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ISIS Leader Killed In U.S. Special Forces Raid; Hundreds Of Thousands Powerless Amid Monster Winter Storm; Sources Says Top Pence Aides Declined To Talk To January 6th Committee About Direct Conversations With Trump But Answered Other Questions; CDC: Only Half Of Individuals Eligible To Receive A Booster Dose Have Gotten One; Soon: 2022 Winter Olympics Kick Off Under COVID Cloud. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 03, 2022 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Our coverage now continues with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer who I believe is right next door in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, inside the risky U.S. Special Forces raid that left the leader of ISIS dead. I'm getting new information from the Biden administration, as the president warns other top terrorists, we will find you.

Also tonight, breaking news on the January 6th committee's interviews with two former top aides to Vice President Pence. We're learning about the questions they agreed to answer. And why they drew the line on talking about conversations with then-President Trump.

And a huge winter storm dumps snow, ice and sleet across the U.S., leaving a hundreds of thousands of homes without power and thousands of flights canceled. The dangerous condition may only worsen in the hours ahead.

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.

We begin with the death of the brutal leader of ISIS, targeted by U.S. Special Forces during a dramatic raid in Syria overnight. The Biden administration says the operation dealt a catastrophic blow to the terrorist group. CNN's Oren Liebermann has more from the Pentagon.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A U.S. raid shattering the overnight hours in Northwest Syria, Special Forces going after the leader of ISIS, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi ,AKA Haji Abdullah.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: Last night's operation took a major terrorist leader off of the battlefield. And sent a strong message to terrorists around the world -- we will come after you and find you.

LIEBERMANN: President Joe Biden watched from the White House as Special Forces closed in on their target. The helicopters approached the three-story compound in the middle of the night, according to senior administration officials. Once on the ground, Special Forces warned civilians to clear out, evacuating ten civilians, including eight children.

Officials say al-Qurashi then blew himself up, killing his wife and children and tearing the top of the building apart. His lieutenant, one floor below, was killed in an exchange of fire with U.S. forces. The Pentagon said a child was also killed on this floor but wouldn't say how or by whom.

Toward the end of the two-hour operation, official say two members of an Al Qaeda affiliate were killed in an exchange of fire with U.S. forces. U.S. forces also having to destroy one of the helicopters on the ground after mechanical failures. Four civilians were killed and all, according to the Pentagon, and five combatants that wasn't the plan.

GEN. KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR, CENTCOM COMMANDER: And I say capture the leader of ISIS. That was the intent of the mission.

LIEBERMANN: This raid was the biggest U.S. operation in Syria since the operation that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, the original leader of ISIS.

Al-Qurashi's background is a bit of a mystery. His exact birthplace and birth date unclear. He was in U.S. detention in 2008 before he was turned over to the Iraqis and at some point released. In March 2020, the State Department labeled him as specially designated global terrorist, with a $10 million reward.

BIDEN: He was responsible for the recent brutal attack on a prison in northeast Syria holding ISIS fighters. He was the driving force behind of the genocide of Yazidi people in Northwestern Iraq in 2014.

LIEBERMANN: Al-Qurashi never left the third floor of the building in northwest Syria except to bathe on the roof, officials said. By early December, intelligence officials believed they had pinpointed his location and Biden authorized the operation.

The White House called his death a blow to ISIS. But the terror organization, still suffering from the defeat of its self-declared caliphate in 2019, has plans to rebuild.


LIEBERMANN (on camera): U.S. officials say the next leader of ISIS, whenever he is chosen, will suffer the same fate.

Now, it's worth pointing out, we're less than 24 hours since this operation. So, there are still questions that are left unanswered. Key among them, the Pentagon says nine people were killed, four civilians and five combatants, yet the White Helmets on the ground in Syria say 13. That's a big discrepancy, Wolf. And we'll wait and ask to find out why there's such a big difference between those two numbers and where those four people were. BLITZER: Good question, indeed. All right, Oren Leibermann, thank you very much.

