Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Interview With Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA); North Korea Launches More Ballistic Missiles; Terror in Texas; Winter Storm Pummels East Coast; Voting Rights Push. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 17, 2022 - 15:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Over the weekend, 17 trail cars derailed near that mess. No one, fortunately, was hurt.

Prince Harry is challenging a U.K. decision that prevents him from personally paying for police protection while in Britain. According to his legal team, the duke of Sussex, who now lives in California, wants to bring his son and daughter to visit the U.K. But he thinks that his private security alone is not enough.

In a statement, a representative said :"The U.K. will always be Prince Harry's home and a country he wants his wife and children to be safe in, but the lack of police protection comes too great a personal risk." And they added: "The duke remains willing to cover the cost of security as not to impose on the British taxpayer."

One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen has died. Brigadier General Charles McGee passed away in his sleep Sunday morning, according to his family. He was 102 years old. Over the course of his historic 30- year military career, the general successfully flew more than 400 combat missions across three wars, flying in World War II Korea, Vietnam.

He has received numerous accolades throughout his career, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

It's a brand-new hour, and I'm happy to be with you. I'm Victor Blackwell. Alisyn is off.

More than 50 million people are under winter weather warnings across the East Coast. In the Southeast yesterday, this brutal storm brought freezing rain and snow and ice to a region where this kind of thing is rare. More than 215,000 people are still without power.

Now, road conditions are dangerous, as crews are working to clear the snow before low temperatures set in, causing slick and icy conditions. North Carolina Highway Patrol has responded to more than 600 car accidents because of the storm.

Now, the storm is also causing major disruptions and headaches for air travelers.

CNN's Pete Muntean is at Reagan National Airport outside of Washington, D.C.

So I know thousands of flights yesterday. How many today have been canceled or impacted?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're still seeing the reverb from yesterday, Victor, 1,600 flights canceled today so far, according to FlightAware, more than 3,000 flights canceled yesterday, so the travel chaos really not done just yet, because the snow, as you mentioned, hits in places that typically do not get it, major hubs for the airlines like Charlotte.

That's a big hub for American Airlines, 90 percent of all departures at Charlotte yesterday canceled, about a third of all departures there canceled today. The airport just posted an update. It says that it is open and anticipates things being pretty busy today because all those folks who had their flights canceled, not once not twice, maybe three times in some cases.

Listen to one passenger who had to camp out in the airport.


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


MUNTEAN: Bit of good news here, though. The airlines, American, Delta, United, Southwest, have all posted travel waivers for those who have been impacted by this store, meaning they can rebook their flights free of charge -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: That's at least some good news.

Pete, let me switch up on topics here. On 5G, the rollout, there was a request to delay from the airlines and the cell phone companies. That has now happened. They're going to begin the rollout. What should we expect?

MUNTEAN: Well, the rollout for 5G is supposed to happen on Wednesday. Airlines pleaded for this, because they say that 5G signals can actually cause errors in critical instruments that commercial pilots need to land in low visibility.

The delay is now set to happen on Wednesday, 5G set to turn on, on Wednesday. And now airlines have written the Department of Transportation to say there should be another delay again. The FAA just yesterday said they tested these issues at certain airports and found most of the problems not really to exist, but airlines still call it their number one issue and say this could be a huge problem for passengers, delaying flights, canceling flights.

The telecom industry says this has already worked in plenty of other countries and the U.S. shouldn't really worry all that much about it, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Well, we don't need another thing delaying flights.

Pete Muntean at Reagan National, thanks so much.

All right, now to that terrifying hostage rescue at a synagogue in Texas. The FBI is now investigating it as a terrorism-related incident. This suspect has been identified as a British citizen who arrived in the U.S. in late December. He was killed after an 11-hour standoff.

And the four hostages escaped unharmed.

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

So, what more are you learning about this, the suspect in the investigation?


NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Victor, investigators, law enforcement sources told CNN that he arrived in late December and was vetted.

He was not on a terror watch list. British intelligence officials also say that there was no derogatory information about Akram. So they're still trying to figure out how he got from New York to Texas. We do know that he spent a few days in a homeless shelter here in the Dallas area before this incident.

It was truly terrifying for this congregation that was having services on Saturday. The services were being livestreamed. So there were a number of people at home watching this unfold. So you can imagine those tense moments.

