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CNN NewsNight with Abby Phillip

Biden Scolds Netanyahu, Threatens To Condition American Aid; Trump Loses Bid To Dismiss Two Major Cases; Abby Phillip And Political Experts Talk About 2024 Presidential Candidates; Discusses Cari Champion Reacts To Comments About LSU Forward Angel Reese; Spelman College President Says They Are Getting Record Number Applications. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired April 04, 2024 - 22:00   ET




So, I think any of those range of responses could potentially be at play.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, very good point. But maybe they know that we're hyped up. As you said, these domesticated animals do sort of play off of our behaviors, so we'll have to see.

Dr. Lilly, so great to talk to you. I know a lot of people are curious about this.

LILLY: Thank you.

KEILAR: All right, get your viewing glasses ready. You will join me, hopefully, and Boris Sanchez for CNN's live coverage of the Eclipse Across America. That's going to start Monday at 1:00 Eastern, or you can stream it on MAX as well.

And thank you for joining us. CNN NEWSNIGHT with Abby Phillip starts now.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN ANCHOR: Did the unconditional just become conditional? That's tonight on NEWSNIGHT.

Good evening, I'm Abby Phillip in New York.

And tonight, the foundation of the most important allied relationship, perhaps on the planet, suddenly looked -- Israeli relationship was ironclad, and now it looks like the picture of instability.

This is the image rattling around the globe tonight, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, in tense conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He cautioned the leader of the Middle East's only democracy that change is required if he wants to keep America on its side.

Now, the two men have been circling these issues for months now. The private disagreements have always had the potential to throw this decades-long marriage off track.

Now, those issues look more and more irreconcilable after a brutal and bloody airstrike killed seven aid workers whose mission was only to feed the starving people of Gaza. The mood in and around the West Wing this week centers on words like these, shaken, outraged, heartbroken, horrific, unacceptable.

CNN is reporting tonight that Netanyahu owned the mistake on that call with Biden. He admitted that the IDF screwed up and assured Biden it wouldn't happen again. And word of that promise follows a lengthy and a stern readout from the White House, a document that lists demands of Israel, announcing and then following through on specific, concrete and measurable steps, all aimed at stopping more innocence from starving, from being blown apart by missiles with bad aim.

Now, a senior U.S. official tells CNN tonight that the call featured no sparring, no red lines, no specific actions on Israel's part that would force the United States to alter how it treats it, but the fact that this conversation even happened at all represents an undeniable sea change for a president and for a country that has always had Israel's back.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We will not stand by and do nothing again, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

REPORTER: Are you frustrated with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he has not listened more to some of the things you have asked him to do?

BIDEN: It's taking a little longer than I hoped.

With regard to when is this going to stop, I think it's going to stop when Hamas no longer maintains the capacity to murder and abuse.

I had a private conversation. I did not ask for a ceasefire.

We're quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.

Aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough now. It's nowhere nearly enough.

It's in the hands of Hamas right now because there had been an offer, a rational offer. The Israelis have agreed to it.

I told Bibi, don't repeat this. I said you and I are going to come to Jesus meeting.


PHILLIP: And tonight, one Democratic lawmaker says that the strike that blew up quite literally seven aid workers was no accident. Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen labeled the strike either gross incompetence or total disregard for the safety and lives of aid workers. Congressman Cohen joins me live now from Miami. Sir, thank you for staying up with us tonight.

I want you to listen to what your colleague on the Senate side, Senator Bernie Sanders, told CNN earlier today.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): To my mind, Israel should not be getting another nickel in military aid until these policies are fundamentally changed. So, if -- you know, my view is no more military aid to Israel when children in Gaza are starving.


PHILLIP: I wonder, do you agree with that, not another nickel going to Israel?


REP. STEVE COHEN (D-TN): No, I don't agree with that because I think we should help Israel with its defensive weapons at any time with the Iron Dome, David's Sling. Hamas was still shooting missiles, rockets at Israel, and I think they've been doing it. I don't know how recently, but pretty recently, and putting Israelis' lives at risk.

I think you might want to put some restrictions on offensive weapons, which Israel also needs and wants in the fight to eradicate the threat from Hamas, which is great and which needs to be eradicated. But, no, I don't think we should ever stop giving defensive weapons to Israel to protect themselves from Hamas, which has sworn to destroy Israel from the ocean to the sea -- from the river to the sea, and wants to get rid of the Jewish people. That's part of their constitution. It's part of their mantra. It's what they do.

