Return to Transcripts main page

Don Lemon Tonight

Coronavirus Pandemic: Biden's Dire Warning For Unvaccinated Americans; President Biden Concedes Sweeping Spending Bill Won't Get Passed This Year; Interview With Former Senator Al Franken (D-MN); NBA And NFL Update COVID-19 Protocols; Activist Group, Moms For Liberty, 2022 Is The Year Of The Parent At The Ballot Box. Aired 11-12a ET

Aired December 16, 2021 - 23:00   ET




DON LEMON, CNN HOST (on camera): President Biden issuing a dire warning for unvaccinated Americans, saying it could be a winter of severe illness and death as the new Omicron variant spreads all across the country.

Plus, the NFL implementing new COVID protocols to deal with the spike in cases among players, including mandatory masks indoors, social distancing, all virtual meetings and a quicker return from quarantine for vaccinated players.

And another blow to the Biden agenda. The president admitting Democrats will miss their Christmas deadline to pass his sweeping social spending bill. Many in the party are blaming Joe Manchin for the holdup, but he isn't budging. So, why do they think this will pass in the new year?

I want to get straight, though, to CNN's Nick Watt for the very latest on the surge of COVID cases and hospitalizations.


NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climbed around 40 percent this past month. Deaths, says the CDC, forecast to rise in the month ahead. The Delta variant still rampant, Omicron on the rise.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It's here now, it's spreading, and it's going to increase. For unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death. For unvaccinated, for themselves, their families and the hospitals, they'll soon overwhelm.

ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISOR TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Very soon, it's going to be the dominant variant. We've seen that in South Africa. We're seeing it in the U.K. And I'm absolutely certain that's what we're going to be seeing here relatively soon.

WATT (voice-over): For the vaccines, this variant is now the most complete escapee, say researchers in the new (INAUDIBLE) study, although vaccines are still highly effective at preventing severe disease or death.

JEANNE MARRAZZO, PROFESSOR OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA AT BIRMINHAM: It is reassuring that these infections seem to be less severe, but that's really only true probably if you're a healthy person who's been immunized and ideally immunized with three shots.


WATT (voice-over): meantime, "Hamilton" among the Broadway shows canceling performances once more after cases amongst the casts just two months after reopening.

Princeton and NYU just joined Cornell and others moving what's left of the semester back online. A depressing dose of deja vu. Officials in Philly are warning don't party with people outside your household over the holidays.

CHERYL BETTIGOLE, PHILADELPHIA HEALTH COMMISSIONER: It's hard and it feels impossible, and it feels unfair. These gatherings when we get together with friends and family are when we infect each other with COVID.

WATT (voice-over): Pro-sports teams demonstrating how the virus is spreading. Odell Beckham, Jr. scored Monday night. Next morning, joined the long list of players and staff testing positive or quarantining after exposure.

JEROME ADAMS, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: They're really a window into community spread. And kudos to the sports leagues because they are actually doing a fantastic job of surveillance testing. And the rest of the country, we're driving a car down a dark road with the headlights off while looking in the rearview mirror.

WATT (voice-over): This afternoon --

UNKNOWN: They have 15 yeses, zero noes.

WATT (voice-over): CDC vaccine advisers unanimous in recommending the CDC change its guidance to say that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are preferred over the J&J. Why? Well, those very rare blood clots connected to the J&J, that can be fatal.

Nick Watt, CNN, Los Angeles.


LEMON (on camera): All right, Nick, thank you very much for that.

Joining me now is Dr. Larry Brilliant. He is an epidemiologist and CNN medical analyst. Doctor, good to see you. Thank you so much for helping us out with this story. You're saying that Omicron is the most transmissible virus ever? That is a scary thing to hear. It's quite a statement, but what will it mean for us in real life terms? What does that mean? LARRY BRILLIANT, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Thank you for having me, Don. It's very nice to see you again. Sorry, it's under these circumstances.

LEMON: Yeah.

BRILLIANT: First of all, let's start off with the fact that we're already in the middle of a Delta winter surge. So, even if there wasn't Omicron, we would be facing higher case counts, higher hospitalizations.

But Omicron, remember, it's that variant that sort of appeared almost out of whole cloth around Thanksgiving with 50 mutations simultaneously, 30 of them in the spike area and half of those in the business end of the spike. So, it's a new virus, but it's spreading like we've never seen anything spread before. It's a multiple more infectious than Delta.


