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Omicron Surge Overwhelming Some Hospitals; Russian Invasion of Ukraine Imminent?; AT&T Delays 5G Rollout. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 18, 2022 - 13:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: By close, I mean 1.2 million miles away. NASA says that's the closest pass it will make for the next 200 years.

Thanks for your time today on INSIDE POLITICS. We will see you back here tomorrow.

Ana Cabrera picks our coverage right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Glad to have you with us, as we get to our breaking news.

AT&T is now delaying some of its 5G rollout, which was supposed to happen in full tomorrow. And this is after major U.S. airlines warned it would cause catastrophic disruptions to flight traffic and begged the White House to intervene.

AT&T is the parent company of Warner Media, which includes CNN.

Let's go right to CNN's Pete Muntean and CNN transportation analyst and former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo.

Great to have both of you here.

Pete, your reporting. What do we know about AT&T's decision?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: This is a huge development from AT&T.

It, along with Verizon, is really behind this 5G push, which is set to roll out tomorrow across the country far and wide. But the issue here is that there are really serious aviation safety concerns that have been brought up by airlines. They say the problem will lead to thousands of delays and cancellations, diverted flights.

The big issue is with the 5G radio spectrum. It is so close, airlines say, to radar altimeters, what they use. That's a hypersensitive instrument that pilots use in critical phases of flight. It sends a radio beam down to the ground that bounces back up to the airplane to give them a hyperaccurate reading of how close they are to the ground.

Airlines say that they need this, especially in low-visibility conditions. They say, on a day like yesterday, there would have been 1,100 delays and diversions if this does cause errors, if this 5G system does cause errors with those radar altimeters.

Now AT&T has agreed to stop the rollout near certain airports. We don't know for how long. We also do not know which airports. In a statement, though, AT&T calls out the FAA and the aviation industry for not acting on this fast enough. This was already delayed once.

Now this is coming at the 11th hour. In a statement, AT&T says: "The FAA and the aviation industry did not utilize two years they had to responsibly plan for this deployment."

So a lot of frustration from the telecom industry against the aviation industry. It's been a big back-and-forth here. We know that the White House interceded today. There meetings today between the Biden administration, the Department of Transportation, FAA, FCC, aviation groups, aircraft electronics manufacturers as well.

And we know those all centered on trying to build a buffer zone, like what AT&T is describing here, keeping those towers either turned off or at a lower power near those critical moments right before an airplane meets the runway.

So this is a pretty big development on this coming at a very late stage with this deployment only around the corner -- Ana.

CABRERA: And, Mary, obviously, other countries have already figured out how to handle this situation. Countries like Japan, for example, already have 5G. So why are we here right now? Shouldn't this have all been dealt with a while ago?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Absolutely, it should have been dealt with a while ago. I like to describe this as the overnight emergency that was two decades in the making.

The problem is several points along the way, the airlines, Boeing, others did sound the alarm. Most particularly, the alarm bells were sounding as early as 2018 exactly on this subject.

But the Department of Transportation, the FCC were in a standoff. They were back and forth with each other. But at the critical moment, the FCC said it didn't have in its records the Federal Aviation Administration objections. They blamed it on a clerical error. But this has been known for some time, and as Pete correctly laid this out for everybody, but, in layman's terms, what could be compromised is the aircraft knowing its altitude. How high is up? And so this affects not only air traffic separation, instrument landings, also the most one of the most important safety features we have, which is a ground proximity warning. How close are you to terrain or other obstacles?

So it's a big deal. We should have never been put in this last-minute position. And, remember, it was the United States' government that auctioned off this 5G spectrum back in 2020. So now for the government to say, oh, well, wait a minute, private industry, you have to wait, the government caused this problem.

CABRERA: Mary, do you see a quick fix here?

SCHIAVO: Well, actually, a quick fix 20 years in the making.

Yes. What the Federal Aviation Administration has to do is evaluate the systems in the aircraft to make sure that they're properly shielded from interference transmissions. It's just like your old radio dial. If you're trying to tune in 400 and the 5G spectrum from the telephone companies is using 3.7, you can get interference.


