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I-95 In Virginia Closed After Latest Snowfall.; COVID Cases Continue To Surge In Florida.; Governor Cuomo's Charges Were Dropped By New York DA. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 04, 2022 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: We're (ph) going to get the latest now on some breaking news out of Virginia. Still at this hour, hundreds of drivers stranded on Interstate 95. And get this, they've been there since yesterday afternoon. This is the scene, you see it now near the town of Fredericksburg this morning. It's about 60 miles outside of Washington, D.C. More than a foot of snow fell in the region on Monday morning that led to multiple accidents and turned the highway into a parking lot.

CNN's Pete Muntean is following all this. Pete, any progress?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not much progress, John. The Virginia Department of Transportation says the road should be reopened sometime later today. But this is the mess that they're dealing with - countless cars stuck on a 40 to 50 mile stretch of Interstate 95 in both directions.

This is near Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia in Fredericksburg and Stafford. This involves three different counties, and the operation now expanded to six different agencies, but only at the local level. The state says it's not going to call in the National Guard.

What is so interesting here, is that the state - the Virginia Department of Transportation on this briefing call that I'm just off of says it could not have possibly kept up with the snowfall rate, 12 to 14 inches fell there yesterday morning and into the afternoon. About 2 inches per hour, they say. They say their equipment doesn't keep up with a snowfall like that. Twelve to 14 inches in total on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg.

What's also so interesting here is that Virginia officials tell us they did not pre-treat Interstate 95 because the storm was forecasted to start off as rain that pretreatment fluid would have simply slid off the road. So they're really doing a bit of back peddling here apologizing to all of those who are stuck, saying the number of people stuck is unacceptable.

But what's also so interesting here, John, is that Virginia officials do not know how many people are stuck on Interstate 95 right at this moment - 16, 17, 18, 19 hours stuck on the highway. They have counted about 1,000 cars stalled out, stuck in the state of Virginia that does not include all of the cars stuck on I-95.

No deaths, no injuries we are told - which is a bit of good news. And the state is vowing a very serious look at its response here. They say they're going to review this to try and make it so that this is better next time - for the next storm, John.

KING: Well, let's hope the no deaths, no injuries holds up. And Pete, come back when we get whatever Virginia decides how they plan to rewrite this one, or at least write the next plan as we go. Pete Muntean, grateful for the help. Thank you.

Let's move to Florida now where the COVID case count is exploding. And Governor Ron DeSantis is blaming Washington. You see the numbers right here - cases, hospitalizations, deaths, positivity rates all jumping.

Governor DeSantis blames the federal decision last month to cut back on the distribution of monoclonal antibody treatments. But experts say those treatments are less effective fighting the Omicron variant. And a new change today from the State Surgeon General who says he wants to reduce what he calls, "low value testing," and focus instead on, "high value testing."

CNN's Leyla Santiago is live for us in Miami. Walk through these changes for us, or at least these suggestions, Leyla.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, this is guidance that he wants to put out, John. And they way he explained it was by making a comparison between a grandmother and a grandmother and a child. Saying, we want more high value testing, so he sees more value in testing a grandmother over a child, say someone whose 8 years old, a third grader getting tested weekly - that is what he calls low value testing that he believes should not be prioritized.

Governor Ron DeSantis backing him on this saying that testing should not be used right now to travel or to return to work. And the governor is also calling on the federal government, demanding more supplies when it comes to monoclonal antibody treatments. But what was really interesting that we've heard over the last few days from the Surgeon General is that he wants to push to change the psychology of testing on behalf of the federal government.



DR. JOSEPH LADAPO, FLORIDA SURGEON GENERAL: We're going to be working to unwind the sort of testing psychology that our federal leadership has managed to, unfortunately get much - most of the country in over the last two years. We need to unwind this testing sort of planning and living ones life around testing. Without it we're going to be sort of stuck in the same cycle.


SANTIAGO: And I should note, John, that this conference that they held was delayed because there were activists there demanding to speak to the governor, demanding to ask questions of him regarding the response to COVID-19. That was the result of a delay - or that, excuse me, that caused a delay in the press conference and at least one person was taken away in handcuffs.


KING: Leyla Santiago, grateful for the live update from Florida.

I want to circle back with some experts on that testing advice, we'll see what they think of that. Leyla, thank you.

Up next for us, the majority leader says it is time. But, do Democrats have the votes to change Senate rules and salvage a key piece of the party agenda?



KING: Big pressure campaign on voting rights this week from the Senate's top Democrat, with a familiar goal, to break resistance from two Senate moderates. Senator Chuck Schumer telling CNN in a morning interview, he's in constant conversations with Senators Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema. The pair have said over, and over, and over they won't torpedo the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.

