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CNN NewsNight with Abby Phillip

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) Takes Town Hall Questions As Iowa Becomes Focus; Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) Endorses Nikki Haley, Hoping To Slow Trump; Fact Check Of Presidential Town Hall With Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL); Shaye Moss And Mother Ask The Jury To Make Giuliani Pay As Much As $43 Million For Smearing Their Names; Abby Phillip Discusses New York Giants Victory Over The Green Bay Packers; Harvard President Keeps Her Job. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired December 12, 2023 - 22:00   ET



GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So yes, you know, we do that.

I think what happened is the minute like I've started to go a little national, it was tougher for some of the Dems to want to work because they get blowback from their base. And that's just the situation that we find ourselves in. But we do have some good ones in Florida.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to thank Governor DeSantis, obviously Casey DeSantis as well. Thanks to our hosts here at Grandview University. And thanks to you, all of you who make a town hall what it is. I really appreciate it.

Join us tomorrow at 9:00 P.M. Eastern for our town hall with GOP Presidential Candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

Newsnight with Abby Phillip starts now. Thanks again, everyone.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: We were just watching special live CNN town hall, and tonight's candidate on that main stage was Ron DeSantis, of course. Tonight's setting is Iowa, where many now see the stakes there for DeSantis as do or die.

The Florida governor said that the polls don't tell the full story and that he's building momentum. Among tonight's highlights, DeSantis said that he does plan to replace Obamacare, but when we see that plan is TBD. And he forcefully went after Donald Trump on everything from inflation to the border to the satanic display inside of the Iowa Capitol.

With me to break down all of this that we just saw and heard, Jamal Simmons, Scott Jennings, Ana Navarro and Paul Begala. Everyone, let's get your takes here. I'll start with you, Scott. How did he do?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I thought that was the best I've seen him really lately on the campaign. I think this format, and Jake did a great job with it, is a far more instructive format if you really care about what candidates think about issues instead of Roman-style coliseum attacks on one another.

So, I thought if you're an undecided voter and you're looking for somebody to talk to you about stuff you care about, he did a great job tonight. I thought his answers on the economy, the electability question and on immigration were all really center cut for Republican primary voters.

You know, what he's fighting though is not really policy. What he's fighting is the inevitability of Donald Trump and the idea that he's inevitably going to win. And really he's also fighting the national polling, showing him beating Joe Biden. That was the big argument in this campaign for so many months was that Trump can't win.

PHILLIP: Trump beating Joe Biden.

JENNINGS: That Trump can't win. And now Republicans see these polls showing Trump winning, and so the whole strategic idea of strategic voting, I want to vote for the person I sort of like but may have a better chance of winning, well, it's out the window with Trump winning.

But, overall, I thought DeSantis had a terrific night.


JAMAL SIMMONS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I will have to say, I walked in, I came into this tonight with very low expectations for the governor from Florida. I thought that he met my low expectations and maybe got a little bit more, right?

He seemed more comfortable than I thought. I'd seen him before. He seemed a little bit more, a little bit more personable, a little bit more confident, but he still has ideas that don't make any sense. For instance, on immigration, he thinks that we should tax the money that Mexican immigrants send back home to their families.

Now, isn't the point of our immigration reform that people should be able to stay home, be near their families, be near their people they love, not have to come to the United States to have a better life? So, why would you lower the amount of money they would be able to get from their families who were here? He said to make any sense from a policy perspective. So, all kinds of things like that that he said tonight just don't seem to really make sense.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I would say stylistically, well, what I say my wife like ten seconds ago just texted me and said he was much less robotic, and that's kind of grading on a curve like Jamal. My answer is, yes, A.I. is getting better every single day. It's almost lifelike. We shouldn't grade on a curve.

He was to be the commander in chief of the greatest military in the world, the leader of the greatest country in world history. It's just -- he's just not getting it done. I'm sorry. He was better than usual.

PHILLIP: He may not be enough, I mean, where we are ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, listen, I'm shocked I'm saying this. I think people are going to be shocked that I'm saying this because I truly don't like this man. I live in Florida. I've lived under him for five years now, and particularly these last couple of years, I think he's been awful. Today, I think he was strangely close to human.

