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The Situation Room

Pence Says, Trump Is Wrong, I Had No Right To Overturn Election; Russia's Putin And China's Xi Show United Front Amid Ukraine Crisis; Michael Avenatti Found Guilty Of Stealing From Stormy Daniels; U.S. COVID-19 Death Toll Surpasses 900,000; Beijing Games Begin Amid Diplomatic Boycott And COVID Restrictions. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 04, 2022 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Join me Sunday for the State of Union. We have an exclusive with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski together. I'm also going to talk to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nation, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Sunday at 9:00 A.M. Eastern and at noon.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll see you Sunday morning.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. Mike Pence publicly and directly defies Donald Trump. He just declared that the former president was wrong to say that, as vice president, he had a right to overturn the 2020 presidential election. We're getting new reaction to this bombshell and what it could mean for the GOP and the January 6th investigation.

Also tonight, Russia and China team up for a show of unity against the west. Presidents Putin and Xi meeting ahead of the Beijing Olympics to send a message about the stand-off over Ukraine.

And Attorney Michael Avenatti is found guilty of stealing from Stormy Daniels while representing her against Donald Trump. We're going to break down his conviction and the prison sentence he's now facing.

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 breaking news on former Vice President Mike Pence publicly and directly rejecting Donald Trump's election lie.

Let's go straight to our Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid. Paula, we have not heard Pence criticize his former boss like this before.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Pence rebukes the former president in the strongest terms yet, saying Trump was wrong about Pence's authority to overturn the election on January 6th. Now, his remarks come 13 months after the insurrection, which he, once again, called a dark day in the history of the U.S. Capitol, and then he called out Trump's big lie. Now, let's take a listen to what he told the crowd at a conservative event in Florida.


MIKE PENCE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: And I heard this week that President Trump said I had the right to overturn the election. But President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election. The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone. And, frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.

Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election. And Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.

Look, I understand the disappointment many feel about the last election. I was on the ballot. But whatever the future holds, I know we did our duty that day.

If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won't just lose elections. We'll lose our country.


REID: And Pence's remarks take on new significance as we have learned more about the pressure he was facing on January 6th from Trump and his allies from the House committee's investigation, on the attack in the Capitol.

Now, two of Pence's top aides have recently testified before the house committee, but it's not clear if Pence will also cooperate with those lawmakers. And the split in the GOP evident earlier today at the RNC's winter meeting in Salt Lake City, where they voted to formally censure Republican Lawmakers Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their involvement in the January 6th investigation.

Cheney tweeted in response, I do not recognize those in my party who have abandoned the Constitution to embrace Donald Trump. So ,Wolf, obviously not all Republicans are embracing Trump over the rule of law, but the GOP clearly at odds with itself today.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, Paula Reid, thank you very much.

Let's discuss all of this with CNN Senior Political Correspondent Abby Phillip, CNN Political Commentator Michael Smerconish and CNN Political Analyst Maggie Haberman, the Washington Correspondent for The New York Times.

Abby, how powerful is it to hear directly from the former vice president in his rebuke of Trump like this?

ABBY PHLLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's really important Pence said Trump's name in a sentence also with the word, wrong. I mean, it's important for him to be clear about this. He's alluded to this in the past, in past statements, saying that he and the former president don't see eye-to-eye on what happened on January 6th. But saying it is a different story.

The one thing, though, Wolf, is that it's also what was not said.


Not only is it true that Pence did not have the power to overturn the election but I did think it was notable that he didn't go further to say that Trump's attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the entire electoral system in this country are also wrong. It wasn't just about what Pence should or should not have done on that day. It was about all of the things that were said and done in the lead-up to January 6th, and that's what Pence is still silent on.

BLITZER: You know, Pence, Maggie, has been trying to tow the line for more than a year and not necessarily overly upset Trump. So, why take this stand now? What do you think is going on?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: What happened, Wolf, is that the former president issued a statement last weekend where he said that actually Mike Pence could have overturned the election. Overturned the election was a quote. That was in a written statement by the former president. And it was really, you know, something of a reveal, frankly, by the former president whose advisers have continued to insist he really just wanted to have the electoral vote sent back to states, that it wasn't about trying to overturn it. It was about trying to, quote/unquote, get the results right, because, according to them, Trump really won it. And, in fact, Trump acknowledged that he didn't win it, this was about overturning it. So that was jarring. That's what Pence was responding to.