As an example, the R value that we usually talk about for Delta is a little over one, the effective R, not the R naught. And for Omicron, it is five times that. So, it's something really to be concerned about.

LEMON: So, what does that mean, when you talk about the R and the R naught?

BRILLIANT: Yeah. I think for most of us, what that means is that let's look at the doubling time, which is a little bit more helpful. It's doubling every two days. That means in -- you could start off with 100 cases and by the time you got a week from now, you've got 600, 800. By the time you start off with 10,000 cases, you could have 100,000 before the end of January. And if you remember --

LEMON: Hey, doctor, let me put this up while you're doing that, okay? Because I just want to -- graphically, I want to be able to show. Figurative question three here. This is a graph of coronavirus cases in England. The blue line is Delta. It took time to ramp up. With Omicron, it's taken off right away. And according to the health authorities, England has 16 confirmed Omicron hospitalizations and one death, though they warn that the real numbers are much higher than that.

So, this is -- that's what's happening in England. And then we have what's the -- how the cases have through the numbers that you have been saying, how they have been doubling. You said they double -- how long?

BRILLIANT: Every two days.

LEMON: Okay. So, in real terms, explain what does that mean for us.

BRILLIANT: Well, if you think -- if you think back to the peak of the epidemic beginning with the very first cases of COVID, in the United States, we had 100,000 cases a day, then 200,000 cases a day, then we inched towards 300,000. At that time, we were watching a thousand, 2,000 deaths every day and the hospitals were overrun.

It's highly that with Omicron, we will see hundreds of thousands of cases a day. And of those, probably a little lesser percentage will be serious enough to go to the hospital, and hopefully a much lesser percentage, now that we're vaccinated and many people have three doses, will be sick enough to go on a ventilator or God forbid die.

But the hospitals are still going to be overrun. The health care industry, the doctors and nurses who are already exhausted from Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta are now going to have to face in the middle of the holiday season hospitals being overrun.

We may get lucky. Because this disease is starting so quickly and has such an exaggerated upward curve, we might get lucky and it has an exaggerated downward curve. The problem is we probably have 100 million people in the United States who are susceptible, and that's because they either weren't vaccinated or they were vaccinated with one dose a long time ago and have waning immunity.

LEMON: Let's talk about that then because there's -- as you're saying, there's a lot of data out there. You said it's an exaggerated curve. (INAUDIBLE) will be down as well. So, there's a lot of data out there suggesting that Omicron is less severe. Does that line up with what you are seeing and what does that mean for, as you said, the unvaccinated, and what does it mean for the vaccinated?

BRILLIANT: So, we've got two different kinds of data. We've got really good data on how transmissible it is. Remember, it didn't exist until Thanksgiving. We're hardly three weeks into this. So, we can't possibly know what will happen after six weeks if somebody got the disease, got sick, got in the hospital and died.

So, what we're looking at is we're extrapolating from laboratory data and from early case data from South Africa. But South Africa doesn't look like the United States. It only has six percent of the population over 65, 3/4 who had been infected, and it has less than a third vaccinated.

So, we're trying to project against the data that we have. The solid data is on how many cases there would be where we're hopeful is based on laboratory data, it's based on T cell studies. So, we're hopeful that it will be less lethal, less virulent. We know it will be more transmissible. Those are the two things we have to juggle as we go through the holiday season.

LEMON: You have been writing about this, fighting COVID in "The Wall Street Journal". Here, you said, "Americans need to recognize that we cannot succeed locally if we fail globally." So, talk to me about that. What should the U.S. be doing that we aren't doing right now?


BRILLIANT: Well, I mean, if you just look at the fact that we've got now 30, 40 percent of the people who have had two doses have now had a third dose and maybe there will be a fourth dose, it may very well be six months from now, we have 100 million people who have had four doses of vaccine, whereas there's a billion, billion and a half or two billion people in the low-income countries who have not had dose one.

That's not sustainable. It's not equitable, it's not moral, and it's terrible epidemiology.

LEMON: Right.

BRILLIANT: To put a ring of immunity around our community is a good thing, but to leave the rest of the world uncovered to get infected and God forbid to create super spreader events or super variants, that's the way that I look at the world right now. So, we got to come back to the reality that in a global pandemic, it's not kumbaya to say we're all in it together, we literally are in it altogether.

