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The Situation Room

Omicron Variant Now Dominant In The U.S.; Key House Progressive On Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-WV) No And What's Next; Now, Jury Deliberations In Trial Of Ex-Cop Who Fatally Shot Daunte Wright; Omicron Variant Now Dominant In The U.S.; Chinese Tennis Star Denies Making Sexual Coercion Claim. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 20, 2021 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Also this hour, Democrats are clearly scrambling once again to salvage the Biden spending bill after it was torpedoed by Senator Joe Manchin. I'll ask the Progressive Caucus chair, Representative Pramila Jayapal, about her new plan for moving forward.

And we're on verdict watch right now in the manslaughter trial of former Minnesota Police Officer Kim Potter, who says she mistook her weapon for a taser when she fatally shot Daunte Wright. We're going to have the latest on the deliberations and the question jurors just asked the court.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And we begin this hour with very, very disturbing coronavirus news, it's breaking news. The fast-spreading omicron variant, now, now is dominant here in the United States.

Let's go right to our National Correspondent Athena Jones in New York for us. Athena, omicron appears to be spreading even so much faster than all the experts were predicting. It was, what, 2, 3 percent a few days ago. Now, the CDC says it's more than 70 percent of all the new cases. Tell us more what are you learning.

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. That's exactly right. This is a sign of just how quickly this can spread and just how much things can spread with the new variant just over a matter of days. The latest data that we had from the CDC that omicron represented 3 percent of cases. Now, we learned just in the last few minutes, it represents 73 percent of all new cases. Officials here in New York believe that omicron is driving a big spread here. This as people here and all across the country prepare for a potentially brutal third COVID winter.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: It is going to be a tough few weeks to months as we get deeper into the winter. JONES (voice over): America bracing for a tough winter that's beginning to look a lot like last winter. Already in the midst of a delta surge, the omicron variant accounting for just under 3 percent of cases but spreading fast.

FAUCI: This virus is extraordinary. It has a doubling time of anywhere from two to three days. It's going to take over.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: We know that it's very contagious. You saw what happened in South Africa initially, then in Europe, and now in the U.S. It's doubling about every two to four days. And we're going to see the number of cases go up pretty steeply over the course of the next couple of weeks.

JONES: The U.S. now averaging about 1,200 deaths a day, and 130 new COVID-19 cases a day, that figure up 10 percent from a week ago. Hospitalizations nationwide up 35 percent over last month, and intensive care beds nearly 80 percent full, cases rising much faster in parts of the Midwest, the South and the Northeast, New York setting a record for new cases for the third day in a row on Sunday. New York City, an early epicenter of the pandemic, seeing a spike in cases, officials say it's being driven by omicron.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D-NEW YORK CITY, NY): We have to move faster. That's why we're focusing even more on vaccination. And we do know that vaccination helps address omicron.

JONES: Still undecided on whether crowds will fill Times Square for New Year's eve as new COVID infections have upended the worlds of sports, entertainment and education in recent days, forcing Saturday Live to cancel its live studio audience. The NBA, NHL, and NFL also postponing games due to COVID issues, and schools like Harvard University moving graduate and professional schools to online classes for the first three weeks of January. COVID striking Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and members of Congress, with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Colorado Congressman Jason Crow all testing positive for the virus, health workers and government officials increasingly focused on boosters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We see that those who are vaccinated, those who received their booster aren't coming into the hospital at the same rate.

JONES: Moderna today announcing preliminary data shows its half-dose booster shot increased antibody levels against omicron, noting that a larger-sized dose raised them more. The company is working on variant- specific boosters as well.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH AND POLICY, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Right now, you need that third dose. I wish we would stop calling it booster. It's a three-dose vaccine.


JONES (on camera): So, just to reiterate here, just a few days ago, the omicron variant represented 3 percent of all cases in the U.S. Now, the CDC says that number is 73 percent. And here in New York is a perfect illustration of how quickly this virus is spreading. Governor Kathy Hochul is saying the state has seen a nearly threefold jump in new infections in just one week and has said has also broken for the fourth consecutive day the number of COVID cases, new COVID cases reported in one day. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, really, really disturbing. Athena, thank you very much, Athena Jones in New York.


Let's bring in our pandemic experts. Joining us now, Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA Vaccines Advisory Committee, he's also the author of the book, You Bet Your Life, from Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation. Also with us, Dr. Megan Ranney, an Emergency Room Physician and Associate Dean of Public Health at Brown University.