And I think that Pence and his folks have realized that, at a certain point, Trump is getting more overt with his statements. He was very overt with a bunch of statements that same weekend last weekend where he talked about protests in cities, if prosecutors do things that Trump considers wrong or illegal, as they're investigating Trump. He dangled pardons for the January 6th detainees and arrestees and defendants. And so I think that you are seeing a gradual progression from the former president and Pence needs to make.

This is a big deal. Look, on the one hand I think Abby is exactly right, the fact that Pence said Trump's name is really significant. That having been said, Pence is merely stating reality, which is that he did not have the ability to do this.

BLITZER: He certainly did not. So, Michael, how seismic do you believe this moment is to see the man who serves alongside Trump for four years say Trump is, quote, wrong?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Depends whether he follows it up with testifying before the January 6th committee. I, too, drew significance from the fact he name-checked Trump, that he also said Donald Trump was wrong, but there's one other piece of this, very close after that, he referenced un-American. I mean, he essentially said it was un-American for President Trump to have asked him to do what he asked him to do. And one other observation, if I may, Wolf, if you're Mike Pence and you're finally going to say the things that we all know he believes, this is the audience to do with in, in front of, a group of right- leaning libertarian attorneys who fashion themselves as originalists. That's why he had the reference to the Constitution in the speech. And very cleverly in that key graph, he ties it to Kamala Harris, which was a guaranteed applause line. So, you listen to it, and you want to know, well, how did it go over in front of that crowd, and you hear the applause, all by design.

BLITZER: We certainly heard a lot of applause there.

And you know, Abby, the crowd at this Federalist Society event down in Florida, obviously applauded Pence. Listen to this for a second. They gave him a standing ovation at the same time.

How much of a backlash, Abby, do you think the former vice president will now face from the Trump base?

PHILLIP: Well, you know, that room that as Michael just mentioned, these are the gentile Republican establishment types, right? So, if Pence were to do this in front of a different crowd, say Trump rally crowd or even younger conservatives, it would be a completely different reaction.

Pence has actually been heckled in the past at some of these events and it's because the base that is really in lockstep with Donald Trump views Pence frankly as a traitor. You know, I took note that in the same sentence that he said, you know, he mentioned Kamala Harris, he said we are going to beat Kamala Harris in 2024.

Well, that word, we, is doing a lot of work because there's some a lot of questions now about whether Pence will be anywhere near a 2024 ballot if Donald Trump also runs. You know, their relationship right now seems completely severed, and with Trump attacking Pence the way that he is, I don't see how he and Pence could run, certainly not on the same ballot.

BLITZER: We know, Maggie, that the former president, Trump, won't take this well, will he?

HABERMAN: No. I think that President Trump is frankly -- former President Trump, excuse me, is frankly luckily that he is not on Twitter anymore, because if he was in Twitter, he would just spout out a statement that would be more harmful to the former president than it would to Pence. But I do expect that we're going to see some kind of nasty gram that comes out at some point.


You know, I don't know how Pence will handle that. I do think that Michael is right, that whether this really has durability depends on what Pence says going forward. I don't suspect that this is going to become a staple of all of Pence's speeches. But I think that if Trump continues to talk about Pence -- and I think that Pence -- Trump tried to correct himself this past week. He issued a follow-up statement in which he seemed to be trying to walking back what he had said. However, walking back what he said suggested that the January 6th committee ought to be investigating Pence.

So, I think that if you see Trump continuing to ratchet up pressure on Pence, I think Pence will feel like he has no choice but to keep talking.

BLITZER: You know, the same day, Michael, that the former vice president was publicly, directly taking the stand, the RNC actually punished Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Congressman Adam Kinzinger for simply seeking the truth about January 6th. What's going on? Is the GOP having an identity crisis right now?

SMERCONISH: Can you imagine if former Vice President Mike Pence attended that RNC meeting and delivered the remarks to that group that he delivered to the Federalist Society on a day, as you point out, Wolf, that they're censuring the two who are participating in the investigation? It would not have gone over so well. And therein lies the split within the party, but I think still more of the stalwarts are in the group of the RNC than were represented at the Federalist Society.

BLITZER: I remember in the old days when Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, he would always say, yes, there are conservative Republicans, liberal Republicans, moderate Republicans, libertarians. We're a big tent party. We're all working together. I don't hear that from the Republican leadership right now.

