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Sixty-Three Injured, 32 In Life-Threatening Condition After Massive Bronx Fire; Nearly 25 Percent Of Hospitals Seeing Critical Staffing Shortages; High-Stakes U.S.-Russia Talks Slated For Monday In Geneva. Aired 3-4p ET
Aired January 09, 2022 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: Hello again, everyone.
Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.
We begin with this breaking news. At least 63 people injured, 32 of them in life-threatening condition following a fire in a 19-storey apartment building in the Bronx.
Approximately 200 firefighters are fighting the blaze, have been there fighting the blaze since 11:00 AM when it broke out, dramatic video right here showing the firefighters desperately trying to enter the building to reach victims and then taking away some that they were able to rescue.
CNN's Polo Sandoval is on the scene for us. Polo, what more are you learning about those who have been a rescued, those hospitalized and how this all happened?
POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fred, well, at least a positive note here is the fire is out. And now, it is about just telling up the numbers right now of those affected and likely even killed according to authority.
We heard directly from the Fire Commissioner himself who I had an opportunity to speak to just a few moments ago, they are basically bracing for the worst in terms of the number and the potential death toll that may emerge here, which at this point they have. They don't have solid confirmation.
But again, based on what the Fire Commissioner has been told and what he has seen firsthand. They are basically bracing for that. As I step out of the shot, just to give you a sense of what happened here. It's about a 19-storey apartment building. These are all duplexes and we understand that the fire itself that was contained to one two-storey apartment, but the issue here was the smoke.
According to authorities that smoke basically filling this entire building and that is likely what contributed to these injuries, and perhaps even those deaths.
I want you to hear directly from Mayor Eric Adams who was just here a few moments ago along with the Commissioner, as he tried to give us a sense of the scale of what we could potentially get once they figure out exactly how many people have potentially died, 63 injuries, 32 critical injuries.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAYOR ERIC ADAMS (D), NEW YORK CITY: This is a pain felt by all of us, and the men and women that live here, not only in the Bronx, but throughout the city. This is going to be one of the worst fires that we have witnessed during modern times here in the city of New York.
DANIEL A. NIGRO, NEW YORK CITY FIRE COMMISSIONER: Units arrived here this morning, within three minutes of the call for a fire that was in a duplex apartment. The apartment spanned floors two and three. They were met in the hallway with this fire, very heavy smoke, very heavy fire.
Units pushed in. This smoke extended the entire height of the building completely unusual. Members found victims on every floor in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SANDOVAL: And the Commissioner also adding that when everything is said and done, and when they really take a look at the full assessment of the damage and potentially the death here that this could potentially according to him be the worst fire that we've seen New York in over 30 years, and as you may have just been able to make out right now, Fred, from that -- from those remarks from the Mayor that this is likely going to bring tremendous amount of pain and despair for dozens of families, many of whom I've seen here on the streets now displaced.
WHITFIELD: Yes, it's a horrible situation. Polo Sandoval, keep us posted.
We're going to talk right now to the New York City Mayor Eric Adams. He is on the phone with me now. Thanks so much for joining us, Mayor.
So my goodness, I mean, as a new mayor, you're hit with yet another crisis. We've got the ongoing pandemic, the issue of keeping schools open, and now this devastating fire. More than 60 injured, 32 in life- threatening condition. What do you know about deaths -- potential deaths?
ADAMS (via phone): And you're right, this is truly a tragedy not only for the Bronx, but our city. This is going to be one of the worst fires in our history.
We know that we have 19 people who are confirmed dead, as well as several others who are in critical condition and over 63 people were injured in this fire and then the loss of residency, people have been displaced.
This is really a terrific day for us, but I want to commend the firefighters and those who really put their public safety on the line by going in. Some firefighters went out of oxygen in their mask, but continued to push through to get the members of the building out of the location.
WHITFIELD: And I know so many are so grateful for their efforts, you know, and you touched on the conditions. We just heard from our meteorologist how the temperatures are going to be dipping on a really unbearable conditions that are moving in into New York City, and now you have so many people who are displaced, what are you prepared to be able to do to assist?
ADAMS: Amazing coordination of New York City unfortunately, we respond quickly during the moments of crisis of this proportion, and we have our Office of Emergency Management coordinating with the Red Cross, as well as our Department of Education.
