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CNN TONIGHT: Biden: Strengthening Our Democracy Requires "Constant Effort"; Philadelphia D.A. Now Says He Was "Inarticulate" When He Said Record Murders Don't Equal A Crisis; Senator Promotes Dubious COVID Cure Claim. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired December 09, 2021 - 21:00   ET




ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: The news continues. Let's hand it over to Michael Smerconish, and CNN TONIGHT. Michael?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST: Anderson, thank you so much.

I am Michael Smerconish. And welcome to CNN TONIGHT.

We have a special in-studio guest, this evening, the perfect person, who has borne the brunt, of autocratic rule, and is here to sound alarm bells, about the future of democracy.

And that's a subject that President Biden warned, the world, about today, citing a backward slide of democracy, globally, calling it, the defining challenge of our time.



We know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort. American democracy is an ongoing struggle, to live up to our highest ideals, and to heal our divisions.


SMERCONISH: President Biden hosted the very first "Summit for Democracy." Did it virtually. And promised that he'll keep fighting, to pass critical legislation, to shore up the foundation, of American democracy, that is, our sacred right to vote.

You heard him touch on our own homegrown threats to freedom. But this was very much a message, to the masses around the world. During this week, he confronted two rising authoritarian states, Russia and China, over their actions.

He's shaming China, for its increasing aggression, against Taiwan and human rights abuses, and issued a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. And the President called on Vladimir Putin, this week, to try to thwart a Russian invasion, of Ukraine, as the country amasses tens of thousands of troops, at its border.

Today, Biden spoke, directly, with Ukraine's President, Zelensky, reiterating America's commitment, to its sovereignty.

So, these are heavy times abroad. And here, at home, democracy can't be taken for granted. January 6 should certainly have taught us that lesson.

But, in Georgia, a Trump-backed candidate, for governor, that would be former U.S. Senator, David Perdue, is now openly proclaiming that he would have acted, to overturn the 2020 election results, by not certifying the Georgia vote, if he'd been the governor, at the time.

Now, if you're looking for hope, amid the ongoing discord, in America, you got some of that today.

I thought it was a beautiful moment, for democracy, when the late Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole returned to the Capitol, one last time, to lie in state, a patriot, of the highest order, for the greatest generation, a Republican, who worked across the aisle, to cut deals, with the other side, for the good of the country.

And, for a moment in time, today, Dole, in death, brought our bitterly-divided Washington together. You saw Speaker Pelosi, and House Minority Leader McCarthy, honoring Dole, together in prayer. We saw Senate Majority Leader Schumer and, his counterpart, Mitch McConnell, do the same.

One of Dole's final asks, as an American, expressed in his final opinion, published, after his death, on Sunday, was for politicians, to put aside their party labels, and work for the common good. And, for a fleeting moment, we witnessed that, earlier.

And listen to the words of a man, who served in the Senate, with Dole, for 25 years, on the other side of the aisle.


BIDEN: We meet here, in the very heart of American democracy, the Capitol of the United States of America, to receive a hero, of that democracy, for a final time, Robert Joseph Dole.

Bob and I, like many of us here, we disagreed on a number of things but not on any of the fundamental things. We still found a way to work together.

May we follow his wisdom, and his timeless truth, and reach consensus, on the basic fundamental principles, we all agree on.


SMERCONISH: Democracy itself used to be something about, which we all agreed. But both here, and around the world, it's being confronted by powerful forces of autocracy. And that's our global challenge tonight.

I want to know what you think. I want to know what your level of concern is, about the fate and future of democracy. So, reach out to me, during this hour, via social media. And I'll share some responses throughout the course of the program.

Joining me now, someone who knows all too well what's at stake. He's a former chess Grandmaster, turned democracy warrior.

Garry Kasparov is a native of the former Soviet Union. He has first- hand experience, living in an authoritarian state.

He says he's always understood that democracy is a privilege, one that must be constantly defended, and warns, we can either be the generation that renews democracy, or loses it forever. Today, he's the Chair of the Human Rights Foundation and the Renew Democracy Initiative.

Garry, so great to have you.



SMERCONISH: I remember you telling me a story about, you attending an event, I think, a court hearing, for Pussy Riot.




SMERCONISH: Getting what? Thrown in a van, roughed up?

KASPAROV: Yes, that's - fortunately that's - that was normal, and it's still normal Russia is.

I was taken out of the crowd, put in a van, and then was beaten. And I was lucky, it was 2012, nine years ago. It's, you may call it vegetarian time in Russia. So, they threatened to put me in jail, for five years, allegedly for biting a policeman. So, everybody could see that I was beaten, and couldn't even use my teeth. So, I could only shout.

