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Leader Of Oath Keepers And Ten Others Charged With Seditious Conspiracy Related To U.S. Capitol Attack; Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) Dodges, Deflects On Refusal To Cooperate With 1/6 Committee; Biden Faces New Defeats With Vaccine Rule Blocked, Voting Rights Doomed; Djokovic Draws Top Spot In Australia Open, Awaits Visa Decision; Which Masks Will Protect You Best Against Omicron. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 13, 2022 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And President Biden is facing significant new defeats tonight. Voting rights legislation appears doomed in the Senate even after he made a personal appeal up on Capitol Hill.

And the U.S. Supreme Court just blocked his vaccine or test rule for big businesses. I'll get reaction to the ruling from the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy.

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.

And we begin with the breaking news. The leader of the oath keepers and ten others now charged with seditious conspiracy related to the attack on the U.S. Capitol. CNN's Paula Reid has details on this unprecedented step in the U.S. Justice Department's investigation.


PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The Justice Department today escalating its efforts to prosecute those responsible for January 6th, charging Oath Keepers Leader Stewart Rhodes along with ten others with seditious conspiracy related to the attack on the Capitol.

It's the first time federal prosecutors have used the sedition charge after bringing more than 700 cases related to the insurrection. With prosecutors have long signaled that they were considering using the rarely applied section of federal law.

Rhodes is the most high profile individual charge in the investigation so far. Court documents filed today lay out a wide-ranging plot to storm the Capitol and disrupt the certification of the 2020 election.

Two days after Election Day, Rhodes allegedly urged his followers to refuse to accept the election results writing in a signal message, we aren't getting through this without a civil war.

According to federal prosecutors on his way to D.C. on January 3rd, Rhodes allegedly bought an AR platform rifle and sights, and other firearms equipment including sights, mounts, triggers, slings and other firearms attachments in Texas.

The next day he allegedly bought more firearms equipment in Mississippi. Rhodes a former Army paratrooper who went on earned a law degree from Yale did not enter the Capitol on January 6th, but video captures Oath Keepers wearing military gear forcing their way into the building in a military stack formation.

In this clip, you can see a group of Oath Keepers very close to the Capitol doors breaching the building. And here, members inside the Capitol rotunda including Jessica Watkins who was among those charged today with seditious conspiracy.

The new indictment also reveals the group allegedly had quick reaction forces from three states, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida, to rush into D.C. if needed.

According to court documents, Oath Keeper Thomas Caldwell, arrested in January, claimed that he took a reconnaissance trip to D.C. prior to the insurrection. And prosecutors say Rhodes was planning for violence well beyond January 6th, allegedly referring to the Capitol attack as nothing compared to what is coming.

In the weeks after the attack on the Capitol, he allegedly spent more than $17,000 on weapons, equipment and ammunition. Then, around inauguration day, Rhodes told his associates to organize local militias to oppose the Biden administration. And another member allegedly said, after this, if nothing happens, it's war, Civil War 2.0.


REID (on camera): Rhodes has not publicly responded to the charges though he's previously denied involvement with the January 6th attack. He was arrested today at this home in Texas and is expected to make his initial appearance in federal court in Plano tomorrow afternoon. Wolf.

BLITZER: If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison for this charge. Paula Reid, reporting for us, thanks very much.

Let's bring our Senior Law Enforcement Analyst, the former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Also with us, CNN Legal Analyst, former Federal Prosecutors Elliot Williams.

Andrew, this indictment makes it clear the insurrection wasn't spontaneous. This was a plan, apparently months in the work by a dangerous domestic extremist group according to the charges. What stands out to you?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Wolf, it's a remarkable indictment. It's 81 pages long. It's incredibly dense with lots of facts and communications between the co-conspirators.

What it really highlights is this complicated and complex level of planning that went into the activities they undertook on January 6th, planning that involved financial planning, travel planning, pre event training in different locations, the procurement of weapons, the deployment of those weapons to a special place where they would be able to access them on the 6th if need be.


So this was very clearly a premeditated, thought-out agreement among these 11 people and then also followed by a number of specific acts that they undertook in furtherance of the conspiracy. It's very, very detailed environment.

BLITZER: It certainly is, if you read the whole thing. And you know, and Elliot, this is the first time anyone has been charged with what's called seditious conspiracy related to the January 6th attack. Just how serious, how significant is this charge?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's significant because it's not charged that often. Now, look, Wolf, it's not charged often because it's not often that people try to overthrow the government. But it's actually and incredibly hard charge to sustain.