Michael Smerconish, thank you. First of all to you, thanks very much, tomorrow, 9:00 A.M. Eastern, his excellent show, Smerconish. We all watch it, 9:00 A.M. tomorrow morning. And, Abby, don't forget, Abby Phillip anchors Inside Politics Sunday, 8:00 A.M. Eastern. It's also must-watch T.V. right here on CNN, and, Maggie, thanks to you, of course, as well.

Just ahead, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping join forces at the Beijing Olympics, sending a very strong message to the U.S. and the west about Ukraine. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: Tonight, Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping are showing a united front on the world stage. The two autocrats joined forces just before the official opening of the Winter Olympics to demand a halt to NATO expansion.

CNN's David Culver is on the scene for us in Beijing. Our Senior Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson is joining us from Moscow.

David, China is clearly rallying directly behind Putin here. How significant is this very dramatic show of unity?

DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very dramatic, Wolf. It's critical at a time when Washington is raising alarms concerned about both Russia and China being increasingly assertive in expanding their reach. But this meeting between President Xi and President Putin signaling to the world really Beijing will back the Kremlin. That seems especially true with the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

State media has been trumpeting this meeting, we should point out, since before Putin arrived here in Beijing, even publishing a letter from the Russian leader to the people of China. In the talks on Friday, Putin and Xi vowed to deepen their strategic coordination, as they put it, adding that their relationship will have a far reaching impact on both China, Russia, and the world at large, state media adding that this will include maintaining close high level exchanges and supporting each other in sovereignty, security and development interests.

Now that line, it is vital in interpreting how both countries look at Ukraine and even to a certain extent Taiwan right now. The two also not so subtly referring to the U.S. and vowing to respond to external interference and regional security threats jointly. Wolf, important to not though, China and Russia not only signaling this closeness and defiance of the west, this is also, and perhaps more importantly, a message to nations and democracies that rely on the United States for global peace and stability. China and Russia here asking those countries, can you really trust the U.S., and suggesting they reconsider their loyalty to the west, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that's really important, very significant. And, Nic, Putin is among just a relatively small number of world leaders to actually go to Beijing to attend the Olympic Games. What benefit does Putin get out of this meeting?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. He really got on the big global stage. He got a boost from standing next to President Xi. He got a boost from what President Xi said. When he gets back here to Moscow, things get a bit more real again because he's going to have to deal with less favorable interlocutors. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is coming here Monday. They have had three phone calls up to now, which have been fairly productive. Indeed, Macron's office has been saying that the Kremlin considers him, you know, a good interlocutor.

Macron's agenda here is on three different levels. One, he wants to talk to Putin about getting the authorities in Kyiv to talk to the separatists in Kyiv. They don't want to do that. The government and Kyiv doesn't. So, that's going to be a tough one. He wants to get Russia to deescalate its tensions or the perception of their, you know, possible intent to go into Ukraine and invade Ukraine. That's going to be a tough one. And then the big one that is going to have the hard sell with his allies is his talking about with Putin a new security order in Europe, where the European Union has its own place aside NATO.


That's also big.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Nic Robertson in Moscow, David Culver in Beijing, guys, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto for some analysis. It's really dramatic, what's going on, Jim. How do you read this very warm welcome of Putin at the Olympics and the joint statement that these two leaders put out?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's part of a bigger trend, and it's important, Wolf. I wrote a book a couple years ago about how China and Russia have similar strategies in undermining the U.S. And at the time, the view of most U.S. officials, China, Russia experts, was that while they had a meeting of interests, the two countries operated independently. They didn't really cooperate on trying to undermine the U.S. and stand up to the U.S. That has changed in the last two to three years.

And you're seeing increasing explicit cooperation between the two of them. We have seen this in joint military exercises around South Korea, around Japan. We see it in meetings in the capitals Beijing and Moscow. But, today, notably, to see Xi Jinping endorse explicitly in so many words Putin's approach to Ukraine, basically saying this is all about NATO overextending into Eastern Europe, to say we agree with that, is a marked demonstration that there is a closeness here, a meeting of the minds, a perception of shared interests, particularly in standing up to the U.S. and the west. That has consequences. That means the U.S. is not just facing two separate competitors in Russia and China but facing two of them that are willing to team up in perhaps consequential ways.

