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Deadly, Paralyzing Blizzard Emergency From Historic Storm; Southwest Airlines Cancels More Than Two-Third Of Flights Today; Zelenskyy Tonight Says Conditions On Frontlines Difficult, Painful; Taliban Bar Women From Working For Humanitarian Groups; Respiratory Virus Activity "High" Or "Very High" In Most States. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're tracking the airport chaos around the country.

And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is speaking out tonight about the difficult and painful conditions out there on the frontlines. This as Ukraine is responding to a new offer by Vladimir Putin to negotiate, dismissing it as a tactic aimed at avoiding responsibility for his brutal war.

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

We're following the very dangerous conditions across Western New York right now as night falls and the governor there is appealing for federal help.

Let's go right to CNN's Miguel Marquez. He's joining us from Rochester, Western New York, not very far from Buffalo. So, Miguel, what is happening on the ground?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Just a nightmare. Buffalo is a city that is used to big storms. This is something that they have never seen before. 27 people in Erie County New York dead from this storm and authorities are concerned as they go through homes, they go through cars that were abandoned as they start to clear the snow, massive amounts of snow that they will find more people who are dead.

The airport is shut down. They're still not expected to open until Wednesday. It is just an absolute disaster that officials there are only beginning to grapple with. The ability to clear those roads, there are still a no drive zone in Buffalo in many surrounding communities around it, thousands of people still without power. And the governor of New York says it is not over yet.


GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D-NY): The storm is coming back. We're expecting another 6 to 12 inches, and in the south towns, the southern part of Erie County, a little bit south of here, they had 30 to 40 inches of snow overnight. So, anyone who declares victory and says it's over, it is way too early to say this is at its completion. Maybe the severity is downplaying now and right now it's not as bad as it has been in the last couple days but it is still a dangerous situation to be out.


MARQUEZ: There are also reports of looting in areas around Buffalo. The sheriff of Erie County is saying that about a dozen convenience stores had been looted. That is a problem for emergency workers who need to come in because if those stores are looted, the gas pumps don't work and as emergency workers come in, they will not be able to fill up at those locations and get to work and help people dig out.

Electric crews, emergency crews in the state now pouring everything they can into getting those roads cleared and trying to figure out if they can save any more people, over 500 rescues already. Wolf?

BLITZER: Miguel Marquez on the scene for us, Miguel, thank you very, very much.

Now, to the travel chaos at airports all across the United States right now fueled in large part by massive disruptions experienced by Southwest Airlines.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov is at the Denver Airport for us. Give us the latest, Lucy, on these cancelations.

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Denver Airport is unfortunately leading the nation in terms of flight delays and cancelations, 400 -- sorry, more than 450 flights canceled today alone out of Denver's Airport. The bulk of those coming from Southwest, 412 of those canceled flights are from Southwest.

And I want to show you, you can see the massive line of people behind me. That line snaking around the corner. All of these are folks who have been here for hours trying to get their money back from Southwest, trying to reschedule the flights. The problems here reverberating across the nation.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wasn't anticipating a nightmare but it became a nightmare, it did.

KAFANOV (voice over): Christmas may over but for thousands of passengers, the travel nightmare goes on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They canceled our flight and they said they can't help us. So, we don't know what to do.

KAFANOV: Southwest Airlines at the top of the list for cancelations. The airlines ticketing counter at Baltimore's BWI Airport a zoo, Denver Airport's lines for the Southwest ticket counter even longer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And we have to wait in a line that was four hours and we're still in line and nobody is giving us any direction on what line to get in. It's a total you know what show here.

KAFANOV: And for those trying to call to rebook, well, good luck getting through.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

JASON FRIEDE, SOUTHWEST PASSENGER: There's no option to rebook anything online. Oh, I've also been on hold for 5 hours and 43 minutes.


KAFANOV: Passenger Jason Friede, shows us the proof.