And like Scott, I agree with Scott. I think this is the best I've seen him of late. That's a very low bar, but this is the best I've seen him. I think this is a very good format for him. I'll tell you what I didn't hear him do today. I didn't hear him say the word woke. I didn't hear him go after Disney. I didn't hear him go after drag queens. I didn't hear him go after black history. I didn't hear him try to defend the positive side of slavery.

He was talking about substantive policy issues that the American people and the people of Iowa care about, not stupid, manufactured culture wars, which is what he thought was going to win him the nomination.


PHILLIP: And that is a really important point, because, I mean, it has been you know a little over a year since he won his re-election in Florida and his candidacy has changed dramatically. And, in some ways. he's battling on the turf now of just every other Republican, including Donald Trump, and he took it really to Trump in quite a lot of ways tonight that is different than we've seen. He said when Trump gets off the teleprompter, you don't know what he's going to say. Good enough?

SIMMONS: No, and here's the reason why. He doesn't have an indictment of Trump. There is no thematic point he's trying to make about Trump. It's a scattershot approach. Every time Trump does something, he has something to say.

The one thing you can say about Nikki Haley is she's very consistent from the beginning, and she says, listen, we need a new generation of leadership. Let's leave the old drama behind, right? And so every time he does something, she fits it into that framework.

That's not what DeSantis is doing. What DeSantis is doing is just taking a potshot at Trump every time Trump does a little thing wrong, which makes it hard for the viewer and the voter to know exactly what your argument is about why DeSantis should be picked more than Trump.

JENNINGS: I disagree. I think his main theme on Trump is he's a different person today than he was when he ran in '15 and '16. He said it tonight. He said back then it was about America first. It was about you. Now, it's more about him.

The one answer on Trump that I thought was the most interesting because it's aimed squarely at the people who show up at the Iowa caucus was on abortion. And he hit Trump on flip-flopping on abortion, which was really squarely aimed at those voters. But then when he got the follow-up about the Texas case and he talked about the law that he signed with the exceptions, he didn't exactly comment on the Texas case, but I thought that answer was pretty deft actually in pointing out that he has been a consistent pro-life candidate.

But that question about exception, I just lived through this in Kentucky in our governor's race, where our Republican was for the current state law, which doesn't contain the exceptions, but the heartbeat bill in Florida does and he signed it.

And I thought that was pretty smooth the way he threaded that needle, pro-life but the exceptions are not really negotiable for most voters.

NAVARRO: So, I actually agree with you. I think that shot he took at Trump and the abortion position for those social conservatives was a very effective thing.

The problem that Ron DeSantis has is that you get one chance to create a first impression, and he's made that first impression now. And his campaign has that certain stench of political death that is very hard to get rid of.

The other problem he has, I think, on this abortion issue, and I wish somebody had pushed back on him on that, is we had a very similar case to what's happening in Texas in Florida in March. A woman named Deborah Dorbert, who was carrying a child that had no kidneys and was sure to die.

And because of the laws in Florida, because of the lack of exceptions, because doctors are terrified of being criminalized, of being sued, because of all of that, this woman had to carry that baby to term in Florida, and because she didn't have the money to go out of state, and hold that baby for 90 minutes while it gasped for air in her arms.

To me, that is something that Ron DeSantis needs to explain, Ken Paxton and Governor Abbott need to explain, because women in this country deserve an answer as to the cruelty and the idea that these men in the capitals of these states are telling women what is health care and what is not.

PHILLIP: He described it as extremely rare, but it's actually the rare cases that make the point when the state itself is being inflexible.

BEGALA: It was. I think, all in all, it was still his best moment. I think Scott's right. It just took the Republican primary voters. And I don't think it helps them at all in a general election. I don't think he has to worry about the general election.

To put it into your context, one year ago, just put it in context, this is the stench of loss and death that you talked about. One year ago, Ron DeSantis was beating Donald Trump 56 to 33. He was 23 points ahead of Trump. A year ago in the polls today, he's 48 points behind. That's a 71-point erosion after going to all 99 counties, spending $50 million, and that could have cost him $71 for --

PHILLIP: He did say today he was the only candidate who could beat Trump, providing no evidence, of course, but that's what he --

BEGALA: He's 23 ahead of 48 behind.

