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Winter Storm Slams Southern U.S.; Winter Storm Cancels Flights; Winter Olympic Tickets Won't be Sold to the Public; Djokovic Back in Serbia; Omicron Has Not Peaked Yet; Hostage-Taker At Synagogue Identified; Derrick Johnson is Interviewed about Election Rights. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 17, 2022 - 09:00   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: If we had them here too.

COATES: This one. Thank you.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We will help as much as we can because people need to read this.

Thanks so much, Laura.

COATES: Thanks.

BERMAN: And thank you for being here this morning.

HUNT: Thank you for having me, John. I'm looking forward to being here all week with you.

BERMAN: You're coming back tomorrow?

HUNT: I hope so.

BERMAN: Fantastic.

HUNT: You'll have to invite me.

BERMAN: CNN's coverage continues right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Monday morning to you. Martin Luther King Day. I'm Jim Sciutto.

And right now severe winter weather alerts up and down the East Coast as a powerful and sometimes dangerous winter storm pushes north and up the East Coast. This morning, more than 1,300 flights have been canceled, more than 340,000 households still without power after the south was slammed by heavy snow, ice, high winds over the weekend.

Plus, the FBI is now identifying the suspect who held four people hostage at a Texas synagogue for nearly 11 hours Saturday. President Biden calling it an act of terror. Now chilling new audio has been released of the gunman ranting during that standoff.

Also this morning, voting rights legislation stalled on Capitol Hill, but Republican Senator Mitt Romney says that there is growing bipartisan support for some changes, those to the Electoral Count Act. We'll have more on that, just what it means in a moment.

But let's begin this morning with our winter storm coverage.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher, she's in Charlotte, North Carolina. CNN's Polo Sandoval is live from Pittsburgh.

Dianne, let's begin with you.

It's the ice. It's the heavy snow wreaking travel havoc there this morning. What are you seeing?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You mentioned travel havoc, Jim. Look, yesterday, out of Charlotte's international airport, 90 percent of the flights were canceled. A little bit better today with just over a third of the flights canceled, but still significant travel issues throughout the Carolinas.

And, look, this is why. And we're going to pan down here. Do you see this slick ice on the ground here? You kind of hear it going. There's a little bit of snow on top. But throughout the state, ice, freezing rain, sleet, fell all day on Sunday. There was snow afterward. In the western part of the state, in the mountains, they were completely dumped on with snow, but that ice has caused traffic snarls all throughout the state.

The roads here in Charlotte right now, these main thorough fares, have been cleared off. We saw the plows out this morning again. They've been resalting the roads. The concern, of course, though, is a refreeze. They had more than 400 traffic collisions that they had to across the state respond to yesterday. They're asking people still to kind of stay off the roads, especially those neighborhood roads, those secondary roads, because, Jim, due to staffing issues across the state, they've said it may take longer to clear some of those roads just because they don't have enough people to respond. They've activated the National Guard to help out on that. And, of course, there's -- the power outage situation is improving but, still, more than 30,000 people without power in North Carolina alone.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, it snows, it melts, then it freezes over again.


SCIUTTO: You have sort of a second wave. Polo Sandoval, he's in -- he's in Pittsburgh.

So tell us what you're seeing there, Polo.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's that wind-whipped snow right now, Jim, that we're seeing here in Pittsburgh. The meteorologists say that we've already gotten about five or six inches in and around downtown Pittsburgh here where they expect another inch to go and then that's going to scale back.

But then that issue that Dianne just mentioned, the issues of refreezing. You see the city of Pittsburgh has received some criticism, which the mayor has called valid and justified in the way that it handled its last snow situation/snowstorm about a week and a half ago. So they had pledged to really increase their response and make sure that these roads are as clear as possible. But you can see that that's really an uphill battle.

The big concern here is, obviously, the refreezing. Later this week the forecast calling for an overnight low of one degree. So the big concern here is in the coming days, if a lot of this snow isn't removed, then you could potentially see a lot of those side streets basically just become the frozen mess that we saw about a week and a half ago.

