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U.S. Shatters Records Again, Averaging Over 355,000 Cases A Day; House Jan. 6 Probe heating Up As 1 Year Anniversary Approaches; Thousands Evacuate as Fast-Moving Fires Burn Hundreds Of Homes; Thousand Evacuate As Fast-Moving Fires Burn Hundreds Of Homes; Biden Assures Colorado Gov.: "Every Effort Will Be Made To Provide Immediate Help"; Betty Dies Weeks Before Her 100th Birthday. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 31, 2021 - 17:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN HOST: Happening now, COVID-19 cases soar to another unprecedented level amid fears that New Year's Eve celebrations could become super spreader events. Experts are warning the Omicron variants assault on this country may not ease up for weeks.

Also, tonight, hundreds of homes in Colorado are gone, consumed by this vicious wildfire that forced 1000s to flee. We are getting new details on the fastmoving disaster.

And beloved actress, Betty White, has died just shy of her 100th birthday. We'll look back at her remarkable life, her iconic roles and how she became a pop culture phenomenon late in life.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Poppy Harlow. And this is the "Situation Room" special report.

Let's begin with the COVID-19 surge in the grim pandemic forecast for the start of the new year. Our Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has the latest.

Elizabeth, good evening to you. How much worse could this get as we head into the first few weeks of the new year?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, it's going to get worse because Omicron is such an incredibly transmissible variant. We are just seeing cases skyrocketing.

Let's take a look. If we look backwards at the peak for the entire pandemic over the past two years, the cases peak was in January of this year with 252,000 cases. We have surpassed that pile a lot, now with 356,000, these are both cases per day.

Let's take a look at what the CDC is forecasting. The CDC is forecasting this, first of all, right now, we have 9400 new hospitalizations per day. They're forecasting that in mid-January, we're going to have 17,400 new hospital admissions per day. In the next four weeks, the CDC is estimating 39,000 deaths. I'm sorry, in the last four weeks, we've had 39,000 deaths.

The CDC forecasting that in the next four weeks, we'll have more than 44,000 deaths. So many more deaths in the next four weeks than we've had in the last four weeks. And the experts I've talked to said, they don't think it's because Omicron is particularly dangerous in and of itself, it's not more virulent, but it's so much more transmissible. So many more people are going to get it, so we'll see more hospitalizations and more deaths. Poppy,

HARLOW: You know, and Elizabeth, I mean, we both have school aged children and most children around the country will head back to school next week. And that leaves, I think, all of us and experts bracing for COVID cases to surge even more, what do you see happening?

COHEN: Unfortunately, once these children go back to school, cases are going to go up. There is just no way around it. So, let's take a look at hospitalizations because that's of course what we really care about. Very small for children. The numbers are small, but you can see we've also set records in this arena.

So, the peak of hospital admissions for children was back in September with 342 admissions a day. Now, it's 378 admissions per day. So, more children being admitted, even though this is a milder variant.

Part of the problem, not enough children are vaccinated. This is the percentage of children who are not fully vaccinated. Children ages five to 11, 85 percent are not fully vaccinated. Ages 12 to 17 47 percent are not fully vaccinated. Those numbers just have to come up to protect children. And because children are such great disease vectors to protect the rest of us as well.

Now Poppy, we know that soon we're going to have boosters, that's what we're hearing. We'll have boosters for children in the 12 to 15 age bracket, that's important. But still that first round of vaccinations that just aren't happening in the numbers that we need, those are even more important. Poppy.

HARLOW: So critical. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you for your reporting.

Well, the pandemic is certainly altering New Year's Eve plans for millions of people, including those attending the big New Year's Eve Ball Drop in New York's Times Square. Polo Sandoval joins me live from there.

