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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

"Historic" Winter Storm Kills At Least 37, Buries Cities In Snow; Supreme Court To Rule On Keeping Title 42 Temporarily In Place; Tacoma Power Substations Vandalized, 14,000 Customers Impacted; Aid Groups Suspended Work After Taliban Bar Female Workers; Raskin: Electoral College "Has Become A Danger" To Democracy; WAPO: Potential GOP Candidates In 2024 Starting To Make Movements; EV Startup Rivian's Battle To Lead Amid Scrutiny And Competition. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 05:00   ET




WHITNEY WILD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm Whitney Wild in for Christine Romans. People across the Midwest and Northeast are digging out from a massive deadly winter storm. At least 37 people died across the country in traffic accidents, from freezing to death or -- freezing to death in the elements or from a range of other causes as a direct result of this storm.

Multiday snowfall totals have been titanic, up to 43 inches in hard hit Buffalo. New York Governor Kathy Hochul requesting a federal disaster declaration due to the historic winter storm.


GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D), NEW YORK: It is devastating. It is going to a war zone and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking. It's not just small vehicles, it is literally snow plows. It is major size recovery vehicles and utility vehicles and tow trucks. So we have a real challenge right now where we have roads blocked. Roads are literally blocked by emergency vehicles. So that has made it extremely challenging for us.


WILD: The effect on air travel on a crucial holiday weekend was nothing short of catastrophic. There were a total of more than 11,000 flights canceled Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This morning, so far, airlines have canceled another 1,300 flights.

Nationwide, more than 60,000 homes and businesses are without power. But that's actually good news because that's down from the around a quarter of a million people who were without power yesterday. Crews working around the clock in these difficult circumstances to try to restore electricity. Temperatures are still so cold in the east. Forecasters say warm air, though, is headed in from the East Coast and will bring some relief toward about the middle of the week. Right now, though, many cities, especially in New York, face the huge task of removing all of that snow and restoring services to normal.

CNN's Polo Sandoval is in Buffalo and has the latest.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Whitney, it was just a wild winter weekend, and even deadly for some here in the city of Buffalo, as authorities have spent all weekend long rescuing people who were stranded in their vehicles and also getting to some of those who were stuck in their homes without power, needing help.

I can show you more or less what the situation looks like here in the heart of Buffalo. This is really what the streets look like. That's because the plow trucks spent all of yesterday basically clearing the way as soon as visibility was restored, as soon as conditions improved.

The goal here is to reassess as we begin the work week, to reassess the situation in terms of the travel and driving restrictions, to see if those could perhaps be lifted. The main priority for authorities all weekend long was to make sure that they didn't lose any more people.

Yesterday, they confirmed a total of at least seven weather related deaths in and around Buffalo. Some of them were some of the most vulnerable homeless individuals, while New York Governor Kathy Hochul and also local authorities here confirmed that some of the dead were also found inside of stranded cards.

So it gives you really just an idea of the sense of urgency that we experienced this Christmas weekend in around Buffalo, what is widely considered as ground zero of that massive winter storm that affected not just people in New York State. Whitney?

WILD: More than 10 million people in the south are still under a freeze alert this morning, but that number is expected to drop today. CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers is standing by. Chad, when are we going to be done with this storm? When does the relief come? And is it going to be enough to help melt this snow that's accumulated throughout the east coast?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Some of the snow will melt, but certainly it won't be warm enough to melt 43 inches that they picked up in Buffalo. In fact, my hometown, Cheektowaga, New York. The difference with this storm, I think people think about Buffalo in the south towns, but this got up to Kenmore, this got up to Amherst. This got up to places that don't usually get this much snow.

At least with the temperatures and the windshields you see behind me, the wind has died off a little bit. That's good news. I walked out of my car this morning, was 22 degrees, but the wind wasn't blowing. I went, wow, this actually feels not too bad compared to where the wind chills were at 15 or 20 degrees below zero. Think about this, though. Buffalo has picked up 92 inches of snow so far. Their normal yearly total is only about three more than that and they still have months and months and months to go. It is still snowing here around Buffalo, snowing around Watertown. It's the cold air coming over these still unfrozen lakes and many areas here between 2 feet and 3 feet on the ground.


