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The Situation Room

CDC Clears Up Omicron Guidelines; Texas Synagogue Hostage Taking Incident Raises Fears; Martin Luther King, Jr. Day And The Voting Rights; Biden's Voting Rights Push Falls Flat As Key Dem Warns Bills "On Life Support"; Voting Rights Bill Stall In Senate As U.S. Marks MLK Day; Rep. Khanna: CDC Director Walensky Should Step Down; Novak Djokovic Returns To Serbia After Visa Saga, Won't Play In Australian Open; Russia Dig In As Ukraine Standoff Deepens; North Koreans Rattling Nerves With Four Missile Tests In Just Two Weeks. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 17, 2022 - 17:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN HOST: Scott McLean, I think a lot to come on this front, in Belgrade, Serbia for us tonight. Thank you very much. And thanks to all of you for watching this special edition of "THE LEAD." I'm Poppy Harlow in for Jake Tapper. Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the omicron wave is still -- still very much on the rise here in the United States as experts warn the surge won't peak any time soon. But the CDC is struggling to give Americans clear guidance with Dr. Walensky admitting in a new interview she hasn't communicated the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Also tonight, new details emerging right now about the hostage standoff inside a Texas synagogue that terrorized worshipers for nearly 11 hours. We'll have more information on the gunman, his motive and what finally brought the awful ordeal to an end.

And on this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the late civil rights leader's family is urging Congress to pass President Biden's voting rights bill. But the legislation has stalled in the U.S. Senate with one key Democrat warning the White House -- warning the White House that the bill is now on life support.

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington and this is THE SITUATION ROOM Special Report.

We begin with our coverage right now. The omicron surge now posing new challenges right now for the nation's public health officials. A CNN analysis finds Americans would need to avoid more than 80 percent of the public if they were to follow CDC guidelines after leaving their five-day COVID isolation.

Our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is joining us right now. Elizabeth, is it really feasible to expect people to be able to avoid such a large portion of the American public?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Wolf, the experts that I spoke said they don't think it's feasible. And these are folks who are friends of the CDC who have worked with the CDC for many, many, many decades. So basically what the CDC is saying is that if you meet certain criteria, you've got COVID, you've recovered, you don't have a fever, your symptoms are getting better, you can get out of isolation after five days and be out and about in the public.

But, and this is a big but, you have to avoid certain people. The list is so long that when we had experts look at it, they said, wait a second. That's more than 80 percent of the public. Let's give you just a few examples of the people that you're supposed to avoid once you come out of your five-day isolation.

Avoid people who are overweight, who suffer from depression, avoid current or former smokers. Avoid people who are pregnant. The list goes on and on. Avoid people with diabetes, with certain heart conditions, certain kidney conditions. The concern here is that the CDC is just sort of painted with such a wide brush that no one would ever be able to do this.

How would you even know who a former smoker is? How would you even know if someone is in the early stages of pregnancy, et cetera, et cetera? As you mentioned, Dr. Rochelle Walensky in an interview with the "Wall Street Journal" said that she's committed to communicating better. She said that she feels that the agency has not always -- that she hasn't always communicated the level of uncertainty that comes with the pandemic and the extent to which guidelines need to change as the pandemic changes. Wolf?

BLITZER: Also a new warning that is emerging from the U.S. Surgeon General that the next few weeks will be tough. When should we expect the omicron variant to peak here in the United States?

COHEN: So, Wolf, it so depends on where you live in the United States. It's such a big country that it is already, probably has already peaked in certain parts of the country but it has yet to peak in others. Let's take a look at a map of the United States. Now, this map was all dark red last week or almost dark red, meaning that there were dramatic increases in case rates throughout almost the entire country.

But now it's only partly dark red. You see the yellow there. That's where cases are holding steady. You see the green, that's where cases are actually going down. Now they are going down from this incredibly high level but, still, at least they're headed in the right direction. One of those states in green is New York. So let's take a look at New York.