PHILLIP: So, just to be clear, I think, am I hearing you say that you would support conditioning or even restricting offensive aid, meaning, you know, the bombs that are dropping offensively in Gaza, but not defensive aid, like arming the Iron Dome and other things like that?

COHEN: That's right. If Netanyahu will not do what the president has asked, which is to have more aid, more humanitarian aid, more -- and he's opened up another entry point in the north for -- says he will -- for humanitarian aid and another port. And I suggested this to Israel two or three months ago to have more entry points, particularly in the north, and they should have done that.

But if they don't do that, and if they don't start to have more careful use of their weaponry -- you know, they killed three Israeli hostages who had escaped and were waving white flags, and one of them had gotten out and retreated after his colleagues were killed, and then he came out speaking Hebrew, and they killed him too.

So, apparently, some of the Israeli soldiers, we've gotten a feeling about the IDF that they're like the folks that won the Six-Day War, and that they're master military people like Moshe Dayan. Well, they're not. And a lot of them are young and have been called into action, and maybe they're not being told to be more careful and more concerned because they're dealing with a group that had just killed 1,200 Israelis, and they're really emotional about it.

But, no, Netanyahu is not good for Israel right now. He's a pariah in many parts of the world, and he's hurting Israel, and he's hurt politically a lot of people who have supported him for years, including President Biden.

PHILLIP: So, do you trust Israel to carry out a thorough investigation, as they've promised to do, and for there to be accountability for what happened here? And in those other incidents that you talked about, you're talking about one, but there are many others. There have been 196 aid workers killed since the start of this war.

COHEN: Well, I hope they'll do it. I don't know what they'll do. They said that one of the problems here was that it was at night and that they couldn't see the World Central food markings on the top of the vehicles. And they may not have been able to see them, but if it was at night, it was interesting, they were able to hit all three of the vehicles traveling a mile-and-a-half apart or 1.2 miles apart, hit them all precisely where they were supposed to hit them.

And the targets, they were perfect. And if they have a problem at night where they can't identify the vehicles, then they shouldn't be shooting at night. If that's such a problem, don't be shooting at night, because it's obviously they are not a capable of discerning friend from foe.

PHILLIP: Just one quick thing, Congressman, the White House made it pretty clear that the president wasn't explicit in exactly what they want Israel to do in terms of do this and this will happen. Should the White House be crystal clear with Israeli officials, publicly or privately, about what they need to see in order to be assured that enough is being done to provide aid, to protect civilians, all of the things that we've been discussing.

COHEN: Well, I think President Biden probably was explicitly clear with Netanyahu about aid about protecting humanitarian workers about protecting civilians and about getting the hostages released and opening up those ports.

They've opened up the ports already, allegedly, this on the White House's side. I don't think we'll see a change in that. But Netanyahu has not done anything. It's six months into the war and Hamas needs to be eliminated. But Israel needs to be very cautious about how they're using their offensive military tactics so that innocent civilians -- every time I see a child who's lost a leg or been killed, it's just horrific. It brings trauma to you and tears to your eyes and your heart.


And we need to stop that. And when he -- Jose Andres, Andres is one of the kind of -- he's an angel himself. He referred to his workers as angel. He's an angel going into these areas all over the world, trying to help people in need.

And for Israel to have not been capable of getting the information from them, which they gave those cars being on a certain road and what kind of cars they were, not protecting them and giving all possible precautions.

That just -- it's unexcusable. And the fault goes to the top. And when you're at the top, you need to accept responsibility. And I don't think Netanyahu has ever accepted responsibility for anything. He certainly didn't accept responsibility for the champagne he was given and the cigars he was given that got him ready to go to jail. And because he may go to jail, he doesn't want to give up the leadership. He didn't want to give up the position. He wants to maintain power because if he doesn't have power, he's liable to end up in jail.

PHILLIP: All right, Congressman Steve Cohen, we appreciate you joining us tonight. Thank you.

COHEN: Free the hostages.

PHILLIP: Thank you, sir.

And joining me now is Washington Post Columnist Josh Rogin, also with us, Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

Aaron, I want to start with you. We mentioned that Israel is now opening the Erez Crossing and the use of the Ashdod port to bring more humanitarian aid into Gaza. There was a report about a USAID cable that just this week that said that there was enough flour waiting outside of Ashdod to feed about 1.5 million people for five months.

Do you think that those moves are a direct reaction to the Biden administration and the tone that they've been taking in recent days about what happened earlier this week with those aid workers?