Today, for anything similar, you go to jail, so, for two years, for five years, for 10 years. All people, who marched with me peacefully, on the streets of Russia, and I have to emphasize, we had no violence whatsoever. No broken windows. No, of course, burned cars.

The only violence, on the streets of Russia, always came from Putin's riot police and his security services. All these people now, is in exile, like myself, in jail, like Alexei Navalny, or killed, like Boris Nemtsov. SMERCONISH: There's something going on, around the globe. There's a rise and you've written about this, of authoritarian leaders. What's driving it?

KASPAROV: Look, it's not just the rise, you know? It's we are entering the Age of Darkness.

There's the, according to Freedom House, it's about 20 percent of the global population, living in free countries. Just imagine, 20 percent! So, the 80 percent of people, they experience, just problems, from totalitarian regimes, to some sort of illiberal democracies, but they're not living in the free country.

So, that's why, we want Americans to appreciate what you have, and to fight for it, not just to fight against something, but to fight for something.

And that's why we rallied, 52 dissidents, from 28 oppressive countries. We just, we had this project. Thanks to CNN, has put it on air, and on It's warning Americans, about the dangers to democracy, and your obligations to fight for it.

SMERCONISH: You've argued that American culture is under assault, from both the Left and the Right. How so?

KASPAROV: Yes, you have, this is - they're too dangerous. On the Right, you have cult of personality. On the Left, you have cult of ideology.

But, right now, you can see that the Left can handle it. So because Biden, you cannot call him a socialist. You can argue, he's a (ph) progressive. His administration is trying to find the middle-ground.

While on the Right, I mean, we just - we just saw something now. That's just - it's the senator, a former senator, running for governor, publicly saying that he would deny the rights of Americans, to make their choice.

And just recently, Tucker Carlson defended Putin, and Putin's aggression against Ukraine.

SMERCONISH: What did he say?

KASPAROV: Oh, guy has basically said, "Putin had no other choice, but to defend Russian western borders." Defending borders!

So, the Trump media celebrating Putin's attacks, on Ukraine. And we're hearing more and more of the calls, to deny the rights of Americans, to make their choices. And it's, as you said, sacred rights to vote.

So, it's very important to remember that we have to find this middle- road. And I was very pleased, as the Chairman of Renew Democracy Initiative, to hear words about, renewing democracy, from the President - from President Biden.

And I think it's important to remember that for democracy to survive, it must be renewed all the time.

SMERCONISH: What does that mean? What is it that that we're supposed to do, as Americans?

KASPAROV: Oh, it's just look that - there are different kinds of challenges, for a generation. And it's now America is still viewed, as many of us, people who were born and raised, in oppressive countries, as the beacon of hope, as a leader. You have to act as a country that is leading the world.

And remember that ignoring what's happening in Russia, in China, in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Venezuela, backfires. Because, it's - the world is globalized. And trying to pretend that is, it's "America first, America only," will put you in trouble.

And of course, just find a way, to elect politicians, who will defend democracy. And that should be probably major test now. You talked about Bob Dole, about bipartisanship. Where is bipartisanship now? It's more like a tribalism.

SMERCONISH: I'm of a certain age, that civics was a part of my public school education. I'm thinking that there's something to be done, in the education system, for young Americans, so that this is not taken for granted.

KASPAROV: Absolutely. And that's why, I think, learning from people, who fought, against authoritarian, and totalitarian regimes, abroad, is very important. And Renew Democracy Initiative is working hard, to actually bring these people in, and share this experience, in the colleges, in social media.

And again, just remember that is, as you know, it's the - for Americans, sometimes, it's hard to appreciate the freedom that you take for granted.

SMERCONISH: Well, can I say to that point? And it's so great to have you here. I can think of no one I'd rather have this conversation with, than Garry Kasparov.

But the subject matter that you're raising tonight is the sort of thing that for most of my adult life, I never worried about. This was always the stuff of your old country. This was the stuff of the Soviet Union. All of a sudden--

KASPAROV: Right. I never--

SMERCONISH: --like this is the United States?


KASPAROV: But look, I never thought, even understanding that's how powerful KGB was, I never thought about KGB's ability, to influence American elections, to influence American voters, to have major American media outlets, repeating KGB-Kremlin talking points.

SMERCONISH: Right. Hey, let's celebrate American freedom, by responding quickly, to some social media, OK?

KASPAROV: Yes, let's do it.

SMERCONISH: All right. Put up on the screen, what we have that I can share with my guest, Garry Kasparov. I'll read it out loud.