Now, what the FAA has to do is make sure that the aircraft equipment and the Federal Aviation Administration equipment can properly screen out close, but not exact, signals. And that should solve the problem. France dealt with this by just simply excluding some of the 5G near the airports.

But the reason it's so much worse than the United States is, we have hundred -- thousands more airports and many times more the air traffic. In Japan, they have a few major airports to deal with. In our country, we have thousands.

CABRERA: And, Pete, I know I looked at my phone as soon as I saw this news, and I saw I have 5G service right now. So a lot of people may be wondering, I thought we already got 5G.

How does this, if at all, impact our current communications and cell service?

MUNTEAN: Well, a bit of sleight of hand by the communications companies, which has been marketing 5G, although it is not necessarily out just yet.

This is such a huge rollout that they have been talking about for such a long time. And the aviation industry -- I went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to see how they sort of test all of this. And you can see that bleed-through that Mary talks about between the frequencies used for 5G, the C-band spectrum is what they call it, and the frequencies used for these radar altimeters.

There is really serious concern here, even though the telecom industry says, yes, this has been rolled out in a lot of different places, and that the fears are really unfounded, that there haven't been any incidents or accidents linked to 5G in the past, especially in these other places of the world, that the U.S. is prepared for this, that this can happen safely.

So there are really two sides of this argument here. What it's coming down to though is this argument playing out at the 11th hour. We will see exactly what happens and for how long this delay is for, by the way. This was already delayed two weeks. We will also see if Verizon gloms onto this as well. They have a lot of these 5G towers that are set to be turned on tomorrow. It is not just AT&T here.

We haven't heard boo from Verizon just yet.

CABRERA: OK, Pete Muntean and Mary Schiavo, thank you both very much.

We turn now to an issue that could affect travel in a different way. Gas prices are creeping back up, a troubling sign for drivers and President Biden, as analysts predict oil prices will keep spiking.

CNN business reporter Matt Egan joins us.

Matt, President Biden, we all remember, took action to lower gas prices back in December. He tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Gas prices went down a couple of cents a gallon. Or maybe it was around Thanksgiving, so end of November. But this didn't last long. Why?

MATT EGAN, CNN BUSINESS LEAD WRITER: Yes, it did not last long at all.

That's because, despite all of the hype around that announcement, this was never going to solve the underlying issue. It was always going to be more of a Band-Aid than an actual game-changer, because while the president did announce release of 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and that is a record, you got to keep in mind, that's only 12 hours of world supply.

And so oil prices did fall around 10 percent leading up to the president's announcement, and then they kept falling because of Omicron. They have since fully recovered those losses. The hit from Omicron to the oil market in terms of demand was less than expected. And so we have seen gas prices come back up.

Today, the average is at $3.31 a gallon. That's only 11 cents below the peak. And it's nearly $1 more than a year ago. Ana, the high cost of living is clearly creating a lot of anxiety among Americans. And the fact that gas prices are starting to head back up is only going to make that matter worse.

CABRERA: Yes, so just a quick follow on the gas prices specifically.

You have Goldman Sachs now saying oil could jump to $100 a barrel this year. So that doesn't bode well for gas prices. What more can the Biden administration do?

EGAN: Well, presidents have very limited options here. There are some ideas being bandied about.

But they will have drawbacks. Let me read to you what we're hearing from the White House. A White House official told me that tools continue to remain on the table for us to address prices. This is something the administration is continuing to watch and monitor very closely.

So what are those tools? Well, Biden could take another swing at this by releasing more barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But the fact that we're even talking about this two months after the first attempt shows how limited this tool is in terms of its impact on the market.

Biden could also ban oil exports. That might feel good, but industry experts are telling me that would actually backfire, because oil is a globally traded commodity, and gas prices are actually set by the world market.

Maybe energy diplomacy is his best bet. That would mean trying to get OPEC and its allies to pump more oil. But the United States and Saudi Arabia don't have great relations right now. And so far, the diplomacy has not really panned out.


So, Ana, there really are no easy answers here.