Dr. Offit, let me get your reaction to this news. Just the last few moments, the CDC now reporting that omicron represents 73, yes, 73 percent of all new COVID cases in the United States. What is your reaction?

DR. PAUL OFFIT, DIRECTOR, VACCINE EDUCATION CENTER, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: I think it's a combination of two things. One, it is a highly transmissible virus, it has a doubling time of two days, which is even dramatic than delta. The second thing is that even if you had, say, two doses of mRNA vaccine or one dose of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, you still are probably likely to develop mild illness associated with the omicron variant. And I think the good news is that if you're likely protected against serious illness, but I think that's what we're seeing.

New York, I think, is a good example of this. You see a dramatic increase in cases but not as dramatic with the increase in hospitalizations or deaths because even two doses of the mRNA vaccine does provide a high level of protection against serious illness. The additional boost dose offers much better protection against mild illness. So, I think it's a value to get that third dose, but, remember, don't despair. If you haven't gotten any doses of, for example, an mRNA vaccine yet, you can still get two doses and be highly protected before omicron comes to your neighborhood.

BLITZER: Yes, and it's coming clearly. Dr. Ranney, omicron is now like the dominant variant less than, what, three weeks after the first case was identified here in the United States. What does that tell you?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN: So, this reinforces just how contagious this new variant is. I and many others, including Dr. Offit, we all thought that this was going to become dominant in early January here in the United States. Omicron has now exceeded our expectations in terms of how contagious it is.

But as Dr. Offit mentioned, really, the proof is going to be in the pudding in terms of watching hospitalizations. My health care system and others across the country are currently full of unvaccinated patients who have caught the delta variant. Time will tell what omicron does in terms of hospitalizations. For now, it's just cases, which are certainly concerning and have a big impact on all of us, but aren't the dreaded consequences that we've all been watching over the last two years with unvaccinated COVID.

BLITZER: Dr. Offit, if you do have COVID because of the omicron and you're fully vaccinated with the booster, you may be asymptomatic, you may have mild symptoms, but you can spread it. You're still infectious, you can spread it rather quickly. How quickly do you expect omicron to continue to spread here in the United States?

OFFIT: Look, even if you had, say, just two doses of an mRNA vaccine and you have mild illnesses compared to if you haven't been vaccinated at all, you will shed less virus for a short period of time that you've been vaccinated.

So, again, it's not doing -- you said, I think, exactly right. This remains a disease of the unvaccinated. I mean, I was on service a couple of weeks ago and all the children we saw, most of whom were over 5, many over 12, the reason that they were in the hospital, because none of them were vaccinated, neither parents were vaccinated, neither siblings were vaccinated. Get vaccinated, and we can get past this. So, that's the issue. The issue is, again, vaccinating the unvaccinated is, frankly, more important than offering a third dose to people who are already largely protected.

BLITZER: Dr. Francis Collins of NIH, Dr. Ranney, a man you and I know, predicts that with omicron, we could see up to a million cases a day, just staggering number, right? Yes, go ahead, Dr. Ranney.

RANNEY: Here would be my guidance to folks right now, is get vaccinated if you haven't, get a booster if you haven't. But also, now is the time to put that mask back on in public indoor locations. Because even those mild cases will ruin your Christmas or your New Year's eve celebration. It will take you out of work for ten days, and, again, could get the vulnerable members of your community or your family sick.

So, this is the time to step back up those non-pharmaceutical interventions, things like masks and rapid testing, that many have abandoned over the last few months.

BLITZER: Yes, very, very worrisome in the news right now. Guys, thank you. Doctors, thank you so, so much. And if I don't see you, have a Merry Christmas coming up. We'll all try as much as we can.

Just ahead, the fate of President Biden's agenda in limbo, once, again, after a surprise play by Senator Joe Manchin. We're going to hear from the Progressive Caucus chair, Representative Pramila Jayapal, who is standing by live, and she's calling up President Biden right now to use executive action to get things done.


Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Tonight, we're learning that President Biden and Senator Joe Manchin have spoken to one another after Manchin threw fellow Democrats a curveball by declaring he's a no, a no on the Biden spending bill.

