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White House Working To Shift Focus Off Mishandling Documents; Pompeo's New Book; Germany Stalls On Tanks For Ukraine; Alec Baldwin To Finish "Rust" Despite Manslaughter Charges; Idaho Student Killings Suspect Visited Restaurant Where Two Victims Worked; China Downplays COVID-19 Surge As Millions Travel For Lunar New Year; Tech Industry Layoffs. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired January 21, 2023 - 05:00   ET




KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We'll look at how this impacts both President Biden and Trump's investigations.

Plus, huge layoffs at Google, the company announcing thousands of job cuts. We'll look at what this signals for other tech companies.

And the Bills and Bengals face off again this weekend, just weeks after Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field. Sports anchor Andy Scholes joins me to look at how the team is preparing for the big game.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Live from CNN Center, this is CNN NEWSROOM with Kim Brunhuber.

BRUNHUBER: The U.S. Justice Department is signaling that it likely won't cooperate with congressional investigations into President Biden's mishandling of classified documents.

That was the message in a letter sent to House Judiciary chairman Jim Jordan. The committee responded by accusing the DOJ of being, quote, "scared to cooperate" with the probe into how sensitive paperwork ended up in the president's home in Delaware.

Some Democrats are urging the president to be open about what happened.


SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): I want to see complete transparency on how this is handled and brought forward to the American people. I'm convinced there was no intent by the president to do something that was wrong.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Do you think this hurts him politically, are you concerned about that? CARDIN: Well, this is a matter that needs to get -- the president needs to get behind. He has to get all the information out. He has to square it away and make it clear there was no intent here, that it was kept in a place that did not compromise national security of America.

And that there are steps in place today to make sure this does not happen in the future.


BRUNHUBER: The White House is focusing hard on shifting the focus away from the investigation. Chief White House correspondent Phil Mattingly reports.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: For President Biden on the two-year anniversary of being sworn into office, the issue that had been consuming his administration for the better part of two weeks was nowhere to be seen.

When the president appeared publicly, speaking to members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a very lengthy appearance in which the classified documents that are now being investigated never came up at all.

What the president wanted to talk about is his success on his agenda items, legislative success in the first two years, which really laid the groundwork for the year ahead. That is what they want to focus on.

Also the political and legislative opportunities they see in that year ahead, even as House Republicans hold the majority for the first time since Biden has been in office. To some degree, this is a critical part of their strategy as it pertains to the investigation.

Once again, not answering any questions about that investigation that is now underway; instead, focusing on the president's agenda, focusing on what they have accomplished and want to accomplish.

It's already laid the groundwork for a State of the Union address that's less than a moth away. Obviously the investigation is critical to White House officials, at least the team that is working on it. They know it exists and that it poses risks but they also know they don't have any control over where the special counsel ends up taking things.

But senior White House officials believe, when all is said and done, it will show that they did the right things in terms of those documents, found in two different locations.

And they believe what people care most about, particularly the people who may be voting for the current president in 2024, is far more about the economy and policy issues they have pursued than any kind of investigation.

It is a calculation; to some degree, a bet but one White House officials and the president as well believe that it is very much the case -- Phil Mattingly, CNN, the White House.


BRUNHUBER: Meanwhile, Republicans in the House say it's irresponsible for the Biden administration refuse to negotiate on the debt ceiling. The center's borrowing limit, they want the limit linked to spending cuts.

The threshold was reached Thursday at $31.4 trillion. As a result, Washington is taking extraordinary steps to ensure the government pays its bills. That will hold until around the summer.

But if Capitol Hill can't agree on a new limit by then, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CNN's Christiane Amanpour the effects would be felt around the world. Here she is.


JANET YELLEN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: A failure to make payments that are due, whether it's to bondholders or to Social Security recipients or to our military, would undoubtedly cause a recession in the U.S. economy and could cause a global financial crisis.


BRUNHUBER: The election is still more than a year away but the Republican race for the White House is already heating up.

In his new memoir, former Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo accuses former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley of plotting with president Trump's daughter and son-in-law to try to become vice president.

Haley denies the allegations, saying she never had such conversations. Haley, a major Trump supporter during the last election, indicated she may be joining the race for the White House.



NIKKI HALEY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: I had a great working relationship with the president. What I'll tell you is the survival of America matters. And it's bigger than one person.

