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CDC Chief Under Fire For COVID Decisions, Messaging; Ahmaud Arbery Murderers Sentenced To Life In Prison; U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Biden Vaccine Mandates; Family Claims Tennis Star Novak Djokovic "Being Treated Like A Prisoner" After Visa Cancelled By Australian Government; Trailblazing Actor Sidney Poitier Dead At 94. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 07, 2022 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the CDC chief under fire as frustrations grow over her decisions and messaging while omicron cases keep surging. It's another headache for President Biden, as a disappointing report on jobs growth adds to the concerns about the U.S. Economy.

Also tonight, the three white men who chased and murdered black jogger Ahmaud Arbery are sentenced to life in prison, with two of them having no chance of parole. And in detention, the tennis star, Novak Djokovic, awaits a decision on whether he'll play in the Australian Open or be deported. His family claims he's being treated like a prisoner amid the dispute over his visa and vaccine status.

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

Fist tonight, Dr. Rochelle Walensky is vowing to improve her role as CDC director as her response to the omicron crisis and her credibility are being questioned.

Let's go straight to our Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. He's joining us from Las Vegas, just ahead of the president's arrival there later tonight.

Jeff, the White House is growing increasingly frustrated, I understand, with the CDC director. What are you learning?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as the pandemic continues to complicate essentially all walks of American life, there is significant criticism between the White House and other medical specialists directed toward the CDC, largely because of confusing communications about different rules, different guidelines.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, of course, a respected infectious disease expert is in her first government job. She's almost finishing her first year in that role at the CDC. She held a press briefing today, her first one, to acknowledge some of this criticism. She's trying to work on her communications efforts. In fact, she's employed the use of an outside adviser to try to and help her simply communicate this message better. So, there certainly is frustration from the White House at how the CDC in Atlanta is making much of these decisions.

But the president also acknowledged when asked earlier today at the White House if COVID was here to stay.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I don't think COVID is here to stay. Having COVID in the environment and here in the world is probably here to stay. But COVID, as we're dealing with it now, is not here to stay. We have so many more tools we're developing and continue to develop that will contain COVID and other strains of COVID.


ZELENY: So, certainly, there has been just a sense of frustration that's been building up, as this pandemic really enters its third year, but, Wolf, plenty of blame to go around. The CDC, of course, is not in charge of testing. That is the administration. And the testing shortages and issues is a challenge that they're working on back at the White House, not at the CDC.

BLITZER: And, Jeff, another top priority, of course, for the Biden administration is the U.S. economy. But today's monthly jobs report was largely disappointing, right?

ZELENY: Wolf, it certainly was a mixed report. About 199,000 new jobs were added in December, which means 6 million were added this year. But this was the weakest report of any month of 2021. The good news is the unemployment rate now is down to 3.9 percent. That certainly is historic given the nature of the pandemic, but it was a disappointing jobs number. So, there certainly are implications s complications on the economy, no question about it.

But the president right now is visiting the wildfire damages in Colorado as he makes his way out west. That's just one example of many of the economic and other challenges, the climate challenges facing this administration and indeed the country.

So, the Biden administration is certainly hoping for a stronger economic report, but he, you know, certainly highlighted wage growth. Wages have grown for average American workers some 16 percent over the last year. So that is something that they are pointing to.

Wolf, all of this comes as the president is making this first westward trip. He'll be landing here in Las Vegas later this evening. Of course, he's coming here to eulogize former Senate Leader Harry Reid, who died a couple of weeks ago, of course, an icon here in Nevada and indeed in the Democratic Party.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. All right, Jeff Zeleny in Las Vegas for us, thanks very much.

Let's go to Chicago right now and the standoff over COVID safety that's keeping hundreds of thousands of students out of school now for a third day.

CNN's Omar Jimenez is joining us. Omar, will the kids in Chicago going back to school on Monday?


OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're waiting on that final announcement. That should be coming soon, at this point. But if the trend continues, it would be a fourth straight day of canceled class here in Chicago. This, of course, comes after the teachers union earlier this week voted to go virtual, the school district said they couldn't support that, and then class was canceled.