JENNINGS: His point is that it's unlikely, in his view, that a candidate who sort of came in the old Republican Party before Trump can muster enough support to beat Donald Trump in the current iteration of the Republican Party. His point is he's able to draw from both the pre-Trump era but also appeal to people who have gotten used to the Trump-style Republican Party.

The problem with this argument is, of course, the polls. Trump is crushing in Iowa. Trump is crushing in New Hampshire. Trump is over 60 percent nationally. I mean, it would be unheard of, unprecedented, for someone with Trump's lead at this point of the campaign to lose the nomination for his party.


And the Trump people will tell you that for all of the trying that's gone on in Iowa, their organization is solid. They've got a very high floor that they think they start with, the people who are showing up no matter what, and I still maintain, regarding the consolidation question that came up, that Iowa is not big enough for DeSantis and Haley, and New Hampshire's not big enough for Haley and Christie. But as long as that circumstance remains, Trump is squarely in the driver's seat here.

PHILLIP: Do you think, Jamal, that this is the moment for DeSantis that he has to perform, otherwise it's not going to happen in Iowa?

SIMMONS: Oh, this is obviously the moment for him to get this right. What happens in campaigns is there's a moment where as you get toward the end of the year, people start to take off. And you see somebody begin to ascend. It happened to Barack Obama. It happened to -- it happens to these candidates. He's got to do it now or it won't happen.

One of the reasons I had low expectations tonight is because I don't think Ron DeSantis has any idea how to run for president. He's not really a leader. So, in the beginning of this campaign, the Trump forces spent $13 million to define Ron DeSantis. Everything that we know about Ron DeSantis comes from Donald Trump and his people telling us that Ron DeSantis was robotic and wasn't really a good person to follow. He didn't have the charisma, right? They set that stage early. It was unanswered.

I think that this is another example of Ron DeSantis not really being able to just perform on the presidential stage in the way that winners do.

NAVARRO: And the other problem he has is, listen, he talks about Nikki Haley being an establishment candidate, but he also is an establishment candidate who depends on big donors, and a lot of those big donors have now moved on.

They were quick to be with him at the beginning. He had a lot of the big Republican whales with him in the beginning. They saw a disastrous campaign, a disastrous campaign launch, and it only got worse from then, and they have moved on.

And Ron DeSantis is not Donald Trump, who's got a bunch of small donors that buy pieces of his whatever it is, sacred tunic, sacred suit that he bought to -- that he wore to court. No, that's not Ron DeSantis. He doesn't have a charisma, you know, to have an army of small donors. He needs to depend on special interests and large donors, and they now see him as damaged goods.

PHILLIP: So, here is where we are now, where we're on the cusp of Iowa and New Hampshire. We've got Iowa Governor who's endorsed Ron DeSantis and a New Hampshire governor, today, Chris Sununu, endorsing Nikki Haley. What does that create for the early part of this Republican primary?

BEGALA: Well, I think Scott alluded to this, the best possible situation for Mr. Trump, right? So, I think DeSantis maybe a little bit stronger in Iowa. If he's smart, he'll close on abortion. That was his best answer tonight.

Over Christmas, all those Iowans can be snowed in, maybe watching T.V. I saw Mike Huckabee do this. He ran an ad with the window pane behind him, and that happened to former Cross (ph). It was a brilliant act, okay? And he needs to -- but if he does that, Nikki Haley is much better position in New Hampshire where independents can vote and she's a lot stronger there.

And so, once again, the opposition to Trump is divided and it's going to allow Trump to conquer.

JENNINGS: The trick for him is just to get close. I mean, I think it's unlikely that Trump will be beaten. So, if you're DeSantis, and I guess the benefit of being way down in the polls is that you can beat expectations more easily. But that's the trick here, is he has to get close enough to make it seem like there's still air in the balloon.

And if Trump wins this thing by 20-plus points, it's going to feel very deflated, not just for DeSantis, but even ahead of -- it's going to feel deflated for Haley, for anyone else who's still in this race.