Let's get to the Ukraine crisis right now. The United States says it believes Russia is preparing a very graphic propaganda video depicting a fake attack that it would use as a pretext for launching an invasion.

Let's go to Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance, he's in the Ukraine Capital of Kyiv. Matthew, what more are you learning right now about this so-called false flag plot?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Wolf, this is exactly the kind the false flag operation that Ukrainian officials I've spoken to tonight are also warning about.


And so there's a high degree of agreement between the Ukrainians and the U.S. side about the nature of the threat facing this country from Russia at the moment.

What a senior that U.S. official tells CNN is that Russia plans to fabricate a pretext for the invasion of Russia, and he's going to do that by falsely blaming the Ukrainian military for carrying out an attack that they would stage against Russian-backed rebels or against Russia itself. The official said that the plan apparently would be to make some kind of propaganda video.

And there's very high degree of details that U.S official say that they have identified, that the video would contain explosions, corpses, actors who depicted mourners, NATO drones to try to make a link with the western military line. It will be quite a production worthy, if you like, of Hollywood, if it's made.

The caveat though, according to U.S. officials, is it is just one of the options available to Russia to create that kind of pretext. They're not absolutely certain it would go ahead. But, again, it does tally with some of the kind of operations that have been exposed over the past few days, in fact, in the past few weeks, by Ukrainian intelligence and warned about by U.S. in the past about what Russia may be planning here, to what Russia actually says, which it categorically denies any part in these kinds of operations.

It also, by the way, denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine again. Of course, it did it back in 2014. But it's trying to put as much distance, officials there, from these allegations, as it can.

BLITZER: Matthew Chance in Ukraine for us, Matthew, thank you very much.

Let's discuss all of this, joining us from the White House, the Principal deputy national security adviser, Jonathan Finer. Jonathan, thanks very much for joining us.

We do have a lot to discuss. But let's start with this operation, targeting the head of ISIS. How far does his death go in setting back the terror group?

JONATHAN FINER, PRINCIPAL DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: So, Wolf, first of all, thanks for having me on. What I would say about the death of Haji Abdullah is that ISIS is an organization that has spread from its origins in Iraq and Syria to a number of other locations around the world, to Africa, to South Asia.

But the headquarters, the command element, the oversight for the organization, is still in Syria and was in the personhood of Haji Abdullah. Removing him from the battlefield will have significant consequences for the organization.

That does not mean, by the way, by any stretch of the imagination, that the fight against ISIS is over. This is an organization that has three U.S. administrations now, taken significant losses. But we're going to remain focused on this threat. It is not gone just because this person has been removed from the battlefield.

BLITZER: As you know, the Pentagon says four civilians and five combatants were killed in this operation but the White Helmets, a humanitarian organization on the ground in Syria, they say 13 were killed, including six children and four women. How do you explain the discrepancy?

FINER: So, I think, Wolf, we will continue over the coming hours and days to gather information, including the after-action reports from some of our most experienced professional service members who were sent to conduct this operation and whose accounts, firsthand account from the ground, have formed the basis of our understanding of what transpire transpired.

But taking a step back, a huge part of the reason why the exact details are going to be a bit cloudy, is because of a decision that Haji Abdullah himself chose to make. When our forces arrived at the site, and gave the terrorist leader every chance to surrender, to be taken into custody, as General Frank McKenzie said earlier today, he made a different choice. Even though his family was co-located with him in the very room where he was present, he decided to blow up the building, blow up the third floor of the building and cause an untold number of casualties through that very act. And so that made it much more difficult to sort through the wreckage of what our service members found.

BLITZER: You know, and on that point, the White House actually bristled, Jonathan, today when asked for evidence that al-Qurashi blew himself up after the botched drone strike in Kabul last August killed ten innocent civilians. Is it appropriate to simply be so dismissive of a basic request for more information?