In a statement to CNN, Southwest Airlines said it is experiencing disruptions across our network as a result of the winter storm's lingering effects on the totality of our operation.

In the wake of dangerously cold temperatures and winter weather across the nation, airlines canceling thousands of flights on Monday --

MICHAEL JUSTICE, FAMILY'S FLIGHT WAS CANCELED: They were scheduled to fly out on Saturday and canceled flight after canceled flight until this morning now it's stand by hoping they'll get on to get home.

KAFANOV: -- thousands more flights delayed.

MANOMAY MALATHIP, FLIGHT CANCELED: Just delay, delay, delay, rinse and repeat.

KAFANOV: At airports across the nation, long lines, chaos, frustrated passengers and luggage piling up.

AZIZA MUSTEFA, FLIGHT CANCELED: There is a lack of communication. There is no transparency. There's no honesty. I don't know what is going on. There's no staff. It's okay if there is no staff but we just want them to be honest with us and I could just go home. But we can't go home because we don't know where luggage is. Is it here in Atlanta, is it in Chicago? We have no idea.

KAFANOV: Some passengers choosing to look at the bright side.

JESSICA GRAY, FLIGHT CANCELED: It was like super stressful. But, I mean, just happy I got to see my family for Christmas, and, hey, I'm off this week, so I'll be good.

KAFANOV: Others finding creative solutions for their journeys home.

JOHN MCCONVILLE, FLIGHT CANCELED: Instead of waiting on a maybe flight and paying through my proverbial nose for a rental car, if I'm able to get one, I called a friend of mine. I'm driving a rental cargo van down to Nashville, Tennessee. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KAFANOV: Now, Southwest has issued an apology to its customers, but, of course, that's cold comfort for the stranded passengers all across the nation who not only had their Christmas holiday plans interrupted but are now not able to get home. We, in fact, Wolf, spoke to one man who was here with his wife, who was here from December 21st. He has still not been able to get a new flight on Southwest. He said he's not flying with that airline ever again. Wolf?

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

Joining us now, from my hometown of Buffalo, New York, the Erie Country executive, Mark Polancarz. Mark, thank you so much for joining us.

As you know, officials have been bracing for the death toll where you are Erie County to rise. Do you have any update right now, on the victims of this very deadly storm?

MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: Well, Wolf, I really wish I didn't have to join you even as a fellow Buffalonian, but 2022 is going to go down as one of the worst years in history of our beloved Buffalo with the shooting in May and now this storm.

We do have 27 confirmed deaths at our medical examiner's office. I am aware of additional bodies that have been recovered and are being brought to the temporary morgue. We've had so many bodies that various hospitals are full and we're just having to go through and determine if the individuals had died from a blizzard related death. Unfortunately, we expect that many of them will.

It's just been a horrible, horrible situation. As you noted earlier, the blizzard of '77 is considered the worst storm in Buffalo history. Well, unfortunately, this has already surpassed it with deaths with 27 confirmed deaths in the county and, unfortunately, the number is probably going to go up.

BLITZER: How many more bodies so far have been brought to various morgues that you're investigating?

POLONCARZ: Well, in a temporary morgue that we have through the Erie County Department of Health, we have three and there's others that are still being brought into area hospitals. And if the hospitals do not have room, then they will be brought here.

And, unfortunately, we do expect in the next few days, especially as we've been able to get out and survey the situation, go through cars, go to homes of people not responding, we're expecting to find more. It just wasn't the snow. We know how to handle snow. It was blizzard conditions for nearly 24 hours, which means you can't see in front of you, hurricane forced winds, more than 75 mile-per-hour winds that were sustained for quite a period in bitter cold, extreme cold. And there are still approximately 10,000 customers in Erie County without power and we're very worried what will happened with another night of going powerless, which means no heat in those homes and we could potentially lose even more people.

BLITZER: Yes. It's so, so heard breaking just to hear that. What can you tell us, Mark, about the ongoing rescue operations and welfare checks?