Here's the rabbi talking about how the suspect initially appeared in the building and how he then realized the moment when this was a true threat.


RABBI CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER, CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL: When I took him in, I stayed with him. Making tea was an opportunity for me to talk with him. And in that moment, I didn't hear anything suspicious while we were praying.

And my back was turned. We face towards Jerusalem when we pray. Right before he revealed himself, but this was plenty of time in, I heard a click. And it could have been anything. And it turned out that it was his gun.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CHEN: Police ended up recovering a gun from the suspect, but no explosives, just really terrifying moments.

The rabbi also said in a statement yesterday that what really came in as a helpful tool here was their previous crisis training, active shooter training that the congregation took. It's unfortunate that they felt that that was needed, but also unfortunate that it came into play here.

The rabbi had described it in that final hour how the suspect became more belligerent, more threatening, and he said that he saw a moment where the suspect was not in a good place, made a signal to the remaining two other hostages at that time to try and make a run for it by the exit, and actually threw a chair at the suspect to try to get them out safely -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: So fortunate those hostages were able to escape.

Natasha Chen for us in Colleyville, Texas, thank you.

For the fourth time this month, North Korea appears to have tested even more short-range missiles. After Pyongyang's missile test last week, the U.S. announced sanctions on eight North Korean and Russian individuals and entities for supporting Pyongyang's ballistic missile programs.

CNN's Oren Liebermann joins us now live from the Pentagon.

So, Oren, what do we know about what was launched?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Victor, the U.S. says they monitored the launch and are in touch with allies such as Japan and South Korea.

Japan put out a map of where these missiles landed, just east of North Korea in the sea there. The South Koreans issued a few more details, saying they reached an altitude of about 25 miles and flew approximately or just under 250 miles. In that sense, these two suspected short-range ballistic missiles are very similar to the last two short-range ballistic missiles that were launched late last week.

Those, North Korea said, were not a test of the missiles, but instead were a test of the rail cars that launched them, essentially a launching mechanism. Of course, what's alarming, what's noteworthy here for the United States is simply the frequency with which North Korea is now carrying out these tests.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his South Korean counterpart late last week, assured South Korea that the U.S. is behind them and with them as this pace continued.

As you noted, Victor it's in light of and despite all of the sanctions that the U.S. imposed on North Koreans and Russians for assisting the ballistic missile program, as well as North Korea themselves, the Foreign Ministry coming out and saying that ballistic missiles and advanced weaponry like this is a national priority, and they will continue pushing forward.

Before this last round of short-range ballistic missiles, it was essentially a week ago today that North Korea fired off a missile, the initial readings on that initially indicating it might be a threat to the United States. A very short ground stop issued a week ago today, that was quickly lifted when they realized it was no longer a threat, but, clearly, North Korea not letting up here, even as the U.S. and South Korea say, look, they're open to diplomacy.

BLACKWELL: Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon, thank you.

Joining me now to discuss further is CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson.

Nic, good to see you.

Let me start here with these sanctions and what's happened since. Are these sanctions, in addition to those against North Koreans, against Russians and Russian entities any more convincing, any more consequential now that you add this to this packet of consequences?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think what you're going to find is that the North Koreans will try to find work- arounds, which is essentially what they have been doing.


I mean, these developments are prohibited. They have found ways to acquire the technology, just the same way that they did to find the technology and the parts to develop their nuclear systems, this ballistic missile, hypersonic missile systems that they talk about.

They're finding work-arounds. So this is going to shut down one avenue to them or the avenues that these people offered. But, in some cases, they already now have the know-how and technology required to do -- to improve these missile systems. And that is setting something that we have seen and certainly Kim Jong-un is going to take away from this.

These series of tests are showing him that these programs are on the right track, that he is making progress. So, I think that, for him, it will all be about finding another work-around, other people to help him get the components that he is not able to buy legally on the international market.

BLACKWELL: I wonder. These offers of talks, North Korea has not responded yet to those with this administration.

The last administration had a very different rhetorical and diplomatic approach to Kim. You will remember the love letters and falling in love between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. Is it likely that that will have to be the level of engagement that you will have to see more like, although we will never see this from President Biden, I don't suspect, but more like what they expect now after what they received from President Trump?

