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Erin Burnett Outfront

Death Toll Rises To 27 In Upstate NY Amid Winter Storm; Southwest Airlines Cancels 68 Percent Of Flights; U.S. Reaches Record Number Of Asylum Cases On Backlog; Rep.-Elect George Santos Admits To Lying About His Resume; 3 Russian Servicemen Killed After Ukrainian Drone Is Shot Down Near Airbase About 500 Miles From Moscow; Biden Expected To Sign $1.7 Trillion Spending Bill As White House Braces For Tight Division In Congress Next Year; China Stops Reporting Daily COVID Cases As Hospitalizations Rise. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 19:00   ET



SARA SIDNER, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, a deadly arctic blast. More than two dozen people are dead as a devastating blizzard unleashes some of the worst weather winter to hit New York. Some died or trapped in their cars. And it is not over.

Plus, border surge. New numbers on the unprecedented number of migrants along the U.S./Mexico border. I'll talk to an official from one border city about what's going on and what they need.

And new audio into OUTFRONT of Putin's forces turning on each other as there are reports of a strike on a military base deep inside Russia.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening. I'm Sara Sidner, in for Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, worst winter storm ever. That's from New York officials describing this Christmas weekend blizzard that pummeled areas upstate. And the death toll is rising, at least 27 deaths across the region now being blamed on the storm, surpassing the death toll from a historic blizzard 45 years ago.


MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: It was just a horrible situation, the worst storm I've ever seen. It's the first time any of us can remember situations where we felt truly helpless.


SIDNER: The blizzard burying Buffalo and other parts of Upstate New York under more than 4 feet of snow, and the region still bracing for even more snow overnight. At this hour, these communities in red are still under a total driving ban. Roads across the regions littered with hundreds of cars submerged in snow. State police are assisting crews with search and rescue operations, including going door to door to check for stranded drivers. The acting superintendent of New York state police sending this

message to anyone even thinking about hitting the roads.


STEVEN NIGRELI, ACTING NYS POLICE SUPERINTENDENT: It's a very selfish act, to be honest with you. In the beginning we asked people to stay on the road -- stay off the road. Now I'm telling you, I'm directing you to stay off the road. That's what you can do now, stay home.


SIDNER: You heard it there.

President Biden promising New York Governor Kathy Hochul that she will have the full force of his administration to help the state recover.

And it's not just New York. Check out this video from Edgewater, New Jersey. It's crazy. Drivers unable to use their cars for days because they are frozen solid in ice.

The blizzard also wreaking havoc on travel nationwide, more than 7,000 U.S. flights delayed today, and more than 3,700 canceled, including more than two-thirds of all Southwest Airline flights.

We've got the storm covered from all angles. Miguel Marquez is in Rochester, New York, and Lucy Kafanov is at Denver international airport.

We will start in New York.

Miguel, you were supposed to be in Buffalo for us tonight. But the roads are so bad, you couldn't get there, correct?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Buffalo is literally socked in. No one getting in, no one getting out, except for some essential personnel. And then it takes massive vehicles to do that.

Buffalo seeing a storm like they have never seen, 27 people so far dead in Erie County, New York. And authorities are concerned there will be more.


MARQUEZ (voice-over): An unprecedented storm, devastating and deadly, hitting western New York.

GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D), NEW YORK: We now have what'll be talked about not just today but for generations, the blizzard of '22.

MARQUEZ: Parts of Buffalo pummeled with up to 43 inches of snow and hurricane-force winds. And the death toll of at least two dozen people in the area.

SHERIFF JOHN GARCIA, ERIE COUNTY, NY: There's going to be a lot of welfare checks. And unfortunately I have a bad feeling about that. I think that that toll is going to go up. It's just gut-wrenching.

MARQUEZ: Erie County, New York, brought to a literal standstill with people trapped in their homes and cars.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was the first time in Buffalo fire history that they could not respond to emergency calls because of how severe the conditions were.

MARQUEZ: County officials sending in specialized trucks to rescue the rescuers.

GARCIA: I couldn't see two feet in front of my vehicle. And we had to rescue deputies. We brought in snow mobiles, UTVs, ATVs.

When fire rigs are getting stuck, the heavy equipment, you can imagine what happens to the public.

MARQUEZ: While most major highways have at least one lane clear for emergency traffic, many residential roads are still impassable with vehicles abandoned in the middle of the street.


HOCHUL: We have had snowplows, major snowplows and rescue vehicles, I saw them myself in ditches buried in snow.

