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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Biden to Announce 500M Free At-Home Tests Amid Winter Resurgence; Vulnerable Dems Scramble After Manchin Halts Biden Agenda; Trump Sues New York Attorney General Over Probe of His Company. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 21, 2021 - 05:00   ET



LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. It's Tuesday, December 21st, the first day of winter. It's 5:00 a.m. here in New York. Thanks so much for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Laura Jarrett.


That's right. It is the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere. It will be the longest night of the year. Summer is around the corner.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world this Tuesday morning. And breaking this morning, President Biden set to reveal a new plan to stop the spread of COVID.

The key to that plan, testing. CNN has learned the president will announce the purchase of half a billion at-home rapid tests and a new plan to distribute them free to Americans who request them.

JARRETT: This as 73 percent of cases in the U.S. are now the highly contagious omicron variant, outpacing delta as the dominant strain. That's up six-fold in just a week. Now, so far, it appears most cases of omicron are relatively mild, but it's so contagious, infectious are climbing nationwide, potentially crippling already overwhelmed hospitals.

ROMANS: Now, the COVID resurgence has the NHL on ice. The league's entire season will be put on hold starting tomorrow at least -- until at least after Christmas.

Let's bring in CNN's Jasmine Wright live in Washington.

Jasmine, good morning.

The president has a tough task today. Vaccinated Americans are exhausted. There is COVID exhaustion. Just when they thought it was safe, now this. And the unvaccinated seem barely unreachable. What is the White House plan here?

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Christine, a major part of the plan is making those 500 million tests free and available to Americans. Now, this kind of is a reversal from the White House who made light really of sending free tests to Americans when asked why they don't do it in countries in Europe and countries in Asia. But, clearly, on Tuesday, here they are responding to this increased of cases. And also, this viral video so people lined up outside the street waiting for their test.

So, the testing part is a major part, another part of the plan they are announcing today, they will make really or prepare to make available a thousand service members, military doctors and nurses to kind of alleviate overburdened hospital systems around the country in January and February.

Now, officials tell CNN they hope to not have to use all 1,000 of them, but they are available to the country. And, of course, another part of the plan there going to increase, once again, access to vaccinations, opening up more vaccination sites, trying to get more Americans to get their shot in their arms.

And now, something that we can expect from the president today, Christine and Laura, is going to be really a dire warning from him to the unvaccinated in the country. He is going to emphasize, officials say, the difference that wintertime they could have between not being unvaccinated and, of course, those who are unvaccinated, really setting kind of a dichotomy.

And it's a similar message that we heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci just this week. Take a listen here.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: It has nothing to do with freedom. It has to do with protecting yourself and your family from a potentially deadly disease that has killed already over 800,000 Americans, but also relinquishing your societal responsibility to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

And when someone says, well, I'm taking my own chances, it is my body, I'll worry about it, nobody should tell me that I need to get vaccinated or that I should wear a mask in an indoor setting -- well, that might be fine for you because you have confidence that you're not going to get seriously ill, which, quite frankly, hospitals are full of people who made that mistake and so, are graveyards full of people that have made that mistake.


WRIGHT: Wow, graveyards full of people. That's some seriously strong language from Dr. Fauci.

We can expect President Biden to say something similar as really his administration goes into the next year still dealing with this pandemic, something both he and officials hoped to have dealt with really and to have gotten under control in the first year in office -- Laura, Christine.

JARRETT: It's just hard to know what else he can say. What more this president can do to persuade you. But he understandably will try.

Jasmine, we learned overnight he had close contact with a mid level staffer who has tested positive for COVID.


What more can you tell us about that?

WRIGHT: Yeah, Laura. Well, the White House says the president tested negative yesterday via a PCR test, and he will test again on Wednesday.

Now, they will not quarantine him based on CDC guidelines, but, look, they say he was on a flight on Air Force One to South Carolina with the staffer for approximately 30 minutes. The staffer tested negative on Friday, started experiencing symptoms on Sunday, and tested positive on Monday. So, of course, we will be watching and asking the White House what the results of that Wednesday test.