AARON DAVID MILLER, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT MIDDLE EAST NEGOTIATOR: You know, I do, and, Abby, thanks for having me. You know, in six months, the administration has been reluctant to actually refuse to impose a single cost or consequence for policies that the administration believed were undermining American interests, and frankly, undermining Israeli interests as well.

So, the one good thing about pressure is the use of the stick. If you don't have to use it, and you can credibly argue that if, in fact, X, Y and Z doesn't happen, then maybe you'll have to use it. The administration succeeded, I think. There's a direct causality. There's no question about it.

And the reality is, Abby, that the administration has asked the Israelis to do something that they can do, that they could have done months ago. It's political. The Israeli public is not interested in facilitating assistance to Palestinians when 134 hostages are still being held, particularly women who are probably being abused. And the government, at least Netanyahu's government, under pressure from extremist ministers, had no incentive to do that as well.

So, I think -- yes, I think the fact is the administration -- who knows precisely what the president said to the prime minister about what would happen, what the U.S. might do if, in fact, the administration didn't take and prior to his humanitarian assistance seriously.

Now, the question is to monitor and ensure that, in effect, Erez open, the Israelis become less resistant with respect to inspections. And I think, frankly, it's a good move on a party administration, and it's going to have a good impact.

PHILLIP: Well, just to underscore what you just said, I mean, the proof is going to be in the pudding. There have been announcements before in the past about things opening up and then they haven't opened up, aid hasn't moved.

Josh, I mean, you've just recently, this week, wrote about this issue. Your headline is that, as famine looms in Gaza, the U.S. humanitarian strategy is failing.

I mean, you've been calling for the U.S. to, you know, use a carrot and stick approach. Do you get the sense that that is the strategy at this moment? And is the concern now inside the U.S. government what you're concerned about, which is imminent famine and the need to get just basic hygiene products into Gaza?

JOSH ROGIN, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. Well, I generally agree with everything that Aaron said. I'm just a little less impressed by the administration's move in the Israeli reaction, because, as I pointed out in that article, 1.1 million people are facing catastrophic food insecurity in Northern and Central Gaza, 30 percent of children under the age of two in Northern Gaza are facing acute malnutrition. Famine is imminent for a million people.

And if you think about that and then you look at what they've done, okay, well, we didn't use pressure. We threatened to use pressure, and they promised to do something to alleviate it.


Maybe it will work out, maybe it won't. The record shows that these threats are less effective in getting the Israelis to fulfill their promises than we hope, and it's just woefully insufficient to address the deteriorating and catastrophic situation in Gaza, in my opinion.

And I think that's just a reflection of the fact that the administration is still not really willing to do anything concrete to address the larger problem, which Aaron alluded to, which is that it's not really about opening one more opening here or a port there. There's thousands of trucks sitting at the ports that are already open that are delayed by an onerous and arbitrary inspection process that turns away things like scissors and medical kits or sleeping bags because they're the color green or dates because they have pits in them, and the pits somehow are a threat to the Israeli army. And this kind of capricious and arbitrary inspection process is exacerbating the suffering of millions of people, many of them starving.

So, I think that, for sure, we could say that this is a small step in the right direction, but to see the Biden administration just dragged into making this decision by the mounting criticism both inside the Democratic Party, around the world, around the region, and so reluctantly edged towards the idea of using pressure is excruciating, not for just us as Americans who don't want to be complicit in what amounts to watching an ally starve a million innocent people, but also the damage that it does to U.S. credibility around the world and our ability to confront any other countries that are using food as a weapon of war. So, I can't say I'm optimistic. I hope this is followed up by a lot more action.

PHILLIP: Yes, there's still a lot to be seen, not just said, but seen on the ground in terms of how this all plays out.

Josh Rogin and Aaron David Miller, thank you both very much.

ROGIN: Thank you.

PHILLIP: And next, it's a one-two punch to Trump's legal teams, as courts reject efforts to end two of his criminal cases against him. I'll talk with some legal experts about what happens next.

And no candidate for No Labels. They officially will not field a third-party candidate. I'll discuss what happens next with that group with my panel.

Plus, one of the nation's biggest research universities is firing dozens of employees. It's the consequence of a state law that is targeting diversity, equity and inclusion.

You're watching NEWSNIGHT.



PHILLIP: It's been a rough legal day for Donald Trump. He was hit with two major setbacks in the classified documents case and also in that Georgia election subversion case. For more on all of this, I want to bring in former Watergate Prosecutor Nick Akerman, along with Senior Editor of Above the Law Joe Patrice.