CABRERA: Yes, and it's not just gas we're seeing going up. Orange juice cost is up. Inflation is also hitting luxury items like Peloton.

But what's interesting, the reasons behind these price hikes vary, so, Matt, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution to get inflation under control, is it?

EGAN: That's right, Ana, definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution, because there are a lot of different factors here.

Now, much of it is related to COVID. Let's think about Peloton. They cited supply chain issues behind their decision to raise prices. Peloton's bike which, was around $1,500, is now going to go for $1,750. Peloton's treadmill is going from $2,500 to $2,850.

But then there's orange juice. Orange juice futures were already at multiyear highs because of COVID. Now they're going even higher. And forecasters are trimming their expectations for Florida's harvest. The USDA is now calling for the smallest Florida orange harvest since the 1940s. And they're blaming bad weather overseas and this disease known as citrus greening that is spoiling the crop.

Ana, these are just two more examples of the cost of living going up.

CABRERA: It's like, when it rains, it pours.

Before you go, Matt, the markets down 600-plus points. What's behind this big drop?

EGAN: Well, the biggest concern is really the Federal Reserve's plan to fight inflation, specifically, the fact that the Fed is removing the easy money punchbowl that has been juicing the stock market really during the whole pandemic.

Remember, back in March of 2020, the Fed dropped interest rates to zero. They promised to buy $120 billion of bonds each month. That essentially forced investors to bet on stocks, but now they are reversing this because they need to cool off inflation. They have to catch up to inflation. And so that has sent the bond market -- we have seen the 10-year Treasury yield climb today to two-year highs.

The higher that Treasury yields go, the more thunder they're going to steal from the stock market. So, Ana, this shows that after monster gains in 2020 and 2021, the ride in the stock market is going to be a bit rougher in 2022.

CABRERA: Matt Egan, as always, thank you so much.

EGAN: Thanks.

CABRERA: Moments ago, the White House warned, Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine at any point. And the Biden administration is weighing a major step to deter Russia from invading.

CNN has learned the White House is considering beefing up Ukraine's military by potentially helping to provide more weapons and anti- aircraft systems to fortify the U.S. ally in the face of a potential invasion.

At the same time, diplomacy is again ramping up. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with his Russian counterpart in Geneva on Friday. And that will follow his meeting with the Ukrainian president in Kiev this week.

Joining us now, one of our reporters on this story, CNN White House reporter Natasha Bertrand. And, also, we have CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance with us in Ukraine.

So, Natasha, tell us more about this potential military boost and why the Biden administration is considering this step.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, Ana, so what we're seeing is kind of a shift in mentality by the Biden administration from focus primarily on deterring a Russian invasion to actually supporting Ukrainian forces in the event that Russia does invade, and then implements kind of a long-term occupation of the country.

So what we're hearing is that the administration has started weighing options to provide support to Ukrainian forces to push back on that occupation in order to allow them to sustain a longer-term resistance to Russian forces being in that country.

And that includes additional equipment like mortars, like anti -- like Javelin missiles, like air defense systems, and those would probably come from NATO allies, we're told. And, of course, special operations forces are constantly rotating in and out of Ukraine, the possibility there being that some of them might be able to bolster that support and training to Ukrainian forces, as well as other agencies, like the CIA. That's according to administration officials who described the

conversations to us. So there is kind of a shift happening here in the pessimism, whereby the administration sees it as more likely than not that Russia may invade, Jen Psaki saying earlier that is a very dangerous moment and Russia could launch an attack at virtually any moment.

CABRERA: Matthew, what's the outlook been from Ukraine? How are they prepping for a possible invasion?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, that they're playing it quite cool, I mean, if I can put it that way.

I mean, we're not seeing any additional deployments that towards the rebel-controlled areas or with the border with Russia in the east of the country, where there's that active war zone. They are calling up reservists here or civilian volunteers and offering them classroom training, as well as battlefield training.


But one of the criticisms that's been leveled at the government here is that they're perhaps not doing enough to prepare for what could be a sort of existential crisis, a massive Russian invasion, which would take place with the tens of thousands of forces that Russia has already gathered near the borders of Ukraine.

