you're in Congress. You'll be in Congress where Republicans have the majority. You recently told Vox this about your approach to legislating, quote, you have to get buy in from your colleagues and you have to sometimes work with people across the aisle as well. I mean, you're definitely going to have work with people across the aisle to get anything done in this Congress. Have you reached out to Republicans to talk about where you might work together? FROST: Yeah, actually during orientation, I had the opportunity to
make connections with incoming Republicans from my own state of Florida. And we have some really good discussions. I mean, look, we have a lot of disagreements, but we agreed on things like offshore drilling in Florida, public transportation, which is a huge, especially in Central Florida right now in the housing.
So I think there is room to work together, but I really want to make sure. I mean, we saw that after Republicans found out they were going to take control of the House, the first thing they talked about was Hunter Biden. And I don't think that's what the American people want us to work on, right? I think they want us to focus on these issues that are impacting their day to day.
TAPPER: Your top issues, according to your website, are Medicare for All, banning some versions of semiautomatic weapons, background checks for all gun sales, the Green New Deal, things your party couldn't get passed when your party had the majority.
TAPPER: Is there another list of priority? Second priority items or third priority items that you think can actually get 218 votes?
FROST: Yeah. Well, the banning of assault weapons is actually under our platform of ending gun violence, which is a lot, right? There's a lot we can do there I think in the bipartisan way.
TAPPER: Like what?
FROST: Well, I think we can work together to get more money for community violence intervention. These are programs on the ground level that help end gun violence before it happens, getting kids off the streets, teaching them arts, boxing. In Orlando, we have one called guns down, gloves up. These programs are actually shown evidence-based to end gun violence before it even happens and really gives resources to the community. I think that's something we can get bipartisan support on.
So I think there's creative ways to work on all these issues where look, we might not get our north star. We weren't going to get it in the next two years, but we can work towards that. My thing is I never want to give up on talking about the world that I believe in, right? If you're going to take a first step on a journey, you've got to know where you're going to end up.
So, I think there's a lot of room to take those first steps.
TAPPER: One of our correspondents in Florida, Leyla Santiago, did a piece on the red flag laws in Florida and did an interview with the sheriff I think of Pasco County. I might be getting that wrong, but a conservative sheriff who really was talking about how effective it was especially in preventing self harm.
TAPPER: But that's not been something that has been able to be brought before national legislators. Something to think about.
FROST: Yeah, definitely.
TAPPER: How will you counter concerns from those who lock at you and say wait a second, you're a congressman? You're 25 years old.
TAPPER: Wearing your new tie. You don't have any government experience. You're going to be -- some of your fellow freshmen are going to be like 70-year-old former judges and that sort of thing. I mean, how do you convince them, hey, man, I'm serious?
FROST: Yeah, look, we sit down and we talk about the issues. We talk about where we want to get to. And every time I have those conversations, people are pleasantly surprised and really excited to work with me. I know there's a stigma I had to get over, and had to get to the stigma in their primary and my general election. And I'm used to being the youngest person in the room.
You know, I really hope that me even being in Congress can help challenge the caricature that we have set for our candidates. I think we need more working class people, nontraditional candidates in Congress to really represent the country.
TAPPER: Well, you're going to have to get one of those congressional pins.
FROST: Yeah, right.
TAPPER: You might also want to talk to Senator Ossoff who I understand sometimes still gets stop before he walks into the Senate chambers because he looks very young, too.
TAPPER: You talk about the youth vote and how the younger generations are the future obviously. I do wonder as President Biden considers what to do next, whether or not he should run for re-election. He just turned 80 years old.
Do you think your -- he's your party's best candidate for 2024?
FROST: Yeah. I mean, I think if he wants to run, he's signaled that he wants to run. I'm excited to support him. The largest youth voter turnout we ever had in our country was in 2020 for Joe Biden, right? And I think it's important to keep that in mine.
So, I'm excited to support him and we see a lot of other leaders coming up through the ranks in local office, statewide office and also the congressional level that are going to work with the president to bring up the youth vote. TAPPER: And you're going to have some new Democratic leaders in
Congress now, Gen Xers, including Hakeem Jeffries who will be the Democratic leader and the first African American to lead a political party in the House or Senate, that must be kind of cool for you.
