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CNN TONIGHT: New York State Sees Record Daily High Of New COVID Cases; Defense Rests After Ex-Officer Kim Potter Breaks Down On Stand, Recalls Fatally Shooting Daunte Wright; Zakaria: Biden "Is Paying The Price For The Complicated Times That We Are Living Through". Aired 9- 10p ET

Aired December 17, 2021 - 21:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: It airs, this Sunday, at 8 P.M. Eastern and Pacific, on CNN.

And if you ever miss 360, you can always listen to our podcast. Go to, or any of the major platforms, to search for, "ANDERSON COOPER 360."

The news continues. Let's hand it over to Michael Smerconish, and CNN TONIGHT. Michael?


I am Michael Smerconish. Welcome to CNN TONIGHT.

I've got the incoming mayor, of New York City, here, live, in just a moment. He's going to face a COVID crisis, on day one, when he takes office, in just over two weeks, much like the rest of the country is now experiencing.

We have breaking news, this Friday evening, in the Omicron fight. But it may only add to the confusion and contradictions that we're seeing all over the country.

A study, from the U.K., finds no evidence in England that Omicron is any less severe than the Delta variant. Remember that experts have been saying many cases around the world are mild or, at least, for the vaccinated and the boosted. The study also finds the risk of getting re-infected is five times higher with Omicron than Delta.

And today, the CDC Director made clear Omicron is about to take over, the conversation, in this country.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: And although Delta, continues to circulate widely, in the United States, Omicron is increasing rapidly, and we expect it to become the dominant strain, in the United States, as it has, in other countries, in the coming weeks.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SMERCONISH: And that's not the only way that we're seeing conflicting messages, and actions, as we wonder, if this frightening deja vu, is warranted.

Look at our schools. Tonight, one of the nation's 20 largest school districts, Prince George's County, in Maryland, announced that it's going back to virtual learning, until mid-January. The School's Chief says that allows educators and school staff to continue to teach, quote, "In conditions that prioritize their own health."

But that news came, just hours after, the CDC Director pointed to new evidence that schools can stay open, even if someone is infected. She said there needs to be regular testing, for anyone exposed, instead of a quarantine, so as to keep parents, from going back into teacher mode.

Encouraging? Maybe. But even now, our schools and government can't get on the same page.

In New York City, today, the Department of Education shuttered three schools, for suspected widespread COVID-19 transmission. Meanwhile, the COVID numbers are skyrocketing, and so are the number of changes, in our lives.

Cases in Connecticut, Hawaii and Texas, all up more than 50 percent, from just last week. The Northeast, Midwest and South, are seeing the fastest jumps, with 16 States, trending in the wrong direction.

New York State alone accounting for 10 percent of new cases, in this country, over the past week, and now, shattering its daily case record. Though, you can see hospitalizations remain comparatively low, when compared with other case peaks.

Ohio's governor, deploying more than 1,000 National Guard troops, to help at hospitals. Office reopenings are being put on hold. Holiday parties are being scrapped.

The Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular canceled for the rest of the season.

The NCAA Basketball schedule, it looks kind of like a snow globe, all shaken up. Games are being canceled, postponed, or rearranged, with different teams facing off.

In the NHL, three teams are now shut down, and won't be back on the ice, until after the league's holiday break. The NFL is postponing three of the weekend's games. Dozens of players are now on the COVID reserve list.

So, where does all of that put your mind, a week before Christmas, and with the New Year looming?

Nearly four in 10 Americans think we'll still need to take extra precautions. But interestingly, more of you, 45 percent told us, in recent days that you think it's already safe, to ease up. That's up nearly 10 points, from September. Yet, seeing massive lines, for testing, once again, can be ominous and frustrating. Earlier this month, before scenes like this, came rushing back, the Biden administration defended its work, to expand free testing, which led to this question.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why not just make them free, and give them out to - and have them available, everywhere?

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Should we just send one to every American?


SMERCONISH: "Yes," would be my answer.

New York is just the latest state, making at least some effort, to get home test kits out. Half a million will go out in New York City alone. Germany and the U.K. let you order test packs by mail, from the government, or buy tests, for $1 at stores, or go to a free testing center.

In view of all of these developments, I can't think of a more difficult time, to be an elected representative, much less the Mayor of New York City. We have a special guest tonight, the incoming Democratic Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams.

Mr. Mayor-elect, thank you so much for being here.


