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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Judge Allows Trump, Co-Defendants To Appeal Order Allowing D.A. Fani Willis To Continue G.A. Elections Case; Trump Hints At Deporting Prince Harry From U.S. For Past Drug Use; Trump On Former Top General: "A Loser Who Shamed Us"; Republicans Embrace Netanyahu As Democrats Distance Themselves; Netanyahu: Evacuation Plan For Rafah Will Be Approved Soon; COVID School Closing Continue To Impact Kids' Test Scores; Former Nickelodeon Star Drake Bell Reveals He Was Sexually Assaulted By Dialogue Coach As A Teen. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 20, 2024 - 17:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Not the meeting itself, but the hallways. That meeting was a Senate Republican policy launch and the featured speaker was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appearing virtually. Coming up, the invitation that could soon follow that meeting.

Also this hour, the threatening voicemail left on one lawmaker's phone just as Congress debates how to move forward on a proposed ban or forced sale of TikTok.

And leading this hour, high praise from Donald Trump today after a judge's decision in Fulton County, Georgia. Judge Scott McAfee said he would allow the former president and his co-defendants to appeal his decision to allow the district attorney Fani Willis to stay on the case. Willis is prosecuting the group for alleged efforts to overturn George's 2020 election results. Defendants argued that she should be disqualified because of her romantic relationship with a prosecutor who has since resigned from the case. Let's start with CNN Zack Cohen.

Zack, Trump's legal team pushed for this ability to appeal the decision. So what happens now?

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Jake, it's now up to the Georgia Court of Appeals. They're going to decide whether or not they want to take up this review of Judge McAfee's decision to allow Fani Willis to keep prosecuting this case in Georgia. And look, they're down 45 days to make that decision once Trump's legal team formally submits their petition asking for an appeal and then ultimately they're going to have to say whether or not, you know, they want to overturn judge McAfee's decision. If they do indeed take up that case, that'd be a pretty stunning reversal of given McAfee's order that was really a forceful rebuke of Willis and of Nathan Wade, her top prosecutors she was allegedly engaged in improper romantic relationship with.

But look, McAfee is definitely allowing this to run its course, allowing the appeals court to make its decision as to whether or not his ruling does match up with their interpretation of the law. But look, really important part of McAfee's ruling today actually came in the very last sentence where he made clear that he was not going to pause this case in Georgia while that appeals process plays out on the disqualification issue. He said that they're going to continue to work through this stack of motions, a stack of other issues that they're trying to work for in a pre-trial phase, while that appeals process playing out. So on the one hand, Fani Willis will still have this cloud of a potential disqualification hanging over her for at least 45 more days. But on the other hand, Judge McAfee indicating he wants to move forward and keep moving forward. Despite the past two months of just talking about Fani Willis.

Reminder, Jake, we don't have a trial date set in the Georgia case yet. Fani Willis has asked for a trial to start in August. There's a bunch of potential factors that could prevent that or challenge that but we'll wait and see how that plays out. But McAfee indicating today he wants things to move forward and move beyond the disqualification issue, at least in his courtroom.

TAPPER: All right, Zack Cohen, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

My panel joins now. Kristen Holmes, let me start with you. So this Georgia Court of Appeals will now have an opportunity to review Judge McAfee's decision and decide whether or not to just allow it to stand or to hear arguments or to overturn it. Does this match up with Trump's general legal strategy of just delay, delay, delay?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean yes and no, because you have this part of the ruling that says that they're still going to go through all the motions, it's not that everything's going to be on pause, they're still moving forward. But there is no trial date, as you heard Zack say. And part of this is another turn of the wheel for them to hope that it interferes with setting a trial date. And that's really where they're at. They want everything to be delayed.

And I will say they're still feeling really good about what happened in Georgia, despite the fact that Fani Willis is staying on the case. They feel like they have a win there. And they don't think that case is going to go to trial before November, which of course, as we know, has been their goal all along. The other thing to point out about this is that when you're talking to these senior advisors and going through the process with them, they like the fact that there might be another opportunity to go after Fani Willis in public even if it's not televised, another time to bring her record forward.

TAPPER: So just to be clear here, so there's the Georgia elections subversion case, the federal election subversion case, the federal classified documents case and then also the hush money payment, the Alvin Bragg New York case, that's four cases, do we have a date for any of them?


