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Fauci: "Absolutely Certain" Omicron will be Dominant Variant; COVID-19 Cases Surging across U.S. Before Holidays; U.S. faces new COVID-19 Reality with Omicron; Source: Manchin, Biden "Very Far Apart" on Spending Bill; Roger Stone to Appear Before 1/6 Committee Friday. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 16, 2021 - 12:00   ET




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

COVID roars as winter nears colleges retreat, online learning big games are postponed and big Broadway shows are shuttered. Omicron, Delta plus the flu bring a new season of uncertainty. Plus, President Biden's big urine test. He promised he could get things done.

But his biggest priorities are stalled because Democrats cannot work out their differences. And Wall Street likes a new Federal Reserve plan to fight inflation. But how might it impact you? We begin though with the Coronavirus and with a big question.

What is the rapid spread of the Omicron variant and a sudden wave of major COVID disruption tell us about the winter just ahead. President Biden meets with his COVID team today to discuss this moment public health triple threat.

The Delta variant already causing a case search and a healthcare system strain new Omicron variant cases are climbing exponentially and the third piece the flu now making an unwelcome comeback. Disruption is again way too easy to find Cornell, Princeton and NYU among the colleges and universities shifting back to online learning because of campus outbreaks, several Broadway shows now closing for the same reason.

Plus the NFL, the NBA and the NHL all seeing star players sideline and games postponed CNN's Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is here with us Elizabeth, new frustration, new uncertainty?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And because of this uncertainty, I think that's why we're seeing people move so quickly on Omicron. We keep hearing that it's causing really mostly mild disease. But still, there's so much that we don't know about it, because epidemiologists and doctors haven't been able to sort of lay eyes on it really in this country to see what it does. So I want to read something that Martha Pollack, who is the President of Cornell University, said about why they made their decisions about moving things online. She said, well, I want to provide reassurance that to date, we have not seen severe illness in any of our infected students, and we do have a role to play in reducing the spread of the disease in the broader community.

And I think she really hit the nail on the head there. Omicron was told causes more mild disease. But still, if it spreads as quickly, as we've seen in the UK, and in South Africa, that means it could reach lots of people, it could reach people who are immune compromised, who sort of managed to avoid Delta.

But if this spreads that quickly, they may not be managed to avoid Omicron. And Omicron may cause mild disease and say, a healthy Cornell student, but could make them in immune compromised person really sick. So I think that's one of the reasons why we're seeing this move to online learning John.

KING: Elizabeth you just made a key point, experts still learning about Omicron. I understand there's a new study about vaccines from Columbia University, that raises the question, how are they working? Or will they work with Omicron? What's it saying?

COHEN: It's really quite grim. And I'm going to read you some quotes from the study. And then I'm going to tell you why maybe it's not quite as grim as what there is what it sounds like, from these quotes. But let's look at this.

So what they found in this Columbia study was that Omicron was markedly resistant to Pfizer and to Moderna, and to Johnson & Johnson and to the AstraZeneca vaccine. And then Omicron is now the most complete escapee. In other words, have all of the variants out there and Delta and all the other ones, this one has managed to escape the vaccine more than any other.

Now, of course, you might be thinking, well, what about getting a booster would that help and here's what they had to say, even a third booster shot may not adequately protect against Omicron infection. But of course, it is advisable to do so.

So I want to sort of linger for a minute on that last phrase, the vaccines aren't completely 100 percent effective against Omicron. What other studies have found in this one to a certain extent is that it might not keep you from being infected with Omicron.

They're going to be lots of breakthrough infections, but it does have some power, even to doses has some power at keeping you protected from getting very, very sick. And a booster does an even better job John.

KING: Elizabeth Cohen grateful for the important reporting and insights. Let's get some more now put some of these key questions to Michael Osterholm. He's an Epidemiologist and Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Mr. Osterholm it is grateful to see you today. I just want to put up on the map just right now the map of cases across the United States. The deep red Rhode Island cases are up 103 percent over the past. The seven day average that changed for 100,000 residents is what it shows if you're red or you're orange, that means you're going up and that's most of the country right now.

To that point, Mr. Osterholm, Dr. Fauci says you should get boosted the official government policy is fully vaccinated is two shots listen to Dr. Fauci explain this is not a big deal.



DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, PRESIDENT BIDEN'S CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER: Well, we - it's almost a semantic thing we know what optimal is optimal is getting a boost so instead of worrying about what the definition of fully versus not fully is, I'm telling people, if you want to be optimally protected, and you're vaccinated get boosted.