POLONCARZ: Well, it is just continuing. The National Guard has significant amount of troops here and then New York State has brought in additional resources from across New York State. We had many people from across the country reach out saying what can we do? They're searching cars. Every car that's abandoned is being identified to determine if a person is in there. They're going to houses of individuals where we've had requests for welfare checks.

And then there is, of course, the delivery of individuals to dialysis centers or to pick up medication that's needed or a person may die because they can't leave their home because they're buried. Many streets in the city of Buffalo are still impassable and they will probably be for at least 24 hours until we can get in there with high lifts.

We can't plow the snow. In some areas, there are seven, eight-foot drifts gong across roads.


So, you have to come in there with a high lift, pick it up with a bucket and then put it in a dump truck and then take it off site and dump it.

And it's a slow laborious process. We know how to do it. We've done it before but we've never had to really do it for this larger region as we are doing today, and it's just one of the worst things I've ever seen. I've lived here my entire life. I remember the blizzard of '77 and this is worse.

BLITZER: I remember the blizzard of '77 and the snow piling up at my parents house in Williamsville. The snow was above the front door. You couldn't even open a door, open a window, if you are on the second floor. You looked out and saw snow right away just below the top of the window.

Where do efforts stand right now, Mark, to restore power and clear the roads? This is so critical.

POLONCARZ: There's been good progress made in the last 24 hours, Wolf, with regards restoration in the city of Buffalo and in the suburb. There are two main electric companies that provide service to our area, National Grid, as well as New York State Electric and Gas.

New York State Electric and Gas has less than a 1,000 customers without power. National Grid is approximately 10,000, a little less than that right now with the majority of those in the city of Buffalo.

Part of the biggest problem that National Grid has been dealing with is it's just not power lines that were down. Substations were buried under snow and were frozen. And they have to thaw out the substation to determine what damage was caused and then repair the equipment.

They were able to restore more than 10,000 people in the last 24 hours but the damage was so severe to some of these substations, they basically have to rip them apart and rebuild them and then, hopefully, within the next 24 hours, they'll have the power on. But it just was a situation unprecedented for our region.

BLITZER: Totally unprecedented. New York, as you know, has now officially submitted its request for a federal disaster declaration. How critical will it be, Mark, that in getting the -- how critical will that be in getting the resources your community needs right now?

POLONCARZ: Well, I was actually with Governor Hochul when she made the request and when she got a call from President Biden saying that it would be coming. It is huge. We're spending millions of dollars. And, you know, money is money. If we don't get recouped money, that's fine. You can't bring back the lives that were lost. But it makes a big difference because we have resources that we have to expend. Millions of dollars are being spent right now with regards to contractors and other implements so that we can do search and rescue and it's just this a natural disaster unprecedented for this region.

We know snow. We embrace our snow but this is unlike any other. And it's had a huge cost not only financially but more importantly human toll where this, as of right now, 27 families in Erie County have lost loved ones at this holiday time and I can't think of anything worse.

BLITZER: And it looks like that number is going go up. The Erie Country executive, Mark Poloncarz, thank you so much for joining us. More importantly, thanks for all you are doing to help our fellow Buffalonians

POLONCARZ: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to have much more ahead on the storm, including the updated forecast. Stay with us for that.

But just ahead, migrants gathering at the U.S. southern border there are now facing frigid temperatures themselves and they're seeking shelter from the severe weather. We're going to get a live report from El Paso, Texas.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: El Paso, Texas, is now under a state of emergency amid a surge of asylum seekers with many forced to sleep outside in very dangerous freezing temperatures over the holiday weekend.

CNN's Rosa Flores is live near the border in El Paso. Rosa, as we await a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Trump-era Title 42 immigration policy, I understand you have some new reporting on the backlog of current U.S. asylum applications now at an all-time high. ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, you're absolutely right. The asylum cases are at an all-time high. Let me tell you about it as I show you where I am here in El Paso. Now, as the sun is starting to set here and temperatures are starting to drop, you can see around me that there are migrants who are beginning to select their little area within this sidewalk in case that the church that is nearby is not able to accommodate them for the night.

