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Don Lemon Tonight
Biden Faces New Tests From Powerful Adversaries Russia, China; CNN Exclusive: Top Pence Aide Cooperating With Jan. 6 Committee; Democracy At Risk; MI School Shooting Prosecutor: "We Haven't Ruled Out Charging Anyone"; NYC To Implement Vaccine Mandate For All Private Sector Workers; Jussie Smollett Takes Stand In His Criminal Trial. Aired 11p-12a ET
Aired December 06, 2021 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DON LEMON, CNN HOST (on camera): At the same time, the president is imposing a diplomatic boycott on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Also tonight, a CNN exclusive. We are learning that Marc Short, the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, is cooperating with the January 6th Committee.
And actor Jussie Smollett takes the witness stand in his own defense at his criminal trial where he is accused of staging a fake hate crime and lying to Chicago police.
But I want to bring in now CNN White House correspondent John Harwood and Ambassador William Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Gentlemen, good evening to you. Thank you for joining us.
John, the president is facing enormous international challenges. In just hours, Biden will be on a call with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who right now is amassing Russian troops on the Ukraine border. The CIA director is saying just tonight that Russia could act in a sweeping way. How high are the stakes for tomorrow's call?
JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They're huge, Don, for the reason that you just outlined. That is the threat of a Russian invasion is very high. They've prepositioned assets in order to carry that out. That's something that the United States and its western allies very much don't want to happen.
That's why they're talking about extremely severe economic sanctions, including unplugging Russia from the global financial system, which would be a very serious step to take, and you don't know how Russia would react to that.
But we've seen that it's very difficult, given the fact that the United States is not prepared to commit troops to resist Russian aggression in Ukraine. It's very difficult to stop. George W. Bush couldn't stop it. Barack Obama couldn't stop it. Donald Trump didn't want to stop it. And by the way, that's part of the political backdrop of this call.
Remember, Russia assisted Donald Trump's campaign in 2016. Donald Trump then responded by trying to shield Russia by suggesting maybe Ukraine was responsible. He also tried to pressure the Ukrainian president, who Vladimir Putin is now trying to destabilize, to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. The president refused and, of course, that resulted in President Trump's impeachment.
So, a big political backdrop to the call, in addition to the national security issues.
LEMON: It certainly is. You set it up well for us. Ambassador, I want you to weigh in now because the U.S. is weighing new sanctions against Putin's inner circle if Russia invades Ukraine. How likely do you think it is that Russia will invade, and how would you describe the threat level at this point, at this moment?
WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: So, I'd say the threat level is very high because, in answer to your first question, it's hard to say. No one can get inside to Mr. Putin's mind. He has done this kind of thing. He has invaded Ukraine before. So, we know he can do it. He can make that decision.
My bet is he hasn't decided which way to go. He must know that a decision to invade will be very costly, not just in the way that John just described, that is the sanctions that could be -- that probably would be imposed on Russia, but also just in terms of soldiers dying, Russian soldiers dying.
Ukrainian military is much stronger now than it was seven years ago when Russia first invaded. It is better equipped. It's better trained. It's got better weapons. We have provided lethal weapons to the Ukrainians. So, it will be bloody if he decides to do that.
On the other hand, he sees Ukraine kind of slipping out of his grasp and it's only going in one direction. So, time is not on his side. So, in answer to your first question, I'd say 50/50, and they need to be prepared.
LEMON: Interesting. John, the White House is confirming today that the Biden administration will have a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics over China's human rights abuses, but athletes are still going to be going there. Will this really pressure the Chinese government and how do you think they're going to respond to this?
HARWOOD: Not all that much. You know, it will create some bad publicity for the Chinese, but it's not going to fundamentally disrupt the games in a significant way. And I think there's a reason for that.
Joe Biden was in the Senate when Jimmy Carter in 1980 decided to boycott the Olympics in Moscow over Russia's invasion of -- aggression in Afghanistan. That did not work out particularly well for Jimmy Carter. It became a bit of a political albatross.