KING: Is it semantics or is it bad government policy? If optimal is best and best is a booster three shots? Why is the government policy still too?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Well, I think you're going to see that changing over time, we now have a much better understanding of why the booster is so important. And Elizabeth Cohen just said earlier in this piece, it can have a major impact potentially on whether someone has a serious illness with either Delta or Omicron, or a milder or illness. So I'm convinced that this is just a matter of time before this change occurs.

KING: Let's hope you're right about that. I just want to pop up Omicron right now, this is what a week ago, and it was 0.4 percent of the cases in the United States. Now it is 3 percent of the cases in the United States, this is as of December 11th.

You can do the math, you can assume by what had happened in South Africa, what has happened in the UK, that this will be 6 percent within a couple of days, and then a week from now, or 10 days from now it will be 12 percent. So where's the sweet spot of public policy and personal responsibility at this moment?

You heard the Cornell Professor, you know, thousands of students, a hundreds of students, excuse me get the Omicron variant? Should it be walled off nursing homes, protect the vulnerable, tell the immune- compromised, protect yourself and then let this rip, because the conditions are mostly mild cases? Or do we need to do more?

OSTERHOLM: John, we don't have a choice if this is going to rip or not, we are going to see a viral - over the next three to eight weeks. It's just that simple. This is a very highly infectious virus almost like trying to control the wind. So we can do certain things like try to close down long term care facilities briefly, from outside visitors. We can do any number of things like that. But I suspect that within a very short period of time, we could be talking about millions of cases of Omicron infection occurring in our communities.

KING: That's a sober message there. And when you see I showed a minute ago, the map of the cases of hospitalizations are up there not nowhere near where they were at this point last year, before we had vaccines. But we have nearly 70,000 Americans in the hospital because of COVID. A month ago, that was 47,000.

If you look at it from an intensive care unit perspective, you see New Hampshire and New Mexico, nearly half of the ICU beds have COVID patients in the states that are darker is 40 percent in Minnesota, it's 39 percent in Michigan, more and more hospital beds being held up.

And as Omicron spreads, I want you to listen to the Former Surgeon General who says the country, the country everywhere needs to follow what the sports leagues do. So we have a better sense of what's out there.


DR. JEROME ADAMS, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Kudos to the sports leagues, because they are actually doing a fantastic job of surveillance testing and the rest of the country. We're driving a car down a dark road with the headlights off while looking in the rearview mirror. What we need is a well-articulated long strategy. We can't keep chasing variants forever.


KING: Is that correct, the surveillance testing point in the sense that if this is the stress on the healthcare system now, and we don't fully understands both really the current Delta crisis and the Omicron growth that this system could be knocked over?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I think we have to be a little bit careful here in terms of describing what we can do about the surge or not. Number one is we have to understand that what's happening with Delta is already baked into the system, the next three weeks, that people who are infected with Delta that will become hospitalized, that will become seriously ill and die is already there.

But I think over the course of the next two to four weeks, you're going to see a war between Omicron and Delta, deciding who is going to be the king of the viral hill. And I do believe Omicron will probably win that does is as Elizabeth Cohen also said earlier, has a big implication in terms of less severe illness.

And what I mean by that is, is that if you look at what's happening in South Africa today, the morning data today shows that the number of hospitalizations and the deaths are actually on track with what we saw was Delta. But what happened was the case numbers went up very quickly. And now it's starting to come down already, which means that we will have then fewer deaths, overall, fewer hospitalizations, and we've seen with Delta. So I think it's early.

I don't want to suggest for a moment we're out of the woods yet. I think the next three to eight weeks, again, where we've seen overlap between Omicron and Delta; it's going to be really tough. But I think that in the end, we are going to get out of this a lot quicker than we have with these long month long, five month long Delta surge events.

KING: Well, to that point, you're learning every day science is evolving, as we deal with this. Is your advice, whether it's a guy on cable television asking you the question or somebody in line at the grocery store asking the question, what's your advice? What should I do today? Is it any different today than it was three weeks ago?

OSTERHOLM: No, in fact, the only thing I could say is that might why not might be different. It surely is a new emphasis. Please get vaccinated. We do know that in fact Delta is readily handled by being double vaccinated and your booster.


OSTERHOLM: We also know that with Omicron the data we have from Israel, the initial data from South Africa, you do have a chance of having less severe illness if you get vaccinated. So the same message over and over again, please get vaccinated, get your boosters.

We only have a third of Americans right now who are vaccine willing, they got their first two doses, they just haven't gotten their booster yet. Get that that can add an additional element of protection that you need right now.

KING: Everybody's exhausted. Everybody is stressed in different ways. There are mental health pressures, there are economic pressures, and there are public health pressures. Among the economic pressures, the airline industry, all passengers still required wearing masks on airplanes, two big CEO says that should change listen.


