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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

FDA Authorizes For At-Home COVID Antiviral Pill; Biden Says U.S. in Better Shape, Wishes He Ordered Tests Sooner; Holiday Air Travel Takes Off, Nears Pre-Pandemic Levels; January 6th Panel Seeks Interview with Trump Ally Rep. Jordan. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. It is Thursday, December 23rd. Two more shopping days until Christmas, everybody.

It is 5:00 a.m. exactly here in New York. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Christine Romans.

PAULA REID, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Paula Reid, in for Laura Jarrett.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world.

ROMANS: Nice to see you again, Paula.

Let's begin with something Americans desperately need this morning, right? Hope. Three new early studies suggesting there is a lower risk of hospitalization for those infected with the omicron variant than delta. And the FDA just authorized the first antiviral COVID pill that patients can take at home before they're sick enough to be hospitalized.


DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Here's where I think it can be very helpful. First is there are a lot of people who are remaining unvaccinated. I wish they were going to get vaccinated, but we know that there are some people who are just not going to do it. Somehow these people are ready to take treatments if they get infected even if they won't get the vaccine which is not understandable.

But still these people are the ones who are most likely to get ill, to overwhelm our hospitals. And if they can get a pill that removes them from the hospital, that will help to save their life, but also will help to remove the strain on our health care system.


REID: Omicron is wildly contagious compared to earlier strains. Just three weeks after it was first identified in the U.S., it now accounts for 90 percent of the country's cases. There have been outbreaks on land and sea.

"The Miami Herald" reports Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas was denied entry into Curacao and Aruba after 55 fully vaccinated travelers and crew members contracted the virus.

ROMANS: The ship will remain at sea until its planned return to a Fort Lauderdale in Sunday. It is the second outbreak in a week for Royal Caribbean. New York state broke its all time record for COVID cases against Wednesday, the fifth time in less than a week. Nearly 50 percent of the cases are in New York City.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), NEW YORK: It is important to say this clearly. We are not telling people to hide or hunker down or surrender to this situation. We're telling people be smart. If you're not feeling well, stay home, for sure. If you might have been exposed, get a test and act accordingly depending on the result, of course. If you're a vulnerable person, older, with serious preexisting conditions, limit the kinds of things you go to. But we're not telling vaccinated people to stop living their lives.


REID: Broadway shows have canceled performances due to COVID outbreaks. Two of them, "American Utopia", and "Come From Away", canceled their Wednesday shows just hours before curtain. And three universities, George Washington, Temple and Syracuse, the latest to adjust their classroom plans because of the COVID surge.

ROMANS: For K through 12 students, the Department of Education says 85 school districts are adopting some sort of hybrid or fully remote option. In red-leaning states, there is still evident resistance to public health measures. Nurses working with COVID health patients say things might be different if everyone could see what they see.


HALEIGH SEIZYS, COVID ICU NURSE, NEBRASKA MEDICAL CENTER IN OMAHA: I genuinely wish that they could come and follow me for just an hour and so they can see how much their feet hurt and see how many people are trying to hold back tears just day to day, and they can see the trauma that these patients are going through, because ultimately numbers are numbers, and opinions are opinions. But these people, these patients are people.


ROMANS: House Majority whip Jim Clyburn has tested positive. He says he has been vaccinated and boosted. He has no symptoms, and he has been quarantining since Sunday. His experience speaks to a larger issue. It took three days -- three days for the Democratic leader to get a test result. Just like everybody else. Amazon and Walmart joining CVS and Walgreens limiting the number of COVID tests you can buy.

REID: President Biden addressing the COVID testing last night.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has more from the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Paula, President Biden bluntly acknowledged that he struggled to contain this COVID-19 surge in the winter. He said nothing has been good enough. He acknowledged that testing has been a problem. He said he wishes he could have done more. But also struck a very defensive tone in that new ABC News interview taped on Wednesday here at the White House. The president defended his administration's response when he said this.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't think it's a failure. I think you could argue that we should have known a year ago, six months ago, two months ago, a month ago.