And when you're looking at the future of America, I think it's time for new generational change. I don't think you need to be 80 years old to go be a leader in D.C. I think we need a young generation to come in, step up and really start fixing things.


BRUNHUBER: And we'll have more on the 2024 presidential race coming up in the next hour with Amara Walker and Boris Sanchez.

The controversial U.S. Republican lawmaker George Santos is facing new and, frankly, bizarre claims this weekend. Santos has been under intense scrutiny after making questionable claims about his life and achievements. Now we're learning he allegedly has a very flamboyant alter ego. Our Omar Jimenez explains.


QUESTION: Congressman, do you any comments on the Ethics Committee?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Here, among the members of Congress, he is known as George Santos.

But in Brazil, a local performer claims Santos was Kitara Ravache, that he once performed as a drag queen, something the New York congressman strongly denies, tweeting, "The media continues to make outrageous claims about my life, while I'm working to deliver results. I will not be distracted nor fazed by this."

It appears to be just one of the names Santos has used over the years.

GREGORY MOREY-PARKER, SANTOS' FORMER ROOMMATE: I've always known him as Anthony Devolder. I've never known him as George Santos.

JIMENEZ: And that's his former roommate.

MOREY-PARKER: I don't understand that he go one by one to everyone in his district and literally pull the wool over their eyes, like how --

JIMENEZ: But it's not just the name or alleged activity in his free time. It's the stories he tells, which appear to be just that, including one about 9/11.

REP. GEORGE SANTOS (R-NY): I get emotional, my parents were both down there the day of the attacks. Fortunately, none of them passed.

My mom was a 9/11 survivor. She was on the South Tower and she made it out.

JIMENEZ: His mom was actually in Brazil at the time, according to immigration records. And on a 2003 form, she said she hadn't been to the U.S. since 1999.

Santos also claimed his grandparents survived the Holocaust and fled Europe to escape Jewish persecution. That's false, genealogy records show.

During his campaign, he claimed he worked at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, later admitting that that wasn't true. While running for Congress on Long Island he claimed he graduated from Baruch College and NYU, he now admits he didn't.

QUESTION: What's your reaction to members of your -- ?

JIMENEZ: Despite all of these lies, George Santos is now a freshman congressman. He's been named to low level committees by the slim GOP majority. And there are no immediate signs Republican leadership will stop him from walking the halls. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He hasn't committed a crime. He hasn't been indicted on anything at this point. And in this country, you're innocent until proven guilty.

JIMENEZ: Leaving those he's deceived to sit and watch, like two military veterans who say Santos promised to raise funds for lifesaving surgery for one of their dogs in 2016. But that instead, he took off with the money. The dog later died.

RICH OSTHOFF, NAVY VETERAN: The dog saved my life at least two times. When I first got out of the service, I was depressed. I was having nightmares. Bad, bad memories about things that happen. Not more related but other things that the military does to you.

JIMENEZ: Santos denies this ever happened. He told CNN in a statement in part, anyone that knows me knows I go to hell and back for a dog and especially a veteran.

And the veteran's response to Santos was, "He said he'd go to hell and back, well, then," quote, "go to hell, George."

As you can imagine, there are a lot of investigations swirling around Santos. Federal prosecutors are looking into his finances. A watchdog group filed a complaint against him with the Federal Election Commission. Law enforcement in Brazil say they intend to reinstate charges against him connected to a stolen checkbook in 2008.

A complaint has been filed with the Office of Congressional Ethics. All the while, Santos has denied any wrongdoing and is proceeding forward with his freshman term of Congress, tweeting that, "these distractions won't stop me."

At this point, there are a lot of distractions -- Omar Jimenez, CNN, New York.



BRUNHUBER: Despite intense negotiations among the West's most senior defense officials, Germany still won't agree to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Thousands of the heavy tanks are already deployed to more than a dozen nearby European countries but they can't be sent to Ukraine without Germany's OK.

Even without the big armorer, Ukraine still receiving sophisticated new weapons and equipment that require training and much of the defense meeting in Germany was aimed at coordinating those shipments.


BRUNHUBER: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin offered no hint whether the U.S. might be willing to send its own top of the line battle tanks to Ukraine. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: What we're really focused on is making sure that Ukraine has the capability that it needs to be successful right now. There are tanks in that -- in that -- those offerings.

Poland, for example, continues to offer tanks and will provide tanks if other countries will offer some tank capability as well. I don't have any announcements to make on M-1s. And you heard the German minister of defense say that they have not made a decision on Leopards.