I think Joe Biden is not interest instead that. So, you heard Jen Psaki from the White House podium say today, we support U.S. athletes. We're not going to wreck all their years of training. So, they take the step of not sending diplomats.
HARWOOD: That gets noticed. It shines a spotlight on some of those human rights issues. We will see whether or not in Beijing the U.S. athletes raise those issues as well. But I think this is a modest step.
LEMON: Ambassador, Russia is building up to menace Ukraine and China. You know, China is acting more aggressive than ever towards Taiwan. Do leaders like Putin and Xi believe that the U.S. is too caught up with domestic issues to step in and are they right?
TAYLOR: I don't think they believe that the U.S. is diverted to only domestic issues. I do think, however, that the Chinese are watching the United States' response to President Putin's threat against Ukraine.
I think the Chinese will be interested to see how strongly -- what kind of pressure the United States can put, what kind of costs the United States can impose on Russia if they do invade, because the Chinese have this -- as we know, have designs on Taiwan, and if they see that the United States is trying to accommodate the Russians, trying to appease the Russians, the Chinese will take a lesson.
LEMON: Ambassador, thank you. John, I appreciate it.
So, I want to turn now to CNN's exclusive reporting. The former chief of staff to the vice president, former Vice President Mike Pence, Marc Short, is cooperating with the committee investigating January 6th.
So, joining me now, CNN's senior legal analyst Elie Honig and CNN political commentator Charlie Dent. Good to see both of you. Thanks so much.
Elie, let's begin with you. You say that Marc Short could end up being a huge witness. He was in the Capitol with Pence on January 6th, at a key Oval Office meeting on January 4th where Trump tried to convince Pence to overturn the election results. What do you think Short can tell this committee, Elie?
ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Don, Marc Short and witnesses like him may be the committee's most realistic chance to get a firsthand full and truthful account of what was happening in those key days and meetings leading up to January 6th, and also what was happening on January 6th, what it was like to be side by side with Mike Pence when he was getting ushered out of the Senate chamber as that mob attacked. So, I think Marc Short is going to be a crucial witness here.
And look, the committee has put a lot of focus on its battles with Bannon and Jeffrey Clark and soon probably Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, but let's be realistic here, those people are never going to testify fully and truthfully. It's going to have to fall to people like Marc Short to tell us the real story here.
LEMON: Charlie, Short is a key figure working with the committee. There are so many others who are stonewalling, exerting executive privilege or either pleading the Fifth. How important do you think this testimony will be in getting to the truth?
CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, FORMER PENNSYLVANIA REPRESENTATIVE: I think Marc Short's testimony will be extraordinarily important. What's most interesting is he seems to be a friendly witness. It also seems to be pretty evident that he's doing this with the blessing of his boss and friend, Mike Pence.
And as Elie just said, Marc Short was in the room, in the White House, and with the vice president in the Capitol and was, of course, working with the vice president to make sure that the election was, in fact, certified.
So, I think there's a lot of information to be gotten from Marc Short. We're going to learn a lot from him and probably learn a lot about the president's state of mind and the actions of John Eastman and others in the White House who came up with these crackpot legal theories to try to overturn the outcome of the election.
LEMON: So, look, more from Jamie's (ph) reporting here, Elie. Sources telling Jamie Gangel (ph) that the committee is getting significant cooperation from Pence's team. Is the committee taking advantage of a rift here? It's kind of similar to what Charlie just answered.
HONIG: Exactly. That's exactly what I would do, looking at this from a prosecutorial angle or investigative angle. That is what you have to do. You have to look at really two questions. Does the person have access? And when you look at Marc Short, he was literally in the room on key occasions.
And then the second thing was what's the motivation here? Where does the loyalty sit? Clearly, Marc Short and other people around Mike Pence, their loyalty is to Mike Pence, and it seems, at least some of them, the loyalty is to telling the true story of what happened as opposed to the true die-hard MAGA types who are going to go down in flames or do whatever they have to do to protect Donald Trump.
