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Don Lemon Tonight

Russia Continues Offensive In Eastern Ukraine; Ukrainian Officials To Head To Mariupol To Negotiate With Russians; Russian Billionaire Blasts War, Urges West To "Stop This Massacre"; Johnny Depp Testifies In Defamation Case Against Ex-Wife; Michelle Obama's Brother Sues His Kids' Former School. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired April 20, 2022 - 23:00   ET




DON LEMON, CNN HOST (on camera): This is DON LEMON TONIGHT. Russian forces intensifying their assault on Eastern Ukraine. One official in Luhansk saying the Russians are destroying everything in their path. And in Mariupol, Ukraine's president saying 120,000 people remain trapped amid the constant bombardment of the city.

The U.S. imposing a new round of sanctions, but will they get Putin to stop his war?

Fareed Zakaria is here. He is going to join me in just a moment.

Also tonight, a Russian billionaire turning on Putin, calling the war insane, asking the west to stop the massacre.

And Johnny Deep back on the witness stand in his suit against his ex- wife claiming she threw a bottle at him causing a severe injury.


JOHNNY DEPP, ACTOR: And then I looked down and realized that the tip of my finger had been severed, and I was looking directly at my bones.


LEMON (on camera): All of today's big developments in court in the hour ahead.

But I want to go now straight to CNN's international -- CNN's international anchor and correspondent John Vause. He is live for us in Lviv as he has been with us for the last few weeks. John, good to have you again. Let's talk about these tens of thousands of people who are trapped in Mariupol tonight where defenders are still holding out against Russian forces. Give us the details, please.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Well, in a few hours from now, Don, Ukrainian officials say they will again to try to evacuate civilians out of Mariupol. They reached an agreement on Wednesday with the Russians to have a humanitarian corridor. That agreement was -- would only allow women, children, and the elderly to leave. But the Ukrainian deputy prime minister who negotiated for that corridor would only say later it did not go as planned.

Earlier, the mayor urged all residents to evacuate if they could. Officials at regional level said fewer people than expected actually boarded the buses which are heading out of Mariupol.

There are also images on social media which showed dead bodies in the streets. Ukrainian officials say the death toll there could be as high as 20,000 civilians.

Right now, Mariupol is pretty much a city of name only. We heard 90% of the buildings are either damaged or destroyed. And for weeks, there has been no electricity, no running water, and a lot of humanitarian supplies aren't getting into that city. In fact, very little. Don?

LEMON: Yeah, it's awful. John, so, Ukraine's security services releasing audio tonight that they say -- that they interrupt -- intercepted -- excuse me -- Russian soldiers. What were they -- what are you learning about that?

VAUSE (on camera): This is yet one of those other extraordinary glimpses of what life is like for some of the Russian soldiers set to fight here in Ukraine. We have -- before we play this clip, keep in mind, it's being raised by the Ukrainian security service and CNN cannot independently confirm its authenticity, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there which does support what these soldiers are saying. So, listen to this.


UNKNOWN (through translator): We sat there for three days without (bleep) anything. Our commanders, they received provisions, cigarettes, food, and our command have all (bleep) off. They abandoned everyone and (bleep) off. We don't even know where they are.

UNKNOWN (through translator): (Bleep) jackals! (Bleep) shoot them and that's it.


VAUSE (on camera): We don't know when that was recorded but it does support reporting that, you know, Russian soldiers are suffering from low morale, also clearly struggling with little, you know, supply issues, and reports that these demoralized and fatigued Russian troops have been turning on their commanders and generals and that has been rumored for weeks, including those reports are.

LEMON: John, we will see you at the top of the hour. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

I want to turn now to CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the host of "Fareed Zakaria GPS." Fareed, good evening to you. Thanks so much. So, let's talk about what happened today. Finance ministers from multiple countries, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, walked out of the G20 meeting in Washington today when the Russian delegate began his prepared remarks. Was that symbolic or will it actually help anything, help stop the war?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: No, it's entirely symbolic, it's entirely appropriate, but nothing will stop this war other than military defeat for the Russian army in the east.

What is happening now is that the war for Kyiv is over. The war in the south and in the west of Ukraine is over. The war that is taking place now in the south is a war that -- it's a different war, and unfortunately, it is going better for the Russians than the first one did.