FROST: No, it is really cool for me and it's exciting. And I think it shows that -- I mean, you know, yes, I'll be the first in G-Zer in Congress. But we have a lot of firsts coming in, especially in this freshman class. So there's a lot to be hopeful for.
TAPPER: All right. Well, congratulations ahead of time to when you get sworn in. Good to see you, Congressman Maxwell Frost.
FROST: Thank you.
TAPPER: Ahead, the mounting legal problems for Donald Trump as CNN now learns a search team discovered more discovered classified documents in Florida.
Plus, an eye-raising comment from Russia's Vladimir Putin who says the threat of nuclear war is increasing.
And the dreaded but necessary process happening right now at the home where four college students were killed in Idaho.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: In the politics lead, a source now confirms to CNN a search has uncovered two documents with classified markings at a storage unit in Florida used by Donald Trump. Those documents have been handed over to the FBI. "The Washington Post" was first to report the discovery.
As CNN's Sara Murray reports, sources say searches have now been conducted at four different Trump properties as his legal problems continue to escalate.
ANDY BRAGG, MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Tax fraud, but really, it's cheating. It's lying. It's greed.
REPORTER: Mr. President!
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Former President Trump under pressure from an ever growing pile of legal problems.
BRAGG: The name sake company of former president of the United States held accountable by a jury by way of a criminal conviction.
MURRAY: A Manhattan jury finding two Trump Organization companies guilty of criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records. Part of a 15-year scheme to defraud tax authorities. Trump and his family weren't charged in the case, but the
investigation into Trump companies continues.
BRAGG: This is one chapter, an important chapter, but there are a lot of, you know, tentacles.
MURRAY: Trump also grappling with two federal probes, an investigation into his handling of classified government documents after he left the White House.
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: This is a new hoax. Document hoax.
MURRAY: And a sprawling probe into efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
TRUMP: We're going to walk down to the Capitol.
MURRAY: Amid concerns from the Justice Department that Trump is still holding on to sensitive government documents.
TRUMP: It's not a crime and they should give me immediately back everything they've taken from me because it's mine.
MURRAY: Trump's lawyers recently hiring a team to search Trump Tower, the Bedminster golf club and two other properties for classified materials, a source tells CNN. They found at least two items marked classified in a storage unit in West Palm Beach.
The investigation into the 2020 election also moving ahead, with grand jury testimony from former Trump adviser, Steven Miller.
STEPHEN MILLER, FORMER SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISOR: Simple principle, one citizen, one vote.
MURRAY: And special counsel Jack Smith firing off a fresh round of subpoenas to county election officials in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona. Investigators seeking more information about communications from Trump and allies such as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, with battleground state officials.
Adding to Trump's headaches --
REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): We have made decisions that criminal referrals will happen.
MURRAY: The House Select Committee investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol, weighing criminal referrals for Trump and a number of his closest allies, sources tell CNN.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): Facts support a potential charge against the former president, and, you know, the Justice Department in my view needs to hold everyone equally responsible before the law.
MURRAY (on camera): Now, look, the Justice Department does not take its cues from Congress. In many ways, these criminal referrals are going to be largely symbolic, but they are important to the committee. We've heard from a number of members that they think that criminal referrals are important for the historical record and to show the Justice Department that they do believe crimes were committed -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks so much.
Also in our politics lead day, some members of the January 6th Select House Committee are meeting on Capitol Hill today as they try to decide how many criminal referrals to make to the Justice Department.
CNN's Jamie Gangel joins us live.
Jamie, walk us through how this is all unfolding behind the scenes.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, what they're deciding now is exactly who they're going to do. Is Donald Trump one of those people? I think Adam Schiff just made it clear. Yes.
Donald Trump is going to be on the list. Who are the other team that they're going to pick? What I've been told is that the committee, they don't want it to be my words willy-nilly. This is not going to be a large group of people. They are very deliberately looking at people where they think they have solid evidence, critical evidence that they can pass on to the Department of Justice.
TAPPER: And the crimes include the same kind of crimes we've seen for instance in the Oath Keepers case. Disrupting an official proceeding, seditious conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering.
Do we have any idea what kinds of charges we're talking about?