But there's the slightly warmer air back out in the Rockies. Now, it's going to take a while to get to the east, but it is on the way. Temperatures are still cold today and they'll still be cold tomorrow.

But look at the rise we get. From New York City all the way to 58 by the end of the week and into next weekend. It's the warm air that's out there now. It will slide to the east and it will feel like spring.

I guarantee you, there will be people out there with flipflops and shorts by the time we talk about Friday and Saturday because you just get used to how cold it is. And all of a sudden, 50 feels like summer.

WILD: There's always that guy, Chad. There's always that guy in flip flops and a t-shirt and shorts.


WILD: 30 degrees, 50 degrees. We'll see more of those guys later in the week.

MYERS: Happy birthday.

WILD: All right, Chad Myers, thank you.

This week, the Supreme Court is expected to deliver a decision on whether Title 42 must remain in place for now. So if you're not familiar, Title 42 was a COVID era policy and allows the U.S. to stop people from coming into the country during certain public health emergencies. The Biden administration wants to roll that back.

The justice is expected to rule on an emergency bid by GOP led states to keep that Trump era pandemic border restriction in place while challenges play out. The decision, though not expected before tomorrow.

This is still a huge story across the country. Hundreds of migrants stayed overnight in an El Paso convention center as the community tries to accommodate a growing number of asylum seekers. Here in Washington, busloads of migrants dropped off were dropped off in front of Vice-President Kamala Harris' residence in Washington, D.C. on Christmas Eve.

The weather was 18 degrees. The first two busloads were taken to local shelters Saturday evening. More busloads arrived later that night. A lot of those migrants -- again, it was 18 degrees -- a lot of those migrants were only wearing t-shirts in this freezing weather. They were, though, given blankets and sent to a local church. It's not clear at this point who's responsible for sending the migrants, but we have a team looking into all of that, so we'll keep posted there.

Law enforcement in Washington State is searching for the burglars who vandalized three power substations in Tacoma. Lights went out for about 14,000 customers on Sunday. Police say at least one of the substations there was a forced entry into a fenced area and equipment was vandalized, causing the power outage in that area.


SGT. DARREN MOSS JR., PIERCE COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: All three happened in the middle of the night on Christmas Day, causing power outages. Nothing was stolen from either -- or any of those facilities, so it's a good possibility they are related.


WILD: Yes. The vulnerability there is a big concern. The FBI Seattle Division tells CNN it is urging anyone with information to contact law enforcement. Four foreign aid groups are temporarily suspending operations in Afghanistan after the Taliban barred their female employees from going to work.

The organizations say they cannot effectively reach people in need in Afghanistan without those female staff members and will not operate until men and women have equal access to the workplace. Nada Bashir has the latest developments from London. Nada, the U.S. is condemning this ban on women. How is the Taliban reacting?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Well, look, just as we've heard in the past, Whitney, from the Taliban, in response to any kind of condemnation from the U.S., they have told U.S. officials not to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs. And this comes after we heard those comments from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over the weekend, saying he is deeply concerned by this latest development in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government's special representative to Afghanistan, Thomas West himself saying that this is an irresponsible decision and also poses a mortal risk to those who so desperately depend on the work and support of those female NGO workers in Afghanistan. But, of course, this comes after a wave of attempts by the Taliban to really curb the rights and freedoms of women across the country.

Just last week, we heard from the Taliban that women would no longer be permitted to attend university. And, of course, we have seen that crackdown on women's education over the last year and over the last few months since the Taliban's takeover. And this has sparked wide spread concern within the country.

We've seen women now taking to the streets, bravely defying the Taliban's severe restrictions and protesting against these decisions. In response, there has been somewhat of a crackdown. We've seen video emerging showing the Taliban using water cannons against these protesters in the streets.