BRUNHUBER: Among the latest security packages from Ukraine's allies, the U.S., for the first time, will be sending 90 Stryker armored vehicles, designed to move troops swiftly across the battlefield in snow, mud or sand and they're lighter and more agile than the Bradley fighting vehicle.


BRUNHUBER (voice-over): All this happens as the U.S. turns up the heat on the mercenaries serving as Russia's shock troops. The Wagner group is led by a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is on the right in this video. Now the White House is moving to designate them as a transnational criminal organization.



ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: It will open up additional avenues for us to continue to not only sanction Wagner and put more squeeze on their ability to do business around the world but will assist others in doing the same.


BRUNHUBER: Washington is also releasing new pictures of North Korea's alleged arms shipments to mercenaries. U.S. officials believe this train carried the first batch of Pyongyang's weapons for Wagner in November and that there will be more to come.

Salma Abdelaziz is monitoring multiple developments related to Ukraine and she is joining us from London.

First, on Wagner, what's led to the decision and concretely what does it mean?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It shows how concerned the U.S. is about Wagner's expanding role on the ground and the rise of its leader.

Over the course of the last few weeks and months, Prigozhin's openly criticized Russia's organized army, openly criticized the defense ministry, saying they're failing to make gains on the ground, failing to provide weapons that the troops need.

Instead he is pointing to his mercenary group as being successful, as being behind some of the gains we've seen in recent days and weeks. This momentum that has been regained by Russian forces.

The United States says there are some 50,000 members of Wagner on the ground in Ukraine. But about 40,000 of them, according to U.S. officials, are convicts. So concerns about Wagner using the prison system within Russia as the manpower on the ground.

Then, of course, finally, you mentioned this, the connections to other groups, other organizations in other countries, as the transnational part of this designation. It's important to remember Wagner does not just operate in Ukraine; it operates in the Middle East in places like Syria and across Africa, as well.

So in addition to the U.S. making this announcement, it also declassified these images that I know you have, that show or the U.S. says it shows these images of Russian rail cars going to North Korea to pick up arms and weapons, that are then used by Wagner on the ground in Ukraine.

Of course it's not just North Korea that's been providing weapons to replenish Russia's arsenal on the ground; Iran, as well, has been accused by the United States of giving drones, ballistic missiles, again, replenishing that arsenal.

This is absolutely significant at a time that we're seeing Russia regain momentum and make small but significant gains in places like Bakhmut. Kim.

BRUNHUBER: All right. One of the other major angles we've been covering these past few days has been whether Germany would allow Leopard tanks to be sent to Ukraine. You've been watching that.

What's the latest?

ABDELAZIZ: A rare moment of disagreement or standoff, if you will, among Western allies that really have, from the start of the conflict, been quite unified, been quite in lockstep. Germany showing its reluctance to allow these tanks, the Leopard 2 tanks, to be used in Ukraine.

It is also Germany that has to sign off for some over a dozen countries in Europe that holds about 2,000 of these tanks to potentially begin to deploy those tanks on the ground.

CNN has reported earlier -- and I have to indicate Germany has denied that this is the reason behind its reluctance. But CNN has reported that Germany is looking to the United States as well to deploy Abram (sic) tanks.

Now the U.S. has made the argument, U.S. officials have made the argument, that those are less practical than Germany's tanks.

Now Germany still continues to review this information. There is a decision that is expected in the coming days. But absolutely, for President Zelenskyy, this cannot come soon enough. He wants to see these tanks on the ground right now. I want you to take a listen to what he said.



VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Today's Ramstein will strengthen our resilience. Our partners are principled in their approach. They will support Ukraine as long as necessary for our victory.

Yes, we still have to fight for the supply of modern tanks. But every day we make it more obvious that there is no alternative to the fact that the decision on tanks must be taken.


ABDELAZIZ: Now this is ever more important, of course, as I mentioned, gains being made on the ground by Russia. This is absolutely important for President Zelenskyy's outcomes on the battlefield.

BRUNHUBER: Absolutely. All right, Salma Abdelaziz, thank you so much from London.

Facing criminal charges for the death of a crew member on his movie, "Rust," but actor Alec Baldwin is saying the movie will continue as planned.

Plus a U.S. outlet reporting new details about the suspect in the killings of four Idaho college students. That and a conversation with the reporter after the break. Stay with us.