BEGALA: All-time Republican record in Iowa is winning by 13, Bob Dole 1988. Mr. Trump is winning by 27 right now. But can he hold that? I don't know, but that's a -- if I say he's got to win by more than 13, that sounds like ridiculous.

PHILLIP: And Iowa, it seems to me, is more valuable when the person, you know, like a Barack Obama, who is not expected to win, surges to the front, and then it can catapult them through the early primaries. So, if that doesn't happen, then it could be over.

SIMMONS: Yes. And here's the trick. You know, I learned a lot about politics from Paul Begala when I was first starting out in this game. But there are rules that we all think about, right, the future is more important than the past, or elections aren't rewards for great behavior. Donald Trump seems to have taken all those rules and balled them up and thrown them away. So, as we think about what's happening in politics, in the Trump era, nothing else seems to matter. 13 points was the record before. We might see that smoked. We got an 82-year-old president running in the Democratic side. All sorts of things are happening. It's wild out here. We don't know what's going to happen next.

JENNINGS: One other thing about the Trump campaign in Iowa that I think is -- I think this is their best campaign team they've ever had. He's run three times now. This is the best campaign leadership they've had. They're the most organized they've ever been. They've got the levers in play and they have shaped this Republican primary, not just in Iowa, but in state parties across the country.


This is the best prepared he's ever been going into any of these elections that he's been involved in.

And so if you're DeSantis or Haley or these other challengers, taking on a former president who's very popular among your party is tough enough, but then to run up against the most well-organized operation he's ever been able to put together, all of his issues aside, they are prepared for this election in a way he's never been prepared for.

NAVARRO: And it's a former president who views Ron DeSantis like a Chihuahua yapping at his ankles, right? He's not even bothered by Ron DeSantis anymore. He doesn't even retort.

PHILLIP: But Ron DeSantis, when he started out, he wanted to run against Joe Biden. Now he's running against Donald Trump and Nikki Haley. We heard him attack Nikki Haley repeatedly in this debate pretty aggressively.

NAVARRO: Abby, he's running against Ron DeSantis. He's trying to change the narrative. He's trying to change the perception that people have created nationally in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in the early states about Ron DeSantis being robotic, being awkward, being a one -- you know, a broken record with one tune on it, woke, woke, woke. He's trying to change that, that perception. He's running against Ron DeSantis.

PHILLIP: Does it? And I was making this point he's moved away from all the controversial stuff in some ways tonight, no red flags on a lot of different points. Is boring good for DeSantis at this point?

BEGALA: It's one of those rules Jamal talked about, it used to be. I think, I mean, Mr. Trump, you say what you want about him, he's exciting, you know, in the same way that a category 5 hurricane is exciting. But he's exciting, he's compelling.

And I do think if Governor DeSantis wants to beat Mr. Trump, he's got to beat him, and he hit him harder than he ever has tonight. But he left a lot on the table. He pulled his punches. For example, when he was talking about the rise in anti-Semitism, which is something as the Florida governor, he does know and care a lot about, he didn't mention that in his very state, Mr. Trump had dinner with Nick Fuentes. PHILLIP: That's because he's trying to preserve the Trump base, right?

JENNINGS: I don't know.

PHILLIP: He said so today.

JENNINGS: Look, I think Trump is entertaining, but he's also likable. I mean, let's -- the Republicans like Donald Trump. Even the people who think maybe we should move on, they're like, well, I like Donald Trump. I like what he did. I think he seems like a good guy who came along at the right time and he smashed the Clintons and he smashed the media.

DeSantis' game is not likability. DeSantis' game is just constantly churning out center cut conservative Republican content that every Republican watching that would say, it sounds pretty good to me.

Now, the question is, is being right on virtually every policy good enough, or do you have to have that other gear, which Trump has and no one else in the race has?

NAVARRO: I'm not sure conservatives would say going after the largest employer in Florida, Disney, over having a different opinion than the governor is a conservative value. And he's got -- Ron DeSantis has a big problem right now, which is that Donald Trump is beating him like a conga drum in Florida, where people know him best.