We have the school building that is open for immediate services for the public that were displaced. They were using the location as a staging area. We can get hotels -- food and other items that are needed to those who are impacted.
So the agencies are all coordinated together to address this unprecedented crisis in the city, in the areas of fire.
WHITFIELD: To hear the fire official earlier talk about a door being left open in the apartment where the fire may have originated, helping the flames, the fire to grow. Can you expand on that at all? Any new details you're hearing about the start of this fire? Even smoke detectors -- is that an issue? Was there an absence of such? Or what helped precipitate so much smoke inhalation-related injuries?
ADAMS: The Fire Marshal is currently doing a thorough investigation to determine the origin of the fire and what took place so we can learn from it and know what we can do to prevent fires of this magnitude.
We do know that the door was left open, and what happens in cases like that, it allows spread and the smoke to spread in a rapid fashion. It appears as though many who were injured in this case was due to smoke inhalation. It is imperative that we close the door, we're going to double down on our campaign to inform people, there is a natural tendency when there is a fire, you leave that door open can be detrimental to all those who are in the building or in a household.
WHITFIELD: I understand that among the injured, they had been dispersed to about five different area hospitals. There were children who have also been victimized here. What can you tell us about how many children are among those injured or displaced?
ADAMS: We know there were children who were injured, and some children lost their lives, we are receiving an exact number now. You know, as you can imagine, this is traumatic and it is relatively early, but we are going to let the public know exactly the number of children and put in place a hotline for those who need to call to find out about their loved ones. I spoke to a young man who was an Uber driver, his loved ones were in the building and he is seeking them from here. So I can only imagine the uncertainty that is really engulfing those who have families that are connected to this tragedy (AUDIO GAP) someone, layers apart from each other and we're going to go in to try to get as much information as possible to all those who are seeking it.
WHITFIELD: Mayor, this is so sad and again, I want to confirm with you the number of dead that you are able to report right now.
ADAMS: Right now, we have 19 people confirmed dead and we have several more that are -- they are in critical condition, and so that we hopefully -- we are hoping the numbers don't rise, but we want to be prepared.
WHITFIELD: So terribly sad. Our hearts go out to the so many families whose lives are forever changed on this day with this massive fire there in the Bronx at this 19-storey building.
Mayor Eric Adams, thank you so much for being with us. We know you've -- you and your team have a huge undertaking at this juncture.
Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.
ADAMS: Thank you very much. Take care.
WHITFIELD: All right, we'll be right back.
WHITFIELD: All right, we are following this breaking news out of New York. Nineteen confirmed dead including nine children from this horrible apartment fire in a 19-storey building there in the Bronx. You see the firefighters who responded. Right now, the flames are out. But the investigation is just at the beginning. What caused this fire? And why did it spread so rapidly?
We just talked to the Mayor a short time ago who said a door was open in what is believed to be the unit where the fire originated and that helped the fire spread. The smoke spread, leading now to so many families mourning, so many families fighting for their lives, and so many families now displaced.
And you're looking at the dramatic video of some two dozen firefighters who were there trying to respond.
All right, turning now to coronavirus pandemic still causing major problems for many Americans, new cases are skyrocketing, hospitals are getting overwhelmed once again. The Department of Health and Human Services says nearly a quarter of U.S. hospitals are now reporting critical staffing shortages and it couldn't come at a worse time. Hospitalizations are fast approaching record levels set nearly a year ago.
WHITFIELD: More concerning, the number of children under five still unable to get a vaccine. Now at its highest level of infection since the pandemic began two years ago.
Right now, according to the C.D.C., only 53 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, while only 25 percent of kids five to 11 have at least one shot.
CNN's Natasha Chen is in Los Angeles where hospitalizations among children are rising at an alarming rate. Natasha, what are you hearing?
NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Fred, the hospitalizations at Children's Hospital LA definitely spiking at the moment. So the focus right now is how to safely restart school scheduled for Tuesday and LA Unified School District, the second largest district in the country, right behind me is a very long line for testing because all of the students and employees are required to submit a baseline test before coming back in person on Tuesday, they need to show a negative test.