So, it's smaller this year. But they're -- well, but it's loud and they're still having it.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And the soundcheck, Poppy is a reminder that things are still moving forward, the show is still on. As you can see, a massive crowd still gathering. But here's the thing the crowds are smaller than pre-pandemic according to authorities as they're only allowing 15,000 people versus the usual 58,000 people to pile (ph) into this fence. This is one of the requirements, obviously, scaling back in the number of people are going to be out here. One of the measures, they're also requiring that all of these individuals be vaccinated, hold on to their masks, obviously, and use them. [17:05:24]

And then, to answer a question that you asked earlier, Poppy, which was, how are they going to potentially enforce the social distancing? I'll leave you with an answer to that question. And that's, they can't necessarily enforce it, but they can encourage it this way.

A lot of these fence, Poppy, they've been -- there -- they have plenty of room for people to actually be able to socially distance. However, because of the excitement, a lot of these folks are actually getting as close as they can trying to get the best view of the Ball Drop. And that's why a lot of folks are perhaps not taking advantage of that. But ultimately, though, Poppy, folks are certainly hoping that this will be not only a happy but a healthy new year as there are concerns that this could potentially lead to a super spreading event.

HARLOW: Let's hope not. Keep those masks up.

Polo Sandoval, you've been great there all day. Thanks so much for sticking around for us.

Joining us now is Dr. Peter Hotez. He is the Co-director of Texas Children's Hospitals Center for Vaccine Development, and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. It's good to have you, Dr. Hotez.

And I think let's begin there where Polo left off, because we're heading into this holiday weekend during an unprecedented spike in COVID cases. And thanks to a lack of available tests, a lot of Americans are confused about how to navigate this surge. What do you say to people who feel like we've done everything, we've gotten our vaccines, we've gotten boosted, we're wearing masks, and we're still seeing break through infections?

And you see people tonight in Times Square, they just want to be back to normal. They want to gather. They don't want to socially distance. What do you say to them?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, PROFESSOR AND DEAN OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Yes, no, it's frustrating. Everyone's exhausted. Everyone is totally sick of this pandemic. But the reality is, this Omicron variant has some new features that is -- it is highly resistant to many of the vaccines.

So, if you get three doses, it's about 70 to 75 percent protective but then it goes down within a couple of months after you've gotten that booster till around 30 to 40 percent. So that's why you're still seeing some symptomatic breakthrough infections. That's problem number one.

Problem number two, as we've heard about it's so transmissible, almost as transmissible as measles, which is the most transmissible virus that we know about at least the common -- in terms of common viruses. So that one two punch is really causing a lot of problems. So, definitely we want to keep your gathering small tonight, try to surround yourself with vaccinated people. But get ready, I mean, we have to remember that the next few weeks there's going to be unprecedented numbers of social disruptions. It's going to be really hard for the airports in the airlines to stay afloat because of all of the TSA absences that we're going to see around crew air traffic control. So be prepared for significant disruptions in the air travel and other transportation hubs. Be prepared for having -- have doctor's appointments, having significant numbers of staff out because they're home with COVID.

And if you're hospitalized, that's the real danger point, because is that a different type of one two punch. People going into the hospitals because even though it's milder than what we're seeing, they're still getting sick. And all of the --

HARLOW: Right.

HOTEZ: -- health care workers out of the work.

HARLOW: Right. Doctor, pediatric hospitalizations in this country are the highest they have ever been in this pandemic. And one infectious disease professor is warning of a, quote, "tidal wave" of COVID-19 hospitalizations especially in children, that that may be coming. Do you agree with that prediction, a tidal wave?

HOTEZ: Well, I don't know if it's going to be a tidal wave. But you're certainly going to see a lot of pediatric hospitalizations more than we've ever seen. And it's not because the virus is selectively targeting kids, what we've seen in South Africa and the U.K. is when you've got this kind of firestorm or where my friend Mike Osterholm calls virus blizzard, you're just going to see kids get swept up in that. So, there will be pediatric hospitalizations.

And here's going to be the other tough piece for the next few weeks, keeping the schools open because of this high transmissibility, especially if you start seeing absences of schoolteachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, that's all going to feed into this. So I think the bottom line is we have to explain to Americans that this is going to be a difficult time, be patient.