TAPPER: Not one.

HOLMES: No, they had said that they were going to possibly do April at one point for the documents case, then that got moved. She is also waiting to see what happens in the election subversion case. They are now waiting on the Supreme Court ruling on immunity. So they have paused all of that. As we know, they, last week, extended the deadline for the New York hush money case for another at least --

TAPPER: This is remarkable.

HOLMES: -- 30 days, at least 30.

JOE WALSH, (R) FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: It's madness. And it's not just delay is not his only strategy, it's to continue to push this narrative, Jake, and he's going to do it all year during the campaign, that he's a victim. And all of this justice system is coming after him. So as long as he can demonize these prosecutors, he just feeds into that.

TAPPER: But I mean, are you -- it's kind of just -- it's kind of bewildering. Right? I mean first of all --



TAPPER: OK. So the hush money case, one of the arguments in that case whatever people think of it is, that the American people had a right to know --


TAPPER: -- about this affair that Donald Trump had with Stormy Daniels, which he denies, but I don't think anyone in the world believes him, before the election before they voted. Now, you can argue like, look, the Access Hollywood tape had dropped. Nobody thought that they were electing Mitt Romney here. But still, the American people had a right to know.

We appear to be heading in towards a legal arena where the American people are not going to have knowledge of at least two or three of these cases in terms of testimony, if not all four.

FINNEY: And that's a really important point, Jake, because we don't know what impact that's actually going to have on the electorate, because we have seen in polling people saying they want to know the outcome of these cases before the election. So what does it mean to voters, particularly those who are very concerned about what happened on January 6, who actually moved away from Trump because of that, to say to them, OK, he's on the ballot again, but this time, you don't get to know what actually happened. I don't think we know yet. If that's going to -- you know, I think the Trump team assumed that's in their favor, but I'm not sure that it is. Because, again, if you have a question about, you know, someone that you might vote for, for president --


FINNEY: -- it may make you less likely to vote for them.

HOLMES: Remember here, what the options are here.


HOLMES: The options are you don't know or potentially somebody is convicted of a crime. So, if that's the option, wouldn't you rather, if you're the Trump team go with, I don't know.

TAPPER: Oh sure.

FINNEY: Oh sure. Oh sure.

HOLMES: The really point is that --


HOLMES: -- that's where they're headed here. It's like --




HOLMES: If there are other option is we know people aren't going to vote for us by convicting of a crime.

TAPPER: Everybody understands the Trump strategy.



TAPPER: It's just kind of stunning, just as an --

FINNEY: Right.

TAPPER: -- American citizen, to watch the legal system.


TAPPER: But the Trump people are -- there is one case that did not go their way. And that is the case from Letitia James. Donald Trump is reportedly in panic mode as the deadline approaches to secure this almost half billion dollar bond for the civil fraud case in New York so that he can appeal it. If he fails to secure the bond, and apparently no insurance company is willing to engage in it for whatever reason, they could put his New York properties, at least some of them on the chopping block.

But check out this fundraising tax from the Trump campaign today. It says quote, "From Trump, keep your filthy hands off Trump Tower." And then provides a fundraising link that they called an emergency memo.

WALSH: He's the victim. And, Jake, what's fascinating is this could actually be one example where he will begin to be held accountable, like he's going to have to put up this money. He's known about this for a while. I ultimately think some -- he's the Republican nominee, some wealthy Republican is going to do something for him.

TAPPER: They haven't yet.

WALSH: They haven't yet. But --

HOLMES: They haven't yet. But dire times --

WALSH: -- he's the nominee.

HOLMES: -- I find it hard to believe --

TAPPER: You think they will? You think somebody will?

HOLMES: Yes. I don't know if it'll be one person. I mean, it's a lot of money. And even billionaires, I'm talking to one of our financial experts today, even billionaires, there's tears of billionaires and apparently --


HOLMES: -- low level tears at high tears, high tears, very small population of people who would have to step forward. And they'd like we have to pool some resources to guarantee this bond. But if your options are, again, your Republican nominee going through all this having to declare bankruptcy, not being able to pay having his assets seized and being humiliated, or securing this and guaranteeing the bonds so that you have a Republican nominee who eventually hopefully --


HOLMES: -- will do things for you in the future.



HOLMES: That's my only thought.