So look, in order to convict someone of seditious conspiracy, you have to find an agreement by two or more people to conspire by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of an act of government. And what they've really needed to find and this is probably what took the Justice Department so long is evidence of agreement, communications. The sort that Andrew talked about, the text messages, the signal chats, the phone messages and so on to indicate that people agreed together to stop government.

Now, again, the last time the Justice Department tried to bring charges like this was 2010 or 2011 in Michigan. They got tossed out by the judge for a lot of things I'm talking about here. It is actually quite hard to establish this kind of agreement. So the justice department, it appears, waited until they had a lot of evidence that built up and have what appears to be a pretty strong case.

BLITZER: You know, Andrew, it wasn't just talking about a quote, and I'm quoting now, a massive live bloody revolution. These Oath Keepers were training in paramilitary combat tactics, they stash weapons at staging areas outside D.C. according to all the charges and all the evidence presented so far. They showed up with tactical gear. So how strong do you believe this case is?

MCCABE: I mean, Wolf, it appears to be very strong based simply on the information that we see in the indictment. Now, let's remember, the government typically has a lot more information that they don't reveal right up front. Like they like to hold on to some of these things as the prosecution gets a little deeper.

But I think it's remarkable the communications that are included here. And let's point out, most of them were conducted over encrypted platforms like signal or proton email, things like that. That means that they had to have convinced cooperators who were involved in those communications to provide access to their devices in order for the government to get that material. Because the government can't get that through subpoena to the communications platform company because it's all encrypted.

So in addition to having these communications, I would be pretty confident in saying they also likely would have secured the assistance of cooperators who had direct knowledge and participation in some of these events. This adds to my believe that it's a pretty strong case.

BLITZER: Yes. When I read that lengthy document, it certainly stood out that at least some may be fully cooperating with the Justice Department. Elliot, what does this indictment today say about where the Justice Department's efforts stand right now, what, a year after the Capitol attack. Because the Attorney General Merrick Garland has faced criticism as you know, for not push pursuing more serious charges related to January 6th.

WILLIAMS: So a few things, Wolf. One, this pours water, a cold water on the notion that they're not going after the planners. And notably Stewart Rhodes wasn't even in the Capitol building. Did not enter the Capitol building that day, signifying that the Justice Department is able to target, investigate and ultimately charge individuals who were merely communicating with people in the Capitol that day, number one.

Number two, the point is that the planning of January 6th happened long before that morning in the form of rallies, speeches, communications and so on. And so it's a far larger conspiracy than simply the acts of that morning.

I think a lot of people were justifiably concerned that a lot of the charges were fortress pass or entering government property, conspiracy to obstruct Congress, but not these serious charges here. And this is -- and again, something else to note, Wolf, is that this charge here carries the same 20-year penalty as some of the other conspiracy charges, but this is a very important statement about the severity of the crimes and the severity of the attack on the capitol.

BLITZER: Elliot Williams, thanks very much, Andrew McCabe, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down President Biden's vaccine mandate for large businesses. Just ahead, I'll discuss that and much more with the U.S. Surgeon General, there he is, Dr. Vivek Murthy who is standing by live.



BLITZER: Tonight, the United States Supreme Court has struck a major blow to the Biden administration's pandemic policy. The justices blocking the president's vaccine or test rule for large businesses. But the high court did allow a vaccine mandate for certain health care workers to go into effect nationwide.

Let's get reaction from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Dr. Murthy, thank you so much for joining us. How big of a setback is this for the administration's efforts to deal with this pandemic? DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Well, Wolf, you know as a doctor and a public health professional today's news was disappointing. We know the requirements for vaccines in workplaces are an important part of how we can keep workplaces safer for both workers as well as for customers.

Now, the good news is that many companies have moved forward anyway in implementing vaccine requirements because they know again it's good for the workers, it's good for customers. I would encourage every business out there to move forward with these types of requirements voluntarily because they do help.


But I would also recognize that there was good news in here, that the Supreme Court did uphold the vaccine requirement in health care settings, and we know that means 17 million health care workers will fall under that vaccine requirement. Their being vaccinated not only helps them, but it's an important part of how we keep patients safe as well.