BLITZER: Very consequential ways. If Putin does invade Ukraine, it's still possible, what are the potential implications for the Russia/China relationship?

SCIUTTO: So, given that Xi has, in effect, endorsed Putin's justification or pre-justification for military action in Ukraine, that's notable. But it also feeds into a sense of how the U.S. and the west react to Russia and Ukraine is going to be informative and already is informative to China in terms of what it does with Taiwan, right? That doesn't mean that China is going to act on Taiwan tomorrow, but it will look at that as a signal.

Can the U.S. Respond? Is it willing to respond militarily? Will it be able to unify allies against such a land grab? And both China and Russia have already done land grabs before, Russia in Ukraine with Crimea, China in the South China Sea. Will they do it again? China will certainly be watching the outcome of what Russia does with Ukraine.

And while the United States, U.S. diplomats, government leaders are boycotting the Olympic Games, just take a look at the company President Xi is keeping. Is this an opportunity to thumb their nose at the United States?

The one thing uniting those five people on that screen there, right, these are not democratic governments, right? They're effectively authoritarian regimes. That's another meeting of the minds, right? And, listen, the U.S. still has relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It's not necessarily a one or the other. But there is a demonstration there of, hey, you know, we have things we agree on.

And U.S. leaders do see this and European leaders as well, as something bigger. It's a conflict of systems. Open societies, democratic societies, versus authoritarian ones doesn't have to lead to war. No one wants it to lead to war. But at a minimum, it is a conflict in terms of the way forward, and that's one I think you and I, Wolf, are going to be talking about and reporting about a lot in the coming years.

BLITZER: We certainly will be. Jim Sciutto, as usual, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, President Biden touts a new jobs report that defied expectations. Is the U.S. economy breaking free from the pandemic at last? Stand by.



BLITZER: Tonight, an unexpected boost for the U.S. economy and for the Biden administration. The United States added nearly half a million jobs in January, a much bigger increase than predicted. The president was eager to tout the numbers as our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins reports.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The U.S. economy breaking free from the grip of omicron tonight.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: America is back to work.

COLLINS: President Biden celebrating after the January jobs report beat expectations and added 467,000 jobs last month despite coronavirus cases surging nationwide.

BIDEN: Our country is taking everything that COVID throws at us and we have come back stronger.

COLLINS: Biden continuing his victory lap, highlighting how employers added a record 6.6 million jobs during his first year in office, shattering the records set by his predecessors.

BIDEN: 6.6 million jobs. You can't remember another year when so many people went to work in this country. There's a reason it never happened.

COLLINS: The Labor Department also revising payroll totals for November and December, revealing that 700,000 more jobs were added than previously estimated. The unemployment rate ticking up a little to 4 percent, a sign of a positive trend as more people are looking for work. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and other officials who had been bracing for the worst, pleasantly surprised.

MARTY WALSH, LABOR SECRETARY: I think what we're seeing here is we're seeing businesses learning to live with their employees during a pandemic.


And I think that we're in a very different position when you think about the workplace today as compared to March, April, June of 2020.

COLLINS: President Biden noting that the economic fight against the pandemic isn't over yet.

BIDEN: I know that January was a very hard month for many Americans. I know that after almost two years, the physical and emotional weight of the pandemic has been incredibly difficult to bear for so many people.

COLLINS: Biden also acknowledging the pain that Americans are feeling from inflation and promising to address it.

BIDEN: Average people are getting clobbered by the cost of everything today. Prices at the pump are up. We're working to bring them down, but they're up. Food prices are up, working to bring them down as well.


COLLINS (on camera): Now, of course, Wolf, that second part is going to be challenging for President Biden. Inflation is at the highest point that it has been in decades, and we are going to get that new consumer price data next week. This job's report today also is indicating further that everyone is keeping their eyes on the Federal Reserve to see what it is they do about boosting those interest rates, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. That's so important n deed. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you.

Let's get some more on the jobs numbers and the economy with CNN's Matt Egan. Matt, do you expect this economic momentum to continue? What does this mean for the Americans people who obviously, as Kaitlan just noted, are still dealing with inflation?

MATT MEGAN, CNN REPORTER: Well, Wolf, we know that omicron delivered a shock to the United States. But we now know that it did not derail the jobs market. If anything, the U.S. economy is in stronger shape than we thought it was just 24 hours ago. Not only did hiring continue unabated in January but there were these sharp revisions from the end of last year. Plus, more workers came off the sidelines to look for jobs despite COVID.