But it's not just women. Men are also standing in solidarity with their female counterparts. We've seen male students protesting across universities, across the country. Some even boycotting their exams. This latest development, this ban on female NGO workers, has set the tone for what could be a continued repression of women's rights.

We've already heard from the U.N. say they are working to communicate with the Taliban to see what more can be done to ease these restrictions. Whitney?

WILD: Nada Bashir, thank you.

Ahead on Early Start, West Point deciding to remove more than a dozen Confederate monuments from its campus. Plus, the challenge is facing a new electric vehicle company. And a member of the January 6 committee says it is time to change the way votes are counted in the U.S.



WILD: Welcome back to Early Start. January 6 committee member is suggesting the next way to protect democracy. Congressman Jamie Raskin says Americans should elect presidents through the popular vote.


REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D), MARYLAND: The Electoral College now, which has given us five popular vote losers as president in our history, twice in this century alone has become a danger not just to democracy, but to the American people. It was a danger on January 6.


WILD: Changes to the Electoral Count Act making it harder to overturn a certified presidential election were included in the omnibus spending bill last week. Raskin backs those reforms but says that they don't go far enough.

So let's bring in CNN Political Analyst Margaret Talev. Margaret, this has been a debate for decades. I mean, it was a debate after George W. Bush lost to Al Gore. You know, I just -- do this move the needle at all? I mean, this is not a new conversation.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's -- the problem for Democrats who want to change this politically is that Democrats have won the popular vote in seven out of the eight last presidential elections. And so, there's a real political disincentive for Republicans to change that system.

And of course, when you're talking about the typical way you think of the Constitution being changed, you know, it's like two thirds vote of Congress, three quarters ratification by the states. It's just very hard to see why Democrat -- why Republicans would say, yes, let's do that. But over the course of the last several years, this has been a real growing cry.

And it's because of the disparity in representation. The gap has just been increased over the course of U.S. history in a state like California and a state like Wyoming effectively have, you know, the same power when it comes to Senate representation and the same power when it comes to, you know, the Electoral College votes are just disproportionately benefit the smaller population states, which are disproportionately red states.


So, these are, you know, baked into our system. It's very hard to see practically how they get changed.

WILD: Thank you for the civics lesson. I appreciate that at 5:15 in the morning. I know -- like I said, you know, this is a debate that has been going on. Like you learn about it in, you know, your middle school civics class, right, and have these debates. It's just -- it's an ongoing thing.

President Biden is expected to sign a major spending bill this week. He's wrapping up a pretty successful legislative session, one of the most successful legislative sessions in decades. And we've heard more positive news on the economy lately. Democrats certainly exceeded expectations in the midterm elections.

So what do you think this says about 2024? Is this giving a lot of juice to his run in 2024, should he decide to run again then?

TALEV: Yes, I think for President Biden, this is certainly an easier case now than it was like, let's say in July or something when gas prices were going up and his numbers were stuck very low. I think for President Biden, his instinct, his inclination has been to run again the whole time. And his strongest argument for it has been the Donald Trump argument.

Ultimately, for President Biden, his biggest weaknesses are -- is the hesitation inside the Democratic Party about him being the nominee again. Most -- I mean, many, many Democrats say that they just think it's time, you know, for a change and to bring in the next generation of Democratic leadership.

But in those hypothetical runoffs, it's very early now, but in those hypothetical runoffs, that would effectively be a rematch that would pit Biden against Trump. Biden still performs more strongly than Donald Trump. And after the end of the year, the legislative accomplishments that you referenced, and Trump's sort of poor 2022 midterm turnout from the Biden camp, they feel that makes a very strong case for reelection.