One of the major sticking points in these ongoing negotiations has been access to testing. And we learned today, governor J.B. Pritzker here in Illinois has been in contact with the White House to try and get more tests to apply to this situation. Those were conversations the White House confirmed, saying that they've been in touch with Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot trying to assess their needs in this. But, of course, if they can't come to a solution, the teachers union says they're prepared to refuse in-person work until January 18th or until these COVID numbers go down, Wolf.

BLITZER: Hope those kids are back in school on Monday. Let's see if that happens. Omar, thank you very, very much.

Let's discuss this and more with Dr. Leana Wen, CNN Medical Analyst, former Baltimore City Health Commissioner. Dr. Wen, thanks so much for joining us.

If the goal of the Biden administration is to regain public trust in the CDC, does there need to be, in your opinion, a change in leadership in order to make that happen?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: No. What they need is a change in process. And there's been so much focus on communication. The communication is not the problem. The policy is the problem. What I would recommend is two things. One is to very clearly explain when a change is being made based on science and new research, or if it's based on practicality, for example, if there are not enough tests. That's the reason why they're not recommending testing as opposed to, well, tests are just not good.

The other issue about process is, it would help a lot to issue draft guidelines and then give the public 24 to 48 hours to respond and provide their input. That would have prevented a lot of problems for the CDC, where you have frontline health care workers or local health department heads who would understand how the policy on the national level is going to play on the local level, getting those input will be so helpful and prevent so much of the confusion that's occurred with the CDC.

BLITZER: If there isn't a reset at the CDC, let's say, are you concerned public trust though could further be eroded in the CDC, because we've already seen that in the wake of confusing guidance about whether Americans need to test negative before ending isolation and other issues, we've also seen a lot of problems out there.

WEN: Yes, there has been a lot of confusion around boosters, around masking and now around isolation. We know that public health depends entirely on public trust. When you're asking people to do things that they normally wouldn't do and to give up aspects of their life, for example, being in isolation, that's really difficult.

You have to have that trust. And what I'm so concerned about is, it's not just trust in the CDC. Most Americans don't know the difference between the CDC and the White House and HHS and federal health officials. They're also not differentiating between federal health officials and local and state health officials. And now what's happening is local and state officials are looking at the CDC guidelines saying, that doesn't make sense. I can't implement that. They're coming up with their own guidelines. And everyday people are confused and losing trust in the entire infrastructure of public health. That has a lot of negative impacts, not only for COVID, but for so many other aspects of public health too.

BLITZER: Let's turn to schools, Dr. Wen, while I have you. Some 340,000 students, as you just heard, in Chicago, once again, kept home today for a third straight day. The CDC updated its guidance for kindergarten through 12th grade. Did they get this guidance right?

WEN: In general, yes, because the CDC has been very clear, and I really commend the Biden administration for being so clear too, that in-person schooling has to be the number one priority, that schools need to be the last to close and the first to open. Reducing community transmission is about closing bars, not about closing schools. And we know that there are so many methods that we now have to keep people open for in-person learning, including vaccines, boosters, masks and tests were available. And so I think the focus on making sure that schools are open is -- that really should be our number one priority. And that, at this point, there should be no reason why schools are closed for in-person instructions.

BLITZER: Yes, I agree. As you know, several former health advisers to President Biden now say that the White House needs to adopt a new pandemic strategy focusing in on learning to live with this virus. What exactly would that look like?

WEN: We need to recognize that COVID is here with us. I hope that it's not going to be at this kind of level where there's so much virus around us and hospitals are getting over overwhelmed but we have to accept that omicron may very well not be the last horrible, disruptive variant that we see. We may actually see surges every few months.


And so how are we going to prepare for the next time? Right now, it's about dealing with the threat of omicron, but so much of what the White House has been doing is reacting to the problem rather than project what could be ahead.

BLITZER: Yes, you're totally right. Because I know from my own reporting that the experts at NIH and elsewhere, they're anticipating there will be additional mutations beyond omicron that could cause even further, further problems here in the U.S., indeed around the world. Dr. Leana Wen, thank you so much for joining us. Just ahead, a judge in Georgia sentences all three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery to life in prison, too, without the possibility of parole. Up next, I'll speak with Arbery's mother and her attorney.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news. A judge in Brunswick, Georgia, has handed down life sentences to each of the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. Two of the men will not have the possibility of parole.