I spoke to the pastor there. He says that they're taking about 100 families, mostly women and children. And you'll see around here that there is a lot of children, Wolf. I talked to some of the parents who say that a lot of the times what they do is take their jackets, their blankets, whatever they have and they hug their children hoping that they can keep them warm overnight because the temperatures dip so much.

Now, the people that you see around me, there's a mixture of individuals who turned themselves into authorities and others who started entering the country illegally. Why? From talking to some of them, they tell me that they are tired of waiting in Mexico or they have been returned to Mexico multiple times under Title 42. And that's why they decided to take their chances and go ahead and get into the United States.

But back to the point about the asylum cases, what a lot of these individuals don't realize is that the asylum backlog is of historic proportions right now here in the United States. According to a group at Syracuse University, Wolf, there are nearly 1.6 million cases in the backlog and the wait for simply a hearing, the wait is more than four years. So, Wolf, as you might imagine, a lot of these people don't even realize the wait that they're starting to enter if they qualify for asylum in the United States. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, awful situation. As you know, Rosa, busloads of migrants were actually dropped off on the sidewalk right in front of the vice president's residence here in Washington D.C. on Christmas Eve, in 18-degree weather, 18-degree weather. Is there any update on who actually organized this?


FLORES: You know, I just got a text message from the press secretary for Governor Greg Abbott's press office, and she confirms that indeed those buses left Texas and she reiterated that Governor Greg Abbott started this effort back in April. We've been covering it here on CNN, and that they added the D.C. destination and specifically the V.P.'s residence starting in September. Wolf?

BLITZER: Rosa Flores in El Paso for us, Rosa, thank you very much.

I want to bring in our Senior Political Correspondent Abby Phillip, our Senior White House Correspondent M.J. Lee, and Capitol Hill Reporter Melanie Zanona, right now.

Abby, what does it say that vulnerable migrants are being dropped off in 18-degree weather here in Washington on the sidewalk, right outside the vice president's residence on Christmas Eve?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is definitely a part of a messaging effort on the part of Republican governors. Some might call it a stunt but it's one that doesn't seem to have much practical purpose. There are a lot of ways that Republican governors can do this, ways that actually might not be necessarily a bad thing to help ease the burden at the border.

But what keeps happening, as far as we understand it is that local authorities aren't being coordinated with and these groups have to basically operate kind of independently, trying to find out as much as they can about when these buses are coming and where. And it's creating an environment that is more chaotic than it needs to be and it's really just to send a message to the White House.

On the other hand, there is not much practical effort on the part of lawmakers and political figures in Washington or elsewhere to actually legislate on this issue. And I think as long as that's the case, it's always going to be seen for what it is, which is a stunt, and really a dangerous one given that the frigid temperatures here in Washington over the past weekend.

BLITZER: Yes, terrible indeed. M.J., with this record asylum backlog right now and a very big change potentially out there to what is called Title 42, big change on the horizon, how big a challenge is all of this for the Biden administration?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Wolf, I don't think you are hearing anybody here at the White House trying to put a positive spin on any of this. It is definitely a serious challenge. It is incredibly complicated and I think all the more exacerbated by exactly precisely these kinds of images that we have been seeing for days and weeks.

You know, we are seeing clearly an influx of migrants and asylum seekers at these U.S. border cities and areas and it's clear that resources are overwhelmed, that border personnel are stretched really thin. And that is why we have heard various figures really across the country criticizing and raising questions about administration's preparedness and particularly since they have known for awhile the possibility of Title 42 eventually going away.

And I think it's important to note that this is not just a humanitarian issue, though, it certainly is a serious one, it is clearly a political issue just in that the White House and this administration and Democrats are being pounced on by Republicans in particular who are pretty eager to sort of point the finger and say it is because of Democrats that this situation is so out of control.