BLITZER: Yes, that's really important as well. The president did announce new initiatives today, Dr. Murthy, on rapid testing, higher quality masks, deploying U.S. military medical teams. But we are already, as all of us know, in the middle of this new surge. When is the administration going to start getting ahead of the problem rather than constantly playing catch-up?

MURTHY: Well, what the announcements the president made today were to add an additional 500 million test, rapid at-home tests in addition to the 500 million he recently announced. So that's a 1 billion people with a B, rapid-at-home test so people will be able to -- as requested on the website that will be launching later this month, I think it delivered to their home.

This in addition to insurance companies for test that will be starting on Saturday, on January 15th, and it's an addition to the 20,000 places where people can already get free testing.

Look, the bottom line is, if you look at the trajectory of the response, there have been big investments that we have made in the last 12 months in testing, in therapeutics. That's what's allowed us actually to rapidly scale up testing.

Now, omicron came and dramatically increased the demand for testing. So there's more we have to do. And that's why you hear these announcements. But some of this is also I think has obscured some of the great progress we have when it comes to therapeutics, Wolf. This month in January we will have five therapeutics that are available, have been available, and over 4 million doses, approximately 4 million doses of those.

That's more doses of therapeutics than we've had in any other month over the past years. The bottom line is we are making progress. I know it doesn't always feel like it in a moment like this where we have so many omicron cases. But these investments are actually helping us to get treatment to people and we will see more and more tests in the days ahead.

BLITZER: But I take it you acknowledge that the administration has had to play some catch-up to deal with this enormous surge that's unfolding right now.

MURTHY: Well, certainly when it came to testing, you know as much as we had done, even though we quadrupled the supply of testing from the end of summer to December, clearly there was more needed because of the extraordinary demands of omicron. And the president acknowledge there was more that had to be done and that's why you hear the announcements that he has made over the last few weeks to dramatically increase the supply of testing.

The bottom line is, Wolf, there are a lot of curveballs that this virus has thrown at us. We've got to continue to do everything we can to invest not just on vaccines and boosters, which we've done I believe a good job of it, but also expand the supply of therapeutics, which is happening now, to expand the supply of testing, to make masks actually more available to the public which the president announced today, that next week we will have an announcement on a plan to make high quality masks available to the public.

These are parts of the strategies that we have been working on and that were increasingly and it keep working to make sure that we not just get through this way on omicron but also that we are prepared for any new variants that may come our way.

BLITZER: When will the new order of 500 million rapid tests that is so important, when will they actually be delivered, Dr. Murthy? Because, people, they need these tests now, a month from now, two months from now may be too late.

MURTHY: That's right, Wolf. And we recognize that the need is immediate. And that's why the tests, the contracts have been signed. We're setting up the website and anticipate later this month alone, we will be able to ship out those tests after people request them in the website. We know time is of the essence. And that's why people are working day and night to make sure the system is up. And that is ready to get test to people and that will happen later this month.

BLITZER: Yes. That's so, so important. As you know, some experts believe the omicron wave may already be peaking at least in some parts of the United States. Does the administration, Dr. Murthy, expect the COVID situation this spring to be drastically better than what we're dealing with right now? And I hope it will be.

MURTHY: Well, Wolf, you know my general philosophy is you hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst. And we certainly are encouraged by what we saw in South Africa, a rapid rise and then a plateau of cases. We saw that in parts of the United Kingdom as well, particularly in London.

And if you look actually at New York City and other parts of the northeast, you're seeing that the rate of rise of infections is starting to drop off. And we seem to be approaching a plateau. That is good, but let's keep in mind that our country -- we're a big country and we don't all move at the same pace.

So the omicron wave has started at different time points in the country, so it's not all going to peak at the same time. I think the next few weeks are going to be challenging, Wolf. We are going to continue to see high numbers of cases. Our hospital systems in parts of the country are strained and that will continue, which is why the president announced that a thousand additional members of the Department of Defense were going to shore up and strengthen hospital systems across the country and the millions of pieces of protective equipment that we have sent and will continue to send to hospital systems.


So, a tough few weeks ahead, Wolf. But I do think there will be better days on the other side.

We need to be prepared though that if another variant does come our way, we'll have the tools to deal with it. And I believe we will. But we've got to remain vigilant right now. That means get vaccinated and boosted, wear a high-quality mask, especially if you're in a high risk setting or do yourself with high risk medical conditions. And please use testing when you can before large gatherings to make sure you're not bringing infection into a group setting.