Nick, Judge Cannon didn't dismiss the case like Trump wanted, but she also kind of left open the possibility that this issue of the Presidential Records Act could come up again, why would she do that?

NICK AKERMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: I think she just couldn't bring herself to admit that she was wrong, either that or she doesn't really understand what the Presidential Record Act is. It's one or the other. And the problem is --

PHILLIP: Some very long act, assuming, by the way. So, I mean --

AKERMAN: It is pretty straightforward. It just simply says it's a civil statute that says all presidential papers belong to the people of the United States, period, the end. And it has nothing to do with any of the allegations in this case.

And what she has done is she kind of justified her crazy request to both sides to come up with a jury instruction on the Presidential Records Act, and yet she still doesn't admit that that was stupid. And she's leaving it open to what might happen during the jury instructions.

So, the real problem, dilemma that Jack Smith finds himself in is how does he make sure that this case does not go to a jury where a jury is sworn in, jeopardy attaches, and then Judge Cannon suddenly comes up with a crazy charge about the Presidential Records Act, which is totally off-based, but yet could wind up acquitting Donald Trump and the government is stuck because of double jeopardy.

PHILLIP: And Jack Smith, he wanted this to be dealt with now and it was not. So, what does he do now?

JOE PATRICE, SENIOR EDITOR, ABOVE THE LAW: Well, I mean, now the stakes are, does he go to the 11th Circuit and say, hey, I want to writ of mandamus here. That is a drastic step. It is the kind of ultimate go-to-your-room thing that an appellate court can say to a district judge. But, you know, at this point, I feel as though that's what he almost has to try, right?

AKERMAN: Yes, you're right. I mean, it's very hard to get an appeals court to actually intervene at this time. You don't have an automatic right to appeal in a federal case. What you can do under extraordinary circumstances is to get a writ of mandamus. And Jack Smith's argument will be, these are extraordinary circumstances. This judge messed up big time --

PHILLIP: This is a pretty big deal in their case. I mean, it is loss for Trump, but a huge dilemma for Jack Smith.

In the Georgia case, another loss for Trump, that case was not thrown out on the supposed free speech right. Do you think that that issue is settled in that case?

PATRICE: Legally settled. Politically, no. This is going to continue to be something -- I actually don't think Trump's folks believed that this was a legal winner, but I think they feel this as a political winner for them because it makes -- there's some superficial, visceral sense that they can say, we're being -- Donald Trump, all it alleges he did is speak and talk to some people. He's being prosecuted for speech, which is not what's happening.

And I think Judge McAfee does a great job of explaining that nuance and how criminal enterprise is actually the problem here. But I think they want to keep this going and keep his talking point going.

[22:25:02] PHILLIP: Just in the public sphere.

AKERMAN: As a prosecutor, I mean, I always started off explaining to a jury, this case is about lying and stealing. And it's not just about lying because if you just lied and you didn't steal, there wouldn't be a problem.

And so this case is about lying to public officials, lying to people and using that to try and steal the election from Joe Biden. That's what the case is about.

PHILLIP: Real quick, last thing before you guys go, Fani Will is not out of the hot water yet. Some of Trump's allies, who are also being tried, trying to get her gagged. But there's a risk here. Trump talks about this case a lot too. Could this backfire?

AKERMAN: Oh, much more so. I mean, Trump has accused her of being racist. Trump has accused her of a whole series of various crazy things. And so what's good for the goose is good for the gander. So, I don't see how they're going to get very far with this.

PHILLIP: Alright. Nick Akerman, Joe Patrice, lots going on, as always, in the legal sphere, thank you both very much.

And what everyone thought would happen has actually happened. No Labels wrote a very big check that it could not cash.

Plus, to quote Taylor Swift, haters going to hate, hate, hate. Angel Reese shakes it off with a splashy announcement about going pro and, in the process, triggers the sports media world. That's next on NEWSNIGHT.



PHILLIP: No Labels, no candidate. Today, the group that promised a third-party alternative to Joe Biden and Donald Trump officially bowed out of the presidential race, that they never actually got in.


JOE CUNNINGHAM, NO LABELS NATIONAL DIRECTOR: To field this ticket, No Labels was looking for a hero, and a hero never emerged. We weren't able to find candidates that we felt had a straightforward path to victory in this.