Now, they are used to this because they did this back in August, and they've been doing weekly testing as well. Weekly required testing for both students and employees. That alongside what a spokesperson told me was a Ghostbuster's level amount of sanitation, and required masks indoors and outdoors, required vaccination for employees, and they are even going to require students 12 and up to be vaccinated by August.
A combination of those strategies has allowed them to keep their campuses, more than a thousand schools open this entire school year. None of them have had to go virtual.
We talked to one tenth grader who came to get tested today. Here is what he said about this experience.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VICTOR NAVARRO, 10th GRADER AT ARLETA HIGH SCHOOL: My group chat, they're all testing positive for some reason. I think -- I think it's the new virus or something like that that's going around.
CHEN: The new variant.
NAVARRO: Yes. Yes. Like all my group chat got positive.
We always get tested in school, so I'll know. And we always have this daily pass that we always -- that we have to enter school with, and then if it doesn't come out, that means you tested positive and you can't get in school.
Honestly, it's just extra safety. So yes, it's not that much of big of a deal.
(END VIDEO CLIP) CHEN: No big deal, he tells me. They are used to it and the LA Unified spokesperson tells me positivity rate among students and employees right now, about 13 percent compared to the overall positivity rate in LA County, which is more than 20 percent right now -- Fred.
WHITFIELD: Wow. Well, that young man taking it in stride that this is now part of the routine.
All right, Natasha Chen, thank you so much.
Alright, let's talk more about all of this with Dr. Richina Bicette- McCain. She is the Medical Director at the Baylor College of Medicine. And Doctor, always good to see you.
So here we are seeing the number of children needing hospitalizations growing to levels not seen in this pandemic. How concerned should parents in your view be especially for kids, you know, five and under who still can't get a vaccine?
DR. RICHINA BICETTE-MCCAIN, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: I definitely think parents should be worried and parents should be concerned. There is no place in our community right now. That is at zero risk of transmission of COVID-19. But I especially think that schools are a high risk situation, not because of the nature of schools in and of themselves, but because although we know what tools are available to us and we have the tools to mitigate those risks, they are not being employed adequately.
Students with proper access to testing, we need to give students and staff high quality masks. Let's employ HEPA filters in school to increase ventilation and increase air circulation. Let's make sure that if we are going to send our children to school, we're doing it safely.
The landscape is changing, we have to change our approach.
WHITFIELD: So that's interesting. You say schools are high risk, but then you hear the mayors of Chicago and New York, who are both saying follow the science, and they are reiterating what they've heard, which is that schools are the safest places for kids to be.
BICETTE-MCCAIN: Again, Fred, schools could potentially be very safe. We do have the tools to make in person learning a safe situation. But when children went away for winter break, we were seeing maybe about 120 pediatric cases of COVID in a single week. We were seeing overall in the United States about 170,000 cases per day.
Those numbers have increased exponentially. The environment that children are coming back to is not the same environment that they left from, so telling children and teachers to come back to school without changing the protocols and changing protocols in order to keep them safe is not the right approach.
WHITFIELD: All right, C.D.C. Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky spoke about what hospitals are dealing with today and this is what she had to say. [15:20:06]
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: What we're seeing with the omicron variant is that it tends to be milder person by person. But given how large the numbers are that we're seeing more and more cases come into the hospital.
In some hospitals that we've talked to, up to 40 percent of the patients who are coming in with COVID are coming in, not because they're sick with COVID, but because they're coming in with something else and have had COVID or the omicron variant detected.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: And that too is very fascinating, Doctor, forty percent of people don't even know that they're infected when they arrive at the hospital. So what does that tell you? And what does that tell hospitals in terms of what they have to do differently to equip themselves for that?
BICETTE-MCCAIN: It may be fascinating, Fred, but to me, it's extremely worrisome, because that means that even though "The New York Times" reported just on Friday, there were 900,000 positive cases in this country, that is likely a gross undercount, which really shows you just how transmissible omicron is and how prevalent it is in our community.
The numbers that we are seeing are likely a gross undercounting of the number of positive cases in the community right now.
WHITFIELD: All right, Dr. Richina Bicette-McCain, thanks so much.
BICETTE-MCCAIN: Thank you, Fred.