WILD: So as we look at the Republican field, people like Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pompeo, obviously Ron DeSantis are making movement. It's pretty clear at this point that there are, you know, a lot of candidates who at least think -- a lot of potential candidates, rather, who at least think that the former president is weak enough to start making movements toward joining that 2024 field. So here's my question. It goes back to this January 6 report. Democrats, obviously, are going to use that, especially if Trump is a realistic potential nominee for the Republican Party. But my question is, do you think other Republicans use that report? Do you think Ron DeSantis says, look at this report, he's not electable. How do you think that plays in the Republican race for the nomination?

TALEV: It's funny. I was just having this conversation with a couple of Republican strategists before the holiday. And while you and I are sitting here, most families across America taking a bit of downtime between Christmas and the New Year. This is the time when all candidates are, like, meeting with their families, talking to their pollsters, talking to donors, trying to figure out, do I do it? When do I do it?

So most Republican strategists I talk to say, no, not overtly. You're not going to see, like, Republican candidates, you know, saying, let's talk about January 6 some more. But the kind of -- it's baked in to the extent that everybody is aware both of January 6 and kind of Americans fatigue about it, wanting to move on from the 2020 election, but more importantly, the outcome of those midterm elections and the damage to Donald Trump's brand.

And so. you're going to see House Republicans when they come into majority in January, investigating the investigators, like taking on January 6 by trying to find wrongdoing or overspending or overstepping or that sort of thing in the investigation that we're talking about.

And so, I think you're unlikely to see that many of the 2024 candidates, you might see a couple. But the Republican hopeful thing, hey, let's go back and revisit this thing and talk about it some more. But they may talk about it in part of that larger argument about who is electable in 2024, which Republican nominee is most likely to be able to win a general election. And I think that's kind of the language you'll hear to talk about it is.

WILD: OK. A lot of runway, Margaret. Thank you so much. That was CNN Political Analyst Margaret Talev. Thank you so much for joining us.

All right, some quick news from across the country now. Police in Colorado say a man shot and killed his wife and then himself early Christmas morning at a Jehovah's Witness Hall near Denver. They are also investigating three incendiary devices found at the scene.


An Arizona judge has rejected GOP candidate Kari Lake's lawsuit to overturn her defeat in the state's gubernatorial election. He said that there was just no evidence of misconduct and reaffirmed Democratic Governor-elect Katie Hobbs victory by 17,000 votes.

West Point begins the process of removing 13 Confederate monuments from its campus during the holiday break. It will also propose new names for streets, buildings and areas honoring the Confederacy at that military academy. The electric vehicle startup Rivian is looking to stand out from its competitors. Since it's launched in 2009 and succeeding for the most part. But in recent days, it has faced several challenges, from investor scrutiny to layoffs and competition. CNN's Christine Romans has more on how this company is managing.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rivian makes vehicles. Electric vehicles for active lifestyles. Electric vehicles for active lifestyles starting at around $70,000, with a customer backlog of 114,000. Thanks to a host of production issues which Rivian's founder, RJ Scaringe calls --

RJ SCARINGE, RIVIAN'S FOUNDER: In the category of really good problems.

ROMANS (voice-over): But despite recalls, billions in losses and a large stock value decline in the last year, Scaringe's idealism is as strong as when he started.

(on-camera): Some risktakers and disruptors very famous ones, you know, dropped out of college. You went all the way through --


ROMANS (on-camera): -- and got a PhD, and then you didn't go and work for, like, another manufacturer.

SCARINGE: Yes. It's also a question of time if you're going to go spend five years doing something. Is the utility of those five years best served with working on the problem of starting a company and learning things through all the hard mistakes and hard lessons learned versus working in them as a small piece of a very big system?

ROMANS (on-camera): You didn't want to sell cars, you wanted to build cars.

SCARINGE: Yes, I wanted to start what I thought of as a car company and had the realization this is going to take a lot of money. At the time, I thought it would take hundreds of millions of dollars, not many billions of dollars.

We're very excited to show these and thank you again.

ROMANS (voice-over): Shrouded in secrecy for nearly a decade, Rivian unveiled its all electric SUV and pickup prototypes at the LA Motor Show in 2018.

(on-camera): What did it feel like the response you got there in LA?