"What is at risk is more than democracy in the United States. So much of the democratic world maintains democracy because of the U.S. I fear that an unstable U.S. will destabilize the world. Things are not good."

You would say what?

KASPAROV: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's reciprocity. It's not that U.S. and the world. It's we are in - on the same boat. And U.S. still has the steering wheel. So, you lose control? Then, everything goes bust.

SMERCONISH: Do you think we've lost that position, as being the nation that the world looks to?

KASPAROV: You are steadily losing it. But it is - there's no other country that can replace America. Again, this is - it's not about Pax Americana. It's about American leadership. Leadership means that you lead. You don't dictate, but you lead.

SMERCONISH: One more, quickly, if we can, for Garry Kasparov. So fortunate to have him.

"The financial and political trends certainly point to not simply a changing America but to the disintegration of all that American Democracy has accomplished and for the Democracy itself. Times are changing too quickly, it is frighteningly unnoticed by the general public."

KASPAROV: Yes. It's, I think, it's being noticed, by general public, but just people don't understand the roots of the problem.

And again, it's very important to emphasize that, American democracy can survive, only if America regains its leadership. Because we're all connected, Americans, Russian, Chinese, Afghanis. And every failure of America, to support democracy, elsewhere in the world, resonates back here.

That's why it's so important, for Biden, to call for this summit. All I want is just to see some, the follow-ups. It's not just talk. But we need some instruments--


KASPAROV: --for democracies, to work together. Democracies, not those who pay lip service.


KASPAROV: Real democracies. SMERCONISH: Can Biden handle Putin?

KASPAROV: I hope so. Definitely, it's a very positive shift, from the previous administration. But we're yet to see more and more transparency, in Biden's policy. And I was not very happy with the way he handled Geneva and the last of our phone call with Putin.

SMERCONISH: Appreciate your being here. Thank you, Garry, so much.

KASPAROV: Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Garry Kasparov, thank you for coming in.

And please make sure, you're going to We have a survey question tonight. It's this, different subject, but we'll get to it. "Should states be required to fund religious education?" Yes or no? Supreme Court just had that.

I'm asking the question, because later this hour, I'll speak with a mom, who was a litigant, and fighting to make it happen. She'll tell us why she took her case to the United States Supreme Court.

But, up next, former Philadelphia Mayor, Michael Nutter, joins me, as our shared hometown, faces an epidemic of murders. We'll look at who, he's holding responsible. And we'll do that next.



SMERCONISH: Seems to me that at the core, of the record high murder rates that we're seeing? A very basic struggle. How do we reform what can be an unjust system, while also ensuring public safety?

Take Philadelphia, as an example. The city's homicide rate is up 57 percent, from just two years ago, 104 percent from 2015. Michael Nutter was Mayor back then.

In a recent Op-Ed, he asked, quote, "How many more Black and brown people, and others, would have to be gunned down in our streets daily to meet your definition of a "crisis?"

That was a direct retort, to the city's current district attorney, who drew heat, for saying that the city's 524 murders, so far this year, somehow isn't a crisis.

The D.A. Larry Krasner, by the way, trying to do some cleanup now, calling his comments "Inarticulate." I should point out, we did invite him, to join us tonight, on the program. But his office has not responded.

But the former mayor is here, Michael Nutter.

Great to see you again.

MICHAEL NUTTER, (D) FORMER PHILADELPHIA MAYOR: Good to see you. SMERCONISH: Did you receive the sort of apology that you thought was appropriate, with him saying, it was "Inarticulate?"

NUTTER: Well, I don't think his comments were inarticulate. They were just ignorant. And it's not me, certainly that he needs to apologize to. And he should apologize to, in the now, 524 families, the thousands, who have family member killed, or the thousands of people, who have been shot.

It was a full-on statement filled with his level of rhetoric, and inability to accept responsibility, for his role. It's not the sole role.

But D.A. has a role, to play, in criminal justice, in prosecuting violent criminals. And then, working with the police, working with the city administration, working with the courts, to make sure that we have some semblance of justice, and reform.

It is a false choice to somehow try to sell the citizens of this city that you can either have public safety, or you can have police reform. You can actually do both.

SMERCONISH: You said something pretty explosive, I thought, in the Op- Ed that I made reference to, a moment ago. I'm going to put it up on the screen.

You said, "It takes a certain audacity of ignorance, and white privilege, to say that right now," a comment of his, "As of Monday night, 521 people, souls, spirits have been vanquished, eliminated, murdered in our City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, the most since 1960.

I have to wonder what kind of messed up world of white wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for humans lives lost, many of them Black and brown, while he advances his own national profile as a progressive D.A."