BLITZER: Excellent advice, Dr. Vivek Murthy. We're grateful to you for all you're doing. Thanks, as usual, for joining us.

MURTHY: Thanks so much, Wolf. Appreciate it.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Coming up House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is dodging questions, trying to rewrite history about his communications with the former President Donald Trump. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: There's more breaking news in the January 6th investigation. The House select committee has issued four subpoenas to giant social media companies. The panel says the companies did not adequately respond to its requests to turn over documents and information voluntarily.

The committee also is leaving the door open to issuing a subpoena to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. He spoke out today about his refusal, his refusal to cooperate with the investigation. Let's bring in our Congressional Correspondent Jessica Dean. Jessica, McCarthy seemed to be trying to rewrite history.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He certainly did, Wolf. And we saw him today, one day after he responded to this request from the committee to testify in front of them saying that he did not plan to cooperate. He doubled down on that today. And to your point, he simply did try to rewrite history. I'm going to give you an example right now. So let's start with what he said January 13th of last year. Take a listen.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): -- and bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.


DEAN: And again, that was January 13th last year, just days after the insurrection. You heard the House minority leader saying he bears responsibility. That's former President Donald Trump. Here is what House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said today.


MCCARTHY: My criticism went to everyone on that day. Why was the Capitol so ill-prepared that day?


DEAN: So, again, now trying to say that his criticism was to everyone where we just heard in that clip, he said he bears some responsibility. He also claims former -- McCarthy claims that he doesn't recall a phone call now that he talked about that former President Trump had claimed responsibility for some of this, that he told House GOP members that he did claim some responsibility.

McCarthy now saying that's not what happened. Our sources saying they were taking notes that day, they remember that's exactly what McCarthy said. So, a lot of facts that just aren't quite lining up with where they were roughly a year ago, Wolf.

And he's also saying -- trying to defend his position for not cooperating by saying that Nancy Pelosi is simply playing politics with the select committee. It remains to be seen if they'll ultimately hear from McCarthy or the other GOP members. That they have requested to hear from, they're trying to sort through how to compel them to testify. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right we'll see what happens. Jessica, thank you very much. Let's dig deeper right now. Our Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger is with us and our Senior Commentator John Kasich, the former Republican Governor of Ohio is with us as well.

Gloria, so what happened to the Kevin McCarthy of January 2021 who actually seemed to be willing to hold Trump to account?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think he's been over taken by ambition and his now become a captive of Donald Trump and the Trump wing of the party, which seems to be now most of the party, and he wants to be speaker of the House. And Jessica is referring to that January 11th meeting with the conference in which he said according to many members that Donald Trump told him he has some responsibility for what happened. That's what the January 6th committee wants to find out.

They want to know if Donald Trump actually accepted responsibility for the insurrection. And it's clear Kevin McCarthy is not going to be the one to tell them.

BLITZER: How embarrassing is it, Governor, to see McCarthy actually twisting his own words from last year, pretending he simply doesn't remember what he said about Mr. Trump's culpability.

JOHN KASICH, CNN SENIOR COMMENTATOR: Gloria hit the nail on the head. This is everything that he is doing, his statements the last couple days about the fact that he's not going to -- or Democrat -- he's going to throw Democrats off their committees, this whole business about standing up to the committee in his way.

This is all about him trying to become speaker. So the problem he could have here -- I don't think it's certain, Gloria, that he's going to be the speaker. He's been warned that if he continues to move to the right, he could have some weakness on his other flank. This is all about him trying to be speaker. That's why he'll do whatever he has to do.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, McCarthy is railing against the select committee's investigation, calling it an abuse of power, but does the select committee have any good option right now to try to win over his cooperation.


BORGER: No. Look, they're not -- look, obviously, the question is the committee going to subpoena him. And we don't know the answer to that. I think they'd like to have some backup from the Department of Justice. They've held Mark Meadows in contempt. They'd like to see if the Department of Justice is going to prosecute on that, and so we have to wait and see.

But aside from a subpoena which would be kind of a nuclear option to a congressional leader, I don't think they can do much of anything. And you know, who knows? They might decide to subpoena him. We'll just have to see. Other than that, there's not much they can do.

BLITZER: Did you ever think you'd see a Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Governor, and you served in the House for many years. Did you ever think that, that leader would rebuke a committee like this one for investigating an attack on the U.S. Congress itself?