FINER: Again, I believe that there will be the ability to put out more information overtime including, as I said, the best source of information on what transpired, which is the accounts, the direct accounts, the observations of our some of our most experienced and professional service members who were on the site, who observed this happening in real-time. We also have other means of observing what took place during the events of last night. And we believe that this has a high degree of credibility.

BLITZER: So, we will get more evidence of that, is that what you're saying?

FINER: What I'm saying is their accounts, the accounts of the witnesses of the people who observed what took place is the most definitive account of what transpired. And anything that comes directly out of the field since then is being assembled after the fact. And so we believe that there's a high degree of credibility again of the observations of the operators, of the service members who are on the site watching this transpire.


BLITZER: Let's turn to Ukraine and the incredible news the administration did reveal today publicly that Russia planned to release a graphic video showing a fake attack against Russia, to justify an invasion of Ukraine. What more can you tell us, Jonathan, about this? Have they already filmed this video or were they planning to do so?

FINER: I can't tell you anymore details beyond what's been provided in the reports. But I think what is really actually critically important is to talk about why Russia might do this. Russia has a long history, a playbook that we've described many times before, of fabricating, fomenting some sort of incident that they themselves cause and then using that incident as a justification to take military action.

And what we are saying in this case, as they are amassing thousands, now tens of thousands of troops, on the Russia/Ukraine border, is that we are not going to sit back simply and allow them to do that and then to claim justification for going to a war that they do not need to fight. We're going to tell the world in advance that this is what they're contemplating.

And this is not to say, as your correspondent rightly pointed out that we know what a 100 percent certain, that this is the provocation. This is the pretext that they are going to create. But what we do know is this is one of the options under consideration.

BLITZER: As you know, the White House is no longer using the word imminent to describe a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. So, what is your best assessment right now, Jonathan, of when Russia will actually make a move?

FINER: I actually think we've been consistent on this. We have said now for a number of days and even weeks that the number of forces that Russia has amassed on the border with Ukraine and now in Belarus suggests that it has sufficient forces to begin a military action, should it make the decision to do so and if that action could begins at any time.

BLITZER: So is it still imminent?

FINER: It could begin at any time. BLITZER: That sounds like imminent to me. All right, the deputy national security adviser to the president, Jonathan Finer, we will certainly continue these conversations. I appreciate it very much.

And I should note we see the White House is lit up tonight in red, white and blue, a show of support by the way, for team USA at the Winter Olympics. Very nice, indeed.

All right, just ahead, we're learning new information about the January 6th committee's interviews with top aides to former Vice President Mike Pence. We have details on which questions they answered and where they drew the line.



BLITZER: Breaking news. Sources tell CNN that top aides to former Vice President Mike Pence are refusing to answer questions about certain direct conversations with former President Donald Trump, even as they cooperate with the January 6th select committee on other fronts.

Our Congressional Correspondent Ryan Nobles is joining us from Capitol Hill right now. Ryan, so what were the red lines for the former vice president's top aides?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, from we understand Greg Jacob who was the former Chief Counsel to Vice President Mike Pence and Marc Short his former Chief of Staff, told the January 6th select committee that they were not going to venture into any area that former President Donald Trump and his legal advisers had suggested may enter into a question of executive privilege.

So the big thing under those pretenses meant that they weren't going to answer questions about specific conversations that happened between the former president and the former vice president and perhaps any conversations that they may have had with the former president.

But were also told that it wasn't really a big impediment to this deposition that took place between these two gentlemen. And that for the most part these interviews which were very extensive, six to seven hours, in some cases were uncontentious, that they were able to be productive and get the information that they are looking for. So what this tells us, Wolf, is that, in general, those connected to the former Vice President Mike Pence have been very cooperated with the committee and they are getting the information they are looking for.

They, of course, view Mike Pence and the role he played leading up to January 6th and on that day as a crucial part of the investigation. And both Jacob and Marc Short are two individuals that were very close to the vice president during that period of time.