GANGEL: So, we don't have names yet. We don't have numbers. We don't have the charges. I think seditious conspiracy is the highest bar. That's going to be tough.
GANGEL: But witness tampering, obstruction, perjury, possibly. I think those could all be part of what we see here.
TAPPER: So, Congresswoman Liz Cheney told me a few weeks ago her view was that Donald Trump, her personal view, not speaking -- not as the vice chair, but her personal view, is that Donald Trump broke the law.
How much influence do you think Cheney has on these decisions as the vice chair?
GANGEL: There is nothing like getting one member of Congress in trouble with the rest of the committee by saying that they have outsize influence.
TAPPER: Right. GANGEL: I think she has enormous influence on it. First of all, she is the vice chair. Secondly, she is the Republican and a conservative Republican.
GANGEL: And she brought a tremendous value to the committee. She is also a trained lawyer. She went to University of Chicago. So, I think, she is just not the vice chair of the committee, she is on the subcommittee deciding the criminal referrals.
Liz Cheney looks at everything very carefully. We frequently have said she doesn't say anything by accident. I believe she will be looking through these criminal referrals and signing off on each and every one of them.
TAPPER: Yeah, I mean, I've heard from other members of the committee that she is perhaps the hardest worker of all the members of the committee, perhaps. Not 100 percent. But she is one of the hardest workers.
GANGEL: No question, and let's not forget how much she had to give up, right? She knew going into this she would likely lose her seat in Congress it is her political career over, we don't know that yet she has been absolutely focused and devoted to this committee.
TAPPER: All right. Jamie, thanks so much. We really appreciate it.
Coming up, Vladimir Putin's comments today about a nuclear war that's raising new concerns.
Plus, the new warnings in China just as that nation reverses course to a degree and eases some COVID restrictions.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: And we're back with our world lead. A day of intense fighting on the eastern front of Ukraine. You are looking at the aftermath of Ukrainian shelling in occupied Donetsk, where the Russian leaders say at least four people were killed on Tuesday.
And today, just 30 miles to the west in Kurakhove, Ukrainian officials say at least eight civilians were killed by Russian strikes.
CNN's Sam Kiley is at a hospital in Kramatorsk, where wounds inflicted by modern weapons of war require innovative lifesaving techniques.
SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wartime brain surgery in tandem, wounded in battle on the same day in the same front, two young man the focus of these over practice neurosurgeons.
Kramatorsk is often bombed. The windows even in here are taped to slow flying glass. The effort is intense to repair brains, to save lives, memories, loves and future dreams.
They would have little idea where to start their delicate work if they didn't have use of this, CT scanners. It can pinpoint damage, find what it's done and it gives surgeons a plan of action.
He says, yes, unfortunately, there is no left eye. There is a suspicion of damage to the right eye as well, but definitely, no left eye.
This is the fourth patient we've seen in the space of an hour coming for a CT scan. It's supposed to be doing 15 or 20 a day. They are actually doing 70 or 80. In short, it is wearing out.
This equipment is vital. The hospital can't afford a new one, but it used one is for sale in the west of Ukraine, cost about 120,000 bucks. The price of losing this one, incalculable.
(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
KILEY: He says he shows a sign of severe injury with acute cerebral injury, with acute subdermal hematoma and severe brain contusion. He needs urgent surgery.
The administrators here have raised about $60,000. They need help with the rest. This is the only CT scanner in a vast region.
Critical, this machine is critical. CT is critical to provide appropriate care for patients with both head wounds and acute range injuries.
Is it saving lives?
Definitely, absolutely, 100 percent.
There has been a steady flow of soldiers injured in near Bakhmut. That is the scene of the heaviest fighting. But this is a hospital that is trying to deal really with an area they say about 300 square kilometers. A lot of that is at war.
Some soldiers are relatively lucky. Duck was shooting mortars at the Russians who shot mortars back.
My commander was lucky, he sat in front of me and I sat behind him. He was unhurt. I got hit in the leg. But, yeah, we have seen wounded and dead before. If I am sitting here, I am lucky.
Ukrainians on this eastern front call it the meat grinder. Czech was alongside Duck when they were hit.