CNN National Correspondent Ryan Young has details.


JUDGE TIMOTHY WALMSLEY, : Today, the defendants are being held accountable for their actions.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Two of the three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Travis and Gregory McMichael received life without the possibility of parole.

WALMSLEY: After Ahmaud Arbery fell, the McMichaels turned their backs. It's a disturbing image. And they walked away. This was a killing. It was callous.

YOUNG: William Bryan Jr. sentenced to serve life with the possibility of parole at 30 years.

WALMSLEY: He had grave concerns that what had occurred should not have occurred. And I think that does make Mr. Bryan's situation a little bit different. However, Mr. Bryan has been convicted of felony murder.

YOUNG: Before reading the sentences, Judge Walmsley paused for one minute, a fraction of the roughly five minutes Arbery was chased.

WALMSLEY: I kept coming back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores. Ahmaud Arbery was then hunted down and shot.

YOUNG: And the court heard powerful testimony from Ahmaud Arbery's family.

WANDA COOPER-JONES, AHMAUD ARBERY'S MOTHER: I laid you to rest. I told you I loved you and some day, somehow, I would get you justice.

YOUNG: His mother spoke directly to her son and to the men responsible for his death.

COOPER-JONES: These men have chosen to lie and attack my son and his surviving family. They each have no remorse and do not deserve any leniency. This wasn't a case of mistaken identity or mistaken fact. They chose to target my son when they couldn't sufficiently scare him or intimidate him, they killed him.

YOUNG: Taking aim at a defense attorney's comments during the trial --


YOUNG: -- about her son's toenails.

COOPER-JONES: I wish he would have cut and cleaned his toenails before he went out for that jog that day. I guess he would have if he knew he would be murdered.

YOUNG: Arbery's family was clear, they wanted the maximum sentence possible.

MARCUS ARBERY, AHMAUD ARBERY'S FATHER: Me and my family, we've got to live with his death the rest of our life. We'll never see Ahmaud again. So, I feel they should stay behind them bars the rest of their life, because they didn't give him a chance.

JASMINE ARBERY, AHMAUD ARBERY'S SISTER: The loss of Ahmaud has devastated me and my family. So, I'm asking that the man that killed him be given the maximum sentence available to the court.

YOUNG: Last December, the McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murder after chasing 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in their vehicles while he jogged in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, killing him after they say they thought they saw Arbery inside an unfinished home on February 23rd, 2020. It took two-and-a-half months before arrests were made after video Bryan took at the murder was released and went viral.


YOUNG (on camera): Wolf, when you think about this and the fact that that video played over and over, and the way the judge paused today were a lot of people quite shocked about how he was able to explain the law and how he arrived to his decision. But when you think about this for the family and the fact that they had to go through this for so long, getting justice today would might have been some small satisfaction. And there were a lot of people here in the community rooting for them. But at the same time, when you watch that video, it's so difficult to watch and listen to.

BLITZER: So, so painful. Ryan Young on the scene for us, Ryan, thank you very much.

Let's discuss all of this with Ahmaud Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper- Jones, and her attorney, Lee Merritt. To both of you, thank you so much for joining us. And, Wanda, my heart goes out to you, our deepest, deepest condolences.

I know you called for your son's killers to get life without parole. Two of them actually did. How emotional was it for you to attend today's sentencing?

COOPER-JONES: Today was very emotional. I knew today going in would be very emotional but I was very prepared for it. I'm very grateful that we got the outcome of that sentence today. So, we're very, very thankful that we got the sentencing that we got today.

BLITZER: I know you said, Wanda, that God gave you a fair judge and he was very powerful in his statements today. What did you make of Judge Walmsley's impassioned remarks, including quoting from your own words?


COOPER-JONES: I thought that Judge Walmsley was fair. I shared today earlier that I'm very, very grateful that he was fair. He listened to the testimony from all witnesses and all the (INAUDIBLE), the prosecutors and he made a fair decision. And after making that fair decision, he gave a fair sentencing. So, I'm very, very grateful that we had the chance to work with the judge.