PHILLIP: Asked to explain the failure to launch, the group called back to the tagline. They didn't want to become a spoiler. Not doing anything, as opposed to doing something that could land Donald Trump back into the White House, was the responsible thing to do. At least that's what the group's founder and CEO says, or what she says right now. Less than a month ago, the group held a convention where they did the

thing without actually doing the thing. That thing being, promising to choose a presidential standard-bearer without actually making the that choice.

Now, today's shrug of an ending to what most political observers called a pipe dream since its inception clashes dramatically with virtually everything anyone from No Labels has told reporter after reporter for months on end.


JAY NIXON, NO LABELS BALLOT INTEGRITY DIRECTOR: We're not in it to take from size. We're in it to win it.

UNKNOWN: We'd want to put up a ticket that could really compete.

JOE LIEBERMAN, NO LABELS FOUNDER: We think this is the moment for a bipartisan unity ticket.

PAT MCRORY (R) FORMER GOVERNOR NOERTH CAROLINA: If not now, when? We look forward to telling you and the nation about that process. We have a chance to win this thing.

UNKNOWN: This is very important for America and I'm very pleased about our process is well thought out.


PHILLIP: Joining me now is former GOP Senior Congressional Advisor Rina Shah. Also with us, "Rolling Stone Columnist Jay Michaelson. Rina, wow, what an ending to No Labels. They were on the ballot in 21 states, actually. They said they spoke to 30 people about doing this thing. No one wanted to do it. How could this have happened?

RINA SHAH, FORMER GOP SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL ADVISER: All that money, millions of dollars. Right. To end so embarrassingly. And at the top of March, they convened 800 delegates virtually. They were going to do something, it felt like. And then they had a 12-person vetting committee. This thing always reeked of backroom dealing, in a way.

And I think the dark bunny aspect always stuck out to me. It's like, who is funding this? Who wants this? And what do they want? They wanted a unity ticket. They want to put one forth, they said. What was that unity ticket even going to be about?

We know this election is a little bit less about ideas and more about personality. But even had they found the right personalities, Abby, where was this thing going? So, I'm just not that surprised at a crash and burn.

PHILLIP: I mean, $70 million just in a dumpster set on fire. Where does this money go now?

JAY MICHAELSON, COLUMNIST, "ROLLING STONE": I don't know. You know, you're in trouble. And "The Rock" said yes to live-action "Moana", but said no to running for president.

PHILLIP: And people asked him to run for president. MICHAELSON: That's right. So, that's where his cost-benefit is like, I'll do the reshoot of "Moana" but not this. And no, I mean, I think, look, it's no labels, no constituency, right? The fact is, they're trying to be a reasonable alternative to Biden and to Trump.

But if you're reasonable, there's already one reasonable person running, right? You have to be an unreasonable alternative, like RFK, Jr. And the claim that there's some space here where there could be a centrist candidate, I mean, it does speak to, I think, what a lot of Americans are saying.

Obviously, we know that both of the candidates are unpopular. But at the same time, there's not, it's a fake unity ticket when it's just the word unity. That doesn't make it so.

PHILLIP: Well, speaking of RFK, Jr., he is actually, day by day, trying to gain ballot access. He's got a running mate. He may be one reason that no labels didn't find a constituency. But is this a warning to him that there's really nowhere to go here?

SHAH: Well, the differentiator between no labels and RFK, Jr. is that no labels had already taken up an access line, sort of a ballot on the ballot in certain places. So, again, all that money did go somewhere, even though it's now obviously a futile effort.

And all that money was also spent on polling to see how well, whomever could have done, right? But even their own polling showed that they would tip the scale in favor of Trump. So, with RFK, Jr., what I'm looking at is fine. You've got a really moneyed running mate.


But I have done this before with Evan McMullin in 2016. And yes, we were a sort of last minute sprint, but it is very hard to get on the ballot. And the amount of effort that no labels took, I was thinking that maybe they'll take RFK, Jr. if they're smart.

I really don't know how he and Shanahan will do this thing, even with all her gobs of money. It is a really uphill climb. And so, I think, again, we're talking a lot about him as a spoiler, but we need to know where he ends up on the ballot and how, because that just is going to change the entire Electoral College map.

MICHAELSON: That gives me a lot of comfort that you said that, because I was kind of minimizing the candidacy earlier, and now I've started losing sleep over it.

SHAH: Oh, gee.

MICHAELSON: So, thank you.

PHILLIP: Now, you're back to minimizing it.

MICHAELSON: I'll sleep better tonight. Yeah. PHILLIP: So, interestingly enough, someone named Karl Rove has some advice for Joe Biden. Take a listen.


