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TSA Expects 20 Million People To Travel For Thanksgiving; Ukraine Says, Russian-Controlled Forces Conducting Large-Scale Exercise; Jury Finds Rally Organizers Liable For Violence, Awards $26 Million In Damages. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired November 24, 2021 - 10:30   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Today is expected to be one of the busiest travel days of the year as Americans prepare to celebrate a more normal Thanksgiving.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, more normal would be nice.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher joins us from the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. How are the crowds? I mean, I saw times where the lines look really long. Now it doesn't look so bad.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Of course, because we're doing this live hit right now there are no crowds. This is about the second lull we've had for the day. But throughout the morning things have been much busier than we've seen throughout the pandemic. I've traveled frequently through the past two years unlike a lot of the people here at the airport today. A lot of people who are flying, this is the first time they've been inside of an airport since the pandemic began.

According to TSA they screened more than 2 million passengers across the country both Monday and Tuesday. That's about 90 percent of those 2019 numbers for those same days. And they're expecting those numbers to get even larger as the week goes on. Today, one of the busiest days, though they say the expectation is Sunday will be the busiest of all.

Now, AAA is expecting a roughly 80 percent increase in travel from last year during the pandemic over Thanksgiving weekend. Of course, there are concerns about staffing levels at the airports and for the airlines. Basically, the rule of thumb is get here earlier than you think you need to and make sure you're patient and bring a mask because they're required in all airports and inside all airplanes.

HILL: Dianne Gallagher with the latest for us, Dianne, thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.

Americans seem to be a little bit less concerned about the risk of holiday gatherings this year. Take a look at this new Axios poll. Just 31 percent of Americans believe that gatherings carry a large or moderate risk. A year ago, that number was 64 percent. We also know about half of those who plan to attend a gathering, expect they'll be around unvaccinated people or don't know if unvaccinated people will be there or not.

Joining me to discuss, Dr. Carlos del Rio, he is the executive associate dean of Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Look, unfortunately, vaccines have been made political. For some reason, it's become a crazy question to ask people. I'm wondering if people are unsure about the status of folks, where they're going to be, is that a question that you ask or is it like politics and you shelf the vaccines as a conversation at Thanksgiving?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO, EXECUTIVE ASSOCIATE DEAN, EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT GRADY: Erica, it's really hard. I think we should be open and say I'm vaccinated, I'm not vaccinated. If you haven't been vaccinated, you can get tested and decrease the risk of transmitting the infection.

In fact, if you're going to have a large gathering and if you're going to be in a place where there's a lot of community transmission or people are coming in from states with significant transmission, getting tested, even if you're vaccinated, is not a bad idea.

HILL: So, if you can do it, not a bad idea. We're looking at -- the CDC puts out these ensemble forecasts on a regular basis. What struck is the one that we got today shows that the number of new deaths, COVID deaths and hospitalizations, both likely to increase over the next four years.

Now, that's on the heels of last week's forecast that was looking at deaths being stable or uncertain. What does that tell you about where we're headed perhaps post-Thanksgiving?

DEL RIO: Well, the first thing that it tells us is that this pandemic is not over. And I think while many of us wish that this was over, the reality is it's still not over and we still need to be careful. We're in a better place than we've been before because we have vaccines, we have better therapies.


But the reality is that unvaccinated people are still at very high risk of infection.

And as a country, 56 percent of people -- 58 percent of people in this country are vaccinated, but that means over 40 percent are still unvaccinated and they are at high risk of getting infected. So, if you're going to do something for this holiday season, as you prepare for the holiday, if you haven't been vaccinated, get vaccinated. It's good for yourself, it's good for your family, it's good for your community.

HILL: We're also hearing the -- get your booster if you haven't yet, a lot of talk about that. There's also a focus on what's happening overseas. I can't help but look at those headlines out of Europe every morning. We're seeing in France -- I think the vaccination rate in France is something like more than 75 percent, but there's talk about possible restrictions this morning being brought back.

When you see that, what should we be bracing for, if anything, here in this country? Does Europe sort of tell the tale of where we could be going?

DEL RIO: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think what we're learning is that this virus is incredibly tough to beat and has been over and over difficult at every single turn. In particular, this delta variant is highly, highly transmissible.