Our Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us from the White House. He has more on this critical setback and what it means.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The White House pledging to salvage its economic agenda tonight after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin infuriated Democrats by potentially sinking President Biden's signature legislation.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What's most on the president's mind is the risk of inaction. We are going to continue to take steps, work like hell to get it done.

ZELENY: CNN has learned Biden and Manchin spoke by phone Sunday night, but Joe Manchin's bombshell decision still sparking an extraordinary war of words. On West Virginia Radio today, the senator bluntly blaming aides to the president for a breakdown in negotiations.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV) (voice over): This is not the president, this is the staff. And they drove some things and they put some things out that were absolutely inexcusable. They know what it is, and that's it.

ZELENY: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushing back in a remarkable weekend statement, calling Manchin's actions a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator's colleagues in the House and Senate.


Tonight, her tone was more measured as the White House still works to find a path forward.

PSAKI: from the president's viewpoint, and I saw him this morning, he's worked with Senator Manchin over the course of decades. They share fundamental values. They're longtime friends. That has not changed.

ZELENY: The long, simmering tensions inside the Democratic Party finally reaching a boiling point, with Manchin blasting the president's Build Back Better plan and deriding the tactics of liberal critics.

MANCHIN (voice over): Surely, we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough. They'll just say, okay, I'll go for anything, just quit. Well, guess what? I'm from West Virginia. I am not from where they're from and they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they'll be submissive, period.

ZELENY: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer still vowing to put the plan up for a vote next year, saying senators should make their positions known on the Senate floor, not just on television, a clear dig at Manchin, who delivered his stunning decision on Fox News Sunday.

MANCHIN: This is a no on this legislation. I have tried everything I know to do.

ZELENY: Last week, Manchin told the White House he was willing to support a $1.8 million plan to fund pre-K programs, expand Affordable Care Act subsidies and address climate change. He was unwilling to include the child tax credit, CNN has learned, which became a key sticking point.

Manchin's position also raising a new round of questions about whether he will remain a Democrat, considering most members of the party are furious at him. Still, he's a critical piece of the razor thin Democratic majority.

MANCHIN (voice over): I would like to hope that they're still Democrats that feel like I do. I said I'm socially -- I'm fiscally responsible and socially compassionate.

Now, if there's no Democrats like that, then they have to push wherever they want me.

ZELENY: The move is not only a staggering blow for the fate Biden's domestic agenda but also a major setback for Democratic unity.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): Of course, we have every right to be furious with Joe Manchin, but it's really up to leadership in the Democratic Party who, you know, made the decision to get us to this juncture and how we're going to move forward.


ZELENY (on camera): And tonight, the administration is preparing for an even more urgent challenge, that is the dramatically rising cases of COVID-19, specifically the new variant, the omicron variant, Wolf. The president will be delivering a speech to the nation tomorrow afternoon from here at the White House, really drawing a distinction between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

This is not a, quote, lockdown speech, in the words of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, but the president is going to make clear that the vaccinations and boosters are so critical, also talking about the gap in testing that has been a big challenge for this administration. That speech comes tomorrow here at the White House, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, of course, we'll have live coverage of that. Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much. Let's discuss all of this with a key player, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Representative Pramila Jayapal. Representative, thank you so much for joining us.

At one point, you reportedly sat down, we're told, with Senator Manchin for what was described as a three-hour, very friendly, substantive private dinner. Did you see his announcement yesterday on Fox News coming, were you stunned?

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-WA): Wolf, it's good to see you. I did sit down with Senator Manchin. I don't know if it was three hours, it might have been two hours, and it wasn't a dinner, but I did sit down with him and we had a very good, substantive conversation. I will say that I left most of the negotiating to the president and to the White House. They were the ones that were negotiating with the senator.

We continued to speak over the next couple of weeks. We spoke several times, and he called me this morning. And it was a complete stunner, a complete shocker, because the president told me that Senator Manchin had committed to that framework that the president unveiled to us right before he went to COP26, and that was the framework that the progressive caucus then endorsed. As you know, Wolf, had we not held up the legislation that time and the time before, we wouldn't have gotten that framework. But we knew how important it was to get Senator Manchin to commit, which is what he did to the president, and, unfortunately, yesterday, he went back on his word.

BLITZER: So, what was his message to you and your conversation with him this morning and what was your return message to him?