KARL ROVE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: If they were smart, they'd take the January 6th and go hard at it. And they would say, he wants to pardon these people who attacked our Capitol. Every one of those sons of (BEEP) who did that, we ought to find them, try them, and send them to jail. And if one of the critical mistakes made in this campaign is that Donald Trump has now said I'm going to pardon those people because they're hostages. No, they're not. They're thugs.


PHILLIP: Well, you know, the last part is the other part that caught my eye. I mean, Trump is notably savvy about his voters. But even Karl Rove thinks that this is a fatal mistake for him to hold up the January 6th insurrectionists as hostages.

MICHAELSON: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, we're in the 2024 timeline when I'm agreeing with Karl Rove. This basically is a snapshot of the world in which we live. But he's absolutely right, right? I mean, Trump knows how to cater to his base. But moderate Republicans, certainly moderate Democrats, they are not on board with what happened on January 6th.

I mean, I can't even get the words out. And they certainly don't think that these people are political prisoners or hostages. And but, you know, the people are eating their own dog food a lot. This is a lot of conspiracy on conspiracy. You know, now there's like this claim, you know, from a GOP member of Congress that actually the FBI entrapped the rioters on January 6th.

PHILLIP: Oh, I mean, that was a claim by a whole presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy.

MICHAELSON: That's right. Yeah. And so, you know, this does not play on Main Street, right? And this is not. So, I think Karl Rove is right that, you know, again, thinking about the reasonable alternative. And this is the other thing that does give me a little bit of comfort when I look at some of the bad polls, right?

Most people, not the ones probably watching tonight, but most people are still not paying a lot of attention to this election. And when these videos come out with Trump praising these people and all the other stuff that Trump does on a seemingly daily basis, that gives me also a bit of confidence.

PHILLIP: Last word.

SHAH: It gives me chills to see that news against the backdrop of the U.S. Capitol. And I think we need to remind our fellow Americans who are not plugged in, who are not engaged, just what's on the line. This is not about two bad choices. One is fatally, fatally worse than the other because he has said he wants to be a dictator on day one and he wants to walk that back.

And when I hear RFK, Jr. speak and he walks back things that he said in the public sphere, I want him to suffer the same humiliation as Donald Trump. So, this is so important that we just take these messages and we promulgate them to the people that feel like, wow, another awful election.

MICHAELSON: And yet it was RFK, Jr. who said that actually Biden might be worse for democracy than Trump. To me, that's like saying like getting a shot is worse than getting the measles, which RFK knows something about.

PHILLIP: All right, guys, Rina Shah, Jay Michaelson, thank you both for being here tonight. And next, pink slips target diversity, equity, inclusion workers at one of the biggest universities in the country. College President whose school is bucking the trends is joining me in minutes. You're watching NEWSNIGHT.




PHILLIP: The University of Texas at Austin roiled by the news that a state law banning diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher ed would result in dozens of job losses. Roughly 60 staff members who previously worked in DEI roles at U.T. Austin were given layoff notices this week. Instead, funds from DEI initiatives are going to be redirected to teaching and research. That's according to the university's president.

But the NAACP and the American Association of University Professors said in a statement that these terminations were retaliation against employees who had held DEI positions. Notably, students of color make up more than half of U.T. Austin's student population.

And earlier this year, several cultural programs and identity groups on campus lost all of their university funding. Now, while all of this is happening, we are also seeing black students flocking to HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. And that includes one led by my next guest.

Joining me now is Spelman College President Helene Gayle. President Gayle, thank you for joining us tonight. When you see what is happening in Austin and in all these other states that have similar laws that have been passed, how concerned are you about the effect on higher education in this country?

HELENE GAYLE, PRESIDENT, SPELMAN COLLEGE: Yeah, so on one hand, as you said, we are getting record applications. So, it's good, you know, from that standpoint, it's good for us. On the other hand, for the country, for our nation, it's bad. It is awful that our nation is saying that diversity no longer matters. And so, you know, it's a good news, bad news story, if you will. We have to, you know, if we think about where we are going to be as a nation over the next 30, 40 years, we must think about how are we making sure that all of our children get the opportunity to have the right education that fits for them.


You know, as a president of an HBCU, of course, we understand that more and more students are coming to us because they feel safe. They feel they are nurtured. They feel that they are able to express who they are as individuals. And that's great. But you know, we can't take all the students in the nation.