KASICH: Wolf, you've observed it for a long time. Everything that's happened around there right now is dysfunctional. The level of hatred and vitriol, it knows no bounds. And you know, again, I've got to go back to the fact that McCarthy, he didn't care if he has to thumb his nose at somebody as long as at the end of the day when the Republicans win the House, which they're likely to do, that he has the gavel in his hand.

BLITZER: John Kasich, Gloria Borger, guys thanks very, very much.

Coming up, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are meeting with President Biden at the White House right now after setting back a major piece of his agenda. We have new information coming in and we'll share it with you right after the break.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema there over at the White House tonight to discuss voting rights with President Biden. Our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins is working the story for us. Kaitlan, Manchin and Sinema are the holdouts among the Democrats who are obviously key to the president's agenda.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They are. But they also could also be key to blocking it, especially when it comes to passing voting rights legislation. And the president was clearly frustrated when after he left his meeting today with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill.

He's emerged from that saying clearly that they do not believe there's a path ahead right now, the president saying, quote, we missed. And it's not just an issue facing the White House when it comes to passing those voter protection rights, Wolf, it's also when it comes to the pandemic and the president's efforts to get more Americans vaccinated as it's been a very challenging week for this White House.


COLLINS (voice over): President Biden agitated tonight after making a sales pitch that seemed doomed from the start.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: It's about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote, who counts the vote.

COLLINS: Biden uncertain about his ability to close the deal after another forceful appeal to Senate Democrats to change the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.

BIDEN: Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time. We missed this time.

COLLINS: While he arrived on Capitol Hill to a standing ovation, the president left empty handed.

BIDEN: I don't know that we can get it done, but I know one thing. As long as I have a breath in me. As long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have been moving.

COLLINS: And in an extraordinary rebuked, moments before he arrived, Senator Kyrsten Sinema delivered a fatal blow to Biden's plan.

SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA (D-AZ): I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country. There's no need for me to restate my longstanding support for the 60- vote threshold to pass legislation.

COLLINS: Afterwards Senator Joe Manchin praised Sinema, all but confirming that Biden does not have the 50 votes needed to change the rules.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): I think it's a point that I've been making for an awful long time and she has, too.

COLLINS: The White House bluntly acknowledging the major setback for Biden.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We could certainly propose legislation to see if people support bunny rabbits and ice cream but that would be very rewarding to the American people. So the president's view is we're going to keep pushing for hard things.

COLLINS: The Supreme Court dealing another blow to the White House tonight, blocking Biden's vaccine mandate for big companies.

PSAKI: The Supreme Court's decision on the OSHA mandate essentially means that ending this pandemic is up to individual employers to determine whether their workplaces will be safe for employees.

COLLINS: The president losing a key element of his plan to fight the pandemic as cases surge across the country, leaving the White House scrambling to respond and take steps that they refused to do before.

BIDEN: I'm directing my team to procure an additional 500 million more tests to distribute for free.


COLLINS: Now, Wolf, Manchin and Sinema are at the White House right now meeting with the president on voting rights legislation. But of course they have made clear their position on the filibuster which Democrats have said making an exception to that is the only way they believe they can get voting rights legislation passed because, of course, all Republicans are uniformly opposed to it.

So if Manchin and Sinema do not change their positions on that, that legislation is going to die in the Senate. It's not going to go anywhere. And of course that is the big question here tonight because so far, when we've asked the White House what their backup plan is if Manchin and Sinema maintain those positions as they've held them for months, they haven't detailed what that backup plan is. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kaitlan, I want you to stand-by. I also want to bring in our National Politics Reporter Eva McKend. Eva, between this setback on voting rights, the stinging defeat from the U.S. Supreme Court, just how bad was today for the president of the United States politically? EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Wolf, this was a tough day for the White House, but they had to anticipate this outcome. They are still obviously fighting this evening. What I think is important, though, is to listen to the public statements of the activist community.


And I think that's important because that gives a sense of where the Democratic base is.

And a lot of their frustration is trained at Senator Sinema and Senator Manchin, not at the White House. I'm thinking about Dr. King's family suggesting that Senator Sinema is an enabler of voter suppression, sounding eerily like Dr. King did many years ago when he was talking about white moderates, with sounding that very same alarm.

So, all of that frustration from the Democratic base, from Democratic voters seems to be with inaction at the Senate, the White House leaving it all on the table. That anger not trained at them.

