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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Full House Votes to Hold Mark Meadows in Criminal Contempt; 800,000 Americans Have Now Died of COVID; Russian and Chinese Presidents Meet Amid Pressure from West. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 15, 2021 - 05:00   ET



LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. It is Wednesday, December 15th. It's 5:00 a.m. here in New York.

Thanks so much for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Laura Jarrett.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. We have reports this morning from London, Kentucky and Tokyo.

But we begin on Capitol Hill. Breaking overnight, the full House of Representatives voting to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in criminal contempt of Congress. You heard a lot about all the documents he handed over to the January 6 Committee, but he's also held back plenty and he refuses to answer lawmakers' questions.

JARRETT: Meadows, of course, was one of former President Trump's top aides. He was at Trump's side at the White House while the Capitol was under siege, makes him a key witness and crucial for the select committee's investigation.

CNN's Daniella Diaz is live on Capitol Hill for us this morning.

Daniella, this case now in the hands of the Justice Department.

DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Laura, that is exactly right. But it's important to note how did we get here, Laura? Mark Meadows seen as a key witness to this committee's investigation of the January 6 insurrection, he was originally cooperating with the committee in handing over information. But everything changed when he did not attend a deposition that was previously scheduled, and he says he did not answer questions because he believed they were covered by executive privilege.

But really why the panel is doing this is, remember, they initially referred Steve Bannon for criminal contempt to the DOJ, and he was indicted. So they really hoped that this would send a message to witnesses that they need to cooperate with the investigation or they will be referred for criminal contempt. But it didn't seem like that really changed Mark Meadows' opinion on this and it seems like that strategy is being thrown into doubt.

So that is why, of course, that the committee moved forward to refer Mark Meadows for criminal contempt. But remember, the committee says Meadows is, quote, uniquely situated to provide critical information, unquote, about January 6 as well as schemes to show distrust in and overturn the election.

You know, he was with former President Donald Trump during the insurrection, unlike Steve Bannon who wasn't even at the White House, wasn't even employed by the White House at the time, which is why the committee wanted to get information from him.

But this really matters, Christine and Laura, because this is the latest effort to penetrate the inner circle of an ex-president who watched the U.S. Capitol come under attack by a mob incited by his plot to overturn this very fair election, this big lie that the election was false.

Take a listen to what Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, a Democrat, said about this ongoing investigation and why it is so important for the committee to reach its results and inform voters of its results.


REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): I'm hearing lots of people saying, oh, well, January 6, it was -- look, it wasn't a fundamental threat to our democracy. It will never happen again. It was a bunch of people surprised by what actually happened.

Look, that may or may not be true. It may be the folks I got to meet on January 6, I don't think are fundamentally the threat to our democracy today.

The threat to our democracy today is things that Mark Meadows knows a lot about. What I see as the real ongoing threat here is the fact that we still have a former president of the United States promoting these lies to the extent that 60 percent -- 60 percent of Republicans believe that the current president is illegitimate.

Mark Meadows is the guy who knows about that stuff, and we need to know all of the ins and outs of what is still an ongoing threat to our democracy.


DIAZ: Look, Christine, Laura, the committee is ramping up its investigation. That much is very clear. Consideration considering that they have considering that they have called more than 300 witnesses to provide information, to provide testimony. And it's clear that they realize the clock is ticking.

Look, the bottom line here is that the committee realizes that the 2022 midterms could really change its outcome. You know, Republicans are poised possibly to take the majority. And if that happens, most of them have called this a sham committee, and they would likely shut this down.

The committee recognizes that, and they want to inform voters about the results of this investigation into the insurrection, at least before the midterms. That is why they are wrapping up their investigation -- Christine, Laura.

JARRETT: No question the clock is ticking for them. Daniella, thank you.

ROMANS: All right. Just in to CNN, President Biden is set to surpass former President Trump in the number of federal judges he nominates during his first year in office.


He will announce a new wave of nine nominees today, capping a year- long effort to make an enduring mark on the federal courts. That will bring Mr. Biden's total for the year to 73, one more than Trump nominated in his first year. Democrats have pushed hard to fill federal judicial openings, trying to match Senate Republicans' historically high number during Trump's term.

JARRETT: A federal judge has tossed out former President Trump's lawsuit to keep his tax returns under wraps. A House committee had requested them two years ago, suggesting the materials could reveal hidden business entanglements and conflicts of interest. The judge on this case, a Trump appointee, and he said Trump was wrong on the law but gave the former president 14 days to file his expected appeal. The judge also warned, though, here the committee that it might not be right or wise to make Trump's returns public, even though he said it has the right to do so.