Right now, they say the president will not quarantine and they will continue to test him and hope, of course, that he tests negative -- Laura, Christine.

ROMANS: Jasmine, so nice to see you this morning. Thank you.

All right. Now, the fast-spreading omicron as the dominant variant expected to see changes nationwide. In D.C., the indoor mask mandate is back in effect today. In Boston, the city plans to phase in a vaccine requirement indoors starting January 15th. That mandate will apply to both customers and employees.


MAYOR MICHELLE WU (D), BOSTON: First, indoor dining, including bars and restaurants. Secondly, indoor fitness venues such as gyms. And third, indoor entertainment, recreational and event venues such as theater shows or sports games.


JARRETT: Meantime, the military is deploying two teams to Indiana and Wisconsin to help civilian hospitals with COVID relief. And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked the Biden administration to invoke the defense production act to get supplies into New York City, including more at-home tests. New York has seen a dramatic increase in cases, but importantly here, Christine, not hospitalization rates, at least not so far.

ROMANS: All right. After a tough year for employers, the spread of omicron has companies rethinking their return to work plans for next year. Experts estimate 60 percent of companies will offer employees a hybrid schedule, working more than one day a week remotely. 10 percent will remain fully remote and 30 percent will want everyone back in the office.

Hybrid schedules pose a challenge for employers. Managers need to ensure promotions and opportunities are fair, distributed fairly. Evaluation are based on performance, not office face time. If employers can't offer remote work options, they'll need to offer schedule flexibility in other ways. Many workers can expect a raise next year.

One reason survey shows base pay average 3.9 percent in 2022, the largest one-year projected hike since 2008. I think next year will be again the year of the worker. And we have seen those people who are job hoppers, leaving their current job for a better job, they are seeing pay raises more like 5 or 6 percent.

JARRETT: Well, it's hard for employers to plan. Many had plans to return to the office. So many were hoping to do that. But with all these new variants, how do you plan?

ROMANS: Look at us. We're in the office, but we are in different rooms, Laura. We're not together.

JARRETT: That's the reality here.

All right. Still ahead for you, Democrats are going hard after Senator Joe Manchin. They still need his vote as the party tries to find a way forward to revive parts of the Build Back Better bill.



JARRETT: A recipe for absolute destruction, that's how one House Democrat describes all the internal finger pointing among Democrats. Democrats are scrambling to avoid blowback from voters after Senator Joe Manchin torpedoed President Biden's economic agenda.

ROMANS: The vulnerable House members are furious as they try to explain why their yes votes will be for nothing. Now, Democrats in tough midterm races are calling on Manchin to return to the negotiating table. Some want party leaders to help pass individual pieces of the $1.75 trillion proposal.


REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-WA): The overwhelming majority of the American people support Build Back Better and we're not going to sit around and wait for one man to decide on one day that he's with us and on the other day that he's not. And that's why at the same time we work on legislation, the president needs to take urgent executive action on a number of things.


ROMANS: CNN has learned that Manchin's offer to President Biden included universal pre-k and Obamacare expansion. But get this. No extension of the expanded child tax credit, that popular program that would help pull children out of poverty including kids in Manchin's home state of West Virginia.

But the senator is sticking by his decision.

CNN's Jessica Dean reports now from Capitol Hill.


JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Laura, we now know that Senator Joe Manchin spoke with President Joe Biden on Sunday after Manchin had announced he would be a no on build back better in its current form. We are told that it was a cordial conversation, but no commitments were made, simply that they could discuss re-engaging on these issues in the New Year.

But again, no commitments made, no specific commitments made is what our sources are telling CNN. Earlier on Monday, we did hear from Manchin from more detail about how he arrived at his decision to not support build back better as it currently exists, and he really put a lot of the blame on White House staff. Take a listen.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): It's staff driven. I understand staff. It's not the president, it's the staff. They drove some things, and they put some things out that were absolutely excusable. They know what it is, and that's it.

