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Crisis Of Epic Proportions In Buffalo, New York Due To Severe Weather; Southwest Airlines Cancel Flights; Putin Ready To Negotiate; Migrants Dropped At Vice President Kamala Harris' Residence; January 6 Committee Releases More Interview Transcripts From Probe; China To Lift Restrictive COVID Measures Starting January; South Korea Scrambles Jets After North Korea Flies Drones; West Point To Remove Confederate Monuments From Its Campus. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 17:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, a crisis of epic proportion. That's how the governor of New York is describing the deadly winter storm in the western part of the state. Buffalo and other cities are struggling to dig out of 43 inches of snow and freezing temperatures and power outages. I'll talk with the Buffalo police commissioner this hour.

Many Americans are still feeling the effects of the arctic blast, including millions of air travelers. Southwest airlines experiencing massive disruptions with more than 65 percent of its flights canceled just today, adding to the holiday travel chaos.

Also tonight, Vladimir Putin claims he's ready to negotiate a solution to the Ukraine war, but a key Ukrainian official says the Russian president needs to get back to reality as Moscow continues to slaughter innocent civilians.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin this hour with the deadly weather emergency in western New York. Governor Kathy Hochul is calling it, and I'm quoting her now, "the blizzard of the century" and she is warning it is far from over. CNN's Polo Sandoval is joining us right now from my hometown, hard-hit Buffalo, New York. Polo, so what are the conditions there right now?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as predicted by Erie County officials, the total number of people who have lost their lives to this horrendous storm here in Buffalo has once again gone up. The total now 27 and expected to continue to rise. That figure already surpassing the death toll from that historic blizzard in 1977. That statistic, a certain grim reminder of the extraordinary nature of this storm.


UNKNOWN: This is the worst that we've had.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): In Buffalo, New York, it's being called the most devastating storm ever.

KATHY HOCHUL, GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK: We are in a war. This is a war with mother nature. And she has been hitting us with everything she has.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): In a region that's used to harsh winter weather, this is worse.

JOHN GARCIA, SHERIFF, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK: We deal with snow all the time, but the conditions were different because with the gusts of wind, I could tell you firsthand, zero visibility. I couldn't see two feet in front of my vehicle.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Up to 43 inches of snow, hurricane force winds and hundreds of vehicles stuck.

MARK POLONCARZ, EIRIE COUNTY, NEW YORK COUNTY EXECUTIVE: There are cars everywhere, everywhere. They have been pointing the wrong direction on roads.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Buffalo's roads still impassable in most areas.

UNKNOWN: It's just been crazy. I mean, a snowbank that's like taller than me on my front lawn.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): More than 500 rescues, some people were trapped in cars for days before they were found by rescue workers.

HOCHUL: Going into homes, going into vehicles, too many tragic times finding people who did not survive the experience.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): With the western New York region, power substations are frozen and the electricity is out. Thousands of people left without heat.

DANIELLE TISDALE, MOTHER: Conditions were deteriorating so bad, (inaudible) dropping in our home maybe about 2 degrees every 10 minutes.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): One family trying to get their children to a warm hotel was rescued from their car by the airport fire department.

MIKE CARRUBBA, BUFFALO AIRPORT FIRE DEPARTMENT: (Inaudible) he opened his window and said, please don't leave us. And I said, don't worry, man. I promise we won't leave you.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): But elsewhere in the city, looters were taking advantage of the crisis.

BYRON BROWN, MAYOR OF BUFFALO, NEW YORK: People who are out looting when people are losing their lives in this harsh winter storm, it's just absolutely reprehensible.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): And as Buffalo tries to dig out, more snow is in the forecast. UNKNOWN: And even though it's been just two days, it feels like it's

been two weeks.


SANDOVAL (on camera): And still here in Buffalo, this street, a reminder that work is far from over, with many streets yet to be plowed. Authorities say that they are working as fast as they possibly can, really approaching this in a very calculated way, making sure that some of the roads and some of the streets leading up to places like medical facilities are clear. They want to make sure that those roads are able to be used.