BLITZER: Melanie, are Republicans ready to jump on the issue of immigration when they take control of the House of Representatives next month?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: You know, Wolf, I actually interviewed Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP leader, right, before the midterm and I asked him, are you guys going to put an immigration bill on the floor? That was obviously an issue that Republicans talked a lot about in the campaign. But Kevin McCarthy told me, no, we are not going to touch the immigration issue until we first secure the border.

So, no, I don't expect a House Republican majority to focus much, if at all, on immigration or the immigration system but I do expect them to focus on the border and specifically zero in on Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary.

Kevin McCarthy is already under enormous pressure to impeach Mayorkas. That is something that up until recently he really resisted. But he's been struggling to lock down the votes for his speakership. And so he came out last month, he went down to the border, called on Mayorkas to resign and also threatened him with an impeachment inquiry.

So, we'll see if it's enough to win him the speakership but that race is set to take place next week. But as of right now, Wolf, he does not have the votes.

BLITZER: Melanie, Abby and M.J., guys, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, we will get an update to the minute of forecast right now as we continue our live coverage of the deadly winter storm that slammed the United States, including the blizzard emergency unfolding right now in Western New York.



BLITZER: Tonight, much of Western New York is paralyzed by the historic blizzard that dropped nearly 50 inches of snow in the Buffalo are.

Let's check in with our CNN Meteorologist Tom Sater. Tom, what's the forecast for this region that has been hit so hard by this storm, and, as you know, for me, it's very personal, because I love Buffalo. I grew up in Buffalo?


TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, Wolf, you had the Erie County executive on and he mentioned blizzard conditions for 24 hours. I went back and looked at observations. Blizzard conditions are like whiteout conditions, right? You lose your visibility a quarter mile, winds have to be over 35 miles per hour. They recorded blizzard conditions for 37.5 hours. That just doesn't happen.

This number is going to go up. It will be over 50 when we get the new numbers in from Buffalo. Look at Watertown though, 41.1. They're picking up most of the snow. Good news is the winds are lightening and it's starting to dwindle, and that's good news. We want that. This total is going to go up, as well, 98.9. We'll see it probably over 90. And that's more snow this time of year than they have typically the entire year.

Just last month, they had 36. It was an incredible lake effect event that they had. Watertown and surrounding counties still under a warning. That's the only one we have. Buffalo area, in this region, is under advisory. So, when you look at the radar, it's promising. The winds are lightening. Of course, they have been shooting straight up through Lake Erie and that creates that lake effect. It picks up these warmer waters and the same thing with Lake Ontario.

But, again, once the great lake waters freeze this winter, that shuts that system down but this was about the winds, incredible amount of winds. A low pressure drop to a category 2 strength, so it broadened out.

Look, we have another little clip. We've got icy roads in Middle Tennessee, Northern Mississippi and Alabama, that's going to move through quickly. But the amount of snow that this is dropping is going to be here awhile.

Wolf, the bigger issue is still to come. Yes, it's still below freezing but we're looking at a big warm-up. Winds are lightening. It's not the wind chills. We've got a warm front out west. We're going to see temperatures warm up too fast. Just like the temperatures dropped dramatically, this is going to create major water main breaks through numerous states in areas of the east. Not just that with the water main breaks but flooding. And urban flooding is going to be a big problem when this thaw starts to begin.

BLITZER: Yes,this is a disaster. All right, Tom Sater, thank you very, very much. We'll stay on top of the story.

But right now, I want to go to the war against Ukraine. We're now learning more about a drone that went down inside Russian territory.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Will Ripley is in Kyiv.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Ukrainian Air Force is falling just short of claiming official responsibility for this drone attack deep inside Russia, the second attack on the western port city Engels, which is along the Volga River about 500 miles southeast of Moscow.

This is actually the second attempted attack on this area, which includes a strategic bomber air base, although, we cannot verify Russian state media's claims that this drone was actually shot down before hitting its target. We do know though at least three Russian servicemen died on Monday.