TAPPER: -- in an interview with a GB news that aired last night, Donald Trump hinted that if he is reelected, Prince Harry could be deported from the United States.


TAPPER: In his memoir, "Spare," Harry admitted to using various drugs, which has raised the question as to whether he lied about that when obtaining his American visa application. Here's what Trump had to say.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If they know something about the drugs, and if he lied, I'll have to take appropriate action.

NIGEL FARAGE, GB NEWS HOST: Appropriate action?


FARAGE: Which might mean, last day in America?

TRUMP: Oh, I don't know. You'll have to tell me. You just have to tell me. You would -- you would have thought they would have known this a long time ago.


FINNEY: Yes, OK. Go ahead, Trump. Go ahead. Please do, please try. Please try to kick Harry out of the country.

I think that's going to go over really well. I mean, this is so ridiculous. In the same interview, he talked about how admiring he is of the Royal Family and the idea of the Royal Family, which kind of --

TAPPER: Yes, but they -- but Prince Harry is not really a member in good standing of the Royal Family.

FINNEY: No, no. I was actually moving on --


FINNEY: -- to say, and I'm sure in Trump's mind, there's a whole justification for that. But no, he's moving on to say he also was pointing out how much he likes the concept of a royal family, which reminds us that, you know, yes, he would like to be -- he considers himself the CEO when he is president, not someone who is accountable to his voters. But I suppose maybe he thinks kicking Harry out would be --


WALSH: Who cares? Jake, you lead this segment, two of his indictments, Trump's indictments, involve his attempts to overthrow an American election.

TAPPER: Right.

WALSH: And the American electorate is going to go to the ballot box in seven months not knowing about his involvement, whether he's going to be held accountable for his involvement overthrowing an American election.

TAPPER: So, Kristen, you still -- you cover Trump, so you watch all his rallies, you attend rallies. You see, January 6, is not just something that he defends, it is something he celebrates now. He starts rallies with the January 6 criminals in prison singing the national anthem.

HOLMES: Which he recorded part of the song for that.

TAPPER: And -- right, which he was part of the --

HOLMES: Yes. TAPPER: And also, I mean, he calls them hostages at a time, by the way, that there are actual hostages, including American hostages being kept -- being held in Gaza and in Russia, et cetera, he calls these criminals who are in prison, were being punished after being adjudicated, hostages.

HOLMES: Yes, I think that he clearly made a decision here. I mean, after January 6, he tried to separate himself from the events and it wasn't now he's fully embraced it, saying that they were just patriots. He uses that word. He has promised that he will pardon them, as soon as he is brought back into the White House. And you see other Republicans kind of getting on board.

I mean, they're maybe not celebrating as much, but they're not rebuking him for what he is saying about January 6. This has become part of his campaign. And I will say, a lot of his base and his base supporters, they were the ones that were there. They have family that were the ones that were there on January 6, and he has decided not to alienate them and keep them in the fold by doing this.

FINNEY: Can I just say though, having lived through this in 2016, all of these things that were pointing out, they mattered to us, absolutely. To his base, they don't. To his base they reinforce why they support him because they also see the grievance narrative is that relates to them. And I think what's important as we go through this year, as we have conversations with voters, we have to bring it back to why does this matter to you in your life? Because I think there's the -- other phenomenon here is it's so much, it's such an overload that people -- some of it is just kind of bouncing off because people can absorb all of it.

And so I think, you know, again, it's important that we talk about it because I think it's important we surface it. But you know, the day to day most people just can't absorb it.

WALSH: Most of his base believes by now that January 6 was a pretty good day. And that's why Trump does what he does.

TAPPER: So, just a few hours ago he posted on Truth Social, his social media website, "Mark Milley is a loser who shamed us in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now, Mark Milley, we should note is a retired four star general. Trump appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A Trump has an ongoing feud with Millie, but this is odd timing given the Milley just testified before Congress about the Afghanistan withdrawal. And the testimony we actually didn't reflect well on the Biden administration's handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but he's just triggered by the presence of Milley.

And we should note, Milley gets death threats. Milley, like a lot of former Trump officials who have broken with the president has to be protected by security because of that kind of invective, you know, and stochastic terrorism, the idea who will rid me of this, you know, meddlesome priest and he criticizes these people and they get death threats from his supporters.