MARQUEZ: Officials urging residents, stay home.

HOCHUL: Stay off the roads so we can continue to rescue people, get them safe, and make sure that the roads are clear so that we can reopen our community as soon as humanly possible.

MARQUEZ: Buffalo under a driving ban, but that hasn't stopped some from taking advantage of the situation. Police have made arrests for looting. Videos on social media shows looters at work, merchandise being carried out on foot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People who are out looting when people are losing their lives in this harsh winter storm is just absolutely reprehensible.

MARQUEZ: All while thousands of homes and businesses are still without power. One family who lost their heat tried to make it to a hotel on Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You couldn't see anything. You couldn't see a stoplight. You kind of just had to drive through the intersection praying basically.

MARQUEZ: Their prayers answered by airport firefighters who were able to rescue the Tisdales along with dozens of other trapped drivers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those guys were amazing at the fire house. They treated us with nothing but love and they welcomed us with open arms.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MARQUEZ: Now, amid all the horror and all the difficulty that authorities are having in the Buffalo area, we should point out that over 500 people have been rescued. And there is some good news if there is any good news in this. Thursday and Friday, the temperatures are supposed to go up to 40 and 50 degrees by Friday. By then, the big melt will be on -- Sara.

SIDNER: All right. Thank you so much, Miguel Marquez there for us.

Now, let's go to Tom Sater in the CNN weather center.

Tom, Buffalo already buried under 4 feet of snow. What do the next few hours and the next day look like for the city? I know you're from there so give us the lowdown.

TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, he was just mentioning the big melt. And I think, Sara, that's going to come with a world of problems as well. We're looking at massive pipes breaking, and some of these are going to be large water main breaks. The weight of this on roofs is going to cause problems.

We've already heard from the medical examiner that some of the fatalities are from cardiac arrest. So, shoveling the snow alone, your heart is beating faster to keep your water warm. In average, one car driveway with a foot snow is equivalent of moving four times.

But think about it, as horrific as it's been in Buffalo, and the wind chills are still eight, the cold extends out to the west, 50 fatalities nationwide. Can you imagine out west when temperatures were 45, 50 degrees and with a matter of hours, you're minus 20 wind chill. It got down to minus 50, minus 60, and minus 70.

Here's the warning right now. Watertown and surrounding countries. Buffalo is under advisory. Radar is showing some very good news, Sara. It's starting to dwindle. Not much falling in Buffalo now, and the bright colors of white turning gray. So it's lightening up there in Watertown as well.

It's actually snowing heavier in the boot hill in Missouri, around Paducah, Kentucky, it is snowing right now. This is the amount of snow that has fallen. So with this amount of snow, this is multifaceted.

It wasn't about the snow, they can handle the snow. They just had 36 inches last month, it's the wind. We want a warm-up, but we don't want it to warm up so fast like we had that arctic freeze so fast.

This is going to cause problems not just with water main breaks, but with so much snow and ice. And then you toss rain on top of this, on top of 49 -- this is going to be over 50 for Buffalo. Watertown, you're at 41, you're going over 50. But you have rain in the forecast for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and your temperatures are near 50, in the low 50s -- it's going to be a long week.

Hopefully, we won't see as many water main breaks, but the urban flooding is going to be wide, widespread.

SIDNER: Tom Sater, I think that sigh said it all. Thank you so much for that update.

OUTFRONT now, on the phone, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

Mayor Brown, thank you so much for taking the time out. I know your time is precious. I'm sure that you're tired.

Can you tell us just right now at this moment what the situation is where you are now?

MAYOR BYRON BROWN, BUFFALO, NY (via telephone): Thank you, Sara.

I just finished touring the city with Police Commissioner Gramaglia, looking at conditions and also going to visit first responders, police officers, state troopers, members of the National Guard. We thank them for the work that they are doing.

We have been people that have been working around the clock with a major focus on protecting life and safety. We've made a lot of progress today. The conditions improved today. We did not have the same wind speeds that we had been experiencing on Friday and Saturday where we had extreme blizzard conditions.

We were able to reach all of the stranded motorists in the city of Buffalo and rescue them literally hundreds stranded in the city.


We have been working to respond to emergency medical services calls and working with our power company national grid to assist them in restoring power to our residents who have been out of power. At the height of the storm, there were over 20,000 people without power in their homes. My home included. Now that number is under 8,000, and we continue to work diligently and aggressively with national grid to help them get to locations they need to reach to be able to restore power.