SMERCONISH: There will be no honeymoon. I mean, you know that now, right? To go into from - what do they say? From the frying pan into the fire? How do you feel?


ADAMS: I don't want a honeymoon. Winners went to bowl, when the game is on the line. And the game is on the line. And I'm a winner. And the city's a winner.

And, as you stated, these are challenging times. And I don't think the answer is just mailing out test kits, to everyone. A test kit would tell you, your diagnosis, for the moment.

It's about vaccination. We need to lean into vaccinations. We need to lean into booster shots. And matched with the testing, we should make sure that there is access to get vaccinated, at the location.

SMERCONISH: So, that sounds a lot like what I heard, just last night, with Mayor de Blasio. Are you buying in entirely, to his employer vaccination mandate?

ADAMS: No. What I'm buying into is, number one, let's use mobile vaccination sites. When it's parked outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall, the lines are long.

Let's double-down on having access to people, number one, getting tested. But when you go get tested, let's give people the real options that they should be vaccinated, on the spot.

And then, in those areas, if the science is stating that we should have mandatory vaccines, for those in office spaces, then we do that. Let's just follow the science, and allow our Health and Hospitals, our Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, they should drive the policies of how we deal with COVID-19.

SMERCONISH: But I think we're 10 days away, from de Blasio's plan, taking effect, for all private employers. Will you continue that program, when you're mayor?

ADAMS: My Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner, we're already meeting with de Blasio's teams now.

They're going to give me my clear instructions. And I'm going to articulate those instructions, to New Yorkers. And if it means mandatory vaccination, if it means vaccination for children, in schools, whatever my Department of Health tells me, that's what we're going to do.

I'm not a doctor. I'm not a medical professional. That's why you surround yourself, with qualified professionals, to give us the right advice. And the plans we implement will be based on that information.

SMERCONISH: OK. I totally respect that answer. But I would think that by now, you would already have asked those folks, and would have come to some decision, as to whether you'll continue on, what de Blasio is putting in practice?

ADAMS: We asked many questions. Remember, COVID is continue - evolving. This is a formidable opponent, this thing we call COVID-19.

New strains come out every day. And it's continuously changing. The numbers we see today are going to be different from the numbers that we're going to see in two weeks. So, to become stringent, and just lock yourself into one way of doing things, is a big mistake.

Now, we're dealing with two crises. We're dealing with the crisis of COVID-19, and the crises of our economy. I don't want my economy to continue to suffer. And so, I'm going to evaluate where we are, in two weeks. And I'm going to make a smart decision, based on that.

I'm not going to lock down my city, based on what could happen. Lock it down, if needed, based on what is happening. And that is not where we are right now.

SMERCONISH: Mr. Mayor-elect, how about with regard to the New York City public schools?

ADAMS: Well, we do an amazing job. We're looking at those areas, where we have large outbreaks. We are temporarily shutting down the schools, in those areas. I think it's smart. It's a great way to go. And we're going to continue to do that.

This is a moving target. And we need to be clear on that. What we're looking at today is not what we're going to be looking at next week. We did not know there was going to be a new variant that was going to be in our city, after leaving South Africa. We have to adjust, based on what we're facing.

And let's be clear. This city is great, at facing crisis and responding to crisis. And both crisis we are facing, the economic crisis, and the COVID crisis, and I'm going to make the right decisions, to ensure that we can continue to thrive, as a city.

COVID is here. New Yorkers, and Americans, we need to learn how do we live with it, in a smart way, do smart things, to protect the health of New Yorkers, but at the same time, to continue to function, as a city.

SMERCONISH: I've spent the whole week, in New York City. It's a special time of year, to be in New York City. You think of New York City, at this time of year, you think about the ball dropping, on New Year's Eve.

Last night, I asked Mayor de Blasio about that subject. Watch what he told me.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, (D) NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK: We made the decision a few weeks back, when things were much better. But we said, "Vaccinated people only."


DE BLASIO: "And outdoors."

Now, we're going to reassess, constantly, with the new information. We're going to follow the data and the science. Right now, it's on, you know? We'll make a decision, as we go closer - we get closer, as to what should finally happen.


SMERCONISH: I know that it's not your call, because you'll be sworn in, the following day. But do you think, the Times Square, as we know it, should take place, this year?


ADAMS: Well, I think two smart things, I heard.

Number one, the first smart thing I heard is that you were in New York City. You should come in and spend your money as much as possible.

