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Millions in U.S. And Mexico Experience Rare Total Solar Eclipse; Judge Denies Trump's Request To Delay April 15 Hush Money Trial; Trump Says, States Will Decide On Abortion Laws; Netanyahu: Date Has Been Set For Invasion Of Rafah; Women's NCAA Title Game Shatters Ratings Record. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 08, 2024 - 18:00   ET



BILL NYE, SCIENCE EDUCATOR: It was cool. It was spectacular.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Bill. You, me, Spain, 2026, a case of that Fredericksburg, Texas wine, it's a date.

NYE: All Right.

TAPPER: I'll see you there. Bill Nye, thanks so much.

If you ever missed an episode at The Lead, you can listen to the show whence you get your podcasts.

Our coverage continues now on CNN. See you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Millions of people in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada are savoring an extraordinary experience after witnessing a rare total solar eclipse. Stand by for the amazing images and moments from across the country.

And we're also following breaking news, a New York appeals court judge just denied Donald Trump's latest request to delay his hush money trial. We're breaking down Trump last-minute motions one week before jury selection is set to begin.

And the NCAA women's tournament comes to a thrilling close with South Carolina defeating Iowa. Veteran sportscaster Bob Costas joins us to discuss this epic moment in women's basketball and whether it's overshadowing the men's final tonight.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation room.

We begin with a truly exceptional day that briefly turned to night for millions of Americans who saw the moon completely block out the Sun.

CNN's Kristin Fisher tracked the rare total eclipse as it moved across the continent and the excitement surrounding it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is an extraordinary cosmic coincidence.

KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Millions of Americans catching a once in a generation total solar eclipse, turning day into night for everyone along the path of totality, people coming from all over the world to see this rare event in the sky.

In Indianapolis, at the largest watch party in world, thousands cheering the eclipse from the iconic motor speedway.

Dad, what did you think?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Amazing. I have no words. It was much more dramatic than I thought it would be.

FISHER: Mom, What did think about it, first time seeing a total solar eclipse?


FISHER: And in Arkansas, more than 350 couples tied the knot in a Total Eclipse of the Heart event. On a mountaintop in Vermont, love was also in the air as this couple got engaged right before the eclipse ended.

It was a rare and breathtaking celestial event for millions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seeing it for the first I was shocking, like down my spine,

FISHER: Even for the animals at the Dallas Zoo who were clearly aware of something happening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tobogo (ph) has gone over by his pen where he normally would go right before he puts himself to bed, an absolutely captivating moment.


FISHER (on camera): Here in Indianapolis, it will be 129 years before this city gets to see another total solar eclipse. I just feel so lucky and moved that I got to see this one. And you heard my dad say he was speechless, my mom cried. I did not see that one coming. And you know, Wolf, I don't think I'm ever going to look at the sun quite the same way, ever again. Wolf?

BLITZER: I suspect you're right. You speak for so many of us who are so moved by what we saw. Kristin Fisher, thank you very much.

I want to bring in CNN Analyst Miles O'Brien right now. As you know, he's a veteran of covering space and aviation. He's over at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas, where he watched the eclipse.

You were in the path of totality to the eclipse, Miles. You watched it from that historic location, the Cotton Bowl. What was the most memorable part of this experience? MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, you, it's funny Kristin mentioned somebody getting married right next to a camera that I set up on the center of the 50-yard line right at the Cotton Bowl logo, a man proposed to his now-fiance. She did say yes.

So, it's interesting. I was talking to Neil deGrasse Tyson the other day, and he said it is very -- it's worthwhile noting what happens to animals, to the animal kingdom during an eclipse. All kinds of weird things happen. But he says perhaps the most unusual things are the human beings. And watching human behavior at an eclipse is an extraordinary thing. Well, we were here with thousands of young people and the energy was just palpable. It was an amazing experience

BLITZER: It certainly was. And I think you speak for so many of us when you point out you were clearly very moved by this experience. How did you feel during these few minutes of complete totality?


O'BRIEN: You know, things get quiet, that experience of the wind dying down, that happened as well. There's this really strange light temperature, which is very difficult for me to describe. It's kind of bluish, almost gray light, which is really eerie. And you don't see it in any other context.