SIDNER: Mayor, is your power back on?

BROWN: My power came back on as of 1:00 yesterday morning.

SIDNER: Okay. I'm glad to hear that. The death toll, it's really disturbing. It's already eclipsed the death toll of the Buffalo Blizzard in 1977, a historic blizzard. I understand that you were a student at Buffalo State College during that storm.

If you were to compare these two storms, what would you say about the two of them?

BROWN: No. All of the experts are saying that this storm has been more harsh than the Blizzard of '77. We have gotten all of the elements of a blizzard. Wind speeds reaching gusts as high as 79 miles an hour. Sub-zero temperatures getting as low as minus 22 degrees, whiteout conditions with zero visibility, blowing and drifting snow.

Some areas, snow drifting up to over 6 feet. Roughly 4 feet of snow that has fallen in the city. So, all of those issues combined, people are saying make the blizzard of 2022 more harsh than the blizzard of '77.

SIDNER: All right. Thank you so much, Mayor, for joining us. Good luck, and I hope that the people of Buffalo are able to dig themselves out of this, those who have lost loved ones, we send our prayers.

Now let's go to Lucy Kafanov at Denver International Airport. This is a time lapse video showing just how long the line is for Southwest Airlines passengers. Goodness, trying to rebook flights. We have all been there in some capacity at some point in our lives.

Lucy, you've been talking to some of those travelers. What are they telling you now?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sara, no one is happy about this situation. Denver airport leading the nation, unfortunately, in terms of flight cancelations. More than 460 flights canceled today alone. The bulk of those, at least 414 southwest airlines, and you showed that time lapse. That was several hours ago that that was filmed.

Look at the line right now, hundreds of people waiting here. Southwest crews were passing out water and snacks. Those little pretzels that you get on the southwest flight, folks were being handed those so they could eat because they have been here for hours. Some people have been here for days, in fact, trying to get their flights rescheduled, trying to get money back.

People are incredibly frustrated about this. We spoke to one gentleman who's actually been here since December 21st unable to get a new flight on Southwest. He's going to a different airline. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first night we came in, there was really bad weather. And Southwest said our flight was canceled because of the weather. And then we have had three flights since the 21st canceled. And no one can tell me why.

I will never fly Southwest Airlines again and I will tell everyone I know never to fly Southwest Airlines again.

KAFANOV: Why is that? What do you want to do different?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, you just can't leave people stranded for eight days and just say it's the weather.


KAFANOV: And that's just Denver. This is having cascading effects all across the nation. More than 3,700 cancelations, nearly 70 percent of those Southwest flights, more than 6,800 flights delayed. Southwest did issue an apology, several apologies actually today.

The latest statement offering a, quote, heartfelt apology for what they're describing as, quote, operational challenges. They say, quote, we recognize falling short and sincerely apologize. Of course that's going to be cold comfort there for the thousands of passengers trying to get home.

We know already, it's Monday right now, for Tuesday already over 1,600 southwest flights are expected to be canceled, according to flight aware. This travel nightmare is not close to coming to a finish -- Sara.

SIDNER: Thank you so much, Lucy, there. Anyone who has traveled would get anxiety just looking at all those bags jumbled up there. We appreciate your time.

OUTFRONT next, desperation, families continue to stream across the U.S./Mexico border only to find frigid temperatures and overcrowding on the U.S. side.


The arrivals are overwhelming American border towns. We take you to El Paso.

Plus, breaking news. Incoming Republican Congressman George Santos breaking his silence finally tonight after he was caught lying about his resume, including attending Columbia University and working at Citigroup.

Also, China about to drop its strict COVID restrictions on travel. Why now when the country is being hit with a wave of deadly infections?


SIDNER: Tonight, undeterred. Nearly 1.6 million asylum applications are pending in the United States, the highest number on record. Border agents are encountering roughly 1,500 migrants around El Paso, Texas, every single day. Dozens in the area sleeping outside under donated blankets in freezing cold temperatures now. This as the Supreme Court has yet to rule on what happens to Title 42, the controversial pandemic-era policy that allows officials to quickly expel migrants at the border due to public health concerns.

And it's leaving thousands of migrants in flux.

Camila Bernal is OUTFRONT in El Paso.


CAMILA BERNAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A dream come true in the form of a hula hoop, toys their parents say they would not be able to afford in native Venezuela. An opportunity for his children, says this 30-year-old, who left his country more than three months ago with his partner and four children. In November, they made it to the U.S. and turned themselves in to immigration authorities.