The second is what the Mayor stated. Both of us are on the same page. This is a moving target. And if January - December 31, we are dealing with a spike that's uncontrollable, we'll make the determination, to postpone, or to stop the ball dropping. We're not there yet.

Right now, we're managing this outbreak, as much as possible. We're gauging the spikes. We're looking at the hospitalizations. We're doing it the right way.

And we need to be really proud of ourselves, as New Yorkers. We were hit in the gut, when COVID first hit here. We adjusted. We made smart decisions. We were able to push it back. And that is what we're going to continue to do.

This is a resilient city. And we're going to defeat COVID, like we defeat, any type of crises, we are facing.

SMERCONISH: If it were your call, would you have that public crowd, in Times Square, on New Year's Eve?

ADAMS: It has to be on January - December 31. The call - the Mayor is making the right decision. He used a powerful term, "Re-assess." COVID moves continuously.


ADAMS: The Mayor said, let's reassess. And that is what he's going to do on the 31st. And I would tell you the same thing, if I was the mayor, at this time.

SMERCONISH: Mr. Mayor-elect, we like to have responses, to social media, live, during the course of the program. Let me show you some of what's just come in. We can respond together.

Rick says, "I'm vaccinated. I'm protected. Time to stop caring about the anti-vaxxers."

You would say what to Rick?

ADAMS: Hey, Rick? I'm two thumbs-up to you. I agree. We cannot allow those, who are spreading misinformation, on social media, to determine the outcome of how do we follow the science. Those anti-vaxxers that are attempting to distort real factual information, we cannot allow fear to dominate. Facts must dominate, how we address COVID.

SMERCONISH: One more, Mr. Mayor, here it comes.

"If this thing hadn't been so politicized, we would have been on the other side of it by now."

That's from Gary. You'd say what to Gary? You will say what to Gary?

ADAMS: Gary, COVID is real. This is not just politicizing COVID-19. It's real. People have died from it. I've been - I was on the ground, in the beginning, when it hit our city. I know how devastating it is.

We're making smart decisions. We're learning. This is a virus that continues to evolve. And we must evolve, as it evolves. And so, I think the government, both on the federal, state, and city level, is doing the right thing, to protect Americans. And we're going to do the right thing, to protect New Yorkers.

SMERCONISH: Eric Adams, I wish you nothing but success. Good luck.

ADAMS: Thank you very much. Come back to New York.

SMERCONISH: I'll be there on Monday. You come in next week. And let's have this conversation, knee-to-knee, OK?

ADAMS: I would love that. Take care.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

Closures and cancelations are back, with his holiday season, looking eerily similar, to last year's. But are public officials overreacting?

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya has a controversial viewpoint. He says we can't stop the spread, and need to learn to live with the virus. He's on deck.



SMERCONISH: If New York is a harbinger of what the next COVID wave looks like, it appears Omicron packs a punch. For his part, Dr. Fauci isn't ready to throw in the towel.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: We will win this war with this virus. But we will win it, only because, and because, we apply the things that we have, the interventions.

We are so fortunate that we have a highly effective and safe vaccine. We know what public - what public health mitigations work. We have just got to hang in there. We can't give up.


SMERCONISH: My next guest offers a different, some would say, controversial perspective, saying that we can't stop the spread. So, it's better to protect the vulnerable, and live with the virus.

It's a case that he made more than a year ago, in a piece called The Great Barrington Declaration. Among those, who pushed back on the idea, was the now CDC Director. Yet, in spite of all of today's headlines, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya still thinks it's time to end this.

Dr. Bhattacharya, welcome back. Go ahead, give the short version of the thesis.

DR. JAY BHATTACHARYA, PROFESSOR, STANFORD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: Sure. The key thing is we do not have a technology that stops the spread of this virus. Dr. Fauci is incorrect. The mitigation technologies we have, have not stopped the virus' spike. Many millions of kids stayed in home from school, despite businesses closed, churches closed, we did not stop the virus from spreading.

The vaccine is fantastic. It protects against severe diseases, and done enormous benefit, and saved the lives of countless people. But it does - again, does not stop the spread of the virus. Vaccinated people can get sick and spread the virus.

I, for one, was vaccinated in April, and got COVID in August. That is a very common outcome. And what that means is the vaccine is great, for personal protection, much less so, for public protection. But we can live with the virus.