I've ordered half a billion of the pills, 500 million pills -- I mean, excuse me, 500 million test kits that are going to be available to be sent to every home in America if anybody wants them. But the answer is, yeah, I wish I had thought about ordering half a billion pills two months ago before COVID hit here.

ZELENY: So the president seemed to struggle to really articulate the difference between pills and tests. Of course, he is sending about a half billion tests to people's homes in the month of January, but unclear when exactly those will be produced.

Now, some experts believe that this administration should have used the Defense Production Act. That is a mechanism where the government can essentially order more private companies to produce more tests. Would that have alleviated this big demand for tests here in the days before the holidays?

Now, going forward there is no question, the president said this is a different moment than Christmas last year, and certainly the beginning of the pandemic because of the vaccinations, because of the booster. So he did stress the need for that as well.

This is a deep challenge that you can see from the president there and it is one that is going to have this White House on edge throughout the holidays -- Christine and Paula.


ROMANS: All right. Jeff, thank you.

A winter run of COVID just as most of the emergency COVID relief has run out. And some programs have expired. Nearly $5.7 trillion in government rescue since the start of the pandemic to cushion the economic blow. Member stimulus PPP, bailouts, most of that money, 86 percent, has been obligated or spent. All of that might have been enough if everyone had been vaccinated on schedule.

Of course, that's not what happened. Now, we're faced with the omicron variant spreading like wildfire, wreaking havoc again on small business. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK ZANDI, MOODY'S ANALYTICS CHIEF ECONOMIST: I think omicron is already doing significant damage to the economy. You can see it in spending, on credit cards through travel and restaurants. GDP growth before delta, you know, expectations, including my own, were for a very strong quarter, 5, 6 percent growth. It ended up being about 2.

So, Delta did a lot of damage to the economy back in the summer. And I think at this point, you know, I think we can at least expect omicron to do as much damage.


ROMANS: So there is virtually no money left to rescue restaurants and other small businesses. As we pointed out yesterday, restaurants were depending on Christmas traffic to get back on their feet. One trade industry spokesman calls the holidays our black Friday. The new COVID surge will be the last straw for restaurants and bars. They are monitoring the economic recovery and will work with Congress on how best to support business owners including restaurants going forward, which could include targeted money.

So, what happens over the next few weeks, Paula, I think is going to be just critical for expectations on the U.S. economy. I know a lot of people are still moving forward in traveling, right? They're still traveling, making dinner reservations. But Open Table is seeing a lot of cancellations. We know the restaurant industry has been very difficult over the past couple years.

REID: So hard on the restaurant industry. You just really feel for people. As you just reported, holidays is their Black Friday to help makeup some of their loss.

Well, here's a possible scientific that Americans are willing to live with the virus and not hide from it. Air travel before Christmas appears to be pretty much back to pre-pandemic levels.

CNN's Pete Muntean reports from Reagan National Airport.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Christine, Paula, these numbers are really close to what we saw back in 2019. In fact, the TSA screened 1.98 million people at airports across the country on Tuesday. That number 99 percent of the same day back in 2019, shy by only about 2,300 people.

This just barely ends a five-day streak of numbers higher than 2 million people a day at airports across the country. We could see even bigger numbers soon. The TSA says Thursday will be one of the busiest days, and that really kicks off this really busy streak between Thursday and January 3rd, the TSA anticipates screening 20 million people in total. AAA reminds us the vast majority of people will drive 100 million people it projects driving 50 miles or more by car. That number off only about 7 percent from what we saw back before the pandemic.

Airlines insist that flying is safe because of the heavily filtered air on board and the federal transportation mask mandate in place until March 18, 2022. And now, the TSA and FAA have announced a new partnership where if you defy that rule, you could lose your TSA pre- check for good -- Christine, Paula.


REID: Lose pre-check.

Well, in a rare move, the Supreme Court is bypassing the normal process to hear challenges right away to President Biden's coronavirus vaccine mandate for large employers and certain health care workers. The court set oral arguments for January 7. For now, the court is leaving in place the status quo around the requirements.

The employer mandate isn't set to be enforced until January 10th, and the government won't implement the health care worker mandate while the legal challenges are playing out.


The White House says it is confident in the legal authority for both policies.