That is not because they're fighting better. It's partly because they know this land, they've been fighting here since 2014, they have reinforced positions.


But it is also because, as your previous report pointed out, they are just going for broken terms of just blasting these entire cities to smithereens.

They are not sending troops in quite the way they were trying to do in Kyiv partly because there is such low morale with the troops. The troops have been pushed back.

So, the easier thing to do is to just use, you know, large artillery shell to blast from the sea, to blast from wherever they can, destroy the cities. I mean, as you heard, 90% of the buildings in Mariupol have been damaged or destroyed.

So, this is the most brutal kind of World War II-style bombardment than one can imagine, but it is taking a toll in Ukraine and, as I said, this war in the south, Russia is gaining ground. It is gaining territory.

LEMON: Fareed -- wow! I mean, I can't believe I'm saying this. It has been two full months since this war began, since you and I have been reporting on it here on CNN, since the people have been bombarded, right, in Ukraine. People have been isolated by the U.S. and the E.U. in Ukraine. Even historically neutral countries like Switzerland have taken action against Putin.

Yet this invasion continues. Does that -- does that mean that this will go on for many more months to come?

ZAKARIA: Almost certainly. I think what is going to happen here is the first phase, plan A, Putin's plan A failed. The plan B, it is not quite that it is going to succeed but, as I say, he already has territory in the south. He is going to hold that. He is going to try to expand it. They will expand some of it, but the Ukrainians will fight back ferociously as they are.

So, this frozen conflict or this kind of ongoing conflict in the south will continue. And at that point, you have to hope that the sanctions, the pressure, all these things that the west is doing -- and you're absolutely right, there has been much greater unity with countries like Switzerland. Singapore for the first time ever imposed sanctions even though there was no U.N. security council resolution to do so.

So, there is a lot of pressure on the Russians, and what you have to hope is that they get bogged down in the south. The United States and its allies provide weapons to Ukraine that keeps bleeding the Russians in the south.

Meanwhile, the economic pressure, political pressure, keeps mounting and that finally drives Putin to the negotiating table. But what I'm talking about is something that's going to take months. It might even take years.

LEMON: So, you mentioned Putin. So much of the end result here depends on what happens with Putin and what happens inside Russia. Do you have any sense that he is willing to stop this invasion, cut his losses, and get out? I think I know what your answer is going to be, but I got to ask.

ZAKARIA: Yeah, we've seen no indication of that at all so far. In fact, he has doubled down. But what you do notice is that in some ways, by Russian actions and a few things that people have said, the objective now seems to expand what they have in the south. The objective of trying to topple the government is gone. The objective of trying to, you know, even demilitarize Ukraine, those all things are gone. What they're now trying to do is to expand their territory in the south.

So, in a sense, it's a dialing back. But until, you know, there are serious negotiations -- the war has to end with some kind of negotiation because neither side is going to completely overwhelm and destroy the other.

So, the question is, how much pressure can the world put on Russia so that it finally drives it to the negotiating table? So far, we see very little.

And you mentioned, Don, the billionaire, the oligarch who came out against Putin, that's meaningless. These oligarchs are -- that particular guy doesn't have a lot of influence. He's not one of Putin's (INAUDIBLE). The power flows from Putin to the oligarchs, not the other way around. Putin doesn't depend on them for support. They depend on him.

So, the only thing that will work here, as I say, is the hardest of hard military powers, which is the Russian army has to be beaten back, be bled, which means Ukraine needs more advanced weaponry of every kind, it needs as much support as it can get, and in order -- they need that fast.

LEMON: Yeah. Fareed Zakaria, appreciate seeing you and appreciate having you on. Thank you very much. Be well.

LEMON: I want to go now to CNN military analyst and retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. Colonel, good evening to you.

[23:09:58] A defense official says that Russia has 82 battle groups inside Ukraine, four of which were added in just the last 24 hours, and three of those went into the Donbas area. How significant of a force is that?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST, RETIRED AIR FORCE COLONEL: Pretty significant, Don. Good evening to you. So, what we're talking about here, 82 of these, each one of them has up to a thousand men associated with it. So, these units would be basically stationed along this area right here and they would move in like this, toward Izyum and the other areas.