How would you describe the battle from backboard? He says, World War I trenches, mud, blood, trenches, mud again,
artillery, trench warfare. That's it. World War I and World War II, something like that. Something like that.
The difference is that modern weapons are now more powerful, modern surgery often the only route to survival. That an old-fashioned grit.
KILEY (on camera): Now, Jake, that hospital and indeed other hospitals I visited on this front line, is having to heat itself using self-installed boilers burning anything from rubbish, through to coal, and wood. They are short of electricity because of the Russian attacks on the electrical systems. Frequently, they hit with power cuts and have to resort to generators. Of course, they need CT scans. They need MRIs.
And the wounded keep pouring in, Jake. This is a ferocious frontline as both the Russians and Ukrainians have shifted their soldiers from the southern battles up to this very much focused on Bakhmut at the moment, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Sam Kiley in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, thank you so much.
As the heavy fighting rages on, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spent the day visiting wounded troops, presenting medals of honor. One's an American fighter who volunteered on the frontlines for Ukraine. The same day, "Time Magazine" named Zelenskyy and the spirit of Ukraine as its Person of the Year.
CNN's chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward who's been following the evolution of Putin's brutal war since the beginning. She joins us in studio now.
Good to see you and know that you are safe.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good to be here.
TAPPER: It's not always something I'm confident of.
TAPPER: So, today, Russian President Putin said the threat of nuclear war is increasing. Now, we've seen him and heard him saber-rattling before. But as the war drags on and his stockpiles of traditional happens deplete, do you think that this threat of using a nuke becomes more real?
WARD: The threat definitely becomes more real and a threat can't be discounted, certainly. But I think what you heard if you listened to Putin's entire comments today was kind of a typical example of him trying to play both sides. So he said, of course, we're not crazy. We'd never be the first to use nuclear weapons. We only have them as a deterrent. But then at the same time, he says but the risk is definitely increasing and by the way, ours are more modern and more sophisticated than yours are.
So, on the one hand, he's trying to diffuse the situation, while on the other hand, he's continuing to stoke it because the threat of the nuclear weapons is almost more important to him than the actual use of them. He understands that carries such a deep fear, not just with Ukrainians but with people all around the world. And so, that's a very important lever for him to have at his, you know, beck in call.
At the same time, most people are saying, we don't see any indication that he actually intends or is preparing to use them.
TAPPER: Yeah, one of the weapons that he is using is this mercenary group called the Wagner Group. It's run by one of the oligarchs, Yevgeny Prigozhin. You and I have talked about him before.
And Prigozhin this week warned the U.S. not to provoke his group by designating the Wagner Group a terrorist organization. You've covered the Wagner Group extensively for years. You are even tracked and intimidated by them or at least they tried to intimidate you in 2019.
When Prigozhin issues a warning like this one, quote, let's sleeping dogs lie. Do not wait Wagner. Americans, well it is still sleeping. How seriously should the U.S. take that?
WARD: I think the thing you have to understand why the Wagner Group is that they really rely heavily on the myth of the Wagner Group. They relish and brutality, and now that we've seen Yevgeny Prigozhin come out of the shadows and kind of claim a much more public role and issue a lot of threats and talk about the need to carpet bomb Ukraine, I think they are playing up to that brutality even more.
When we were in the Central African Republic doing that story and we were talking to U.S. officials, the sort of message we were given was, don't get these guys too much credit. They are pretty incompetent and they are not that effective. Fast forward to where we are now, I think there are still very real issues surrounding whether or not they are competent and how much of an impact they're having on the battlefield in Ukraine.
But they certainly are a significant force. And what makes him dangerous and difficult to contend with is that they don't answer to anyone officially. There is no accountability for a group like Wagner. And as we have seen in some of these horrific execution videos, they are willing to stoop to acts of great brutality to achieve their objectives.
TAPPER: Yeah, it doesn't take any great strategic mind to rape kids or whatever their latest crimes are.
Thank you so much. Appreciate it. Good to see you in person, Clarissa.
Coming up next, the former Republican congressman arrested. The multimillion dollar contract with Venezuela that now has the lawmaker facing federal indictments. Stay with us.
TAPPER: In our world lead, we are tracking what seemed to be dramatic changes to the Chinese government's strict zero COVID strategy that recently prompted nationwide protests.