LEMON: We are.

BRILLIANT: And we need to take a look at WHO, we need to organize ourselves so that we can get vaccine everywhere, and we're not doing it. We're just not doing it, Don.

LEMON: Well, let's look back in at other, you know, epidemics and other pandemics that we've been involved with, the spread of different viruses and such. You helped to eradicate smallpox. What are the lessons from that, and is the challenge even bigger now when the United States can't even get everyone here -- you're talking about around the world, but we can't even get everyone here vaccinated, doctor?

BRILLIANT: Yeah, I think there's a lot of technical lessons from smallpox that may be unique to that vaccine and that virus, but even the smallpox or polio or Ebola, the world came together. In smallpox, doctors from 100 different countries all came together. Russians and Americans, the Soviet Union and the United States.

That was the Cold War. We had 25,000 nuclear weapons pointed at each other. But we buried the hatchet long enough to collaborate on getting rid of smallpox so we could prove that the world could work together. We are not working together in the way that we need to.

I have to say that nationalism and provincialism have caused us to sort of take sides and pull apart instead of coming together. If there's ever been a moment that countries should come together, we should use the vehicles we have: WHO, the Security Council, the General Assembly. We should really look at this as a global threat. And we've got to work together. We have the tools. We have to use them as a body politic, as a world.

LEMON: Doctor, it's a pleasure having you on. I wish I didn't have to have you on. I think you know what I mean, that's not an insult. And if we did, that we were talking about something else. You be safe, be well, and happy holidays. Thank you so much.

BRILLIANT: And to you, Don, it's really a pleasure to see you again. I'm sorry it's under these circumstances.

LEMON: To you as well, sir. Thank you. President Biden's agenda stalling in Congress. He's admitting that his "build back better" plan will miss a Christmas deadline and be taken up in the new year. And voting rights is going nowhere in the Senate, blocked by the GOP. Will these key pieces of legislation ever get passed?

Former Democratic senator Al Franken knows how Washington works. We're going to get some answers when he joins me next.




LEMON: In Washington, a standstill on the president's agenda and voting rights. And across the country, the Omicron variant is set to become the dominant COVID strain while 72 million Americans are still unvaccinated.

Joining me now, former Democratic Senator Al Franken, the host of "The A; Franken" podcast. Good to see you.


LEMON: You're very brave to come in considering what's happening. That is what I want to start with you about.

FRANKEN: I wore the mask until here.

LEMON: I wore -- did you see me? I had the mask. You had to remind me to take it off.

FRANKEN: You forgot to take it off.

LEMON: People who got the vaccine, right, people who got the vaccine are doing the right thing, but you have so many people who are not doing the right thing. Do you think it's time to start treating people differently when, you know, if you have the vaccine, you can go certain places, if you don't, you can't? What do you think we do?

FRANKEN: Yeah, I don't think you should be able to get on a plane unless you've been vaccinated. I think these workplace mandates are absolutely essential. This is life or death. And these people who are making political hay out of this, they're -- it's irresponsible. And they do this elsewhere and it works. And it's just -- also, the virus wouldn't continue to mutate if we didn't let it by people getting sick. Now, that would be the entire world.

LEMON: You still pay attention to what's happening in Washington?]

FRANKEN: Absolutely.

LEMON: Yeah.

FRANKEN: Every day.

LEMON: Yeah. So, President Biden acknowledging tonight that his key domestic plan, the "build back better" plan, that it's going to be delayed past Christmas because negotiations with --


LEMON: -- Senator Joe Manchin didn't go through. Do you think "build back better" is dead?

FRANKEN: No. I think it's delayed, and I hope they get to it in the beginning of the year. I know that Joe cares about the child tax credit. He has said as much. Those start to expire -- the checks start -- stop getting to people in January. So, I'm hoping that will help.

And I don't know. There might be different ways of approaching it, dividing it into things, making Republicans have to vote on child care, whether to expand child care. And all that does is supplement people's child care.


FRANKEN: In Europe, per child, the average European country subsidizes each child $14,000 for child care. It's too expensive here. And also, people need it to be able to go to work. They want to be able to know their child is being taken care of in a nurturing environment, they're safe.

LEMON: But you know the pushback from Republicans about that would be this is socialism. This is America. We don't do that because we are not a socialist country.

FRANKEN: Yeah. Well, they've said that about Medicare.


FRANKEN: I think they're for that now.