SCARINGE: It was great. When we came out, it was really this beautiful opportunity to come out with a clean sheet. So to show the R1T and the R1S together was a powerful statement for us, for sure.

I want to thank everyone for listening to this presentation and seeing our vehicles as we show them to the world.

ROMANS (voice-over): That enthusiasm would vault Rivian to massive investments from Ford and Amazon, a blockbuster IPO in 2021 and a 3.5 million square foot production plant. But amid explosive growth, arrived something else, competition.

(on-camera): Talk to me about the crowded field and how you try to stand out there and how you can --


ROMANS (on-camera): -- compete when there's --


ROMANS (on-camera): -- entrenched --


ROMANS (on-camera): -- players.

SCARINGE: Well I think, first of all, this is like, this is the desired outcome. The scale of the challenge we have as a planet is quite significant. We have to convert 1.5 billion vehicles to electric as quickly as we possibly can. It's not something that Rivian can do on its own.

So a big part of what we wanted to do in terms of defining the product set was to hopefully inspire competition, to hopefully instigate others to come into the space. So in that regard, we're incredibly happy to see others there. Rivian can be wildly successful, and we need many other companies to also be wildly successful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can a truck change everything? Well, it could change our company.

ROMANS (on-camera): In your mind, who is the Rivian consumer today?

SCARINGE: These are flagship products. So the price point on the vehicles is high. The content levels is extremely high. So they're zero to 60 in 3 seconds. They're the best possible vehicle in this configuration in terms of offered capability. They're refined, they're smooth.

It's for that reason that as you think about the R1T, it's not like a normal pickup. It's very much a lifestyle vehicle that has attributes and features that are very different than what you'd think of in terms of, let's say a work-oriented pickup. But its core purpose for us is to build the brand. It's to launch the company.

ELON MUSK, CEO OF TWITTER: When we first started out Tesla, I thought maybe we had optimistically a 10 percent chance of succeeding. And here we are today, then.

ROMANS (voice-over): And if Tesla is any indication, the path to profitability for an EV startup is steep. SCARINGE: We went into it eyes wide open. If someone believes you're going to start a large-scale manufacturer, aspirations to be significant market share, and you're going to be profitable in year one, you fundamentally don't understand the challenge.

ROMANS (on-camera): Right.

SCARINGE: It's not a surprise that we're losing money. So there's a lot of really front end, heavy spending that's necessary to build this kind of a business. From a customer point of view, there are constraints that that then means from delivery timing.

And we have the really high-quality challenge of a lot of customers are really excited about what we're building and would like to have their vehicle sooner. So it's the best challenge to have. And if we didn't want the attention, we wouldn't be doing this.



WILD: Well, in addition to welcoming competition, the executives at Rivian just say that they don't expect Rivian to actually be profitable for the foreseeable future.

All right, just ahead, a race to rescue missing skiers in Austria after a weekend avalanche, and China under serious strain from the recent outbreak of new COVID cases.


WILD: This morning, China's top health authority has announced that it has stopped publishing daily COVID numbers as infections are soaring. The country eased its virus restrictions after nationwide protests over the last month. But the toll of the recent outbreak is reportedly so much worse than officially reported.

So let's go right now to CNN's Kristie Lu Stout. She is live in Hong Kong. Kristie, what does this move by China's National Health Commission tell you about what is really going on there?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Whitney, it's a puzzling move and it appears that China could be concealing negative information about its COVID-19 outbreak. The country's top health body has essentially stopped posting daily COVID-19 case numbers. And on Sunday, the National Health Commission said that all relevant outbreak info would instead be published by China's CDC, a subdepartment that it runs.

And today, China CDC issued a report and it reported zero deaths in the six days leading up to Sunday, which is, of course, very striking given the data coming in from Chinese provinces and cities. For example, in the city of Qingdao, this is a port city, 9 million people live there. Health officials are reporting half a million new COVID infections every day.

In Dongguan, this is a major manufacturing hub in the south. It's home to 10 million people.