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Sentencing Hearing for the Three Men Convicted in Arbery Killing Soon; CDC Director Walensky Set to Hold a Independent Briefing Soon; President Biden Urged By Former Aides to Change Course on Pandemic Strategy; January 6th Select Committee Not Ruling Out Possibility that Donald Trump's Actions Constituted a Crime; Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired January 07, 2022 - 10:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington, and we begin this hour with breaking news. In moments, a judge in Brunswick, Georgia, in a courtroom there, will begin the sentencing hearing for the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan were convicted by a Georgia jury last November. Now they face a minimum of life in prison. The big question today, will the judge decide whether or not the men will have the possibility of parole. We also expect to hear from Ahmaud Arbery's mother during the hearing with a victim impact statement that she spoke with CNN earlier this morning.


WANDA COOPER JONES, AHMAUD ARBERY'S MOTHER: Ahmaud didn't get a chance to live. So with that being said, Travis should not get a chance to live as a free man. Travis should go to prison for life without parole. And that being said, he should remain in prison forever.


BLITZER: Let's go to our National Correspondent Dianne Gallagher. She's on the scene for us in Brunswick, Georgia, this morning. So set the scene for us, what do we expect?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as things get under way inside that courtroom here, we expect for it to be a day of hearing statements, both from the defense and from the state. Wanda Cooper Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, is expected to speak. She's going to give that victim's impact statement to the court. We also think that we'll be hearing from Ahmaud Arbery's father today.

The defendants will have the opportunity to speak as well. Whether they choose to do that is yet to be seen as their attorneys present whatever evidence they choose to and arguments to the judge who has to determine whether or not these three men should get the opportunity to seek parole at 30 years. There is a required life sentence with these charges, Wolf. The

attorney for one of these men, William "Roddie" Bryan, says that he has already filed motions and believes that the judge will have mercy in his words on his client.


KEVIN GOUGH, ATTORNEY FOR WILLIAM BRYAN: The evidence is clear, he neither killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill anyone in this matter, and we believe that it's cruel, unconstitutionally cruel, to impose a mandatory life sentence. I have no doubt that he will give Roddie Bryan the individualized sentence that he deserves.


GALLAGHER: And Roddie Bryan chased behind the pickup truck that was driven by the McMichaels. Bryan is the one who recorded the video that went viral and led to the charges against these three men. The McMichaels, of course, chasing 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery through their neighborhood in a pickup truck before they gunned him down.

Now, that video is something that the family of Ahmaud Arbery had to see during the trial. His mother says that she would rather not hear from the defendants, that it was very difficult for her, but is prepared for yet another very difficult day in this emotional month that has been leading up to something that she has been, in her words, looking forward to today.

And, wolf, it's not over. The attorneys have said that they do plan to appeal these sentences that were handed down in November. And next month, here in Brunswick, there are also federal hate crime charges that there will be a trial for.

There was a plea deal offered to the family, and we were told this morning by the attorney that Ahmaud Arbery's family rejected that plea deal, saying that the expectation is they think that these three defendants will be given life without the possibility of parole and they would like to see those hate crime charges then go to trial.

BLITZER: All right, Dianne, thank you very much. We'll get back to you. She's on the scene for us, Dianne Gallagher there in Georgia.

In the next hour, by the way, there is other important news we're following. The CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is set to hold an independent press conference for the first time since July, and this comes as CNN has learned that officials at the CDC and at - and at the White House have now grown frustrated with her job performance.

Let's go to our White House Correspondent Jeremy Diamond is joining us from the White House now. So Jeremy, update our viewers on what you're learning.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen Wolf. Dr. Rochelle Walensky and the CDC have been facing a fevered pitch of criticism over those isolation and quarantine guidelines and the confusing back and forth and the messaging over those guidelines in recent weeks. There has been frustration at the White House with the CDC's messaging operation.


And also I'm told frustration within the CDC at Dr. Walensky and the way in which those guidelines were crafted and communicated. Amid all of this, Dr. Rochelle Walensky is set to hold her first solo press briefing next hour. This is the first briefing she has done since the summer.

And it comes as she's been spending the last couple - several months undergoing media training with a prominent democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald. Dr. Walensky, for her part, she's already addressed some of the criticism that she faced, including just this morning. Listen.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: We're working 24/7, 12,000 people to keep America safe, to update our guidance in the context of really fast moving science and really fast moving epidemiology. We have room we can improve in our communications of how we convey that science to the American people. We will continue to do so.


DIAMOND: But, Wolf, administration officials have also told me and my colleagues, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak, that it's not just the messaging of this, it's also the way in which these guidelines are crafted, often by a small silo of aides around Dr. Walensky. One CDC scientist told me that the process of crafting these guidelines has really been shortened.

Dr. Walensky focused on speeding up operations at the CDC, but often that has come at the - at - you know, instead of a full consultative process among scientists within the CDC, and also consulting outside experts. One CDC scientist told me that the fact that they have cut short that process may have contributed to some of the outrage that we saw from outside public health experts.

Meanwhile, for the White House, for its part, they have decided to allow the CDC to operate on its own and really staying back. But again, that frustration certainly is here. Wolf?