Meanwhile, that driving ban, Wolf, that was put in place Friday morning, that will continue to be in place right now, making sure that they continue to work on these roads as they also make some progress when it comes to some of those power outages, restoring power to some homes.

BLITZER: Polo, stay safe over there. We will be in touch with you. Polo Sandoval doing excellent reporting from Buffalo.


Now to the holiday travel nightmare that's playing out across much of the United States. CNN's Lucy Kafanov is over at the Denver airport. Lucy how bad is the travel picture today?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I mean, this is what no fun at all looks like, Wolf. You can see the massive line of people at the Southwest check-in counter. And I want to pan over here. The line continues. It goes all the way down this corridor, around the corridor, wrapping around where the TSA pre-check line in is.

A lot of the people here have been here for hours, if not days. Southwest is responsible for many of the cancellations here at Denver's airport. In fact, Denver has seen more than 450 canceled flights today, the bulk of those, 411, coming from Southwest Airlines. And that is just Denver. The national travel picture also just as bad. It's having cascading effects.

We're talking about nationwide, more than 3,600 cancellations, nearly 2,700 of those coming from Southwest Airlines. More than 6,000 flight delays across the nation. And this is a source of immense frustration, as you can imagine, to passengers who not only have to wait on these insanely long lines. I want to pan over once again, I'm so sorry, guys, to show just how long these lines are.

But they're also not able to get through to Southwest on the phone. Take a listen to what some of these passengers across the nation have been telling cameras. Listen.


JASON FRIEDE, SOUTHWES PASSENGER: There's no option to re-book anything online. I've also been on hold for 5 hours and 43 minutes. JEFF BROOKS, SOUTHEST PASSENGER: Calling southwest, calling the

airlines, they're nowhere to be found. I actually got hung up on multiple times.

DAVID CANUT, SOUTHWEST PASSENGER: The problem is that Southwest, they don't give any answer. They don't answer the phone.

KAFANOV: And Southwest has issued a statement saying that the storm, quote, "forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity." They have apologized for these delays, but of course, Wolf, this is cold comfort for passengers who probably were delayed from their initial travel, getting home to family, and now have to deal with this after the holidays. Wolf?

BLITZER: Awful situation, indeed. Lucy Kafanov in Denver for us. Lucy, thank you very much.

Let's go to the CNN Weather Center right now. Our meteorologist Tom Sater is joining us. Tom, what's the forecast for Buffalo and other parts of the country still feeling this very, very awful deep freeze?

TOM SATER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, I don't think most of the country is grasping what has happened here. I mean, this is staggering. Buffalo at 49.2, it's going to have a few more added on to this, but only a few more. If you look at Watertown at 41, they could see another 10 inches or so. So, they're all going to be over 50.

Just one month ago, record-breaking lake effect snow event shattered records for the amount of snow that it felt, but with this one came a wind field, massive winds. Total now for Buffalo, 98.9. That's going to go up a little bit. That's more than a typically receipt (ph) for the entire year.

Buffalo and other areas off the Great Lakes pick up their lake effect snows early in the season. Until these lakes start to freeze over, these winds are picking up all that moisture and just depositing it. Now, Watertown is still under a warning. Buffalo is under an advisory right now, but their winds are still coming off Lake Erie. Lake Ontario actually is a deeper lake so it holds more moisture. It's just copious amounts of moisture getting pushed onshore.

So, when you look at the radar, it is starting to dwindle somewhat, mainly north of Buffalo, but really coming down in Watertown and the surrounding counties. A surprise may be the slick roads, all the way down into lower Tennessee, northern areas of Mississippi, Alabama. It's just over the clipper, but behind this clipper is going to reinforce the cold air. So, it's going to be in place for a while.

Now, things are going to change somewhat. Now, when we start to see these Great Lakes freeze over, that shuts off the lake effect snow machine for the year. But look at all of this, even up into Ontario. I mean, this is widespread. This area of low pressure dropped to equivalent Category 2, pictures of Watertown.

