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CNN: Biden Considering Sanctions Against Putin's Inner Circle; U.S. Expected to Announce Diplomatic Boycott of 2022 Beijing Olympics; 24-Hour Period for Testing Before Flying to U.S. Begins; Trump Looms Large over Georgia Governor's Race. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 06, 2021 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello and welcome to "INSIDE POLITICS." I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Today new COVID travel rules kick in. New York City expands its vaccine mandate to include all private sector workers and cases climb above 120,000. As yes, another winter COVID spike is ahead.

Plus, just days after a massacre at a Michigan school, a sitting U.S. congressman posts this Christmas card, his family clutching weapons asking Santa for more ammo.

And Trump loyalty fills a Georgia showdown. David Perdue launches a primary bid against the incumbent governor. It is part of Donald Trump's bid to exact revenge on Republicans who dared to stand up to his election lies.

Up first for us today though, two dramatic developments that will make this week a defining test for President Biden on the world stage. The first, the White House. CNN has told plans to announce a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics slated for February. Athletes as of now can still go, but there will be no official U.S. delegation sitting and watching the events. There's a new escalation in an already tense time with China.

The second big global test, a phone call tomorrow between the American president and Russia's Vladimir Putin. That call follows new reporting that U.S. intelligence sees clear signs Putin may be planning to invade Ukraine.

Let's get straight to the White House and CNN's Arlette Saenz.

Arlette, two big global challenges.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, John. And really, President Biden is staring down two foreign policy tests this week when it comes to both China and Russia. To begin with Russia. The Biden administration is weighing a wide set of sanctions to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.

Sources have told CNN that several options are on the table, including sanctions against members of President Vladimir Putin's inner circle as well as Russian energy producers and Russian banks.

Now no final decision has been made just yet, but President Biden hinted at possible actions coming on Friday when he told reporters that he was assembling a comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to help deter Russia from action when it comes to Ukraine. Now officials -- U.S. officials are also speaking with European counterparts with the hope that any actions that are taken could be coordinated with those allies as well.

Now, this comes as President Biden is set to hold a secure video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow. And White House officials have said that the president plans to address those concerns over Russia's military activity along the border of Ukraine when he speaks with Putin.

This comes as there's U.S. intelligence showing that Russia could invade Ukraine in just a matter of months. Now, on top of this, the White House is expected to announce that boycott -- a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in February that would not impact American athletes, but these are certainly two crucial tests for the president going forward.

KING: Arlette Saenz, appreciate you kicking us off. busy week ahead in many ways to the president.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," CNN's Eva McKend, CNN's Phil Mattingly and Susan Glasser of "The New Yorker."

Susan, let's start. Let's just show our viewers. These are snapshots. This is part of what's been gathered by U.S. intelligence. So, Russian troops buildup, about 175,000 groups. You have battalion groups increasingly coming in. If you're looking from the sky, if you're looking at the sources says a major military buildup right on the border with Ukraine. We were talking before we came on the air. Sometimes it's hard to pull back from something like that. What can President Biden say to Vladimir Putin to get him to dial this back, if anything?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, you know, it's interesting. This is like a very more alarmist version, a rerun of the scenario that we saw in the spring before the first Biden/Putin summit. Remember, they had an early summit. There was at that time a kind of Ukraine war scare. There were thousands of troops sent to the border.

This is a much more significant, I think it's almost twice the size of a potential invasion force that Russia has sent to the border as during that period of increase hostilities in the spring. And so, there's a question about when you have 175,000 troops on the border. I was there in Kuwait -- in the run-up to the Iraq war and it's really hard to turn around an invasion force once you build one up, a cost first of all, an enormous amount of money.

This is not an option that a leader like Vladimir Putin can just take out of his river at any time and then put back. This is a huge national investment that Russia is making in this.

So, one question is why now? Is it because he's demanding Joe Biden take him more seriously, he's demanding concessions?


Or is it actually he's going to follow through on his very, very worrisome rhetoric of the last years essentially saying that Ukraine is a foundational issue for Russia, that Russia and Ukraine should still be one.

KING: And so, Phil, to take us inside the White House approach to this, because Susan makes the valid point. They have had a summit and have been through this before and Putin not listening, so far, if you will. Let's go back and listen.

This is President Biden a short time ago promising I'm not Donald Trump. I'm not going to apiece Vladimir Putin. I'm going to make him change his behavior.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I made it clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens are over. We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people.