Lets get straight up to Capitol Hill and our Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju. Manu, Senator Manchin talked about this just last hour. Opened the door, shut the door - what'd he do?

MANU RAJU, CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The door is basically shut. He didn't shut it completely, but he made very clear that he is not in favor of the process to change the rules. Now, this gets a bit in the weeds, but it's highly significant.

Because in order to pass a voting rights legislation under the current procedure, they would need 60 votes to do that. That means 10 Republicans would have to break ranks, join the 50 Democrats to overcome a filibuster.

Now, what the Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is pushing ahead to try to do is to change the filibuster rules, potentially as soon as January 17. But in order to change the Senate filibuster rules he has to have all 50 Democrats agreeing to this, because they have to vote to actually change the rules first.

Now, that's where Manchin and also Kirsten Sinema are flatly opposed to the idea of changing the rules along party lines. Their concern is that it could be replicated by future majorities that could run rough shot (ph) over the minority and forever the change the Senate forever, and also have major ramifications for the country at large.

And what Manchin told me last hour - I asked him, are you open at all to the idea of changing the filibuster rules by what's known as the nuclear option along party lines? He said it would be "a heavy lift." He also said he would continue to have discussions about it, but he reiterated again and again how difficult it would be to him to support something like that to change the rules along party lines.

Now also the substance of the legislation is important. The Democrats are trying to - they're looking at three potential proposals to - one that would be a sweeping reform of election and voting laws called the Freedom to Vote Act.

Another measure to overturn a Supreme Court ruling from several years ago called the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. And also one to change how the electoral count is certified, essentially to ensure - prevent efforts, try to overturn the electoral votes once they are certified for the president elect.

Now - but Republicans believe that these federal efforts amount to a larger federal takeover of the electoral process, they're pushing back on that. So that's why they don't have any Republicans support. But at the moment, John, they don't have Manchin, they don't have Sinema - which means that the push to get something done will likely fall flat.

KING: Don't have Manchin, don't have Sinema. Some things from the old year have carried over to the new year. Manu Raju, appreciate the live report on Capitol Hill.

Let's bring the panel back into the conversation. And as we begin, let's listen this morning. Joe Manchin says, I'll listen but I don't like to change the rules. Chuck Schumer this morning on CNN saying, I don't like to change them either, but we have to.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D-NY) MAJORITY LEADER: We have an obligation to stand up for our democracy because the democracy's at stake here. Donald Trump has infected - and that's the appropriate word, the Republican party with his big lie, and this - with desire to stop democracy.

And so we have no choice but to move forward -


KING: Eva McKend, no choice to move forward. Is Chuck Schumer willing to do this - willing to bring it to the floor, willing to essentially make Manchin and Sinema if they keep their position the same vote no, or will he blank (ph)? The question, I guess I have is, will the Democrats really try or are they just trying to convince the base who they need to turnout in the election, well, we made a run at it?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: John, maybe a little bit of both. I question this strategy from Senator Schumer. He does have to answer to activists who say that the reason why the Senate is currently Democratically controlled is because they made this pledge to address voting rights, so he has to answer to them.

But what this does is it sets up another bruising situation where they are again putting all of the pressure on Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema to likely do something that they probably won't. And that mirrors what we saw last year, and what we saw explode on the president's domestic policy agenda.

All of that pressure on Senator Manchin, and he pushed back in a very forceful and damning way for the party. So I question if this is the right strategy, but it seems as though Senator Schumer thinks it is and that he has no other choice.

KING: What is the choice then, Jackie Kucinich that President Biden faces? In the sense that if you look at the agenda, pass a voting rights bill that's Manchin and Sinema. Bring back Build Back Better, Senator Manchin today said he hasn't had any conversations since that one went off the rails late last year.

The Biden first year agenda has now become what can we do for the Biden second year agenda, and what are the president's options?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: All they can do is keep talking, right? I mean, because the bully - the pressure campaign from the bully pulpit hasn't worked with Joe Manchin, outside groups haven't worked with Joe Manchin.


You keep talking about you hear from some Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, they think Democrats should be thinking about the things that they've actually gotten done - things like the infrastructure bill, things like COVID relief. But beyond selling what they've actually gotten done and you know, promising to do more they're - the Biden White House hands are a little tied. And they're - there is a frayed relationship with Joe Manchin.

As Manu said, Manchin said that they haven't talked since that big blow-up right before the holidays. So it's a tough position for them, and all they can do is just keep on trying to turn up the pressure and make the case. But so far that hasn't worked.