PHILLIP: And he got a lot of praise for that on conservative media, but the voters, it's just perhaps not enough.

Everyone, stick around for us.

Tomorrow, don't miss Dana Bash's joint interview with Nikki Haley and Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire about that endorsement we were just talking about. That will be on Inside Politics at noon.

And also tomorrow, I will be hosting a town hall with Republican Presidential Candidate Vivek Ramaswamy in Iowa. You can catch that at 9:00 P.M. Eastern only, right here on CNN.

And up next for us, Rudy Giuliani is tripling down on defamatory remarks about two Georgia election workers as one of them testifies that she fears being lynched.

Plus, why American foreign policy is now rapidly changing as a rift developed with Israel, and the Ukrainian president gets the cold shoulder over on Capitol Hill.

And some reaction to conservatives saying, the president of Harvard kept her job only because of her race.

This is CNN's special live coverage.


[22:23:14] PHILLIP: We just witnessed a very revealing CNN town hall with Ron DeSantis tonight. He forcefully attacked the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, on personal and on policy terms. And in some instances, the Florida governor also strayed from the truth.

Tom Foreman joins me now with a fact check of some of the governor's claims. Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Abby, one of the things he went after is something that seems to worry everybody in this country, and has for quite some time now, gas prices. Listen to what he said.


DESANTIS: We are going to have an energy boom in this country. We're going to be independent. We're going to be dominant. We're going to lower your gas prices. And we're going to lower energy costs all --


FOREMAN: Well, that sounds like a grand idea. The problem is the United States under President Joe Biden is producing more oil than it ever has, more than it did under Donald Trump. It is now the leading oil producer in the world, and yet the prices of oil are governed by a world market. So, you cannot really separate it from the conflict in Ukraine, from OPEC saying they're going to cut back on some of the price of the production out there, which would drive prices up.

So, though that may sound like a great promise, other presidents have made that promise before, it doesn't really come true because of the nature of the oil market. Abby?

PHILLIP: That is a very common one. You hear that from candidates all the time, but the facts remain what they are.

There was also this discrepancy when it came to food prices. What did he say about that?

FOREMAN: Yes. That's something that really took off for a lot of consumers. I think, really, it started during COVID, but then it went from there and people have really worried about it. Look what he said about what has happened to food prices, though.


DESANTIS: The groceries have gone up way more than 10 percent. They've gone up 50 percent, 75 percent, maybe 100 percent.



FOREMAN: No, they haven't. They have definitely gone up. There's no question about that. But for the year ending in November, the numbers are 2.9 percent increase. And even if you take it back to November of 2019, since then, overall up 26 percent. That's a big number, yes, and that's important. And that hurts a lot of families out there. No question. But it's not 50 percent, not 75 percent, not 100 percent.

PHILLIP: Definitely not 100 percent. What about what he said about Nikki Haley and retirement ages? Is that accurate?

FOREMAN: Yes, this is -- I mean look, this is the third rail of politics, to talk about what you're going to do for entitlement programs for older voters who are also usually very reliable voters. He went after Nikki Haley and said, ah, she's coming after you, seniors. Listen to what he said.


DESANTIS: What she has said, Nikki Haley, she has claimed that the retirement age is way, way, way too low. That's what she said.


FOREMAN: So, Medicare, Social Security, things like that, the threat is, oh, you can't retire, you can't get those early, you have to get them later, which effectively amounts to a cut in those benefits.

Here's the problem. Back in 2012, when he was playing the congressional game, he said it was unsustainable to allow seniors to retire in their late 60s. So, he too was saying the age has to go higher. Nobody is talking about current recipients, but in the future, a little bit much to be throwing stones on that when he was hit with some of those stones himself. Abby?

PHILLIP: All right. Tom Foreman, thank you for all of that.

FOREMAN: You're welcome.

PHILLIP: And today, dramatic testimony at Rudy Giuliani's defamation trial, an election worker at the center of a conspiracy theory describes how she now lives in fear.

Next, we'll play the threatening voicemails that she received.