So, there are things we can do. You get 70, 80 percent of the population vaccinated, you're going to significantly decrease your risk. But we're nowhere close to that. I think that we have to stop making vaccines political. We really need to get people vaccinated and we really need to think about how can we decrease mortality in our country.

So far in 2021, more people have died from COVID than they did in 2020 despite the fact that we have vaccines. That, to me, is really incredibly sad.

HILL: Yes, it is. Dr. Carlos del Rio, I don't want to end on that note. So how about I end by wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving and just let you know we're grateful for all that you're doing not only in your community there in Atlanta but all of the knowledge and the wisdom you share with us on a regular basis here. Thank you.

DEL RIO: Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

SCIUTTO: I second that, Erica.

Still ahead this hour, as tensions build at the Ukrainian border with Russia, genuine concerns, CNN embeds with Ukraine's military taking a look at their ramp-up amid fears of a full-on Russian invasion.

But, first, here is a look at what else to watch today.



SCIUTTO: New this morning, the State Department is now warning Americans of a potentially volatile situation near Ukraine's border with Russia. This comes in an updated security alert as U.S. concerns, European concerns of an invasion rise. The Kremlin calls those concerns hysteria. Ukrainian military, however, is racing to upgrade its military fleet.

I'm joined now by CNN's Natasha Bertrand, also Fred Pleitgen, he just embedded with the Ukrainian military.

Fred, I'm curious how seriously they're taking this threat and what you saw there on the frontlines. FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know what, they're taking it extremely seriously. They're taking it extremely seriously on several fronts, Jim. On the one hand, of course, you have that situation in the east of Ukraine where those troops have been amassing. You have the border with Belarus also. Of course, we always have to keep in mind that Alexander Lukashenko, the strong man of Belarus, also a big ally of Vladimir Putin.

And you have the situation in the Sea of Azov in the southeast of Ukraine. The Sea of Azov, of course, a point of big contention, there have been some standoffs there between the Russians and the Ukrainians. And we actually went on patrol with an artillery boat of the Ukrainian navy, which, of course, they understand they would be outgunned there by the Russians right now, but they do say they are going to stand their ground.

It was quite interesting because we were in a town called Berdyansk, which is a port town. And there, the Ukrainians are constructing a big new port. And what they just announced is that they've accelerated the construction of that port because they need to stage more ships there just to be ready if something like an invasion were to happen.

Of course, one of the things that we also saw is some satellite images came out that seemed to show big concentrations of Russian troops in the southeast of Russia, another huge concern for the U.S. and its allies and, of course, also for the Ukrainians as well.

And just in the past couple of hours, Jim, what we're hearing from the Ukrainians as they conducted some exercises, air force exercises, but they also say that they have worked on a draft law that would very soon allow them to very quickly draw up up to 200,000 reservists if the situation continues to deteriorate and would, in fact, turn into a real armed conflict.

Of course, the Ukrainians are saying they're taking it seriously, but they don't want it to get that far, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Natasha, we know that the Biden administration is taking this very seriously, as we reported a couple days ago, considering sending further lethal assistance, but even the possibility of trainers, advisers to Ukraine or the region. Does the White House believe this combination of these things, public warning, and also preparations are deterring Russia at this point?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. They seem to be taking a much different tact here than they have in the past when it comes to Russia' buildups and provocations. They're trying to be very public with their signaling about warning the Russians that, hey, the world is watching you right now, watching what you're doing on Ukraine's borders, in the hopes that it this will deter them from potentially launching that invasion, which some in the administration think could happen as soon as January or February, sometime in the winter.

[10:45:08] And the Ukrainians' tone really has changed on this as well after being briefed by the Americans about the situation there and about Russia's intentions. Of course, Putin has not decided whether or not there's going to be an invasion. That is very unclear at this point what his ultimate goals are going to be.

But they are sounding the alarm on this in a way that seems more stark than in the past. And this consideration about a military aid package, about potential advisers going to you Ukraine, that would be a very kind of dramatic escalation by the U.S. in an effort to protect the Ukrainians. And some in the administration are a bit weary of that because they say that could provoke the Russians even further.

So, they're hoping that with these very public messages that they're sending to the Russians, that they can do this diplomatically. And if not, well, there are a lot options that they can present.