WHITFIELD: All right, still ahead, the U.S. and Russia are set to hold high stakes diplomatic talks in Geneva aimed at averting a war in Ukraine. Why the Biden administration is not expecting any breakthroughs, next.
WHITFIELD: Just hours from now, U.S. officials will meet with their Russian counterparts in Geneva in an attempt to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine. Right now Russia appears poised to invade with nearly 100,000 troops stationed on the border of Ukraine. Here's what Secretary of State Blinken said on CNN today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The principle that one country can't change the borders of another by force, the principle that one country can't dictate to another its foreign policy and its choices including with whom it will associate, the principle that one country can't exert a sphere of influence to subjugate its neighbors -- all of that is on the table.
That's exactly why not only are we standing up, but we have rallied countries, not just in Europe, but indeed beyond to make it clear to Russia that this aggression will not be accepted and will not be tolerated, and will not stand.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: CNN's senior national security correspondent, Alex Marquardt is in Geneva. So Alex, Jake also asked the Secretary about what is potentially on the table in these talks and what isn't? What did he say?
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, you heard Blinken there essentially saying that the demands that Russia has made so far in the lead up to these talks are not anything that the U.S. and its allies and NATO could ever go for. And that is, for example, never allowing Ukraine to join NATO, or withdrawing all NATO forces from Eastern European countries that belong to NATO. Those, according to the US and NATO are nonstarters.
What the U.S. and Biden administration have said could be discussed in these direct talks between the U.S. and Russia, which in fact started tonight with a dinner between the heads of the delegations and will really take place tomorrow is -- there could be some discussion over U.S. missiles, NATO missiles, both in Ukraine. Russia has said that they don't want offensive missiles in Ukraine. There could also be discussion about missiles in the rest of Europe.
Interestingly, Fred, Blinken did not rule out the removal of some weaponry from Poland, and that could cause quite a stir. And then the other thing that Blinken said could be discussed is the size of exercises, both by the Russians and by the U.S. and NATO and the scale and scope of those exercises.
So those are the things that could be discussed, but what is important to note is the U.S. is saying that these needs to be reciprocal. These are not concessions that the U.S. is going to make, these are things that if the U.S. does them, Russia has to do these -- there has to be reciprocity.
At the end of the day, this meeting tomorrow between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the meetings later in the week with NATO and the OSCE, all of this designed to deter Russia from using those 100,000 troops to invade Ukraine -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.
Let's now bring in CNN's Fareed Zakaria, host of "Fareed Zakaria, GPS."
Fareed, good to see you and Happy New Year. So, some pretty heavy questions, you know, to start off the New Year. What do you hope will come out of these high stakes talks in Geneva this week? FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Well, you're right to describe them as high stakes, Fredricka, because Putin has set out some very tough demands. If you look at them in their totality, they are really difficult to imagine how the West, Biden, NATO could accept them.
They really would cripple NATO's ability to defend the countries that it has taken in and says, you can't take Ukraine in to NATO. Okay. You can't take in any more countries, okay. But then it's also you can't deploy nuclear weapons anywhere in Europe. You can't deploy any, you know, significant military hardware. You can't engage in military exercises with existing NATO members.
It's very difficult to imagine that NATO would accept those, so the question then becomes, is there a fallback that Putin would accept? Is the fall back a guarantee that Ukraine will never would be part of NATO? Or is this all a prelude to just be able to say, look, I tried my hand in negotiations, they didn't work.
ZAKARIA: And so I am forced to escalate militarily.
That's the question that I think we're all trying to figure out is, are these good faith negotiations? Or is Putin setting up the negotiations to fail so that he can -- when he uses military force say, well, I gave diplomacy a chance.
WHITFIELD: And likely, there will be discussions about Kazakhstan, and I want to get your reaction now to the President of that country's shoot to kill order to quell the protests in his country. We've now learned that more than 160 people have been killed.
What does it say to you about the level of desperation there? And how concerning is it that Vladimir Putin is being welcomed to intervene?
ZAKARIA: It tells you about the level of brutality and repression rather than desperation. This is, as you point out correctly, that caught my eye as well, a shoot to kill without warning order given to the military. I don't recall seeing one of those for 40 years, Fredricka. I mean, that is a real throwback to the days of the 1970s with coups and counter coups.