ROMANS: All right. Just about ten minutes past the hour. Republicans wanted him on the January 6 committee, they want to speak with Congressman Jim Jordan. What he could uncover about Donald Trump's actions during the riot.



ROMANS: Just into CNN, at least four people injured in a major industrial accident at an Exxon-Mobil refinery near Houston. Three of the victims were medevaced. The sheriff's office is recommending people avoid the Bay Town area. But for now, there are no orders to evacuate or shelter-in-place.

And the January 6 committee is homing in on one of Donald Trump's top allies in Congress. The panel is asking Republican Jim Jordan to meet with them voluntarily. Jordan's communications with Trump on the day of the insurrection could mean he has significant knowledge of the events leading up to the attack.

Now, you might remember Republican leaders picked Jordan to be on the committee, but he was rejected by Democrats. Late last night he responded to the panel's request to talk.

CNN's Jessica Schneider reports.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Paula and Christine, a lot unfolding from the January 6th committee. They have actually sent out another letter requesting a voluntary interview with a Republican lawmaker. This time, it's Jim Jordan, one of Trump's top congressional allies. The committee is telling Jordan they want to hear from him about his communications with the former president on January 6th. They say that Jordan had at least one and possibly multiple chats with Trump that day. And now they want Jordan to sit for a voluntary interview as soon as January 3rd.

But from what we've seen, that is highly unlikely that Jordan will cooperate here. He's already warned the committee that targeting GOP lawmakers in any capacity will be met with political retribution if Republicans re-take the House after the midterms.


But the committee, in their letter to him, is trying to throw Jordan's words back at him by writing that he said back in August that he, quote, had nothing to hide.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): We're going to review the letter, but I've got to be honest with you, I've got real concerns about any committee that will take a document and alter it and present it to the American people, completely mislead the American people like they did last week.

SCHNEIDER: Congressman Jordan does have at least one text message of note. His spokesperson had previously confirmed that Jordan forwarded a text to former chief of staff Mark Meadows on January 5th, outlining a legal theory of how Vice President Pence could block the certification of the election.

Now, his spokesperson said the text was actually written by a former Defense Department inspector general, and that Jordan was just forwarding the text on to Meadows. But it is clear, this committee wants to know through Jordan what Trump was up to inside the White House on January 6. And they say that Jordan had at least one, if not multiple communications with Trump. So, we'll see what plays out.

It is unlikely that Jordan would sit for a voluntary interview and hard to tell if the committee would go so far as to subpoena these GOP lawmakers.

And we saw Republican Congressman Scott Perry lash out at the committee's legitimacy already this week, eagerly rebuffing their request to interview him -- Paula and Christine.


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

It is time for three questions in three minutes, and for that let's bring in former federal prosecutor Michael Zeldin.

So nice to see you this morning. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Good morning. ROMANS: Timing is really key here for the committee. Republicans are

looking to take the House in 2020 which means Democrats are running out of time.

What is the best move if Jim Jordan doesn't cooperate?

ZELDIN: So, Jim Jordan is a shiny object. He's a nice to have testimony, but he's not critical piece of testimony. The committee has to understand who matters and who is peripheral, and they have to just keep forging ahead as they are doing, acquiring documents, talking to witnesses, drawing lines to connect those witnesses' testimony to the White House and other surrogates of the White House. And they just have to keep their head down and keep moving forward.

REID: And we have over half a dozen lawsuits filed against the committee challenging various aspects of its investigation. Yesterday, we saw a judge throw out a lawsuit by Mike Flynn on procedural grounds. But looking at these challenges, do you see anything that could actually stop or thwart the committee, or are they just trying to throw things at the wall to see if anything will stick?

ZELDIN: I think these are delay tactics. I think that all these litigants, like Flynn, are going to get their cases thrown out. They really are not raising substantive legal challenges that a court will find meritorious. And so, it's about delay, as has been the case with Trump and his orbit since his presidency began.

And I think, again, the committee has to move forward, keep its head down, and not be distracted by these efforts. They have to litigate them, of course, but they can't let it slow them down.

ROMANS: Michael, the committee is also looking at records from organizers of that rally, the rally that preceded the riot, including a text with Republican lawmakers. You say this really matters. Why?