It's a reminder, Wolf, that we are, you know, part of a big celestial system, kind of very small pieces in that system. But for me also, it's a great reminder of where we are in the scientific world. The fact that we can predict these things down to the second and launch airplanes and rockets and spacecraft to learn more about the most important star we know of, our sun, is also good. So it reminds us of how, you know, the humility and the humble nature of humankind, but also how far we've come.

BLITZER: Yes, you're making an important point, because scientists and astronomers are studying this eclipse already. What are some of the questions they're hoping, hoping to answer?

O'BRIEN: Well, the big one, which really affects all of us, is the sun operates on an 11-year cycle, maximum to minimum. We're very close to the solar maximum now, and that means that all kinds of charged particles get kicked off the sun and head in our direction.

And in the past, this has caused serious problems with communication here on Earth, satellites, GPS, you name it, the last time that happened 11 years ago. Now, think about how many more gadgets we are now relying on 11 years later.

So, understanding the corona, which is the source of these particles, is a really important thing. It allows scientists to help engineers design communications devices which are more hardened against these solar wind events.

BLITZER: It's really -- it was an amazing moment, I think, for all of us who had a chance to at least see part of it. You saw the totality. I was outside here in Washington, D.C., and I saw some of that, that partial eclipse, and it was amazing for me as well.

Miles O'Brien, thanks as usual for joining us.

And joining us -- let's continue this conversation with former Astronaut Mae Jemison, who witnessed the total eclipse as it passed over Bloomington, Indiana. Mae, thank you very much.

This was so exciting for all of us. So you were there in the path of totality at that event in Indiana. What was that like?

MAE JEMISON, FORMER ASTRONAUT: So, for me, it really was about the connectedness. I think we've just heard Wolf talk about -- I'm sorry, Miles talked to you, Wolf, about a lot of the science that's involved and he talked about humility, and he mentioned that's really important. We're smack dab in the middle of the cosmos.

I hope that it showed us that we're connected with this universe. And so for me, that was a part of it because it was right there in your face the moon orbits the earth. The earth is rotating at the same time. We're revolving around the sun. But we're all part of this universe and the universe was showing us some of its secrets at that point in time.

BLITZER: And as I mentioned, you're a former astronaut, so you've been to space. How does that shape your perspective as you experience this kind of very rare celestial event?

JEMISON: So, as I was looking, again, I was thinking about being a child when I was in Chicago years ago, and there was a partial eclipse, and just trying to get a handle on things. And then as an astronaut, I always think about the fact that people talk about how we look down at the Earth and everything that we know is here.

For me, it reinforced the feeling that when I look up, when I look away from the Earth when I was in space, it again connects me with this world, with this universe, and know that I have a responsibility.

You know, when we start to think about all the kinds of things that we know how to do these days in science, you know, the prediction of the eclipse started a long time ago, and we are building up on all of that knowledge in the past.

So, I ask, what are we going to do to the future? What are we going to pass along? That's what happens to me.

BLITZER: I'm wondering what we could learn, Mae, by studying this eclipse.

JEMISON: So let me just tell you one of the things that had been learned. And one of the clips in the early 1900s, they were able to verify Einstein's theory of relativity because light bent around the moon and you could actually see that. So there was ways of verifying things. We talked about -- you can look and see what's happening in the corona or the surface area of the sun. There are lots of things that you can look at. Actually, helium was discovered in the sun back in the 1800s. So, there are lots of different things we can look at. But I hope what people discover is themselves in their connectedness to the rest of the universe, their connectedness to the past, and that whole swath of the U.S. that was touched by the eclipse, I hope we understand that we're connected in this world, regardless of whether we want to be our (INAUDIBLE).


BLITZER: We certainly are. Solar eclipses, Mae, as you know, are a great moment to teach young people and the public for that matter about space. What are you hoping people will take away from today's really rare and very emotional moving event.

JEMISON: So, that space is dynamic, right? So, it's not just the thing sitting still in one plane, it's dynamic. And hopefully we'll take away that when the wind started to cease, that's an immediate takeaway that the sun affects our atmosphere, that our atmosphere affects us.