They sent us back, he said. And because they're not legally married, the two got separated, and after about a week in a detention center, they ended up in two different cities in Mexico. Elvin's partner Caroline says she was told they were being sent back to Mexico because of Title 42, which allows border agents to immediately expel migrants, citing COVID-19 concerns.

And this is what they say led them to an illegal crossing 20 days later. I wanted to cross legally, says Caroline, but as a family, they felt they had no other option.


It's a desperation felt by many here. And, as a result, they end up on the streets during a cold front in El Paso. The city accommodates those who have documentation taking more than 400 people into this makeshift shelter in its convention center over the holiday weekend.

Others ending up in Washington, D.C., outside of Vice President Kamala Harris' residence.

AMY FISCHER, MIGRANT SOLIDARITY MUTUAL AID NETWORK: The majority of them are planning to, you know, stay in D.C. or head up to New York.

BERNAL: While it's not clear who is responsible for sending these migrants, Texas' Governor Greg Abbott has been busing migrants to northern states since April. These migrants were bused from Texas to D.C. on Christmas Eve. Some wearing only a t-shirt in 18-degree weather.

For Elvin and Caroline, the final destination is Chicago. They say they want to apply for refugee status, find work, and provide for their four children.


BERNAL (on camera): And every single one of these migrants has a very similar story. For the children in my story, it was the hula hoops. For the boys that are out here tonight, it is the Nerf guns, slice of pizza, some swords. Their parents told me all we want is a bus out of here and to get to our final destination.

Now, in terms of that other bus that took those migrants to Washington, D.C., Governor Greg Abbott confirming through his office that this is part of his effort to get those migrants to other states -- Sarah.

SIDNER: And the White House responded and calling it cruel.

Thank you so much, Camila Bernal, there in El Paso.

OUTFRONT now, Mario D'Agostino. He is the deputy city manager in El Paso. Thank you so much for joining OUTFRONT.

Can I first talk to you about what it looks like in El Paso? I have heard from several different people there that El Paso is simply overwhelmed. What does that mean exactly?

MARIO D'AGOSTINO, EL PASO DEPUTY CITY MANAGER: So, what it means is unfortunately we have people who are staying out in the streets. We have had it just as the rest of the country. We've had that cold spell this weekend. SIDNER: There is growing frustration about the White House's handling

of this situation and calls for President Biden to come to the town and see what's going on. Here's a member of the El Paso City Council.


CLAUDIA RODRIGUEZ, EL PASO CITY COUNCIL REPRESENTATIVE: She needs to come down here and really see the destruction, really see the chaos, really see people living on the streets. It's really bad.


SIDNER: I spoke with Claudia Rodriguez earlier this week. And she was just emphatic that more has to be done. Is it the visit from the president that is -- that you want the most? Or is it that you want the federal funding, or both?

D'AGOSTINO: You know, the visit is just for the visual so they can understand the depth of what's happening here. And I'm not talking about looking at it from the customs and Border Patrol side but from the local side and what it's actually doing here in our own streets. That's the visit.

When you talk about funding, funding allows us to do -- operationalize what we've been doing without having to take it from our local tax dollars, which is going towards public safety and public health, and those dollars are short already and they've already been identified for a particular use. So funding will not buy our way out of it. What's most needed is to get that visual, that understanding of how many people we're talking about, how many people are actually flowing through. And then working at the policy level to make the changes in the way we process people coming into our country.

Something has to be done different, when we're talking a thousand, 1,500, 2,500. They're saying if Title 42 goes away, we're going to see about 5,000 apprehensions a day right here in El Paso.

When you start looking at that and think about the number of people who are going to be released through this community, it's unmanageable for every community, much less El Paso with our moderate-sized airport and a couple of bus terminals. We just can't keep up with the flow.

SIDNER: Yeah, you don't have the space to house and feed folks and do all the medical things that may need to be done. You called early for a state of emergency declaration in El Paso. I understand that the mayor resisted that at first but ultimately did declare a state of emergency this month.

And the city council unanimously voted to extend it. Has that made anything change? Has that made it easier in any way to manage the situation?

D'AGOSTINO: Well, what it does do is it allows us to operate what we're operating. So we actually have the convention center operating as an emergency shelter. We've set up over a thousand beds. We're having an average of 450 people a night spend the night within there. So, it's this emergency declaration that allows us to operate this way.