WALSH: He badmouth the military, Jake. He bad mouths law enforcement. At every one of his rallies, he rips the Capitol Hill police who were there on January 6. This is what he does. And it plays with his base.

TAPPER: All right, is there not a concern among -- I guess he has this new campaign team who ran, by the way, very -- in terms of the technical parts of it, you know, making sure that California's delegates where winner take all and all that stuff, they did a really good job. But they've just made -- this team, they're just they're not even going to try to convince him to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs of Milwaukee.

HOLMES: I don't think that they're not going to try to appeal -- like get him to appeal. They know what they need. But they also know who their candidate is. And so what they're going to do is build out a strategy that is going to be a sure thing or try to be a sure thing, despite what he says.

Now, they're giving him data. That's how they operate. That's what is one of the skill set of this team that shows him what in each area people care about whether it's immigration or abortion, and he is going to tailor his message and he is likely to because he sees, oh, they care about this. It doesn't mean he's going to stop talking about deporting migrants or change how he speaks or the language that he uses, but they are trying to show him who exactly it is that he's talking to.

Now, whether or not he listens, they can see that that's really ultimately going to be up to him. And it's not just up to him, it's up to the mood that he's in. You know, it's not just the decision that he makes is who's the last person in his ear.

TAPPER: Although, can I just add one thing? It's not just the mood he's in, it's how the crowd responds.



FINNEY: Absolutely.


TAPPER: Because he is -- it's not just that he leads the base, he follows the base too --


TAPPER: -- I think. Like in if they respond -- he was afraid of cutting a deal on immigration because he was afraid the --

WALSH: Completely.

TAPPER: -- base would turn on him.


WALSH: They feed off each other.

TAPPER: They feed off each other.

FINNEY: And that's why in 2016, right, when he talked about build a wall, right, he was getting so much of a reaction.

TAPPER: He didn't like it at first.

FINNEY: Exactly.

TAPPER: He thought it was corny, but the crowd loved it.

FINNEY: Loved it.

TAPPER: Thanks one and all. Thanks to our panel.

Ahead, an immature prank call or a sinister threat, the voicemails that appeared to threaten lawmakers as they consider whether or not to ban or force the sale of the popular app TikTok in the United States. Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our tech lead, Senator Thom Tillis' office shared a threatening voicemail his office received as Congress debates legislation that would ban the app TikTok in the United States unless that Chinese owners sell it to an American company. Take a listen, and just a warning, the audio is graphic and disturbing.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, listen. If you ban TikTok, I will find you and shoot you. That's people's job and that my only entertainment. And people make money off there too, you know. I'm trying to get rich like that.

Anyway, I'll shoot you and find you, and cut you into pieces. Bye.


TAPPER: Joining us now from Capitol Hill, CNN's Melanie Zanona.

And Melanie, what do you know about this voicemail? And are there other instances you've heard in the last period of time, year or so whatever of lawmakers getting messages like this?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, unfortunately, Jake, this has been an increasingly common trend for members of Congress. The United States Capitol Police says last year they investigated more than 8,000 threats against members of Congress, which is 500 more cases than the previous year. Back in October, I reported how multiple Republicans were receiving threatening phone calls and in some cases, even death threats for voting against Jim Jordan for speaker during that speaker's race. And now you have TikTok launching this campaign, encouraging users to call members of Congress which has led to an uptick in threats and a flood of phone calls, in some cases, from people who don't even appear to know what a member of Congress is.

But I can tell you, Jake, that in speaking to a lot of sources here on Capitol Hill, that campaign from TikTok appears to have backfired. There were some lawmakers who were on the fence about this TikTok bill who now say they have been pushed into the yes camp and Senator Tillis himself said this is a perfect example, this dangerous disinformation campaign is a perfect example of why Congress needs to crack down on the app, Jake.

TAPPER: Where does the legislation stand right now this legislation that would either force the sale of TikTok or ban of?

ZANONA: Yes, so it did already pass the House. So its fate now rests in the Senate. And earlier today, senators did receive a briefing, a national security briefing on the potential national security threat that TikTok poses. But some key senators are saying that they need to put their own stamp on the legislation, that they need to hold hearings. So even though there's a sense of urgency, it could be months before the Senate actually acts. And if that is the case, there is also a risk of momentum slipping and the entire bill stalling out.