On January 9th, they had 85,000 new cases. January 16th, 52,000. That's a decrease of 39 percent. On the other hand, let's look at Colorado. January 9th, about 8,600 new cases. January 16th, 16,330 new cases. That's an increase of 90 percent.

So, as I mentioned, some states, it's climbing, climbing, climbing. Other states particularly in the northeast, we're going to see the rates come down very soon and some we've already seen that. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Elizabeth, thank you very much for that update. Elizabeth Cohen reporting.


Let's go to Virginia right now where the newly inaugurated Republican governor is stirring up controversy by repealing the state's school mask mandates. CNN's Eva McKend is joining us right now. Eva, this order has been met with outrage by major school districts and parents in many parts of Virginia. What's the latest?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, in remarks, Governor Youngkin just made to the joint assembly, he described this as a matter of individual liberty. The executive order describes universal mask mandates for kids is ineffective and impractical. Now, this is to the great frustration of some parents.

One telling me earlier today that a mask mandate should not be a political Ping-Pong. School districts in northern Virginia, including Arlington and Fairfax and Henrico County and the Richmond region saying masks work and are a key mitigation strategy to keep kids in the classrooms.

Now, those districts suggest they will not go down without a fight. They will defy the executive order when it goes into effect on January 24th. But Youngkin ran on this issue. So he's essentially making good on a campaign promise. And he argues the people of Virginia spoke when they elected him and this increased agency for parents is what those voters demanded.

Now the CDC continues to recommend the use of masks in schools. And federal law requires masks on school buses. Democrats in the state say the Virginia legislature passed a law last year that requires Virginia schools to follow that federal guidance.

And to think about all of this on a larger scale, we're going to be talking about this, Wolf, for quite some time because this debate over how much control parents should have in the daily decision-making of schools will play a prominent role in the 2022 midterms. As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says, Republicans will make it part of their case as to why they should retake the majority.

BLITZER: Eva McKend reporting for us. Thank you very much, Eva.

Let me get some more analysis right now from the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Tom Frieden is joining us. Dr. Frieden, thanks for joining us. Let me quickly first of all get your perspective on these changes in Virginia. Is dropping the mask mandates in schools in Virginia a smart strategy during this omicron surge?

TOM FRIEDEN, FORMER CDC DIRECTOR: It's really unfortunate, Wolf, to see children being used as a political football and that's what we're seeing here. Masks are not an infringement on someone's liberty so much as an infringement on the ability of the virus to infect other people. Mask mandates are a proven way to increase mask use, schools need to stay open. We need to protect our children and our children's education.

And I am really disappointed to see this kind of political posturing that could have life and death consequences and could result in kids not being able to learn in school.

BLITZER: Yes. That's a really important point. The CDC's recent isolation guidance, meanwhile, is advising people who have recovered from COVID-19 that they can stop isolating after five days, but should avoid being around what amounts to, as you just heard in Elizabeth Cohen's report, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population. Does this guidance make any sense to you at all? How are we supposed to know if someone is depressed or if someone used to smoke, for example?

FRIEDEN: Wolf, it's easy to criticize but hard to do better. When the CDC talks about being close to people who have elevated risk, they're not talking about passing someone on the street or being in a supermarket next to someone. They're talking about going over to someone's house. They're talking about socializing with someone at length. Someone who you may have a prolonged period of sharing enclosed air with.

And this is an example of CDC needing to communicate better. My view is that their isolation and quarantine guidance was generally right, but failing to explain it clearly, explain the choices that were made, why they were made, what the judgments were with the science is. That has led to a vacuum when people are making kind of pot-shot criticisms at the CDC.

BLITZER: The CDC director, Dr. Walensky, also admits in this interview with "The Wall Street Journal" that she hasn't adequately conveyed the uncertainty a lot of the situations surrounding this COVID-19 pandemic. You served as the CDC director. If the message isn't getting relayed correctly, at what point do they need to find, this is a blunt question, a new messenger?