It allows us to take buildings that weren't designed for overnight stays and utilize them in this manner.


With that, we're also able to acquire a couple of school buildings that have been shut down. So we're actually in the process of getting them ready to open them up as additional shelter space when Title 42 is lifted.

SIDNER: All right. Mr. D'Agostino, thank you so much for joining us there from El Paso. We appreciate your time.

D'AGOSTINO: Thank you.

SIDNER: And we have some breaking news. Embattled incoming Republican Congressman George Santos admitting now that he lied about aspects of his resume, but insisting he's, quote, not a criminal and that he intends to serve out a full term in Congress. Santos speaking with WABC Radio and the "New York Post" says that he's, quote, embarrassed after big discrepancies in his education and job history were uncovered.

Melanie Zanona is OUTFRONT for us.

Melanie, this is the first time that we've heard Santos speak after all of these details came out that show that he was indeed lying, now he's admitting it, correct?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: That's exactly right. He did put out a statement blasting the "New York Times" report when this first came out. But now he really is breaking his silence and admitting to lying about key parts of his resume and his job history.

He said that he did not actually work for Citigroup or Goldman, even though he previously said he did. He now is saying that he worked for them through his company. But he chalked it up to essentially a poor choice of words. He is saying that he didn't graduate from any college or university, even though he previously claims he earned degrees from New York University and Baruch College. That he admitted was false.

Essentially, he was downplaying it though and said, you know, a lot of people embellish their resumes or sort of twist their words and I'm guilty of that. But making it seem like it's not a big deal. He also did not address a number of other questions that were raised by the "New York Times" and other publications including questions about his charities, questions about his heritage and claims that he made about his heritage.

He also has questions raised about his financial disclosure reports and whether he filed all the proper protocols in terms of disclosing his finances. So, I don't think this is going to staunch the bleeding or quell the calls for him to not serve in Congress. And so far, GOP leaders are silent, but, Sara, I suspect that will be very difficult when they return to Congress next week. SIDNER: Is there any explanation as to why? Or was he just saying

it's not a big deal?

ZANONA: Well, he did say it's not a big deal and he also said he felt embarrassed and perhaps felt pressure to embellish his resume. But he is about to be a member of Congress, about to be a member of Congress, so this is a big deal. He is going to face pressure to answer even more questions as he assumes the congressmanship.

SIDNER: Melanie Zanona, thank you so much, for bringing us those new details.

OUTFRONT next, Ukraine right now warning of what it's calling a massive retaliatory strike from Russia after three Russian soldiers were killed not in Ukraine but deep inside Russia.

Plus, President Biden is about to begin the New Year with a government that hasn't been this divided in more than a hundred years. What does that mean going forward? Our Harry Enten is standing by with all the numbers for you.



SIDNER: Tonight, in a newly obtained intercept, a Russian soldier can be heard claiming Russian troops were caught trying to desert and even revealed their squad's positions on the battlefield. It is yet another example of the turmoil and disorder that's plaguing Russia's military. Take a listen.


RUSSIAN SOLDIER (through translator): We caught 20 more of our guys trying to desert last night. You want to know how? They were just walking along the road. We didn't shoot them, we took them back in. Their case was handled today, and the commanding officers took them away.

As it turns out, they revealed our positions. They're totally (EXPLETIVE DELETED). All of them are volunteers. And now a war tribunal awaits them.

Meanwhile, another crew (EXPLETIVE DELETED) hit our tank operators, And now they're driving after us like a bat out of hell in that tank.


SIDNER: Well, that's quite revealing. This as three Russian soldiers were killed after a Ukrainian drone was shut down near a military base deep inside Russian territory.

Will Ripley is OUTFRONT for us in Kyiv.

Will, what more can you tell us first about this incident deep inside Russia? WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sara, the

Ukrainian air force is falling just short of claiming official responsibility for yet another drone strike deep inside Russian territory. But they're certainly not denying it either. A spokesperson saying that this is a, quote, consequence of what Russia is doing, meaning the bombing of civilian infrastructure targets that caused blackouts for millions of people across Ukraine in the dead of winter. We know that at least three Russian service men were killed on Monday in the western port city of Engels, which is along the Volga River about 500 miles southwest of Moscow.

We also know this is the second attempted drone attack on this area which has a strategic bomber air base making it an attractive target obviously. Russian state media claiming that this drone was shot down, CNN cannot independently verify that.