TAPPER: And also, Melanie, you just caught up with Colorado Republican Congressman Ken Buck who's retiring from Congress. He was going to serve out the rest of his term, but he's just saying he's leaving at the end of this week. Some of his Republican colleagues are not exactly giving him the kindest farewell.

ZANONA: No, that's right. The House Freedom Caucus, which is an ultra- conservative group, kicked him out of the group last night, this according to Ken Buck. Now, a source close to the group said the reason is because of attendance issues. That's something they're trying to crack down on. They said Ken Buck has not been attending meetings regularly and that's why they chose to boot him.

But it's no doubt also have to do with the fact that Ken Buck has booked his party on a number of key issues, including impeachment. He has been openly critical of Donald Trump. He had called to certify the 2020 election. So he's often been at odds with the Freedom Caucus. And now he is only days away from resigning early from Congress and move that some Republicans believe was designed to hurt Lauren Boebert, who's trying to run to replace him in the fall.

So that might be some of the revenge motivating that move last night, Jake.

TAPPER: Interesting. Melanie Zanona on Capitol Hill for us. Thank you so much.

CNN's congressional team says they cannot ever remember a time when they couldn't even hang out in the hallway as a policy meeting happened behind closed doors. That happened today while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Senate Republicans. Netanyahu spoke virtually, not in person, so why keep reporters out of even the hallway? That's next.


TAPPER: In our world lead as top Democrats attack longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it appears Republican leaders are doing the opposite. House speaker Mike Johnson is considering inviting Netanyahu to address the joint session of Congress, this is after some Republicans floated the idea this morning. A joint session invitation would need a buy in from Democrats namely Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who just last week quite controversially called for a new election in Israel and said Netanyahu and his government no longer fit the needs of Israeli citizens. Joining us now, a former secretary of defense from the Trump administration, Mark Esper.

Mark, good to see you. So, Netanyahu called into a Republican lunch today. Listen to what Republican Senator Thom Tillis said before the launch.


SEN. THOM TILLIS (R-NC): Bibi will hear from us that we stand behind them. We stand behind the Israeli people and we're not going to second guess. It's easy to be an armchair quarterback like Senator Schumer was last week. It's hard to lead in the circumstances that Mr. Netanyahu finds himself right now.


TAPPER: We should note Senate aides kept reporters away from even being in the hallways outside the meeting saying there were concerns they would overhear Netanyahu's comments. Separately, Trump said on a podcast that Democrats who vote -- I'm sorry, that Jews who vote for Democrats hate religion -- hate Judaism, hate Israel and should be ashamed of themselves. What's your take on the Schumer speech, Trump's comments and more?

MARK ESPER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It's 2024 domestic politics creeping into foreign policy or maybe running into foreign policy. And look, Israel is in a very tough situation fighting arguably the fight of their lives right now in terms of trying to read Hamas out of Gaza once and for all. They need our support, but they clearly need to do more when it comes to humanitarian. Aid and I think the important thing is for them us to play it straight. Play it like we always do and don't allow domestic politics the best you can to work its way into this, you know, really try at times


TAPPER: So Biden, President Biden has asked Netanyahu to send a team of top Israeli officials to D.C. in hopes of getting Netanyahu to not do this attack on Rafah, this large scale military operation on Rafah. Netanyahu has agreed that he's going to send some Israeli officials. But it is clear that Netanyahu seems quite intense on the invasion. He said a civilian evacuation plan for Palestinians in Rafah will be approved soon. What is your take on the military necessity of the IDF going into Rafah? I mean, I don't know what numbers we're supposed to believe but 30,000, even if it's a fraction of that it's still way too many civilians have been killed innocent Palestinian civilians, by the IDF?

ESPER: Well, there are two things here, Jake, first of all, that he needs to go into Rafah, that's where they believe Hamas' leadership is there, Yahya Sinwar, he's there at Khan Yunis. They believe that there are six to eight battalions are remaining, six to eight battalions of Hamas militants there. And I think their view is if they're going to defeat Hamas militarily, if they -- take out the militants, take out the leadership that's remaining and then go after the underground tunnels.

Now, that said, they also have a responsibility to do so in a way that prevents unnecessary human loss that allows humanitarian aid to come in at the same time. So you have to do both or going to do both. But I think in order to get his victory, in order for Israel to be successful, they have to go into Rafah and clear out these militants.