ROBERTSON: They used, Kim Jong-un use that time with President Trump just to obfuscate, engage, but not really engage, and essentially use that to buy time to continue to develop the weapon systems that he wants to develop.

He is absolutely going to try the same tactic with President Biden. And sanctions probably can't come strong enough and hard enough to do this. The country is facing serious economic difficulties at the moment, food shortages, in part because they have -- they have closed their borders to keep COVID out.

They trade heavily with China normally. There are indications that the borders may open up again with China soon. These missile tests don't cross China's hard red lines about testing nuclear missiles. So, you would get the indication here that China, on the one hand, is quietly supportive of what Kim Jong-un is doing here, continuing these tests.

So he appears to have an ally of sorts in China. So, as long as he feels he's got a friend, it's very unlikely we're going to see him compromise in the short term to get into get into realistic talks with the United States. He has just not shown the track record for wanting to do that or doing it.

BLACKWELL: Let's turn now to Russia.

And the Russian foreign minister has now rejected this suggestion from us intel that Russia is preparing for this false flag operation to use as a pretext to invade. What do we know from the 2014 invasion and from Georgia before then about the likelihood that that could be the way that they will try to get in or give the explanation to the rest of the world of why they're going into, if they choose to, into Ukraine?

ROBERTSON: Yes, in a way, President Putin has put himself more in a corner right now with Ukraine, because he has drawn this huge international scrutiny. He's built up the troops on the border. He has forced the United States and NATO and the OSCE to get into these high- pressure diplomatic talks last week.

So the world is focused on him. So what we saw in 2014 and 2008, the world wasn't so keenly watching President Putin. And there were indications of this sort of hybrid type of war, of sort of false narratives being created, and then unmarked troops landing on the ground being in Crimea.

There was a level -- there was a deniability. I think it's very hard for the Russian foreign minister to be as credible as he might have been a few years ago, because the world is watching and it's watching more closely.

BLACKWELL: Very closely, indeed.

Nic Robertson, thank you.

On the day the country commemorates the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his family calls for no celebration without voting rights legislation for the next generation, which includes MLK's own granddaughter, who called out two specific senators.


YOLANDA RENEE KING, GRANDDAUGHTER OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Senator Sinema, Senator Manchin, our future hinges on your decision, and history will remember what choice you make.




BLACKWELL: Thirty-five years since the nation's first Martin Luther King day, his family says today is no time to celebrate.

They're using the day to demand that Congress deliver on voting rights legislation, which is stalled in the Senate. Martin Luther King III, his wife and their daughter joined a peace walk this morning across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in D.C.

And they're urging Congress to work against dozens of new state laws that restrict voting in 19 states. And, today, Vice President Harris said voting rights are under assault.


KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We know the threat we face. We know that this assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American in every condition in every political party.


We know that, if we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come.


BLACKWELL: Joining me now, Democratic Congresswoman Nikema Williams of Georgia.

Thank you so much for your time, Congresswoman.

REP. NIKEMA WILLIAMS (D-GA): Happy to be here and have this important conversation.

BLACKWELL: So, let's start here about the path forward.

I think everyone who spoke today acknowledged that there's not going to be any legislative process when this vote is held this week. So what is the path forward? We all know why you believe and why many believe it's vital. But what is the plan?

WILLIAMS: So, I think it's important to remember that everybody who's fighting for the right to vote is less concerned with a legislative maneuvering or what the actual processes. What we need is something that we can get to the president's desk. And while we might still be pushing to get the filibuster changed, we have to remember that this isn't just about this election cycle. It is not just about this one moment. This is a movement, and it always has been.

Congressman Lewis reminded us that it's not just a moment for today or tomorrow. Our struggle is of a lifetime. So we have work to do. And we're going to continue to call on those senators, not just those two Democratic senators, because we can't let those 50 Republican senators off the hook, because they have to stand up for what is fair, just and right.

So, right now, we have decisions to make in this country. This is our civil rights moment. And what side of history will you be on?

BLACKWELL: I hear that, Congresswoman.

You say that this is a movement, not a moment, but there is a clock. And the midterm election is coming.

WILLIAMS: There's a clock if you're only looking towards one election cycle, but this is about more than just this next election cycle.