GARY KELLY, CEO, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: Yes, I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything in the air cabin environment is very safe, and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.


DR. DOUG PARKER, CEO, AMERICAN AIRLINES: I concur the aircraft's safe place you can be it's true of all of our aircraft, they all have these HEPA filters.


KING: Do you agree with that? Would you advise they can end the mask mandate on planes?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, I don't agree. And I believe that one of the executives actually walked back their comments already. Number one is that not all airplanes are the same. Some of the older models don't have the same HEPA filters in them that the newer models do have.

Number two, we have clearly shown transmission on airplanes. It's limited. I agree that the airplane cabin environment is a better place to be in terms of air. But when you're close to people next to people who might be infected, and I believe particularly with Omicron right now, you're going to see transmission there.

So even if you only get a limited improvement in your safety with a mask wear it and I think it would be premature and unadvisable for the airline industry to change that right now.

KING: Seems like common sense advice to me, Michael Osterholm always grateful sir, for your time.

OSTERHOLM: Thank you.

KING: Thank you. Up next, no deal to pass the president's big social safety net plan. No agreement to pass the Voting Rights Bill. The Democrats are ending the year with a governing problem.



KING: Hope surpassing the big Biden social safety net plan by Christmas is fading, if not already outright dashed. And that raises the giant credibility test for the president and for his party.


REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-WA): President's word is on the line here. And I do still believe that he is going to do what he told me and what he told our caucus and what he told the country he would do.


KING: Now talks to pass the so called Build Back Better Plan ASAP continue but most involved now say a Christmas deadline yes will pass. The hope now is to reach a deal sometime early in the New Year. Because of that some Democrats this week did see an opening to maybe bring up a voting rights package.

But to do so all Senate Democrats would have to agree to change the rules. And the answer quickly was no. Which means the biggest first year priorities of a president whose calling card was getting things done, remain unfinished business?

With me today to share their reporting and their insights "POLITICO'S" Laura Barron-Lopez Olivier Knox of "The Washington Post" and McClatchy's Francesca Chambers. We went through this in the first year of the Trump presidency, the central promise was we will repeal and replace Obamacare.

And we have not had the clown car routine that that was that debate was but President Biden said elect me I can get things done. Democrats run both chambers of Congress narrowly I get these issues are highly complicated. But it - we'll get to the substance of the specifics of the issues in a minute. But this is a major failure.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: And for both of these issues, whether it's the social spending plan, and also voting rights, it's the same blockade, which is they are trying to pass these without any Republican support. Because Republicans don't support what's in the social spending package.

Or and they haven't shown that they support any of the voting rights or election reform measures. So it ultimately comes down to Senators like Senator Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. And whether or not they're willing to make any changes or whether or not they're willing to go on with the social spending package?

And right now, Biden is at a, you know, at pretty much like a crossroads. And he's having difficulty getting Manchin on board with this bill. Because, you know, to the frustration of the White House, they feel as though the goalposts keep moving with Manchin and that they can't nail him down on exactly what he wants.

KING: So again, they say, and the calendar only matters if they don't get it done. They say we'll get this done in January, we'll get this done maybe before the end of the full fight Biden first year as president. But listen, now, people are so frustrated. This is just two of Joe Manchin's Democratic colleagues who just have had enough.


SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): That's where he said, and this is why if you have a 50/50 split Senate, you can have one person or two people to stop everything. And that is why people in our country should know that a 50-50 Senate sucks and we can't get things done.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MS): We need to get this done. We have talked, we have talked, we have talked. It's time to put it on the floor, in fact.


KING: So what I mean what this was, again, the calling card of this president was I'm not Donald Trump, I know how government works. I will make it work for you so far.

OLIVIER KNOX, AUTHOR, WASHINGTON'S POST'S "THE DAILY 202": Well, so far American Rescue Plan Act so far bipartisan infrastructure mean, there have been significant legislative achievements under this president. What I think is interesting now is he's really lengthening the progressive bill of grievances against the Democratic Party and against this White House.

You know, what happened to criminal justice reform, police reform? What happened to immigration, this adds to those kinds of grievances? And that's part of the reason you're seeing that shift. OK, well, we maybe we can't do BBB but we at least have to send a signal to the base that we are willing to fight for some of these priorities.

We may not be able to go into a midterm election telling progressives look we got you all these things although there's a lot of stuff in the infrastructure package that they could do.


KNOX: But we at least we went down swinging. And I think that's why they're pushing for this confined schedule for voting, even though I have not seen a convincing argument anywhere, that there is a pathway to get Joe Manchin to yes.

Remember when he had that big fight with Bernie Sanders in the in the Senate Democratic Caucus, and the reporting was at one point, he got up and did this. I'm fine with zero, as opposed to 1.72, 2.5 trillion, whatever. I think that's - I think that's what we're seeing here.