PHILLIP: Your name is everything. Tonight, a jury is weighing what price to put on losing it and how to quantify the pain in dollars and cents. That jury heard testimony today from Shaye Moss. You remember her, she's the Georgia election worker that Rudy Giuliani admitted to defaming with lies like these.


RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER: How can they say there's no fraud? Look at that woman. Look at her taking those ballots out. Look at them scurrying around with the ballots. Nobody in the room, hiding around. They look like they're casting out dope, not just ballots. It is quite clear they're stealing votes.


PHILLIP: Moss took the stand and described nothing short of a personal tour through several circles of hell. Through tears, Moss said that she's lost her job, she's entered therapy, she's scared to leave her home. Her whole family has been scared by these lies. She feels trapped, helpless, surrounded by lies, and like the worst mom in the world.

Now, Moss testified that she now lives in fear, fear that she'll be lynched. Quote, "I'm most scared of my son finding me or my mom hanging outside my house on a tree." That fear is not unfounded, not after the jury heard voicemails like the ones we're about to play for you -- voicemails left by people who bought into these lies as told by Rudy Giuliani, voicemails that threatened racial violence imported straight from Jim Crow.


UNKNOWN: You're going to go to (BEEP) prison, you're going to sit there, and you're going to live with a rats in the (BEEP). You (BEEP) you (BEEP) get caught for treason and go to -- have a nice life. Left of it, you have. We're going to burn your store down and we're going to burn all those (BEEP) holes that you sell that nobody wants. Oh, and the daughter, she's a (BEEP).


PHILLIP: Ms. Moss and her mother have asked the jury to make Giuliani pay to the tune of as much as $43 million for smearing their names. And next, some conservatives are slamming Harvard University for keeping its president after her testimony to Congress. And they say that she's only staying because of her race. Nicole Hannah-Jones joins me live to respond next. Plus, we have that agent that has America talking tonight.



PHILLIP: Tonight, the president of Harvard is keeping her job, and some conservatives say it's only because of her race. Harvard's top governing body issued a statement of support for Claudine Gay just days after her testimony about anti-Semitism on college campuses, testimony for which she later apologized.

But some critics are calling out the decision not to oust her. Christopher Rufo, a conservative who has been a critic of things like critical race theory, writing, quote, "Harvard has sacrificed its academic integrity on the altar of intersectionality." Another conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, writing in part, quote, "if they fired her, that would call the entire DEI scheme a scheme that is the entire reason she was hired into question".

Few people know what it's like to be on the receiving end of this kind of right-wing criticism of academic teaching more than our next guest, Nikole Hannah-Jones. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning "New York Times" magazine writer and the creator of the 1619 Project.

You might remember that she was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina due to backlash from conservatives for the 1619 Project. Now, UNC later reversed that decision, but she went on to accept a position in Washington here at Howard University.

Nikole, thanks for joining us. So, Nikole, what do you make of the fact that -- this was striking to me, some of the same voices who are your toughest critics are the ones who are Claudine Gay's toughest critics and the loudest voices are calling for her ouster.

Do you think that these two things are related, this idea of pushing back on diversity and inclusion in higher education and getting the president of Harvard ousted from her position?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING NY TIMES MAGAZINE STAFF WRITER: Oh absolutely, so they're using the guise of pretending that this is about concern over anti-Semitism, which is, of course, something that all of us should be concerned about. It's really just further their propaganda campaign against racial equity.

So, when you think about the fact that Harvard, this nation's oldest university, had about a 370-year explicit racial quota of only hiring white men to be the president, it's laughable to think that the first ever black woman following that unbroken line of white racial quotas is the one who's unqualified.


I mean, this is kind of the beauty of how racism works. If you are black and you don't achieve, if you don't succeed at the highest echelon, it's because you're lazy and you're not smart enough. If you do achieve and you do succeed and you do rise to the top of your profession, it's because you didn't deserve it.

So, as Toni Morrison said, this is all really a distraction. Chris Rufo is not a serious person. He is a person who has been trying to attack what he calls DEI, but really any efforts to address racial inequality. He has explicitly said that he does propaganda work. And the fact that we're all talking about it means that he's being successful.