On the other hand, it's unclear where Ukraine would send the troops to provide reinforcements. Remember, we have to remember that there's been another potential front opening in the Ukraine conflict, with Russia and neighboring Belarus deciding that they're going to stage joint military drills.

So, the southern border of Belarus, if you follow me, is actually the northern border of Ukraine. And so it seems that Russian forces, rebels, Russian, Belarusian forces are now kind of surrounding Ukraine, potentially posing an even greater threat than the country's already withstanding.

CABRERA: Thank you both so much for your reporting. Matthew, thank you for that, that real image in terms of painting the picture of where everything is located right now for us in this ongoing geopolitical battle and developments. Thank you.

Here to break it all down is president of the Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, Ian Bremmer.

Ian, the fact that the White House is weighing new options, thinking about sending more arms to Ukraine, ammunition, mortars, anti-tank, missiles, et cetera, is this an expected piece of the deterrent strategy? Does it signal an invasion is imminent? What's your read?

IAN BREMMER, PRESIDENT, EURASIA GROUP: No, it signals they're very concerned about the possibility of an invasion and they don't know what Putin is going to do. And I'm not sure that Putin knows what he's going to do. Certainly, the people you talk to that are very close to the Russian president say he hasn't made up his mind yet. And every escalation that President Putin has engaged in, in terms of new exercises with the Belarusians, in terms of the cyberattacks we saw against Ukraine on Friday, in terms of the reduction of Russian personnel from their embassy in Kiev, those are all consistent with an invasion.

They're all consistent also with coercive diplomacy, try to put more pressure on the Americans to get sort of some support for the demands that the Russian government has been making. They say the status quo on Ukraine is unacceptable. And they want the Americans to engage with them.

There has been high-level engagement. We will see if it gets anywhere.

CABRERA: And so the German chancellor saying he expects Russia to de- escalate may just be wishful thinking. It does seem like things are going in the opposite direction for all parties right now.

But do you see any reason for optimism?

BREMMER: The biggest reason for optimism, if you remember, when President Biden met with Putin in Geneva face to face back in June, the U.S. set that agenda.

And the one top priority that Biden had for the Russians was to stop the attacks, cyberattacks, by Russian criminal syndicates against American critical infrastructure. You will remember this was right after the Colonial Pipeline hit. And Biden said that he would give Putin and the Russians a few months to do that, but he expected it would get done or there would be escalation.

Now, the Russian -- the Kremlin has indeed reined in those organizations. We haven't seen those attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure. And, on Friday, literally the day that Ukrainian -- the Ukrainian government faced attacks from Russia on the cyber side, the Russian security forces announced that they had arrested 14 members of this REvil cyber gang, and that they had actually put an end to the operations of that organization.

So this is clearly the Russian president -- he's the only one making this decision -- telling the United States, well, Mr. Biden, when you had a demand of us, we're making good on it.

So I'm not suggesting that that means that there is a diplomatic breakthrough that's coming and that there's anything the Russians are willing to accept that we would actually be willing to offer. But it's very clear that the Russian president is sending a message to the Americans that he would like to at least consider an off-ramp to the escalation that we're seeing.

And that should make us at the very least recognize that there is no inevitability about an invasion of Ukraine.

CABRERA: And so we know that the U.S. secretary of state will be meeting with his Russian counterpart this week, and an official telling us he's seeking a diplomatic off-ramp.

But if diplomacy ultimately fails, and Putin does invade, we know major sanctions will be unleashed. But what do you think could be on the table militarily for the U.S. and NATO?

BREMMER: Nothing.

The United States and President Biden have said directly that the U.S. will would not come to defend Ukraine if the Russians attack. This is not something we're going to risk World War III over. It was never on the table before.


Biden has ensured that the Russian government understands that. So the risk of escalation between these two major nuclear powers is fairly limited. On the other hand, there would be military response. You would probably see, for example, a permanent basing of NATO troops in the Baltics.