KING: That's earlier this year in the early days of the Biden presidency. As we move to the end of the year and this important phone call what's the take inside the White House of what they can and cannot accomplish?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think there's probable concern in a lot of version based on what Susan was laying out, just the scale of the buildup, I think. And also, the way that the buildup has taken place, when moves have been made and when military units have been brought in, the fact that it hasn't seemed to be so public in a way that was just designed to be messaged. Right? I think that's a very real concern.

One of the things underpinning that summit that I think maybe wasn't spoken about as much publicly was the idea that with this administration really trying to zero in on the China relationship and what that meant, that perhaps it would help push President Putin to the back burner, to some degree always a superpower to some degree because they are nuclear capable but didn't want tonight forefront of U.S. foreign policy in this administration.

Obviously, President Putin doesn't necessarily agree with that. I think the question right now, and it's not a super scientific one is what does he actually want? What does President Putin want right here? Because the reality is this 2008 with Georgia and 2014 with Ukraine and what can the U.S. and probably more importantly its international partners do at this point in time.

Arlette was talking about the sanctions package that they believe they have on the table or could be putting together. They can't do that unilaterally. They need international partners here. We're heading into the winter. Don't want to go necessarily go after into the energy sector given Europe's alliances, some of Europe's alliance on that. So, it's very complicated right now. And I think the point of this phone call more than anything else is trying to figure out and trying to find what President Putin actually wants.

KING: Again, personal relationships, the president now, former vice president, 30-plus years in Senate, including the Senate foreign relation. Joe Biden ran for president saying trust me, I'm not Donald Trump. Trust me, I know how do this. But add in the China challenge as well.

A diplomatic boycott of the Olympics is a big deal. This is a giant, prestige moment for Xi Jinping. He wants the Olympics. He wants the global attention. He wants to prove that China is a dominant economic power, dominant military power, dominant geopolitical power. Listen to the defense secretary over the weekend saying we'll handle this one carefully.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: As President Biden has repeatedly made clear, we're not seeking a new cold war, or a world divided into rigid blocs. So, yes, we're facing a formidable challenge, but America isn't a country that fears competition, and we're going to meet this one with confidence and resolve and not panic and pessimism.


KING: The secretary says they don't want a new cold war. It sure feels like a cold war. You're going to have a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. You have members of Congress going to Taiwan essentially sticking the thumb. You have China sending provocative flights over Taiwan. China with actions in the South China Sea. Seems like both sides are constantly testing each other and dancing up close to the line.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CONGRESSIONAL EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Right. I mean, I think what we've seen is a real ratcheting up clearly of the tensions, and we have seen I think President Biden trying to show with actions but moderated action that he means what he says when he says that he's different from Donald Trump than he wants to have a different approach it these issues.

I think going back to the situation with Putin in the call tomorrow, he said on Friday and they have made clear considering these sanctions that he's talking very tough, that he's willing to take tough action to try to push Putin back to try to discourage him, as you said, raise the price of any action that he might take.

I think the other question, too, though is on sort of the point that the secretary was making, is there a series of actions or approaches that he's going to raise to try to pull Putin back from the brink that's beyond sanctions that's about sort of an off ramp or a way that he could move this issue away from the brink of all of the confrontation that you're talking about, because in the end he needs an outcome here, and as Susan said with all of those troops amassed here and hostilities what they are, it's going to take very careful maneuvering to get Putin to the place that Biden needs him to be.

KING: And oddly as the president prepares for these two big moments, more confrontation with China, phone call with Putin.


One of the rare episodes in Washington where generally these are bipartisan issues. There are outliers here and there but generally you have Democrats and Republicans are in the Congress saying Mr. President, you need to be tough. You need to be tough in both of these relationships.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Yes. This is an area where we see that, but we also see Republicans very tough on President Biden when it comes to matters of foreign policy, so this is a moment for him where he can really -- the administration as a whole show that they have this foreign policy prowess, that they can achieve this. You can't go two minutes on Capitol Hill without Republicans talking about the threat of China. So, this -- this moment is a major one for the administration.

KING: Fascinating to watch. Again, the Trump/Putin call we expect, will be playing out during this hour tomorrow. It is unofficial, schedule is not out yet. But we expect, so we'll stay on top of that.

Coming up. New coronavirus rules today. The travels in the United States plus our post-Thanksgiving reality, new COVID cases are at the highest level in two months.