GAYLE: And we have to think about what does it mean to retrench from something that is, you know, important to who we are as a nation.

PHILLIP: Yeah, I mean, in some ways, the students are voting with their feet. It's not just Spelman that's seeing this. Spelman was up 13 percent just in the last year. But a bunch of other HBCUs are seeing increases. And it's also not just these anti-DEI laws.

It's also that really critical affirmative action decision at the Supreme Court. What are you hearing from your incoming students about why they are choosing HBCUs now in this moment of so much cultural backlash?

GAYLE: So, it's a chilling effect. So, our students are feeling like we want to go someplace where people want us. They want to be someplace, you know, and we're a very selective institution. The same students who come to Spelman could go to, I won't list all the names of, you know, elite schools in America, but they are they are the best and the brightest. And they could go to any school in America.

And they are saying it matters to me to be at a school where I am going to be nurtured, where I am going to be appreciated, where who I am is valued, where I look up and see people who look like me who have achieved a lot.

And that means something to them because they know they're going to go out to a workforce where that's going to be the case. But they will learn here how to value who they are and be able to hold their own any place in America. And not only in America, we're a more global society anywhere in the world.

PHILLIP: Yeah, I know. I know quite a few Spelman grads, so I know exactly what you're referring to there.

GAYLE: I know.

PHILLIP: I do want to ask you, I want to play this for you. This is from The Breakfast Club's Charlemagne, Tha God. But he was on "The Daily Show" and he had this to say about DEI in the workplace last night. Listen.


CHARLEMAGNE, THA GOD, RADIO AND PODCAST HOST: The truth about DEI is that although it's well-intentioned, it's mostly garbage, okay? It's kind of like the black "Little Mermaid", just because racists hate it doesn't mean it's good.

And you know, I'm right, because every one of you has sat through one of those diversity training sessions and thought this is bullshit. In fact, maybe the only thing that DEI has accomplished is giving racist white people cover to be openly racist.


PHILLIP: I wanted to get your reaction because it's not -- he's not isolated in his views on that. Probably a lot of people feel that way. What's your reaction?

GAYLE: Yeah, well, you know, I think calling anything a label DEI, you know, it's become a label and people are not thinking beyond what does that really mean? There is no question that when you were brought to America as enslaved people, there is a real difference between what our fate is, how we have been allowed into American society and the reality that there needs to be some way of thinking about how do you make sure that we are making up for, you know, the core basis and reality. Call it what you want.

But at the end of the day, you cannot say that being brought here as enslaved individuals 400 years ago, building America and then being denied the very opportunities that America -- that America says it allows each individual. There's not some -- some dialogue there. We have to have the dialogue. I don't care what you call it.


But I think we have to have that dialogue.

PHILLIP: Yeah, it's such a fair point. It's not -- it's not about the acronym. It's about what it's supposed to be -- what's supposed to signify.

GAYLE: Right.

PHILLIP: Spelman College President, Dr. Helene Gayle. Thank you very much for joining us tonight.

GAYLE: My pleasure. Thanks for doing all that you do.

PHILLIP: Thank you. And up next, you either graduated a hero or you live long enough to become a villain. A sports commentator calls a soon to be WNBA star a villain. Cari Champion is here on those comments. And that's next.


PHILLIP: Angel Reese may not have made it to the NCAA Final Four, but she is taking her talents to the WNBA and she let the world know in style or in glamour. Reese declared for the draft in a "Vogue" spread, "Vogue", which with ruffled feathers of the FS1 commentator and former NFL player Emmanuel Acho. Listen.



EMMANUEL ACHO, FOX SPORTS ONE COMMENTATOR: Nobody mourns when the villain catches a -- L. And Angel Reese, you have self-proclaimed to be the villain. Shout out to you because you are the second best basketball player on the court. And it was not close.

But you can't under any circumstance go to the podium and now try to ask for individuals to give you sympathy. No one has sympathy for the villain. You painted the bullseye on your back. Why are you surprised when people shoot at you?


PHILLIP: Joining me now, sports journalist and CNN Contributor Cari Champion. So, look, first of all, she is now going to the WNBA. So, she is not -- she lost a game, but she is not a loser by any stretch of the imagination. But why that reaction?

CARI CHAMPION, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, well, first of all, I think that I want to give just a little context. Her saying that she was a self-proclaimed villain was based off an article that someone had wrote about the team. And she said, fine, I'll be your villain.