So that wind field was able to expand. So, you had wind chill values that were minus 50, minus 60, minus 70. Right now, Buffalo, it feels like 7, Chicago 16, St. Louis 19. But now comes the dramatic warm-up. On the other side of this warm front, incredible warmth. L.A. had their second warmest Christmas, 84 degrees. Miami had their coldest at 50. It was warmer in London on Christmas Day than it was down in Miami.

So, the temperatures in the teens are going to start to rebound. And here's we're going to have problems with Buffalo, lows in the 40s. We're already seeing pipes burst all over in many states. Memphis having problems. That's going to be the issue here, and urban flooding with the ice jamming up all of these roadways and of course the drainage spots, so. And it's not just Buffalo, a big warm-up is on the way, so we still have more problems ahead.

BLITZER: It seems like it's only just beginning right now. Tom Sater, thank you very, very much. We'll get back to you.


Let's discuss what's going on in Buffalo. The Buffalo police commissioner, Joseph Gramaglia, is joining us right now. Commissioner, thank you so much for joining us. As you know, the death toll in Erie County where Buffalo is has now risen to 27. Do you expect that number could rise even more?

JOSEPH GRAMAGLIA, COMMISSIONER, BUFFALO COUNTY POLICE: Yeah. So, thanks for having me on, Wolf. Yeah, that number is climbing and it's, you know, it's going up as we speak. I'm out with Mayor Byron Brown now. We're out around the city. We're stopping at police districts and we're stopping with our search and rescue teams, is where we're at right now where, you know, unfortunately, they are still recovering bodies. Some are natural deaths, but some are also due to exposure.

BLITZER: More than 500 rescues, as you know, Commissioner, have already been conducted so far. What are these search and rescue operations look like in these kinds of horrible circumstances?

GRAMAGLIA: You know, it started on Friday when the weather really hit, around dinner time when our stranded motorist calls really started to pick up. We did a coordinated effort with our department of public works with a high lift, with police cars behind them to go out and start working through these abandoned vehicles or stranded motorists.

We rescued around 65 people by about 10:00 that night, Friday night. And then we just -- we couldn't do it. We couldn't get through the weather anymore. Saturday, we got out and started getting some search and rescue teams together. We had some of our police officers have snowmobiles and skid steers and other equipment that they brought in on their own and they just went out and they started working through some of these.

So, this has been continuing Christmas Day and again today. Our dive team, yes, why our scuba dive team, they've got all the warm weather gear. They're used to being on top of the ice. Our SWAT team were working with the New York State police with their SWAT teams, New York State fire, parks, corrections, everybody is bringing equipment. We've got numerous search and rescue teams. They're divided in various parts of the city and they're going out working through calls.

BLITZER: So, Commissioner, what should our fellow Buffalonians be doing right now to stay safe?

GRAMAGLIA: Stay home. Just stay home. Don't go out. The unfortunate thing is we're seeing a lot of cars that are driving on the street. I don't know where they think they are going but they are becoming a part of the problem. Some of them are getting stuck. They're blocking our recovery efforts. And unfortunately, that's what we're doing is recovery efforts.

We have the fire department that's out doing EMS calls. But we just need people to stay home. Nothing is open. You're not going to go anywhere. You're safest in the house. You know, I couldn't be more proud of the work that our police department is doing, our fire department, our public works and all of our partners, state police, on and on down the list. They are doing just absolute -- you know, very tough work. It's very tough work. And what they're seeing it to be demoralizing, but they're doing it.

BLITZER: But if there's no power in the house, no water, no power and there's kids, little kids especially, what do these folks do?

GRAMAGLIA: So, you know, the power company has been doing a great job with getting power back on to a lot of areas. If there's any way, they can communicate with anybody, we will come and get them if need be. You know, obviously they're huddling in using blankets whatever they can to stay warm, but we've got warming centers throughout the city. Any calls that come in, any notification, even third-party calls, we're sending teams to get out and check on folks.

We have checked on a lot of houses, some people don't want to leave. We've gotten others evacuated to warming shelters. Our police stations, we're seeing a significant amount of people. We have cleared those out and gotten them to other locations.

BLITZER: Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia from Buffalo, thank you so much for what you and your fellow police officers are doing. We are grateful to you. We'll stay in close touch. Thank you very, very much.