TAPPER: The ROE, the rules of engagement, are different for different battles that I remember when McChrystal took over in Afghanistan, and he changed the ROE to make it tougher for Americans to shoot Afghans. He made -- he added requirements, because his fear McChrystal's fear was that the U.S. at that point was creating more insurgents, and they were killing them, by killing innocent people.

There are those who look at what Israel is doing in Gaza and say that they are not abiding by the ROE that even they used to hold in like 2014, for example, that they are willing to take more risks, to kill -- more risks to civilians to kill lower level Hamas operatives. What do you think?

ESPER: Well, clearly, you don't want to kill, create more terrorists while you're trying to kill terrorists. So that's number one. Number two is you know, there are outside experts who say that the ratio of civilians killed to -- militants killed has been lower than most other battles by other countries. But look, clearly when you're going to a situation like this, you need to be more discriminant you need to take -- be careful in terms of how you employ military force because you don't want unnecessary civilian casualties whether or not you create more terrorists or not. So it is incumbent upon the IDF to take those measures and to enforce them, even if it means greater risk for their own troops.

TAPPER: Before you go, I want to quickly switch topics, get your take on something. Retired General Mark Milley said about the completion date of the Afghanistan withdrawal during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing yesterday, take a listen.


GEN. MARK MILLEY (RET.), FORMER JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I'll be candid, I don't even know where or who made the decision of the 11 September thing. I frankly thought it was actually inappropriate at the moment in time, but it was very rapidly changed to the end of August.


TAPPER: Right before you were let go by Donald Trump, you wrote a memo that warned against rushed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It sounds as though Milley is saying that the September 11th withdrawal completion date made no sense and it was picked for symbolic reasons, not logistical ones. What do you think?

ESPER: I think it's what he was saying that they would dishonor 9/11 and Americans who lost their lives at the Twin Towers, at the Pentagon and Shanksville PA to end the war on that note on that day. I think that's what he was saying. And of course, other things came out of that hearing as well. But that's kind of my read on his testimony.

TAPPER: Was there anything that struck you, anything else?

ESPER: Well, look, I think there were a few things that struck me. First of all, that both he and General McKenzie said that they to include Secretary Defense Austin had recommended to the President that 2,500 troops be at that remaining country. And of course we know President Biden said later George Stephanopoulos on ABC, that's not the case that he wasn't told that.

I think secondly, the intelligence failures that maybe the intelligence community or at least the State Department thought that the Afghan government would hold on longer than expected. And then thirdly, as General McKenzie outlined, state waited way too long to give the order to conduct the NEO, the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation. Those are the big three things that jumped out for me.

TAPPER: All right, Secretary Mark Esper, good to see you. Thank you.

The report cards are in in the decision to close schools or in person classes for as long as they did as a response to COVID is still affecting. How quick children are learning across the United States. This new analysis is next.



TAPPER: In our Health Lead, the cost of closing schools during the COVID outbreak is coming into clearer focus and children are of course the ones paying the price. There was a lot of fear and confusion in the early days of the pandemic of course, but it became pretty clear pretty early that ending in person learning for kids was creating a whole host of serious educational and psychological problems for children. This is how I pressed the then head of the CDC back in February 2021.


TAPPER: What's the science because you have said there's, you know, I mean, not just you but Dr. Fauci, others have been saying for months that the school should be open as long as there's masking and cleansing and social distancing, everything that we talked about. If a school is doing that I understand if there's a mask violation, that's a problem. But if a school is doing that, I mean the damage is, I don't need to tell you on kids, the isolation, the psychological damage, the educational loss of a year for many kids, not to mention the thousands of kids who are just slipping through the cracks. I mean it's hard to even calculate. And there are a lot of people out there watching who think like, I thought the science said, we should open the schools as long as we take the safety steps, we're taking the safety steps, and we're not opening the schools.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Yes, it's -- so there are numerous research studies that have demonstrated that if with universal masking and six feet of distancing, and, you know, de- densification of the classrooms, that it's possible to get schools back safely with all of that happening. Ninety-two percent of people in those studies were masked. We have other data that was just published in CDC's MMWR that demonstrate that somewhere around 60 percent of students are reliably masking, that has to be universal. So we have work to do, especially when the country remains in the red zone of high community transmission.