And I think if you zoom out, there's a lot of signs that this is a strong recovery. GDP in 2021 grew at the fastest pace since 1984, unemployment down to 4 percent. A near record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in December, many of them to get better jobs, and wages up nearly 6 percent in January.

Of course, the problem is that although wages are hot, inflation is even hotter. Consumer prices soaring by 7 percent in December, the fastest pace in 39 years. New numbers out next week likely to show inflation got even worse in January. And so that's where the Federal Reserve is moving to inflation fighting mode, raising interest rates to try to get the cost of living down.

But the Fed is in a tough spot. Do too little, and inflation could be worse, do too much, and they could prematurely end the recovery. It's not going to be easy. And that's where today's shockingly strong jobs report comes in, because the stronger the economy is, the more room the Fed has to raise interest rates.

One other point, Wolf, the U.S. economy is still down 2.8 million jobs compared to February 2020. Wolf, today's numbers suggest we could get back to pre-crisis levels sooner rather than later.

BLITZER: Well, let's hope that happens. Matt Egan reporting for us, thank you very much.

Just ahead, there's breaking news. A jury finds Michael Avenatti guilty of defrauding his former client, Stormy Daniels. We're going to have the latest on the verdict right after the break.



BLITZER: Breaking news. A jury finds Michael Avenatti guilty of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft against his former client, Stormy Daniels. CNN's Kara Scannell joining us from New York with details. So, Kara, what is Avenatti now facing?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. So, it was just 16 hours of deliberation before the jury have returned that verdict, and he faces a maximum of 22 years in prison. Now, that aggravated identity theft charge comes with a mandatory minimum of two year sentence. So, he's definitely looking at jail time here.

Now, he was convicted of stealing nearly $300,000 from his former client, Stormy Daniels. That was part of a book advance. Prosecutors showed the jury evidence that he had created -- falsified her signature on some wire transactions, spent the money and lied to her repeatedly about it.

Now, today was a little interesting in the courtroom. The jury had sent a note around 10:00 A.M. saying that one juror was refusing to deliberate. In part the note read, please help us move forward, not going on any evidence. All emotions and does not understand the job of a jury. So, the judge told the jury to continue to deliberate. He sent them back to do that around noon. Two hours later, they came back with that unanimous verdict. After the verdict, Avenatti spoke to reporters. Here's what he said.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, CONVICTED OF WIRE FRAUD AND AGGRAVATED IDENTITY THEFT: I am very disappointed in the jury's verdict. I look forward to a full adjudication of all of the issues on appeal. Thank you. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SCANNELL: Now, Avenatti represented himself at this trial, and he refused -- he did not take the stand to testify, which he's not required to do. So, I asked him if he had any regrets. He said not at all. I was true to myself. The judge told him to surrender in California to U.S. Marshalls on Monday. Wolf?

BLITZER: Kara Scannell in New York for us, thank you very much.

Let's get some analysis from CNN Legal Analyst Areva Martin and the state attorney for Palm Beach County in Florida, Dave Aronberg.

Dave, Stormy Daniels told CNN that, quote, theft is theft, forgery is forgery. It seems the jury agreed. What do you make of the verdict?

DAVE ARONBERG, STATE ATTORNEY, PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA: Yes, Wolf. Despite the oversized characters in this trial, this was simply a trial about theft. And the defense here was that Avenatti was entitled to the money, that there was this vague clause in the contract that said he was entitled to book related profits. But if that were the case, and he really were entitled to it, then why did he lie? Why didn't he tell Stormy Daniels he had the money? Why did he forge her signature? I mean, so that undermined his defense.

In the end, Avenatti has been compared to Icarus in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. It wasn't that long ago that he was in Iowa giving speeches in a bid to perhaps run for president. He was posting position papers on his Twitter page and appearing on every cable network.


But if you do so and start throwing those verbal stones, you have got to make sure you don't live in a glass house.

BLITZER: That's a good point, indeed. Areva, Avenatti said he's disappointed in the verdict, as you just heard, but he doesn't regret representing himself. How much do you think that risky choice actually impacted the outcome?