FRIEDEN: Well, I think they need to start messaging regularly from Atlanta. A week and a half ago for the first time, Dr. Walensky and two of the experts at the CDC briefed the media. That needs to be happening at least once a week. So much is changing. The virus is adapting to people. We need to adapt to the virus. That means learn how it's changing.


Omicron is not a wave, Wolf. It's a tsunami. There are huge numbers. But the more we learn, the more it's clear that it's not causing anything like the kind of severe illness that prior waves did. That means nothing about what the next wave may be. Maybe delta will come back. Maybe another variant will come. Maybe no other variants will come.

And that kind of uncertainty means that at the beginning of every statement we should say, based on what we know now, here is our best advice for how you can be safe and keep your family and community safe.

BLITZER: Still a lot of confusion out there. Dr. Tom Frieden, thank you as usual for joining us. These are important issues indeed.

Coming up, new insight right now to the courageous escape by hostages held at gunpoint inside a Texas synagogue. The FBI calling the standoff an act of terrorism. This is THE SITUATION ROOM Special Report.



BLITZER: Tonight, survivors of the hostage standoff inside a Texas synagogue are sharing truly harrowing accounts of their hours-long ordeal. This as investigators try to pin down the gunman's motive. Our security correspondent Josh Campbell has an update from Colleyville, Texas.


JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, new details about how a deadly hostage standoff unfolded and ultimately ended. This astonishing video from affiliate WFAA shows the moment three hostages were able to make their escape from a Texas synagogue as the hostage taker emerges with a gun before going back inside. And an elite FBI tactical team prepares to storm the building.

The FBI now investigating this event as terror related. Identifying the hostage taker as a 44-year-old British national whom a U.S. law enforcement source says arrived in the United States last month. Staying at a homeless shelter in the Dallas area prior to the standoff. One federal law enforcement official telling CNN neither U.S. nor British intelligence appear to have any incriminating information on the hostage taker prior to the incident.

During Saturday services, the suspect took four people hostage inside the Texas synagogue including the rabbi. During the standoff, the suspect repeatedly spoke of a prisoner serving an 86-year sentence here in the U.S. for trying to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Sources say the suspect told FBI negotiators he wanted the imprisoned extremist brought to the synagogue so they could die together.

UNKNOWN: I'm going to die at the end of this, alright? Are you listening? I am going to die.

CAMPBELL (voice-over): Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker spoke to CBS about how he met the gunman and took him into the synagogue before the ordeal unfolded.

CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER, RABBI, CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL: I took him in, I stayed with him. Making tea was an opportunity for me to talk with him. I heard a click. And it could have been anything. And it turned out that it was his gun. CAMPBELL (voice-over): One hostage was released during the day and

the hours-long standoff finally ended after the remaining hostages were able to escape.

CYTRON-WALKER: When I saw an opportunity, where he wasn't in a good position, I asked -- made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were -- that they were ready to go. The exit wasn't too far away. I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.

CAMPBELL (voice-over): An FBI rescue team then rushed the building. The suspect killed in the encounter. Nearly 11 hours after he first entered the synagogue. The rabbi detailing how members of his synagogue have undergone courses from the FBI and other organizations to prepare for scenarios like this. Training which may ultimately have saved lives.

CYTRON-WALKER: They really teach you in those moments that if you're -- when your life is threatened, you need to do whatever you can to get to safety. You need to do whatever you can to get out.


CAMPBELL (on camera): Now, Wolf, you are looking at live images of the Beth Israel synagogue. As you can see, it remains a crime scene at this hour as technicians continue to process that building for evidence. Of course, Wolf, for members of the Jewish community and allies around the world, the scars from this incident will long remain even after the bullet holes in that building are patched and the crime scene tape finally removed.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Josh Campbell reporting for us from the scene. Thank you very much.