JAYAPAL: Well, my message was the same thing that I said in my statement yesterday and that I said, you know, today, in speaking with press, that the only thing we have to trust, Wolf, around here is our word. And it's unfortunate that it seems we can't trust Senator Manchin's word. I said that to him.

And, look, he has a different characterization of things, but we have spent months, months waiting, negotiating, getting to an agreement, what we thought was an agreement. I think that if we are to look at history and the fact that we thought we had an agreement, that apparently he's now saying we didn't have, I don't see how we can negotiate with somebody who changes their position all the time word whose word you cannot rely on.


And that unfortunate. I like Senator Manchin as a person. We agreed to disagree on a whole bunch of things several months ago. But what I thought we had was his commitment, what the president told us we had was his commitment. And I think he is going to have to answer to the American people, to women across this country two have been pushed out of the economy because they don't have child care, to people who desperately want pre-K so they can lower their cost, to families who want to see their insulin capped at $35, Wolf. I mean, that's what is in the Build Back Better plan is lowering costs for American families and giving people an opportunity to feel differently about their lives and livelihoods. We're not giving up, but I have to be clear that we are also going to, at the same time that we work on legislation, call on the president to take executive action so that we truly can Build Back Better and deliver on the very agenda that he laid out and that progressives have been at the forefront of fighting for this entire time.

BLITZER: So, when you told him basically you can't trust him anymore, that he backed out of his word, effectively lying to you, what was his response?

JAYAPAL: Well, I'm going to let him speak for himself. I don't think it does us any good for me to characterize what he said. I can just tell you what I said and I can tell you that it's not different than what I'm saying here. I haven't said anything to you that I didn't say to him.

And so it has been extremely frustrating because what we're talking about are people's lives. We're talking about the mom who is still at home, pushed out of the workplace because of no child care. We're talking about families that have been depending on the child tax credit and are not going to see that check in January, or February, or March. We are talking about young people who are waiting for us to save the planet and take real action on climate change who are now saying what does this mean for me and my future?

And I just think we have to keep that at the forefront. That's what Build Back Better is about. It's why the overwhelming majority of the American people support Build Back Better. And we're not going to sit around wait for one man to decide on one day that he's with us, and on the other day that he's not. And that's why at the same time we work on legislation, the president needs to take urgent executive action on a number of things and we're going to meet tonight as a progressive caucus and talk some more about that.

BLITZER: Senator Manchin says he would like to think there's still a place for him in the Democratic Party. Do you think he still belongs in the Democratic Party?

JAYAPAL: Look, we welcome everyone to the Democratic Party that can back the president's Democratic agenda, the agenda that the House, the White House, the Senate ran on and delivered on. And that is the thing, Wolf, I think we have to understand. We know that there are structural problems with the Senate, where we twist ourselves into parliamentarian pretzels to actually get by the filibuster, which is a Jim Crow relic, but the reality is we have an opportunity to deliver.

And we worked from cutting the bill from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion, that framework that the president and Senator Manchin committed to. And that is what we now need to deliver on, and we will -- we are not going to stop because it is too important. We will fight, but we need to use every tool in the toolbox, and that's both legislation and executive action.

BLITZER: All right. Representative Pramila Jayapal, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it very much.

JAYAPAL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, jury deliberations begin in the trial of former Police Officer Kim Potter, who faces manslaughter charges in the killing of Daunte Wright. Potter says she mistook her gun for a taser during the fatal traffic stop.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: A jury is now deliberating the fate of former Police Officer Kim Potter charged with manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright. CNN's Adrienne Broaddus is working this story. So, what's the latest, Adrienne?

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the jury has been deliberating about 4.5 hours. About an hour ago, members of the jury had a question. They wanted to know the date that former Officer Potter interviewed with Dr. Miller.

You may remember, Dr. Miller was the witness called by the defense. He's the psychologist who talked about action era or slip and capture. During the testimony, it was revealed Potter told Dr. Miller she never made a mistake.

Now, today, during those closing arguments, mistake was a word we heard repeatedly from Defense Attorney Earl Gray. He said, in fact, this was a mistake, that Officer Potter intended to pull her taser, not her gun. Defense Attorney Gray challenging members of the jury to think about how Potter could recklessly handle a firearm if she didn't know she had a gun in her hand.

By contrast, the prosecution argued Daunte Wright was shot to death by a highly trained officer who had a gun in her hand. Listen in to those arguments.