LEMON: Yeah.

FRANKEN: And they said it about social security. So, both parents tend to work now, if there are two parents, and that's why child care is needed.

LEMON (on camera): Yeah. This is Mitch McConnell, what he said tonight about the West Virginia Democrat. Watch this.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Well, Senator Manchin comes in frequently. As you know, he likes to talk to you guys, he likes to talk to everybody, and I enjoy our conversations. It would not surprise you to know that I've suggested for years it would be a great idea representing a deep red state like West Virginia for him to come over to our side.


LEMON (on camera): So, did you hear that?

FRANKEN: That was kind of cheeky, wasn't it?

LEMON: Yeah.

LEMON: What do you think? Do you think Manchin is on the Democrats' side?

FRANKEN: Yeah, he's a Democrat.


FRANKEN: I've known Joe for a long time. He's a colleague for a long time. He's a Democrat. He was governor as a Democrat. He was secretary of state as a Democrat. He's beloved by the people there. But he's also a West Virginian and it's a tough row. But, you know, Trump won it by 39 points. But I think Joe will stay where he is.

LEMON: He and Senator Sinema are -- have been holding up the passing of voting rights in this country. Do you think they're standing in the way because who this really affects, really? I mean, it affects all of us, but especially Black and brown and people of color and marginalized groups.

FRANKEN: Well, that's their target. Republicans are suppressing the votes of those people, poor people deliberately. It is making it harder to register, keeping the polls open fewer hours, having one drop box in each county, whether the county has three million people in it or 5,000 people in it. They're doing that deliberately. And plus, on top of that, they are choosing election officials that are people who believe the election was stolen.

LEMON: I want to talk to you about that. but, I mean, you're saying that you believe that he -- do you believe Sinema is a Democrat as well?


LEMON: Okay. But they're holding this up. If they don't get voting rights, they probably can't win another election. How is that being a Democrat?

FRANKEN: Well, I would say that to them that -- I think Joe will win his next election in West Virginia, but --

LEMON: But what about other Democrats?

FRANKEN: I think it is a threat. I think it's a threat to our democracy. This -- you know, 60 percent at least of Republicans think the election was stolen. A lot of those people are now election officials. They're being chosen as election officials. And you know they're not going to play it honestly. And you know, gerrymandering, it is -- we're facing a crisis here.

LEMON: It's a huge threat if not the biggest threat to our democracy. I want you to hold that thought.


LEMON: That is coming after this. We're going to continue to talk about this and what happened on January 6th with Al Franken.




LEMON: Back with me now, former U.S. Senator Al Franken. So, you believe this is the biggest threat to our democracy. What's the deal? Why won't they do a carveout for the filibuster like they did with the infrastructure?

FRANKEN: It has to do -- believe me, I've been involved in discussions about -- Joe won't do -- get rid of the filibuster, but he will do a modification or at least he has said that.

LEMON: Joe Manchin.

FRANKEN: Joe Manchin. And Norman Ornstein (ph) and I have proposal which would do a number of things. One, right now, you need 60 to end the filibuster, right? Well, we have 50. So, they filibuster anything and it's over. Part of what we're saying is you need 41 on the floor to sustain a filibuster. So, at least they got to show up. But then they have to stay on the floor and it has to be what they call a talking filibuster.

LEMON: I've heard that. How does that change anything?

FRANKEN: Well --

LEMON: Except to just hold things up for longer? It seems like these people are just --

FRANKEN: I'll tell you because I've been there, and I know how hard it is to get people to stay there. They would have to stay there until it's over. So, that's 41 -- they have 50. You do the math, it's nine of them at one time can be off the floor. That's 19 hours a day that each one would have to be on the floor. Power to them, more power to them if they're willing to stay there. But you have to talk. It has to be germane. It has to be a germane debate. I'd like to see that on voting rights.


FRANKEN: I'd like to see them explain why you can't give someone water online waiting to vote. So, that -- they have to be there and they have to talk. And what they -- what that would do is Joe wants bipartisanship, right? That's what he keeps saying.

If they would have to do that, they'd be more willing to compromise, and we'd be more willing to compromise too if they're just staying there because that holds up. We're in the majority that holds up our business. So, to me that restores and to Norm Ornstein, who's been watching this for a long, long time, you know Norm, this would restore the filibuster to what it was, which is something that's rare.