You would see forward deployments of intermediate-range nuclear weapons and troops up to the Russian border. You would see more military exercises. So there are plenty of things that NATO together would do if the Russians were to engage in a full invasion of Ukraine.

And, also, there would be significant costs for the Russians just in terms of occupying a territory that is fundamentally hostile towards Russia. And this would not be popular on the ground in Russia. So there are a lot of reasons why Putin should be thinking twice about a maximum military invasion.

And the fact that Putin has warned the Americans that he would consider military and technical responses doesn't mean that that has to be a full invasion of Ukraine. There are many other things the Russians could do that are smaller in terms of escalation, like, for example, sending tanks into the occupied Donbass, where Putin falsely accuses the Ukrainians of committing acts of genocide against Russian passport holders.

He could do things like that that would not necessarily trip this extraordinary escalation from the U.S. and NATO.

CABRERA: But it does emphasize just how complicated and dynamic this situation really is.

Ian Bremmer, it's so great to have you with us. And your expertise is very much appreciated. Thanks for taking the time.

COVID cases are dropping along the East Coast, at least. In other parts of the country, sadly, though, ICUs are out of beds right now. So when will we be out of this pandemic phase?

Plus, a pro-Trump candidate who loves the big lie is now running to be the top election official in a crucial state. Donie O'Sullivan has the details.

And what you need to know about the massive asteroid that's about to whiz by planet Earth.



CABRERA: To the state of a pandemic now.

A big headline today, one in five Americans have been infected with COVID-19. In 31 states, cases are up. But look at the East Coast. They're going down. This is a hopeful sign. The surge has peaked.

Still, hospitals and testing -- testing centers are climbing where cases are climbing. They're at breaking points right now. Some hospitals have no available ICU beds.

CNN's Nick Valencia is live at a testing center in Atlanta with more for us -- Nick.


We're at a testing site here in metro Atlanta at the Saint Philip's AME Church, where just in the last hour we have seen

just really a trickle of cars. Behind me, this line that you see is the busiest that we have seen it all day. About 10 cars is what we have seen in the last hour. And that's night and day, according to what leadership here says, what they have seen over the course of last three to four weeks as Omicron was surging across the country.

The lack of crowd here perhaps an indicator that things are potentially getting better here in the state of Georgia, certainly an indicator that testing is slowing down at sites like this across the city of Atlanta. Just to give you a sense of how much things have changed, at the height, they were seeing between 300 and 600 cars per day.

The demand was so intense that they brought in a mobile on-site unit to turn around those tests faster. It was taking up to five days for people to get the results. That is now just about eight hours. And part of that has to do, of course, with the on-site testing, also the lack of crowds.

But despite good news and scenes like this, Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that 2022, it's still too soon to tell whether or not the coronavirus will go from a pandemic to an endemic. The Omicron variant surging across the country in the last three to four weeks certainly did its part to speed that up.

We have also seen cases go down in portions of the North, South and East, but in 16 states, cases are up and so are deaths. Across the country, community transmission in the majority of counties in the United States remains high. And hospitalizations are also up in places like Oklahoma, perhaps one of the scariest scenes here in the United States, where ICU beds are at capacity because they're seeing so many coronavirus infections there.

So while many Americans are hopeful that they will soon see an endemic, that optimism right now has to be guarded and tempered -- Ana.

CABRERA: Nick Valencia, thank you.

And just into the CNN NEWSROOM, the Web site where you can order free COVID-19 at-home tests from the government is up and running. The site was quietly launched today. We just checked it does work. Go to

And that's where you can order your tests. Each household can order a maximum of four tests to be shipped directly to your home.

Joining us now is Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is also a member of the Fda Vaccine Advisory Committee.

Dr. Offit, given just how many people have been infected now with this Omicron wave, plus the previous, plus more vaccinations, I guess the silver lining could be that this virus runs low on fuel, right? The vast majority eventually have some immunity.

So, we could go from a pandemic to an endemic phase. But we're hearing Dr. Fauci say, hold on, that remains an open question, if that's where we are approaching now.

How do you see it? And explain how we eventually get there.