So, if we go toward the Donbas right here, what we can see is a movement down this way. There are certain pockets of Ukrainian forces right in here. A few of them are fairly new, which indicates that the Ukrainians are making some progress up here. But one of the key things now is that about 8% of this district right here, Luhansk, is under control of the Russians now, according to the local government.

(INAUDIBLE). Now, they're capturing part of the rest of it. But there still have ways to go here. So, there is some progress the Russians are making here. However, they're going to have to move a bit further beyond this in order to do more and in essence capture the rest of the Donbas region, which is one of their main goals, as you and Fareed just talked about.

LEMON: So, the regional governor of Luhansk says that 80% of their territory is in Russian hands. But as fighting has intensified in the east, the Pentagon says that they have seen no major Russian gains. What does that tell you?

LEIGHTON: So, when you look at the map here, that tells us, Don, that you see a few little pockets of Russian gains right in through these areas right here. That is somewhat important in that it has moved things from the 2014 and 2015 static lines that have existed in this area all this time. But what they may be doing is they may be seeking to capture the rest of Donetsk and moving forward to Kramatorsk, for example, from two different directions. That's all possible.

But they're not moving very fast. So, these 82 battalion tactical groups, 82,000 troops, that is way less than the number that they had when they went around Kyiv. So, that is very interesting, that they're not putting as many resources, at least not yet, into this area right here. There is movement but there is also this kind of stagnant effort right here that is not moving very far. So, we could see some kind of a stalemate here pretty soon.

LEMON: I want to ask you about the thing that was tested today.


LEMON: Russia is sending a warning to the west by testing intercontinental ballistic missile, ICBM, today, the Sarmat. What do you know about this missile? How dangerous can it be?

LEIGHTON: So, the Sarmat is actually really dangerous. This has what are called MIRVs or multiple reentry vehicles associated with it. And depending on exactly how they configure it, there can be ten, what they call heavy MIRVs on board this or up to 15 light MIRVs.

A multiple reentry vehicle basically means that there are multiple war heads on this missile and what it can do is it can hit multiple targets. So, up to 15 different targets can be hit from one missile.

The other thing that this missile has, Don, is it can be a launching pad for the Avangard hypersonic missile. So, a missile within a missile basically. And this is why Putin made this very interesting statement today saying that this is a missile that everybody needs to be paying attention to and that it's dangerous and this is in essence their secret weapon.

The reason for that is the hypersonic glide vehicles that come out of this or that potentially come out of this, it can go very fast, can evade detection by standard missile detection systems, and there is basically no defense against those at least that we have right now. Obviously, they're being worked on, these defenses, but they're not ready yet in the west, any part of the west or in any other target that the Russians may have.

LEMON: There you go. Thank you, colonel. I appreciate it.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Don.

LEMON: Two top Ukrainian officials say that they are ready to go to Mariupol to try to negotiate the evacuation of civilians and soldiers trapped in the ruins of the besieged city. Will Russia negotiate?




LEMON: The situation in Mariupol growing more dire by the hour. The city under constant bombardment by the Russians. The Ukrainian marine commander warning that there could be just a few days or even hours left.

Two top Ukrainian officials say that they are ready and willing to go to Mariupol to negotiate the evacuation of civilians and soldiers still there. This as efforts for an evacuation corridor today did not go according to plan and some 120,000 people remain trapped in the city.

I want to bring in now Iuliia Mendel, the former spokesperson for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. So good to have you on. Thank you. How are you holding up?

IULIIA MENDEL, FORMER SPOKESPERSON FOR PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY: Well, thank you for having me. We all are holding up here. I'm relatively safe and that's okay, you know. We just want to win and finish this war as much as possible, as fast as possible. LEMON: Absolutely sure. You have been in touch with one of the

officials ready to negotiate for these evacuations, the adviser to President Zelenskyy's chief of staff, and he tweeted about these special rounds of negotiations, by the way, earlier today. What are you hearing from him?

MENDEL: Well, you know, Mariupol is now a big tragedy for Ukraine.


