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Omicron Uncertainty; Federal Appeals Court Hears Arguments on Trump Files; Mark Meadows to Testify Before January 6 Committee. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired November 30, 2021 - 14:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: The White House laid out its plan for the Omicron variant.

Now, the president's message is that Omicron is a cause for concern, but not for panic. And Dr. Anthony Fauci said the variant has been detected in 20 countries, but not yet in the U.S. Experts suspect this highly mutated variant may spread more easily and have some resistance to vaccines.

Scientists are now working to find out. The first data could be known in about a week.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Meanwhile, travel bans continue to multiply against South Africa, where the variant was first detected. The U.S. and at least 70 other nations have banned entry by foreign nationals coming from countries in Southern Africa.

The White House COVID response team says the U.S. has far more tools today to fight variants than this time last year, and is urging everyone eligible to get a booster.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: So when we say that although these mutations suggest a diminution of protection and a degree of immune evasion, you still, from experience that we have with Delta, can make a reasonable conclusion that you would not eliminate all protection against this particular variant.

And that's the reason why we don't know what that degree of diminution of protection is going to be, but we know that, when you boost somebody, you elevate your level of protection very high. And we are hoping and I think with good reason to feel good that there will be some degree of protection.


CAMEROTA: CNN international correspondent David McKenzie is tracking the many developments for us from South Africa.

What's happening there, David? DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, there is lots that is

unknown about this virus, but here in South Africa, they're very concerned about those many mutations. And despite all the unknowns, perhaps because of it, the world has shut its borders to this region.


MCKENZIE (voice-over): A coronavirus testing center in Johannesburg. The Omicron variant is already dominant here just weeks after it was first detected.

A doctor who's treating Omicron patients is expressing cautious optimism.

DR. ANGELIQUE COETZEE, CHAIRWOMAN, SOUTH AFRICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: But the majority of what we are presenting to primary health care practitioners are extremely mild cases, mild to moderate.

MCKENZIE: The White House says there aren't enough cases yet to evaluate the variant's danger, but that they are prepared.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Our variant surveillance system has demonstrated we can reliably detect new variants, from Alpha in the start of 2021 to Delta over this past summer.

MCKENZIE: The CDC is strengthening its booster recommendations for Americans, saying all adults should get another dose six months after their second Pfizer or Moderna shot or after just two months if they had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

It's a similar story abroad, where the U.K. government says it will now make boosters available to everyone over 18.

BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: What we're doing is taking some proportionate precautionary measures while our scientists crack the Omicron code.

MCKENZIE: In England on Tuesday, face masks became mandatory again in stores and on public transportation.

Israel confirmed its first cases of Omicron community spread, the Sheba Medical Center said a doctor who traveled abroad and then infected a colleague. In the Netherlands, where some are already isolating in this airport hotel, the government said the Omicron variant was in the country a full week earlier than it originally thought found in test samples from November 19 that were just sequenced.

Japan found its first Omicron variant case, a man who traveled from Namibia. Its borders close to all foreigners on Tuesday. South African leaders are slamming those global travel bans as ineffective and punitive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We feel that the travel ban is very unfair. South African science should be commended for discovering this new variant and sharing the information with the world. We have played our role very responsible.


MCKENZIE: We were in labs today in Johannesburg where they're desperately trying to find out what this all means.

And here's an extraordinary point. They are complaining about the fact that the world is shutting them off here in South Africa. And scientists say, even -- because of those shutdowns and those flights been canceled, they're struggling to get reagent into the country.

It's a really critical part of their studies in the labs to try and grow the live virus. They say that's a real real-world impact of these travel bans -- Victor, Alisyn.

BLACKWELL: All right, David McKenzie for us there in Johannesburg.

Thank you, David.

CAMEROTA: OK, let's go now to the White House.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is standing by there.

So, Phil, what is the White House plan to deal with Omicron?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think there's the near term and the longer term.