BLITZER: You know, Kaitlan, what's left for the president to talk to Senotors Manchin and Sinema about at this point. I know there meeting with him over at the White House. Haven't they made their positions abundantly clear?

COLLINS: They have, time and time again for months. And so, I asked the press secretary today if the president is now convinced that he can no longer sway Manchin and sway Sinema on their position on this. They've made it clear for months. They've had meetings. Other Democrats have talked to them. The White House has had people talk to them. It has not changed their positions.

And so I think some people get exasperated when they see things like Manchin and Sinema back at the White House tonight to talk about something after. It's pretty how the president felt about the trajectory of it earlier today without detailing what else they're going to do next, what other plan they can have.

And so I think that's the big question here is, what is it that they can come to an agreement on? Maybe it's another matter. Of course, they talked about trying to reform that law that was, of course, the center of the insurrection when it came to the role that the vice president played, whether or not that changes remains to be seen.

And when it comes to the two bills that they have been talking about, it seems really unlikely that they're going anywhere in the Senate for right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. On that point, even Democrats do appear unavailable to pass voting rights, to pass the Build Back Better Bill. That's clearly installed right now as well. Biden needs a victory right now. So where does he turn?

MCKEND: Perhaps he can explore what more can be achieved through executive order. This is what we have heard from progressives. They said listen, do what you can while you still can. I'm thinking specifically about the issue of student loan debt. He has indicated to date that he doesn't have an appetite for moving forward with that on the executive level, but perhaps that can give him a needed boost to listen to the base and stop governing scared.

BLITZER: In addition to the legislative problems that he has, the pandemic clearly still priority number one. Eva McKend, thank you. Kaitlan Collins, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, Novak Djokovic draws the top spot in the Australian open, but it's still unclear whether he actually will be allowed to stay in the country as the saga over his visa drags on.



BLITZER: He's the top draw in the upcoming Australian Open. But the question is, will Novak Djokovic be able to compete? We're awaiting a decision by the Australian government on whether to rebuke the visa of the world's number one men's tennis player.

CNN's Paula Hancock has the latest from Melbourne.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We start with our number one seed, Novak Djokovic.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A slightly delayed but familiar draw for the Australian and Djokovic was back on the court, trying to defend his title and next week's tournament. He could be forgiven for thinking this is a regular grand slam, but it is anything but.

The sports world is waiting for this man, Alex Hawk, the immigration minister, who has the power to personally intervene and revoke Djokovic's visa. Prime Minister Scott Morrison affirmed that having a visa is not the only requirement to enter Australia during the pandemic.

SCOTT MORRISON, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: That individual has to show that they are double vaccinated or must provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

HANCOCKS: Djokovic is unvaccinated, but believes his medical exemption of having had COVID 19 last month suffices. A court reinstated his visa Monday on the procedural issue, the next move has to come from the government.

The Djokovic saga has completely overshadowed this tournament, other top players asked less about their hopes and chances, but more about their opinions on the world number one.

But deputy prime minister, Burnaby Joyce, offers an interview.

BARNABY JOYCE, AUSTRALIAN DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: The vast majority of Australians said -- din like the idea that another individual, whether they're tennis player or king of Spain or the queen of England, can come up here and have a different set of rules.


HANCOCKS (on camera): So it's Friday morning now in Melbourne. The tennis starts on Monday, and the optics of making a decision to deport Djokovic after he started playing tennis certainly would not be good. But the Australian government has made it clear that they are working in their own time -- their own timetable, not that of the Australian Open -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Paula, thank you very much.

Paula Hancocks in Melbourne. We'll stay in touch with you.

Let's discuss what's going on with the journalist Jemele Hill of "The Atlantic".

Jemele, thank you for joining us.

What is this whole saga revealed about who no fact Djokovic is from your perspective?

JEMELE HOST, HOST, JEMELE HILL IS UNBOTHERED PODCAST: Well, I think when we think about this pandemic from a global standpoint, this is not only a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it's a pandemic of the selfish. And that's exactly what Novak Djokovic represents. I mean, it's one thing, if you make the decision, to be unvaccinated. And while I may not like the decisions -- that decision and others might not like either, there is an expectation that you have to go out of your way to follow the rules.


And Novak Djokovic has not done that throughout this. I mean, last June, I believe he held a cherry tournament where it became a super spreader event, where people were unmasked, there was no social distancing. So, yes, you make that decision for yourself, the problem and thinking that ways that ultimately it impacts everyone else.