GRAMAGLIA: Thank you, Wolf, appreciate it.

BLITZER: Coming up, what's driving Vladimir Putin to claim he's ready to negotiate? We'll have the latest on that.

Plus, new details emerging right now on a drone that went down deep, deep inside Russian territory.



BLITZER: Tonight, Russia says three of its troops were killed after a drone was shot down near an air base deep inside Russian territory. CNN's Melissa Bell is following these new developments for us in Russia's war against Ukraine. Melissa, first of all, what do we know about this latest incident?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The place we're talking about, Wolf, is an air base deep inside Russia. It's more than 300 miles northeast of the Ukrainian border, and it is a suspected Ukrainian drone, although Ukrainians tend not to confirm or deny, that appears to have been shot down and it was the debris that caused the casualties.

Now, it's not the first time that that particular air base, one that carries not only nuclear capable bombers, Wolf, but also some of the bombers that have been targeting Ukraine, was attacked. What we saw on the 5th of December was also a drone killing several Russian servicemen on that very base.

That led to the next day was more retaliation. Of course, that's what Ukraine now fears, that there will be more retaliatory steps, this after a weekend of strikes not just in Kherson on Saturday, but across the front line in the Donbas on Sunday, even as Vladimir Putin was speaking on Russian television and suggesting that he was ready for negotiations. Suggesting, also, Wolf, that it was Ukraine and the west that was refusing.

That's been pushed back already by Ukrainian officials, pointing out the problem here is Russian aggression. Tonight, Wolf, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Russian president, has spoken as he does every night on T.V., saying that there are some 9 million people across the country that are tonight without any power at all.

This the result, of course, of Russian strikes. He's also said the situation on the front lines is particularly painful and difficult. Also warning, he said just yesterday, that the next few days were likely to be dark and difficult as the result of more Russian strikes, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very tense situation right now. Melissa Bell reporting for us. Melissa, thank you very much.

Joining us now, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us.


What does it say to you that Ukraine now apparently has been able to fire these drones at this Russian air base deep inside Russia, what -- this would be the second time within a matter of, what, a month?

WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Exactly, Wolf. That's exactly right. And it says that the Ukrainians can hit back and they can hit back deep. They're very clear that they're not using U.S. weapons to make these strikes. They're using their own weapons to do this, but they're putting at risk a lot of military targets. It's really important that they're shooting for military targets when the Russians are shooting at undefended, unarmed civilian targets.

BLITZER: Does Ukraine now need to brace for Russian retaliation? TAYLOR: Of course. And they're braced, they've been braced since

October 10th when the Russians started this retaliation. They've hit about every week. So, yes, the Ukrainians are ready. That's exactly what President Zelenskyy just said. They're expecting this. They're also, though, expecting that this may be one of the last volleys, last several volleys of these bad weapons coming from the Russians.

BLITZER: How do you interpret Putin now saying he's ready to negotiate some sort of settlement with Ukraine?

TAYLOR: Of course, he is. He's losing on the battlefield. All he can do is attack civilian targets and make Ukrainians miserable. That's the only thing he's got to do. And he's being pushed out of the country. He's being pushed out of Ukraine. So, now he would like to stop, negotiate, cease-fire, hold onto what he's got and put the burden on Ukraine. The Ukrainians said, look, we're happy to negotiate, the Russians just need to get out of our country.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting because over the weekend for the first time, Putin actually called this a, quote, "war." In the past you could be arrested in Russia if you called it a war. He too called it a, what, a special military operation.

TAYLOR: Exactly, you would go to jail if you called it a war. And it slipped out from President Putin. He said it's a war that we have to end. It is a war. And that is getting through to the Russian people. They're understanding that they are, A, in war, B, they're losing that war. And so that's why he's now talking about negotiations.

BLITZER: Ambassador Taylor, thank you so much for joining us. Ambassador William Taylor, always good to get his analysis.

Up next, freezing temperatures in Texas have made a new migrant crisis worse as the fate of a Trump-era immigration policy is in the hands of the United States Supreme Court right now.