One thing we have seen over the course of the last 48 hours or so, at this moment of peak uncertainty in terms of what this variant will bring to the United States -- and make no mistake about it, you talk to White House officials, they all acknowledge it's an inevitability that it will end up in this country -- is in the short term pressing for more vaccinations, pressing for boosters.


Nearly 60 percent of the country is vaccinated. Fewer than 20 percent have gotten a booster. That is the primary short-term focus. But today, when the president's COVID -- top COVID advisers held a press briefing, it gave a window into just how rapidly they have shifted towards preparation for what could come with this new variant, particularly as it pertains to potential shifts in vaccines.

Take a listen.


JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: We believe the current vaccines provide at least some protection against this variant and that boosters strengthen that protection significantly.

In the event that additional measures are needed, we will be prepared. We're working with Pfizer, Moderna and J&J to develop contingency plans for modifications to vaccines or boosters if they're needed.

And we will ensure that the FDA and CDC review them as fast as possible, while maintaining their rigorous scientific protocols.


MATTINGLY: And, guys, what you heard from Jeff Zients, the president's COVID coordinator there, really kind of underscored what the president's message has been in the last couple of days, working through speed and science, not trying to attack this with confusion or chaos.

And I think that pertains to the overall approach, but particularly when it comes to vaccines. The president's top advisers today made very clear there's still so much to learn about what this variant may bring, but they want to be prepared, they want to be ready. And if that means that they need to shift their approach to vaccines or revise how vaccines are operating, they will be ready to scale that up as quickly as possible, likely in a matter of months, guys.

BLACKWELL: Phil Mattingly for us at the White House, thank you, Phil.

Let's go now to Paul Bieniasz. She is a virologist at Rockefeller University in New York. He's conducted lab research on some of the mutations that are seen in the Omicron variant.

Thank you so much for being with us.

Let's start here with just the preface for all of this conversation. There's a lot that we don't know. Of course, we have got you because more than we do about Omicron. You have seen these variants -- these mutations, I should say, before, but what makes Omicron so concerning?

PAUL BIENIASZ, ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY: Well, what makes Omicron so concerning at this point is that -- the combination of mutations that all appeared together in this particular spike variant.

So, many, but not all of those mutations, we have seen individually, or in some combinations before in other variants. This is really the first time we have seen so many of them together in a single variant. And that's what is likely to confer a sort of a slightly elevated degree of resistance to the vaccines that we have been receiving.

BLACKWELL: So let's talk about the vaccines. We just heard there from Phil's report, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID coordinator, said that they are working with the companies to -- on boosters, on adjustments to vaccines, if they're needed.

Based on what you know right now, will there have to be adjustments to the vaccines? We know that, once Delta hit, it was the same formulation that was given.

BIENIASZ: Eventually, there will almost inevitably need to be adjustments to the vaccines.

What we have not been able to determine so far is what the right time would be to make those adjustments. Now, if you just turn the clock back a week or two, we were talking with companies about perhaps adjusting the vaccines to make them a better match for Delta. But now, in the space of a few days, we're now learning that Omicron

is at least to a degree spreading, and we're beginning to think about how that might impact us. But there's nothing in virology that terminates the Greek alphabet at the letter Omicron.

We don't know, for example, what we will need to be immunizing people months from now. For now, the best idea is to immunize with what we have at our disposal, and that that's the original strain. Simply adding additional doses to what people have already received, if people have received two doses, adding a third, we know educates the immune system to provide a broader degree of protection and should enable at least some efficacy against the Omicron variant.

BLACKWELL: You know that there are some people who are, let's say, vaccine-hesitant or anti-vaccine even who argue that they get the natural immunity from having had the COVID -- having COVID-19, so that they don't need a vaccine.

How does the immunity that is developed from having had the infection match up against Omicron vs., let's say, the Delta variant or Gamma or Much?


BIENIASZ: So, we don't know that -- the answer to that specific question yet.