This is a big tragedy in this war because the most pain is, of course, that so many people have been suffering. A Ukrainian prosecutor also publicly went out saying that we definitely will see the consequences of genocide when we reveal the information of what is going on right now in Mariupol, the home city for over 400,000 of Ukrainians who have been circled and bombed there heavily.

You know, many international partners of Ukraine tried to help get out people from there and it never worked. The negotiations with Russia start several weeks, I think a week and a half ago, and this is already like for the fourth day when the humanitarian corridors do not work and people just cannot go out.

LEMON: Uh-hmm.

MENDEL: So, Ukrainian officials, this advisor to the chief of staff, (INAUDIBLE) of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, people in Ukrainian parliament, they took this opportunity, took this -- they made this offer to go by themselves to Mariupol together with Russian officials who are participating in negotiations to actually hold the negotiation and to take out the people from there.

It means they actually offered their lives and put them on risk to help people out of there and this means really a lot as for officials and as for Ukrainians.

I know that personally (INAUDIBLE) really suffered. You know, the fact that so many people are dying and he was sharing with me with pain all this information. So, for him, it's -- you know, some kind of his personal (INAUDIBLE) to help Mariupol stand and divide.

LEMON: Do you think that Russia will take these negotiations seriously, Iuliia, especially since the Ukrainian deputy prime minister said today that the Mariupol humanitarian corridor did not work as planned?

MENDEL: I'm not sure that Russia is taking personally any negotiations on this. The issue is that we need to continue because negotiation is a civilized word to ask for more and more time to withdraw troops and to finish this cynical and brutal invasion to Ukraine.

And Ukraine is (INAUDIBLE). So, it is very difficult to negotiate after the whole atrocities that Russian army had done in Kyiv regions and other regions that revealed already what Russia actually was doing to the civilians during occupation there.

LEMON: The -- President Zelenskyy is warning that Ukrainian forces don't have enough serious and heavy weapons to beat Russia in Mariupol. The U.S. just approved an $800 million weapons package for Ukraine last week and is reportedly considering sending another $800 million in weapons. What more does Zelenskyy want from the west?

MENDEL: Well, of course, U.S. has proved to being one of the most reliable partners. No manipulation here. Very clear position. This is very helpful, of course. Now, the thing is about democracy (ph). It always takes a lot of time to bring weaponry and to bring any kind of help here, and we do not have time because this is all about Ukrainian lives.

And second, of course, that it's never enough and weapons tend to run out. That is definitely what we see. So, of course, we ask for more because we ask as fast as possible and we understand that we need to find one of the biggest armies.

Let me say that the latest information was that Ukraine managed to repair around 20 aircraft. Thanks to all the details, aircraft details that was -- the help of the United States. Just compare, the United States is the largest air fleet in the world. It had around 13,000 operating aircraft units back in 2020. Russia was the second. It had 4,163 operational units. And this is un-comparable to Ukrainian that has -- used to have 50 aircraft fighters back at end of March of this year.

So, with 20 of those, it is much more. But on the other hand, you know, it's very difficult to find such a large army, especially that fights with such aggression and with no rules.

LEMON: Thank you. We appreciate it. You be safe and we will see you soon here, Iuliia. Thank you so much.

MENDEL: Thank you for having me.

LEMON: Thank you.

An (INAUDIBLE) callout against Russia's leadership from a top Russian oligarch. He says generals are realizing that they have, his words, a shit army.




LEMON: One of the Russian billionaires facing sanctions over Putin's war in Ukraine is now publicly shaming the invasion. Oleg Tinkov writing on Instagram in Russian -- quote -- "I don't see a single beneficiary of this insane war. Innocent people and soldiers are dying. Generals, waking up with a hangover have realized they have a shit-army. Of course, there are idiots that write the letter Z but there are about 10% idiots in all countries. Ninety percent of Russians are against this war." [23:29:57]

So, switching into English at the end of his post, with an appeal to the west, he writes this. Give Mr. Putin a clear exit to save face and stop this massacre.

Let's discuss now. Brooke Harrington is here to talk about it. She is a professor of sociology at Darthmouth College who studies oligarchs. Brooke, good to see you again. Thank you so much for joining.

So, I'm wondering what you think of this because the whole post is scathing. Tinkov is incredibly pointing his criticism of the army. He goes on to say, and how will the army be good if everything else in the country is shit and dirty and nepotism. I mean, that's an attack on the government and Putin. So, how is he likely to react?