SMERCONISH: But Dr. Bhattacharya? You are--

BHATTACHARYA: We've always been--

SMERCONISH: Your live and let live, your laissez-faire mentality, is going to lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, consequently, more deaths.

BHATTACHARYA: So actually, that's not right, Michael. So, the key thing is that we have all these great technologies, to protect people, against the bad outcomes, if you get infected.


So, for instance, we have the vaccine. Absolutely, great tool for protection, if you get sick. Another one is these monoclonal antibodies. They're, if used, early in the course of the disease, reduces the risk of hospitalizations and deaths.

We have these antigen test kits, these lateral flow test kits that quickly tell you, if you're positive, before you go visit grandma.

We have all these amazing tools, to be able to reduce the risk, from vulnerable people. And there's this 1,000-fold difference, right? The elderly are 1,000 times more likely to die, if they get infected, if they're not vaccinated, versus young people.

Same time, the mitigation strategies, we've been doing have caused enormous public health harm. Countless people have missed their cancer screening. And women are showing up, with stage four breast cancer today that should have been picked up last year, because we stopped doing elective procedures.

We have people missing diabetes management screening. Depression rates, through the roof, in young people. One in four, in July of last year seriously considered suicide. So, it's not as if these mitigation strategies--

SMERCONISH: Dr. Bhattacharya?

BHATTACHARYA: I apologize. Yes? SMERCONISH: In my setup tonight - in my setup tonight, I was giving the overview, of what's going on, in the country.

One of the things that I said is that in Ohio, the National Guard, is being deployed, to help out in ERs. I mean, the data suggests that they're being overwhelmed. If we, again, had a hands-off approach, wouldn't that be the case, all over the country?

BHATTACHARYA: I mean, we've not had a hands-off approach. And yet, we still had enormous pressure, enormous number of cases.

We have 800,000 deaths, despite following this lockdown-focused strategy that Dr. Fauci has argued for. It is a strategy designed for failure. And it has not succeeded, because it cannot succeed.

If you think about what a lockdown actually does, only a certain class of people, the rich, the laptop-class, who don't lose their jobs, can actually afford to lock down, when in fact, the vast majority of people, regular working-class people, have been working through the epidemic, keeping society going, and gotten sick.

The idea that you can somehow control community spread, through these mitigation strategies, is just not true, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Your argument--

BHATTACHARYA: And we have to understand that--

SMERCONISH: Yes. I want to get in here, and make this interactive, because I love contemplation, of what you're saying, even in those aspects I don't agree with.

You say, protect the most vulnerable, protect the elderly. Haven't we done that? I mean, the latest data that I have, from the CDC, is that more than 98.5 percent of seniors, already have at least one shot. I mean, haven't we been in a case, following that prescription?

BHATTACHARYA: I mean, to some extent we have. I mean, we prioritized the elderly in vaccinations. Some States did. That was actually quite good.

And, of course, we still have quite a - quite a number of elderly still don't have the second shot. And I think the elderly should get the booster. That's actually certainly a very important part of it.

We could do more also. So, when people do get sick, even if they're unvaccinated, we should make the monoclonal antibodies, and some of the other treatment options, much more widely available, than they have been. Especially, the monoclonal antibodies seem to work really well.

And I think there are other things we can do, like we can make these lateral flow test kits much cheaper, and much more widely available.

That's something you covered, actually, Michael, in setup. And I completely agree with. That's something that would give power to people, to say, "OK, is it safe to go visit grandma," right? Or "Is it safe to"--

SMERCONISH: When you--

BHATTACHARYA: --"to do this activity?"

SMERCONISH: When you first proposed this - and I remember interviewing you here, on CNN, when you first released the Barrington Declaration.

In that era, there was a Harvard infectious disease specialist, who said, "I think it's wrong. I think it's unsafe. I think it invites people, to act in ways that have the potential, to do an enormous amount of harm."

You know that's Rochelle Walensky, who today is the Head of the CDC. You'd say what to her?

BHATTACHARYA: I mean, she premised her idea on this - on the idea that there is no such thing as natural immunity.

She signed something called the John Snow Memorandum that was premised on the idea that if you get sick, and recover from COVID, you're not protected against re-infection. We now know that to be false. It was false, when she signed it.

The idea that you can't protect the vulnerable that the only way to protect the vulnerable is by reducing - is by these lockdowns, was also another premise of the document, she signed. And that, as it turned out, is said to be false.