LEMON (on camera): We'll see. I mean, look, I don't even think it's the Senate, no disrespect to you or to the former president or to -- it's not the Senate, the same Senate as when you were in there. I mean, what is happening now --


FRANKEN: That's not disrespect to me, that's because I'm not there.


LEMON: It's because you're not there. Let's talk about what --

FRANKEN: But part of that is Mitch McConnell filibustering all the damn time.

LEMON: Yeah.

FRANKEN: When Obama got in there, he just -- he filibustered more, the Republicans filibustered more during the Obama administration than they had in terms of executive nominations, more than they had in the previous history of the country. McConnell broke the Senate.

LEMON: Yeah, but it's not -- Republicans aren't even trying to do anything as far as legislation now.

FRANKEN: There's not much they want to do.

LEMON: There's nothing to do.

FRANKEN: That's why the filibuster, they didn't -- when they had both Houses and the president, they didn't change the filibuster because all they wanted to do was two things, cut taxes and confirm judges, and both of those you can do with 50.

LEMON: I want to talk to you about the part of the struggle for Democrats who are dealing with their own messaging. They have an issue when it comes to messaging.


LEMON: You're talking about it in your new standup set. Let's play it.


FRANKEN: We are just so bad at messaging. How did this guy become president? We Democrats are just so bad at messaging.


So they turn the estate tax into the death tax, right? Well, brilliant. We -- every one of our bumper stickers ends with continued on next bumper sticker.



LEMON: How do Democrats get better at selling their message -- at the messaging game?

FRANKEN: Well, I don't know.

LEMON: What you said is true, Democrats are terrible at messaging.

FRANKEN: And we try. Believe me, we spent more time on it than we probably should. We could go we'd have Senatorial, Democrat Senate retreats. We'd go to a conference, and we'd spend the whole weekend trying to message, and we're just not great at it.

For example, in Build Back Better, I think we should have been talking about universal pre-k. People like that.

LEMON: Yeah.

FRANKEN: We should have been talking about child care, should have been talking about bringing down the costs on drugs, on pharmaceuticals. We should be talking about the things that really appeal to people that will improve their lives. That's the point of this thing.

LEMON: Before we run out of time, I want to ask you about what's happened with January 6th, and you know, you've seen the text messages, you've seen all the evidence for people. You know what's happening with Mark Meadows. What's your idea of what's going on, what's going to happen? People are defying subpoenas. Will anything come of this commission?

FRANKEN: If I were part of the commission now, I would send a letter to DOJ, to Merrick Garland and say, you know, charge these guys. There is crime here. There is -- I mean, basically there's no question that they were trying to overturn a Democratic election.

And when it comes down to everything they were doing, the president was doing it. His tapes with Raffensperger, that's what that is. But everything -- and the president had three hours, it took him more than three hours for him to stop that, and people got killed, got hurt.

LEMON: Senator, thank you so much.

FRANKEN: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: I still call you Senator. I can still call you Senator, right?

FRANKEN: You can.


(LAUGHTER) LEMON: As you saw with some of the video there is out on tour across

the country with his new standup, and he just added more dates. You can check them out at He calls it the only former U.S. Senator currently on tour-tour.

FRANKEN: That's right.

LEMON: Thank you.

FRANKEN: Technically correct.


LEMON: We'll be right back.



LEMON: So we have some breaking news for you at this hour. ESPN is reporting that the NBA is updating its COVID protocols for the holidays. This move coming after the NFL did the same thing earlier today.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN sports analyst, Christine Brennan and medical analyst, Dr. Jonathan Reiner. Good evening to both of you.

Interesting, so Dr. Reiner, both these leagues updating their COVID protocols after dozens of players have tested positive, the NBA adding more testing and increasing mask use.


The NFL is making masks mandatory indoors and social distancing. The NFL also has new testing options using rapid tests. I mean, that's a lot. Talk to me about it.

JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST (on camera): Well, COVID is surging now in the United States both delta and omicron. And you know, this week the NFL has had, you know, almost 100 players test positive for COVID, and they're starting to worry that the rest of their season, the playoffs and the Super Bowl are in jeopardy. So they are trying to stem the tide.

The problem with the NFL is the NFL never mandated vaccines, although the vast majority of players are vaccinated or at least have documented that they're vaccinated, and the NFL has not mandated boosters for players. And I don't know how many players in the NFL are boosted, although they do have a requirement for coaches and staff.