BLITZER: It certainly is. All right, Jeremy Diamond, excellent reporting. Thank you very much.

Six of President Biden's former health advisers are now calling on him to change course, urging the Biden administration to shift to a new pandemic strategy that focuses on adjusting toward what's being called a new normal.

Let's discuss what is going on with Dr. Jay Varkey, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Varkey, thanks so much for joining us. Do you think it's time for the Biden administration to focus on policies that allow us to adjust - adjust our living pattern with the virus rather than aiming to eliminate it? DR. JAY VARKEY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE AT EMORY UNIVERSITY:

Yeah, Wolf. Look, I think that this discussion needs to start, but I - I dispute the notion that we're there yet. In other words, the goal for the new normal with COVID-19 does not include eradication or elimination. We need to be honest with the American public in acknowledging that.

In fact, infectious diseases can be eradicated when there's limited long-term immunity, following infection or with vaccination or when you have animal reservoirs of infection. But where we are today is not it. We have 125,000 people in U.S. hospitals and over 1,200 dying each day. Those with severe complications and that are dying are mostly unvaccinated.

That is far worse than what we see in even the worst flu season. And those worse flu seasons, they strain, but don't break U.S. hospitals. If we have the will to invest in public health and if we work together, we can get to the point that COVID is something that we live with, we're just not there yet.

In fact, one of the authors of that article you talk about, Mike Osterholm recently quoted Winston Churchill. I thought it was poignant in terms of where we are. This isn't the end. It's not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.

BLITZER: And one of those experts, Dr. Rick Bright, he told CNN this morning that the country needs updated versions of vaccines to match new variants. I want you to listen to what he said. Listen to this.


DR. RICK BRIGHT, FORMER DIRECTOR OF OFFICE TASKED WITH VACCINE DEVELOPMENT: These are remarkable tools. However, we're continuing to use a vaccine that is over two years old, and the virus has continually changed. So we need to harness the full power of those tools that we used to make the Johnson & Johnson and the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we need to sharpen those tools against the virus as it changes.


BLITZER: Because he makes an important point, and I've heard it from other experts as well. There are going to be additional mutations, new variants down the road as well, and these vaccines that we currently have might not necessarily be able to deal with those, right?

VARKEY: Yes - no, you're spot on, Wolf. And I agree with Dr. Bright. I mean, we spent a lot of time talking about variants, but remember all viruses evolve over time. That's what viruses do. They're pieces of genetic material, they develop mutations, sometimes those mutations actually confer an advantage that cause them to replicate faster, but we, ourselves, can evolve also.

We can actually invest in the science to actually improve our vaccines. As you said, these vaccines are amazing tools and they're doing exactly what they're designed to do in terms of preventing people from the most serious complications of COVID. But we should continue to push the science on this to enhance immunity.


Remember the fact that the current vaccines, they prevent us from dying, they prevent us from the serious complications, but we're seeing breakthrough infections. If we can drive those - drown those infections and enhance the immunity in the back of our nose, back of our throat.

And these could be vaccines administered by nasal sprays, these could be hand coronavirus vaccines. That's where we need to keep pushing the science, and I think that that, again, is another tool that we have.

BLTIZER: Yeah, and after Delta, after Omicron, there could be - we hope it isn't going to happen, but I know at NIH and elsewhere, they're really obsessed right now. They're working on the possibility there could be additional deadly variants that emerge, and they're - they got to deal with that down the road as well. It's going to be a problem we're going to have for sure. Dr. Jay Varkey from Emory University in Atlanta, thank you so much for joining us.

VARKEY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing challenges to the constitutionality of President Biden's vaccine and testing mandates for COVID-19. One rule requires employers with 100 or more workers to require vaccinations or weekly testing. The White House plans to begin enforcing that mandate on Monday.

A second rule requires healthcare workers at certain hospitals, nursing homes, other facilities to get vaccinated. That won't be implemented until the legal challenges play out. We're watching the Supreme Court today.

Also today, this morning, the U.S. Labor Department released what's being described as a disappointing December jobs report. New figures show the U.S. economy added only 199,000 new jobs last month. That's the fewest number of jobs added in any month of 2021.

While that number does fall far short of what the experts expected, there is some good news out there. The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9%. That's the best it's been since the beginning of the pandemic.

Later this hour, by the way, President Biden is expected to speak about the jobs report. We're going to bring you any developments from that once it happens. Stay with us for that.

Also still to come this morning, the January 6th Select Committee is turning up the heat one year after the deadly insurrection. Why they aren't ruling out a criminal connection when it comes to the former President Donald Trump's role in the riot.

And winter weather blankets parts of the northeast this morning, as I can personally testify. Pair that with COVID callouts, and now thousands of flights canceled across the U.S. once again today. We're going to have an update just ahead. And here's a look at some other events we're watching today.



BLITZER: All right. Leaders of the January 6th Select Committee are now telling CNN that they are not, repeat, not ruling out the possibility of concluding that former President Trump's actions may have constituted an actual crime. Here's the Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney.


REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): It's the work that we're doing on the committee now, we know the extent to which he was working to pressure the justice department, to pressure state officials. And then, of course, January 6th itself was a line you just can't cross. The committee is looking at that, looking at whether what he did constitutes that kind of a crime. But certainly it's dereliction of duty.


BLITZER: Strong word - Strong words indeed. Let's bring in our Law Enforcement Correspondent Whitney Wild. And Whitney, so what are we learning about the committee's next steps?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, now we will finally see, in public, what they've been working on for the last six months. So what we expect to see in the next quarter here are a series of public hearings that will lay out, in detail, their - some of their conclusions as well as bring the American audience in to their fact finding mission here.

And what is very obvious is that they are building up their case against the former president. They have never been shy about wondering aloud whether or not the former president made a -basically committed a crime. And they have always said if there are any crimes, even not related to the president, if they come upon anything they think is a crime, they expect that that will result in a criminal referral to the Department of Justice.

What DOJ does with that information, we don't know. But at this point, the committee does seem to feel, at least, that there's a possibility that they are coming upon information to suggest that crimes were committed. When those public hearings wrap up, we expect to see that there will be an interim report that should happen sometime in the summer.

And then, Wolf, the final report that will happen before the midterms. The intention here is to give voters a lot of information before the midterms, also acknowledging there's a reality here, which is there's a very great possibility that Democrats will lose - lose the House, and that if that happens, Republicans are going to shut this down altogether. So that - that's the information they're working with, the final deadline before the midterms, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah - yes, that's a good point. Whitney Wild reporting for us. Thank you very much.


An important special programming note for our viewers as we continue to look at what's happening in the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. Join Fareed Zakaria as he investigates the fight to save American democracy. That's this Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Meanwhile, the fate of three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery now lies in the hands of a judge in Georgia. We're heading back to Brunswick, Georgia, as our legal experts weigh in on the sentencing and the federal charges that lie ahead.




BLITZER: Right now, we're watching a courtroom in Brunswick, Georgia, where the sentencing of the three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery is scheduled for today. That hearing is expected to begin shortly. Just about an hour or so ago, the family spoke before heading into court. Arbery's Father Marcus sharing his pain a year after his son's murder.


MARCUS ARBERY, AHMAUD ARBERY'S FATHER: It's hurt. They watched my baby boy laying there still. That was the hardest thing I had to do in my life. Man, his mama - damn him, he 25 years old. We are going - looking down his face.

My baby boy, her baby boy, that hurt me so bad to see him laying there still, dead. If my boy got killed in a car wreck or something like that, or sick, I'd accept that. But a 12 gauge shotgun, and you monsters think ya'll supposed to get a deal?


BLITZER: The deal he's referring to was a federal plea deal for the civil rights trial scheduled to begin next month, which the family declined today. All three of these men face a minimum of life in prison, but will they get the possibility of parole? Let's discuss with the former Defense Attorney, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, as well as and former Federal Prosecutor, our CNN Chief Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

We're hearing from pool reporters, guys, that the start of the hearing is slightly delayed. The attorneys are in the courtroom, but the judge has not taken the bench, at least not yet. We're watching all of this as it unfolds. Stephanie, what is the judge looking at in regards to the mandatory life sentencing? What kind of discretion does he have here?

STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE, FORMER DEFENSE ATTORNEY: When you take a look at the age of the defendants, I don't think discretion really comes into play except for Travis McMichael, who, if given the opportunity of release - parole, will be about I think 65. The other gentlemen, I think, when you take a look at their life expectancy, they're facing the rest of their actual lives in jail.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, just to be specific about that, Gregory McMichael, who is the father of the shooter, Travis McMichael, he's 65 years old. Roddie Bryan, who was the third defendant, the friend of the other two, he's 52. So you add 30 years to that, and you are really effectively talking about a life sentence for the two of them.

I think the judge is going to listen to - listen to both sides. But, you know, I think if - the important point to remember today is that this is a case that the prosecution won. These men were convicted of murder. And they are going to serve an enormous amount of time in prison.

Precisely how long, we don't know, but this is a case where the system did work to punish people who committed a heinous crime. What remains outstanding is whether there will be a federal trial as well, but no one should think that any of these defendants are getting out of prison anytime before 30 years as a best case scenario for them.

BLITZER: And as you know, Stephanie, all three of these men still face these federal hate crime charges. That trial is set to begin next month. If these men already face life in prison, what's the significance of doing this federal - this federal trial as well?

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I think the federal trial is more about making it clear that this hate crime actually exists. It's very hard to find defendants guilty of these federal hate crimes because they have to determine the motive, that the motive is tied to the victim's identity. And when you have a case like this that is so egregious, that when the - when they talked to - they called 911, they mentioned, you know, what's the problem, and they said a black man running.

The federal case is about is that enough to consider it a hate crime? And I think this is not about sentencing, whether or not they'll find - they'll be in jail longer, it's about making sure that there is a hate crime that can be prosecuted in this country, that if you are shooting someone, if you kill someone because of their race, you can be held accountable in the federal court.

BLITZER: Let me let Jeffrey weigh in on this as well. Go ahead, Jeffrey.