So, there's a key distinction there, and I think the committee is absolutely right to focus on that and try to get whatever information they can out of that rift.
LEMON: Charlie -- I almost called you Marc, Charlie.
DENT: I got more hair.
HONIG: Good one.
LEMON: Do you think Short would be cooperating if he didn't get the go ahead from Pence? You said -- you said you think he's doing it with his blessing. Are you sure about that?
DENT: Well, I can't be completely sure, but I think Marc Short would do it anyway.
DENT: But I'm just looking at the politics of this situation. I think Mike Pence, you know, wants to secure his place in history as the guy who stood up and did the right things.
LEMON: He does. But at times, though, it seems like he's speaking up for the president. I'm very proud of what I did, you know, as the lean in and the Pence voice, and then -- go on.
DENT: That's true. I mean, look, yes, he was very obsequious to President Trump up until this moment. And then, you know, he and Marc Short and a few of the other advisers, you know, they did the right thing when they had to. They pushed back. And I think they want to get the story out.
I think it's pretty evident, too, that Mike Pence may want to run for president at some point. Whether he'll be successful or not, I have no idea. But the good news is, for him, I think he can put out a narrative, the truth from his perspective, and there's no better person to do that than a loyalist like Marc Short, who is first loyal to the vice president far more than to President Trump.
So, I think this is a really -- I think -- I absolutely believe that Short is doing this with the blessing of the vice president. Whether the vice president will admit that or not, we'll probably never know.
LEMON: Obsequious is the perfect word for the relationship between, you know, Pence's relationship with Trump. That was actually a perfect definition or description there.
Listen, Charlie, we know Pence's aspirations, right, to run for president. Most people just -- they want to be president. They want to be vice president. And it's good, right? Look at the current president now. Is the report that points the finger to Trump and his allies something that he could be anticipating?
DENT: Yeah. Look, I think if you had to run against Donald Trump for president, especially if you're Vice President Pence, you have to draw a hard contrast. And I don't think anybody wants to be a mini-Trump if they're running. They have to actually draw a hard contrast and say why they're different.
And this is one case where the vice president was very different than the president. They were on completely opposite side of the election certification. Pence did the right thing and Trump was trying to obviously do the wrong thing.
So, I think this is a case where Pence can show some difference and there's some daylight between Trump and Pence on this issue. So, I were Mike Pence and I want to run, I'm going to need to find some separation issues. He's got a good one.
LEMON: But it's not just separation. I mean, don't you think if you're going to, you know, go after the king, you got to wound him pretty good because he's going to come after you, especially this character.
DENT: Well, that's what they say. If you're going to kill the king, you better kill the king, right? It's the old saying.
LEMON: Yeah. We mean that as a metaphor, not --
DENT: As a metaphor, figuratively speaking. Exactly. But, yeah, look, he's got to take him down. I mean, all these people who are running against Donald Trump in the previous election, in 2016, they really didn't try to lay a glove on him too much. They thought, somehow, he was going to implode. But in a campaign, you have to draw a sharp contrast and you have to explain why the other guy is unfit and why you are fit.
DENT: And there's no sugarcoating this.
LEMON: I'll tell you what my prediction is for all of this, but I'll tell you off camera, and then we'll see if it becomes true. We will put it in an envelope.
But, Elie, listen, the committee is engaged in legal and political battles with people like Steve Bannon and Jeffrey Clark and may not get anything useful from them. Can people like Marc Short provide enough information to get to real conclusions about who's responsible for that day?
HONIG: Don, one of the realities of any complex investigation is you're never going to get all of the facts. And I think the committee is right to take on the fights that they've taken on and to play hardball with Steve Bannon and I think potentially soon Jeffrey Clark and Mark Meadows. I think they have to do that. They can't let these folks just sort of wriggle away and give them nothing.