So they're a little bit late to the game to try and stem this tide, and I think they're going to be lucky to get the rest of the season in.

LEMON: I see you shaking your head, am I right, Christine? CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST (on camera): Yes, I think so.

The doctor certainly has excellent points. And of course he knows what he's talking about. You know, when you're the face of your league this year is Aaron Rodgers, who of course was unvaccinated and lied about it and misled people, and really he is the story so far of COVID and the NFL this year, Don.

I don't know how you escape the fact that there are people in the league who are not taking this seriously. Now, clearly most of the players are. But when you consider that the number one thing that any athlete wants to do, the high school, college pro is win. And the last thing anyone wants, coaches, players, is distractions.

Well, if you are not vaccinated, of course, you have much higher risk of missing games. And if you are not vaccinated, then, you know, as we know, COVID is the mother of all distractions, and it is amazing to me that there is anyone in any of these leagues who is not vaccinated. And as the doctor pointed out, the booster is the thing, right. We were hearing as over and over. The booster is everything.

And yet the reality is so many of these players are not boostered. They have not had the third shot, and there is no mandate in the NFL to have it, yet those who are close to the players are mandated to be boostered. That makes no sense to me, and there are players like Baker Mayfield, who are very concerned and going public about whether this game should be postponed and here we are.

LEMON: Let me put up what he said and let you finish talking about it. Because you're talking about Cleveland Browns have been hit hard by COVID in the last few days. Quarterback, Baker Mayfield, one of several Browns to test positive. He is calling NFL today, he writes, "Make up your damn mind on protocols. Showing up and making only three teams test, all you can keep the game -- all so you can keep the game as scheduled to make money. Actually caring about players' safety would mean delaying the game with this continuing at the rate that it is."

I mean, he is clearly frustrated. Go on, sorry to interrupt, I just wanted to get out what he said.

BRENNAN: No problem at all. Yeah, he's clearly frustrated. He is not -- there are two Browns quarterbacks who are out. There's real concerns, I mean, the quality of the game, you know, fans do pay to see the best.

And when you've got 100 players or so in the NFL who aren't going to be playing. You've got teams like Washington and Cleveland and the Rams in L.A. that are decimated right now with -- by the players being out because of COVID, Don, that it's obviously it waters down just the actual talent and the quality of the play.

That's hardly the big issue here as we're facing this onslaught now of omicron and delta, and COVID in general. But it is, it is a great concern for these players and you wonder if we're having a repeat almost of last year. LEMON: Oh my gosh. I remember, I recall that, hey, I only have about

15 seconds here, doctor, sorry, it's not just sports. It's Broadway, its restaurant, universities all shutting down.

REINER: Yeah, it's going to be a tough six to eight weeks. We'll get through it, but everyone needs to boost and by God, if you're not vaccinated, please get vaccinated now. We'll get through it, but we may need to close down. We just need to face facts.

LEMON: Oh boy. Dr. Reiner, Christine Brennan, thank you both so much. I appreciate it.

A group of moms say that they are fighting for parental rights and building a movement. Critics say they're only hurting the community.


UNKNOWN: The disinformation that they have been putting out and the vitriol towards marginalized groups is a true danger to society because we need to -- we need to work together.




LEMON: All over the country, schools have become a flash point for a new culture war over issues like masking and the boogeyman of Critical Race Theory. But the anger from some parents has been turned into organizing and in Florida, a group called Moms For Liberty has begun to spread nationwide.

CNN's Leyla Santiago has the story.


UNKNOWN: Paper and cloth masks do not work.

UNKNOWN: Parents beware of terms like social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion.

UNKNOWN: If they ignore our input, we will vote them out.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): At rallies in school board meetings across the country, heated debates on everything from masks to Critical Race Theory, to book banning of being hashed out.

UNKNOWN: I think COVID has allowed all of America to see behind the education curtain.

SANTIAGO: It turns out one of the driving forces behind many of those debates stems from a group founded by these two Florida moms. Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, they launched Moms For Liberty in January, a group they say is designed to fight for parental rights in schools and on government.

TIFFANY JUSTICE, CO-FOUNDER MOMS FOR LIBERTY: We just thought we could take the skills that we had learned in the inside information that we had learned about the public education system to help parents advocate more effectively.