Meanwhile, President Putin raising eyebrows here in Kyiv with his offer that they believe is disingenuous to negotiate for peace in Ukraine. Of course, the Ukrainians say the only peace deal must include Russia pulling out of Crimea, which Putin has occupied, his forces have occupied for nearly nine years now since 2014, that illegal annexation.

Putin saying, though, that he wants to talk about acceptable solutions to end the war in Ukraine, even though he continues to call it a special military operation with notable exception when he -- U.S. officials believe had a bit of a slip of the tongue, calling it a war. President Zelenskyy's advisor meanwhile saying that, and this is a quote here, Moscow doesn't want negotiations but just wants to avoid responsibility as it continues to attack civilian infrastructure.

And the blackouts have been across Ukraine. There was a brief respite from the power outage on Christmas day, a kind of Christmas gift, if you will, to the people of Ukraine. But then those controlled blackouts started once again on Boxing Day. The reason is simple. They just don't have enough power supply for all the people here in Ukraine, especially with winter temperatures plummeting day-by-day.

The Ukrainian embassy, the foreign minister specifically is calling on Russia to be removed from the United Nation Security Council and the U.N., saying that their behavior here in Ukraine does not warrant them being a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

A veto power, of course, Wolf, as you know, the problem is, there is actually no mechanism written into the U.N. charter to remove a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which means that Russia can pretty much veto any action against it. Wolf?

BLITZER: Will Ripley reporting for us, Will, thank you very much.

Joining us, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, Evelyn Farkas. Evelyn, thanks for joining us.

Russia is blaming Ukrainian drones for the second attack on this key Russian air base in a month. What does this tell you about Ukraine's strategy at this critical stage of the war?

EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIA/UKRAINE/EURASIA: Well, Wolf, it tells me that the Ukrainians are going to go after legitimate Russian military targets inside of Russia, which they should do. And they're not going to be essentially deterred, self-deterred or detoured by Russia's bombastic language or references to nuclear forces. And I think that is exactly what they have to do given the dire circumstances the Russians have put them in.

BLITZER: Putin on Sunday, as you know, said he's ready to negotiate with Ukraine, but in new comments, the Russian foreign minister said Ukraine has to fulfill Russia's demands or, and I'm quoting now, the Russian army will take matters into its own hands.


How do you read these comments?

FARKAS: Right. I mean, look, Wolf, this Russian president, Putin, he doesn't intend to compromise with the Ukrainians. Sure, he would like peace on his terms. That's essentially what they're saying. There is nothing new here. I think we'll know if the Russians really want peace under terms that are acceptable to the Ukrainians because Russian troops will start withdrawing from the territory of Ukraine.

We have not seen that. We have not seen the Russians, you know, except for Christmas amnesty that you and Will just mentioned. We have not seen any ceasefire, any stop and, again, the barrage of artillery against the Ukrainian people, the 9 million or so people living without electricity, not to mention, of course, all the horrible other things the Russian military has done on the ground there in Ukraine.

BLITZER: All this comes, Evelyn, as you know, after Putin apparently misspoke and called this a, quote, war after ten months of calling this a, quote, special military operation and telling the Russian people you'll go to jail if you actually call it a war, how significant is that?

FARKAS: Well, it's very interesting. I guess I am curious whether it was a statement or intentional. It certainly cost him some trouble with those folks that he's put in jail for calling it a war. And, of course, we know many high visibility dissidents, people who have been on your program who have spoken Russians who are in jail now because they called it a war. And so many people, you know, went on Twitter and said, well, my friend got seven years for calling it a war, Vladimir Putin should get seven years.

I think it's causing him trouble with people, of course, who are opposed to the regime, so it's not going to really change much in Russia. But I think with the economic -- over time, the economic squeeze on Russia, and if the Ukrainians can do more to make the Russian military feel unsafe and insecure inside of Russia, that could eventually lead to even some kind of political change.