BLITZER: You know, Lee, the judge pointed to the lack of remorse from the McMichaels, who turned their backs on Ahmaud Arbery right after he fell. How much of a factor do you think that lack of remorse was in these sentencing decisions?

LEE MERRITT, ATTORNEY FOR MOTHER OF AHMAUD ARBERY: I think it was a huge factor. And it's important that the judge focused on that and I was grateful to the court for making that observation. Wanda has to deal with a number of indignities from the defense council, from the defendants, from them ignoring her son on the ground bleeding to death without providing any first aid to their treatment of her in the courtroom, targeting her for who she prayed with or who she sat with. And so for the judge to say, well, now you have to answer for that indignity in the sentencing, I thought was very powerful.

BLITZER: Wanda, I understand that you were approached about a possible plea deal in the upcoming federal trial. It's a separate trial, the federal trial. You rejected this. Tell us why that you want trial to move forward.

COOPER-JONES: I think that all three defendants need to stand before the trials on those federal charges, as well as the state, because those charges are just as important as the state charges.

BLITZER: Do you feel, Wanda, that your son's killers have been held accountable?

COOPER-JONES: I do think that all three of them, they got what they truly deserved today. I think we finally got justice for Ahmaud. We finally got the justice that Ahmaud deserved.

BLITZER: Two of them will spend the rest of their life in prison without the possible of parole. One will spend 30 years in jail. After 30 years, possibly parole. He's already in his 50s, though. So, potentially, this could be a life sentence, as well. To both of you, thank you so much for joining us. And, Wanda, once again, my heart goes out to you. Thanks again for sharing with us on this important day. I appreciate it very much.

MERRITT: Thank you, Wolf. Take care.

COOPER-JONES: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Coming up, just in, the January 6th committee will reportedly ask the former vice president, Mike Pence, to testify voluntarily by the end of the month. A key member of the select committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, is standing by live. We will discuss.



BLITZER: This just into CNN, the chairman of the January 6th select committee appears to be steering clear of any subpoena for the former vice president, Mike Pence. NPR is reporting that Chairman Bennie Thompson says the panel expects to ask pence to appear voluntarily.

CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider has more on the investigation.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): After a day of remembrance on Capitol Hill, the January 6th select committee is back to work, and they say learning more about individuals conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Individuals including people in the inner circle of the Trump White House?

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): No question about it.

SCHNEIDER: Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney saying they are not ruling out the possibility of concluding the former president and his associates committed a crime.

REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): For a president to -- through either his action or his inaction, for example, attempt to impede or obstruct the counting of electoral votes, which is an official proceeding of Congress, is -- the committee is looking at that.

SCHNEIDER: Some Republicans have spoken out against Trump, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski calling the rioters a mob incited by our former president. But others are folding under pressure after Senator Ted Cruz said this on Wednesday.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): And it is an anniversary of a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol.

BLITZER: He later apologized on Fox, after Host Tucker Carlson called it a lie.

CRUZ: The way I phrased things yesterday, it was sloppy and it was frankly dumb.

SCHNEIDER: A year later, we are still learning new information about what happened that day. Then Vice President-elect and Senator Kamala Harris had been at the Capitol that morning.

KAMALA HARRIS, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I had left, but they thoughts immediately turned not only to my colleagues but to my staff who had been forced to seek refuge in our office, converting filing cabinets into barricades.

BLITZER: But she declined to comment on revelations that she was evacuated from the Democratic National Committee Headquarters later that afternoon, seven minutes after a pipe bomb was discovered nearby.

While the FBI continues to search for the suspect captured on video planting two pipe bombs the night before the attack, rioters continue to face their day in court and outspoken federal judges. Anthony Williams, who has pleaded not guilty, said in a Facebook message that storming the Capitol was the proudest day of his life. He had asked the court for permission to travel to Jamaica, but Chief Judge Beryl Howell rejected the request, writing, this court will not commemorate the one-year anniversary of this attack on the Capitol by granting the defendant's request for non-essential foreign travel when he is awaiting judgment for his actions on that day.