BRUNHUBER: A source close to Alec Baldwin tells CNN the actor- producer intends to finish the movie "Rust" --


BRUNHUBER: -- despite facing involuntary manslaughter charges for the shooting death of a crew member.

The film's cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, was shot when a supposedly prop gun that Baldwin was holding fired a real bullet, killing Hutchins and wounding the director. Nick Watt has more.


NICK WATT, CNN ANCHOR AND NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hilaria Baldwin appeared to create a diversion.

HILARIA BALDWIN, ALEC'S WIFE: Guys, you're hurting me.

WATT: While husband Alex slipped out of their Manhattan apartment.

This afternoon, the press pack caught coming home. He is not talking.

Baldwin's lawyers say he was blindsided by the criminal charges.

Baldwin himself told CNN just a few months ago --

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: They're not -- they're not going to charge anybody in my mind. Criminal charges are things you avoid unless you know you can make a case.

WATT: Baldwin was a producer on "Rust" and an actor. He was pointing the gun, not knowing it was loaded, toward cinematographer Halyna Hutchins when it went off, killing her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's been charged with both. He was the actor that pulled the trigger, so certainly he is charged as an actor.

WATT: Baldwin denies he pulled the trigger and an actor charged for an accident on set is raising some eyebrows.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actors cannot be expected and are not expected to do final safety checks.

BALDWIN: My job is not to concentrate on whether the gun is safe. We have people there for that.

WATT: Like the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter along with Baldwin.

Baldwin says the first assistant director, Dave Halls, actually handed him the weapon, told him it was safe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We stand very firm that he did not have the hand of the gun to Alec Baldwin.

WATT: Halls has signed a plea agreement for the charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon. Still unanswered, how did live ammunition even get on to the set?


WATT: So can she share that idea?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't. And the reason I can't is we have given that information to the district attorney and they need to do their own follow-up.

WATT: Accidents like this are very, very rare. Brandon Lee, son of Bruce, was killed on the film set nearly 30 years ago, hit by a bullet fragments fire from a prop gun that should have been empty.

Criminal charges were never filed. This actor was holding the gun.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, what happened to Brandon was a tragic accident. And it's something that I'm -- that I'm going to live with.

WATT: However, this criminal case against Alec Baldwin plays out, he will live with what happened to Halyna.

A. BALDWIN: The toughest part is we can never bring her back. Never. There's nothing we can do to undo that. And give anything to undo that. And we can't.

WATT: Now a civil settlement was reached with Halyna Hutchins' family months ago. Part of the deal: her husband, Matthew, will serve as an executive producer on "Rust" if filming resumes.

Now at the time, Matthew Hutchins said that he had, quote, "no interest" in recriminations or attribution of blame that his wife's death was a terrible accident. But now the family says that these charges are, quote, "warranted" and, by the way, if Alec Baldwin is convicted, jail time is a possibility -- Nick Watt, CNN, Los Angeles.


BRUNHUBER: Both Alec Baldwin and the armorer say they weren't aware the prop gun had live ammunition.

Gabrielle Pickle, the film's line producer, was on location in New Mexico when the tragedy happened. She joined CNN's Anderson Cooper for an exclusive interview, in which she was asked about the live ammunition and her reaction to the criminal charges. Here she is.


GABRIELLE PICKLE, LINE PRODUCER, "RUST": I don't know that I can speak to that. I don't know what the D.A. has. I feel awful for everyone involved. Yes, my heart goes out to them.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: I think a lot of people obviously want to try to understand how live ammunition ended up on the set in the first place. At this stage, are you -- is anybody any closer to understanding how that actually happened?

PICKLE: I have been asking that question for 15 months. It is so mind-blowing to me. I didn't believe it for, honestly, for months, that it was live ammo. Once the FBI ballistics report came back, there was no disputing it.

But it was absolutely unfathomable. Had I known about it, it would have been immediately addressed. It's a fireable offense, huge safety violation. And had any crew or cast member known, I'm fully confident they would have also reported it and shut it down immediately.


BRUNHUBER: "People" magazine reports that suspect in the murders of four Idaho college students visited a restaurant, where two of the victims worked in the weeks before the killings.


BRUNHUBER: Citing a former employee, the outlet claims that Bryan Kohberger went to the Mad Greek restaurant in Moscow, Idaho, at least twice and ordered vegan pizza. Madison Mogen and Xana Kernodle were both servers there but the restaurant itself denied the report in a Facebook post.