I think the main problem, Michael, is that people, like Dr. Walensky, do not seem to understand that these lockdowns have imposed enormous harm, on working-class people, on the poor, throughout the world.

There's a data, from places like - from the U.N., suggesting that 100 million people have been thrown into poverty, as a consequence of rich countries, imposing lockdowns.

80 million people thrown into dire food insecurity, hundreds of thousands of children dead, in South Asia, as a consequence of starvation, caused by the economic harm, posed by these lockdowns.

They view these lockdowns, as if they were a just as common-sense thing with low cost. I mean, Dr. Fauci--


SMERCONISH: I get - I get the social cost. I understand it. We have three, who are still in school, under our roof. I get the real-life impact, of what it means, and some of those societal costs that have yet to be really calculated.

The news tonight, as I shared, at the outset of the program, is that the latest data, from the U.K., suggests it might not be as mild, as we were hoping, right? Highly infectious, Omicron. We had hoped that it was mild. Now, it turns out, that might not be the case. Does that alter any of your thinking? BHATTACHARYA: I mean, it's funny, I just was looking at data, from South Africa, which indicates the opposite. It was actually a pretty careful look at age-specific mortality. It seems milder.

But whether it's mild or not, the key question is, does it evade natural immunity? The answer seems to be no.

If you were previously infected, you can be infected with Omicron, but you're going to get milder disease, just like that was true with Delta and Alpha. Similarly, the vaccine seems to still produce milder disease, even if you're infected. That's the key thing.

We've turned COVID into this thing, where if we get it, somehow we failed. No. If we get COVID, and survived well, with it, if it's turned - if it's a mild - if you - and if you're vaccinated, well I mean, that's exactly what the vaccine does. That's why it's - that's why we're recommending it. Then it's not--

SMERCONISH: I get - I get the argument. But because of the economies of scale, even if very few, die from it, that's still a hell of a lot of people.

Dr. Bhattacharya, quick social media reaction. Let's respond to it together. I haven't seen it. Let's take a look.

"Smerconish, is this guy's point that we should just let everyone get sick with COVID? Overrun our hospitals? Where do breast cancer people get treated, if hospitals are overrun?"

You would say what, to Paradise Gram, who sent that in?

BHATTACHARYA: I'd say that hospitals are over - basically been shut down, as a consequence, of decisions, like lockdowns.

Like, we closed down hospitals and elective procedures, not because COVID overran them, but rather because we made a conscious decision, to lock down that which didn't actually stop community spread.

Community spread happens, regardless of our illusion of control, over it. And I think we have to stop thinking we have control, over the spread of this virus. And we actually do not. That itself has caused harm.

SMERCONISH: Dr. Bhattacharya, to be continued. Thank you for coming back.

BHATTACHARYA: Thank you, Michael, for having me.

SMERCONISH: Former Minnesota police officer, Kim Potter, breaking down, on the stand today, as she testified, in her own defense, for the shooting death of Daunte Wright.


ERIN ELDRIDGE, PROSECUTOR: You knew that deadly force was unreasonable, and unwarranted, in those circumstances? KIM POTTER, FORMER POLICE OFFICER: I didn't want to hurt anybody.


SMERCONISH: So, was it the right move, for her to testify?

Paul Callan, is a former homicide prosecutor, now defense lawyer. His take is next.



SMERCONISH: Former Minneapolis Police Officer, Kim Potter, apologized for, quote, what "Happened," while on trial, for killing 20-year-old Black motorist, Daunte Wright.

She got emotional, on the stand, while answering questions, about why she fired her gun, instead of her Taser, during the traffic stop.

She also confirmed that she did not render aid. Listen.


ELDRIDGE: You'd agree that, as a police officer, you have the duty, to render aid, and communicate information, to other officers, right?


ELDRIDGE: And it's part of your job to assist those, who are hurt or injured, true?


ELDRIDGE: And to communicate to other officers what you know about a particular scene, right?


ELDRIDGE: Give them whatever information, you can, to help them do their jobs, to help render assistance, things like that, right?


ELDRIDGE: But you didn't do any of those things, on April 11, did you?


ELDRIDGE: You stopped doing your job completely. You didn't communicate what happened over the radio, right?


ELDRIDGE: You didn't make sure any officers knew what you had just done, right?


ELDRIDGE: You were focused on what you had done, because you had just killed somebody, right?