Kazakhstan has always been reliant on Russia. It has always viewed Russia as kind of the Big Brother. So it is not surprising it would ask for Russia's assistance. The Russians will almost certainly give it.
I mean, this in a way -- these too paint the picture, your two questions paint the picture of where Russia is headed. Russia under Putin is trying to reconstruct not the Soviet Union, but the old Czarist Empire.
So if you look at all these places -- Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan -- all facing crises of some kind or the other, the Russian goal is to say, we get to decide what happens, we get to dominate these areas. This is our sphere of influence, as it has been for 300 years. This is not about the Soviet Union. This is about Russia and its national interests, which have gone on for centuries. That is Putin's worldview.
He wrote an essay this summer, in which he talked about the historical unity between Russia and Ukraine, basically saying Ukraine doesn't deserve to be its own country. It's an appendage of Russia. That's how he thinks and he seems increasingly bold and part of the reason for that Fredricka, is high oil and gas prices.
Never forget, Russia is a Petrol State. When oil prices go high, Vladimir Putin's ambitions grow as well.
WHITFIELD: All right, so it's been going on for centuries. But that certainly underscores why it seems to be escalating, particularly in recent years.
All right, I want to shift gears now, Fareed, to your latest CNN documentary, which debuts tonight, "The Fight to Save Democracy" and one of the topics you delve into focuses on this country, Republicans and their passing of new laws that tighten their grip on how elections are run and who counts the votes. Let's watch a clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA (voice over) A year into Joe Biden's presidency.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He cheated.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was fraud, you've got to revisit it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Trump won.
ZAKARIA (voice over): Across the country, Donald Trump's allies are still at war to overturn the last election, forcing local election officials to revisit the 2020 vote count again and again and again.
In Wisconsin, local Republicans have conducted three separate partisan audits in an attempt to prove that Joe Biden should not be President. No widespread fraud has ever been found.
The third review is still ongoing behind closed doors.
The man Republicans have put in charge is Michael Gableman
MICHAEL GABLEMAN, WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: The Office of Special Counsel is conducting a full investigation.
He dodged questions from CNN crews.
QUESTION: Can we talk to you about your investigation.
GABLEMAN: Hey, have a good night.
ZAKARIA (voice over): And even called for the arrest of Madison's Democratic mayor who refuses to testify in private. MAYOR SATYA RHODES-CONWAY (D), MADISON, WISCONSIN: If it comes down to it and I have to go to jail for democracy, I certainly won't be the first person to have done so.
ZAKARIA (voice over): The audit is likely to cost taxpayers close to $700,000.00.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think this is really about 2022 and 2024. I mean, this is an effort to reduce people's confidence in our election results.
ZAKARIA (voice over): Efforts like the one in Wisconsin are taking place across the country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: While it is ominous and threatening, at the very least, Fareed. So how is this intense Republican loyalty to Donald Trump impacting our democracy?
ZAKARIA: Well, it's -- what is happening right now is a kind of series of measures that are preparatory and it's important to understand that we don't pay a lot of attention to local politics in this country, but in state after state, what is happening is, you're clearing out all the Republicans, all the impartial officials who adjudicated election results, who certified them.'
ZAKARIA: You know, the best example is Brad Raffensperger, the guy in Georgia who stood up to Trump. Well, he has been stripped of all powers to oversee elections in Georgia. That's the kind of thing that's happening.
Power is instead being given pretty nakedly to State Legislatures, which are largely Republican dominated in most of the swing states that we're talking about. State legislatures that are Republican dominated, they will now have the final say, they will be able to even override the popular vote if they believe they allege that there is fraud involved.
And so all of these pieces are being put in place. And the fear, of course, is that what is going to happen in 2024 is Donald Trump will run, he will get the nomination. Those two things, I think, are fair assumptions. And here is the third assumption I'm making, which is it'll be a close election.
You know, elections have been closed for the last 20 years in the United States, and Donald Trump would claim he won. And that is when this apparatus comes in, which can plausibly testify regardless of what the actual facts are, that he did win and there were irregularities, so there needs to be a recount or re-audit. The legislatures are even allowed under the Constitution to send their own slate of electors.
What happens in that situation? We are setting ourselves up for a constitutional crisis in 2020, for the likes of which we have not had since the late 19th Century.