As that transmission comes down, we'll be able to relax some of these measures. But the real point is to make sure that the science is consistent with our guidance, which is consistent to say, until we can ensure that we have all those measures happening, that there would -- the schools wouldn't be safe.


TAPPER: Now, three years out, the data reveals a sharp decline in test scores. And this week, "The New York Times" released an analysis and found students who spent more time in remote or hybrid learning saw larger declines, falling behind more than half a year in math scores for students in grades three through eight. CNN's Athena Jones is here to help us better understand the cost of closing schools during COVID. Athena?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake. Well, we all remember March of 2020, four years ago, this month, when schools across the country began to shut down along with everything else, to try to halt the spread of COVID-19, this deadly virus that no one had ever seen before. But now new research is adding to a growing body of evidence that shows that remote learning during the pandemic was a key driver of academic declines. And these academic harms to children have been long and lasting. And even schools that we open relatively quickly, like by the fall of 2020 are still seeing lasting effects.

Here are some numbers to kind of illustrate this for you. We know from the Nation's Report Card, a National Assessment of Educational Progress that pandemic learning loss was significant. That's the number for 13 year olds, reading scores for 13 year olds fell by four points in the 2022 to 2023 school year, compared to the year before the pandemic, so 2019, 2020. When it comes to math scores, the decline was even bigger, nine points you see for 13 year olds. We also found that reading and math scores for 13 year olds fell at all levels, even high performers and low performers. But they were much larger these declines for lower performing students. Jake?

TAPPER: While the losses were across the board. It's also clear from this analysis that household income was a factor.

JONES: It was. You know, researchers from Stanford and Harvard looked at this and they found that learning losses were larger in low income communities and in minority districts, and in districts where they remained remote or hybrid for a longer part -- longer period of the 2020-2021 school year. They also pointed to several community characteristics. They said were related to learning loss, one of them broadband access.

We know that lack of access to the internet was a big problem in some poor districts. But they said that none of these community characteristics explains the learning loss fully. The bottom line here as we saw from those numbers in 2022-2023 with 13 year olds, learning loss is hard to overcome without a serious investment. And test scores are showing that students have not caught up.

And so now that there's so much data piling up, I'd say, showing the consequences of school closures were really, really negative for children. This is certain to influence how schools and communities approach this sort of thing when there's another pandemic. Jake?

TAPPER: Yes, and that's just educational, there's also the psychological damage the kids that turned to marijuana, the kids that turned to fentanyl, the kids that turned to alcohol.

JONES: And absenteeism --

TAPPER: Absenteeism, yes. Clear slip through the cracks are horrible, horrible series of decisions. Athena Jones, thanks so much.

Coming up, damning claims of child sexual abuse of Nickelodeon when a new docu series alleges about the network. That's next.



TAPPER: In our Pop Culture Lead, a new docu series reveals explosive allegations of child sexual abuse behind the scenes at Nickelodeon. Former Drake and Josh starred, Drake Bell has revealed that he was the anonymous teenage victim whose testimony led to the arrest in 2004 conviction of his dialogue coach, Brian Peck. And investigation and discovery is quiet on the set, the dark side of Kids T.V., Bell says the pattern of abuse began when he woke up on the couch because Peck was sexually assaulting him.

Bell says he froze in complete shock. The claim so disturbing and Investigation Discovery which is owned by CNN's parent company, uncovered other surprising information as they petitioned to unseal court documents from the case against Peck. Let's bring in CNN Elizabeth Wagmeister. Elizabeth walk us through what this docu series brought to light.

ELIZABETH WAGMEISTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this docu series did bring to light some very disturbing allegations of toxic behavior on set with former child stars. Now, as you reference Drake Bell, who was a huge, huge star on Nickelodeon. He was the star of Drake and Josh. He has now revealed himself to be the anonymous accuser. He was a John Doe during this case in 2004. That led to the arrest and conviction of Brian Peck who was an actor and a dialogue voice coach.

Now by the way, he was arrested on a charge of lewd acts with a child and oral copulation. He served six 18 months and he had to register as a sex offender. Now aside from revealing that Drake Bell was the anonymous accuser, this docu series also revealed that there were over 40 letters of support to the judge for Brian Peck coming from some famous former child stars. Three stars from "Boy Meets World" recently said that they wrote letters in support. They now say that they regret that decision and they were also victims of Brian Peck's manipulation.