White wokeness, speak to me about that.


NUTTER: Well, there's a certain privilege that some people have. And there's this whole woke idea, you know? I wish some of these woke people would go back to sleep. They're not being helpful in the conversation.

And again, this idea that somehow, all police are bad that Black and brown people, and others, don't like the police, and that we're just going to somehow reform our way, out of a explosive situation. Michael?

SMERCONISH: It's not just a Philly thing, Mayor, right?

NUTTER: I understand that. But I live in Philly.

SMERCONISH: Right. NUTTER: So, I'm focused on Philly, right? So, in 2014, sadly, while I was still Mayor, there were 248 homicides. In 2015, there were 280. In 2013, there were 246. All too many in all those years.

But that was the first time, since the 60s that we had less than 300 homicides, three years in a row. The totals from 2014 and 2015, sadly, by this weekend, will be eclipsed by 2021's number. Those two numbers together are 528. We're at 524, on Thursday. God knows what will happen this weekend. So, this whole--


NUTTER: --the--

SMERCONISH: Let me ask you this.

NUTTER: --is theater.

SMERCONISH: On the issue, of white wokeness?


SMERCONISH: Why was he just reelected, and by a healthy margin, and with the support of a lot of folks of color? I mean, this is ravaging the minority community, in particular, right?


SMERCONISH: Let's tell that to a national audience.


SMERCONISH: So, why did so many folks, who were most affected, vote for Larry Krasner?

NUTTER: Well, first of all, you know Philadelphia, as well as I do - as well as I do. The primary election, the primary election--

SMERCONISH: Is everything.

NUTTER: --is the election.


NUTTER: Because of our massive voter registration, as Democrats, and Republicans.


NUTTER: If you win the Democratic primary, in May, unless you are indicted and convicted, you will go on to win in the general election.

I'm not going to comment on the primary candidate, and who it was, and how they ran their campaign. But Larry Krasner has sold the citizens of the city, this idea that "I'm going to protect you from the police. And that's all that matters." There have been officers, who have done things. There are systematic issues, certainly with our police department, and others, across the country that can be reformed.

But at the same time, you still have to focus on the fact that some guy shot a pregnant woman, coming from a baby shower, killed her, and her unborn child. That, another mother walking down the street, with her twin 4-year-old kids was gunned down, and on and on and on and on. So, what are we doing about that?

SMERCONISH: OK. I got a quick final question for you. I remember you, correct me if I'm wrong, as being an advocate of stop-and-frisk.

I remember a lot of things. I remember Mayor Bloomberg, embracing you, as like a protege of sorts, and bringing you up to New York, and so forth. And it seems like you brought that message back to Philly.

If you were mayor, today, are you engaging in stop-and-frisk?

NUTTER: First of all, the City of Philadelphia, like every other city, since about 1968, have been using some form of that police tactic. There were wrong things done, during that time, and I've apologized for that.

The goal here is not about stopping and frisking people. The goal is to get people to stop carrying illegal guns. And if you think that there's a chance that your illegal gun, will be taken from you, it's really hard to shoot somebody, if you don't have your weapon on you.

So, we need to say focused on that, as a part of a much larger series of policing tactics, what I'd like to talk about, as public safety tactics. So, it's not about one thing. We didn't do just one thing.


NUTTER: To lower the numbers--

SMERCONISH: No, understood.

NUTTER: --in Philadelphia.

SMERCONISH: Just wanted to take your temperature on that.


SMERCONISH: Quick social media reaction. Will you join me in responding to it?

NUTTER: Of course.

SMERCONISH: What do we have for Mayor Nutter?

"Blaming crime on progressive D.A.s is total BS. You know the reason BLM protested by the millions in every city is because of systematic racism and police brutality. Crime is a product of years of failure by government to address inner city blight and education and jobs." So, Chuck says "Hey, it's not progressive D.A.s." You would say, what, to him?

NUTTER: I'd say that your job, as a district attorney, is to prosecute people, who commit crimes. There are any number of systems that have their issues. What I'm asking, in Philly at least, is that the D.A. prosecute people.

Do you know what the D.A.'s nickname is, up on State Road? You know, Philly. So, that's where all of our prison facilities are.


NUTTER: His nickname is "Let 'em Loose Larry." That's a disgrace.

And people talk about now "Getting a Larry." What that is? Reduced or dropped charges. This is the mindset that's going on, in a town, where people are not fearful, about committing a crime, or that they'll be caught, or sent to jail.

SMERCONISH: If he accepts our invitation, will you come back?