BLITZER: And in contrast to their cooperation with the committee, the committee also spoke to a former Justice Department official who was trying to help Trump actually overturn the presidential election. Tell our viewers what you're learning about his testimony.

NOBLES: Yes. That's Jeffery Clark, the former DOJ Official who was peddling the claims of voter fraud with inside the Department of Justice and wanted the Department of Justice to investigate those claims. He just will not answer any questions that the January 6th committee has in front of them. I'm told that over the 1:40 that he sat with the committee yesterday, that he took the fifth more than 100 times and took the fifth to almost every question that he was asked by the committee.

This is a trend, Wolf. We've seen a number of witnesses, particularly those closely aligned with the former president, John Eastman, that conservative lawyer, Alex Jones, Roger Stone, all of them have said they have taken the fifth to a majority of the questions that were asked of them by the January 6th committee.

The big question that this brings up, Wolf, is how does the committee handle the criminal contempt referral they have against Jeffrey Clark right now? It's been voted out of committee. The House has not voted on it yet. The committee now has to decide if they take the next step. Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's see what they decide. Thank you very much Ryan Nobles up on Capitol Hill.

Let's discuss with CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger and our Senior Law Enforcement Analyst Andrew McCabe, the former FBI Deputy Director.

Gloria, these Pence aides refuse to discuss the conversations with the former President, Trump, but they answered most of the committee's questions. They could certainly shed a lot of light on both Trump's actions and what the then-vice president told them couldn't they?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. I mean, look. These are key eyewitnesses during key events. They were both with the vice president on Capitol Hill on January 6th. So they can tell you about the conversations with the vice president that day, and what occurred and whether what the vice president was hearing from the president himself.


And they were also in the room with the president when an attorney was trying to convince Mike Pence that he could actually decertify the election. So, these are really key witnesses here for them.

And as we all know, Mike Pence is not really thrilled about any idea of going before the committee. So, what they are trying to do is effectively have these two gentlemen, who are very close to Mike Pence, speak for him, if you will, since they were with him at key moments.

BLITZER: You know, Andrew, how much can the committee glean from two cooperative witnesses who were so close to the then-vice president? ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Wolf, there's a lot of information that I'm sure these two gentlemen have to provide, even despite the fact that they are apparently reluctant to discuss actual conversations with the president.

You know, they -- Marc Short particularly was with the vice president the entire day on January 6th. If he can talk about conversation he have with the vice president, places they went, what happened when they were at the Capitol and rushed out in an effort to save the vice president from the violence that was occurring there. He was certainly a close adviser to the vice president in the days leading up to January 6th, when the vice president we know was struggling with how to handle the pressure that he had been put under by the president. So, there's a lot of really intricate, corroborative detail that they could get from Mr. Short and Mr. Jacob.

BLITZER: That's absolutely true. And Andrew, let me get your reaction to the reporting from The Washington Post that Trumped advisers actually circulated a memo to seize NSA data in their attempt to overturn the election. As a former acting FBI Director, how disturbing are those details?

MCCABE: I tell you, Wolf, I can't keep track of the disturbing memos. There's been so many of them over the course of the story. But this one really pushes the bounds of believability. It is searching NSA data, top secret NSA data, is one of the most tightly scrutinized and legally restricted things our government does.

It is done only under very, very limited circumstances. This is certainly not one of them. So, what they're proposing in this memo, and I have it here, is just absolutely far beyond the bounds of how this sort of data is reviewed and applied.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, the former vice president, Mike Pence, he will be speaking publicly before the Federalist Society tomorrow. How is he approaching the committee's spotlight on him as he weighs a presidential run, especially given all the attacks in recent days from the former president against the former vice president?

BORGER: Yes. Look, the former president has done everything except call Mike Pence a criminal. And I'm sure he doesn't like it. He said, well, the January 6th committee should investigate Mike Pence. Mike Pence understands that the base doesn't like the January 6th committee, so he's trying to thread the needle here. I think it's difficult, if not, impossible to do that.