President Putin meanwhile getting a lot of skepticism here in Ukraine and around the world for his claim that he's ready to negotiate about acceptable solutions to end this war. Of course, he's not really ready to negotiate, analysts say, certainly not on Ukraine's terms, which is that, among other things, he'd pull out of Crimea, which was illegally annexed back in 2014, an adviser to President Zelenskyy says that Moscow just doesn't really want negotiations, but they want to avoid responsibility.

Also, the Ukrainians think that Putin might just be wanting to bide time to help give his troops more time to regroup and train those hundreds of thousands of conscripts, some of whom were assembled in Belarus where they've been engaging in joint training drills with Belarusian soldiers, as we've been reporting in recent weeks.

President Zelenskyy is asking for patience and faith from the Ukrainian people. He's also warning of dark times ahead, especially in the coming days before the end of this year. Ukraine is bracing for a Russian retaliation potentially from the drone strike.

There was pretty heavy shelling down in southern Ukraine over the weekend. It killed at least 16 people. More than 70 rationalize were fired.

Dimitry Medvedev, the former president of Russia actually met last week with Chinese president Xi Jinping and China is throwing their support behind Russia. As he calls it, this disgusting, almost fascist regime, his words, here in Kyiv must be removed and demilitarized before Russia ends this war -- Sara.

SIDNER: Thank you, Will.

And OUTFRONT now, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, he is a CNN military analyst as well.

Colonel Leighton, this Ukrainian drone that we are about to look at was finally shot down in a city nearly 400 miles from Ukraine's border and into Russia.

[19:35:11] This isn't the first time that Ukraine has been able to penetrate pretty far inside of Russia.

What does that say about Russia's air defenses?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Sara, good evening. What it tells me is that their air defense have a lot of holes in them. A lot of vulnerabilities and it means that the Ukrainians can exploit those vulnerabilities and do things potentially like going after the base at Engels, which is Russia's main strategic bomber base in that area.

SIDNER: Now, you heard earlier, I want to get to that Russian soldier in that intercept that we played just a little while ago. He was complaining that 20 Russian volunteers were caught walking down a road, trying to desert the battlefield. But not before they gave away their fellow soldiers positions to the Ukrainians.

What does this tell you? Because there are a couple of things in their. First of all, they say that they didn't shoot them, which indicates that may have shot others. Second of all, he says 20 more people, what does that tell you about what's happening to Russia's military inside Ukraine?

LEIGHTON: Well, it is certainly worrisome for Russian commanders. It tells me that morale is in the trash basically for these Russian units. They don't have any area in which they can really fight for here. They don't believe in the cause, and they are really not willing to stick their necks out, not only for the Russian regime, but also for their fellow soldiers. And that's why they're leaving. They were walking with their feet.

SIDNER: Colonel Leighton, thank you so much for your expertise and bringing your analysis. That is important as we watch this war that is gone on for more than 300 days.

OUTFRONT next, we take a look at some of the key moments that have defined Ukraine's fight from our Matthew Chance. He has been on the frontlines since day one.

Plus, the U.S. now with a government that has not been this divided in more than a century. What could that tell us about 2024?

Harry Enten will have more.



SIDNER: President Joe Biden expected to sign a massive $1.7 trillion spending bill this week, wrapping up 2022 with a major victory. But, the hard work is only just beginning. Biden entering the New Year with a government that may be as closely divided as it has been in a century, and the country mirroring that division.

That's according to the person sitting next to me, senior data reporter Harry Enten. How lucky are we to have you?

Let's start with the basics here. The Democrats have performed better than expected. They have gotten quite a few things passed during the Biden administration. They gained a seat in the Senate, whenever I thought there was going to be a red wave. But the margins are still very slim. Why?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yeah, the margins are still very slim. You know, when I was looking back over these midterm results over the last few weeks, as I was doing my clearing out of the spreadsheets, what I noticed, look at the governors or the U.S. Senate, look at the U.S. House. Neither party holds more than 52 percent in any one of those different bodies or in the governorship.

I look back, this is the first time in at least a century in which no party holds more than 52 percent in any one of those, the House, the governorship, or in the United States Senate. I think it reflects a country, if you look at the polling, that is so polarized, and this election I think really show that, that polarization.

SIDNER: It's really interesting. That would be at 1922. So, before World War II.

ENTEN: Correct.