ZELDIN: Well, I think that what the committee is trying to find out at its core is what did the White House know, when did they know it, what did they do or what did they fail to do. And so, these rally organizers who had, from the documents that we've seen in the public already, direct communications with the White House or the close inner circle of the White House, can start answering those who, what, when, where, why type of questions. It is a spoke in the hub of this wheel that we've talked about that I think is very important for the committee to really flesh out.

ROMANS: All right. Michael Zeldin, former federal prosecutor. So nice to see you this morning. Thank you.

ZELDIN: Thank you.

ROMANS: All right. Hidden in history, a time capsule, what is inside and some are asking if another capsule is out there.


[05:22:38] ROMANS: Welcome back.

Right now, Russian President Vladimir Putin holding his end of year news conference in the face of renewed aggression against Ukraine that has Western nations concerned. We're seeing that live there.

CNN's Melissa Bell is live in Moscow with more for us.

Melissa, Putin just addressed the Ukraine issue. What did he say?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine, we've been listening to Vladimir Putin's press conference. Vladimir Putin talking in that press conference just a moment ago about what's happening in Ukraine. We've been waiting for him to address that particular issue, and that's what we've just been hearing. Vladimir Putin going back over events back in 2014, defending the annexation of Crimea, explaining Russia wouldn't have intervened but for the fact that he explained Russian speaking people in the east of the country needed defending. Vladimir Putin also speaking to what's happening now, and the fact he said that that eastward expansion of NATO, and this is something he warned about a couple days ago, again in a press conference this time in front of the Russian defense ministry, would be a direct threat to Russia and that Russia could not allow that to get unchecked.

Also mentioning the idea that they feared in Moscow a renewed assault on the Donbas region within Ukraine. Also speaking to what's been coming out the last few days about these possible talks between Russia, the United States and NATO that could happen as quickly as January, Christine, but Vladimir Putin explaining that whilst those fears were there, he was noting the positive noises coming out of Washington and looking forward to those talks, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Melissa Bell for us, we'll continue to monitor that. We know you will, too. Thanks so much -- Paula.

REID: And a quick programming note. Friends, collaborators, legends, Carole King and James Taylor, an unforgettable concert film "Just Call Out My Name", Sunday, January 2nd, at 9:00 p.m. only on CNN.



REID: A Colorado district attorney is asking the court to reconsider a former truck driver's 110-year prison sentence. In 2019, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos (ph) was driving his rig at 85 miles per hour when he says the brakes failed and led to a pile up on I-70 near Denver that left four people dead. He was convicted of vehicular homicide.

ROMANS: The judge said he was bound by the state's mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Aguilera-Mederos' family and supporters rallied to the state capital Wednesday to ask the governor to reduce his sentence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our system here at this building has created a system where a judge at their own discretion who doesn't want to issue a sentence has had to issue that sentence. What we hope to achieve is reforms. That's really what this is all about. We have to reform the system that is creating a situation where we are creating more victims of our justice system. We have to do that now.


ROMANS: Governor's office told CNN they are reviewing the clemency application. The D.A. is asking for a expedited hearing in the matter, status hearing set for Monday.

REID: Five suspects are in custody this morning in connection with the carjacking of a Pennsylvania congresswoman, Mary Gay Scanlon. Police say she was car jacked at gunpoint in Philadelphia. The car was later recovered in Delaware. Scanlon's office says she was not physically harmed. No information about the suspects or potential charges.

ROMANS: A Utah college student missing for five days has been found alive and reunited with her family. A police say 19-year-old Madeleine Allen was discovered in the base many of a suspect's home covered in coal dust and wearing no clothes. The suspect, 39-year-old Brent Brown was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice, aggravated kidnapping and rape.

EARLY START continues right now.


ROMANS: Good Thursday morning. This is EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

REID: And I'm Paula Reid. It is 29 minutes past the hour.

ROMANS: Nice to have you in a couple days on this holiday week, Paula. Nice to see you again.

As the U.S. readjusts to the now dominant omicron variant, there are possible signs of hope. Three new preliminary studies suggest omicron is less likely to cause severe disease.