The reporter who worked on the story described to CNN's Erin Burnett what he was told.


STEVE HELLING, SENIOR CRIME WRITER, "PEOPLE": He had certain dietary requirements. He was a strict vegan and he wanted to make sure that none of his food touched animal products.

So this was -- obviously it's a pizza place that has vegan options that are far beyond like a pineapple pizza but actual vegan pizzas. And he was always ordering those.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Yes, that kind of bizarre obsession with it stood out.

All right. So Instagram, I mentioned, after the technical, issues that you reported that there was an Instagram apart that authorities believe belonged to Kohberger. We have been able to compete in this but you have reported this.

A series of messages to one of the victims saying, "Hey, how are you?"

And kept doing it.

What more have you learned about that?

HELLING: None of those messages were strange. None of those messages were aggressive or threatening or anything like that. But yes, he was trying to make some sort of contact with this person.

And also he was sending notes, saying, "Hey, how are you?"

But police believe that those actually went into another folder and she wasn't following him back. So she may not have ever seen them.


BRUNHUBER: CNN hasn't been able to verify this reporting. A gag order prevents parties in the case from commenting beyond what is in the court record. Kohberger has not yet entered a plea. But a Pennsylvania attorney who handled his extradition told NBC News, quote, "he believes he is going to be exonerated."

A weapon that Kyiv describes as a must-have remains off limits for now. Still ahead, why Ukraine still isn't getting what they say they need to win the war against Russia. Plus, for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, millions of

people in China are traveling for the Lunar New Year holiday. Right after the break, fears jamming people into buses and trains could spark a new COVID surge.

Stay with us.





BRUNHUBER: Welcome back to all of you watching here in the United States, Canada and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber, there is CNN NEWSROOM. Let's get you up to speed with the latest developments related to Ukraine.


BRUNHUBER (voice-over): The U.S. is turning up the heat on Russia's Wagner mercenaries, whose boss is on the right in this video. Washington is moving to declare Wagner a transnational criminal organization, which will be followed by new sanctions on the group and its global network of supporters.

The U.S. is also releasing pictures of North Korea's alleged arms shipment to Wagner. Officials believe this train brought in rockets and missiles for the mercenary army in November and that more shipments will follow.

Ukraine's deputy foreign minister is still hoping Germany will come around and support sending Leopard tanks to Kyiv. Berlin failed to reach an agreement on that on Friday. Germany says they will make a decision as soon as possible. But other supporters are growing impatient.


BRUNHUBER: In the meantime, the allies are trying to downplay the rift and talk about the other firepower that's on the way. Nic Robertson has that story.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Amidst rare disagreement, Ukraine's allies, at a U.S.-led meeting in Germany, failed to agree on their biggest challenge yet: whether to send German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

BORIS PISTORIUS, GERMAN DEFENSE MINISTER (through translator): All the pros and cons have to be weighed very carefully. We cannot all say today when a decision will be made nor will that decision on the Leopard tanks will be. ROBERTSON (voice-over): Ukraine's President Zelenskyy, concerned

about a Russian spring offensive, told the meeting, allies need to speed up or more Ukrainians will die.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Time remains a Russian weapon. We have to speed up not hundreds of thank you but now hundreds of tanks.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): The meeting's host tried to paper over the cracks, talk top urgency and unity, not differences over tanks.

AUSTIN: This isn't really about one single platform. And so our goal -- and I think we've been fairly successful at doing this and bringing together capability -- is to provide the capability that Ukraine needs to be successful in the near term.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Ukraine says it needs 300 of the Leopard 2 tanks; about 2,000 are currently in use with its allies. But those allies need German permission to reexport them. Ministers of some of those nations met on the margins at Ramstein, one of them Poland.

MARIUSZ BLASZCZAK, POLISH DEFENSE MINISTER (through translator): I'm convinced that building this coalition will be successful, just as the issue of transferring Patriot systems to Ukraine was successful.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): But despite disagreement over tanks, the threat of a Russian spring offensive has triggered a surge in military hardware pledged to Ukraine recently. The U.S. alone committing 90 Stryker combat vehicles, 59 Bradley fighting vehicles and 350 up- armored Humvees Thursday. Sweden, Denmark, the U.K., Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Portugal, France and Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and others together sending multiple battalions worth of offensive capability.