HARLOW: Yes, I mean, at our children's school, they're now mandating a PCR test before the kids can go back, right? Not even -- not just a rapid test, a PCR test and I completely understand why.

What do you think? How do you weigh the two? Should children be heading back to school on Monday in your estimation?

HOTEZ: Well, it looks like it's happening. I just don't know how well it's going to go. And it depends on where you live.


Remember, this phase of the pandemic is not hitting the country all at once, it's going in waves. And the first part of the wave is in Washington D.C., in New York City, and then moving into Pennsylvania over into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. It's also likely going to be the place where it starts to subside fairly quickly, too. So, one option would be to hold off for a couple of weeks. See if it subsides and then open the classes, then it's going to pop up elsewhere.

HARLOW: Dr. Peter Hotez, thank you very much for being with us tonight and all year. You and your colleagues have been exceptionally helpful. We appreciate it. And Happy New Year.

HOTEZ: Happy New Year.

HARLOW: Coming up, how the investigation into the January 6 Capital riot is evolving as the one-year anniversary of the attack approaches. Plus, honoring the life of television icon Betty White who died today at 99 years old. This is a Situation Room special report.


HARLOW: Just six days before the one-year mark of the January 6 insurrection, the House investigation into the deadly riot is heating up. CNN Congressional Correspondent Ryan Nobles has the latest.


Ryan, good evening. What are the committee's priorities as they head into the new year?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, it sounds like the committee is going to take a much more public footing here as the new year begins and start to present some of the findings that they've had, and then talk a lot more in a public way about exactly what they hope to accomplish. That includes a hearing that could happen as soon as this late winter. They also plan on providing somewhat of an interim report in the summer before issuing their final report this fall.

The committee members I've spoken to, Poppy, say one of their big goals here is to create a narrative so that people understand exactly what happened not just on January 6, but in the months and weeks leading up to the insurrection so that Americans understand exactly just how close we came to democracy being toppled on its head and what we can do to prevent it in the future.

HARLOW: As they do this, Ryan, the committee is facing several legal battles, some big ones, maybe even won in the Supreme Court.

NOBLES: Yes, that's right. And the committee's hoping the Supreme Court doesn't even take up this case that has to do with whether or not they should be given access to 700 documents from the former Trump administration that are currently in the hands of the National Archives. But you're right. It's an example of this myriad of legal challenges that the committee is facing when it comes to answering their subpoenas and handing over documents, for witnesses sitting in front of them.

What's interesting is that the committee believes that they are on sound legal ground, that they should have access to all this information. But the problem isn't whether or not they're right on the law, it's really an issue of timing. And what the Trump allies are attempting to do is run out the clock ahead of when this report really needs to be completed by the fall because, of course, if the midterm elections turn out the way many expected, Republicans take control of the House, it's very likely that this committee will either dissolve or take on a much different scope. And so that's why these legal challenges present a problem, because if they're not resolved by them, then the committee is out of luck, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes, for sure. Ryan Nobles, thank you for the reporting.

Let's get more on all of this. CNN Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig is with me and Dave Aronberg, the State Attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida. It's great to have you both in L.A.

Let me begin with you. I'm so fascinated by this, and I'll be watching very closely. I think it's by January 14, the Supreme Court, the committee's asked them to decide whether or not they're going to take up the president's case. This is the president's last chance to try to get those documents blocked from the National Archive, otherwise, they're going to go to the committee.

Do you think that the court is going to get involved here? I mean, there's an argument to get involved and to resolve what is an unresolved constitutional question, which is the reach of executive power when a president's gotten out of office. But there's also this unanimous appellate court decision that seemed pretty foolproof.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Poppy, the committee won this case in the District Court, the committee won this case by three zero vote in the court of appeals, they're going to win in the Supreme Court, in my opinion, one way or other. Either the Supreme Court is not going to take this case, or if they do, I just don't see any way they can rule against the committee.

The law here is new. But it's not really that close of a call, right? The two arguments that Trump is making is executive privilege. But he's the former president, he can't outweigh the current president and the current Congress.