BROOKE HARRINGTON, PROFESSOR OF SOCIOLOGY, DARTHMOUTH COLLEGE: Yeah, it's an incredibly bold move, and I think it's the sort of thing that an oligarch from Russia would only do if they knew that it was all over but the shouting. So, Tinkov was never one of the very, very close oligarchs to Putin, so he has somewhat more freedom to speak.

But this is a very new thing for any oligarchs to be doing this. The last guy who really tried criticizing Putin at this level got clapped into prison for 10 years and had his assets seized by the state.

So, I think someone like Tinkov would only dare do this if he thought that Putin was essentially powerless to punish him. And the image of Tinkov basically begging for mercy for Putin from the west, you know, asking the west to be humanitarian, asking the west to help Putin save face, I mean, that's not a great look for a strong man like Putin. It must be kind of humiliating for him.

LEMON: Will any number of Russian elites be speaking out change Putin's course? I mean, does anyone have his ear at this point?

HARRINGTON: I don't think their function is to influence him. My sense is that their role has always been to do his bidding and in return, he allows them to enjoy this fabulous wealth which they then use to hobnob with the elites of the west to try and bend them and western institutions to serve Russia's interests.

So, it's not that they influence him, but if they feel safe enough to criticize Putin publicly, they must know that he is considerably weakened compared to where he was, say, back in January.

LEMON: Yeah. I think when you're talking about it, you may have been talking about the former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Is that the one you said who ended up in prison for 10 years for speaking out? There was also, right, the prominent -- which we are running a special on Alexei Navalny -- poisoned.


LEMON: He is in prison right now after he returned to Russia. So, is there a real risk to this? There is, right? HARRINGTON: Yeah. I mean, it's something that the oligarchs have not

dared to do for almost two decades. What started in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine and the inposition of sanctions were these little (INAUDIBLE) peeps by Tinkov and people like Oleg Deripaska saying, maybe this invasion isn't such a great idea. Even that was an amazing step, indicating that there was far more dissention around Putin than Putin himself would have liked us to think.

And now, to have someone just boldly coming out and saying, okay, everybody, just knock it off and give this poor -- this poor, defeated, strong man some kind of face-saving wind, wow, that's got to be a tough burn for Putin and I wouldn't want to be Oleg Tinkov right now because I'm sure Putin won't take kindly to being portrayed as someone who needs to save face to the west.

LEMON: I got to ask you about this because he is saying -- he is saying that the vast majority of Russians are against the war in Ukraine. He said there are 10% idiots in our country but 90% of the people are against it. Is there any evidence of that?

HARRINGTON: That struck me as optimistic.

LEMON: To say the least.


LEMON: Yeah. That's it. Just optimistic. There is no evidence because the official polls at least that we've shown or we've seen, it is somewhere in the 80 percentile -- high 70s, low 80 percentile of people who believe, you know, that this war is justified.

HARRINGTON: Right. I mean, from what I've read, it seems that when people are polled in Russia about whether they support the invasion of Ukraine, the majority do say they support it, but who knows if that's what they really believe or who knows what information they actually have in this tightly controlled autocratic environment?


So, it's hard to know, I think, for an outsider what support, if any, Russians really have for this invasion of Ukraine. But 90% oppose it seems, well, as I said, really optimistic.

LEMON: Yeah. Thank you, Brooke. I appreciate it.

HARRINGTON: Sure. Take care.

LEMON (on camera): So, as we just mentioned here, what happens to people who stand up to Putin? Make sure you tune in to the Sundance' award-winning CNN film "Navalny" to find out. It airs Sunday at 9:00 p.m. right here on CNN.

So, let's turn to Johnny Depp now. His testimony in his defamation case against Amber Heard getting really graphic, describing when his finger got severed and accusing his ex-wife of domestic violence.


DEPP: It could begin with a shove. It could begin with, you know, throwing a T.V. remote at my head. It could be throwing a glass of wine in my face.





LEMON (on camera): This story gets more fascinating by the day. Actor Johnny Depp back on the stand -- on the witness stand today in his defamation case against his ex-wife, Amber Heard, at one point testifying about an argument in 2015 that turned violent, alleging Heard threw a vodka bottle at him causing a severe injury.