SCHNEIDER (on camera): And new tonight, NPR is reporting that the January 6th committee expects to ask former Vice President Mike Pence to appear voluntarily this month. The chairman of the committee, Bennie Thompson, is telling NPR that Pence's appearance is, in his words, critical because of the pressure that Pence faced from Trump on January 6 last year to reject the election results, and, of course, the fact that Pence ultimately decided not to bow to Trump's pressure.


Thompson says the committee will meet next week behind closed doors to firm up those final plans about possibly asking Pence to appear voluntarily. Wolf?

BLITZER: Very interesting and very important, Jessica Schneider, with that report. Thank you very much.

Let's discuss with a key member of the January 6th committee, Congressman Adam Schiff. He's also the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

Will the committee, in fact, be asking the former vice president to come in and appear voluntarily?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): Yes, I think our chairman has now acknowledged that we will be, and that's our practice, which is to invite people to come in voluntarily, hope that they'll do so. And he would have, I think, very undoubtedly relevant testimony for us about that pressure campaign. No one would be in a better position really to speak to it than he would, all of the efforts to get him to violate his constitutional duty to count the votes and instead reject votes without basis. And so we hope that he'll be willing to do so. And as the chairman has indicated, we intend to extend that invitation fairly soon.

BLITZER: Will you subpoena the former vice president if he chooses not to appear voluntarily?

SCHIFF: We don't like to speculate about that until we have a chance to see whether people will come in on their own volition. And, look, he did the right thing on that day. I certainly have a lot of differences with Mike Pence, and I think, for four years, he was tragically a dutiful yes-man for the president. But on the one day that really, really mattered, he said, no. And so I think he's got a good, important story to tell. I think it's a story the American people should hear, and it would be invaluable to our work. So, let's hope that he's willing to do the right thing.

BLITZER: Yes, he did the right thing on that day in certifying the election. And his top aides, while at the White House, his chief of staff, his national security adviser, and others who worked very closely with him, they are fully cooperating right now, aren't they?

SCHIFF: You know, I can't comment as to particular witnesses and their level of cooperation, but I can say that we're getting the help of a great many people, some who were in the administration, in the White House, others who were outside of the government. But, still, I think even with other witnesses who are potentially helping the committee, Mike Pence knows things that only Mike Pence knows. And it would be very important to completely fill out our work and I think this is one more public service that needs to be performed by the former vice president.

BLITZER: The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, Congressman, suggested on CNN last night that she believes some of her Republican colleagues were, in her word, perpetrators of the January 6th attack. Does the select committee have evidence of that?

SCHIFF: I can't comment on what evidence we have at this point. And, certainly, I don't want to comment vis-a-vis members of Congress, except to say that, in my view, you know, those who even after that attack on the Capitol, continued to vote to overturn the election, bear responsibility.

Now, that may not be a kind of a responsibility that breaks the law, but I think it violated their oath of office, their oath to uphold the Constitution.

In terms of whether members were aiding and abetting the insurrectionists in a way that ought to result in either the Justice Department taking action or the House taking action, I'm going to await the conclusion of our investigation. BLITZER: We now know that then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was at the DNC, was evacuated when that pipe bomb was found outside. Does this revelation, Congressman, further underscore why the investigation into the many acts of violence that occurred on that day, that investigation remains critical, right?

SCHIFF: Oh, yes. You know, I think that's unquestionably true. You had the current, at that time, Vice President Mike Pence, in danger of his life, with people with scaffolds outside the Capitol wanting to hang him. And you have the incoming vice president, if these reports are correct, was in proximity to a pipe bomb that authorities have say was a viable weapon and could have killed someone.

So, I mean, all of these things, I think, underscore the importance of a full accounting of what led up to that day. And more than that day, a full accounting of all the multiple lines of effort by Donald Trump and his enablers and anyone else to overturn a presidential election, to essentially stop the peaceful transfer of power to the person who won, Joe Biden.


And, you know, that's what we're determined to do and to find out and to make public and protect the country through our legislative process.

BLITZER: Lots going on right now. We will stay in touch. Congressman Adam Schiff, thank you so much for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, will the tennis star, Novak Djokovic, be released from detention and will he be able to play in the Australian Open? We'll have the latest on the standoff over his visa and vaccine status.