BLITZER: Yet more busloads of migrants were dropped off in front of Vice President Kamala Harris' residence on Christmas Eve in 18-degree weather here in Washington. Many with little more than a t-shirt to keep them warm. A move the White House is now calling a cruel, dangerous and shameful stunt.

CNN's senior White House correspondent MJ Lee is joining us right now. MJ, who is the Biden administration saying is responsible for this?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know just how brutally cold it was over the holiday weekend here in Washington. So, these images of these migrants getting off these buses here in D.C. near the vice president's residence, some of them clearly not adequately dressed, trying to keep themselves warm with blankets, those images have been making the rounds. And the White House, for its part, is making clear that it blames

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, saying as you said that all of this is a cruel and dangerous stunt. Now, while it is unclear exactly who is responsible, we, of course, do know that the Texas governor in the past has done this kind of thing where he has sent buses of migrants up north, including, again, to near the area next to the vice president's residence in northwest D.C.

And what volunteers on the ground have said is these are asylum seekers that have come from countries like Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. And while some of them they have said have been taken to local shelters in the area, of course, it is just impossible to know exactly what their final fate and their destination will be, Wolf.

BLITZER: MJ, hundreds of migrants, as you know, are waiting out in the cold on the Mexican side of the southern border of the United States as we await a U.S. Supreme court decision on what's called Title 42. When is that expected to come?

LEE: Yeah. You know, the answer is that we simply just don't know. We are waiting right now. And just to remind everyone, this policy was actually initially supposed to expire middle of last week, and then we got this order, a temporary order from Chief Justice John Roberts, responding to a group of states essentially saying, look, we can't have Title 42 go away right now because it would be disastrous for our own areas and our cities.

And we are now at the point where we're waiting for the Supreme Court to issue an order, but they're under no specific deadline. It could really come any day. And what the White House has made clear is that they have been making preparations for months to deal with what is expected to be a real serious surge in people trying to get across the border.

So, they have said if the Supreme Court does ultimately decide to lift this freeze, they would like a couple of days of cushion to implement what they are -- what they have said are serious plans that have been in the works, again, for a number of months now, Wolf.

BLITZER: MJ Lee at the White House for us. MJ, thank you very much.

Turning now to the January 6th investigation, the House Select Committee preparing to release more transcripts of witness interviews after releasing its massive final report.


Let's go to CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider. She's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM. What more are we learning from these raw transcripts that are being released?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this point, Wolf, the committee has put out close to 100 transcripts. We saw more than 40 put out over the weekend. And what we're learning is some revelatory details from those 40 plus transcripts. So first we learned for the first time that Ivanka Trump, daughter of former President Trump, a close adviser at the White House, she actually did see hand over her text messages to the Select Committee, something that we hadn't known before.

We don't know the content of those text messages, but she did say in one of her depositions that she never corresponded with her father, the former president, over text on any device. So that was one thing.

We also learned about a draft statement that White House staffers prepared in the wake of December 2020, when the former Attorney General, Bill Barr gave an interview with the Associated Press saying that no, there was no widespread election fraud.

Well, apparently, White House staffers, right after that, they drafted a press statement saying that anyone who didn't agree with the former president that there was, in fact, election fraud, that they should be fired. So this came up in a deposition with the former White House counsel, Pat Cipollone. And the committee said that the end of the draft statement said this anybody that thinks there wasn't massive fraud in the 2020 election should be fired.

Now, Pat Cipollone said that he has no recollection of this draft statement, that he has no recollection of staffers asking him if it would be OK to post this on social media. He did quip to the committee, Wolf, that he said, by the way, I wasn't fired because, of course, he also did not believe that there was widespread election fraud. There have been a lot of details that have come out in these transcripts in the wake of the report that was released last week.

We're expecting, really, a deluge of other transcripts throughout this week by the end of the year.

BLITZER: Looking forward to those transcripts. They will be important. How is the Trump team right now, Jessica, countering the committee's evidence that's being released?