That said, you still have people in the key rooms at the key times, who I think have a sense of duty, enough of a sense of patriotism, perhaps enough of a fear of being held in contempt, that they're going to do the right thing and going to tell us what happened. So, maybe that January 4th Oval Office meeting.
We're not going to hear from Donald Trump. We are not going to hear from Mike Pence. We're probably not going to hear from John Eastman. But the fourth person in that room was Marc Short. And he can tell us, he can tell the committee what happened in that room. So, if you attack it that way, I do think you can get towards the truth here.
LEMON: All right. Charlie, Elie, thank you very much, sirs. See you soon. Obviously from our previous conversation, the warning lights are blinking red for our democracy, and time is running out to make sure the next election is truly secure. If January 6th was a trial run, will they succeed next time?
LEMON (on camera): So, the former president is eyeing another run for the White House in 2024 and his allies who still push the big lie of election fraud are vying for election jobs at the state and local level with time running out to protect our democracy. I know, that is depressing, but is the truth.
Here's more now tonight from CNN's Sara Murray.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Donald Trump toys with a 2024 run --
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (voice- over): I think if I decide to run, I'll get it very easily.
MURRAY (voice-over): His supporters, who wrongly believe the 2020 presidential race was stolen, are jockeying for positions to play a more hands on role in the next election.
In Michigan, a microcosm of a strategy Trump allies like Steve Bannon hope to deploy in battleground states nationwide.
STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST AND SENIOR COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: We're taking over all the elections.
MURRAY (voice-over): In 2020, Wayne County, Michigan briefly spiraled into chaos as Republicans on the bipartisan board of canvassers considered refusing to certify the county election results. They eventually did so.
Now, those who made wild claims about 2020 are joining those boards in several Michigan counties, like Nancy Tiseo, who was appointed to the Macomb County board of canvassers this year.
In November 2020, she tweeted that Trump should use the Insurrection Act and delay the Electoral College so military tribunals can first be set up to properly investigate fraud claims, and later urged Trump not to concede.
UNKNOWN: Have you had any experience actually working an election as one of the election workers?
NANCY TISEO, APPOINTED TO MACOMB COUNTY BOARD OF CANVASSERS: No, but I actually did help a lot of them.
MURRAY (voice-over): Election officials from both parties stood up to Trump in 2020, but democracy advocates aren't convinced these election skeptics would do the same.
NORM EISEN, EXECUTIVE CHAIR, STATES UNITED DEMOCRACY CENTER: What we're seeing is the use of out and out lies spreading across the county to change the way elections are run in this country. Really a global model for how election should be run is now being undermined and, in some cases, hijacked.
MURRAY (voice-over): When Trump hopes state legislatures would sit alternate electors and overturn Joe Biden's victory, GOP House and Senate leaders in Michigan refused to go along with the plan.
Now, State Representative Matt Maddock, a Trump acolyte who tried and failed to put forth alternate electors in 2020 --
UNKNOWN: These are the rest of the elector.
MURRAY (voice-over): -- wants to be the state's next GOP House leader.
MATT MADDOCK, MEMBER OF THE MICHIGAN HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: We've got about a handful of legislators in Michigan. They're going to be sending a letter to Vice President Pence today telling him not to certify the Michigan electors.
MURRAY (voice-over): After secretary of state stood up to Trump's effort to meddle in the vote, he's backing election deniers like Kristina Karamo, who said Trump was the rightful winner in Michigan.
KRISTINA KARAMO, MICHIGAN SECRETARY OF STATE CANDIDATE: Very excited to get President Trump's endorsement. I was able to talk to him. He's extremely supportive of me for secretary of state.
MURRAY (voice-over): The former president has also endorsed backers of his false fraud claims running for secretary of state in two other key battlegrounds, Arizona and Georgia.