KING: New coronavirus testing requirements begin today for all travelers heading to the United States, including U.S. citizens. The new rule requires a negative test taken within 24 hours of departure. That step part of the Biden White House response to the new Omicron variant. But Delta remains the big driver of the daily case count and let's take a look at the number, above 100,000 for the first time in two months.

Let's just start with this. Our 50-state trend map, red and orange are bad. There you have it. 45 states trending now in the wrong direction. That means more coronavirus new infections this week compared to last week and in these states that are deep red that's more than 50 percent higher this week than last week when it comes to new infections. And wow, that is 30 of those 45 states trending in the wrong direction.

Again, cases now back above 100,000. 120,494 new infections reported on Sunday. A month ago, we were at 73,119. Let's bring in to share his insights and expertise is Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Doctor Osterholm, it's great to see you. I'll get to Omicron in a minute, but this is still Delta. This is still Delta. Our cases are back above 120,000. If you look at the state trend maps, it is horrific, and I'll get to the numbers in a minute and hospitalizations and deaths also trending in the wrong direction. Where are we in fighting the old variant, if you will, Delta before we get to Omicron?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Well, as you've pointed out this is still the variant that's confronting us day in and day out with serious illness and deaths. And as you pointed out, these numbers are increasing. We're seeing the expansion of increased cases throughout the northeast. We're beginning to see in these other states again a turnaround.

We don't know, John, why these surges occur. We do know once they start, vaccination levels will be a big determinant of how much impact they have, but when they start and stop, we don't know.

The second thing is we really have two different kinds of surges right now. Remember this past summer when we saw in the deep south, case numbers went up very quickly and then they came down relatively quickly. Whereas if you're in a state like Minnesota right now, we saw our cases go up in September. They came down a little bit in early October, but they went right back up again, and we've been in a surge really for the last 12 weeks. This is much more like what we see in the United Kingdom.

So, this virus is doing what it's doing and we, in many cases, can't tell you why it's doing it. We can tell you one thing. Vaccination, vaccination, vaccination. And what makes a difference as to how many people are seriously ill and how many dies.

KING: Well, to that point the New York City mayor just today says he's requiring everybody, he means they had a public sector of vaccine mandate in place, but he says now private employers by the middle of December need to start getting everybody vaccinated. Listen to the mayor.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D-NY), NEW YORK CITY: Our health commissioner has put a series of mandates in place. They have won in court, state court, federal court, every single time, Jonathan. And it's because they are universal and consistent. And they're about protecting the public right now from a clear and present danger.


KING: A, do you agree with that policy and, B, is that more to deal this Delta surge, Delta spike, whatever you want to call it or is that more in your view a protective measure that only Omicron is - Omicron is coming. It's going to be here in bigger numbers soon, let's be ready.

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, I do agree with the mayor's conclusions about the importance of this. New York City is ripe for a major surge in cases. If you look at the percentage of individuals vaccinated there. It is far, far below. What we see in a number of the Western European countries right now that are having major outbreaks with the Delta variant and highest numbers of hospitalizations they have had in the pandemic. So, yes, you want to be vaccinated.

But the good news here is if you want to take care of Delta, it will also take care of Omicron. Basically, we know right now that this virus variant may actually evade some of the immune protection from either vaccination or previous infection. But even the early data out of South Africa tells us that if you are vaccinated you have a much less likelihood of having serious illness, hospitalizations or deaths. So, I think, again, this is one words -- you take care of one, you take care of the other.

KING: I do want to know -- you keep mentioning vaccinations. And I completely understand why. There are the trendlines there are better. They're not fantastic but they're certainly better. The seven-day average of new vaccine doses administered, up 76 percent from just a month ago. It does seem like, number one, the availability of boosters. Number two though, talk of Omicron has people getting more vaccines and the percentage of people, new fully vaccinated Americans, the seven-day average there, people reaching full vaccination is up 96 percent from just a month ago.

So, you do see some encouraging signs there. One of the questions it is when you listen to the experts in South Africa, they keep saying that everything they see, despite an explosion of cases because of Omicron, they are saying moderate to mild illness, and they believe that will hold up. When will we know as that new variant travels the world whether that will hold up?


OSTERHOLM: Well, at this point the number of cases in South Africa which is climbing very quickly has been really predominantly in younger kids which we know are not as likely to have severe illness. So, you know I think it's going to take us another two weeks, maybe three weeks in South Africa to understand is this going to spill over into older populations, people who are immune compromises, et cetera.

The same thing is true around the world. My first impression as somebody who has been in the trenches for 45 years fighting this virus is this one is different, this new variant Omicron. It's one that's much more highly transmissible than Delta. There's no question about that.