Let's discuss with Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers who survived the truly horrific 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg. We're also joined by the CEO and national director of the Anti- Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt.

Jonathan, thankfully these hostages were able to return home safely to their families. But what I've heard over and over again from Jews all over the country is that this could have been me. This is just one incident in a wave of anti-Semitic attacks, isn't it?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT, CEO, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: Yes. I mean, Wolf, we're living really, I think, in a moment of crisis. When congregates can be kidnapped going to synagogue. When shoppers at a kosher supermarket can be gunned down. When people just living their daily lives find their sacred spaces under siege and it's no accident.

Look, in 2020, ADL counted the highest, third highest total of anti- Semitic incidents we've ever seen in more than 40 years. Just six months ago in May we had Jews attacked in broad daylight in Times Square, in Los Angeles, prompted by the fighting in Gaza.

We have extremists on the far right. We have radicals on the far left and all of them are scapegoating and targeting Jews.


And that's why, you know, I must say here tonight, especially being with Rabbi Meyers who suffered so much, I am alarmed and angry. Angry that we're still dealing with this problem when it should be put to bed.

BLITZER: Yes. All of us are. As I mentioned, Rabbi Meyers, you actually survived that massacre in your synagogue that killed 11 worshippers. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of this country. So what goes through your mind, Rabbi, as you reflect on this most recent attack 48 hours ago?

JEFFREY MEYERS, TREE OF LIFE SYNAGOGUE: Well, thank you, Wolf. My initial response was more of, oh, no, not again. I thought first, of course, the status of all the worshipers in the congregation not having enough information at the time. As time goes on, to be able to hope and pray that they can all survive and get out at least physically alive. And then I begin to think of the grander scenario of how does this impact my synagogue, my community and more broadly, Jews in the United States and beyond?

BLITZER: It really is an awful situation. You drive around either Washington or New York, L.A., all over the country and you see, as a matter of just a precaution, police cars outside just waiting and watching to make sure nothing bad happens.

You know, Jonathan, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker in Texas says he and the other hostages are alive today because of the courses, the courses they took out of an abundance of caution, including from your own organization, the ADL, to prepare for potential threats. So, what does it say that worshipers need to prepare like this, simply to go and pray on the Sabbath?

GREENBLATT: I think it is terrifying that members of the clergy, whether it's Rabbi Meyers who was so heroic in 2018 or Rabbi Charlie who was so heroic this weekend who want to teach Torah have to be trained in tactical maneuvers.

I mean, Wolf, what does it say about our country that, again, the act of walking into sheol is, you know, an act of defiance, almost bravery? I mean, I think we really need to look at leaders on both sides of the aisle to call out hate when it happens. To recognize that demonizing, delegitimizing the Jewish people or the Jewish state has consequences.

And I am tired of Jews having to deal with this any longer because I would suggest tonight, Wolf, anti-Semitism, it is not a Jewish problem. It's an American problem. It's a failure of our democracy when we're unable to worship with safety and security. So once and for all, I want community leaders across the spectrum to recognize right- wing extremism, left-wing radicalism, violence and Islamism, all of it is a threat and needs to be treated with the utmost seriousness.

Because even as we do this work, Wolf, we will never build high enough walls. The only way that we can really secure our communities is by reaching out to our Muslim brothers and sisters, our Christian friends and cousins. We have got to find ways to come together even in these moments of tragedy.

BLITZER: Give me a final thought, Rabbi Meyers, from you.

MEYERS: I would like to follow up on what Jonathan said so succinctly. It's a moral failure in America and it's up to America to fix this. Jews should not feel afraid to go worship in their house of worship. What good is the constitution or the declaration of independence if people cast it aside and decide that it doesn't apply to them?

But, you know, this is not merely about synagogues. We find this happening in all houses of worship. It calls to a bigger debate and consideration in the United States of the moral failures in America that people cannot worship in houses of worship safely without the potential for a bad actor. Shame on America.