PHILLIP: What do you make of the fact that, you know, there were all these university presidents who were criticized. She wasn't the only one. But the other presidents weren't criticized because they were women. They were criticized because of things that they said or did. She is being singled out as someone who is only surviving because of her race. What did you make of that?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, it's racist. I mean, we have -- no one has produced a shred of evidence that shows that the sole qualification that President Gay had was that she is a black woman. That's insulting. It defies logic. And the fact that, of those presidents, who all came under intense

scrutiny, that only one has been called out as a so-called diversity or affirmative action hire just speaks of a black woman of this country have gone through historically and continue to go through every day.

She's clearly qualified and really, I'm perplexed to try to figure out what does race have to do with the criticism that she hasn't handled the protests on her campus correctly. They just see this as an opening to further soul racial division and to further their campaign of trying to attack any efforts around diversity and anti-racism.

PHILLIP: Why do you think she ultimately survived when others didn't?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, I hope that she ultimately survived because the Board of Trustees at Harvard has courage and common sense. The same people who say that we have a repressive campus culture that doesn't allow for disagreement and free speech, when someone doesn't agree, they don't agree with or doesn't do the type of speech that they like, they're more than happy to try to expel that person. I mean, that's clearly what happened to me.

We cannot have academic freedom where we have settings that we have to worry about, major donors, and people who have political motivations determining who can provide leadership on a campus. She had the support of her faculty, and she had the support of her student body, and it looks like she had the support of the Board of Trustees because she is qualified, and there's no reason why she should have been ousted. So, I hope that we will see courage when in the face of this type of political campaigns.

PHILLIP: You raise something that I want to get your take on because I mean one of the criticisms of what's happening on the campuses right now is that students for a long time have kind of said you know we need safe spaces, we need to kind of ban hate speech, ban speech that is violence, speech that they describe as violence.

Do you think that there is any truth to this idea that if you're going to have those lines drawn for other minority groups, those lines should still be drawn for Jewish students as well?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, one, I would push back on this idea that we've ever seen kind of this pervasive censoring of other types of speech on campus. Campuses are places where students protest all types of ideology that they don't like. That's part of being what the campus experience is like.

So, certainly Jewish students should feel safe. They should feel protected. They shouldn't feel threatened, just like any student, no matter what their race or religion. But I don't think that it's true that there's been this campus culture of intolerance that's only favored racial minorities.

I'm sure like you, or excuse me, like myself, you talk to black students, you talk to other marginalized students, and they don't always feel safe to be able to express themselves or their opinion either. They don't always feel welcome. These campuses being painted as this kind of liberal bastions. I just don't think it's true. I don't think that that's an adequate description of the experience of many students.

PHILLIP: All right. Nikole Hannah-Jones, we appreciate you joining us on all that. You are or have been really the tip of the spear on a lot of this, so you know better than most what it's like to be in Claudine Gay's shoes tonight.


Thank you.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you so much.

PHILLIP: And from undrafted free agent to starting rookie quarterback, Tommy DeVito is breaking records for the New York Giants and going viral in the process. But it's actually his agent that's getting a lot of attention tonight. He will join me live, next.



PHILLIP: It's all NFL fans could talk about today. Tommy DeVito, the undrafted rookie who led the New York Giants to victory over the Green Bay Packers with a last minute game winning drive. But it wasn't just DeVito who stole the show. It was also his agent, Sean Stellato, who along the sidelines donned a black and silver pinstripe suit, an all black fedora, and all gold Jordans, and the internet exploded. The memes were everywhere. Sean Stellato is here with us now. Sean, so good to see you. Thanks for joining us.


PHILLIP: I thought I lost you there for a second. Glad to have you back. Sean, there's that phone again. Everyone. Everyone wants to know who were you talking to on the sidelines in that viral moment?

STELLATO: You know, we're trying to get a deal done and I was supposed to happen earlier in the day. And then I have a ritual when I'm on the road. I talked to my five year old daughter, Sienna Sicily before bed. So, there was actually two calls being made.

PHILLIP: One to your daughter and one to get some business on. I have a question for you on that a little later, but you really put on a show of your own with your sense of style. There've been a lot of Godfather references for both you and for Tommy. What do you make of that?