KING: You make a key point; some significant things have been done without a doubt. And some of those are still filtering in and could well help the president and help the economy. But they promised. My question is more on that they promised their own base, but he promised the country, which is why you get to the frustration of progressives.

This is Corey Bush progressive in the House, I put my reputation on the line to make it clear that if we want to deliver the entire much needed long overdue Biden agenda, we must not undermine our power as a government nor the power of the people by placing the fate of build back better at the feet of one Senator Joe Manchin.

The frustration is palpable and because these are giant policy priorities of the party, especially the progressives, and also a giant motivational question about the 2022 midterms, if your base says, you didn't, you didn't deliver on your promises, why should I vote for you?

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: But as Olivier points out, it's not just build back better it is the fact that Democrats who are close to the White House are concerned that they had not made progress on issues like voting rights, which they do believe would also help to energize the base leading to the elections.

And not just energize them, John, to the point that you were making earlier, these were things that President Biden ran on and why voters turned out for him in 2020 for the base? They find it difficult to make that case again.

But if you come out and vote for us, and we just have more Democrats in the United States Senate, they will really get it next time. They're worried that that is not going to be effective argument.

KING: The Democrats one of the things that are interesting to me is Democrats seem no closer, at least not much closer to resolving these questions about the filibuster about how you know how big? How big of a role of government should be than they were at the beginning of the year now, at the end of the year, including on the voting rights issue, which you've covered extensively.

This is Jim Clyburn, number two Democrat in the House, saying OK, the issue is Senate Democrats won't agree to change the rules. He says that is a silly argument, because --


REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): Just remember the moment if get a chance the Republicans are going to get rid of the filibuster, no matter what the contrary.


KING: His point is if the Republicans win the next election and narrowly take control of the Senate, they will see the same 60 vote margin and say, OK, forget about it. We need to pass.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Yes. And I spoke to Clyburn yesterday, and he told me that he's been in close touch with Senator Raphael Warnock who gave an impassioned speech this week on the floor about voting rights, about election reforms, and Clyburn said that he - he said, if it doesn't happen this month, that's OK.

But it has to happen early in the New Year, because he says that, yes, black voters will not turn out the base will not turn out. But also he says democracy is on the line. And so if these things don't pass, then Democrats and increasingly a number of you know, local elected Republicans who have been pushed out to some of their positions are worried about this, what this means for future elections.

KING: We'll see if pushing it into an election year usually makes it more difficult. Well, maybe, maybe it will be a contrarian year who knows. Up next, just revealed text messages shed light on how Trump allies and Congress worked to undo the 2020 election? What Jim Jordan texted to Mark Meadows the day before the insurrection.



KING: Breaking news just into CNN about an important witness who plans to show up tomorrow to the January 6 investigative committee but Roger Stones Attorney the longtime Trump ally says he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Stone of course one of the Trump allies the committee wants to talk to, to figure out the planning of the January 6 rally that then spiraled into the violent insurrection at the United States Capitol. Back to our conversation our Senior Legal Analyst Shan Wu joins us.

So he's going to show up, invoke his Fifth Amendment right, which I assume is a way after watching the Steve Bannon experience and what Mark Meadows is now in limbo about this is a way to say I'm not in contempt. I'm coming here, but I'm exercising my legal right. Do I have that right?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's exactly right. And that's the way it should be done. Actually, you should show up. And then if you have issues with the amendment or anything else, that's when you should invoke it, not simply sit back and say, I don't even need to appear because in my mind, I have privileges against this. And so it's the right way to do it.

KING: Right way to do it. But does he - is he has full standing against any questions they could ask, just say I'm not going to do it. And then what does the committee do if they want to get a testimony?

WU: He basically there's no judge there, John. So he can say what he wants in terms of invoking the fifth. If they want to challenge it, they'll have to get the judge involved challenging, but they cannot compel him at that moment. Now they could think to give him immunity.

And that's something that's been kind of working in the background because people have not yet really gotten the wholesale assert the fifth. Immunity could force them to be compelled but immunity is very dangerous as we might remember what the Iran Contra it contains other prosecutions.

KING: It'd be fascinating to watch that one play out. That's one piece of it trying to - the committee is trying to get all the evidence it can from people in touch with the White House, in touch with the former president and touch with his inner White House team who worked on the outside to bring all those people to Washington, where did the money come from?

Did they have any advance notice there might be violence and all of that? Another piece of it is what did the Trump allies in Congress do from Election Day right up until January 6? And in that regard, the other day we were talking about an unknown lawmaker who texted the Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows well that is no more.