BIENIASZ: But what we do know is that the original premise for that supposition is just wrong. It simply isn't true that immunity conferred by infection is in general better than immunity conferred by vaccination.

What we do know is that immunity that's conferred by prior infection is very variable. Some people have great immunity. Some people have little or no immunity at all. In fact, one thing we do know is people who have been infected, if they also get vaccinated, they get incredibly high levels of immunity, what the -- what I would call the gold standard in terms of immunity to coronavirus at present.

So those that have been infected, I would absolutely get vaccinated. That gives them the best chance, I think, against new variants like Omicron.

BLACKWELL: All right, Professor Paul Bieniasz, thank you so much.

BIENIASZ: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: OK, joining us now to talk more about what we need to know is E.R. doctor Rob Davidson. He is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care.

Dr. Davidson, great to have you here.

I do want to get to Omicron in a moment, though we don't know much. But, first, I want to get to something that really got my attention yesterday. And that was we had Michael Osterholm on, who I'm sure you know is the director for infectious disease research at the University of Minnesota.

And he basically said there is this other sort of invisible crisis that we're not talking much about, and that is that all of us who have been doubly vaxxed, our immunity is waning as we speak. And we're not sort of moving with the alacrity that he thinks we need to.

So here he is from yesterday.


DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH: I don't think, Alisyn, most people realize, we're growing more vulnerable every day in this country, not less, because we have 120 million Americans who have now gone past their six months since they were originally vaccinated.

And each day, they become more and more susceptible to now getting infected. And we're only boosting about 35 million of those 120 million. So this is a real challenge.


CAMEROTA: Here are the numbers, Doctor, our latest numbers.

Only 12 percent in the U.S. of the population who has been vaccinated has received the booster or, I guess, 12 percent of the entire population.

So, we call it a booster. Is it time to start calling this a three- shot regimen?


Early on, I was a bit critical and others were as well calling it a booster in the first place, because it suggests that it's just sort of an added bonus. This is part of the necessity of being fully immunized. I will tell you we are hanging on for dear life, with the Delta variant ripping through West Michigan and all of Michigan, in fact.

Our hospitals are full. And every day, the only people we're seeing that we're calling breakthrough that I have seen personally are people who have had two shots, but haven't had their booster and -- or, sorry -- their third dose, but would be eligible.

It is still true, though, that 98 percent of the people in our entire health system on the west side of the state who are in critical care are unvaccinated people. So the first and foremost is, get vaccinated. If you have had natural immunity, and you have been depending on that to protect you, forget Omicron, any of the variants. You are not protected for very long. And it's variable, as your previous guest said. Our Senate majority

leader, the top Republican in the state, just tweeted out or just had a comment in an interview suggesting natural immunity is stronger. That disinformation is really killing people.

BLACKWELL: Yes, and let's talk more about that, because it's got to be frustrating when you see that from local officials.

You see a Republican member of Congress saying that Omicron is part of a Democratic plot to steal the midterms. You have got others saying that it's something to distract from the Ghislaine Maxwell trial. And you have said that there are people who come to your hospital who believe these things, and it's within the last few days of their life that they are still reiterating some of these lies.

DAVIDSON: Yes, I mean people who specifically say when you ask about the vaccine, I don't approve, someone who a little bit ago has said they're suggesting we're trying to give them COVID with a vaccine, someone who, when we were giving them Decadron, the steroid that helps survival in people getting admitted, was -- yelled at the nurse, said: "That isn't that vaccine you're giving me. That will kill me."

And so these people who are doing this are as much a part of this pandemic as any variant we could ever imagine, because they are leaving entire swathes of this country, almost 60 percent of the people in my county that I served for 20 years, unprotected against the original strain, against Delta, Omicron, and whatever else may come.

And those people are paying with their lives. It's really unfortunate.

CAMEROTA: So, Dr. Davidson, you have shared with us, I mean, how often you're just beating your head against a wall trying to combat all of this disinformation.

But what's the answer? I think that we so often hear from people who say, I don't want to be told what to do. I'm not going to do something just because Joe Biden tells me to do it.