DEPP: She threw the large bottle and it made contact and shattered everywhere. And then I looked down and realized that the tip of my finger had been severed. And I was looking directly at my bones. I don't know what a nervous breakdown feels like, but that's probably the closest that I've ever been.


LEMON (on camera): Amber Heard has denied the allegation.

I want to discuss now with Sharon Waxman, the founder and editor-in- chief of "The Wrap." Hi, Sharon, thanks for joining tonight.


LEMON: How do you think today went?

WAXMAN: I think it's a spectacle that is so sad making and so sorted for all of us who grew up on Johnny Depp's movies to watch this guy overweight, bloated, his voice raspy, talking about things like that, and worse is just really sad.

LEMON: Yeah.

WAXMAN: We didn't get to the worst of it, right? I mean, the severed finger is bad. But then there was this whole story that he testifies, too, that she left human feces on his side of the bed when he was coming to get his stuff. And there is -- and there are photos of it in the news -- sorry, in the courtroom and there is an audio to back it up, not that incident, but others.

It's a glimpse into a kind of celebrity hell that I don't think any of us want to imagine that the movie stars that we put on a pedestal actually live and that's what we're seeing.

LEMON: It just makes me wonder, though, if there are, you know, real friends who will say, okay, you look like an idiot, don't do this. I mean, to -- just in general. You know what I'm saying?

WAXMAN: Yeah. That's a great question. That's a great question.

LEMON: Why are you doing this? Yeah. Yeah.

WAXMAN: Yeah. And he keeps saying he tells the truth. He wants the truth to come out. But, you know, were he to win, which is not impossible, I think it is pretty clear that it would be such a (INAUDIBLE) victory. What does he actually win? I mean, he wins that his ex-wife who --

LEMON: Yeah --

WAXMAN: -- hates him and who he hates, you know, might have lied about him. That concerns the two of them and not everybody else in the world.

LEMON (on camera): That's about ego and scorched earth never works. It never works. So, Sharon, cross examination began at the end of the day. Depp was asked about Amber Heard's 2018 "Washington Post" op-ed from her -- talking about her experience with domestic abuse. Watch this.


UNKNOWN (voice-over): And the piece doesn't contain your name, correct?

DEPP: No, it does not. No.

UNKNOWN (voice-over): And other than mentioning the fact of abuse accusations that were made two years prior to the publication of this article, the opinion piece doesn't contain any details of your time together. Correct?

DEPP: I think that her -- I think it's very easy to write a piece and put the finger on someone without saying their name. There are sneaky ways of writing things.


LEMON (on camera): Listen, I'm no Johnny Depp, right, but as a person in the public eye, it is frustrating for people to just be able to say whatever they want about you. Right? And whether it's true or not. Right? Inflammatory, all kinds of inflammatory, all kinds of things.


It is high bar for public figure, especially like Johnny Depp whose life has been out there. He is claiming that he was defamed here. That's a high bar to get to.

WAXMAN: Yeah, it's always a high bar. I can't really recall a case where it's not where the person has won. I mean, there is the Alex Jones case just now where he's being sued for lies and conspiracy theories but it is not defamation per se.

It's really hard to prove it. I'm not a lawyer but just somebody who is in the news media who has to defend stories or people make threats. You just know that when it concerns a public figure, it's really, really difficult. And that's also why people who are in the public eye almost never bring these cases to go to court.

Donald Trump was one of the exceptions to that rule. He loved to go to court over stuff and his lawsuits were always thrown out pretty much.

So, in this case, it feels like Johnny Deep just wants to have a say, wants to see happen what is happening right now, which is he gets to speak --

LEMON: Yeah.

WAXMAN: -- in public. As to whether he actually hit or abused or was violent toward Amber Heard, he said it so many times, I never hit her, I never touched her, I would never touch a woman or punch a woman. And by the way, there is this whole audio that was played in court, put into the record of Amber Heard admitting that she was hitting Johnny Depp. So, she looks terrible in this court case so far.