And the big --

SCIUTTO: Oh, we lost Polo there, but we did hear Pittsburgh one of the many cities seeing winter trouble this morning.

Dianne Gallagher, Polo Sandoval, thanks very much.

So, as often happens, the winter storm hit the East Coast causing some major travel disruptions this morning. So far U.S. airlines have canceled more than 1,300 flights just today. That according to the flight tracking site Flight Aware.

CNN aviation correspondent Pete Muntean, he's live at Reagan National Airport.

Improving at all this morning?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: A little bit, Jim. You know, the numbers are a bit down than what we saw yesterday. And 1,350 cancellations, I just checked Flight Aware, today so far, although yesterday we saw more than 3,000 flight cancellations nationwide.

You know, this storm really went for some of the biggest hubs up and down the East Coast, Atlanta, Charlotte, like Dianne mentioned, 90 percent of flights canceled there yesterday. The airport just posted an update in Charlotte.


It says that the airport is open and it anticipates being at full operational status by later on this afternoon. But a lot of frustrated passengers there who have been stuck for days.

Listen to what they're saying.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I tried to get a few extra flights. I had one for tomorrow morning. That one was canceled, too. So I switched to tomorrow afternoon. And hopefully that one isn't canceled.


MUNTEAN: A bit of good news here, though. American, United, Southwest, Delta have all posted travel waivers, meaning that those who are stuck can change their flights if they have been impacted by the storm free of charge.

Also a bit of good news. Even though this is the end of a long holiday weekend, a federal holiday today, and typically a lot of people will be coming home after the long holiday weekend, air travel numbers are down a little bit, about 1.3 million people flying yesterday. Those numbers way down than what we saw over the holiday travel season. So a bit of silver lining for folks there, Jim.

SCIUTTO: I've got to tell you, though, when you look at those flight screens and you see all those blinking red "canceled" signs, that makes for some -- that makes for some serious headaches.

Pete Muntean, thanks very much.

Well, the winter Olympics will begin in Beijing just under three weeks from now. China just announced it will not sell tickets to the games to the general public because of a new outbreak of Covid there. The government says it will distribute the tickets instead in an effort to, quote, protect the health and safety of Olympic athletes and personnel.

CNN international correspondent Selina Wang joins us now from Tokyo.

So, Selina, you know, we're seeing this again, another Olympics bothered by, impaired by the Covid outbreak. What's it going to look like there when it starts?

SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, well, for any fans allowed inside, they're going to have extraordinarily strict Covid restrictions before, during and after the games. We already knew that overseas fans were banned but we were expecting domestic spectators to be allowed to buy tickets. Now they are changing that decision. They will not be sold to the general public. Instead, authorities will be distributing some to specific groups of people. We don't know to who or how many will be allowed, but it's expected to be limited.

Now, these games are going to be far more strict than what we saw during the Tokyo summer Olympics. I'll be traveling just two weeks' time, but already I have to log in my daily stats in this health app every day. When I go in, I'll be PCR tested every day. Me and the other thousands of participants will be completely separate from the rest of the population the entire time. Anyone arriving unvaccinated will have to quarantine for 21 days. And get this, Jim, for all the local staff and volunteers in China, they have to quarantine for 21 days in the country before they can return and go see their family families.

Now, this comes after the host city reported its first case of omicron. The timing could not be worse in China. Even one Covid case is one too many. In response to just a few cases, we've seen time and time again China go into lockdown, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantining.

Now, that strategy has worked so far, but the fear is that with omicron and how transmissible it is, and widespread fears from experts that the Chinese developed vaccines are not as effective against the omicron variant. The concern is that this zero Covid tolerance approach will not be as successful.

And this is not what China wanted. They wanted massive amounts of fans, domestic fans, in the stands to show the world that its zero Covid approach works. And fans are something that the Tokyo Olympic did not have.


SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes. It looks so similar again.

Selina Wang there, thanks so much.