We know he hasn't spoken to Trump in about a year. We know that he has said publicly, you know, we don't see eye-to-eye on this but I know I did the right thing. I think you will hear a little bit more of that to the Federalist Society. He will defend himself. But I think he's going to shy away from criticizing the former president.

BLITZER: We will see tomorrow, and let's see what happens. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, a blast of winter weather is knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of Americans with 100 million more still under alert. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: Breaking news. Airports and electrical grids across the United States are straining tonight amid a massive winter storm. 5,000 flights in the U.S. have already been canceled. And nearly 300,000 customers are without power, a dangerous situation as temperatures plunge. CNN's Ed Lavandera has our report from Dallas.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, a major winter storm is slamming much of the U.S. 100 million people under winter weather alerts across 25 states, facing the risk of snow, ice, dangerous cold flooding and even possible tornadoes.

GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY): Stay off the roadways, if possible. As rain, snow and ice continue through this evening and then through Friday morning.

LAVANDERA: Snow is moving from the Rockies to the central U.S., Midwest and then expected to hit the northeast tomorrow, as snow and rain. Crippling ice storms with the potential to bring down trees and power lines are threatening Texas and Arkansas, through Kentucky and Ohio.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): We are dealing with one of the most significant icing events, that we've had in the state of Texas, in at least several decades.

LAVANDERA: Authorities are warning drivers about getting stranded after interstate closures like this one yesterday in Missouri.

MICHELLE FORNERIS, MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: If you must travel, please be prepared. Have food, water, blankets.

LAVANDERA: According to flight aware, there have been more than 5,000 flight cancellations so far today, the worst day in at least a year. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was forced to close for several hours with a ground stop.

And 300,000 customers are without power, nearly half of them in hard- hit Tennessee. And tens of thousands here in Texas, a state still on- edge, after last year's ice to empower grid catastrophe that killed nearly 250 people.


Officials here say the only outages today are due to lines down, not supply.

ABBOTT: The power grid is performing very well at this time. There is plenty of power available at this time.

LAVANDERA: But emergency shelters are set up just in case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight, the temperatures are really going to drop.

LAVANDERA: Snowplow drivers are working 12-hour shifts, asking the public for help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay clear when we're plowing. We're trying to clear the street.


LAVANDERA (on camera): And, Wolf, icy roads will continue to be a problem through this weekend as freezing temperatures are expected to last for at least another 24 to 36 hours.

And state officials here in Texas say that the peak demand on the electrical grid won't come until tomorrow morning at some point. So, we're not totally out of the woods but those same state officials also say they expect the power grid here in Texas to hold up. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. I see very few cars behind you on those highways. Ed Lavandera in Dallas for us, thank you very much.

Let's get an update right now from CNN's Derek Van Dam. He is joining us from Indianapolis. What are you seeing over there Derek?

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Wolf, we've had blistering wind, blinding snow and a sheet of ice across the Hoosier State and specifically where I am in Indianapolis. This storm is absolutely massive, impacted in over one-third of the U.S. population, stretching 25 states, over 2,000 miles from coast-to-coast, rather the northeast all the way to the Deep South.

Just to give you how -- an idea how the dynamic the storm has been, earlier today in Mississippi, only three counties were roughly 75 miles separated an ice storm, from a tornado watch. So lots happening within the atmosphere that battle ground shaping up and were in the middle of it right in the epicenter of where some of the heavier snow has set out.

We have broken records from Michigan to Illinois, and into parts of Indiana in terms of daily snowfalls. Here in Indianapolis, just to give you an idea how much snow we've had. It's been drifting quite a bit and you can get the indication of just how difficult it has been on the roads and the high ways.

Not a significant snow event by a Midwest standard. I know, Wolf, you're from Buffalo. I'm from Grand Rapids myself. But it's what is underneath the snow that really matters. There's a layer of ice that froze over because the storm started out as rain yesterday evening. And then we had temperatures drop quickly. We had this sort what is called a flash freeze.