What I'm saying is this. I'm not blaming anybody. I knew what they were, I knew what they could and could not do. They just never realized it because they figured, surely we could move one person. Surely we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough. I'll vote for anything, and quit.

Well, guess what? I'm from West Virginia. I'm not from where they're from and they can beat the living crap out of people and think they'll be submissive. Period.


DEAN: We also learned from Manchin that he doesn't seem very apt to move forward in any with Build Back Better as it currently stands. So, he really talked about wanting to send different provisions within the bill back through the committee system instead of going forward with this Democrats-only bill where they would need all 50 senators to get on board. Instead, wants us to go through the committee system. That would take a fair amount of time to do that and needs bipartisan support.

Remember, they need 60 votes to do anything bipartisan in the Senate. And keep in mind, we're now going into 2022, an election year where Republicans won't be rushing to give Democrats any big wins.

So the question remains how do they move forward? Progressives have called on President Biden to use executive action to take action on some of these issues. But it remains to be seen how that will happen and what will happen moving forward. We do know that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised a

vote on Build Back Better when the Senate comes back after its holiday recess.


He wants Senator Manchin to have to vote that down on the floor and in public, so we do anticipate seeing that once they return from their holiday break -- Christine and Laura.


ROMANS: All right. Jessica Dean, thank you so much for that.

The Democratic Party's internal drama taking a toll: 22 incumbent lawmakers are not running to keep their House seats. And CNN has learned that the mood within the caucus gets darker every time a member says they aren't running for reelection in 2022.

Last night, Congresswoman Lucille of California announced she won't run for another term after 30 years in the House.

JARRETT: And that was just hours after Florida moderate Stephanie Murray, a rising star in the party, also said she isn't running again.


REP. STEPHANIE MURPHY (D-FL): Like any good journey, it is time for me to take another path. These last few years have been some of the most rewarding moments of my life, but also some of the most challenging.


JARRETT: Murphy serves on the January 6 committee. Florida Republicans have targeted her seat in the redistricting process.

All these retirements could add more pressure on Democrats as they try to hold onto their razor-thin majority next November. Just 11 House Republicans announced they are not seeking another term.

ROMANS: All right. The January 6 committee seeking to talk to its first lawmaker. The Select Committee investigating the Capitol riot asking Republican Scott Perry of Pennsylvania was asked to sit down for an interview. The committee is not yet issuing a subpoena for Perry's testimony but requesting his cooperation. The committee says it wants to discuss Perry's unsuccessful efforts to install former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general. Clark, of course, was trying to sell former President Trump on the idea of the Justice Department pursuing unfounded claims of voter fraud.

JARRETT: So, Donald Trump's long list of legal issues, of course, predates the Capitol riot and his presidency. One of the biggest investigations he currently faces is in New York over his business practices. Now he and his company are suing the state's attorney general.

CNN's Paula Reid has the story.



Well, this lawsuit is asking a federal court to block Letitia James' long running investigation into the Trump Organization. Roughly two years her office has been conducting a civil investigation into the Trump organization, looking at whether it lied about the value of its assets to obtain more favorable loan terms, better insurance rates, and to pay lower taxes.

Now, her investigation mirrors a similar investigation being conducted by the Manhattan district attorney's office. That, though, is a criminal investigation and has already resulted in criminal charges against the organization and one of its executives.

Now, what's interesting about the timing of Trump's lawsuit is it comes as James is seeking to depose the former president under oath next month. Now, Trump and his attorneys have long argued that James is politically motivated, but this lawsuit they get more specific. They argue that James has violated Trump's constitutional rights, and that she has abused her office to further her political career.

Now, in a statement, James has responded to these allegations saying, quote, to be clear, neither Mr. Trump nor the Trump organization gets to dictate if and where they will answer for their actions. Our investigation will continue undeterred because no one is above the law, not even someone with the Trump name.