Well, Novak Djokovic, the world's number one tennis player, arrived back in his home country of Serbia this morning after being deported from Australia. The unvaccinated tennis star lost his appeal this weekend to stay in the country, defend his title at the Australian Open. Australia bans unvaccinated travelers who are unable to prove why they can't get the shot.

CNN international correspondent Scott McLean joins me now from Belgrade.

So, Scott, he's out of the first grand slam of the year, but we're hearing now that for the next one, the French Open, he'd have to get vaccinated as well. So, what does that mean going ahead?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, yes, Novak Djokovic, at the moment, now that he's back here in Belgrade, not playing in the Australian Open, he certainly has a lot of time to ponder his future and whether he may get vaccinated, which has to be top of mind. And that is because we know that the French Open, as it stands right now, if he chooses not to get vaccinated, well, he won't be able to play in that tournament.

Just this morning, the French sports minister told CNN that there would be no exceptions to the new vaccine pass law in France which requires proof of vaccination to get into restaurants, movie theaters, and sports venues as well. And that applies to both spectators and players. Last year he was able to get an exemption because the -- he was able to play in a bubble, that is no longer the case, or will no longer be the case. So, if that remains in place in May, the next major he'd be allowed to play in would be Wimbledon. But, even then, he would have to arrive in England early so that he could complete the mandatory quarantine period.

And, Jim, if you're wondering if Serbs hold this against Novak Djokovic because they just want him to get on the court and play and represent his country, by and large the answer is no.


Most Serbs that we've met here will tell you that vaccination is a personal choice. And this morning we were at the airport waiting for Novak Djokovic. So were a lot of his fans. And I spoke to one young man who is vaccinated but he strongly supports Djokovic's right not to be.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thought that this only happen in Orwell's (ph) books, that this would happen, that someone would lose freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of everything. He was charged, he was sentenced because he thought something. He didn't even say it. We are here to support our champion, Novak.


MCLEAN: Now even the president of Serbia yesterday framed this as a witch hunt for the Australian authorities to show Djokovic how this new world order works, a new world order in which you must be vaccinated. And keep in mind, Jim, this is coming from a president who would very much like Djokovic to be vaccinated. This country is struggling to convince people to take the shot. Less than 60 percent of adults here have it.

SCIUTTO: Australia has a very high vaccination rate, also a very low death rate throughout the pandemic from Covid-19.

Scott McLean there in Belgrade, thanks very much.

SCIUTTO: The U.S. surgeon general is warning that the omicron surge has not yet peaked nationally in this country, though the spread does appear to be slowing in some of the early hot spots.


DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: There are parts of the country, New York in particular, and other parts of the northeast where we are starting to see a plateau and, in some cases, an early decline in cases. The challenge is that nothing -- the entire country is not moving at the same pace. The omicron wave started later in other parts of the country. So we shouldn't expect a national peak in the next coming days. Next few weeks will be tough.


SCIUTTO: CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins me now.

So, Elizabeth, are we at least at the beginning of the end of this surge here, given the drop-offs we've seen in places like New York and Washington, D.C.?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, Jim, in some places, like the cities you just named, that may, in fact, be the case. But you know what, the United States is huge and there are parts of the United States that are just beginning to feel the omicron pain.

So let's illustrate, literally, what Dr. Murthy just said. Take a look at the United States. Jim, you and I were looking at this map last week. It was nearly all dark red. Look at it now, dark read is a dramatic increase. There's some of that, but there's plenty of yellow, which is steady, or green, where the rates are actually going down and you can see New York is, for example, is in green.

So let's take a look specifically at New York. If we take a look at January 9th, they were seeing about 85,000 new cases per day. Now they're seeing -- or yesterday the number was 52,000. That's a decrease of 39 percent just between January 9th and January 16th.

Now let's take a look at a state that's in a very different situation. In Colorado on January 9th, they had about 8,600 new cases per day. On January 16th, yesterday, it's more than 16,000. That's an increase of more than 90 percent. So as we have with all the different waves over the past two years, we're going to see places in very different situations.


SCIUTTO: Elizabeth Cohen, thanks so much for breaking it down.