BLITZER: Yes. Excellent point, Rabbi Meyers. Thank you so much for joining us. Our heart goes out to your congregation and Jonathan Greenblatt, thanks to you.

An important note to our viewers. In the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM, I'll speak live with a survivor of the Texas synagogue hostage standoff. You're going to hear his firsthand account of the truly terrifying ordeal.

Up next, honoring the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. as a fierce battle over voting rights in the U.S. weighs heavily on this hour.



BLITZER: On this Martin Luther King Day, the Biden administration is trying to revive a key part of the agenda, voting rights legislation. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is joining us from the White House right now. Jeff, President Biden is approaching one year in office, but he is facing multiple headwinds right now on multiple fronts, including voting rights.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he absolutely is. This is the eve of that critical Senate vote tomorrow on voting rights legislation, which everyone knows is simply not going to pass because there is resistance in the Democratic Party. But that did not stop President Biden today from delivering a taped message to a Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast earlier today here in Washington.


And his words were also echoed by the King family. They were aimed directly at senators urging them to pass this voting rights legislation in the name and legacy of Dr. King.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Will we stand against voter suppression? Yes or no? Will we stand against the election of subversion? Yes or No? Will we stand up for an America where everyone is guaranteed the full protections and the full promise of this nation? Yes or no.

I know where I stand this time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III, GLOBAL HUMAN RIGHTS LEADER: So no matter what happens tomorrow, we must keep the pressure on and say no more empty words. Don't tell us what you believe in, show us with your votes. History will be watching what happens tomorrow. Black and brown Americans will be watching what happens tomorrow.

In 50 years, students will read about what happens tomorrow and know whether our leaders have the integrity to do the right thing.


ZELENY: Of course, these voting rights bills have been passed by the House but they are stalled in the Senate, largely because of that filibuster rule. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona simply do not support the idea of even temporarily changing the Senate rules to allow this narrow bill to go forward. Of course, this all comes in the wake of the election lies and the changing of laws across this country in 19 states, some 34 laws, have made it more difficult to vote since the 2020 election.

But if this fails tomorrow, as it's expected to, President Biden has said he will push forward with as well. The open question here, Wolf, is, are Democrats going to accept some type of a compromise and work with Republicans on a smaller scale back voting rights protection? They're not talking about that yet. But after the vote fails tomorrow, they certainly might be. Wolf?

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you.

Let's discuss with Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California. Congressman, thanks for joining us. As you heard these voting rights bills are expected to fail in the U.S. Senate. Does President Biden have any options left when it comes to legislation?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA), PROGRESSIVE CAUCUS DEPUTY WHIP: He does. First of all, I'm really glad he's making a speech defending the fundamental right to vote that he says that we ought to be able to pass this with 51 votes when it comes to equality. If it doesn't pass, I believe he will sit down with the leadership and the senators who voted against this to see what can we protect. Can we at least make sure that people can't be kicked off the roles? Can we at least make sure everyone has ballot boxes and access to that?

BLITZER: As you know, Vice President Kamala Harris said today, and I'm quoting her now, she said, we must not be complacent or complicit. Do Democrats, Congressman, need to more forcefully call out who's complicit in this deadlock?

KHANNA: Well, I have. I have called out Senator Sinema speech. I said, imagine if Senator Sinema was in the Senate in 1964, 1965 and the choice for her was passed civil rights legislation to desegregate America or pass the voting rights legislation to give every black American have the right to vote. And the choice was do it with 51 votes. Would you really say that she wouldn't vote for it if it need -- if it couldn't overcome the filibuster? I don't think she would.

So what is different now when you're talking about black Americans or brown Americans voting rights? I think she should answer that question.

BLITZER: Yes. And let's not forget, maybe two or three or four Democrats may vote to oppose some sort of filibuster change, but all 50 Republicans in the U.S. Senate, they're opposed as well. So that's, I think, something we shouldn't forget.