EARL GRAY, DEFENSE ATTORNEY FOR KIM POTTER: Everybody makes mistakes, nobody is perfect, ladies and gentlemen. And this lady here made a mistake, and, my gosh, a mistake is not a crime.


ERIN ELDRIDGE, MINNESOTA ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: This was a colossal screw-up, a blunder of epic proportion.

Accidents can still be crimes if they occur as the result of recklessness or culpable negligence. You're not going to find the word accident or mistake or error anywhere in your jury instructions.


BROADDUS: Members of the jury are approaching their fifth hour of deliberations. The judge said she will end deliberations at 6:00 P.M. local time today.

Meanwhile, in that deliberating room, members of the jury had the gun that Potter used the day she shot and killed Daunte Wright. They also have the taser she intended to pull. This is an opportunity for them to see and feel the difference between the two weapons. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Adrienne, thank you very much, Adrienne Broaddus reporting.

Let's get some more on this case. Joining us now, CNN Legal Analyst Elliot Williams and Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County in Florida.

Dave, can you read anything into that first question from the jurors?

DAVE ARONBERG, STATE ATTORNEY, PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA: Good evening, Wolf. Jurors want to see if this was a real mistake, and if she was sincere on the stand with all of her tears, and the jury wants to decide between the prosecution's focus on the jury's heads, like look at the elements of the crime, a mistake can be a crime if it's based in negligence or recklessness as compared to the defense lawyer's focus on their hearts. Hey, everyone makes mistakes, right? And they are not criminally charged, two different styles.

But I think in the end, Wolf, the key will be whether the jury believed in the testimony given by Kim Potter. She took the risky move of testifying. She cried a lot. And I wonder if that invoked the sympathy of the jurors if they're going to give her a pass, even to the point of jury nullification, which means, yes, she did it but we feel bad for her and she couldn't go to prison. That sometimes happens in cases like this.

BLITZER: Yes, 26 years on the police force there.

Elliot, in the closing arguments, the defense attorney, Earl Gray, said that Daunte Wright, and I'm quoting now, caused his own death. How shocking is that?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's not shocking. Look, it's a common refrain by defense attorneys to say that the victim actually was complicit in his or her own death.

I think the prosecution still has a very compelling point here in that the words she uses at the scene where she says, number one, she shouts taser, and then number two, she says, I intended to tase him, that's negligence right there. And sort of as David was just talking about a moment ago, the way negligence works is you're assessing this person's conduct based on how a reasonable person would have acted, a reasonable officer. And any officer, at least according to prosecution here, an officer should have -- oh, my goodness, I'm ringing, sorry, guys. Any officer would have known based on their training and experience whether a gun wasn't, so on.

So, it's just not incredibly uncommon for defense attorneys to go where they did here, but I do think the prosecution has a compelling point. BLITZER: The prosecutor, Dave, argued that accidents, and I'm quoting now, can still be crimes as a result of recklessness or negligence. Is that the key issue that is at stake right now?

ARONBERG: It is, Wolf. I think the prosecution may have overcharged here. I do think this case is more of a culpable negligence case. That's a second-degree manslaughter. I think by charging recklessness, they may have overcharged and you can lose credibility in the eyes of the jury if you do so.

When it comes to culpable negligence, you just have to show that Kim Potter created an unreasonably risk and consciously took a chance of causing death and great bodily injury to Daunte Wright. When it comes to first-degree manslaughter recklessness, you have to show that Kim Potter recklessly handled or used a firearm and that death or great bodily injury was reasonably foreseeable, that she had to be aware of the risk of killing Daunte Wright and made that conscious decision to ignore the risk. But she couldn't have consciously ignored a risk she wasn't aware of, and that's the point that the defense lawyer was trying to make.

BLITZER: David Aronberg, Elliot Williams, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, three retired U.S. generals are urging the Pentagon right now to prepare for another insurrection in 2024. I'll speak with one of them to try to find out why they feel so compelled to sound the alarm.



BLITZER: All right. This just coming into the CNN -- in THE SITUATION ROOM. The January 6th committee has requested an interview with a member of congress for the first time. The panel formally asking for a sitdown with Republican Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania but stopping short of actually issuing a subpoena. The Senate report characterized Perry as a key player in helping former President Trump try to overturn the 2020 presidential election. We'll continue to watch this.