And that's what residents and the National Weather Service from Boston to New York City are particularly concerned about, as the storm starts to slowly edge eastward Friday and Friday night. Temperatures there will drop quickly. And then we'll start to see that precipitation on the roadways freeze over, as well.

This is an incredibly powerful storm. It's going to have long lasting effects. It already has been here for two days. And we continue to see the impacts here in Indianapolis, in Monument Circle downtown. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. And so many parts of the country, folks, just be careful out there. Stay home if you can. All right, Derek Van Dam, thank you very much.

Coming up, President Biden vows to tackle the surge in violent crime. We're going to have details on his new strategy right after the break.



BLITZER: Tonight, President Biden is turning his focus to the deadly surge of gun violence here in America. He went to New York City to announce new initiatives stressing that he doesn't believe defunding the police is the answer to rising crime in the country.

Here's CNN Senior White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly.


BIDEN: Enough is enough because we know we can do things about this.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, President Biden making a clear push to counter gun violence that has ravage the country's largest cities, landing in New York City at a moment of spiking homicide, including the shooting deaths of two New York police officers.

BIDEN: The loss for the city is also a loss for the nation.

MATTINGLY: Shaking the city and its new mayor, Eric Adams.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS (D-NEW YORK CITY, NY): The president is here because he knows what the American people want. Justice, safety and prosperity and they deserve every bit of it.

MATTINGLY: For the White House, a moment that represents a policy challenge.

BIDEN: Every day in this country, 316 people are shot, 106 are killed and 6 NYPD officers have been victim of gun violence so far just this year.

MATTINGLY: And amid heightened debates of policing in America, something frontline Democrats view as a political warning sign.

BIDEN: It's time to fund the communities, the community police and the people who going to protect them. MATTINGLY: Biden's Justice Department now directing U.S. attorney offices to increase resources for combating violent crime, watching a crackdown on the illegal flow of guns sold in the south and transported to the east coast, a clear answer to this call from Adams.

ADAMS: We're saying to Washington, D.C., SOS, we need your help. We have to stop the flow of illegal guns in our city.

MATTINGLY: All as Biden called on Congress to reach a spending agreement that could provide a $300 million boost to community policing programs.

BIDEN: But the answer is not to defund the police, just to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners, to be protectors and to be community needs you and know the community. You know --

MATTINGLY: The delivery for Biden, consistent pushback to progressive effort to shift funds away from police departments.

BIDEN: I don't hear the communities, no matter what their color and their background saying I don't want more protection in my community. I don't know, I haven't found one of those yet.


MATTINGLY (on camera): And, Wolf, it's a day to underscore the delicate balance. The White House is trying to strike between supporting police and programs and also supporting police reform. It's a bridge they haven't been able to fill the gap on on Capitol Hill where the president police reform efforts are still stalled.


There is work underway on an executive order that the president wants to sign and make public the days or weeks ahead. But that work hasn't concluded yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Phil Mattingly at the White House for us. Thank you very much.

Let's get more on this. Joining us now is CNN Political Commentator Van Jones. Van, thanks for joining us.

This is an issue I know you're passionate about. First of all, are you satisfied with the president's leadership today?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I am. And I think that one of the things that is becoming more and more clear, is that you have communities that are feel crushed between unlawful street violence all too often and sometimes unlawful police violence. They want relief from both.

I think Biden is prepared to offer relief to both. And I don't think that there has ever been, in the Democratic Party, a big defund the police voting constituency. It was a defund the police marching constituency and sloganeering constituency. But the voters have been clear in the black community for a long time. We want better policing. We want lawful policing but we don't want no policing. And I think it's finally that they may have an opportunity to get something done now.