Now, legal experts say this lawsuit is unlikely to succeed or deter the investigation, but James' statements about the former president, her campaign promise to target him, those could all come back to haunt her. Those could potentially be used to challenge any lawsuit or charges she may file against the former president -- Laura, Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Paula, thank you so much for that.

A Washington state man sentenced Monday to nearly four years in prison for assaulting a police officer during that capitol riot. Devlyn Thompson pleaded guilty earlier this year. He spent almost three hours on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. He is the second rioter to be sentenced for the felony charge of assaulting an officer with a dangerous weapon.

JARRETT: Coming up, actor Chris Noth losing another job following the sexual assault allegations against him. Now the stars of "Sex in the City" are speaking out. What they have to say about their long-time co-star.


JARRETT: All right. It is looking like we'll get a happy holiday forecast that won't disrupt too much of the country. But on the West Coast, a huge shot of rain and snow could finally put a dent in a long record-breaking drought there.

Here's meteorologist Tyler Mauldin.

TYLER MAULDIN, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Christine and Laura, up to eight feet of snow is possible for portions of the Sierra Nevada over the next week. That is why we have weather alerts for this region.

A cold front is moving ashore. What this is going to do is force the winds to come on shore. This will cause an atmospheric river to set up, yet another atmospheric river, which is a large swath of moisture coming in off the Pacific. And what happens once that crashes against the West Coast, it produces a lot of rainfall and a lot of snowfall, too.

So, across the coast line of the West Coast, we could see anywhere around 3 to 6 inches of rainfall, but then once you start getting up into the higher elevation, yeah, you could see 8 feet of snow across the Sierra Nevada. You could feet of snow for portions of the Pacific Northwest, the Intermountain West, and even the Northern Rockies as well.

This is much needed because the majority of the West Coast is under a drought. So, this increase of the snow pack and the rainfall we will be receiving in the days to come is much needed -- guys.

JARRETT: Tyler, thank you.

Staying out west here, a strong earthquake off the coast of northern California rattling a wide portion of the state, knocking groceries off shelves you can see there, shattering store windows near the epicenter. The 6.2 magnitude quake hit just after noon local time and was felt as far away as San Francisco, more than 200 miles away. Officials say no injuries or major damage was reported, though.

ROMANS: All right. Friends, collaborators, legends, Carole King and James Taylor in an unforgettable concert film, "Just Call Out My Name", Sunday, January 2nd, 9:00 p.m., only on CNN.



ROMANS: Welcome back.

A Christian aid group says it paid a ransom to the armed gang that kidnapped its missionaries in Haiti. The group also claims the last 12 hostages made a daring escape.

Journalist Stefano Pozzebon has the details.


STEFANO POZZEBON, JOURNALIST: Christine, Christian aid ministries admitted a ransom was indeed paid to help secure the release of the 17 missionaries that were kidnapped more than two months ago in Haiti. That is according to a news conference that the group, which is based in Ohio, gave on Monday. The group said the decision came after excruciating hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you might expect, the taking of our workers including women and children, pushed us to our knees as we sought God's direction. Recognizing the lives at stake and having the desire for a non-violent resolution, we grappled for many hours over the proper course of action, many intense hours.

POZZEBON: At that news conference, the group also claimed the hostages had escaped after many days of waiting and no actions on part of the kidnappers. Haitian authorities have not yet confirmed that series of events describing an escape, and CNN had asked Haitian authorities for further information regarding the circumstances around the hostages returning home.

Ransom kidnapping is a lucrative business for criminal groups in Haiti, like the one that kidnapped the missionaries. More than 900 kidnappings have been reported in the country in the year so far, although experts believe the number could be much higher because not all the kidnappings are reported to the authorities -- Christine, Laura.


JARRETT: Stefano, thank you.

EARLY START continues right now.


JARRETT: Good Tuesday morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is exactly 30 minutes past the hour. Time for our top stories to keep an eye on today.

JARRETT: Bring on the test. President Biden will announce the purchase of a half billion at-home rapid COVID-19 tests and the plan to distribute them free --