Nearly a year into the Biden presidency, Congressman, the President has failed to pass his signature Build Back Better legislation. There's no clear path forward on voting rights, at least not now. The country is suffering through yet another wave of the pandemic. The President's approval rating and our poll of polls down at 42 percent. Can the President get the country back on track?

KHANNA: Wolf, I don't often quote James Carville, but we got to remind people of all we've done. The American Rescue Plan that's led to almost full employment in this country. The infrastructure bill that no president had been able to pass the distribution of vaccines.

So I agree that there are still challenges we still need to figure out how we pass some version of Build Back Better. We need to figure out how we help our supply chains produce for to lower prices. But the President has a lot to run on and we have a lot to be proud of as a Democratic Party.

BLITZER: That's a fair point indeed. Before I let you go, Congressman, I know you're calling for the CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky to be replacing, quote, and I'm quoting you now. We need clear, better communication. Given all the uncertainty around this pandemic, you think someone else could do a better job?

KHANNA: I tweeted out I thought Ashish Jha would be terrific. I know now people are saying I called for the Oscar (ph). I mean, look, what I think is we need someone like Dr. Ashish Jha, someone who is compassionate, who has been right on most of the calls. Who understand that we need to be fast when it comes to masking and testing and getting that out there, there are others as well but I do think that we need strong empathetic leadership in that position.


BLITZER: Congressman Ro Khanna, thanks as usual for joining us.

KHANNA: Thank you, Wolf. BLITZER: Just ahead, controversial tennis star Novak Djokovic is back in Serbia after Australia deported him over COVID vaccination requirements. So what does this mean for his career as other major tennis tournaments are getting closer and closer?


BLITZER: Novak Djokovic is back in Serbia tonight, missing out on the Australian Open after officials deported him and now his vaccination status could be throwing his entire tennis career into limbo. CNN's Phil Black is tracking the story. He's joining us live from Melbourne, Australia right now. Give us the latest, Phil.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Novak Djokovic lost his battle to stay in Australia and play in the Australian Open but that unvaccinated status seems likely to complicate his career in the near future at least.


The French government has confirmed that for the coming French Open, the calendars next Grand Slam event, only French players will be able to participate. Now that's coming up in May. So at the moment, Djokovic has a little bit of time to think about this to consider just how committed, how determined he is to remaining unvaccinated.

But unless he has a pretty significant change of heart in the near future, it seems that he will not be able to participate. The consequences there for him, for tennis more broadly, are potentially quite significant. He is the reigning men's champ. His absence would again provide an opportunity for his close rivals Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer to potentially climb ahead or even further ahead in the total number of Grand Slam titles won. And by that measure, becoming the greatest player of all time.

Here in Melbourne, the Australian Open has opened without Roger -- without Novak Djokovic, I should say. And even here, though there is a question about his future ability to play, even before you consider potential future vaccine requirements. The cancellation of his visa by Australia's Immigration Minister automatically comes with a three-year entry ban. He can't come to the country for three years, unless he appeals that and makes an argument that says there are compelling circumstances in Australia's interests, Wolf.

BLITZER: He could solve a lot of this for himself. Simply get vaccinated, then he can go play tennis all over the world.

Phil Black in Melbourne for us, thank you very much.

Let's discuss with CNN's Sports Analyst Christine Brennan. Christine, Djokovic seem to think the Australian Open needed him and yet the tournament is carrying on, carrying on well right now without him, isn't it?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: It sure is, Wolf. And several of the players have said hey, no one is bigger than the game of tennis. This is one of the four Grand Slam tournaments. It's a very, very big deal. It's the first one of the year of course.

And, yes, it can survive without anyone, certainly Djokovic. It is absolutely mind-boggling. Wolf, you're a big sports fan. Obviously, I cover sports, that there would be an athlete in the prime of his career, 34 years old, you don't have a big window if you're a pro- athlete to be at the very top of your game. And that he would choose to make this stand on this point, on a vaccine and lose the opportunity to compete in at least one grand slam.