And then this argument that the committee has no legislative purpose. But the committee has said, sure we do. We're looking at the Electoral Reform Act, we're looking at other laws, who better than Congress to say what their legislative purpose is. So really, Trump's argument is just sort of ad hominem.

And I think for that reason, the Supreme Court may not take this despite the obvious constitutional dimension to it. There's just nothing that they need to step in and fix here.

HARLOW: Dave, what do you think? I mean, the question came up in the Nixon administration, we all know how that went. But that was about a president and executive privilege in office. Do you think the Supreme Court should take this case to resolve the question of, well, what about when they're out of office? DAVE ARONBERG, STATE ATTORNEY, PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA: I don't think so, Poppy. I agree with Elie. I mean, why would the Supreme Court get involved here?

Chief Justice John Roberts has said that he wants people to buy in to the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. And yet, if he gets involved in this political mess, it would be like stepping on a rake. He would be taking on an issue that is a political hot potato. He doesn't need to.

The lower court gave a very sound reason, and bad facts make bad law. So even if you have conservative justices on the Supreme Court who want to expand the power of the chief executive, why would you do in a case like this, where executive privilege is trying to be used to conceal a criminal conspiracy, namely the overthrow of the government of the United States? So I don't think they'll hear it. And if they hear it, I don't think Trump's going to win.

HARLOW: But Elie, this is a court to Dave's point of why would the court take up such a political hot potato? I mean, this is the term that they took up abortion and guns.

HONIG: Sure, sure. Look, this case, though, is going to be seen as very political because we're talking about Congress, the powers of Congress.

And look, we have a 63 majority on the court in favor of conservatives. I think that's clear. But this case really isn't even about conservative liberal ideology, left right, any of that. I think the law here is just so clear. I mean how could it possibly be that the former president can overrule the current president and the current Congress?

HARLOW: Right.


HONIG: So, I think Dave is right, Chief Justice Roberts is very conscientious about not having this court be perceived as political. And we're talking about Democrats, Republicans, House, they're going to want no part of it.

HARLOW: Yes. I mean, that's a great point. The documents aren't even the president. They're the public documents being held in the National Archives.

Dave, what's the big unanswered question about January 6 that lingers in your mind a year later?

ARONBERG: We need to figure out who paid for it, who organized it, we need to go up the chain. Because right now the Department of Justice has gone after hundreds and hundreds of the foot soldiers. What about the organizers, the people on top? And so far, there's no evidence that the Department of Justice is investigating the leadership. And be able to do that, it just empowers people to do it again.

So my biggest question as we approach a new year, Poppy, is whether Merrick Garland has the stomach for this fight, because he is a good man, someone of high integrity. But I'm not sure if you want to send a judge to a prosecutor's job. This is going to take a strong stomach, and I'm not sure that he is made for this moment.

HARLOW: Thank you very much, Dave, Elie, great to have you.

Up next, hundreds of homes absolutely destroyed in Colorado after sudden wildfires forced families to flee for their lives. And losing a legend, honoring the life and legacy of comedy icon Betty White. This is a Situation Room special report.



HARLOW: Breaking news, a heartbreaking start to the new year for 1000s of Colorado families forced to flee as wildfires exploded around them. The police chief in Boulder says the flames burned more than 500 homes. Let's go straight to my colleague Natasha Chen, who joins us in Superior Colorado.

And Natasha, it is snowing now. Snow they could have used 24 hours ago to help fight those fires. How devastating is the damage?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, earlier today, Poppy, when it wasn't snowing yet, we could see down the hill from us. And when you look at those neighborhoods in Superior, you could see the pockets of blocks where houses were completely leveled, you see burned out property lines right next to homes that were just fine. And we were also seeing the same thing in Lewisville, a nearby community also experiencing real devastation from this event where we would see a burned-out lot next to a house standing there still with Christmas lights on. So that's an example of how precarious and random those wind gusts behaved.