BLITZER: Today, a centerpiece of President Biden's anti-COVID plan is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices hearing arguments today for and against vaccine mandates and other requirements.

Let's bring in CNN's Chief Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin and our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash. Jeffrey, I know you were following this four-hour hearing very closely today.


Did you give any sense which direction the court is leaning when it comes to the administration's vaccine or testing requirements aimed at large businesses?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I sure did, Wolf. And it was not a good day in the Supreme Court for the Biden administration. You know, with the caveat that you can never predict with certainty, based on an oral argument, you saw at least five and perhaps six justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, express a great deal skepticism that the Biden administration had legal authorization to make this emergency order for vaccines and testing for large corporations.

The three liberal justices acted like they were in a different planet. They were saying, look, this is a crisis, this is an emergency, people are dying, this is necessary. But the conservatives have the majority and they did not seem to see it that way at all.

BLITZER: And they've got to make a decision very, very quickly. Dana, politically speaking, what would it mean for the Biden administration if this mandate that they put forward is blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, because the whole issue of vaccines and of requirements has become so politicized, as opposed to what it traditionally has been, which is much more of a public health question, it, of course, will have public ramifications if the Supreme Court does, in fact, block this.

Having said that, there was an evolution from Joe Biden himself, and it's largely -- and he said this, publicly, more than once, because of the fear that the Supreme Court wouldn't -- or that, legally, they don't have a lot to stand on to have this federal requirement. So, there was a delay in the Biden administration in doing this in the first place because they weren't really sure that they had firm legal standing.

But the political question is really an important one. And it will be more evidence for conservatives on a local level, on a federal level, that they are going to claim that this is more evidence that the Biden administration is overreaching.

BLITZER: Did the court, Jeffrey, seem open to a more narrowly tailored vaccine mandate aimed specifically at certain health care workers?

TOOBIN: Well, there was a second case about whether the federal government could insist when it spends money on Medicare and Medicaid, could they insist that the medical providers also get -- insist that their workers have a vaccine or frequent testing. The court was slightly more sympathetic there, but, again, it looked like there was at least a majority to overturn that requirement as well.

And, you know, I can't tell you how much the justices were in different worlds here, because, particularly, Justice Elena Kagan, one of the liberals, was saying, people are going to die if we don't have these requirements. And that was an argument that was made very clearly and it was not accepted, clearly, by Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, in particular, and the majority looked like they were going the other way.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll find out very, very soon what the decisions are. All right, guys, thank you very much.

Coming up, we'll have the latest on the standoff over Tennis Star Novak Djokovic's vaccination status. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BLITZER: The standoff between Novak Djokovic and the Australian government is growing more heated by the hour.

CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us.

Brian, there's a lot of anger on all sides right now.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anger among fans, players, and family members, Wolf. And some anger among Australian officials who got some signals crossed and now have a real mess on their hands.



TODD: Tonight, growing backlash against the world's top-ranked men's tennis player. Australians outraged that Novak Djokovic received an exemption to the country's rule that visitors who are not fully vaccinated cannot enter Australia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Djokovic is a millionaire scumbag who has rightly incurred really that anger of a lot of people in Australia.

TODD: Djokovic has not disclosed his vaccination status, but by most indications, he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.

This week, Australian tennis officials and officials in the state of Victoria granted Djokovic an exemption to enter the country and compete in the Australian Open, where he's the defending champion.

PATRICK MCENROE, ESPN TENNIS COMMENTATOR: The federal government was not particularly involved in that process. In fact, they weren't involved at all. But they did send a letter about a month before Djokovic came into the country, and they said, if a player comes into the country and they're using having COVID-19 in the last six months the reason for their medical exemption and they're not vaccinated, they will not get into the country. And apparently, that's the reason that Novak Djokovic used.

TODD: But federal officials in Australia are not having it.

SCOTT MORRISON, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: Rules are rules. And there are no special cases.

TODD: Australian officials have canceled Djokovic's visa, ordered him to be deported, while his lawyers fight that, the multi-millionaire has been staying in an immigration detention facility in Melbourne.


Djokovic's supporters in Australia and his native Serbia along with the star's parents are protesting his treatment.

DIJANA DJOKOVIC, NOVAK DJOKOVIC'S MOTHER: They are keeping him as a prisoner. It's just not fair. It's not human.