Because as Phil was saying, maybe two, who knows what could happen for the rest of the season. This is where he's making the stand. I never, in a million years, would have believed an athlete with just a few years, you know, even what, 10 years whatever, in their prime would choose to make this decision and lose not only of course, the opportunity to win tournaments, Wolf, but also to make money and to have your sponsors be happy. It's absolutely stunning.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly is. And Djokovic's participation as we noted in the French Open that's coming up, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open later this year is clearly in question. If he doesn't get vaccinated, you expect once he's faced with that reality, we're going to see him given and finally get the shot.

BRENNAN: Wolf, I would expect that. I mean, you'd have to feel that no matter what, how angry he is and what kind of stand he want to take and the line in the sand that this was important to him as an anti- vaxxer and against mandates, whatever, that he would just say this is nuts. I mean, you don't want to lose a whole year of your career at the peak of the career.

It's just -- it really would be a surprise for him to do that. Having said that, I never would have foreseen these last few weeks. So, you know, we'll see what happens.

BLITZER: We certainly will. I wouldn't have foreseen it either.

All right, Christine, thank you very much.

Coming up, North Korea launches its fourth missile since the year start. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: Tonight, Russian officials are digging in amid a standoff with the United States over Russia's military buildup near Ukraine. Our Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is tracking the story from Moscow.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, it certainly isn't looking like de-escalation when we look at some of the things that the Russians have been saying over the past couple of days. You have, for instance, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in an interview with CNN. He said that he believes right now the U.S. and Russia are in two completely different tracks as far as those security talks are concerned. He called that, quote, disturbing.

Of course, the Russians have made some core demands of the U.S. and its NATO allies. They say they want written assurances that there's not going to be additional expansion of NATO. They also want some of NATO's weapons to be pulled out of Eastern European countries.

However, first and foremost, the Russians say they want written assurances that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO. The U.S., of course, has already said that that's a non-starter and threatened massive sanctions, should Russia further invade Ukraine.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Wolf, though today Sergey Lavrov, he called some of the allegations made by U.S. officials that apparently Russia had possibly placed operatives in the east of Ukraine for possible false flag operations that could trigger an armed conflict. He called that disinformation at the same time, however, he also said that Russia is impatiently waiting for written responses from the U.S. to its demands. Wolf?

BLITZER: Fred, thank you. Fred Pleitgen reporting.

Now to the latest on the COVID situation in China, where the country's zero tolerance policies are throwing the upcoming Winter Olympics into chaos. CNN's Selina Wang has more.

SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, China says it will no longer saw Winter Olympic tickets to the public, instead Chinese authorities will choose who can attend. International fans have already been banned from attending.


In the coming weeks, thousands of athletes and officials from around the world will be gathering under some of the strictest COVID counter measures in the world. There'll be at a closed bubble during the entirety of the games, PCR tested daily and vaccinated or forced to quarantine for 21 days. This comes as Beijing has reported its first case of Omicron.

This in a country where even one COVID case is one to many. Several cities across China are back in wartime mode using snap lockdowns, mass testing, quarantines and contact tracing to stamp out every last case. And while China's zero COVID strategy has worked so far with cases in China dramatically lower than other parts of the world, the Winter Olympics is going to push that strategy to its limit. Wolf?

BLITZER: CNN's Selina Wang reporting, thank you.

Another very important international story we're following, the United Arab Emirates is making good and it's vowed to avenge a deadly drone attack that killed three people in Abu Dhabi. CNN has learned that airstrikes against targets in Yemen are now underway. Our Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley has more.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the United Arab Emirates has said that a double drone attack here that killed three people in the Emirati capital, one Pakistani and two Indians, attributed to and claimed by the Houthi rebels of northern Yemen, will not in the words of the Emiratis go and punish. This, they say is a criminal escalation.