SCHNEIDER: They're really downplaying all of it, as we're seeing this drip, drip, drip of information from the committee, and they're really saying that these referrals are worthless. Of course, the committee has referred Trump to the Justice Department for four alleged federal crimes, including obstruction of Congress, also conspiracy. One of Trump's lawyers in particular really downplayed it, calling it worthless. Here he is.


TIM PARLATORE, TRUMP LAWYER: The Department of justice doesn't have to follow it. There has been an existing investigation that we've been dealing with for quite some time. And, you know, really what this does, if anything, it just politicizes the process and in.


SCHNEIDER: And in some way, Wolf, the Trump's team lawyer is actually right. I mean, the committee's referral here, these criminal referrals, they're significant but they aren't legally binding on the Justice Department. They do not in any way have to actually prosecute based on this referral because, of course, the newly named Special Counsel in place for about a month now, Jack Smith, he has an entire team looking into election interference, other things involving January 6.

And you know, the Special Counsel has already issued a flurry of subpoenas, in particular to state election officials in battleground states. He wants to get more information about the communications that were made from Trump and his team right around the election. So a lot more to come on the criminal side probably in the new year.

BLITZER: You're probably right. Jessica Schneider. Excellent. Excellent reporting. Thank you very, very much.

Let's discuss what's going on with CNN's senior legal analyst Elie Honig. Elie, thanks for joining us. How critical is it to see all of these details, like the draft statement, for example, threatening to fire anyone who disputed Trump's claims of election fraud?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, any trial lawyer will tell you that it's all about the details. And these revelations that we're getting now on an almost daily basis are so important because for all the testimony that we heard, the hours and hours at the hearings, there is so much more here to be mind. Prosecutors and defense lawyers are going to need to understand all of that. To take that draft statement, for example, it's a great indicator of just how afraid the Trump White House was of the truth. Even after Bill Barr, the loyal Attorney general, said there's no evidence of election fraud, the response from the Trump White House was to essentially try to force people, their own people, to say that there was. So I guarantee you, Wolf, lawyers on both sides are really digging into these transcripts.

BLITZER: Take us, if you will, Elie, inside the U.S. Justice Department. How are prosecutors over there looking at these transcripts?

HONIG: So prosecutors are thinking about this offensively and defensively. On offense, they're looking for useful pieces of information. That memo just discussed is one example. There's new evidence now of just how close Donald Trump came to appointing Sidney Powell to be Special Counsel. That would have been calamitous. There's new evidence in the transcripts that Donald Trump and others had direct contact with Nevada state officials about this fake elector scheme. So, prosecutors are gathering that all up.

But defensively, you also need to be aware of the problems with your case, with the inconsistencies, with the shortcomings. That's all information that's going to go over to the lawyers for Donald Trump or anyone else.


And so you need to be aware of those holes as well. BLITZER: And we've also learned as a result of these transcripts that

so many of Trump's closest advisers actually took the Fifth and declined to answer any questions at all. There anything prosecutors can do to get their testimony?

HONIG: There is Wolf. So there's really two options here for prosecutors. One, any person can take the Fifth and you can just accept that invocation and leave it as is. Or option two, prosecutors can give a witness what we call immunity, meaning now you have to testify. Your testimony is not going to be used against you. You're almost certainly not going to be prosecuted. But if prosecutors think that a person's truthful testimony is valuable enough, you can grant that person immunity and then you can get and use their testimony.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Do these transcripts, Elie, also provide valuable information potentially for defense lawyers?

HONIG: Absolutely. You can bet the defense lawyers are going through these transcripts with a highlighter and they are looking for inconsistencies. They are looking for testimony that helps their case. Looking at this memo that we talked about, for example, in the beginning, the memo where the White House talked about what to do with these claims of election fraud.

Well, there's actually little bit of a contradiction there because Pat Cipollone, who reportedly, according to the transcripts, was behind these memos, he said, I don't remember that. So you can bet that the defense lawyers are going to drill into that and argue this is an inconsistency and this is a problem in any case against Donald Trump.

BLITZER: At the same time, Elie, the Select Committee member, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, says the next step in safeguarding American democracy should be reforming the Electoral College. What do you make of his suggestion?