After 18 Republican attorney generals rallied behind a lawsuit to try to upend the 2020 election results, Trump is aiming to tip the scale in those races too, backing Matthew DePerno, a purveyor of election misinformation for Michigan attorney general.
MATTHEW DEPERNO, MICHIGAN SECRETARY OF STATE CANDIDATE: By extrapolation and based on other data we've seen from other parts of the state, we can say that there was fraud throughout the state of Michigan.
MURRAY (voice-over): For Democrats like Jocelyn Benson, running for re-election as secretary of state, it's a sign the challenges to democracy are far from over. JOCELYN BENSON, MICHIGAN SECRETARY OF STATE: Everything we have
overcome this far was truly just the beginning, and it's not hyperbolic to look at 2020 as a prelude to a much bigger, much more significant challenge to our democracy that is looming ahead of us with the 2024 presidential election.
MURRAY (on camera): Tiseo, Maddock, DePerno and Karamo either didn't respond to CNN's calls for comment or they declined to do an interview. And for these folks who are still running for elected office, it is still a little unclear where their path forward is going to be. A number of them are facing republican primaries. They're still going to face off against Democrats in the general election. That's true of these candidates running in Michigan. It's true in these candidates running in a number of these other battleground states. Don?
LEMON: All right. Sara Murray, thank you very much, I appreciate that.
I want to turn now to CNN contributor and Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg. Ben, it is good to see you, sir. Thank you for joining us. So, we heard there in Sara Murray's story how experts are concerned that the big lie and the insurrection of the January 6 are just the rehearsals to outright steal the election in 2024. How real is this threat?
BENJAMIN GINSBERG, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, there are a lot of pieces that are going in place. That means people should be on guard. That includes what Sara was reporting about. About Trump supporters trying to get into election official roles. Who knows for what motive? There's certainly a lot of speculation about that.
And you've got the rules of the game being governed by something called the Electoral Count Act, which is a big, antiquated law. It, in fact, would just be a devil's workshop if it ever became outcome determiner if there had been a presidential election.
LEMON: You know, Ben, we are -- as you said, there are things being put into place. You know, we're seeing it all over the country. The Republicans passing laws to restrict voting and putting themselves in positions where they can tip the scales in their own favor. Rejecting electors, appointing their own. I mean, it didn't work in 2020, barely, right? But my question is, what happens next time?
GINSBERG: Well, I think next time, there's going to be a lot of attention paid to these issues that are being surfaced now. And what is true in every election is it is never quite what people think it's going to be three years out.
So, all these preparations for dealing with election officials in place for the wrong reasons, intimidation of existing election officials, changes to get state legislatures more power, providing accounting and casting to be done by pals instead of pros, all those things are really important. I do think things never turn out the same factually. And look at a couple of things that you know are going to be different. Number one, Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris is going to be chairing the Senate, not somebody of Donald Trump or the Republican Party. There's no way to know at this stage who's going to have majorities after the 2024 election to be able to do similar shenanigans.
GINSBERG: If they're, in fact, are efforts in the states to tilt votes to overturn the popular vote, then that's a situation that is what people really do need to game out. But we've never had two really tight elections in a row in this country.
LEMON: Listen, I want to get to what you wrote in the "National Review," but just really quickly, you know, many people are saying that this is a break glass moment. You don't seem to be there or convinced that it is at this point. Maybe heading in that direction. Am I -- am I reading that right?
GINSBERG: Well, I'm really worried. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't have written that column for the "National Review" if I wasn't nor formed a legal defense network for election officials who are being threatened with prosecution.
LEMON: Let me tell people what's up there, and then let you continue, because this is your new article in the "National Review" about what Congress can do to safeguard the 2024 election. So, democracy is at stake, but go on, you were saying that you're really concerned, but go on.
GINSBERG: Well, it's really concerning just because of all the different pieces that appear to be being put in place by Trump forces and by Republicans in the states. So, that's really important. Should it come down to a really close election or one that one side wants to make close because of what happened in the different states, it's all governed by something called the Electoral Count Act.