ROMANS: All right. A dramatic shift for the Federal Reserve is expected today at the earned of its two day meeting. The central bank is likely to announce it is ramping down its bond buying program even faster, ending it in March instead of June. That would clear the way for the fed to start raising interest rates from zero.

The Fed also likely acknowledged inflation is no longer a transitory or temporary problem. The hope, of course, is raising interest rates will slow inflation. A key inflation gauge, the producer price index, rose 9.6 percent over the past year. That is the highest annual rate on record.

Last week, another main inflation gauge showed its biggest spike in nearly 40 years, a consumer price index. U.S. stocks fell Tuesday on the inflation news, compounded, of course, by worries over the omicron variant.

A real shift here, the Fed from being the recession fighter after coronavirus to now being the inflation fighter. So we are entering a new phase here.

JARRETT: Something to watch.

Still ahead for you, Cornell's campus is closed. Return to office plans for many businesses delayed begin. The real world effects of the omicron variant across the U.S. exactly one year after the first vaccine was administered. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


JARRETT: Welcome back.

It's an unthinkable number we should not be numb to, 800,000 Americans have now died of coronavirus. A threshold crossed exactly one year after the first vaccine was authorized in the United States. Since then, 495,229 Americans have died, many of those deaths preventable.

ROMANS: It's almost unimaginable there. The price is being paid by victims' children and families.


DR. LEE S. BEERS, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS: I have heard pediatricians across the country who are very worried. They are seeing unprecedented numbers of children with mental health concerns and children who have experienced grief and loss, children with extreme amounts of stress or trauma in their homes. I had one pediatrician, I remember this, he told me he had seen more children for anxiety than ear infections in the past year.


ROMANS: That's really remarkable.

Let's bring in Dr. Elizabeth Murray. She's a pediatric emergency medicine physician.

Thank you for joining us bright and early this morning.

You know, there's always been concern about college campuses as COVID hot spots. We just learned that Cornell has just closed down its campus after 900 positive cases of the omicron variant, all in vaccinated students, Doctor.

Is there any way to avoid these clusters? And when they're all vaccinated, how concerned are you?

DR. ELIZABETH MURRAY, PEDIATRIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN: I'm concerned because this is potentially a clue to reinforce information we think we know already about spread, and that this is a very contagious variant. The good news is all the information we have is vaccination is still very protective against severe disease and hospitalization, and that it is definitely very, very critical.

In college campuses are places where it is relatively easy to spread an infectious disease. People are living in dorms. They're close together. There's a lot of socialization going on. So I'm not surprised that a college campus is where we are seeing this.

But I am a little bit worried about all those students as they travel back home for the holidays, you know. I think this is an opportunity to remind people the importance of testing before they visit with family, testing before travel to make sure they're not bringing the omicron variant back to their home states or home communities.

JARRETT: Doctor, there's been a lot of optimism and for good reason about Pfizer's new antiviral pill to treat COVID. But even the CEO of Pfizer says it's not an excuse to skip your vaccines. Listen to this.


ALBERT BOURLA, PFIZER CEO: Vaccines are needed. Vaccines is the primary frontier that we should be using to stop the disease. The goal is not to get sick and then hopefully the medicine can save you. The goal is not to get sick.


JARRETT: Doctor, in places where Omicron is spreading like South Africa, those are places that aren't predicted to hit 70 percent vaccinations until 2024, which seems like a lifetime from now. If ever, if they ever reach that sort of herd immunity threshold, I wonder, how do you see this pill fitting into the tool box, if we're supposed to still focus on vaccines, but we have something that's potentially very effective in our hands now?

MURRAY: And it is, it's just an additional tool. When I'm caring for a critically ill patient in the emergency department, I always have an emergency back up plan. Maybe a piece of equipment breaks, the more critical procedure, the more we have. And so, prevention is always going to be the right avenue when it comes to infectious diseases. And vaccine is still incredibly powerful as are the other mitigation matters.

But if we can have an additional tool that can help for when a person is sick to further decrease their likelihood of being hospitalized or dying, then we will take all the tools we can get.


Remember, this is a medication, and it's not yet approved. But when it does, it looks like it will be approved for adults, so that leaves out children, and it leaves out pregnant people who will not have access to this medication right away. So we still need to make sure we're taken all the other mitigation measures to prevent disease.

ROMANS: Yeah, we know it was July when we first really got the best guidance on pregnant women, and the vaccine, right. So, pregnant women in particular had been really trying to figure out how to navigate this COVID environment. We know the vaccine is safe and effective for pregnant women, but this antiviral pill for now, you don't think will be authorized for pregnant women?

MURRAY: I do not think so right away. I haven't seen all the data myself, but that's usually how it works when it comes to medication. They need to do studies in the pregnant population just like children.

ROMANS: Yeah, another reason to get the vaccine, ladies.