It comes after the Houthis have accused the Emiratis of backing a militia there in support of the Saudi coalition, itself in support of the government of Yemen in their long-running civil war against the Houthis of helping out there at a time when the Emiratis had officially said that they were withdrawing from that conflict. But nonetheless, this now poses a serious problem from the Emiratis because, of course, if they do conduct any kind of military operation back in the Yemen, this drags them back into a conflict, a conflict in which the Houthi rebels are also backed by Iran. And it's with Iran that the Emiratis have been trying to warm relations, Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's Sam Kiley in Abu Dhabi, thank you for that report.

We're also tracking yet another North Korean missile launch that's rattling nerves in the region and indeed around the world. CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us. Brian, what can you tell us about this latest missile test?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. The North Koreans just moments ago gave an update on the latest test launch, saying they fired off two tactical guided missiles. This is indeed a tense period in the region right now as Kim Jong-un's regime has also been testing other even more dangerous missiles.


TODD (voice-over): For the fourth time, just this month, North Korea's mercurial young dictator gets aggressive with his missiles. Kim Jong- un's regime saying it fired two tactical guided missiles into the ocean off its east coast today, which Japanese defense officials say were ballistic missiles.

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": With this series of tests, one right after the other, it indicates that Kim thinks that he can push the international community around.

PATRICK CRONIN, THE HUDSON INSTITUTE: Military programs have progressed. He's ready to test a couple of new systems. One of them is a hypersonic system with ultra-fast maneuverable warheads. Secondly, he's got a rail base system that he wants to deploy as well.

TODD (voice-over): This does come on the heels of North Korea's test firings of two ballistic missiles from a railcar on Friday, and what the regime claims were two different tests of hypersonic missiles earlier in January. The hypersonic tests are especially concerning to U.S. officials and weapons experts.

In one of those recent tests, which state media said Kim Jong-un viewed in person. South Korean officials said the missile reached a velocity of more than 10 times the speed of sound. They're also worrisome, analysts say, because hypersonics can change maneuvers easily in flight, making them harder for U.S. defenses to shoot down. CHANG: Hypersonic glide vehicles can drop out of orbit and incinerate an American city with very little warning. These are weapons that we have really very few defenses against.

TODD (voice-over): Why is Kim Jong-un acting in such a threatening manner right now? Some analysts believe he wants to provoke the Biden administration into engaging in negotiations with him so he can get crippling sanctions against his country reduced. Experts say he also could be doing this to distract his people from their own internal crises.

IAN BREMMER, PRESIDENT, EURASIA GROUP: They've been dealing with COVID too and the lockdown to their border with China means that about 90 percent of the trade that they usually do with their most important trade partner has fallen apart.

TODD (voice-over): Another reason for Kim's aggression, according to one analyst, could be an attempt to glorify the Kim dynasty. Last month, Kim Jong-un marked a decade since his ascent to power. And in April, North Korea will celebrate the 110th birthday of its founder, Kim's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, a hero to most North Koreans.

JEAN LEE, SENIOR FELLOW, THE WILSON CENTER: The Kim family has used weapons as a way to show their people that they're protecting them, that they're defending them, protecting their way of life.


TODD (voice-over): But one expert worries about these weapons test triggering a disaster.

CRONIN: Rapid succession of testing of new advanced systems could lead to an error strike against Japan or some other provocation that causes an escalation. So there is danger here.


TODD: Analysts say another thing to keep an eye on in the months ahead is South Korea's presidential election in early March. The Conservative Party candidate there Yoon Seok-youl has a shot to win, experts say, if he does, they say, he could take a much harder line toward North Korea and tensions there could ramp up even further. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brian Todd reporting, thank you very much.

Coming up, new details right now about the hostage crisis that unfolded in a Texas synagogue. I'll speak with one of the survivors about his grave escape.