And right now, his decision to force his way into this tournament, if you are someone who lives in Australia, who has been, as a country, under some of the stricter rules that we have seen worldwide and you have had to be vaccinated, you had to social distance, you had to just adhere to all of these different regulations, and here comes this guy who clearly lied on his application about when he travel to another country, we -- there are still a lot of questions about when he actually contracted COVID last month, then he's clearly trying to skirt the rules. I mean, he's basically tennis's version of Aaron Rodgers and we saw how that went for him.

Once again, it's one thing to be unvaccinated, but then when you make the extra decisions to be selfish, and to lie, that's when people start looking at you like a villain.

BLITZER: Do you think the situation, Jemele, might be different if the player in question were let's say, Serena Williams or Naomi Osaka?

HILL: I don't think is any question. Listen, we saw with the French Open with the tournament officials how they treated her, and all she wanted to do was get the press conference. She was vilified, they basically forced her out of the tournament and it was Novak Djokovic, of all people who said, rules are rules. Well, apparently not.

And, you know, when you look at how Naomi Osaka, a woman of color, Serena Williams, a black woman, how they have been treated for the slightest of infractions, if any infection, or just how the proceed the amount of castigation that they have had to undergo, and here you have the number one male tennis player in the world, Djokovic, and you look at the treatment that he's receiving, the special treatment, and it just really -- it just really brings about the double standard both for women and for women of color.

BLITZER: Jemele Hill, thanks for joining us. We'll continue this conversation.

Coming up, many experts say cloth masks aren't cutting it against the fight against the omicron variant. So, which mask should you be using to protect yourself? We have a closer look at your options, very important information you need to know right after the break.



BLITZER: Health experts agree that masking is one of the keys to preventing the spread of the coronavirus, along with vaccines and social distancing. But which masks do a better job?

CNN's Brian Todd is looking into this for us.

Brian, we've heard different messages about masks over the last two years.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have, Wolf, and it's lead to serious confusion. And even with the new guidance, the CDC director says what won't changes the recommendation that wearing any mask is better than wearing no mask at all.

Tonight, we have new information for viewers on what the government is going to say on this.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, a new effort to stem confusion about mask-wearing during the pandemic. The CDC is expected to update its guidance on the best masks to wear soon. The CDC and local health officials have recently said that N95 and KN95 masks appear to give you the most protection against the surging omicron variant.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: You should be wearing the best possible mask that we can get. That's a fact. TODD: Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top officials say N95 and KN95's

work better than the standard 3-ply surgical masks many people have worn, and much better than cloth masks. How?

One group of experts comparing leakage from masks found cloth mask can leak 75 percent in and out. Surgical mask, only 50 percent. And N95 masks, as low as 1 to 10 percent if correctly fitted.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You do want to make sure they fit properly. So, you don't want air sort of escaping from the sides, underneath or around the eyes. You have to make sure it's really snug. It is an effective mask. That's the thing.

TODD: One expert says that N95s are very similar to KN95s because they both have high officially filters. But the N95 has a slight edge over the KN95.

JOHN VOLCKENS, PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY: It provides a better fits your face. If a mask doesn't fit your face well, it's going to leak.

TODD: Another key question, can you wear an N95 or a KN95 more than once? Yes. Says one expert.

VOLCKENS: You can wear an N95, a rule of thumb is up to 40 hours of use. The filter in the N95 respirator does not go back for days to weeks.

TODD: Experts now say that with omicron, it's high time to upgrade from cloth.

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Cloth masks are a little more than facial decorations. There is no place for them in light of omicron.

TODD: Some health experts believe there's been way too much confusion over mask-wearing and the messaging monitor a pandemic.

GAVIN MACGREGOR-SKINNER, DIRECTOR OF TRAINING, GLOBAL BIORISK ADVISORY COUNCIL: We should not have any confusion over mask-wearing. This is confusion that we ourselves are the frontline workers, the government, public health expert, doctors, nurses and other influential people when it comes to infection and prevention control have actually created because we haven't got on the same page on what works and what doesn't work. And what works based on evidence.


TODD (on camera): N95s and KN95s are not cheap. They've averaged at various times during the pandemic between 80 cents and $2 apiece -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, we'll stay on top of the story, information our viewers clearly need to know. Thank you very much for that report. And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in

THE SITUATION ROOM. You could always follow me on Twitter, on Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can also tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.