The question now is will it cause milder illness. And I think so far, the data support that. I reserve the judgment in the next two weeks to say, well, once it got seated into all the other populations of high- risk individuals for serious illness have changed. But rights now, I don't see any evidence of that.

KING: Given what we've been given the last year and a half plus, I completely understand your caution. And need to study a bit further.

Dr. Osterholm, as always so grateful for your insights.

OSTERHOLM: Thank you.

KING: Thank you. Thank you.

Up next for us. David Perdue versus Brian Kemp, a Georgia grudge match born of the big lie.



KING: Dramatic Republican on Republican race beginning today in Georgia stoked by, what else, a debate over Donald Trump. First full day of work for David Perdue's campaign now for governor and in his debut ad, listen here, goes right after the incumbent Republican Brian Kemp and his fight to rappel. Remember, Brian Kemp would not support the former president's election lies.


DAVID PERDUE (R), GEORGIA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: Today we're divided, and Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger are to blame. Look, I like Brian. This isn't personal. It's simple. He has failed all of us and cannot win in November. Instead of protecting our elections, he caved to Abrams and cost us two Senate seats, the Senate majority and gave Joe Biden free reign. Think about how different it would be today if Kemp had fought Abrams first instead of fighting Trump.


KING: Remarkable message.

The panel is back in the studio.

Remarkable there from David Perdue who was a mainstream conservative Republican. Trump comes along, the big lie comes along. Right there, Brian and Brad, Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, the two, the secretary of state and the governor of Georgia, who to the Trump base are evil.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Yes. And you have to worry about the sustainability - or you have to wonder, rather, about the sustainability of this argument. He was on the ballot. Perdue was on the ballot in the Senate, but somehow, it's Kemp's fault that he lost the seat that he had. It's kind of a confusing argument.

But he feels as though the Trump endorsement is enough to gain enough momentum and go against potentially Stacey Abrams if she largely is expected to win that Democratic primary, so that's why we see this matchup.

KING: And it is remarkable because you're right. Trump gets what he wants. He wants Brian Kemp gone because Brian Kemp, God forbid, upheld Georgia state election law, certified the election and refused to help Donald Trump cheat. And for that, according to Donald Trump, you must be kicked out of the party.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Right. I mean think about what he's saying, Senator Perdue or former Senator Perdue is saying in that ad, that the crux of his campaign is going to be about why somebody should have undermined a fair and accurate result of an election because Donald Trump wanted him to. And that's going to be the debate that we're going to see play out in this primary. I can predict pretty confidently that it's going to be pretty nasty.

Kemp has made it pretty clear, both in the months and weeks right after the election and since, that you know, he is perfectly comfortable with his position. And Perdue it's interesting because Eva's point is obviously correct. He was on the ballot, too. And that's what made it very tricky for him and Kelly Loeffler, who were both fighting for their jobs at the same time that Trump was saying that the election had been stolen from him.

It was complicated for him to argue that somehow this had been a fraudulent contest because, you know, he was hoping to keep his seat. But now he's in a position of saying, you know, this was -- this was a lie. This was a fraud and hoping that people turn out and then vote for him again. We've talked about the contradiction that's inherent in that. That's going to be a problem for all Republicans, but this primary is going to be the --

KING: And it guarantees in what Joe Biden turned blue but has traditionally been a Republican red state in the south. This is Geoff Duncan who's lieutenant governor to Brian Kemp. Geoff Duncan has said, I'm not running in the next cycle because he wants no part of the Trumpiness. But he says, you know, Brian Kemp is a good man. And we wish Donald Trump would go away.


LT. GOV. GEOFF DUNCAN (R-GA): It appears early on that he's going to try to carry Donald Trump's water on the conspiracy stuff. And that seems to be the only tailwind he's got. We don't need the traveling circus of Donald Trump to stay here in Georgia. We need it to stay down in Mar-a-Lago working on his handicap playing golf and let us be conservatives here in Georgia and move forward.


KING: It's a great argument from a guy in mainstream conservative, a man who was a young rising star in the Republican Party and now he's taking a time-out essentially and hoping this Trump thing passes. But there are some Republicans who quietly mutter as much as they support the Republican incumbent and they believe he did the right thing that they would actually prefer Perdue because if Kemp wins the primary, does the Trump base stay home in November. And if that happens you lose a seat.

MATTINGLY: Yes. We're looking at this purely through the lens of the Republican primary.