That's what Republicans on January 6th tried to put in place to help Trump and failed this time, but that was a blueprint that Trump folks did. That ought to frighten both sides because again, you don't know the electoral situation in January of 2025.
LEMON: Yeah. Listen, Ben Ginsberg has a great article in "National Review" about what Congress can do to safeguard the 2024 election. I suggest you pick it up. We thank you for joining us. Thank you, sir, appreciate it.
GINSBERG: Thanks, Don.
LEMON: The prosecutor in charge says that the Michigan school shooting was preventable, and she is not ruling out charges for school officials. Plus, New York City implementing one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the country. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
LEMON: Tonight, police in Michigan executing a search warrant at the home of the man who allegedly helped the parents of the Oxford High School shooting suspect before they were arrested on Saturday. Police say they questioned the man extensively, that he is being cooperative and has not been charged with a crime.
Fifteen-year-old Ethan Crumbley is charged with murdering four classmates at his high school. His parents charged with involuntary manslaughter.
So, I want to bring in now law professor and expert on students' rights, Catherine J. Ross, who is also the author of "A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment." We're glad to have you, professor. Thank you for joining us. So --
Thank you for having me, Don.
LEMON: Sure thing. Let's walk through some red flags that came up in school. November 29th, a teacher reports that Crumbley was looking up ammunition on his phone in class. His mother was contacted, didn't respond. Text messages show her telling her son -- quote -- "LOL, I'm not mad at you, you have to learn not to get caught." The school was concerned enough to tell the parent. Why did it stop there?
CATHERINE J. ROSS, AUTHOR, LAW PROFESSOR: They -- the first day, there might not have been enough red flags in place. But within 24 hours, one of Ethan's teachers saw a very disturbing page that he had doodled on, drawn on and written on. And it included the words "blood" everywhere with an illustration of someone who appeared to have been shot at least twice, the words "help me," messaging about being unable to control voices, and the teacher was appropriately very disturbed.
We don't know publicly whether it was one teacher who was involved in both incidents or whether two teachers were sufficiently aware to flag this behavior. And so, both times he was removed from class and apparently brought to the guidance office.
On the day of the shootings, there was much more to be concerned about because these drawings could be interpreted as a threat of violence directed toward the school and they already had the information that he was looking for bullets the day before. So, now we have a context that should have been very alarming.
ROSS: The school officials have emphasized -- the superintendent said, well, he didn't have a disciplinary record, and that is a rather narrow view of how to assess context in an emerging situation because this is new knowledge about a student.
LEMON: So, let me jump in here, because we do know that it was two different teachers, okay? So, for both acts. But the school held a meeting with his parents at this point, professor, and told them to get him into counseling within 48 hours. And then they let him back into class after class after his parents resisted taking him home.
LEMON: Why let him back in class?
ROSS: That is, to me, the single most shocking aspect of this whole incident. First of all, they had 90 minutes to think about what to do before the parents arrived. The parents had not been responsive the day before, didn't respond to voice messages about the incident, about the ammunition.
The parents refused to take him home and the school let the parents abdicate that responsibility. It isn't up to parents to decide whether their children remain in school or not or what penalties a school might impose. That is entirely in the school's discretion.
And if the school were to suspend somebody wrongfully, the remedy is later, these parents can follow procedure or even bring a lawsuit to demand that that be taken off the student's record.
So, at that point, the school should have said, if you won't voluntarily take him home, we are suspending him. He has to leave the building. That was in their power to do.
And you were correct to mention the fact, the very important fact that the school said he must be in counseling within 24 hours. And it wasn't a suggestion. It was --
LEMON: Forty-eight hours it was.
ROSS: It was a demand and the school backed it up by saying, if we don't know that he's in counseling within 48 hours, we're going to turn the family over to protective services. So, it wasn't a casual request.