HONIG: Well, if I don't think we're going to get away from the Electoral College anytime soon, it's part of the founding of this country. You would have to amend the Constitution in order to get rid of the Electoral College. I don't think that's realistically in play here.

However, I do think one of the silver linings of this whole situation is we've now passed legislation just last week to change the Electoral Count Act to safeguard the way that we actually count up the votes. To make clear the Vice President is only in a ceremony role, can't just throw out votes. And to make it harder for individual members of the Senate or the House to object to certain states count.

So, that was a bipartisan measure. I think it's something that we can all agree is necessary and really an important job of plugging up a loophole there.

BLITZER: Elie Honig, thank you very much. Just ahead, we'll go live to Beijing as China battles an unprecedented surge right now in COVID cases as it dismantles its so called zero-COVID restrictions.



BLITZER: China is now looking to a new approach as it works to contain millions of COVID cases across that country, including ending reporting for daily COVID cases, dropping quarantine requirements for all international passengers, and distributing foreign made COVID antivirals for the first time. CNN's Selina Wang is live in Beijing for us. Selina, walk us through these major policy changes just announced in China.

SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these changes are a major move towards the formal end of zero-COVID, dismantling what was left of it, and towards ending China's nearly three years of isolation. So from January 8, the country is dropping quarantine requirements for all international arrivals.

To understand why this is such a big deal, we really have to look at what the reality has been. So China has been severely limiting who can go in and out of China with strict border controls. Flights have been very limited and expensive. All arrivals had to go through quarantine in government facilities.

I went through multiple quarantines myself, including 21 days earlier this year. And we're talking about harsh quarantines, Wolf. No opening your door except for food pickups left outside of your door and COVID tests.

But look, a lot still remains unclear. We don't know how many flights will be allowed to enter the country or how easily Chinese nationals will be able to travel out.

Officials said they will start outbound tourism restart it in a, quote, orderly manner, but said it depends on the international COVID situation and the capacity of various domestic services. Authorities also said this new announcement is part of China downgrading its COVID management to a less strict class B disease.

Previously, COVID was managed as a Class A disease on par with cholera or the bubonic plague, which was the justification for these draconian zero-COVID measures. But overall, this latest announcement, it is a huge cyber leaf for so many people in China who've just been waiting and waiting for a chance to travel abroad, to see loved ones overseas, and finally, they're seeing a way out.

BLITZER: So, Selina, after years of very tight control, how are Chinese citizens, and the medical system for that matter, coping with this about face?

WANG: There is a lot of shock Wolf over how unprepared the system was, despite all those years of time as they were enforcing zero-COVID. Fever and cold medicine are nearly impossible to get at drugstores. Some local governments have resorted to rationing the amount of medicine for sale down to the exact number of pills.

But in a major move, Beijing has announced it's going to start distributing Paxlovid to community health centers in the coming days. This is major because it's been very hard for people to access antivirals. For instance, in mid-December, an online healthcare platform started selling Paxlovid, but it virtually immediately sold out.

The medical system, meanwhile, is under a huge amount of pressure even in the capital, Beijing, which has some of the best medical resources in the country.


Doctors say they are overwhelmed with elderly patients with COVID symptoms. A doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital said there was no preparation for this wave of cases, no stockpiling of medicine.

And amid all of this chaos, information coming out of China is only getting more opaque. The National Health Commission has announced it's no longer going to announce daily COVID cases. We don't know why, but this decision was made after widespread criticism over how unreliable the data was.

So get this, in the first 20 days of December, health authorities publicly reported less than 63,000 COVID cases. But leaked documents from China's top officials showed very different internal estimates that almost 250 million people may have caught COVID in the first 20 days. If that's correct, that estimate, which CNN cannot independently confirm, it would mean this is the largest COVID outbreak to date globally.

But Wolf, that information again was not made public.

BLITZER: Selina Wang in Beijing for us. Selina, thank you very, very much. Meanwhile, South Korea is now deploying fighter jets, attack helicopters, and firing warning shots at five North Korean drones that broke the barrier between the two countries. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports on what's behind the scramble.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): South Korea scrambled fighter jets and attack helicopters on Monday as North Korea sent drones across the border into South Korean airspace.