NUTTER: You'll invite me. We'll see what happens.

SMERCONISH: OK. I'm taking that as a yes, Mayor.

NUTTER: Yes, sure.

SMERCONISH: Thank you. Good to see you.

NUTTER: Absolutely.

SMERCONISH: To the pandemic, and a bizarre question, percolating out there, does mouthwash kill COVID? A U.S. senator states it as a fact.

But before you go out, and buy a giant bottle, and begin gargling, we're going to go take that, to the Director of the National Institutes of Health, along with new questions, about what it means to be fully-vaccinated. And that's next.



SMERCONISH: 60 percent of Americans are now fully-vaccinated. It's a milestone that we've all looked forward to.

But with the rise of new variants, attention is shifting to a different number. Boosters. And 15 percent is still too low, health officials say. It's why the FDA authorized the Pfizer booster for 16- year-olds and 17-year-olds, today, while a growing number of colleges and universities, are issuing booster mandates for students.

So, what should that mean, for what we consider, a fully-vaxxed person to be? Here's Dr. Fauci.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: It's going to be a matter of when, not if. I just say, get your third shot. Forget about what the vaccine - what the definition is.

I just want to see people be optimally protected. That's what I'm concerned about. And for me, that's unequivocally and unquestionably getting a third-shot boost.


SMERCONISH: But apparently that may not be enough either. Pfizer's CEO even raised the possibility of needing a fourth shot, to contend with the Omicron variant. So, what does that mean, for defining the fully- vaccinated, and when does it end?

Let's ask Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH.

Dr. Collins, thanks so much for being here. You know the question. If I'm inoculated, but not boosted, do you consider me, to be fully- vaxxed?


DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: Well, let's try to distinguish, between a definition, which is being used, to decide whether somebody has fulfilled their responsibilities, as an employee, like all of the people, who work for me, at NIH.

In that situation, fully-vaccinated means you've had two doses of Pfizer, or Moderna, or you've had one of J&J.

But, of course, we are learning that those vaccinations do wane, and their effectiveness, over time. And so, boosters are highly recommended, for everybody now, who's over 18, in fact, as of today, everybody over 16, in order to keep that immunity, as high as possible.

Given that we have a pretty bad time, happening, right now, with the Delta variant, once again, cases going up, hospitalizations going up, deaths going up, so, if you haven't yet got that booster, and you are six months away, from Pfizer, or Moderna, or two months away, from J&J, don't wait.

This is the moment. Christmas is coming. The geese are getting fat. Don't wait for your booster. Go and get that in time.

SMERCONISH: In order for - in order for me to get--

COLLINS: This is going to give you a better protection.

SMERCONISH: In order for me, to get into the building here, to do the show tonight, I had to flash a pass, on my phone. And the requirement is that I be vaxxed. And I've had two Moderna and I also had the booster. But it's a very practical question. At what point must someone have the booster, for us, to consider them fully-vaxxed? For example, when will the NIH policy change?

COLLINS: It will not. We are a federal facility. We're following the CDC guidelines. So, for right now, fully-vaccinated, for that purpose, means the two doses of Pfizer, Moderna, like you've had, or the one dose of J&J.

But now, where we're talking about taking care of yourself, or your family, we know that is better, at this point, to get that booster. And I hope people hearing this will not hold back on that, especially, because--

SMERCONISH: I agree. Sure.

COLLINS: --and maybe want to talk about this too, that Omicron is coming. And it's pretty clear, if you needed one more reason that boosters help a lot, in terms of protection, against Omicron, because that's not that great, with the original two doses of Pfizer, from the data--


COLLINS: --that we just saw yesterday. But you get the booster in there, and you're in much better shape.

SMERCONISH: OK. A good warning and a great message.

Dr. Collins, I have to ask you to fact-check this. It's Senator Ron Johnson.

And, to be clear, you're about to hear a clip, where it's him, yesterday, and then offering some level of clarification, today. Roll it.


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI): Standard gargle of mouthwash has been proven to kill the coronavirus. Even if you get it, you may reduce viral replication.

And I'm telling people take it seriously and do everything you can to boost your immune system and eat healthy, I mean, there's a host of vitamins. There's actually an NIH study that says, you know, mouthwash can help reduce viral replication through the first day.


SMERCONISH: So, he cites an NIH study. You're the top dog, at the NIH. What's the deal?

COLLINS: Well, it's not an NIH study. It's a study done by some French researchers.

And, let's be clear. It's not a study that I think ought to make anybody run out, and decide that gargling with mouthwash, is going to help them, if they were infected with COVID-19.