POTTER: I'm sorry, it happened.


SMERCONISH: Closing arguments scheduled to begin on Monday.

Let's bring in somebody, who knows this world very well. CNN Legal Analyst, and former New York City prosecutor, now turned defense attorney, Paul Callan.

Paul, the facts are not in dispute, in this case. So what's the issue?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, FORMER PROSECUTOR, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, the real issue is how the jury is going to respond to this fact pattern.

Prosecutors are saying that the police officer involved, Officer Potter, acted recklessly, and negligently, in mistaking her Taser, for her police pistol, her Glock, and that that alone is a crime, under Minnesota law, and that this was an unreasonable use of force.

And she's facing manslaughter charges, manslaughter in the first degree, and manslaughter in the second degree.

SMERCONISH: From the evidence of the case, I want to show a photograph. It's a side-by-side comparison of the Taser versus the firearm. What's the significance of this?

CALLAN: Well, I think it's a demonstration that it's really tough to mix these two weapons up. The Taser is colored in a different way. It's a slightly different size.

And the jury actually heard testimony that traditionally, the police officers involved, wear the Taser on their less dominant side, and the real gun on their dominant side.

And that's exactly what officer Potter did. She had her Glock revolver, on the right, and the Taser on the left. Nonetheless, she pulled the Glock, and she says she thought it was the Taser.

SMERCONISH: Third time, third recent case, very high profile. There was Rittenhouse. There was McMichael. Now there's this case, where a defendant, has made the decision, to take the stand, in their own defense. How did she do?

CALLAN: Well, I thought she did remarkably well, to tell you the truth. And I say that because having watched, a lot of these police- shooting cases, through the years. And sadly, we've had a lot of them in the United States.

[21:35:00] Normally, when the officer takes the stand, if he does take the stand, it's sort of a stoic presentation, in which the officer absolutely defends his actions. He says, "Hey, the defendant was reaching into his pocket. I thought it was a gun. I thought I was in danger. And I acted properly. I used force reasonably."

On the other hand, Officer Potter here, broke down in tears, and said, "I'm so sorry that I made this mistake. It was horrible." She didn't even try to justify the use of force, or the level of force that was used here, as other officers have done.

So, it really was a remarkable turnabout, in the kind of testimony, you would expect, in a case like this. And she may have garnished quite a bit of sympathy, from this jury, as she told the tale of how she made this mistake that horribly led to the death of Daunte Wright.

SMERCONISH: Tragic, tragic case. Such a sad outcome. We'll find out next week exactly how it wraps up.

Paul, thank you so much.

CALLAN: Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: President Biden ending this year with the lowest first- year approval ratings, of any elected president, in modern history, with the exception of Donald Trump. So, in the case of Biden, what's driving it?

Our own Fareed Zakaria calls it a puzzle. But he has a theory. And he's next.



SMERCONISH: President Biden has a popularity problem. His approval is underwater. His standing, with young voters, is at 35 percent. That's down from the 70s, in Gallup's January numbers.

Even the slightly better numbers, in the latest CNN poll, are nowhere near the 60 percent support, Biden needed from young voters, to win the White House.

My next guest argues the cause is all the new anxieties that we're living through. And he writes this.

Quote, "Presidents often get rewarded for being around in good times, whether they caused them or not. In Joe Biden's case, he has mostly handled his job with intelligence and decency. But he is paying the price for the complicated times that we are living through."

Joining me now, CNN's Fareed Zakaria, who, is the author of that piece.

Fareed, thank you so much for being here. Go ahead and make the case, because I want a rebuttal. FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: Well, in that same piece, I begin by saying, "Biden is an accidental president."

So, part of what's going on here is that normally, presidents come to the office with enormous personal-political capital. After all, they've won the presidency.

But Biden is accidental in the sense that he, basically became president, for two reasons. One, Obama chose him as his Vice President. And second, Donald Trump. He was the not-Donald Trump alternative, on the ballot.

And so, as a result, when you think back, of presidents, Kennedy, Obama, Clinton, even somebody like George Bush, they had a certain kind of charisma, and personal political capital that they could use.

Biden, I think, lacks some of that. But the overwhelming problem is, he's passed a lot of stuff that people like. He's handled his office, in my opinion, with decency and grace. He is a good man.

But we're living through very complicated times. People expected the Pandemic to be over. But it's not over. It's grinding on, in this strange way. Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, you're not - it's not safe.