The talks Friday trying to sync it all up.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, CHAIRMAN, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS: For all these different nations that are here today, to assemble all of the equipment, get it all synchronized, get the Ukrainian troops trained, et cetera, that will be a very, very heavy lift.

ROBERTSON: Milley's analysis, even if Ukraine can sync up its forces with all the armaments coming their way, they still won't be able to retake all their lost territory this year. The issue of Ukraine needing modern battlefield tanks is far from over -- Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


BRUNHUBER: Fears are growing that China could see a new surge in COVID-19 infections as more than 5 million people are expected to travel by train and air to their hometowns today alone to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday.

There were more than 9 million travelers on Friday. The government estimates there will be more than 2 billion trips across China this holiday season.


BRUNHUBER: A huge uptick after Beijing's strict zero-COVID policy was lifted last month. Officials say the virus is what they call a relatively low level and the number of COVID patients in hospitals is declining. But many doubt the official government assessment.

Lockdowns have taken a toll on Chinese society, which is only now starting to come to grips with the enormous costs of the government's failed policy. CNN's Ivan Watson reports from Hong Kong.



After three years of restrictions due to their government's war on COVID, Chinese can finally travel again, just in time for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. In pre-pandemic times, this was described as the world's largest annual human migration.

"I haven't been home in three years," says this man at the main Beijing train station. Millions of Chinese people are traveling, as COVID-19 spreads out of control.

WATSON: Chinese officials say COVID infections have passed their peak in many parts of the country but there are clearly still concerns about the scale of the outbreak.

For example, here in Hong Kong, authorities require all of these travelers arriving on high- speed trains from mainland China to get negative COVID test first before they can cross the border.

WATSON (voice-over): Last month, Beijing abruptly scrapped its strict zero COVID policy. The ensuing surge of sick people putting a strain on hospitals and health workers. Several social media videos showed nurses sick with COVID collapsing on the job.

"I felt unwell," says this nurse in Shandong. "It had been a week that I had COVID-19 until that day when I finally collapsed."

Over the weekend, health officials who once prided themselves on keeping COVID out of China, abruptly raised the COVID death toll since early December, from several dozen COVID deaths to nearly 60,000 people killed by COVID. But the official U-turn on COVID has had other unintended consequences.

At a factory in Chongqing, workers pelted police with what appeared to be boxes of COVID tests.

Some biotech companies withholding salaries or laying off workers after the government suddenly stopped demanding the population take millions of COVID tests a day.

GEORGE MAGNUS, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD CHINA CENTER: The implementation of zero COVID and the abrupt and unprepared manner in which it was abandoned, it speaks to a chronic government's failure.

WATSON (voice-over): One of China's richest provinces, Guangdong, spent around $22 billion over three years on pandemic prevention.

MAGNUS: A lot of these local governments are highly indebted. They've got big cash flow problems. This is a big problem that the central government and local governments will have to sort out in this coming decade but COVID just kind of made it worse, really.

WATSON: For now, uncertainty over public health and government finances has done little to dampen a palpable sense of excitement. Understandable as Chinese emerge from pandemic lockdown to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, the biggest holiday of the year -- Ivan Watson, CNN, Hong Kong.


BRUNHUBER: New Zealand will soon have a new leader. The country's education minister, Chris Hipkins, is set to replace Jacinda Ardern as prime minister following her shocking resignation announcement earlier this week.

The ruling Labour Party says it will meet Sunday afternoon to endorse the nomination and confirm Hipkins as prime minister. Ardern said Thursday she doesn't have the energy to seek re-election in October's general election.

At least 15 people have been injured after a bomb blast derailed a passenger train in southwestern Pakistan. The explosion knocked eight carriages and the engine completely off the rails.

A provincial government official added the mountainous area where the attack happened has made the search and rescue operation difficult. A militant separatist group, which wants independence from the region, has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Still ahead, Google is the latest in the tech industry to be hit by layoffs as parent company Alphabet says it will let go of 12,000 employees. That's next.





BRUNHUBER: Unfortunately, there's no letup in the tech industry layoffs. Google's parent company is among the latest to announce job cuts. Alphabet says it's letting 12,000 employees go, about 6 percent of its work force.

The CEO says Alphabet overhired when the economy was hot. And that's been a trend in Silicon Valley. More than 200,000 tech jobs have been lost since the start of last year. CNN's Paul La Monica explains the mass tech layoffs.