These researchers basically showed that mouthwash could reduce the viral load, in your saliva, in your spit, to a moderate degree. But it wasn't terribly impressive. It was statistically significant, but I think clinically meaningless.

And keep in mind, you got virus, not just in your saliva. You've got it in your nose, in your throat, in your lungs. There was no data, in that paper that suggested this reduced the symptoms of the people, who were sick, nor did it reduce their ability, to make other people, around them sick, by transmitting it.

So, I would not say that this is the kind of science that ought to recommend people changing their behavior. If you want to take care of yourself, get vaccinated, get boosted. If you get sick, and you're in a high-risk position, talk to your doctor, get a monoclonal antibody. The gargling is not going to help you.

SMERCONISH: Appreciate the clarification. I know that you're moving on, in a couple of days. Wish you good things.

COLLINS: Well, thank you very much. It's been a privilege to serve our nation.

We have the most amazing biomedical research community, in the whole world. And that's part of the reason, we're in better shape than most places, would have thought we could be.

We just have to convince the rest of the public, to take advantage, of all the amazing tools, we have, in our toolbox now, to fight off this terrible pandemic.

SMERCONISH: Well-said. Thank you, Dr. Collins.

Don't forget to vote, in tonight's survey question, at About to get into this right now, "Should states be required to fund religious education?" It's a yes or no.

The Supreme Court is dealing with that question itself. An unusual case, having to do with geography that could redefine Church and State in this country.

A parent embroiled in the fight, joins me next.



SMERCONISH: Our kids' classrooms have become political lightning rods. We've seen passions erupt, over everything, from masks, to so-called critical race theory.

But the Supreme Court is focused on a couple of schools, and a unique program that only exists in Maine. The questions in Carson v. Makin could redefine fundamental American principles, like separation of Church and State, as well as religious liberty. You see, parts of Maine are so rural that they don't have public schools. And, in that case, the State will help families pay tuition, at private schools. That can include schools affiliated with religious institutions, but not if the curriculum, quote, "Promotes the faith or belief system with which it is associated."

My next guest, Amy Carson, sent her daughter, to her alma mater, Bangor Christian. But the State wouldn't help cover the tuition. She's one of the plaintiffs in this case, and is joined by her attorney, Michael Bindas.

Let me begin with you, Amy. And thank you so much for being here.

You're fighting for the right of parents, to have their kids educated, at religious-affiliated schools, and have the State pay for it. Is that fair?

AMY CARSON, PLAINTIFF, WANTED TO USE TAX MONEY TO PAY FOR RELIGIOUS SCHOOL: Yes. We live in a town, as a tuitioning town, in Glenburn, Maine.

SMERCONISH: And counselor, why is that not a violation of separation of Church and State?

MICHAEL BINDAS, ATTORNEY FOR AMY CARSON, SENIOR ATTORNEY, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE: Well, the program here isn't funding schools. It's funding families. And it's allowing families, to decide whether - where to use that money.


And currently, parents can choose schools, public schools, in neighboring school districts. They can choose private schools. They can choose schools in state or out of state.

And the State routinely pays for kids to go to some of the most elite Blue Blood prep schools in the country. Yet, parents can't select a Jewish day school, or a Catholic parish school, in their town.

And that kind of discrimination runs flat, against the principles, of the Free Exercise Clause. When government provides benefits to citizens, to use, in this case, at private schools, it has to remain neutral, and allow parents, to use them, at religious or non-religious school.

SMERCONISH: You know, the case is also, Amy, a reminder to me that elections have consequences. You correct me, if I'm wrong.

But, on Donald Trump's watch, the Solicitor General was on your side. Then came the 2020 election. New president comes in. And the Solicitor General, at the behest of the Biden administration, was opposed to your position.

Did I get it right? And what do you think about that?

CARSON: I really don't pay attention to a lot of politics. So, I can't really answer that.

SMERCONISH: Counselor, did I get it right?

BINDAS: You got it right, yes.

SMERCONISH: In other words, you started out with an ally in the White House. But that did not end up that way.

BINDAS: That's right. In somewhat unusual turn, after the change in administration, the United States, which had supported us below, and had submitted a brief, on our behalf, changed course, and at the Supreme Court not only submitted a brief, opposing our position, but actually argued in the court, against our position.

SMERCONISH: Look, the legal experts, seem to think you have a winning hand, given the 6-3 divide of the court.

Counselor, I'll put this to you. If you're successful, are you now opening up the door, to the funding of religious-based charter schools? That really seems to be driving the both advocacy and concerns that people have in this case.

BINDAS: It's certainly not driving our advocacy. And, this case, certainly will not open the door to religious charter schools. Charter schools, after all, are public schools.