SIDNER: Things were divisive then as well. The partisan divide is evident in the results of the recent presidential election obviously. President Biden, besting former President Bush by just under five points in 2020. Sorry, I said Bush, I went way back, I was thinking 1922, I went back to '80s and '90s.

ENTEN: He was born in 24.

SIDNER: Thank you for that.

President Trump. Has this always been the case that there's such a tight margin like that.

ENTEN: Yeah. So, I think, you know, when we look, I talk about the most recent election, but really is a reflection of how divided we have been in the last few elections. We've had single digit margins in the last nine presidential elections. That is the longest streak for single digit margins ever since we reported the popular vote, the presidential popular vote two centuries ago. We're talking 200 years.

We are more divided. We have closer elections now than in any point in the 200 years that we have been recording the presidential popular vote.

SIDNER: That is pretty incredible. If we're looking ahead now, 2024, quickly tell me, are we looking at another really close election again?

ENTEN: Yeah. I mean, if you matchup President Biden against either Ron DeSantis or former President Trump, we are looking at margins right now. Three points, one point DeSantis leads Biden. We are looking again at a very close election. Again, a very polarizing electorate. I think that is the lesson of 2022. That is the lesson going all the way back to 1988.

SIDNER: I mean, three points, one point, that is the margin of error, correct?

ENTEN: Yeah, it's going to be close.

SIDNER: All right. Harry, we will wait to see, but I believe you.

ENTEN: Thanks.

SIDNER: OUTFRONT next, Russia's war with Ukraine has raged for more than 300 days now. And next, our Matthew chance who has been on the ground in Ukraine for much of it. He breaks down the key moments from Ukraine's fight.

Plus, hospitals in China are at their breaking point. Doctors are overwhelmed with patients that they no longer have time to eat, or drink. We are live in Beijing.



SIDNER: Tonight, President Zelenskyy offering a message of hope to his country, saying they have withstood Russia's invasion for ten months now, and they will continue to do so. Zelenskyy saying, quote, we'll endure this winter because we know what we are fighting for. We believe that tears will be replaced by joy, despair will be followed by hope, and death will be defeated by life.

Matthew Chance is OUTFRONT reflecting on what it's been like to cover this war from the very beginning.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the invasion first began, I was standing on top of the roof of a hotel in the center of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, basically on television, having a conversation with a bunch of colleagues about how it was unlikely that Vladimir Putin, even though he had built up tens of thousands of forces on the borders of Ukraine to the east, how unlikely it was that he was going to take that step, cross the Rubicon, and launch a full-scale invasion, is on the hands of the Ukrainians who resist.

I tell you what, I just heard a big bang right here behind me. And it was a really shocking experience because, you know, not only was I having to report on the bombardment of Kyiv, but I also had to radically recalculate what was going on, what was happening in this country I've been covering for so many years.

Oh, there's another one. I've got a flack jacket right here. Let me just get it on. Those first hours after the invasion were pretty frenetic. We didn't

know what was really going on. There were all sorts of reports about Russian paratroopers moving into positions around the city. There was one particularly worrying report that airborne Russian Special Forces had moved into an air base north of the Ukrainian capital in an area called Gostomel. It was the Antonoff air base.

These troops you can see over here, they are Russian airborne forces.

I started chatting to that commander. I said, look, give me an idea of what we're seeing here, where are the Russians, I said. And he said to me, what do you mean? He looked really confused. He said, what do you mean where are the Russians?

And I said I'm going to go live in a minute on CNN. I want to tell people where the Russian forces have gone to. And he looked at me and he said, we are the Russians. We are the Russians.

And at that point, we suddenly realized that we had come face to face, we crossed the front line inadvertently.

And so it just shows us now for the first time just how close Russian forces have got towards the center of the Ukrainian capital.

I think what was most amazing, most surprising, I suppose, about those first few days was the level of resistance that we saw, that we witnessed by ordinary Ukrainians as well as the Ukrainian military, of course. But we saw ordinary Ukrainian people pick up weapons, defend their streets, their buildings, their yards.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't think I would join this unit just two days ago. I thought that, you know, I don't know how to handle a gun.

CHANCE: And I remember looking down and they had a crate full of and bottles filled with gasoline and rags on top that they were going to throw at Russian forces as they came,.

I asked the -- one of the guys there, did you make these? He said, no, we didn't make them. It's the old women in the apartment blocks that are making them. They're delivering them to us.

And it just really, you know, ran home what a multilayered sort of defense that Russians were confronting. They thought they were going to walk into the Ukrainian capital and take it over without a fight? I mean, what a massive miscalculation that was.