TODD: An accusation Australian officials deny.

In June of 2020, Novak Djokovic helped organize a charity tennis tournament in Serbia and Croatia, which had loose COVID rules, and several players, including him, later tested positive. He now joins a list of other sport superstars who flouted COVID restrictions like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown who were caught lying about not being vaccinated. And Brooklyn Nets star, Kyrie Irving, who's publicly refused to get vaccinated and can't play games at home as a result.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, SPORTS WRITER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Increasingly, I think they are being seen as people who just see themselves as requiring special treatment or deserving of special treatment and I think the public tolerance for that is really, really low, and getting lower by the day.


TODD (on camera): A hearing on Novak Djokovic's appeal of the cancellation of his visa is scheduled for Monday in Australia and he is not getting a lot of sympathy from fellow tennis star Rafael Nadal, who told reports Djokovic was aware of the vaccine requirements for months, that he quote made his own decisions and there are consequences -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There are certainly are.

Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you very much.

Just ahead, the world pays tribute to the legendary actor and activist Sidney Poitier who died yesterday at the age of 94.

We'll be right back.



BLITZER: Tonight, in the U.S. and around the world, President Biden is mourning the death of Sidney Poitier, calling him a once-in-a- generation actor and advocate.

CNN Sara Sidner looks back at Portier's remarkable life and amazing career.


SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sidney Poitier was so much more than a film legend. He is revered not just because of what he did on screen but also because of his tremendous impact off screen as a champion of civil rights. SIDNEY POITIER, ACTOR: We believe in the central dignity of every

human being.

SIDNER: The son of a Bahamian tomato farmer, Poitier lived a life of firsts. The first black man to win an Oscar for best actor and one of the first black people to become a true Hollywood star, among the greatest of all time.

POITIER: We have lots and lots and lots of African-American actors. Now, when we didn't have any, I appeared, not because I brought so much because -- but because the time was right.

SIDNER: But his career almost ended before it ever began. As a teenager, Poitier auditioned for the American Negro Theater but he was quickly thrown out because he couldn't read. He was tone deaf, and he had a thick Bahamian accent.

POITIER: He says you are no actor. We got next to the door. He opened it, pushed me out, and slam.

SIDNER: A determined Poitier would spend months perfecting his acting skills and modifying his speaking voice.

His hard work would pay off in a big way.

POITIER: I was right. I know I was right.

SIDNER: In the 1950s, he appeared in more than a dozen films beginning with no way out and including an Oscar nominated performance in the defiant ones.

However, it was his portrayal of a former G.I. in the 1963 movie "Lilies of the Field" that broke Hollywood's color barrier, earning him the coveted Oscar for best actor.

Poitier never overcame his tone deafness, lip-syncing the song "Amen" in the famous lily scene. The songwriter Jester Hairston actually did the singing.

Poitier was considered a bankable star in 1967, starring in a landmark film "To Sir with Love".

POITIER: Those kids are devils incarnates. I tried everything.

SIDNER: Playing characters that would force audiences to confront racial prejudices.

POITIER: They call me Mr. Tibbs.

SIDNER: But he would also challenge the Hollywood establishment forcing a change in his iconic role as detective Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 Academy Award winning "In the Heat of the Night" because of a scene that would require him to acquiesce to a racist character.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am going to put you on the bus myself.

POITIER: You aren't taking me anywhere. You dig? You are holding the wrong man.

SIDNER: That same year, he would star in the watershed film "Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner", alongside Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.


SIDNER: The film not only depicted a successful interracial relationship, it also foreshadowed future progress in America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you given any thought to the problems your children are going to have?

POITIER: Yes. And they'll have some. And we'll have the children. Otherwise, I don't know what you would call it but you couldn't call it a marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that the way Joey feels?

POITIER: She feels every that single one of our children would be president of the United States and they will all have colorful administrations.

SIDNER: It's only fitting that, in 2009, Sidney Poitier would be presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

POITIER: Poitier once called his driving purpose to make himself a better person. He did and he made us all a little bit better along the way.


BLITZER: Sidney Poitier was 94 years old. May his memory be a blessing.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.