AREVA MARTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Wolf, there's a popular saying that he who represents himself has a fool for a client. And I think that statement is absolutely true in this case. I don't know why he is disappointed. He did not put on a case, he did not testify himself. He did not call a single witness and basically made the argument or tried to make the argument that because he had given a lot of legal hours in terms of service to Stormy Daniels on other matters and that he helped her get this book deal, that somehow he was entitled to this money. And he also in his closing argument made a point that he didn't intend to defraud her and that the prosecution had not proven there was intent with respect to his conduct.

But pretty straightforward case, he stole her money, the jury saw it, and they held him accountable for his actions. So, I'm not sure why he's disappointed, maybe just something to say. We expect possibly he'll file an appeal. But he's facing lots of legal issues, not just with this case, Wolf. He's got to come back to California. There was a mistrial in a case where he was accused of stealing money from other clients and he's already been convicted for trying to extort money from Nike.

BLITZER: And at the same time, as you know, Dave, he's facing potentially 22 years in prison, very long time, obviously. What do you expect from this sentencing?

ARONBERG: I think he's going to get a prison sentence of over three years. He got 30 months in prison for extorting Nike. But that was when he had a clean record. Now, he's got a conviction on his record, based on that conviction. So his newest conviction will get him more. And he gets at least two years in prison for the crime of aggravated identity theft. Then you have wire fraud, which can get you up to 20 years. So, this is not going to go well for Michael Avenatti.

Plus, after he's done with this, he has got a separate trial for bank and tax fraud and he was also granted a mistrial for a different claim that he hurt his clients, embezzled money from his clients. So, I do think he's going to spend significant time in prison in the near future.

BLITZER: Yes. Okay, guys, Dave Aronberg, Areva Martin, thank you so much.

Coming up, even as COVID cases are easing in the U.S., the total number of deaths in the pandemic hit a truly gut-wrenching new level.



BLITZER: We have more breaking news this hour. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic just surpassed 900,000.

Let's bring in CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen.

Dr. Wen, when you reflect on this milestone, more than 900,000 Americans lost to this virus here in the U.S. over the past nearly two years, what goes through your mind?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: I think about all the individuals who have lost their loved ones. Every single death of these 900,000 is so tragic. And I also think about the fact that so many hundreds of thousands of deaths occurred after vaccines became widely available. We now know people who are unvaccinated are 97 times more likely to die compared to people who are vaccinated and boosted. So, we have the tools. Let's use them.

BLITZER: And more than 2,000 Americans are dying every single day still from this virus. Even as the death toll climbs, Dr. Wen, coronavirus cases, though, they are only on the rise, take a look at this map, in one state. You can say we can start -- you say we can start removing at least some coronavirus restrictions now.

Tell us why.

WEN: Well, I agree with Colorado, with many other local and state jurisdictions that are beginning to lift government mandates. I think this is the key. I'm not saying that we should be stopping masking. But rather that this needs to shift from a government requirement to an individual decision.

The government can't keep on telling our citizens that this is a five- alarm fire all the time. People are just going to start tuning it out and not pay attention. They'll be desensitized.

So what needs to happen is we need to end the state of emergency and preserve the ability of public health authorities to reinstitute mandates in the future if we see more dangerous variants later.

BLITZER: Yeah. I'm really scared of that. The CDC, as you know, just publicly released wastewater surveillance data for the first time. Is this a potential game changer as officials are crafting their pandemic responses?

WEN: We need a lot more early detection for early signals. And wastewater helps us to do that. You actually get a signal four to six days before test positivity or cases begin to increase. That becomes even more important now when we're doing so many rapid at-home tests that are not being reflected in the official numbers.

So I'm glad that the CDC is doing this. This will allow for more resources to be surged into areas. Imagine if you find there's a part of the country that's having a sudden rise in cases. You know to focus on this place, including with mask mandates if need be, in that particular area.

BLITZER: Good point. Dr. Lena Wen, thank you so much for that.

We're going to have much more news just ahead, including a live report from Beijing where the 2022 Winter Olympics are officially under way.



BLITZER: China celebrated the official kickoff of the 2022 Winter Olympics with a spectacular opening ceremony. The games are taking place against the backdrop of a boycott, human rights abuses and the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic.

CNN's Selina Wang joining us live from Beijing right now.

Selina, it's Saturday morning in Beijing. The Olympics are underway. Give us the latest.

SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf. Well, under the shadow of COVID and geopolitical tensions, we will see athletes win medals today, including in cross county skiing and speed and some of the incredible athletes to watch during these games are Mikaela Shiffrin. She's one of the most decorated alpine skiers in history. Shaun White here at his fifth Olympic games, and Chloe Kim, of course, who became that snowboarding sensation after the 2018 Games.


Now, controversially at these games, many of these athletes will be on fake snow. This is the first Winter Olympics to use virtually 100 percent fake snow which comes at high environmental cost and also, some athlete say, is more dangerous to compete on.

Early on in the games, Wolf, already, there have been some key Olympic moments at the team event yesterday. Star ice skater Nathan Chen had a brilliant performance giving the U.S. an early edge. I was actually at that team event and you could see on the other side of the venue there were dotted masked faces, invite only spectators completely separate from us inside the closed loop and absolutely surreal to get into that venue passing through multiple fences and barricades.

Of course, that Winter Olympic opening ceremony yesterday, visually stunning and spectacular with the use of led lights and technology. What a difference, wolf, from the 2008 games. Beijing is the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. Back then, there were 15,000 performers, it was a four-hour extravaganza. This year it was shorter, simpler with 3,000 performers.

That is reflective of China's changing posture. Back then, China had to prove to the world it was an emerging global superpower. This time around, China wasn't trying to prove anything. In fact, it is reflective of Beijing trying to show off a wealthy, powerful China increasingly at odds with the West and increasingly confident and defiant -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Important stuff. Selina Wang in Beijing for us -- thank you.

Let's discuss all of this with CNN contributor Patrick McEnroe. He's a former U.S. Olympics coach at the same time.

Patrick, from the political push back to the diplomatic boycott, to coronavirus restrictions, just how difficult are these games compared to your own personal experience?

PATRICK MCENROE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, my experience, Wolf, being in the summer games in Athens as the coach of the men's games was surreal. Being the birthplace of the Olympic Games, representing our country there was one of the biggest honors of my life and to be able to walk in the opening ceremonies.

I think the biggest thing for the athletes that were there playing in our sport and other sports as well, Wolf, it's always to meet the other athletes, always to be part of the Olympic Village. It's always to go to the other events.

So, clearly, this Olympics Games is a lot different. Obviously, the cloud of all the political issues surrounding it continue to be a big factor. The human rights issues of the Chinese government.

Clearly, the Chinese government is saying loud and clear, they don't care what we think. They could care at all. I will be interested if there are some athletes that do their own particular protests. Let's hope that happens. But at the end of the day, it shouldn't about us and the journalistic world and the corporate world who has not said much about these Olympic Games thus far, as far as the human rights issues are concerned in China.

BLITZER: Well, on that, Patrick, how much do all of these factors influence or overshadow potentially the athletes' experience?

MCENROE: You know, I don't think they really impact the athlete's experience as far as doing, you know, their jobs there and doing the best they can. The athletes come in. This is a once in a lifetime moment for most of these athletes in the Olympics. So they're trying to perform, to try to win medals if they can.

But also the experience, as I said, is very important. Remember, the 90 plus -- 90-some percentage of these athletes there to just participate in the Olympic Games. They're not really looking for medals.

But athletes have that ability, Wolf, to focus, to be single-minded. They'll deal with the COVID protocols, they'll do what they think they have to do. Get on the right bus and get their testing done and perform to the best of their ability.

I think it's a little bit of a bummer for them that they're not obviously having all of the fans that they would normally have, but as far as the athletic part of the event, it will be just fine.

BLITZER: So, what are you looking forward to watching, Patrick? What should people be excited about for these games?

MCENROE: Well, I love to ski. I'm a big fan of skiing. I'm a big fan obviously of the skating as well. These are athletes that have worked their whole life, Wolf, to be in this position, to have this opportunity to do it.

And it's about the storytelling of these athletes. That's one thing NBC does very well with the Olympic Games is tell the individual stories because they are very, very amazing stories that we hear about from these Olympic athletes, the ones that we know about, the ones that we don't know about.

And before I go, Wolf, I have to say because I haven't seen you since that epic loss of your Buffalo Bills, my condolences. That was one of the greatest games in NFL history. I'm sorry your Bills had to take the loss.

BLITZER: It could have been the greatest game in NFL history if only the Buffalo Bills had won that.

Patrick McEnroe, thank you very much. Appreciate it very much. We will continue this conversation.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.