BLACKWELL: I hear that, but let me finish my question. I hear that.

But when I say that there's a clock, there's a clock on control, potentially, of the House. And if you're going to get a bill to President Biden's desk, you're likely going to need control of the House to be able to bring it to a vote. And that may not be the case after January 2023.

So when I say that you're on the clock, there has to be a plan, there has to be a time in this moment to get that legislation there, more than just the necessity of doing it, from your perspective. How do you get it there? And I have still got heard that answer.

WILLIAMS: So, we are still calling on those senators in the U.S. Senate to reconsider their position that they hold today, because we must have a change to the filibuster if we're going on that route.

We're still calling on the White House to continue to use the full power of the White House to make sure that we restore the vote in this country, restore the Voting Rights Act, which is now the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and stand up and push back against these restrictions that we have seen across the country.

We still have options, and we're still exploring all of them. Everything should continue to be on the table until we get this done.

BLACKWELL: You want the White House to stand up, push back, use the full weight and authority of the White House. What are they not doing that you want to see specifically?

WILLIAMS: So, right now, we have to continue the conversations in the U.S. Senate. The House has done their job. Senator -- Vice President Harris was in the Senate as Senator Harris. And President Biden, he's an institutionalist. He knows that body very well. He has deep relationships there. And we're going to have to continue to press on them.

And I encourage them to continue to have those conversations. They were just down at the Capitol last week having conversations in the Democratic Caucus, but we have to explore other options. Everybody has a vote in this, and we cannot let those Republicans who are not standing up for voting rights off the hook.

BLACKWELL: All right, so let's turn now to the Republicans.

We heard from Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican. And let's say this party, the Republican Party, historically has supported reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, not now, not this legislation.

Here's Senator Cassidy.


SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R-LA): So, the Supreme Court decided, the Supreme Court decided that the conditions in 1965 are different than they are now.

Imagine that. We have had an African-American elected president of the United States, an African-American elected to the vice presidency, an African-American elected to the Senate in South Carolina. Now, if anyone can't see that circumstances have changed, they're just not believing they're lying eyes.


BLACKWELL: Blacks have been elected, times have changed. What's your reaction to what you heard there?

WILLIAMS: Well, clearly, he has not read the legislation, because this is a new formula.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell has done extensive work to make sure that we created a new formula. And this would start post-1996. And any state that had infractions to the right to vote since then, then those are the states that would be held accountable. So that's what the Supreme Court instructed us to do, for Congress to go back and develop a new formula for modern times, which is actually what we have done.


And I'm happy to sit down with the senator and go through the points of the bill, so that he understands that this is for modern-day infractions on the right to vote.

BLACKWELL: You know, you are -- I'm glad we're talking to you. Your district obviously was held by John Lewis for so many terms, Dr. King's birthplace, the King Center, his final resting place all there in Atlanta.

And we hear every King Day and throughout the year politicians on either side of the aisle invoke Dr. King and his speeches and some of his well-known quotes for policy gains.

Here is the new governor of Georgia speaking about Critical Race Theory.


GOV. GLENN YOUNGKIN (R-VA): We're not going to teach our children to view everything through a lens of race, but to actually teach our children that one group is advantaged and another is disadvantaged simply because of the color of their skin cuts across everything we know to be true.

And the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King ring in our ears, that we must judge one another by the content of our character, not the color of our skin. This is what will be the founding principle of our executive order, what we're going to do in Virginia schools.


BLACKWELL: And, of course, that is Glenn Youngkin of Virginia. I misspoke earlier.

But what do you hear there with the invocation there of Dr. King to defend against what they say is Critical Race Theory in schools?

WILLIAMS: So, that was the conversation that Dr. Bernice King had just today at the pulpit that her father preached from at Ebenezer.

And what we need to teach are facts in our schools. And I'm not going to stand back. I have a first grader who is in Georgia public schools, and I want him to be taught accurate history, the facts. So, are we not going to teach the legacy of Dr. King?

Our history has a -- our nation's history has a sordid past, but we have an obligation to make sure that we teach those facts for the next generation.

BLACKWELL: Congresswoman Nikema Williams, always a pleasure. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right.

How well could a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine protect you? We have new details about an additional booster next.