And these were hurricane force winds. We're talking about people who had sometimes hours but in some cases just a few minutes to really pack up the things that matter to them most. We talked to one person who lives just down the hill, he had to put his children in the car and it took them two and a half hours just to travel about a quarter mile. That's how many people were trying to get out in a hurry, Poppy.

So, it is a real miracle if truly there are no fatalities. And currently we are not hearing of any. But right now, the folks that we're talking to are just glad that it is a property damage and not the loss of life right now, Poppy.

HARLOW: That's exactly right. I mean, if it is the case, no fatalities a miracle indeed. Are the fires contained now with all the snow?

CHEN: We don't have an exact containment number at the moment, but the officials have talked about how helpful it is to have this moisture come in. We do know from their press conference earlier today that they don't expect this fire to grow beyond 6,000 acres. But already, 35,000 people had to evacuate, some of them can come home. Some of them are coming back to find that their homes have been completely destroyed. So, that rebuilding process will take some time and they will have to find somewhere to stay in the meantime.

HARLOW: Natasha Chen, thank you to you and your team on the ground reporting on this throughout. We appreciate it very much.

Let me bring in Clint Folsom. He is the mayor of Superior, Colorado and joins me on the phone.

Mayor, how bad is the damage in Superior?

MAYOR CLINT FOLSOM, SUPERIOR, COLORADO: Hi, Poppy. Thanks for having me on.

It is horrific here. You drive around and you see homes that you know the owners of these homes and you just feel terrible that there's such an extent of damage throughout our town.

HARLOW: We're looking at images of what is this tragic combination of rapidly spreading wildfires and hurricane force winds that made it so much more devastating and damaging. How about your home? Your family's homes? Did they make it?

FOLSOM: Our home survived, but we have family members whose homes did not survive. A total of three homes lost by family members, immediate family members. So it's definitely a difficult situation for our family.

HARLOW: I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. What about fatalities? I mean, the initial reports we've heard are maybe a miracle? No fatalities?


FOLSOM: We've -- that's what we've heard as well. But given the limited amount of time that some of these people had to get out of their homes. Just how fast the fire was moving, I really hope that, you know, once the assessment is done of kind of where everyone is, that we don't discover that there are some people inside those burned homes.

HARLOW: We all hope that. I'm told you actually picked up a garden hose, is that right?

FOLSOM: We did. We were driving around last night, and I was driving around with the town manager and sheriff's sergeant and we saw a little hotspot in an area that didn't have any others and thought that it would be useful to try to put that little hotspot out with a garden hose and we did it. Now whether that perhaps prevented another section of homes from going up, we'll never know.

But it just -- it seemed to be the right thing to do at the time because these embers were blowing in from across the road and they would light up fences and then those fences would light up houses. And we thought if we could perhaps contain that, it might have prevented a --


FOLSOM: -- another couple of homes or several from going up.

HARLOW: Sure, it did. One thing that was so striking about this series of fires is it it wasn't in the mountains, this was right in town. I mean, a Costco store in Superior was suddenly evacuated. Earlier today --


HARLOW: -- I had one of the customers who was evacuated on, Hunt Frye, on the show with me. Listen to what he said.


HUNT FRYE, EVACUATED COSTCO DURING FIRE: The staff told us to evacuate, and one of the staff mentioned that the store might be on fire. And as soon as everybody kind of walked out the door, they were really calm. And then they kind of started running like an antelope and just running all over the place.

And it was pretty scary. It was kind of like a life beyond a dream. It was just apocalyptic feeling.


HARLOW: And it does look like the apocalypse in those images. I mean, he and I were both wondering, did the Costco survive it?

FOLSOM: Costco did survive it. The target, Super Target store next door had some fire damage on the roof. But it -- and then some water damage inside, I think, a sprinkler line went off and it's got some pretty extensive water inside. But both buildings are -- or that entire stretch of commercial buildings are still intact.

But the -- that individual's assessment is correct. We were driving through some of that blowing wind. And the amount of -- you can see in the videos that the dirt that would be -- just the dirt that was being blown from the open space to the west just all over -- it's just coated everywhere.