America's position in the world is complicated. We get out of Afghanistan that everyone thought was good. But it's a messy, awful, humiliating experience. The economy is doing well, on some measures, but you have inflation. So, all of it leads to a very unsatisfying feeling.

And for the president, who promised, "We're going to get back to normal, where we're past the weird abnormality of Donald Trump, the weird abnormality of COVID, I'm going to restore normalcy," well, it's not normal. Not yet, at least.

SMERCONISH: So, I would say your first part slightly different. He benefited from the daily split-screen, where there was this comparison with Donald Trump. And now, that's just no longer the case, especially when Trump is missing his access to social media.

My second factor would be that given the partisan times, in which we live, unless America is at war, the days of a President, having a 60 percent approval rating, are over.

The third point that I would make is, I don't know that you're giving due credit to things that aren't going well, on his watch.

Whether it's the continuation of COVID, inflation, the border, the withdrawal of Afghanistan, which seemed haphazard, I mean, there are a number of things that, for better or worse, they've happened on his watch, and he needs to be held accountable, for them.

ZAKARIA: Right. But what I would say is, on Afghanistan, look, the truth of the matter is Americans don't vote on foreign policy. They subcontracted that to the President. They wanted to get out of Afghanistan. Yes, it was messy. As I said, at the time, he handled it badly. But truthfully, there is no elegant way, to get out of a war that you've been losing, for 10 years. And maybe they could have done a few of the sequencing better.

But, at the end of the day, the fundamental problem, the people who really should be held to account, are the people, who kept telling us, we were winning this war, for 15 years, when exactly the opposite was true.

So, I think, when you look at, things like COVID, you and I both know, Michael, if more of the country adopted the strategy that he and all the public health officials say, we should adopt, which is get vaccinated, we would be in a very different space. Yes, we would have problems. But we'd be in a very different space.

I don't mean to minimize the mistakes he's made. But my point is, he's at 44 percent, 45 percent. That's very low. That's kind of in the - that's in the range of somebody, who has really had a cataclysmic series of failures and mistakes.


And that's not really where Biden is. He's at a point, where people, somebody who's been truly venal, and kind of immoral, in his - in his - that's not Biden. There's something else going on here, which is what I was trying to explain.

SMERCONISH: Well, you prompted a great conversation. I took note of the fact that there were, I think, nearly 5,000 comments, appended to your piece, at the time that I first read it.

Fareed, thank you so much for being here.

ZAKARIA: Always a pleasure, Michael.

SMERCONISH: More with Fareed, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS," 10 A.M. Eastern, on Sunday.

Biden's prospects hinge on tonight's survey question, by the way. Haven't even mentioned it till now. But I'd love, if you'd go to my website, it's,, quickly, and answer this.

It's the old "Are you better off financially? Better or worse off than you were, one year ago?"

Go to, right now. I'll give you the results, in just a couple of minutes, at the end of the hour.

And it's eight days until Christmas, which also means, love it or hate it, the annual "War on Christmas" conversation is back. That'll be the subject of tonight's Reality Check, with John Avlon, next.


[21:50:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Waging a war on Christmas.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a war on Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's the war on Christmas.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: War on Christmas.



SMERCONISH: It's a constant refrain, seems to only ramp up, every year. But the so-called "War on Christmas," is actually nothing new. In fact its origins date back centuries.

John Avlon has tonight's Reality Check.


Look, I love Christmas. The kids, the trees, the Carols, the "It's a Wonderful Life," marathons, all of it. But the season's generosity of spirit always seem to run into the buzz saw of strange people, trying to score political points, by warning about a "War on Christmas."

Now, if you didn't know better, you might think they're talking about Congressman Thomas Massie's gun-toting family Christmas card. But of course, they're simply repeating the riffs they've heard, on Fox News, which has been serving as "War on Christmas" headquarters, for almost two decades now.

And the most enthusiastic Field Marshal in this phony war, his ex- President Donald Trump, who tried to take credit, for defeating the ghost of Christmas wars past, in a fawning new interview, with Mike Huckabee.


MIKE HUCKABEE, FORMER GOVERNOR OF ARKANSAS: When you came into office, America had gone through a long period, where people quit saying, "Merry Christmas."


HUCKABEE: It was all "Happy Holidays." You deliberately changed that.