And as we near one year since January 6, three retired U.S. generals are now warning the Pentagon to prepare for a possible insurrection or even civil war after the 2024 election.


They fear an uprising could be fueled by divisions and potentially lethal chaos, their words, within the U.S. military ranks.

In a Washington Post op-ed, they write, and I'm quoting now, we are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time. They argue that the potential for a total breakdown of the chain of command along partisan lines from the top of the chain to squad level is significant should another insurrection occur. The idea of rogue units organizing among themselves to support the rightful commander- in-chief cannot be dismissed under such a scenario. It is not outlandish to say a military breakdown could lead to civil war.

Let's discuss with one of the authors, retired General Paul Eaton. Major General, thank you so much for joining us.

That's an incredibly stark warning. Why do you feel so compelled to raise the alarm?

MAJ. GEN. PAUL EATON (RET.), FORMER COMMANDING GENERAL, COALITION MILITARY ASSISTANCE TRAINING TEAM IN IRAQ: Wolf, thank you very much for inviting me. The intent of the op-ed is to bring up the possibility that the Armed Forces of the United States could be infected by what we are watching develop in the Republican Party.

We tend to be a conservative lot. The military installations have a constant feed of Fox News going in there. And what we have got is an opportunity for the Republican Party, 39 percent who don't believe that President Joe Biden is the duly elected president of the United States, 17 percent of the Republican Party espoused the use of violence in a future election.

We've got 10 percent of those charged during the insurrection on 6 January were veterans. We have 124 retired generals and admirals who wrote a letter that stated they don't buy the election results, and they also questioned the suitability, the competence of President Biden to serve as president. You have governors in Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, who believe that they, not the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, will have complete control over the National Guard in their states.

These are indications and a warning. These are data points that create a sense of malaise in those who are studying the problem. So, the point of the op-ed was, this is a possibility. These are some of the indications and warnings that we need to pay attention to. And here are some mitigating opportunities to buy down the problem. So it is a -- it's a warning. It's heads up.

BLITZER: Well, what do you say, General, to the critics out there who argue you're being too alarmist?

EATON: Well, I hope I am. I absolutely hope that I am. But I've been around enough that I can see the context and units that will do this. We, again, our young men and women understand the Constitution of the United States and that they support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The military is a very hierarchical organization, obviously a chain of command. At the top is the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States.

If an entire political party is able to insert doubt into the electoral process, they are inserting doubt into the chain of command and the perception of the chain of command by the rank and file of the United States military. That is dangerous, and that is exactly what's going on right now. And the sanctity of our electoral process is exactly what the men and women of the armed forces are getting to support as they support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

BLITZER: It's very alarming. Let's hope it doesn't happen. Retired Major General Paul Eaton, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for all your service. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Coming up, there is breaking news just this past hour that the omicron variant is now dominant, yes, dominant here in the United States. So, what lessons can America learn as we look to other countries first hit by the omicron variant?



BLITZER: The breaking news this hour. The really stunning spread of the coronavirus omicron variant here in the United States, jumping, get this, from just 3 percent of cases to 73 percent, and now the dominant variant here in the country. Omicron is already spreading wildly in the U.K.

CNN's Scott McLean is in London for us.


SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the U.K. just recorded its second highest number of new infections is, but the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has decided not to put new restrictions in place before Christmas, despite government scientists urging him to take action to prevent near record high hospital admissions. Johnson met with his cabinet today and acknowledged that omicron is surging across the country and now hospitalizations are rising quickly in London. That's the omicron epicenter.

Health officials are already planning to treat some COVID patients at home to free up bed spaces. And the head of the health service in England says one in five health workers in London could be out sick with the virus by Christmas. The good news is that the U.K. is putting booster shots into arms at a record pace, just not faster than omicron, which is spreading exponentially -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. CNN's Scott McLean in London, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, new precautions in Israel tonight, including tighter travel restrictions and a new vaccine push.


CNN's Elliott Gotkine is in Jerusalem for us -- Elliott.

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Israel is adding ten more countries including the United States and Canada to its red no fly list, as it braces itself for the full force of a fifth COVID wave. From 5:00 p.m. eastern time on Tuesday, these countries will be off limits to Israelis unless they get special permission, travelers returning from those countries will have to go through seven days of quarantine.