And it's -- we get these strong winds occasionally. But it's rare when it really moves soil like this one did and and then you combine it with the fire element. And then are just extremely dry -- extremely dry conditions that we've had over --

HARLOW: Yes, it was.

FOLSOM: -- the last several months. It was just a recipe for disaster.

HARLOW: The worst possible combination. Well Mayor Clint Folsom, we are so grateful you could join us, and so sorry for all of the loss your residents and your family endured.

FOLSOM: Thank you and yes, sorry, I couldn't join you by video but we're -- internet seems to be --

HARLOW: No, we understand. FOLSOM: -- down everywhere around here. So thank you for --

HARLOW: Not a problem.

FOLSOM: -- having me on, Poppy. Appreciate it.

HARLOW: Of course. Our thoughts with all of you.

FOLSOM: Thank you.

HARLOW: Next hour, I'll speak with the Governor of Colorado Jared Polis. Much more on that ahead.

Also just ahead for us here, honoring the life of American sweetheart Betty White who captured hearts on and off the screen for decades.



HARLOW: Breaking news tonight, actress and comedian Betty White has died at age 99 just weeks before her 100th birthday. CNN's Stephanie Elam has a look at White's extraordinary career.



STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Betty White's cheerful Hollywood career began in her teens and by her 20s, she was a fixture on television with her own daily talk show. Ahead of the times, White co-founded her own production company in 1952. She worked on a variety of television and film projects over the years before turning a 1973 guest appearance on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" into a permanent role.

White was a scene stealer as the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens.

BETTY WHITE, ACTRESS: I think a man should be virile and macho and just reeking with masculinity.

ELAM (voice-over): Her second signature role was on beloved series, "The Golden Girls", as the comical Rose Nylund.

WHITE: And they attacked chickens.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't care about chickens, Rose. She didn't call me chicken. She called me peacock.

WHITE: You look more like a chicken when you're angry. Your neck sticks out.

With "The Golden Girls," I got to play with those silly ladies every week, so that -- and I loved Rose Nylund. She was positive and she was -- she wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she wasn't dumb. She was just terminally naive.


ELAM (voice-over): Off screen, White married three times. She called her third husband, TV host Allen Ludden, the love of her life. They were together almost 20 years before Ludden died of stomach cancer in 1981.

LARRY KING, TV HOST: And you never remarried, huh?

WHITE: No. When you've had the best, who needs the rest?

ELAM (voice-over): A devoted pet lover, White was a longtime advocate for animal welfare. She called television her hobby and animals her work. Yet her hobby kept her busy. White's talents as an actress and comedian were in demand well into her senior years.

Following a grassroots Facebook campaign in 2010, White became the oldest person ever to host "Saturday Night Live" at the age of 88.

WHITE: You know what's an accomplishment? Staying awake on the toilet.

ELAM (voice-over): The show earned huge ratings and White, her seventh Emmy Award. Later that year, White took on another role on TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought you weren't coming?

WHITE: I ran out of vodka. And I thought I'd come over here and freshen up my drunk (ph).

ELAM (voice-over): In her 90s, White was as popular as ever with several ongoing film and television projects.

WHITE: How lucky can a 90-year-old broad be? I have no idea. And I'm still working. That's the thing that's such a thrill.

ELAM (voice-over): Love for her warm smile, wit and off-color humor, White didn't miss a beat when asked if there were any Hollywood projects she'd still like to do.

WHITE: I usually answer that question with Robert Redford.



WHITE: No, I think I've been lucky enough to do just about so much that I -- if I start complaining about anything under the sun, throw me out of the business.


HARLOW: What a life. Stephanie Elam, thank you for that.

Joining us to remember Betty White, "Inside Edition" Chief Correspondent Jim Murray and PEOPLE Magazine Senior Editor Breanne Heldman. What a life. Jim, what's your favorite Betty White memory? JIM MURRAY, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, INSIDE EDITION: You know, I remember her on "Password" where she met Allen Ludden, her husband. She was a guest, they fell in love. And I think my favorite is Mary Tyler Moore. You know, she was so lovable on screen. And then this man-hungry lunatic. And that's what she won two Emmys for and you can understand why.