What this case is about is whether, when government makes a benefit that parents - available, that parents can use at private schools, whether it can allow parents, to select any private school, they want, anywhere in the nation, but exclude private schools, simply because they teach religion.

That's the discrimination issue, in this case. This has nothing to do with whether religion can be taught in charter schools or other public schools.

SMERCONISH: Amy, correct me if I'm wrong. Your daughter is 19 now. Why are you, given that she's been educated, still fighting this fight? Why your passion on this issue?

CARSON: We are just trying to see this through to the inevitable end of it. And it's been very good for her, and a great education. We couldn't have asked for anything better for her.

SMERCONISH: Bible study was a part and parcel of her daily curriculum, right?


SMERCONISH: That's how every day how - you can understand then someone, who might be agnostic, or atheist, and is a taxpayer, they're watching this, and they're saying, "Jeez, I'm unsettled at the idea that my tax dollars are going for Amy's daughter, to receive religious training."

And you would say, what, to them? CARSON: You would only go to a school like that, if that's what your beliefs were.

SMERCONISH: Right, but why should I be paying? But why should I be paying, I'm playing devil's advocate, to advance that type of an education?

CARSON: I don't think there's any really good answer for that.

SMERCONISH: Counselor, what's your answer?

BINDAS: My answer is--

CARSON: My answer--

BINDAS: --we do this all the time. But--

CARSON: Yes, right.

BINDAS: We, I mean, how long the Pell Grant program has been - has existed, in this country, for decades. The G.I. Bill program has existed in this country, for decades.

As long as those programs have existed, kids have been free to go to Notre Dame, to BYU, to Yeshiva University. And that's perfectly fine. Why can the same principle not apply at the K through 12 level?

That's - at the end of the day, these programs provide aid, to individuals, not to schools. And not a penny goes to any school, religious or non-religious, but for the private and independent choice of citizens.

This is not about government funding religion. It's about government providing a benefit to individuals.


BINDAS: And allowing them to use it, where they see fit.

SMERCONISH: Thank you both so much for being here.

This is one more reason, why, what a spring, or early summer, we're going to have, because this case will come out, in June or in July. So too, of course, the abortion challenge. And we'll be right in the thick of the 2022 midterm election.

Thank you. Appreciate you being here.

BINDAS: Thanks for having us.

CARSON: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Democracy in retreat. Autocracy is on the rise. We dug into that at the top of the program. But we're about to go deeper with a Reality Check, on what's behind the rise, and what can be done, to reverse the backward slide of democracy, as President Biden calls it. John Avlon is next.



SMERCONISH: Returning to our top story tonight, as President Biden engages, over 100 nations, in a virtual summit, to promote democracy, his challenge won't be just combating the messages, of authoritarian media machines abroad, but the autocrat apologists, here at home.

John Avlon is here tonight with a Reality Check.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Democracy versus autocracy is the defining fight of our time. And the Biden administration's Democracy Summit is a sign of solidarity, against that rising tide of autocracy.

We'll see what concrete commitments emerge, or whether it's just a lot of diplo-talk. But the need is real. After all, democracies have been in retreat, for over a decade, according to Freedom House, as autocracies pitch the promise of wealth without liberty.

Now, predictably, China and Russia denounced the summit, even before it began. And, no wonder, because they've gotten used to bullying critics, into silence and submission.


But there are heartening signs of a pushback. The Biden administration has been notably tough on China, contrary to all the Trumpist claims, about "Beijing Biden," during the campaign.

And the latest example was this week's decision, to diplomatically boycott, the Beijing Olympics, which was explained by White House, as a stand against China's ongoing genocide, and crimes against humanity, in Xinjiang, something China, all evidence to the contrary, denies.

This week also included a two-hour virtual meeting with Putin, in which Biden warned that any Russian invasion, of Ukraine, will be met with military aid, and unprecedented economic sanctions.

But despite the stark change in tone, between Biden and Trump, when it comes to dictators, what's almost as significant, is seeing more businesses, put billions at risk, to stand up, to the Chinese government's demands.

Like, the Women's Tennis Association, which last week, announced a suspension of all tournaments, in China, in response to Beijing silencing, of sexual assault allegations, made by tennis star Peng Shuai, against a top Communist Party official.