Now, Israel has been steadily adding countries to its red list in its bid to reduce the spread of the omicron variant. Of the 175 cases detected so far, and 380 suspected ones, most were infected overseas.

Meanwhile, Israel's daily COVID case load has gone above a thousand for the first time in two months. The prime minister says the main priority now is to vaccinate children before, in his words, the main omicron wave arrives -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Elliot Gotkine in Jerusalem, thank you very much.

The omicron variant is also driving up infections and the positivity rate in South Africa but so far, not necessarily hospitalizations and deaths.

CNN's David McKenzie has the latest from Johannesburg.


DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, South Africa is seeing record numbers of COVID-19 cases dominated by omicron and also extremely high positivity rates you. But at this stage, almost a month since scientists identified this variant, there is still plenty of space in hospitals. Scientists say this wave is not as bad in terms of hospitalizations and even death.

We were out with ambulance workers who are saying previous waves were worse. They ever seen people in hospital for a shorter amount of time, fewer who are ventilated. It's now not clear whether this is because of previous infection giving immunity or because of vaccination rates in this country. But it is milder, they say.

I asked one top health official what his advice is for the U.S. and other countries. He said don't panic -- Wolf.


BLITZER: All right. CNN's David McKenzie in Johannesburg, thank you.

Just ahead, a Chinese tennis star garnered international concern when she disappeared from the spotlight following her accusations of sexual coercion against a senior Chinese official. Now, she's reemerging in the public eye with a very different story.



BLITZER: Tonight, a Chinese tennis star is speaking out about a sexual coercion claim that prompted concerns about her safety.

Our Brian Todd is working the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is silent no longer about previous allegations of sexual coercion against a former-top Chinese official. But her latest public comments likely won't satisfy anyone outside China who is concerned about her welfare.

PENG SHUAI, CHINESE TENNIS STAR (through translator): I want to emphasize one thing that is very important, that I have never spoken or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. This point is very important to be emphasized clearly. In terms of the Weibo post, first of all, it's my personal privacy. There possibly has been a lot of misunderstanding.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: It looks troublesome. It is something that is just downright disturbing.

TODD: And it is almost a complete turnaround from what Peng said previously. In a since-deleted social media post in early November on the Chinese blog site Weibo, Peng publicly accused a top Chinese communist party official, former vice premiere Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home three years ago, so now, her words of assault versus coercion might be significant.

At that time, she was censored by the Chinese regime, disappeared from public view for more than two weeks. After an international outcry, Chinese state-controlled media released so-called proof of life photos and video of Peng. This latest video was made as part of an interview with a Chinese language newspaper.

One analyst says the Chinese government may not have outright threatened Peng to change her story. But --

ROBERT DALY, DIRECTOR, KISSINGER INSTITUTE ON CHINA AND THE U.S., THE WILSON CENTER: There is a phrase called having tea where a couple people with authority and with the coercive powers of the police state behind them come to you to have a chat about what may be in your best interest, what you might want to do as a patriotic Chinese to help the party and the threat can be implicit initially. They don't have to spell it out or go after her family.

She knows what country she lives in. She knows what the state is capable of. She knows that people get -- disappear.

TODD: The Women's Tennis Association, which earlier suspended all its tournaments in China in protest of Peng's treatment, potentially costing it hundreds of millions of dollars, it isn't buying that latest video from Peng, saying her appearances quote do not alleviate or address the WTA's significant concerns about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.

In late November and early December, the International Olympic Committee reported having two video calls with Peng, and claimed she was safe and well but didn't make the calls publicly available.

BRENNAN: The IOC has absolutely been complicit in this cover up. There is no doubt about it. The International Olympic Committee is in bed with China. The Olympic

Games are starting February 4th in Beijing and the IOC just wants smooth sailing.


TODD (on camera): The IOC has said it was addressing concerns directly with Chinese sports organizations. As for the regime in Beijing, Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng Shuai's accusations against the former vice premiere and there is no indication an investigation is under way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian Todd. Brian Todd reporting for us. Thanks very much.

Finally, tonight, just in time for Christmas, the Bidens are welcoming a new puppy to the White House. They even put out a video to celebrate the arrival of the pure-bred German shepherd they are calling Commander. We are told Commander was a gift to the commander from his family and CNN also learned that a cat will be joining the Bidens at the White House in January.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.