All right. Dr. Elizabeth Murray, pediatric emergency physician, thank you so much for joining us this morning. Great information.

JARRETT: So, staying on COVID here, New York and California both bringing back mask mandates indoors, almost two years in COVID. They are really still trying to navigate this environment. Kroger is ending mask mandates for unvaccinated workers. Apple is renewing its mask mandates in U.S. stores.

And JPMorgan has barred unvaccinated workers from the office, saying essentially stay home days after Morgan Stanley's chief admitted it was wrong to rush everyone back to the office.


JAMES GORMAN, MORGAN STANLEY CEO: We're in a transition period still. I was wrong on this. I thought we would have been out of it by Labor Day, past Labor Day. We're not, and I think we'll still be in it through most of next year.


ROMANS: Yeah, the banks, media companies, everyone trying to figure out what the next step is here for return to office. Boost everybody, the former chief pandemic adviser to the president, Andy Slavitt, says CEO should mandate boosters before workers return to the office. When it comes to travel, Amtrak will for now relaxes vaccination policies for workers and service cuts they recently warned about.

About 500 Amtrak employees have not yet complied with the vaccination requirement. Company says more than 95 percent of its workforce is vaccinated or has an exemption. And American Airlines is moving forward as it plans to hire 18,000 people next year for travel rebound.

American doesn't want to get caught in that terrible situation it had earlier this year where they had --

JARRETT: Flat foot.

ROMANS: All of these, you know, labor problems when they had some bad weather. They want to get out there, get hired so they're ready for the return.

JARRETT: They're banking on things staying as they are right now, at least not getting worse.

All right. Give back the money. That's the message from New York state's ethics commission now ordering former Governor Andrew Cuomo to repay the $5.1 million he earned for writing a book on his handling of the COVID pandemic. The commission found that state resources were used in the book's creation, something Cuomo denies. A lawyer for the former governor called the move unconstitutional.

ROMANS: All right. It was the deadliest December for tornadoes in history. Now, thousands in Kentucky could be facing months-long power outages. We'll take you to the scene inside the destruction.



ROMANS: Welcome back.

This morning, the leaders of two of America's top adversaries are meeting virtually. The United States tops the agenda for President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Selina Wang is live for us in Tokyo.

Selina, we know that meeting has just wrapped up and we're starting to get some reaction from the Russian side.

SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Christine, we are now seeing actually both sides, both leaders touting and praising the strong relationship that they have with each other. Putin even calling China/Russia relations a model of cooperation for the 21st century. And really what this meeting was, it was a show of solidarity, especially towards Washington at a time when both countries are facing mounting diplomatic pressure from the West.

China facing pressure over trade, technology, human rights, and Russia, of course, facing pressure around the buildup of troops near the border with Ukraine. So, they are both showing this united front at a time when the relations with the West are deteriorating.

And that deepening tie between Russia and China is evident across sectors. They are striking energy deals. They are working together to build a lunar space station, also enhancing their military cooperation. Just in October, Russian and Chinese war ships worked together. They were patrolling going around Japan.

Take a listen to how China's foreign ministry put expectations of this meeting ahead of them.


WANG WENBIN, CHINESE MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (through translator): We expect and believe that this video conference will further enhance our high-level mutual trust, vigorously promote China/Russia back to back strategic coordination and robust development of all-round practical cooperation.


WANG: And, Christine, the Chinese government regularly praises the strong relationship it has with Russia according to Chinese state media. Xi Jinping and Putin have met around 30 times since 2013. Xi Jinping has even called Putin his best and bosom friend.

What this meeting also reflected was that they are increasingly on the same page on a number of international issues. They both denounced and criticized Biden's democracy summit last week at a time when you had the United States and other Western countries announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. Putin is standing in support of Xi Jinping. He's told him that he's looking forward to being at the games and meeting with Xi Jinping face to face.

ROMANS: All right. Important meeting with the U.S. at the top of the agenda.

Thank you so much, Selina. Nice to see you.


JARRETT: Well, the Antarctica's so-called Doomsday Glacier could be in critical danger. The Thwaites Glacier is about the size of Florida. It's huge. And it's dumping roughly 50 billion tons of ice into the ocean when it melts each year.

Now, scientists say recent satellite images show warming ocean currents could shatter a critical ice shelf that holds this glacier together. Within the next five years, the result, sea levels rising by several feet, triggering irreversible climate changes. That's comforting.

ROMANS: All right, on Sunday, some children with autism are finding hope in an unexpected source, cannabis. But for hope comes at a great risk for their parents.

Join Dr. Sanjay Gupta for a new CNN special report, "Weed 6: Marijuana and Autism." Eight p.m. Sunday, only on CNN.