And the thing that really troubles me the most is that it's clear that the school had reason to be concerned that Ethan could be a danger to himself or to others in the school building because that's the only explanation of why they said he has to go to counseling.
LEMON: Before I let you go, I want to ask you, do you -- the prosecutor has said that she's not ruling out charging anyone, including school officials. Quickly, do you think they'll face charges?
ROSS: I would be surprised. And if they do, it would be probably unprecedented if not virtually unprecedented. I haven't been able to find any reported cases in which a school official was criminally charged after a school shooting.
LEMON: What kind of charges?
ROSS: It'd probably be a negligence charge.
ROSS: Anything more than that, they would have to show intent. I can't imagine a situation in which there would be intent, much less intent that could be proven. That would be --
LEMON: You said it would be tough, right? You don't think that they will.
ROSS: Very tough.
LEMON: Yeah. Well --
ROSS: The prosecutors might do it to make a point.
LEMON: Yeah. We'll see.
ROSS: I think it would be more productive to focus on the lessons that school officials and parents can learn.
LEMON: Right on. Thank you, professor.
ROSS: Thank you.
LEMON: Thank you. Appreciate your time. I enjoyed having you. Thank you.
COVID cases are on the rise again, and New York City is enacting the most expansive vaccine mandate in the country to fight it.
Plus, former "Empire" star Jussie Smollett taking the stand today defending himself.
LEMON: New York City is set to implement the most sweeping vaccination mandate in the country, and unease over the Omicron variant and rise in COVID cases are prompting stricter testing laws for international travelers.
CNN's Jason Carroll has more now.
JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New York City's mayor has made it official: Anyone working in the city will be subject to a vaccine mandate. The mayor announcing all private sector employees must be vaccinated by December 27th. Public city employees have been under a vaccine mandate since October.
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK: We got to up the ante here. We've got to encourage people even more get that second dose because that's what give you so much more protection.
CARROLL (voice-over): And while some business organizations say they were caught off guard by the announcement, some medical experts support the new mandate.
MICHAEL MINA, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, HARVARD T.H. CHAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: But it is a smart public health move. I think we should have -- we should set the right expectations about what the purpose of these vaccine mandates are.
CARROLL (voice-over): In addition, beginning December 14th, children in New York City ages 5 to 11 will be required to show proof of at least one shot before being allowed inside restaurants, gyms or entertainment venues.
Also today, new nationwide restrictions are in place for international airline passengers arriving to the United States. Those travelers must test negative for COVID within 24 hours of departure. No test means passengers will be banned from their flight. Until now, international travelers heading to the U.S. have three days before their flight to show a negative test.
Meanwhile, the Omicron variant spreads quickly, although emerging evidence showing at this point it may not be as severe as the Delta variant, which continues to drive a surge in hospitalizations in the U.S.
ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISOR TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or really doesn't cause any severe illness comparable to Delta.
FAUCI: But thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity.
CARROLL (voice-over): Nationwide, cases of coronavirus are rising. For the first time in two months, the U.S. this weekend averaged more than 100,000 new COVID-19 cases per day.
But an encouraging development on the booster front. A new unpublished study has found using the J&J vaccine as a booster for people initially immunized with the Pfizer vaccine produced a strong immune response with patients. This comes as CDC data shows the pace of vaccinations is rising with an average of more than 2.2 million doses being administered daily.
UNKNOWN: It's encouraging. We still have tens of millions of people who have chosen not to vaccinate themselves or their children in this country.
CARROLL (voice-over): Jason Carroll, CNN, New York. (END VIDEOTAPE)
LEMON (on camera): All right. Jason, thank you very much. Defending himself. Former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett taking the stand today testifying for hours. We've got the details after this.
LEMON: Jussie Smollett, the actor who is accused of lying to police about an alleged hate crime in 2019, testifying in his own defense today. At the time, Smollett told police that two men had attacked him in the street, yelling racist, anti-gay remarks, put a noose around his neck and powered bleach on him.