HARLOW: Yes. Breanne, PEOPLE Magazine just recently collaborated with Betty White on a retrospective. I think we can show it to our viewers. Talk to us about what you learned from her from your reporting.

BREANNE HELDMAN, SENIOR EDITOR, PEOPLE: I mean, one of the remarkable things we really learned was just Betty's day-to-day life, which was very full even even within a few weeks from now. She loved a bologna and peanut butter sandwich. Her favorite recent movie was "My Octopus Teacher." And she really, really loved to end her day with a vodka on the rocks with a splash of lime or grapefruit, which is certainly how I will be celebrating her this evening.

HARLOW: I was just going to say that. I think that will greet me this evening after the show as well in honor of Betty White.

Jim, she has so many roles. And one thing that I love is, obviously, she could turn down roles left and right, right? But she was such an animal lover and protector, that apparently she turned down a role and as good as it gets because of that scene where they tossed that dog down the laundry chute. That's how much she believed in her values.

MURRAY: She was a woman of her convictions. Look --


MURRAY: -- I've never heard a mean word said about her and you can understand why. She co-starred with Ryan Reynolds in 2009 in "The Proposal." And for years, he's referred to her jokingly and lovingly as his ex-girlfriend and he said something beautiful. He tweeted to his graded, defying expectation and managed to grow very old. And somehow not old enough.

And I think that's how people feel that they're saddened by her loss. And we were all looking forward to January 17th to her 100th birthday. But we will now pay tribute to her instead of celebrating.

HARLOW: Yes, celebrate in her honor. I mean, it actually -- it was amazing, Breanne, scrolling through social media just within the hour after her death. Everyone, everyone, every age group posting about her and I think that speaks to how many lives she touched, how many careers she had, that it wasn't the she was remembered by one generation. It's -- that she'll be remembered by all.

HELDMAN: All. She is actually the Guinness Book of World Records holder for the longest running entertainer on television.


HELDMAN: And she was given that many years ago. She absolutely hits all of the generations. And, you know, one of my favorite things about Betty is she's always making jokes about her crush, about her crush on Robert Redford, which we heard in the package. And Robert Redford actually just gave people an exclusive quote and said he had a crush on her too which just really touches me.


HARLOW: Yes, it really does. I'm glad that she lived to be able to read that and hear that.

Jim Murray, Breanne Heldman, thank you. We'll all toast to Betty White tonight.

HELDMAN: Cheers.

MURRAY: Thank you.

HARLOW: Cheers.

Coming up, President Biden renews his warnings to Russia that invading Ukraine would come at an extraordinarily heavy price.


HARLOW: Welcome back, there's more breaking news that we're following tonight. President Biden closing out the year with a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin against invading Ukraine. CNN White House Correspondent Jeremy Diamond traveling with the President in Delaware. Jeremy, what exactly did the President say about his message for Putin?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, President Biden says that he issued a stark warning to the Russian President, all of this happening during that 50-minute phone call yesterday. President Biden warning the Russian President not to invade Ukraine and that if he does, he said the Russian President and Russia as a whole will pay a heavy price.



JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I made it clear to President Putin that if he makes any more moves and goes into Ukraine, we will have severe sanctions, we will increase our presence in Europe with our NATO allies, and it will be a heavy price to pay for it.


DIAMOND: And for now, at least, as even though Russia still has more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, they are engaging in that diplomacy. Those bilateral security talks are set to begin on January 10th. But President Biden also made very clear today, that there really cannot be any progress in those negotiations unless Russia agrees to begin to de-escalate the situation. And that was ultimately the President's main message to Vladimir Putin yesterday on that call, was to show that there are two paths ahead. There is this diplomatic path that the Russian President can choose to follow, or there are these serious economic sanctions as well as those increase NATO military movements on -- in Eastern Europe. Should Putin move forward with that invasion?