A few weeks earlier, LinkedIn and Yahoo announced they'd be leaving China, while several clothing and apparel companies condemned the use of slave labor, provoking China's ire. Now, that kind of spine is a stark departure, from the retreats, we've seen in the past. Like, the NBA's apology tour, when Houston Rockets' General Manager tweeted in support of pro-democracy activists, in Hong Kong, just two years ago, or when Mercedes apologized to the CCP, for quoting the Dalai Lama, in an ad, or when several airlines bowed to demand that their websites remove references to Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But perhaps the most absurd example was actor John Cena's hostage- style video, apologizing in Mandarin, for having made the mistake of calling Taiwan a nation.

For the record, Taiwan is a self-governed democratic Island, which is attending the Democracy Summit. These apologies are relatively commonplace, if cowardly, as you can see.

But what we don't see as much is full-throated defense of Vladimir Putin in U.S. media. But Tucker Carlson provided that, with a 12- minute recital, of Russian talking points, the other night that would have embarrassed anchors, on RT (ph), siding with Putin, over Ukraine. You heard Garry Kasparov, bring this up, earlier this hour.

Just take a look at the banners. "NATO seems to exist to torment Putin." And "Putin just wants to keep his border secure," and mocking the idea of territorial integrity. This might as well be counted as an in-kind contribution to the Kremlin.

But Tucker is actually not all alone in this. Take a look at this cover of Newsmax magazine, this month, which hails "Vlad the Great," saying "Post Trump, Putin Becomes Master of the World."

This is sick stuff, "Tiger Beat for authoritarian teeny-boppers," as "The Washington Post's," Philip Bump called it. But it's part of the authoritarian fetishizing that's one of Trump's gifts to the GOP.

Look at this Economist/YouGov Poll, from August, showing that Republicans have a higher approval, for Putin, than Joe Biden. It's this kind of hyper-partisan fever, along with Trump's big lie, and the attack on the Capitol that creates an opening, for autocracies, to point to democracies' dysfunction.

Their goal is to "Exacerbate cynicism, in the political West," says Jessica Brandt, of the Brookings Institution. And that's exactly why, partisan cynicism, and moral relativism, here at home, play right into their hands. It's also why, we need to defend the integrity, of our own democracy, without apology.

And that's your Reality Check.

SMERCONISH: John Avlon, thank you. I said earlier, the concerns that we have today are not the sort of concerns that I've had, at any other point, in my adult life, until recognizing what's going on, in today's headlines.

AVLON: 32 years, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we're fighting for the strength, of liberal democracy, when some folks took it for granted. We cannot take it for granted anymore. SMERCONISH: We'll be right back, with your reaction, to tonight's program.



SMERCONISH: Time to see how you responded, to the survey question, tonight, at my website, at, where we were asking, "Should states be required to fund religious education? Here's the result.

Wow! How decisive was that! 93 percent to 7 percent.

That's probably not the way this is going to turn out, in the Supreme Court of the United States. The litigant that you met, Amy Carson, is widely expected to be successful, in her battle, against the State of Maine. So, we'll see next June or July, when the court issues its opinion in that case.

Social media reaction, from tonight's program, includes this.

"So, if I opened a Satanist run school in your community, that met all standards, you'd be OK paying, right?"

Well, Sean, there was that requirement, if you paid attention to Maine, saying, "But you can't really be indoctrinating." I pointed out that Amy Walters' now - Amy Carson's now 19-year-old daughter had Bible study, to begin every school day.

By the way, nothing wrong with that. The question is whether taxpayers should be funding it, and whether this case, is going to open the door, for the funding of religious-based charter schools. That's the real issue here.

Here's something else from social media tonight.

"Smerconish, SCOTUS is not deciding whether states should be forced to fund religious education. The question before the Court is whether States that choose to fund private schools can exclude religious private schools. Your question is a straw man. Both false and deceptive."

I don't think so, Thomas. I think that the question here is whether, heretofore, those situations, where states could have, are now going to be absolutely entitled, to make that funding decision.

Here comes another social media reaction.

"Smerconish, as long as our leaders in Congress continue to abandon any moral compass and choose donor lists, sound bites and votes over productive and constructive goals, I fear there's no end to this decline in our precious democracy."

Talked about that subject last night. And you've heard me say, for a couple of nights now, sadly, the way you get reelected today, is to act like a talk host, and become a celebrity, in cable television news, and a fundraising magnate.

Bob Dole, laying today, in state that, was the lesson. Looked at how Dole conducted himself, by reaching across the aisle.

One more quickly, if I've got time. It'll have to be a quick one.

"Kasparov. Journalism is dead."

Well, I sure as hell hope not. I thought Garry Kasparov was great.

Don Lemon is standing by. Thank you for watching. I'll be back here tomorrow night.

Hey Don?

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Hey, don't go anywhere. I got two things.


LEMON: I promise you, they will be quick.