And I do think that there's some human nature that doesn't want to be told what to do. So is there a way to change the messaging now about the third dose or the boosters? Is there some way to, I don't know, use reverse psychology and not tell people what to do?

You're on the front lines. What's the answer to this?

DAVIDSON: I wish I knew the absolute answer. I mean, I certainly think deplatforming some of these very loud voices that are out there pumping out the information, because it only takes a few.

I think, at one point, the dirty dozen of COVID disinformation was put out there, the people with the most content they're putting out. Certainly, getting rid of those voices, because then they do get into the echo chamber, into the silos of social media, where people just share it back and forth. And then, eventually, by saturation, they believe it.

And so I think the more of those voices we remove from those platforms, so they can't spread the disinformation, the better the chance that my wife, who is a family doctor, all of my colleagues in primary care have of convincing their patients who have taken the flu shot year after year because they believe it will protect them, the better the chance they have of convincing those folks to get the COVID vaccine.

CAMEROTA: That's such a great suggestion.

Dr. Rob Davidson, thank you. We appreciate your time.

BLACKWELL: Thank you, Doctor.

DAVIDSON: Thanks to you both.

CAMEROTA: Here's where you can get some answers. You can join Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta for a CNN global town hall with Dr. Fauci, "Coronavirus: Facts and Fears." This is going to air live tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m.

BLACKWELL: Donald Trump's former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has cut a deal with the House select committee investigating January 6. We will tell you what he's agreed to share with the panel.

CAMEROTA: And attorneys for former President Trump are in court today trying to keep his records private and away from that House select committee.

We will update you.



BLACKWELL: There appears to be a change in strategy from a key witness in the investigation into the January 6 Capitol riot.

Sources tell CNN that former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has now reached a deal for initial cooperation with the select committee.

CNN senior justice correspondent Evan Perez joins us now.

So, Evan, Meadows had been asserting executive privilege. So what does initial cooperation mean now?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're going to see what the details are, Alisyn and Victor, of what this agreement really entails.

For now, what they're saying is that, at least initially, he's going to be turning over some documents and that the committee has now scheduled an initial deposition. His lawyer says that they have reached some kind of accommodation on a set of the types of questions that he is going to be able to answer.

But this is kind of one of those the devil's in the details situations, because you can see that, because the president, the former president, has asserted executive privilege on certain things, for instance, maybe direct conversations between his former chief of staff and the former president, that that's where you could see perhaps there could be some disagreement.

Again, we don't know whether Meadows's lawyer, George Terwilliger, will say, well, we -- this is off-limits, and you can ask certain questions. We will see how long this deal survives, because, again, this is a key witness for this committee. They want to know exactly what former President Trump was doing in those key days and hours before the Capitol riot and during the Capitol riot.

BLACKWELL: All right, Evan, you're there outside the court of appeals there.

And we know that the former president's executive privilege fight continues. Attorneys made their case there that the former president still has the authority to keep key White House records secret. How'd that go over?

PEREZ: Well the former president's legal team had a skeptical audience with these three judges that heard this, these arguments today. It was over three hours of discussion about this, Alisyn and Victor.

And among, by the way, the 700 documents that they're fighting over that the House committee wants and that Trump says that are off-limits are some notes, for instance, from Mark Meadows, who is apparently now going to go in for a deposition.

You could hear some of the skepticism from these judges in this -- these comments from Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Take a listen.


JUDGE KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, D.C. CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS: It's all boils down to, who decides, who decides when it's in the best interest of the United States to disclose presidential records? Is it the current occupant of the White House or the former?


PEREZ: And, look, despite the skepticism you hear from the judges there, they also seem to have a little misgiving about the idea that the former president had no right to try to come to court and make these arguments.

So we will see when they rule. Obviously, whoever wins this round is likely to go to the Supreme Court to try to hear -- to get another round of this -- Alisyn and Victor.