WHITFIELD: Now, all potentially compromising votes on both the front and back ends.
All right, Fareed Zakaria, thank you so much.
ZAKARIA: Always a pleasure.
WHITFIELD: So don't forget to join Fareed tonight as he investigates "The Fight to Save American Democracy." This new special begins tonight, 9:00 PM only on CNN.
WHITFIELD: All right, we are following this breaking news out of New York where 19 people are dead following a massive apartment fire in the Bronx, and we now know nine of those deaths are children.
In total, 63 people were injured after fire broke out at this 19- storey apartment building. Approximately 200 firefighters were there fighting the blaze, and dramatic video shows firefighters desperately trying to enter the building to reach those inside.
I spoke with the New York Mayor Eric Adams earlier this hour.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
ADAMS (via phone): This is truly a tragedy not only for the Bronx, but for the whole city. This is going to be one of the worst fires in our history.
We know that we have 19 people who are confirmed dead, as well as several others that are in critical condition. And over 63 people were injured in this fire and there is a loss of residency, people have been displaced.
This is really a horrific day, but I want to commend the firefighters and those who really put their public safety on the line on the line by going in.
Some firefighters ran out of oxygen in their masks, but continued to push through to get the members of the building out of the location.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: Horrible situation. The origins of the fire still under investigation, and this just in to CNN, there are now 10 people confirmed that after a boulder fell on several tourist boats in Brazil.
The disaster happened on a popular lake as you see right there in Southeastern Brazil where boaters come to view the beautiful waterfalls as you see there, but the terrifying moment of massive rocks falling onto the boats that was actually caught on video and I do want to warn you that the video is disturbing.
[VIDEO CLIP PLAYS]
WHITFIELD: Oh my goodness. I mean, officials say heavy rains actually caused those rocks to loosen. At least 32 people were injured from the incident, and again 10 people killed.
Rescue efforts will continue into Monday.
All right, after the break, one year after the January 6th insurrection, the G.O.P. is still just as divided as the midterm battles get underway. We'll discuss.
WHITFIELD: All right, one year after the January 6th insurrection when a mob of pro-Trump supporters took over the Capitol, Republican leaders are now hoping to turn the page and look towards the upcoming midterm elections. This week, several former Trump administration officials say they will gather to plot ways to stop Trump from influencing the party and the country.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANIE GRISHAM, FORMER TRUMP PRESS SECRETARY: Next week, a group of former Trump staff are going to come together, administration officials are going to come together and we're going to talk about how we can formally do some things to try and stop him and also, you know, the extremism that that kind of violence and rhetoric that has been talked about and continues to divide our country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: All right, with me now to talk about this is CNN political commentator Charlie Dent. He is a former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, and Scott Jennings is also a CNN political commentator and former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush.
Good to see both of you and Happy New Year. First time, I'm seeing you this New Year.
SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Hey, Fred.
CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR Happy New Year.
WHITFIELD: All right, Scott, to you first, what do you make about what Grisham is saying that there will be this meeting of former administration officials who will plot to figure out how to stop Trump -- in what way?
JENNINGS: I mean, with all due respect, I don't think very much of it candidly, Fred. I think, you know, these folks will have very little impact on the political operations of most campaigns of the Republican Party. [15:50:05]
JENNINGS: I think larger conversations about the influence of Trump will likely be sorted out in the '24 presidential primary, but as it relates to these midterms, I think Republicans are in pretty good shape right now given the political environment, given where Biden is and we're going to end up pushing off the conversation about whether Trump is going to lead the party until the next cycle in '24.
WHITFIELD: Well, Scott, are you surprised at all that a year after that insurrection, there remain people, particularly followers of Trump, who still do not believe that there was a free and fair election in 2020?
JENNINGS: No, I'm not surprised at all. I mean, Trump has stayed on this message. And a lot of people believe what he says more than they believe what a Democrat would say, or what the media would say, so I'm not surprised. But you know, let's also be honest, there are Democrats who don't think he won. There are Republicans who still think Obama wasn't qualified. There are Democrats who still think Bush didn't win.
I mean, you have these people who continue to carry these falsehoods around, and we are on this escalator, and we're going to have to choose as a country to get off of it and start believing in the legitimacy of our elections.