And she's 21 years old. And I'm going to keep saying that she's 21 years old. The maturation of this young lady, we haven't even begun to see or began to see, rather. And I think it's unfair for us to say this is who she is. Emmanuel Acho decided to give this critique. And if he was really, truly trying to help her, he would have called her up and said, listen, this is what this looks like. He would not have went on a show to say that he's giving a gender neutral, race neutral take and make it about her. It's impossible to do.

PHILLIP: She's also talking about, I mean, it's not -- it's not just about people calling her names. She's talking about death threats. She's talking about --

CHAMPION: She's had a tough time.

PHILLIP: And this was before this moment, when she was even younger at that point.

CHAMPION: I think, unfortunately, and I'll just I'll say the ugly thing out loud. When a black woman with power really expresses herself in her full power, it makes people uncomfortable. And that is what she did at 20 years old. She said, I am me. See me. I am all of me. Good, bad, ugly, indifferent. And it made everyone uncomfortable. And so she decided, guess what? I'm going to own it.

PHILLIP: And, you know, this "Vogue" spread, it's so notable for a couple of reasons for me. First of all, she said she did it because Serena Williams did it --

CHAMPION: I saw that.

PHILLIP: -- which is kind of a flex in a certain way. But also, but also, I mean, these -- these young women's college basketball players, Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark, you know, others, they are coming up in an era where they can now have endorsements.


PHILLIP: They can be famous.


PHILLIP: People know their name.


PHILLIP: This is a different moment.

CHAMPION: Well, these -- well, first of all, in the WNBA, she will make less money in terms of all the money in which she made. She made over two million dollars in name, image and likeness. She's the highest NIL player that was, excuse me, athlete that we have currently in terms of women's sports.

So, when she goes to the WNBA, she is taking a bit of a pay cut, if you will. So, I respect her for saying, look, I've done this here. You guys have -- you've had your fun with me. I've won a championship. I'm moving on to another level.

But you have to understand these athletes nowadays are growing up in an age where they're not just going to allow you to say everything. They are going to have their own opinion. And I know some people have a problem with that.

But Angel Reese is a 21-year-old little lady, young lady, not-not physically little, but just a young lady. And give her her break. She is someone's child. She is someone's sister. She is someone's dear friend. If she bothers you so, please don't think that she doesn't have the same emotions that your 21-year-old daughter would have. Or did I have now currently as a grown woman.

PHILLIP: When you were 21. I mean, in men's sports, I think there was actually a time when -- when men or women, they wanted the young athletes to come into the professional leagues and be, you know, and have their suits on and really be put together.

CHAMPION: Yeah, sure.

PHILLIP: And this generation, it's a generational thing as much as it is a gender shift.

CHAMPION: You're so right.

PHILLIP: She is, what is she? Gen Z? CHAMPION: Yeah. Yeah.

PHILLIP: Well, listen, don't get me caught up in, yeah, I don't know. Gen, gen off the, no more, no more letters.

PHILLIP: It's a different time.

CHAMPION: Yeah. But you, okay. So, it started with Allen Iverson.


CHAMPION: Before Allen Iverson hit the league, you could not, in the NBA, they wore suits. He wore cornrows and he wore, he was relaxed. He was himself. She's bringing her full self to work and that is okay. And the fact that people are criticizing her for trash talking or for --for, which is a rite of passage in any, for any athlete, criticizing her for being herself is really unfair.

And so, all the hatred, all the vitriol, the death threats, she doesn't matter. We need to stop. I mean, it's unnecessary. Have you ever been so disliked that someone wants to send you a death threat? Is that necessary? Yes.

Perhaps in our business, but my point being, unfortunately, my point being is that that's sad and there is nothing that she can do about who she is. She's coming into the world and she's figuring it out. And I hope whoever's watching should know she deserves a break and you do not treat a 21-year-old kid like that.

PHILLIP: She just deserves to have the opinions she has. Before you go though, tell me your predictions, who you got for the championship game?


CHAMPION: Well, my Bruins, you know, got put out sadly by Iowa, excuse me, by LSU, speaking of Angel Reese. So, I am going to tell you that I do believe that Dawn Staley in South Carolina will win it all. I think it will be Iowa and South Carolina. I think Dawn will avenge her loss to Iowa in the final four, and we will see her team win, which I'll be excited about. And I'll come back to tell you about it.

PHILLIP: That will be an electric military champion. Thank you very much.

CHAMPION: Thank you.

PHILLIP: And thank you for watching NEWSNIGHT. "LAURA COATES LIVE" starts right now.