You know, within a couple days of the invasion, we traveled to just a short distance from the capital a bridge where there had been a battle, just an hour or two before we got there.

Right within the past few hours, there has been a ferocious battle here on the outskirts of Kyiv and this is one of those Russian Soviet era vehicles which is completely burned out. This is a bridge and access point to the northwest of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. And the Russian column that has come down here has been absolutely hammered.

So that was a very, very disturbing moment in the conflict. But it was also very profound in the sense that it just showed that Russia's calculation of sending a light armored columns into Ukraine to take the capital, to decapitate the Ukrainian government was not working. And it was not just not working, but it was devastating to the Russian arms forces.

I think one of the most incredible aspects of this conflict so far has been the dramatic transformation of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, from an actor and comedian to politician to president- turned-iconic war leader.

I managed to speak to him. I was one of the first journalists to speak to him in his bunker in central Kyiv.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): It's very important for the people in the United States to understand that despite the fact that war is taking place in Ukraine, it is essentially for values in life, for democracy, for freedom. Therefore, this war is for all the world.

And that message should be sent far and wide from Ukraine to people in the United States so they understand what it is like for us here. What we're fighting for and why support for Ukraine matters.

CHANCE: And it's incredible that President Zelenskyy from very early on knew that he had to make this war much broader in its impact. It wasn't just -- it couldn't just be a war that Ukraine was fighting. It had to be a war that the rest of the world, at least the rest of the West was invested in.

I think 2022 will be remembered as the year that Russia hurled itself into the abyss, was held into the abyss by Vladimir Putin and his extraordinary war in Ukraine. Not only is the country facing a potentially devastating military defeat with tens of thousands of dead if not more, but also it's facing economic catastrophe.


SIDNER: That was our Matthew Chance who has been covering this war, by the way, from both sides, inside Russia and on the front lines in Ukraine.

OUTFRONT next, a surprise move by China which is getting crushed by COVID again. The country suddenly lifting its strict COVID travel restrictions. So what's happening?



SIDNER: Tonight, China's 180 on zero COVID continues. The country announcing it will end all quarantine requirements and other restrictions for international travelers entering China, a policy first that was put in place three years ago. Major development as China battles an unprecedented wave of infections now.

Selina Wang is OUTFRONT in Beijing.

Selina, can you tell us about all these change?

SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is huge, Sara. These changes are in major move towards formally dismantling zero COVID and towards ending China's nearly three years of isolation. So, from January 8, he country is scrapping the quarantine requirements for all international arrivals. And to really understand why this is such a big deal, we have to look at where China has been.

So, the country has been severely limited, who can go in and out of the country with district border controls. Nights are very limited and expensive. All the arrival has to go through quarantines in government facilities. I actually went through multiple ones myself including a 21-day government quarantine earlier this year.

And we're talking about harsh quarantines here. No opening your door except for food pickups and COVID tests, a huge amount of stress to get back into the country. But, look, a lot still remains unclear even with the changes. We don't know how many flights will be allowed to enter the country or how easily Chinese nationals will be allowed to travel out.

Officials have said they will gradually restart outbound tourism in a, quote, orderly manner but it depends on the international COVID situation and the capacity of various domestic services.

Now, authorities also said this policy is part of China downgrading its COVID management. Previously COVID was manage the as a class A disease. On par with cholera or the bubonic plague which was justification for the draconian zero COVID measures we saw for years.

SIDNER: China's national health commission is also no longer reporting daily COVID case numbers. Why is that?

WANG: So they haven't given any official explanation. But this does come after there was widespread criticism and ridicule over the unreliability of the official data. So in the first 20 days of December, guess get, this health authorities reported less than 63,000 COVID cases. But leaked documents from China's top officials showed very different internal estimates. That almost 250 million people may have caught COVID in that same time period.

Now, if correct, that estimate which CNN cannot independently confirm, that would mean this is the largest COVID outbreak to date globally. But that information was not made public by Chinese authorities. China has also so far only reported a small handful of COVID deaths for this entire month.

But what we see at crematoriums tells a different story I saw body bags piling up in metal containers, workers loading more coffins in. Scenes like that are playing out across the country and the medical system is also under intense pressure -- Sara. SIDNER: Wow. That is really disturbing. Selina, those pictures that you and your photographer were able to gain. Thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate you getting us the information.

And "AC360" starts right now.