TRUMP: This was in 2015. When I started campaigning, I said you're going to say "Merry Christmas," again. And now, people are saying it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) AVLON: Now, it's tempting to say, "This is just the old arsonist as firefighter routine, with some mistletoe over it." But it is worth asking, how this candy cane-flavored insanity all began.

Well, ex Fox anchor, Bill O'Reilly commonly gets credit, for immaculately conceiving the "War on Christmas," during the seasonal rant, against secular progressives, in 2004.

But the real story, of the "War on Christmas," actually predates Fox News, by decades, if not centuries. And, as I found out, while researching our latest "Reality Check" digital series, its roots are even weirder, and more revealing, than you might imagine.

So, let's work our way back, to 1959, when a notorious wingnut organization, known as the John Birch Society, was busy alerting Americans, of an assault on Christmas, at the hands of the United Nations, warning that there were secret orders, at department stores, throughout the country, to utilize U.N. symbols and emblems, as Christmas decorations.

Now, if that sounds a bit mid-century tinfoil hat to you, check-up more contemporary echoes, from the 1920s, when a Henry Ford-backed publication opined that "Last Christmas, most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth."

And who was to blame for allegedly taking the Christ out of Christmas? Here's a hint. The name of the series of articles was, "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem." Yes, it's really ugly, anti-Semitic stuff.

But that's kind of the point, right? I mean, accusations of a "War on Christmas," are rooted, in what we would now call, in political terms, negative partisanship. The idea that your perceived opponents are not just mistaken, but evil, so evil, that they want to cancel Christmas.

But the ultimate irony is that if you go far back enough, the real war on Christmas was started by Puritan Christians. It's true.

During the English Civil War, these austere English killjoys decided to literally ban Christmas celebrations, by an order of Parliament, in 1647. It was considered too indulgent, not focused enough on the Bible. So, they made it a time of, get this, "Fasting and humiliation." Seriously! It's a reminder that fundamentalists are just no fun.

Even after the English overturned that unpopular mandate, some Puritans exported their ban, to the American colonies. In fact, in 17th Century Boston, you can get fined five shillings, if you got caught celebrating Christmas. And that was a load of dough back then!

This risk was removed, post-Revolution, with the passage of the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of religion. And any latent impulse to conduct a war on Christmas should have been finally laid to rest in 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant, made it a federal holiday. Christmas has been safely celebrated ever since, even with occasional skirmishes like lawsuits, to remove Nativity scenes, from public property, which most Americans generally have no problem with keeping, even though it can be seen as violating that old constitutional prohibition, on any official state religion.

Nonetheless, according to Pew Research, as many as nine out of every 10 Americans say they celebrate Christmas, including 81 percent of non-Christians.

So, you and your kids can sleep easy, while waiting for Santa, knowing that the Spirit of the Season has somehow survived, and thrived, despite all these trumped-up warnings, about this phony war, on Christmas. And that's your Reality Check.

Back to you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: John Avlon, thank you.

We'll be right back, with your social media reaction, to tonight's program.



SMERCONISH: Time for results, from tonight's survey question, at

"Are you financially better or worse off than you were a year ago?"

9,000 voted. 47 percent, better off. 15 percent, worse off. 38 percent, about the same. All right. Well, that's headed in the right direction.

More social media reaction, to tonight's program. What do we have?

"She is certainly guilty of negligence and some jail time seems warranted. But the juxtaposition of her in prison while Rittenhouse makes his promotional tour for the right-wing media is quite," - look, the whole shooting incident, to which you're referring, was just so damn tragic.

She made a mistake. Of course, she's contrite about it. The question is, was she reckless? That's the issue for the jury.

I was watching this all unfold today. And one of my sons, came into my office, and said, "She's apologetic. It was a god-awful tragedy. He's dead. But what's the issue?" The issue is, was she reckless?

One more, real quick, I think I've got time to sneak this in.

"At what point can the responsible stop paying the price for the irresponsible and purposely un-vaxxed?"

Zander, I said, I'm losing my sense of compassion, for those, who are refusing to get vaxxed, and then get themselves, and the rest of society, into trouble. So, I feel the same way. I feel the same way. And no amount of browbeating is going to change their minds.

Thank you so much for watching, all week long. I'll be back on Monday night.

Please join me tomorrow morning, and every Saturday morning, at 9 A.M. Eastern, for "SMERCONISH," right here on CNN. I'm laughing. I don't know how that'll look. But, OK.

Don Lemon starts right now. Hey, Don?