SCIUTTO: There is a debate in the administration because you do have some administration officials who fear that greater moves like, for instance, additional supply of lethal assistance, like these anti-tank missiles, would further escalate and then that sparks a Russian response. And before you know it, you find yourself in a conflict. Where does that debate stand?

BERTRAND: Unclear at this point. So, the Defense Department has been pushing for stinger missiles to be sent to Ukraine which, of course, are anti-aircraft defense systems. But some in the administration think that that could be very provocative, right? And so they don't necessarily want to take that step just yet.

So, that's under debate. The other question under debate is whether or not the Defense Department could be sending helicopters to Ukraine that were originally destined for Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrew. Again, that would probably be seen by the Russians as kind of a provocation there, so still under debate.

But right now, the administration thinks sending more Javelins, sending some military advisers to the region could be a way to bolster the Ukrainians' defenses without necessarily heightening tensions even further with Russia.

SCIUTTO: And the goal there, raise the potential cost of a Russian evasion so it's not swift and easy. Natasha Bertrand, Fred Pleitgen, who joined us there from Ukraine, thanks very much. Erica?

HILL: Still to come this hour, white nationalists who organized and participated in a violent 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, rally, which turned deadly, have now been ordered to pay more than $26 million in damages. What are the chances that the plaintiffs will ever see that money? We'll take you live to Charlottesville, next.



HILL: The organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have been ordered to pay $26 million in damages after a jury found them liable for the violent event. Now, despite the jury being deadlock on two federal conspiracy claims, an attorney for the plaintiffs says that they are, quote, beyond thrilled with the verdict adding justice was served.

CNN's Elle Reeve is live in Charlottesville. She was there for the totality of this trial. The message for the verdict is being referenced a lot this morning as being incredibly important, Elle.

ELLE REEVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The jury was hung on the federal conspiracy claims but not on the Virginia State conspiracy claim. On that count the defendants tried to say they didn't know each other or they didn't know others were planning on provoking violence, but the jury didn't buy that. They have found every single defendant liable for the conspiracy claim.

And so what that says is that if you're organizing in radical politics and you've got a lot of people talking about the violence that they want to do, if you don't say, guys, you can't do that, if you're not the wet blanket who calms the conversation, then you could be held responsible.

HILL: Could be held responsible, interesting. There's also a lot of talk this morning about whether any of this money, right, will actually be seen. And a lot of folks are saying it's unlikely. Why is that?

REEVE: Well, first of all, most of the defendants don't have a lot of money. Only Defendant Richard Spencer comes from a large amount of family money. On top of that, on the conspiracy claim, the compensatory damages were quite low, but the punitive damages were really high. And the Supreme Court said that that ratio has to be a lot smaller. So, it's possible that the judge will lower the damages on that claim.

And, finally, Fields is responsible for half of it. I mean, he's in prison for life. It's going to be really hard to get any money out of that.

HILL: Yes, he certainly will, but definitely a certain symbolism there. Elle, I appreciate it. Thank you.

After spending 43 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, a Missouri man is finally free today. Kevin Strickland left the Western Missouri Correctional Center yesterday afternoon. He was convicted in 1978 of triple homicide after the lone survivor of the shooting falsely identified him as the gunman.

While speaking on New Day this morning, Strickland talked about the life moments he missed behind bars. Among them, his mother's passing. He also talked about the moment he was finally able to visit her grave.


KEVIN STRICKLAND, FREED AFTER 43 YEARS IN PRISON FOR CRIME HE DIDN'T COMMIT: To know my mother was underneath that dirt and I hadn't got a chance to visit with her in the last years because, due to her diminishing dementia state, it was -- I revisited those tears that I did when they told me I was guilty of a crime I didn't commit.



HILL: According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Strickland's wrongful imprisonment was the longest in Missouri history and one of the fourth longest in American history.

Thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Erica Hill. I hope you're able to enjoy a happy, safe Thanksgiving this year.

Alex Marquardt picks up our coverage after this short break.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Alex Marquardt in today for Kate Bolduan.

Here is what we're watching at this hour. Verdict watch, jury deliberations enter a second day in the Ahmaud Arbery trial.


Will jurors convict or acquit the three men accused of killing him?