BLITZER: And that explains, Van, why the president is now trying to clearly, publicly, aggressively, move away from the so-called defund the police stigma. From your perspective, is that the right approach both politically and in terms of actually addressing violent crime in this country?

JONES: Look, I think, the slogans on all sides, usually, wind up in a ditch. I think the defund the police slogan was probably the least helpful in terms of what would actually make a difference? The reality is, when you have to explain what a slogan is not, more than you have to explain what it is, find a different slogan.

But you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. The idea that there's a different mix this these communities. That you can't have police being the only professional adults out there solving problems. You also need counselors. You also need therapists. You also need jobs.

That there needs to be a better mix. That is true and that polls really well. So I think Biden has gotten away from the slogan, gotten away from the posturing and is now standing with the right mix of policies. You want to focus on the problem solvers. There is a role for policing and security. But you need other stuff, too. And I think if you can get all that done, hopefully Republicans can help now, you may see a reduction in both unlawful street crime and unlawful police crime.

BLITZER: Is there something, Van, that the president's strategy as he describe it today doesn't include that you believe it should?

JONES: Well, look, at this point, they're talking in the broad strokes. And I think that what the president is doing politically is making sure that it's clear, that the vast majority of Democratic voters, the vast majority of people in these top communities and certainly White House, is on the side of peaceful streets. It's on the side of community safety. It needs to be a mix of better policing and better programs together.

So at the broad strokes level, I think it's important. But what he's doing, is he's taking away from Republicans the idea that we are somehow, for no policing, and therefore, a good policing, and so far the Republicans have done nothing to improve policing and done nothing to improve community safety. And so, the Democrats now are owning both issues and I think that's a good thing. Put --

BLITZER: All right, Van Jones, Van, as usual, thank you very, very much.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says, there's a zero percent chance he caught COVID while taking maskless photos with other celebrities at last Sunday's NFC championship game in L.A. because he held his breath. I'll get a doctor's take on that claim after right after the break.



BLITZER: Tonight, U.S. health officials are mystified why only half of Americans that are eligible to receive a COVID booster shot have actually gotten one. This comes as children under age 5 may finally be eligible for the first vaccinations within weeks.

CNN's Nick Watt has more in our pandemic report.



NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Three-year-old Justin still too young for a vaccine, but among the lucky ones, pulled through.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you sit up?

WATT: Three thousand five hundred forty-six people were reported dead yesterday, killed by COVID. By summer, COVID could have claimed a million American lives. Most places, omicron is now on the ebb. Alabama, the only state where case counts are climbing, Alabama also has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated people in this country.

Meantime, about half of Americans now eligible for a booster haven't gotten one. So 84 million people got vaccinated, but for whatever reason, not boosted.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: I don't have an easy explanation for that. That's one of the reasons why we keep trying to put the data out.

WATT: Like the benefits of the booster in significantly reducing your chance of death. Israeli researchers now claim a fourth Pfizer dose was instrumental in preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed during their omicron surge. It's a pre-print study.

Here, hospitalizations highlighted by the White House as the key metric they'll watch while weighing when to lift restrictions, like mask mandates.

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: What I expect, and I hope that we'll see from the CDC, is clear guidance about what to do in the upcoming months.


Again, I'm hoping this is going to be the last surge we will have to deal with. We don't know.

WATT: Super Bowl next Sunday, L.A.'s mayor among officials urging fans to mask up. But, a tweeted snap shows his naked face at a game last weekend.

How do you explain that?

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI (D), LOS ANGELES: When people ask for a photograph, I hold my breath and I put it here, and people could see that. There is a zero percent chance of infection from that.

WATT: Oh, I see. By the way, this is Bellevue, Washington, a gas station clerk argues with a customer who refuses to wear a mask. They tumble outside. She pulls a gun.


WATT (on camera): So, just back to the Super Bowl for a second, officials here in Los Angeles are going to be handing out free N95 masks. They really want every fan in that stadium to be wearing a mask, apart from when they are briefly eating or drinking. I am confused because, according to the mayor, you can also take your mask off if you are getting a selfie taken with a celebrity but as long as you hold your breath -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That was news to me. Nick Watt, thank you very much.