CAMEROTA: OK, Evan Perez, thank you for the update.

CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig is a former assistant U.S. attorney and he joins us now.

OK, Elie, let's start with everything that Evan just reported. Let's start with Meadows. How significant development is what you have heard?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Alisyn, it's a very big deal.

Mark Meadows is a central player in January 6. He was with Donald Trump throughout January 6. He should have some key evidence. Now, it's a temporary, temporary win-win here, because it looked like we were headed towards a potential contempt vote and contempt prosecution of Meadows.


Now the committee at least gets some information out of Meadows. Some is better than none. And Meadows avoids, at least for the time being, the possibility of being federally indicted, which to most non-Steve Bannon people, is a good thing.

However, the big question is, how initial will this initial cooperation be? What happens when the committee starts asking Mark Meadows those really tough questions that may be really damaging for Donald Trump? Will he answer? And if not, does that make this deal fall apart? Or does the committee just take what they can get and move along?

BLACKWELL: All right, let's talk about the executive privilege arguments.

You have listened to them today. The judges seemed, let's say, skeptical. What's your sense of how this turned out and where it goes next?

HONIG: Yes, Victor, I would say a mixture of skeptical and exasperated at times.

I don't like to make predictions when it comes to court cases, but having listened to this long argument, I am fairly confident that Donald Trump is going to lose this, the committee is going to win. The big question that Trump's lawyers just could not give a good answer to was, it seems to be widely agreed, as Evan said, that a former president could have some interest in invoking executive privilege.

But his lawyers, Donald Trump's lawyers just could not answer the question of, when could that overcome the current president's wishes? And they just did not get a straight answer to that. I don't know if there is a straight answer to that. I can't see this panel ruling in Trump's favor.

CAMEROTA: I know you say you don't like to make predictions, but you have been 100 percent right in my book every time you have ever made prediction to me. So -- but we will move on. We will put that aside for a moment.

Donald Trump's attorneys want the records to be evaluated document by document. And they talked about the precedent that was set during the Watergate scandal. So let's listen to some of that.


JUDGE ROBERT WILKINS, D.C. COURT OF APPEALS: I'm sorry, counsel, but there's nothing in the statute that says that the privilege determination has to be made on a document-by-document basis.

What we have in our precedent -- and the court didn't listen to the tapes before they determined that privilege had been waived in Nixon.


CAMEROTA: OK, so there is no precedent for document by document?

HONIG: Yes, this kept recurring throughout the argument. The judges kept saying, what is it about this case, what is it about this set of documents that makes them so different, so unusual that the former president should get to override the current president?

And the lawyer kept saying, well, Judges, I'm going to need you to go through these documents one by one and make a decision.

I mean, first of all, that's not the judges' role. Second of all, judges don't like getting homework assignments given to them by lawyers. And so that argument continually fell flat and I think really sort of underscored the weakness of Trump's legal position here.

BLACKWELL: What do you know about these judges that might inform how they might rule?

HONIG: Yes, so just in terms of who appointed them, you can't always tell everything, Victor, based on who appointed them, but it's relevant.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated to the Court of Appeals by Joe Biden, one of his few nominees thus far. She is widely believed to be on his short list if he gets a Supreme Court nominee at some point. The other two judges are Obama appointees. Judge Jackson really sort of took the lead, I think, intellectually, in the questioning today.

And important to know, two years ago, when Judge Jackson was on the District Court, she rejected an absolute immunity, a different kind of privileged claim, in the Don McGahn scenario. So she's sort of on record being skeptical about broad invocations of executive privilege and absolute immunity.

BLACKWELL: All right, we will wait for their decision.

Elie Honig, thank you.

HONIG: Thank you. BLACKWELL: The trial is about to begin for a former police officer

who shot and killed Daunte Wright. She said she meant to pull her Taser. You remember this one? But she drew her gun instead.

We will go live to that courthouse.

CAMEROTA: Plus, stocks are way down today. Experts blame uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant -- what this means for the economy.