Sorry to be the pessimist here, but it really just - it seems like they're a little stuck and are just kind of crossing their fingers and hoping that Senator Schumer maybe can change their (ph) minds.

KING: I think recent experience has given you cause for some pessimism.

Dana, let's listen a little bit to Senator Manchin, and then you can translate on the other side.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: - open to the idea of using the nuclear option to change the rules to pass (ph) voting rights legislation on a simple majority (ph)?

SEN. JOE MANCHIN, (D) WEST VIRGINIA: Let me just say - let me just say that to being open to a rules change that would create a nuclear option. It's very, very difficult. So it's a heavy lift. You know, I just believe that the bedrock of democracy is voting, and we have to do what we can in order to preserve that. But let's just see. The conversations are still ongoing -


KING: That's why he's so frustrating for everybody, but especially for progressives. And he says, voting rights bedrock of democracy got to do something. Yeah, but I don't think I'm ready to change the rules. Which is it?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's both. And I think one of the things missing from the broader conversation is that we are on - just on the voting rights issue, we are talking about just Democrats here.

And the question is, why? I just went back - just to look, and I did a whole hour looking at the changes that are being made in the states. But it was a reminder to me about what happened the last time there was federal legislation, John.

There was a Republican President George Bush, Republicans were in control of the Senate and the House. They extended the voting rights law that was originally passed in 1965, in a bipartisan way. But Republicans led the charge. What a difference between then and now, and it all relates to the first thing we were talking about in the last segment, which is the idea of the big lie.

Republicans don't want to touch federal legislation to protect people's voting rights because that would cause a complete uproar among the Republican base, particularly the Trump voters who are convinced - because they've been lied to, that the election was stolen. That's the reason - that's the reason for the need for reform on a federal level, but it's also the reason it's not happening in a bipartisan way, like it always did.

KING: Right, because of the roots of an anti-Democratic, horrendous, big lie - big lie.

We'll be right back.



Big breaking news out of New York state this hour. The Albany district attorney announcing he will not prosecute the former Governor Andrew Cuomo on a misdemeanor sex crime charge. CNN reported back in October the Albany sheriff had filed a misdemeanor of forcible touching against the former governor, that after an ex aide said the governor had grabbed her inappropriately during a hug in a photo.

Let's get straight to CNN's Athena Jones in New York for the latest, this is a big decision.

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is, John. And the Albany DA David Suarez says he's dropping these charges, despite the fact that the complainant in this case, a former executive assistance Brittany Commisso, he found - they found the complainant cooperative and credible.

But in this case they've chosen not to bring charges. This comes two months after this district attorney in Albany David Suarez called the complaint itself potentially defective. He pointed to a number of things, including the fact that it didn't include a sworn statement from Ms. Commisso and other issues with that statement.

It also comes just days after two other district attorneys - the one in Nassau County out on Long Island and Westchester County north of New York City - both of those district attorneys said that Cuomo would not be facing charges over any misconduct allegations that they had been investigating.

And it comes after more good news for the former governor, the Manhattan District Attorneys Office closed an investigation into whether there was criminal liability on the nursing home - the nursing home leadership and state officials when it came to their dealings with COVID-19 and the deaths that took place in those facilities.

So several announcements in recent days all adding up to the governor - former governor, now not facing criminal charges. He had denied these allegations all along through his lawyer Rita Glavin, and on television in many instances. And he had been expected to be arraigned in this case - this case out of Albany this month. So this is coming at a key time.

And of course, we all remember the governor resigned in August after a report, about a week after the attorney general of New York Letitia James put out a report detailing allegations from multiple women, 11 women accusing the former governor of sexual harassment, engaging in unwanted touching, and that sort of thing.


So we are - this is an important development here. We know that this case in Albany was a little bit complicated because it ended up being filed by the Albany County Sheriff, and back then Rita Glavin who represents Governor Cuomo accused the sheriff of having improper motives, she questioned the integrity of the sheriff.

This is at a time when the governor was still holding on to power and was questioning - raising doubts about the attorney general's investigation and all of these other investigations. So this is interesting that this case also ends with no charges being faced by the governor, but he is still facing a federal investigation into sexual harassment allegations.


KING: Athena Jones, appreciate the hustle on the breaking news. Just reading the statement from the DA, so yes, it's credible. But he says he has the burden of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt, (inaudible) think he could meet that burden.

Athena Jones, grateful for the important news there. And thank you for joining us on "Politics," today. Don't forget you

can also listen to our podcast, download "Inside Politics," wherever you get your podcasts.

A quick break, then Erica Hill picks up our coverage straight ahead.