Still to come this hour, chilling new audio from inside the Texas synagogue where a man took four people hostage, held them for hours. The FBI now says the attack was terrorism related and targeted the Jewish community.

Plus, new overnight, multiple attacks using drones left several people dead in Abu Dhabi. We're going to be live with the details coming up. It's alarming.

Also, convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, former associate and girlfriend of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, says she will not object to revealing the identities of several John Does who flew on Epstein's plane.

We'll have more. Stay with us.


[09:18:17] SCIUTTO: The FBI is confirming this morning that the hostage situation at a Texas synagogue is terrorism related and did target specifically the Jewish community. The FBI says that 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram held four people hostage in an hours' long standoff Saturday before a rescue team entered the building and killed him. Saved the hostages, thankfully. We are now hearing chilling audio of the hostage taker during the standoff.


MALIK FAISAL AKRAM: I'm going to die at the end of this, all right. Are you listening? I am going to die. OK? So don't cry over me. OK? Don't cry, we cannot (INAUDIBLE).


SCIUTTO: Just alarming to hear that from inside there.

CNN's Natasha Chen, she is in Colleyville, Texas.

So what can you tell us about what investigators are learning about the plans here and the motivation?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, we're hearing from law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation that a possible motive may have been his desire to see Aafia Siddiqui released from prison. She is actually serving an 86-year sentence here in a facility in Texas. She, in 2010, was convicted on seven charges, including attempted murder and armed assault on U.S. officers in Afghanistan.

And law enforcement source also told our colleague, Josh Campbell, that during some negotiations with the police out here and the suspect on the phone, that he had talked about not wanting to leave the building alive. And at one point had even said that he wanted to see Siddiqui here at the synagogue so that they could both die together.


So, a very disturbing, very chaotic and manic.

And, you know, inside one of the hostages was the rabbi of this congregation. Here he is describing those terrifying moments.


CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER, RABBI, CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL IN COLLEYVILLE, TEXAS: We were terrified. And when I saw an opportunity where he wasn't in a good position, I asked, made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were -- that they were ready to go. The exit wasn't too far away. I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door.


CHEN: Let's talk about what we know about the suspect right now. He's a 44-year-old British national. Akram traveled to the U.S. five weeks ago according to law enforcement sources, landing at JFK, and actually went through a vetting process and was not on any terror watch list. His family released a statement saying they're devastated by this, apologized to the people here, mentioned that he has mental health issues. He also spent a few nights at a Dallas homeless shelter here before the incident. The CEO at the shelter said that he was pretty quiet, went in and out, did not create much of an impression to the people running the shelter there.

We also know the FBI is cooperating with counterparts in the U.K. and Tel Aviv. And as part of that investigation, two teenagers were detained for questioning in the U.K. on Sunday night. So, obviously, this is still a very active situation, an active investigation to figure out how he got from New York to Texas and what may have led up to this.


SCIUTTO: Yes, and Siddiqui, who he talked about there, is a hero of many jihadis. A notable connection there.

Natasha Chen, thanks very much.

Right now a bipartisan group of 12 senators are working on a way to strengthen existing election laws in a limited way, pushing for reforms to the Electoral Count Act as the White House presses Democrats for broader voting rights protections. Senator Mitt Romney says that President Biden has failed to generate bipartisan buy-in on those broader efforts.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Sadly, this election reform bill that the president has been pushing, I never got a call on that from the White House. There was no negotiation bringing Republicans and Democrats together to try and come up with something that would meet bipartisan interest. Sure, we can work together on almost every issue where there's common ground.


SCIUTTO: Joining me now to discuss the path forward is Derrick Johnson. He's the president of the NAACP.

Mr. Johnson, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: So, voting rights as envisioned by the president and Democrats will not pass in its current form. Democrats clearly just don't have the votes. Who do you hold responsible?