Now, Nickelodeon, we reached out to them at CNN, they have released a statement and here's part of what they said, Jake, they say that our highest priorities are the well-being and best interests, not just of our employees, cast and crew, but of all children. And we have adopted numerous safeguards over the years to help ensure we are living up to our own high standards and the expectations of our audience.

Now, they also say that they are dismayed and saddened to learn about the trauma that Drake Bell endured, and that they support him for coming forward.

TAPPER: So this docu series came out last week, and it's still being talked about on social media, all over the place. Why do you think it struck such a nerve?

WAGMEISTER: You know, a lot of us grew up watching these shows. These allegations are coming from a time that was really the golden age of Nickelodeon, when these shows were getting millions of viewers every week. And this really exposes the dark seedy underbelly of this mysterious world of Hollywood certainly in a post MeToo movement. Now, these behaviors would never be accepted. And we are now shining a light on what is being uncovered.

Now, the other reason, Jake, that this is getting more attention this week is Dan Schneider. He is a producer and a creator of about a dozen Nickelodeon shows. He's been referred to as the Norman Lear of Kids T.V. He is credited with discovering Ariana Grande and Drake Bell, Kenan Thompson, he just came out with an interesting video message. Let's take a look at what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's talk about the massages.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watching the current state yesterday, that was disturbing.

SCHNEIDER: It was wrong. It was wrong that ever put anybody in that position. It was the wrong thing to do. I'd never do it today. I'm embarrassed that I did it then. There's definitely things that I would do differently. One that I think would be really, really important is when you're hiring young actors, minors, to work in television, I would suggest that we have a licensed therapist there to oversee that process for this specific reason of making sure that those kids really wanted to do this job.


WAGMEISTER: Now, that was Dan Schneider there who as I said, was a prolific creator on Nickelodeon. In fact, one of the most prolific creators of children's television shows. He is being interviewed there, if we can call it an interview, by one of his former actors from a show that is not a journalist we should point out. And Dan Schneider was actually dropped by Nickelodeon in 2018, after working with them for two decades and creating huge hits like "The Amanda Show" and "Drake and Josh," "Zoey 101."

So when Nickelodeon cut ties with him, Jake, it was very mysterious, right? What happened there? He has denied any allegations since. And as we see in that video, he's denying them again. Now we have reached out to Dan Schneider, no word back yet. I've also reached out to representatives from Drake Bell to get his reaction on Dan Schneider's comment. I'll update you when we hear back.

TAPPER: Oh, yes, please do. Elizabeth Wagmeister, thanks so much. Appreciate it. And if you or anyone you know has been sexually assaulted, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656- HOPE. That's 800-656-4673 or HOPE. We'll be right back.



TAPPER: Join me Sunday night for the story of C.J. Rice, the Philadelphia man jailed as a teen who was just freed. After more than 12 years in prison, I got a chance to finally meet C.J. after reporting on his story closely for years including the 2022 Atlantic magazine cover story. My dad was C.J.'s pediatrician and testified back in 2013 that C.J. physically could not have committed the crime he was accused of.

But C.J. had an atrocious lawyer, and he was convicted and sent to prison for 30 to 60 years although on Monday of this week, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania officially exonerated C.J. and he's a free man. His story is incredible and it will be featured on the whole story with Anderson Cooper Sunday night at 8:00 Eastern only on CNN.

Then Sunday night at 9:00 right after a brand new episode of United States of Scandal, the season finale, I dig into the identity leak by the Bush administration of CIA Operative Valerie Plame. Here's a bit of my conversation with her.


TAPPER: You work for the country, even if somebody disagreed with your point of view. It sounds remarkably unpatriotic, outing you by name.

VALERIE PLAME, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Yes, what's the purpose? It was a brutal moment.

TAPPER: Were you concerned at all that the revealing of your name could put lives at risk? Is that possible?


PLAME: Yes, it is possible.

TAPPER: Really?

PLAME: Absolutely. There's a reason that ops officers work undercover which is so that you can move around the world, you can recruit, you can handle the assets without endangering them or their families. The fact that a journalist knew my true CIA affiliation, or somehow was put onto it, whether it was confirmed or not, was deeply unsettling to me.


TAPPER: The last episode for the season finale of the United States of Scandal airs Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern and Pacific only on CNN. The news continues, next.