For nearly three years, Chinese government has relied on its unwavering restrictions.
Now, some of those policies appeared to be loosening.
But as CNN's Ivan Watson reports for us, the winter season is likely to bring in a surge of severe COVID cases that authorities fear could harm that country's elderly population.
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: China is the last country in the world still trying to completely eradicate COVID. But after months of harsh restrictions, some of the COVID lockdown barriers in China are starting to come down.
This move by authorities comes just days after protests erupted across the country against Beijing's day zero COVID policy. This breath of fresh air, for some exhausted citizens, carries a harsh reality. Experts predict a tough COVID winter is likely coming.
PROF. BEN COWLING, CHAIR OF EPIDEMIOLOGY: The winter is the worst time to have a large epidemic because hospitals may already be under pressure for other reasons during the winter.
WATSON: The highly contagious omicron variant is already spreading through the Chinese population.
DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Unlike the rest of the world, very few people in China proportionately have had COVID. And that is because of the strict lockdowns that the Chinese government has implemented. And so, there's very low baseline immunity. The other issue is that China has been using its domestically produced vaccines, which are less effective than the mRNA vaccines.
WATSON: China has one of the world's highest COVID vaccination rates, but vaccination for the elderly in China lags far behind. Twenty-three percent of Chinese citizens over 80 are completely unvaccinated. That leaves roughly 8.4 million very vulnerable unvaccinated people.
COWLING: So, if COVID was to spread to China now, I think we would see a lot of severe cases in that group of people with no vaccination or no recent vaccination.
WATSON: Epidemiologists say, Hong Kong may offer a roadmap for what could happen in mainland China. After Hong Kong successfully maintained a zero COVID bubble for nearly two years, omicron spread out of control here last winter.
At the peak of the outbreak, Hong Kong suffered more than 7,000 deaths in six weeks, most of them elderly. At the time, it was the highest COVID mortality rate in the world, driven largely, experts say, by very low vaccination rates among people over 60.
Per capita, mainline China has almost half the number of critical care beds in hospital compared to Hong Kong.
WEN: China got its investments backwards. So by putting their focus on testing and not on vaccines and treatment, China has actually not prepared the country and the citizens for what happens when zero COVID ends, which inevitably would end at some point.
China was the scene of the world's first known COVID outbreak in December of 2019. If the experts are right, it could also be the last country that faces a COVID crisis.
WATSON: Now, Jake, China's world's most populous country, a population of 1.4 billion people. There are some scientific models that predict that it could lose from one to 2 million people. The mortality rate, if it gets hit by a major outbreak.
The Chinese government is trying to jump-start its vaccination program, get those people most vulnerable vaccinated. The experts wondering why this didn't start earlier -- Jake.
TAPPER: And, Ivan, tell us more about the announcement that the Chinese government is making regarding restrictions that they seem to be loosening.
WATSON: Yeah, they are loosening up. You can now travel between regions. I know one person in Shanghai saying, wow, I can go visit my parents for the first time in months in another province. That has spiked a surge of interest in buying plane tickets for example.
But it has also triggered fear because for years, the Chinese government has been warning its people how deadly COVID is. Now it is incredible. The narrative in state media has shifted. Now they're trying to downplay it and say that it's not as deadly. But that is kind of whiplash for a lot of Chinese people.
So, there are -- there is a rush and over-the-counter fever medicine, vitamin C, cold medicine. And there are people who are actually worried about getting hit by this illness, something that people in other countries are over right now.
TAPPER: Ivan Watson in Hong Kong, thank you so much.
Also in our world lead today, David Rivera, a former Republican congressman from Florida, has been arrested on several federal charges which include illegally lobbying for Venezuela. Rivera, who served in Congress for 2011 and 2013, made a $50 million deal in 2017, authorities say with Venezuela's state-run oil company in his in exchange for his attempts to ease relations between Venezuela and the United States.
CNN's Carlos Suarez is following the story for us.
Carlos, tell us more about the charges against Rivera.
CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, that 34-PAGE, indictment includes how the Cuban American Republican was paid millions of dollars by the Venezuelan socialist government to improve relations between the U.S. in Venezuela.