BLITZER: As you know, Evelyn, February will mark one year since Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine. What do you expect in the coming weeks, just ahead of that grim milestone?

FARKAS: Well, Putin will probably find some way to bring up, you know, that he's trying to save, you know, Ukrainians or Russian- speaking Ukrainians from the west, and I think that's why he called it a war probably. He slipped up a little bit because he saw the picture of President Biden with President Zelenskyy and he thought I can probably get -- if it was deliberate, he was probably thinking, well, I can get away with calling it a war now maybe if he can pin it on the United States.

So, he will point to the United States, to NATO. He will try to deflect attention from the suffering of the Russian people, of the Russian military, of their poor performance. And, of course, in Ukraine, they will continue to do everything they can to keep their spirits up and to keep the Ukrainian people safe.

One last thing I want to say is that Vladimir Putin really would love nothing more than a refugee crisis again in Europe. So, that's something we need to really watch out for and we need to help the Ukrainian people avoid that.

BLITZER: Evelyn Farkas, let's stay in touch. Thank you very much for joining us.

FARKAS: Thanks, Wolf. BLITZER: Just ahead, new revelations right now are emerging as we dig into all the evidence released by the January 6th select committee. We have new details. That's next.



BLITZER: The January 6th select committee is preparing to release more transcripts of witness interviews, after going public with its huge final report.

Let get the latest from CNN Political Correspondent Sara Murray.


SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Donald Trump's former White House press secretary --

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The violence we saw yesterday at our nation's capital was appalling.

MURRAY: -- didn't realize the full extent of the violence at the Capitol until she settled in to eat a turkey sandwich for lunch on January 6th. Kayleigh McEnany telling the January 6th committee, I initially went back to my office to eat lunch but I eventually turned up the volume on Fox News.

McEnany saying she was still piecing together what was playing out at the Capitol, not merely sitting by as the attack unfolded.

I in no way, shape or form would eat a turkey sandwich if I thought the Capitol Hill was being sieged. How White House official learned of rioters storming the Capitol on January 6th just one of the details emerging as the House select committee releases batches of transcripts from roughly 1,000 witness interviews.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): The select committee intends to make public the bulk of its non-sensitive records before the end of the year.

MURRAY: A separate transcript revealing how the White House crafted a press release in December 2020 calling for the firing of anyone who accepted the election results. Hours earlier, then-Attorney General Bill Barr had told the Associated Press there was no widespread voter fraud. According to the draft press release, anybody that thinks there wasn't massive fraud in 2020 election should be fired. The press release was never sent and Barr resigned from the White House later that month. Since then, he has not held back in criticizing Trump's election lies.

WILLIAM BARR, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: I was somewhat demoralized because I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff, he has lost contact with -- he's become detached from reality.

[18:45:00] And I went into this and would, you know, tell him how crazy some of these allegations were. There was never -- there was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were.

MURRAY: The trickle of transcript revelations coming after the committee recommended that the Justice Department bring criminal charges against former President Trump.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): There was a conspiracy to defraud the United States, to exchange an honest to goodness presidential election for a counterfeit election.

MURRAY: Trump's legal team downplaying the committee's findings.

TIM PARLATORE, TRUMP LAWYER: The report itself is not of much value. You know, it's written by politicians for political purpose.

MURRAY: And dismissing its criminal referrals, even as Trump faces scrutiny from a DOJ special counsel that is now investigating his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

PARLATORE: I mean, the referral itself is pretty much worthless. The Department of Justice doesn't have to follow it.


MURRAY (on camera): Now, we have the committee committee's final report, Wolf. We have their referrals but we're just scratching the surface when it comes to getting all of the committee's evidence. They released fewer than 100 transcripts so far. They did roughly a thousand interviews. They say want to make as much public as possible. So, we have many more transcript releases ahead of us in the coming days.

BLITZER: A lot of work we'll be doing.

All right. Sara, excellent report. Thank you very much.