Also, the President today was asked whether he has a better sense after this phone call of whether or not the Russian President is likely to invade Ukraine. He didn't exactly answer that, instead, pointing to those negotiations set to begin to take place on January 10th. But U.S. officials have made very clear to us in recent days that they are not listening for Vladimir Putin's words as much as they are watching Russian actions. And that is why we have seen U.S. spy planes this week over eastern Ukraine, monitoring those military movements. Poppy?

HARLOW: I was going to say that would explain both of those flights together, those images. Jeremy Diamond, thanks very much for the reporting, with Biden in Delaware.

Let's get more on all of these, Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna joins me, the Deputy Whip of the Progressive Caucus. It's good to have you, Congressman. Thanks for joining me.

You just heard the President reiterate his message to Putin. Do you believe the Biden administration has done enough to support Ukraine? Do you want to see them step it up more?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA), PROGRESSIVE CAUCUS DEPUTY WHIP: Poppy, I think the President gets it exactly right. He's being tough. He's putting severe sanctions on the table. We've never had that before. He has specifically said that we will sanction people in Putin's inner circle, Russians -- Russia's energy producers, and even put on the table severe financial sanctions on the Russian economy.

At the same time, he's keeping dialogue open with the Geneva talks because no one wants this to escalate, especially with the rise of China or focus on Taiwan. We can't push Russia into China's arms, nor can we have a two-front conflict. So I think they're handling it exactly correctly.

HARLOW: Here at home, Biden, obviously is ending this year with, at least for now, appears to be a loss on the signature Build Back Better plan. How problematic is it for the Democratic Party heading into the midterms if you don't get substantial chunks of it passed, if not the whole thing?

KHANNA: Poppy, obviously, we have to get something done on it. We already have passed, as you know, the American Rescue Plan, we've passed the infrastructure plan. That said, we have to compromise, we have to get something done. I believe universal preschool, childcare and some parts of climate are things we can come to a consensus on. And we need to move forward with a compromise win.

HARLOW: So let's talk about one of the key sticking points because it was the Child Tax Credit, which is going to expire tomorrow morning. You told Wolf last week that expanding that is, quote, one of the most important things we can do. Of course, it lifts millions of kids out of poverty. You guys are going to have to try again in the New Year. And I wonder if you agree with this from your Democratic colleague, Congresswoman Carolyn Bourdeaux. Listen to what she said earlier today.


REP. CAROLYN BOURDEAUX (D-GA): I do think there are ways that we can reframe the Child Tax Credit to really targeted more at people who are in need. It's done an incredible job at reducing child poverty. I think we can cut the price tag but still meet the same goals.


HARLOW: Do you agree with her?

KHANNA: I'm open to it. I mean, if they want to move down the income limits, I'm open to that compromise. My understanding, though, is the vast, vast majority of people who are qualifying for it are under $125,000 as a couple. But if we want to look at targeting it for the working class and middle class than most need it and reducing some of the costs, I'm open to a compromise. I just want it to get passed so we can continue to cut child poverty.

HARLOW: Congressman Ro Khanna, thank you very much for joining us and happy New Year.

KHANNA: Happy, happy New Year to you and your viewers.

HARLOW: Thank you.

Coming up, COVID collides with New Year's Eve as cases surge across the country. More on that. This is a Situation Room special report.



HARLOW: Happening now, another day of record smashing COVID case counts as the United States is entering the third year, can you believe it, of this pandemic. Health officials are on high alert tonight warning New Year's Eve celebrations could make the Omicron fueled crisis even worse.

Also tonight, wildfires had a terrifying path of destruction in Colorado forcing thousands to evacuate. The governor says hundreds of homes were consumed in the blink of an eye. I'll talk to him live this hour.

And we're getting more reaction to the death of Betty White at age 99. The television icon leaves a legacy of memorable roles and a special place in so many of our hearts.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Poppy Harlow and this is a Situation Room special report.

We begin this hour with the unprecedented explosion of COVID-19 cases across the nation.