WATT: Yeah.

BLITZER: Let's discuss this and more with Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and associate dean of public health at Brown University.

So, what do you think about that? This excuse from the mayor of L.A., Mayor Garcetti, that he holds his breath when he poses for photos, and as a result, in his words, there is a zero percent chance of infection from that? What -- what do you say?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN: It sounds like something that my 10-year-old, who is quite prone to exaggeration, would say. Let's be clear on what likely protected him from getting infected. It's being vaccinated, being boosted, being outdoors, and being around other people who are vaccinated, boosted, and in the case of the NFL, testing.

Holding your breath when you are sharing air with other people, you still got to take a breath in. That's a silly explanation.

BLITZER: That's what I thought, too. But you are a doctor, I'm not.

Public health experts, as you know, Dr. Ranney, including the CDC director, are pointing to hospitalization rates when deciding when mitigation efforts can be lifted. How far do these numbers need to fall before restrictions can safely be rolled back? It's still getting -- you know, it's still not too far away from 150,000 Americans hospitalized.

RANNEY: So, that's the key point is that today is not the day. We are still in the midst of a surge. We still have hospitalization rates that rival those of last winter and we still have well over 2,000 Americans dying every day.

When is going to be time to start to roll back some of these mandates? I expect that it is going to be within a month or so, and it's going to be a combination of hospitalization rates, particularly looking at capacity of intensive care units. I would like that to -- most hospitals to have around 75 or 80 percent capacity in their ICUs, combined with overall hospitalization rates, combined with levels of COVID in the community, and, of course, local vaccination rates make a difference. We know over and over again, I feel I can't say it enough, if you are vaccinated and boosted, if other people in your community are vaccinated and boosted, you are going to be in a much better place. We are going to be able to unmask safely indoors, much more quickly.

BLITZER: So, so critical indeed.

All right. Dr. Ranney, thanks as usual for joining us.

Just ahead, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games are about to kick off. We are going live to Beijing for a preview of the opening ceremony.



BLITZER: We are just hours away from the official start of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.

Let's get a preview of the opening ceremony from CNN's Selina Wang. She is joining us live from Beijing. It's already Friday morning over there.

Selina, how is COVID actually threatening the games?

SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here, our six months now from the Tokyo Games, and yet another Olympic Games held under the shadow of COVID-19, there have already been more than 100 positive COVID-19 cases linked to athletes or team officials. And for every athlete that tests positive, it is heartbreaking and frustrating.

I've been speaking to some athletes who've tested positive and have now then received negative tests but already they have missed days of training. They ever missed their flights to Beijing and their Olympic dreams now hang in limbo.

At these games, any confirmed positive case is immediately sent to an isolation facility or a hospital and they cannot leave until they have two back to back negative COVID-19 tests.

These games are held under the strictest COVID-19 measures in the world. Wolf, and I stepped off the airplane here, I felt more like I was entering a dystopian movie set, rather than entering an Olympic host city. You are not feeling that buzz there. People are very much on edge.

However, China is going to pull this off. In fact, they are going to be inviting 150,000 spectators to be sitting in stands for these events but these are not people who bought tickets. It is on an invite-basis only. And they will be completely separate from the rest of the population.

So we as part of these Olympic closed loop, we are basically existing in our hotels and Olympic venues all connected by dedicated transport, extremely strict confinement. We cannot just wander out. We are often blocked by fences and barricades, extremely restrict rules here.

But when I talk to athletes who have tested positive for COVID, and now later days later testing negative and saying they are still hopeful. What they are telling me is that it feels like their Olympic dream isn't real. They feel like they are not really here, until the moment they hit that ice, the moment they are pushing their sled, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will stay in very close touch with you, Selina Wang in Beijing for us. Thank you very much.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.