JOHNSON: I mean the whole system has been fraught with partisan posture around an issue that's not partisan in nature. We're talking about protecting the rights of voters. We're talking about a similar bill that was passed in 2006 by 16 -- voted for by 16 sitting Republicans. Even when you talk about Senator Romney, his father supported the Voting Rights Act when he was governor of Michigan. And so people are posturing this as a partisan activity when, in fact, we're talking about protecting the rights of voters upholding our Constitution.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And you're right, these used to pass with broad, bipartisan majorities, acts to expand voting rights. This is different.

I wonder, though, you heard from Mitt Romney there saying he did not hear from the president. You've even heard from some Democrats, Dick Durbin among them, to say that the president's rhetoric in criticized those who voted against voting rights went too far.

Do you think the president went too far and in doing so alienated some potential allies?

JOHNSON: No, what I find interesting, people want to talk about what was said as opposed to focusing on what should be done. We should be insuring that all Americans right to vote are protected.

Think about this, even if we ascertain the will of voters in the state of Georgia, the state legislative bodies can overturn the will of those voters. We're talking about people standing in long lines and it's illegal to provide water. Why do we have long lines in the first place? We're talking about carrying out the safest election in our history according to a Trump appointee in 2020. So what are we seeing to fix here? Over 61 lawsuits filed, all of them whom were meritless. Let's move forward with what can get done as opposed to what was said.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And, by the way, with record turnout as well, we should note.

As you heard there, there is a bipartisan effort now for Electoral Count Act reform. We've covered this issue on this program before, but in the briefest terms for folks watching right now, it would help prevent a scenario where you had Mike Pence, the then vice president, with at least the perception of a power to overturn electoral slates from some states.


Could you get behind a limited reform like that, ECA?

JOHNSON: That's a distraction. Let's focus on what's on the table. Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. An act that was passed in 1965 that opened up access to democracy, ensure that individuals will be able to cast a ballot by mail and to ensure that all of the repressive state laws that have been adopted since January 6th, we can reverse that trend. We're looking at political gerrymandering and a nature (ph) where just recently the federal courts reversed the decision of the state of Ohio.

Let's not get distracted about the electoral college. The electoral college will not address the issue at hand, ensure that all Americans will have access to the ballot box free from voter intimidation, vote suppression.


JOHNSON: And state sanctions of subversion.

SCIUTTO: But, the fact is, Democrats don't have the votes. They tried, right? They tried for months. They don't. I wonder if the NAACP, if you have a particular more limited change, perhaps even by executive action of the president, that you want to focus attention on now because it does not appear that those acts are going to make it.

JOHNSON: Well, there have been many bills in the past that appeared that the acts wouldn't make it. But we have to continue to push. How can we continue to send young people abroad to fight for democracy we're not willing to fight for here or willing to compromise on.

We're not asking for anything that's outrageous. We're -- we are recognize today MLK's birthday but yet we're not upholding his legacy for a society that provides equal protection under the law, but, more importantly, access to the voting box for all citizens.

SCIUTTO: You have had meetings with some of the senators involved with this, including those who have expressed opposition to broader action, Kyrsten Sinema among them. During those conversations, did you hear any hope about a path forward? Did you discuss any potential areas of agreement?

JOHNSON: Well, we've had meetings with Senator Romney. We've had meetings with Republicans. We've had meetings with all of the senators because we recognize this is not a partisan issue. Individuals are trying to hide behind partisanship or who had a meeting or who didn't have a meeting or the language of what was said. Let's talk about what needs to get done. It is -- it is not something that we should be like, oh, well, we've got to go to a limited. Early voting by mail, guaranteed for all 50 states, ensuring that the will of voters can be ascertained and that will determine the outcome of the elections. These are not outrageous things, this should be a part of our democracy. And nor -- no -- so I, nor my colleagues, we're going to shrink this conversation to a compromise or some ancillary conversation.

SCIUTTO: And to your point, there were election changes for the pandemic passed by both GOP and Democrat-controlled legislatures at the time.

Derrick Johnson on this Martin Luther King Day, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up ahead, multiple explosions from a suspected drone strike, more than one, killing at least three people. What we're learning about that attack, the technology behind it, that's coming up.