SANTIAGO: The founders say the group is conservative but nonpartisan. Yet many of the issues they are fighting for align with the leaves of Republican lawmakers. Like Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, including eliminating mask mandates in schools.

They looked at schools they had mask mandates and didn't and it showed that the masks did work. There are multiple studies that show this. Happy to let you looked at them if you would like. They are right here. But when Moms For Liberty are going to the school board meetings and to voice their frustration in citing things like masks don't work --

JUSTICE: Because they don't.

SANTIAGO: That's not what the science shows.

JUSTICE: OK. I'm going to have to disagree with you on that. Masks are not source control. They do not stop transmission.

SANTIAGO: But later, Descovich do acknowledge that certain masks do work to a degree.

TINA DESCKOVICH, CO-FOUNDER MOMS FOR LIBERTY: I mean, we all know that N95 masks do have a level of protection.

SANTIAGO: Another CDC study in Arizona shows schools without mask mandates were about 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak over schools with a mask mandate. Another big concern one for Moms For Liberty, Critical Race Theory, a concept typically taught in law school that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the U.S.

The Moms For Liberty, New Hampshire chapter, offering a $500 bounty for anyone who turns in a teacher using CRT in the classroom. The Governor of New Hampshire signed a law in June, banning CRT in the K- 12 curriculum.

Do you support or do not support the $500 reward?

JUSTICE: Do think it was the best way to handle the situation? Personally, probably not.

SANTIAGO: But ultimately, they say they stand by the moms fighting against CRT.

Where is this actually being taught?

JUSTICE: Mecklenburg, North Carolina.

DESCOVICH: I think -- I hear in the news all the time, it's not being taught. It's not in K-12 schools.

SANTIAGO: I had a hard time finding it. Did you --

JUSTICE: I will help you after this interview.

SANTIAGO: After the interview, they provided us with reports from conservative media outlets. They also pointed to this mom, appearing at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board meeting discussing a lesson plan.

UNKNOWN: That requires my son to examine his white privilege and male privilege.

SANTIAGO: But in a statement to CNN, the superintendent of Charlotte- Mecklenburg School told us, quote, "Our schools do not teach and do not promote a doctrine for Critical Race Theory." So what is Moms For Liberty's goal? A chapter in every school district showing up at every school board meeting across the country.

And in 11 short months, they are on their way. They say they are now in more than 30 states with more than 160 chapter, mobilizing 70,000 plus members.

Do you consider your organization a force to be reckoned with for the next election?



SANTIAGO: Would you consider yourself a political machine?


SANTIAGO: As for funding, they will tell you t-shirt sales and small donations. Because their organization is so new, tax records are still not available.

DESCOVICH: It's truly just organic word of mouth and some gentle marketing with the t-shirts.

SANTIAGO: Word of mouth will only get you so far. I mean, this does take money. Where does the money come from?

JUSTICE: What do you think we are spending money on?

SANTIAGO: You tell me.

JUSTICE: I mean, you are saying this takes money, we are telling you that this is word of mouth.

SANTIAGO: To meet the financial needs, the organization has been open about its need to raise money. They established three political action committees and one of their major fund-raising events, sponsors included Florida Republicans running for office. Still, they insist they are not pushing the Republican agenda, rather, a parent agenda, one that is against mask and vaccine mandates, as well as CRT.

CAPRI CAFARO, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I liken it back to the growth of the Tea Party movement.

SANTIAGO: Political commentator Capri Cafaro.

CAFARO: It is possible that an organization like Moms For Liberty could have an impact on the midterm elections and maybe even going in to 2024, particularly because it is encapsulating in a very important demographic in the electorate, which you know are women and mothers.


SANTIAGO: Support Our Schools, a new group of parents in Florida calls Moms For Liberty a danger to democracy.

JULES SCHOLLES, CO-FOUNDER, SUPPORT OUR SCHOOLS: The disinformation that they have been putting out, and the vitriol towards marginalized groups is a true danger to society, because we need to -- we need to work together.

SANTIAGO: The Moms For Liberty arguing they are not alone. It's an entire movement of parent organizing with eyes on Election Day.

JUSTICE: 2022 is going to be the year at the parent at the ballot box. So if legislators are watching this, hopefuls are watching this, start paying attention to parents.

SANTIAGO: Leyla Santiago, CNN, Brevard County, Florida.


LEMON: Leyla, thank you so much. And thank you for watching. Our coverage continues.