Smollett has repeatedly denied staging the racist and homophobic attack against himself. He is charged with six counts of disorderly conduct on suspicion of making false reports to police.
Joining me now with the very latest from the trial is CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez. Omar, good evening to you. So, Smollett was on the stand today for hours. The prosecution pressing him under cross-examination under key details of his story. Tell us about that, please.
OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Don. So, the day ended during cross-examination. Jussie Smollett, for one, denied tampering with the noose seen around his neck after the alleged hate crime attack in January of 2019 to make it look like a more serious lynching.
However, he did tell jurors that he took that noose off at one point, but put it back on before police got there, because he and his manager agreed that police should see the evidence. He later said right after that it looked less like a noose once he had put it back on the second time.
Smollett was also asked about why he didn't turn his cell phone over to police in the initial investigation after the alleged hate crime attack, and the prosecutor specifically pressed him, asking if it was because he was worried that it would show extensive communications with Bola Osundairo on the days leading up to the alleged hate crime attack, and Smollett simply said, no, because at that point, Bola was not a factor in any sort of issue at the time, Don.
LEMON: You know, it's really risky to put a defendant on the stand. Why did the defense do that? And what were they trying to prove, Omar?
JIMENEZ: Well, for one, they were trying to push back on some of the major points in the prosecution's case. For one, they went back or Smollett took jurors back to the car ride where the Osundairo brothers had testified was when Smollett first brought up this alleged scheme. And the defense attorney asked him if that was what happened. Smollett said, no, all they did was drive around and smoke blunts. Now, when the defense attorney specifically pushed in and said, at any point in time, did you talk to Bola Osundairo about a hoax, he answered emphatically, no. And Smollett said that he would do this routinely, drive around smoking, sometimes do it by himself with Bola, too many times to count, were his words.
And separately, after an alleged hate crime letter was sent to Empire Studios about a week prior, Smollett said he was offered security but refused it. The reason that is important is because the prosecution has argued that one of his main motivators for allegedly staging this hate crime was because he believed Empire wasn't taking the threats against him seriously.
LEMON: So, Smollett tried to -- he said that -- he testified, I should say, that he had the other Osundairo brother to be his trainer. Am I correct? But he repeatedly asked to also be his security guard. What point was he trying to make there?
JIMENEZ: That's right. So, this goes back to the point of when the alleged hate crime letter was received. And Smollett testified that Bola had previously asked Smollett to be his security, so much so to the point that Smollett thought it was a running joke. But that after this letter was received, those asks only intensified.
And the reason that's important is because the defense has argued that one of the reasons that they believe the Osundairo brothers carried out a real attack was because they were trying to intimidate him into hiring them, or at least Bola, for security.
LEMON: Got it. So, he also alleged a relationship with one of the brothers. How does that affect the case?
JIMENEZ: Well, that was something that came in contrast to what Bola Osundairo testified. But Smollett said that he had multiple sexual encounters with Bola Osundairo, which again Bola had denied at previous testimony.
But the reason that's important is because the defense has argued that one of the motivators for the Osundairo brothers doing this, again, what they say was a real hate crime attack, was Ola Osundairo, the brother, being homophobic.
JIMENEZ: That may have been one of the drivers of this. So, that was really getting to the heart of that argument. Smollett said he didn't tell police at the time because he had issues with weaponizing sexuality. But that, of course, in regards to the testimony in this trial was the real significant portion going to the defense theory.
LEMON: What's next in the trial, Omar?
JIMENEZ: Well, we finished with closing or we finished with cross- examination on this day. And so, that's where we're going to pick things back up in the morning. The judge had told jurors that he was 100 percent sure the case would be in their hands by Tuesday, but now is saying that may get pushed into Wednesday. And that came after an initial estimate of this being done in four to five days. We are now past that, Don.
LEMON: All right. Thank you, Omar Jimenez. We appreciate your reporting. And thank you for watching, everyone. Our coverage continues.