Now, we understand from the defense ministry that there were five North Korean drones in all. They believe one was in the vicinity of the capital, Seoul, and the others were flying around Ganghwa Island, just off the west coast of the peninsula.

Now, the military says that they did fire at these drones, but they can't confirm at this point whether or not they managed to hit any of them. We're hearing from a defense ministry spokesperson saying, quote, this is a clear provocation and an invasion of our airspace by North Korea.

Now, Seoul also sent reconnaissance aircraft in retaliation to the inter-Korean border area, and some of those, they do confirm, went into North Korean airspace and filmed military installations there. Also, the two main airports in and around Seoul, Gimpo and Incheon airport, had takeoffs postponed for an hour that was dictated by the military as this was going on.

Also, one of those South Korean jets that were scrambled to deal with this did crash, we understand from the defense ministry, but there were no casualties in that accident.

So this is not unprecedented to have these drones coming into South Korea. But it is unusual. The last time it happened was back in 2017. At that point, the defense ministry say that they found a crashed drone in South Korean airspace, and it appeared that it had been gathering intelligence on a U.S. built missile defense system in the country. Similarly, in 2014, there was a crash drone found as well.

Now, they were fairly crude drones with effectively a camera strapped onto them. We don't know if the technology has improved. We haven't heard from the ministry of defense at this point exactly what these drones look like, but it comes at the end of an historic year for North Korea. Never in their history have they fired so many missiles, and tensions are fairly high between the two Koreas. Paula Hancocks, CNN, Seoul.


BLITZER: Paula, thank you very much. Coming up, the U.S. Military Academy West Point now prepares to stop honoring graduates who went on to become confederate officers during the civil war. Plus, an update on the search for victims of the brutal winter storm in Buffalo and New York's Erie County. The death toll now has surpassed that of the infamous 1977 blizzard there. We'll get an update from the Erie County executive straight ahead.



BLITZER: Nearly 160 years after the end of the Civil War, the US. Military Academy at West Point finally is starting to remove monuments, references and symbols honoring the Confederacy and its military leaders. Let's get the latest details from CNN's Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann. Tell us about some of the things being removed, Oren.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's a total of 13 different items or plaques or quotes that honor in some way or commemorate or memorialize the Confederacy. Chief among those, General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate military.

And now, after the work of the naming commission, which looked not only at the service academies but also at the military broadly, they will begin the process of changing those names. Here's a partial list of what they're working on.

First, they'll remove a portrait of Robert E. Lee from Jefferson hall. They'll also remove a bust of Lee. There's a bronze triptic, essentially an engraving or a piece of art at the entrance to the science hall that shows a hooded figure that says the Ku Klux Klan. That, too, will be removed. And then other names of streets, buildings, and locations that honor the confederacy will also be removed.

The superintendent of the United States military academy, more commonly known as West Point, has said this will be a multi-phased approach. So there is a process here, and this will take time.

There's a committee at west point working on selecting different names, and some of these are actually class gifts. The institute has said they will work with those classes to find something appropriate that still honors what that class was going for.

So this is part of a process that goes back more than two years, or nearly two years at this point, to former president Donald Trump, who vehemently opposed the effort to bring in this naming commission and stop commemorating or memorializing the confederacy. He was overruled his veto, overridden with bipartisan support and the work of this naming commission now far into its process, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting indeed. Significant. Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon. Thank you very much. Coming up, the death toll continues to rise as searchers go house to house in and around Buffalo, New York. It's now surpassed the toll from the notorious 1977 blizzard that hit buffalo.


Plus today's nightmare at airports around the country, the weather is playing havoc with airline schedules and stranding thousands and thousands of travelers.


BLITZER: Happening now. A deadly and paralyzing blizzard emergency from a historic winter storm. The governor of New York just officially requested federal help. Warning the danger to residents there is urgent. I'll talk with a top official in the Buffalo area this hour.

On this day after Christmas many air travelers are stranded and frustrated right now as thousands and thousands of flights are canceled, including more than two-thirds of Southwest Airlines flights.