LEMON: Well, that's what I was thinking. You know, maybe there is a chance. I mean, who knows? You never know. It's got to go to a jury. Maybe he will win and that will set some sort of precedent for defamation or slander. So, we'll see. We'll keep an eye on it, and we'll be continuing and calling --


LEMON: -- on Sharon Waxman to help us with it. Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate it. Be well.

WAXMAN: Thank you.

LEMON: Thank you. So, the brother of Michelle Obama suing his kids' former school. He says that his children were kicked out after he and his wife raised concerns about unfair treatment of students of color.




LEMON (on camera): Tonight, there is a big legal battle between Michelle Obama's brother and the prestigious school his children used to attend. Craig Robinson and his wife, Kelly, suing the University School of Milwaukee, alleging their children were kicked out after the Robinsons complained about what the felt were racial and ethnic stereotypes in classroom assignments. The school in return accusing the Robinsons of disrespecting teachers and administrators.

More now from CNN's Omar Jimenez.


KELLY ROBINSON, SUING SCHOOL OVER CLAIMS OF RACIAL BIAS (voice-over): It had nothing to do with our children's behavior or their academic work.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): News came in a letter and it came as a shock at the end of the last school year when the Robinsons realized their children were no longer students at the prestigious University School of Milwaukee.

They say it started with giving the school feedback on teaching practices they believed were troubling, especially in the virtual learning environment of last year.

CRAIG ROBINSON, SUING SCHOOL OVER CLAIMS OF RACIAL BIAS: You hear what is going on in the classroom because you are walking by and things happen. The first thing we noticed was a repeated use of racial and ethnic stereotypes in actual classroom assignments.

The result of us bringing these issues up was our 11 and 9-year-old were summarily dismissed from the University School of Milwaukee, and we feel like they were retaliated against because we brought up some issues that were sensitive to the administration.

K. ROBINSON: I don't know that we need to get into the details of the actual bias. It is the way that they dealt with it and the fact that they didn't want to confront the actual issue and instead retaliated against us and our children.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): So, they filed a lawsuit, alleging the school acted impermissibly to silence and to retaliate against those adversely affected by, and raising concerns about, the school's unfair treatment of students of color and underrepresented students.

The Robinsons want a trial by jury and to be compensated for damages. The school, however, wrote in its letter to the Robinsons last June, this came down to how they allegedly dealt with school teachers and administrators.

You neither demonstrated respect for their expertise and professionalism nor consistently related with them in a respectful, trustworthy, fair or kind manner, part of the letter read.

You repeatedly engaged in disrespectful and demanding communications with and about our teachers and administrators.

No mention of any children's behavior who were described in that letter as -- quote -- "students who embodied the portrait of a graduate."

(On camera): How did they react when all the sudden they wake up and, hey, now you don't go to your school anymore?

K. ROBINSON: Our kids have really suffered the brunt of this. And they've heard people talking about how they must have done something terribly wrong, which couldn't be further from the truth. Our son come home recently from his new school and he talked about a -- an issue of racism that he had faced. And it happened to him more than once. But he didn't tell us until the third time because he said he is afraid to get in trouble.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): For the Robinsons, this lawsuit is a means of accountability. But after its filing, the school released a statement, reading, in part, we can tell you that USM's enrollment decisions had nothing to do with complaints of inequity or discrimination, and we intend to vigorously defend the school against any claim to the contrary.


(voice-over): We cannot and will not tolerate persistently disrespectful, bullying or harassing behavior directed at our devoted and hardworking teachers and administrators.

It is a dynamic the Robinsons deny.

C. ROBINSON: Omar, let me just say, the tone with which we were given ideas were just like we are talking to you. Their statement is as astonishing as it is revealing.

K. ROBINSON: We were caught off guard and there was -- there was nothing that indicated that what we were doing in the manner which we were communicating was unusual.

JIMENEZ (on camera): Now, part of why they told me they wanted to take this step and actually sue is because they say they heard from others who shared similar experiences. And so, the Robinsons didn't want to just leave and kick this under the rug.

Online, there is already a call to action, circulating, pushing for the school leadership to change its practices and reverse what is being described as a culture of insensitivity over a hundred alums, parents, and even students are listed as having signed on. Don?


LEMON (on camera): Omar, thank you.

And thank you for watching. Our live coverage continues with John Vause right after this.