STELLATO: You know, look, we're very proud of our Italian heritage, very proud of our roots. And let's face it, the wind was blowing that night and I thought it was a perfect, you know, knife or fedora. I'm superstitious and last time I wore the suit was Draft Day and the time before that, my quarterback two years before had his the greatest East West performance in the history of the game.

So, I just felt that it was Monday night football. You had to bring out that tough look and they were going up against a tough Packers team, so -- but we had a little fun with it and I was so proud of my client to do what he did on Monday Night Football and happy for the team and the organization.

PHILLIP: Yeah, I bet you're proud, but I bet his parents and his family are even more proud. You were with the DeVito family watching him play. His dad actually gave you a big kiss. I don't blame him after that performance. You gave him one back. So, what was it?

STELLATO: I'm a reciprocator and I figured it would only be proper to give him a kiss back, but he did break the ice. And yeah, he gave me a big smooch. And you know, look, Italians where we talk with our hands, we hug, we kiss, we love our fashion, so, and our fine dining.

So, it was, there was a lot of emotion, a lot of excitement. And being able to experience it with such a special family was putting the icing on the cake, but it was a special moment.

PHILLIP: So, Peyton Manning actually threw some shade your way. Listen to what he said.


PEYTON MANNING, FORMER NFL SUPERBOWL CHAMPION: See, look at DeVito. Who is this guy he's talking to? Okay, look, whatever you need, I got you. I'll take care of it, all right? Come on, Faye, that's his agent. Of course that's his agent. Come on, Tommy DeVito's agent. What's in the bag? What's in the bag? I want to know what's in the bag.

UNKNOWN: Some cutlets. Some cutlets for later.

MANNING: You know, it looks like Johnny Fontaine from "The Godfather".


PHILLIP: What do you think?

STELLATO: Wow. He did throw some shade. All good. You know, Peyton's well respected and I know he was having fun with it a little bit. I don't know if Peyton, I don't know if he even saw "The Godfather", but I didn't know they showed that at University of San Diego.

PHILLIP: That's some shade right back at him. So, one of the interesting things, you talked about this a little bit, Tommy DeVito, it's just quite a story. That's why everybody is so into it. He's a rookie quarterback. He still lives with his family. His mom makes his bed. He's known for his sandwich choices. Talk to us about what this has been like for him.

STELLATO: You know, it's a big transition going from college to the pros. Tom is a very intelligent young man. And the fact is he's really close with his mom. And most Italian mothers, they want their kids to stay in the house at least till the 35. And I think he's comfortable there.

Look, he doesn't have to pay for rent financially. It's a smart move. And I just think it's a way that, look at it, local boy makes good. He's playing for his hometown team. And what he's doing is just, you know, it's unbelievable for all the people in New Jersey, all the people in New York, all the Giants fan.


He's the poster child for the underdog. And he hasn't forgotten where he came from. And that's what is a common practice in New Jersey is a lot of 25-year-olds are still living at home. And I think that's from having a great up-bringing and that's what is a common practice in New Jersey is a lot of 25-year-olds are still living at home. And I think that's from having a great upbringing and that's a testament to his mom and dad. They've made it where he doesn't want to leave.

PHILLIP: So, Sean, it's something for them to be proud of. Sean, real quick before you go, you were talking about doing some deals on the phone during that game. Big deals ahead for your client?

STELLATO: Yeah, you know, we have some exciting things in the pipeline. And we're picking and choosing. And he's very conscientious of the companies he works with and the brands he's going to line himself with. And we're excited to continue to evolve.

Obviously, the main focus is on New Orleans right now. They're still in playoff contention and he's ready for the next opportunity. And I'm excited for that for him.

PHILLIP: All right, Sean Stellato, thank you and good luck to you and to your client, Tommy DeVito. Thanks so much.

STELLATO: I appreciate it. And I got to tell you, I was making an offer on that phone that they couldn't refuse.

PHILLIP: I love that. Thank you for giving us a little bit of that. Thank you so much.

STELLATO: My pleasure. All the best, Abby. Thank you.

PHILLIP: And thank you for watching "NewsNight". "Laura Coates Live" starts next.