So am I surprised? No. Is it worrying to me? Absolutely.
WHITFIELD: Yes. How worrying is it to you, Charlie? I mean, after so many failed attempts to state otherwise, it was indeed a free and fair and perhaps the most safe election in the height of the pandemic.
DENT: Well, let me just say this, Fred. Look, I'm glad that Stephanie Grisham and other former Republican officials are pushing back, I think it is important, but it is going to take much more than that.
We need Republican elected officials in a sustained way to push back hard -- and I call this nativist nihilistic wing of the party, the Bannon wing. That wing that showed up at the Capitol on January 6th, you know, wearing Confederate paraphernalia and Camp Auschwitz shirts -- that group needs to be marginalized.
And it's not going to be done by simply being quiet and ignoring the excesses of Donald Trump and his rhetoric. He has empowered that group. We need to disempower that group. That's where I think the leadership needs to come from.
We have to shut that down. We have to not normalize these extreme elements. That has been the problem and continues to be, and until we talk about that more honestly and openly, I think we are going to have some challenges.
I agree with Scott, we are going to the midterms. They are going to be probably pretty good to Republicans. It's not about Trump, it's about the Democrats' party in power. But I think for 2024, this is an issue that we're going to have to discuss much more openly than we have up to this point.
WHITFIELD: So Charlie, how influential is like longtime Republican stalwart, Karl Rove, to speak to those groups that you speak of when he wrote an editorial this week in "The Wall Street Journal" urging the G.O.P. to condemn the Capitol riot, reject election conspiracies?
Might he be speaking to that group that you just described who has, you know, pretty hell bent on believing, you know, Trump won, it wasn't a free and fair election, and do believe all the conspiracies?
DENT: Well, I'm glad Karl Rove is speaking up. Again, I think it's -- well, it's important for Karl Rove to speak up and these former Trump administration officials, it is important for Republican elected officials currently in office, people in positions of leadership at all levels, national, state, and local to push back and fight it because it is just crazy --
WHITFIELD: Does that signal to you that the G.O.P. is coalescing on that message?
DENT: Well, at the moment, I still feel that Trump is pretty ascendant. I think the policy of too many in my party has been silence.
If we simply ignore the worst of Donald Trump and all that he says, somehow this will go away. Well, that silence has never worked and it is not going to work going forward. If he is he's going to be defeated in 2024 primary, we have to have candidates who are actually going to draw a contrast and explain why this type of nativism, nihilism, isolationism, and protectionism is not consistent with Republican values or even American values. That's where it's got to come from.
And you know, this can't be a few of us on great shows like this talking about. We have to be pushing back, like I said, in a much more sustained way many more people. That's how you defeat it. Because otherwise, you know, a leader with no followers is just a guy taking a walk, as they say, and we need more leaders right now.
WHITFIELD: So Scott, earlier today, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, you know, cast some of the blame on the direction of the Republican Party on right-wing talk radio. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS HOST: Did Donald Trump reveal what the Republican Party is or change it?
REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): You know, I think it's actually a little of both. So I think on the one hand, Donald Trump is a symptom of years and years of leaders, you know, profit-driven radio shows, whatever, turning the bass into this angry, fearful, you know, victimized group of people who are saying, look, you can never get a fair shot.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: All right, Scott, 15 seconds or less. What do you make of that?
JENNINGS: Yes, I mean, we've had talk radio for a long time. I mean, the rise of conservative talk radio in the 90s led to George W. Bush who ran on a platform of compassionate conservatism, so I'm not sure it is where I'd I pinned the blame candidly.
WHITFIELD: All right, Scott Jennings and Charlie Dent, thanks to both of you, gentlemen, appreciate it.
JENNINGS: Thank you.
DENT: Thank you.
WHITFIELD: All right, and thank you so much for joining me today. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. The CNN NEWSROOM continues with Jim Acosta after this.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Jim Acosta in Washington and we start with breaking news, 19 people are dead including nine children after a massive fire inside a high-rise building in New York City.
Fire officials describing the scene in the Bronx as unprecedented with victims in cardiac and respiratory arrest in the stairwells of every floor of the building that is 19-storey high. Dozens are hurt.