Now, according to the feds, Rivera and a codefendant, they set up meetings with U.S. officials in 2017 and 2018, all in an effort to push the Trump administration not to impose additional sanctions against the Venezuelan government.
And in exchange, while the government there would agree to, quote, fair and free elections. That's, of course, something that never happened.
Prosecutor said that Rivera was paid millions of dollars from that $50 million contract that he had with the U.S. subsidiary of the state owned oil company in Venezuela, and, Jake, his attorneys ,well, they had no comment on the indictment.
TAPPER: And, Carlos what else do we know that rivers connection with U.S. politicians who are mentioned in the indictment?
SUAREZ: Well,, Jake none of the three officials that were enlisted in the indictment are named. We are talking about the U.S. senator from Florida, U.S. congressman from Texas, and a White House adviser.
But we know that the senator was Marco Rubio, because office confirmed the details to CNN. Now, the indictment describes a 2017 text message that Rivera sent Rubio before Rubio had a meeting at the White House. Rivera wrote, quote, remember, U.S. should facilitate not just support a negotiated solution. No vengeance, reconciliation.
Rubio's office was quick to point out that Rivera never said he was lobbying on behalf of the Venezuelan government and that Rubio, well, he never softened his stance on sanctions.
Important note here, Jake, that none of the officials listed in the indictment are accused of any wrongdoing -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Carlos Suarez, thank you so much.
Coming up next, why police are re-interviewing people as part of their investigation into the killings of four Idaho college students.
TAPPER: Police have begun the process of removing the personal belongings from the house where four Idaho college students were brutally killed three and a half weeks ago. Those items will be return to the victims' families. And now, Moscow police are insisting, the case is not cold even though three and a half weeks have passed without any suspects or arrest.
CNN's Nick Watt joins us now.
Nick, what do we know about the items we return to the families?
NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the police chief said that some of the families had asked for these items to be returned to them. He said that maybe they hold fond memories, maybe they're items that the parents had given to their kids, and he said that he hopes that in some way, this can help even just a little bit with their process of healing.
The chief also states that, remember, this has an active crime scene. You mentioned three and a half weeks since these murders. The weapon has not been found. No suspect in custody. And there is growing frustration among the families and the public and the slow progress of this investigation or at least the slow progress from the way we see it from the public angle. We don't entirely know exactly what is going on behind closed doors with this investigation.
TAPPER: Right, but the families of the victims have been complaining publicly too. The police chief told one etiology to reentering some folks. Where does investigation stand?
WATT: Well, he said that, lots of people so far have been ruled out. Nobody has been ruled in. And the chief is saying that, we can go, back and we can we will go back and we have gone back to reinterview people listening major information rises. And maybe to ask the same questions but unsightly different ways just to make sure we are getting the right information. He stresses that this is common practice in any investigation.
Now, he also is at pains to say that we are making progress in this investigation. Detectives right now are coming through about six and a half thousand tips that have come in so far. But police are asking for more tips, for more information.
This week, they are looking into a number of things. One of them is exactly where two of the victims were in about the five hours before they were murdered. They are looking for Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle. They were apparently at a frat house. But police are saying, listen, if you had any interaction with them whatsoever, please let us know because that could help us put together a picture of exactly what happened that night -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Nick Watt, thank you so. Appreciate it.
Coming up, the raid uncovering a far-right plot to overthrow Germany's government, and how a castle ended up part of the crime scene.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
This hour, thousands of police searching homes, including a castle belonging to the alleged ring leader of a group far right extremists. The plot to overthrow Germany's government that has some eerie similarities to what happened January 6th, 2021, here in the U.S.
Plus, sources now say investigators are zeroing in on two possible motives for that North Carolina power attack. Both involve extremist behavior.
And, leading this hour, the Supreme Court today hearing arguments in a case that could theoretically completely upend the American elections system. At issue, whether state legislatures can have the ultimate power over the will of the people. In minutes, we are going to talk to the attorney general of the state in dispute.
But our coverage starts with the CNN's Jessica Schneider who listened to the Supreme Court oral arguments study on why this case could be the most important case in the history of our American democracy.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over: Who controls U.S. elections? That's the central question before the Supreme Court today. It's a case that revolves around an obscure legal theory that says state legislatures should have the final say on election procedures and redistricting, not state courts.