Coming up, after a weekend of holiday gatherings, health officials are now sounding the alarm, warning we may see worsening outbreaks of both COVID and the flu.



BLITZER: We're following major new setbacks for women and girls in Afghanistan.

CNN's Nada Bashir reports on the newest crackdown by the Taliban and how humanitarian aid is being affected.


NADA BASHIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Yet another blow to women's rights in Afghanistan, this time targeting aid workers. NGOs across the country have been ordered to stop their female employees from coming to work with immediate effect. It's a decision taken, according to the Taliban, in response to violations of the group's so- called Islamic values.

But the move has sparked widespread international condemnation. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeting that he is deeply concerned and warning that the decision could disrupt vital life-saving assistance to millions in Afghanistan. Taliban officials, however, were quick to respond, telling the U.S. not to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs.

Now, a number of aid groups say they are suspending their operations in the country without which is nearly impossible without female aid workers.

DAVID WRIGHT, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, SAVE THE CHILDREN: We need our female colleagues to help us get access to women and children because we can't access young mothers or young children in education if you don't have female staff.

BASHIR: Since the Taliban's takeover in August of last year, the rights and freedoms of women and girls have been eroded on multiple fronts.

In addition to the closure of secondary schools, the Taliban has now suspended university education for all women, triggering protests across the country.

Women seen here in Herat chanting, "education is our right."

PASHTANA DURRANI, FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LEARN AFGHANISTAN: They still -- these Taliban and they still think that women should be only limited to homes, and that's what they are doing right now.

BASHIR: The stakes here are incredibly high, but the country already facing a crippling economic crisis. But this latest edict could push families even farther into poverty.

JAN EGELAND, SECRETARY-GENERAL, THE NORWEGIAN REFUGEE COUNCIL: People are hungry and without shelter. That's why we are there to help them with female and male employees. So when they tell us to take away one- third of our able, committed humanitarian workers, we cannot operate.

BASHIR: The U.N. says it has called directly on the Taliban to reverse the ban on female NGO workers. But hope in Afghanistan is dwindling as the Taliban continues to chip away at the rights and freedoms hard won by women over the last two decades.


BASHIR (on camera): And, look, Wolf, over the last few months, we have seen those rights of women and girls across the country being eroded time and time again. But this is hugely concerning because estimates show that at least 28 million people in Afghanistan are likely to be highly dependent on humanitarian aid for their survival in 2023. And this could have a significant impact on the ability of those crucial aid groups to provide that support.

BLITZER: This is a life and death decision. Nada Bashir, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, nearly every state in the country is now experiencing high or very high respiratory virus activity. And experts are warning that holiday gathering and travel could see those numbers rise even more.



BLITZER: Tonight, there is growing concern about the spread of respiratory viruses amid holiday gatherings and travel.

CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is joining us live with more on all of this.

Elizabeth, how bad is the flu, for example, right now?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if we take a look at this map, it will answer your question. All of the states in red, orange, purple, they have high or very high levels of flu. And you'll notice that's almost the entire map. There are very few states that are not at high or very high levels.

Now, here's a tiny bit of potential good news, which is the flu hospitalization numbers are going down. You can see starting back on the week of November 27th, they are starting to tick down a bit.

But, Wolf, let's talk about what time of year it is. We've got the holidays, people are traveling, people are gathering. It is quite possible that we could see those numbers go back up when the CDC releases new numbers in the next week or two -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Just follow up, do we usually see a spike after all the holiday gatherings?

COHEN: You know what's interesting, Wolf, with flu it's so hard to tell because flu usually isn't anywhere near peaking in late November or early December at such high levels this early is so unusual.

But if we use COVID, as an example, we absolutely saw it. We saw the numbers go up with the holidays. It is possible we'll see that with flu. But, again, this is such an unusual year to get the flu this early.

BLITZER: Bottom line, get a flu shot, right?

COHEN: Yes, absolutely. It's never too late, not too late to get a flu shot.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you very, very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.