PAUL LA MONICA, CNNMONEY DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT: For all of the tech giants, that's why we've seen layoff announcements at Amazon, at Facebook parent Meta, at Microsoft, now you have Alphabet joining this unhappy parade of companies that realize that, when times were good, they ramped up.

Times aren't necessarily as good as they were a few years ago. And everyone's bracing for the most telegraphed recession probably in modern history. So we have job cuts. It's not surprising.

It's very unfortunate, though, and it wouldn't surprise me, though, if we see further job announcements, layoff announcements from other big tech companies.


BRUNHUBER: For more on this, I'm joined by Margaret O'Mara, a University of Washington tech historian and joins me from Seattle, Washington.

Thank you so much for being with us. We just heard the reporter there, is the explanation as simple as that?

Tech companies grew too quickly during the good times?

MARGARET O'MARA, TECH HISTORIAN, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: Yes. I mean, it's been a time of really extraordinary growth, particularly the last years, three years of the pandemic, when everyone was moving to working at home.

Or many people were moving to work at home and to learn at home and ordering things in from places like Amazon and other tech companies. And that stimulated incredible demand that caused the growth of these companies, for them to hire like crazy.

And they kind of followed suit. As one company would hire a lot of people, so would others. And now the reverse is happening.

BRUNHUBER: Interesting.

So is there a certain type of tech worker who's been more vulnerable to these layoffs or is it all across the board?

O'MARA: Yes, it's across the board. Look, tech -- the people who have the really highly specialized engineering skills are always the most in demand and I think will continue to be.


O'MARA: Look, these companies are -- they're trying to retrench a bit and to prioritize. The very big platforms do a lot of things. And they're having to select what are the things we're going to double down on and focus on.

A real emerging trend is AI. You see it with -- both with Microsoft and at Google out of a concentration on how do we kind of stay at the cutting edge and compete with that.

And maybe moving away from some other projects that were moon shots or products that weren't going as well as they hoped. But there's -- you know, it's going to be a real variety across the sector.

BRUNHUBER: So according to one report, the number of layoffs in the sector were the highest since the dotcom crash of more than 20 years ago.

As a tech historian, put what we're seeing now into context.

O'MARA: Yes. Well, this is different than the dotcom crash. Look, there's some similarities. Then in 2000-2001 you had rising interest rates, you had macroeconomic conditions that were affecting the flow of capital into the tech market, both startups and big companies.

There was a lot of froth and hype around certain things. We could say a good parallel to the dotcom hype was crypto, which, even before the layoffs of recent months, was already entering its winter.

But I think what's really different is the scale of tech. In 1999 and 2000, the industry was much smaller. It was important and growing and exciting but it was not the thing on which everything else ran. The companies were not as large.

So the scale is quite different and the variety of things that these companies do and provide and the backbone that they provide for other companies is much greater.

BRUNHUBER: So I mean, tech forms such a huge part of the infrastructure, as you just said. But as a sector it only makes up about, what, 2 percent of jobs in the American economy.

But even though it's small relative to the rest of the American work force, obviously the big worry for the rest of us is a ripple effect.

So is what we're seeing now the canary in the coal mine?

Or could it actually eventually lead to broader downturn, do you think?

O'MARA: Yes. It -- it's hard to see. You know, I'm a history professor, so I don't like predicting the future. I know it can be a dangerous game. But you know, there is going to be a ripple effect.

Look, if tech is a highly geographically concentrated industry, concentrated in my city in Seattle and the Bay Area but also other cities around the world. Significant tech sectors, they're going to feel that pain more sharply.

It's not just the layoffs in companies, it's the retailers that depend on these tech workers to come and buy their lunch there or -- and significantly, commercial real estate, which already was getting upended by the pandemic and so much white-collar work going in.

You know, tech companies were leasing a lot of square footage over the last three years. Now they're pulling back. So that's going to have a big effect.

BRUNHUBER: Appreciate your time and your historical perspective on what we're seeing now. Margaret O'Mara, thank you so much.

O'MARA: Thank you.


BRUNHUBER: Still ahead, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin has been back at the team facility. But his recovery is far from over. New details on his condition coming up. Please stay with us.








BRUNHUBER: That wraps this hour of CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Kim Brunhuber. Follow me on Twitter. "CNN THIS MORNING" is next.