So, I hope that we paid attention to how many things changed just as the moon was crossing the surface of crossing in front of the sun.

BLITZER: Yes, it was an amazing moment, indeed. Mae Jemison, thank you very much for joining us.

Just ahead, there's more news we're following, including breaking news on Donald Trump's losing a new effort to delay his first criminal trial by trying to move it outside of Manhattan.

And later, Trump makes a statement about his position on abortion rights and faces backlash from anti-abortion groups.

Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.



BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, Donald Trump's first criminal trial is still on track to start one week from today after a New York appeals court judge just rejected his new motion for a delay.

CNN's Kara Scannell is outside the courthouse in New York for us. Kara, you heard these arguments. Tell us what this means for Trump.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well the trial is on, jury selection will begin one week from today on April 15th. Now, this is after Trump's legal team had made an emergency motion asking the judge to put off the trial to postpone it so they could argue that they need a change in venue.

Trump's lawyers saying that the pretrial publicity in New York is just saturated the market and that they've done a survey of Manhattanites. That's where the pool of jurors will be selected from, and saying that the majority of them thought that Trump was biased. While the prosecutors opposed that argument, they said that Trump was making this argument far too late, just one week before the trial is set to begin.

They also said the place for the judge and the jury to be decided if this jury could be fair would be in voir dire. That's when the Judge carefully polls and questions all of the jurors, and there's participation from Trump's lawyers and from the prosecutors.

And they also said about publicity. They said this case is not limited to just Manhattan and New York City. It's an international story. One of the attorneys for the prosecution, Steven Wu, said to the judge the mere fact that jurors know about this case is not an indication of bias. This is the defendant coming into this argument with unclean hands, because publicity, in large part, is his own making.

Now, Trump's lawyers are also asking an appeals court to reverse the gag order that was put in place blocking Trump from making comments about the Judge, his daughter, other family members, prosecutors, the prosecutors themselves, but the judge and Alvin Bragg, the D.A., are still free for Trump to speak of. But they're also appealing that order. We're expecting arguments in that to be tomorrow. But for now this trial is on for next Monday, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, let's see what happens. Kara Scannell in New York for us, thank you.

Let's get some more right now with our Legal Analysts Carrie Cordero and Norm Eisen.

Norm, what's your reaction, first of all, to this appeals court judge rejecting Trump's latest effort to try to pause the case and move it to a different location?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, it's to be expected. In fact, my book coming out this week, Trying Trump About This Case, I predicted that Trump would attempt to use this action. It's known as a Section 230 motion. You go directly to the appellate court, not the trial judge. You say, hey, too much pretrial publicity, move this case. Of course, he was going to try it. By my count, it's his ninth delay tactic, Wolf, because he's very nervous about facing a jury on these allegations of election interference. But it wasn't going work because Donald Trump himself is responsible for so much of the pretrial publicity.

The judge also released a very detailed juror questionnaire today, where jurors are going to be asked about dozens of potential sources of knowledge about the case. And using that questionnaire and then interrogating the jurors in that courtroom is how you will screen for bias not moving the cases. It was a dead loser from the get-go.

BLITZER: And he did lose that appeal. Does Trump, Carrie, have any other avenues to try to delay or can we definitively now say Trumps New York criminal trial will begin next Monday

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: it certainly seems like it's on the path to uh for Monday. There is this outstanding issue, as Kara was reporting, on the gag order. And so we do need to wait to see how that hearing goes tomorrow. But that would really govern the conduct of the trial and what he can and cannot say during it not necessarily whether or not it goes forward.

So, I think all things look in the direction that jury selection really will begin a week from today. But I think it will be a lengthy and very intense jury selection process.

BLITZER: I think you're right. Norm, Trump is also suing the New York judge over the gag order he imposed on him.


Lay this out for us.

EISEN: Well, it was a one-two punch today, Wolf. And the lawsuit against the judge, as strange as that may sound, is actually allowed under New York law. It's called an Article 78 action. And it's when you think a judge has done something that is so wrong, so illegal that you sue him to get an appellate court to consider it before the trial is concluded, before the usual course of appeals.

The problem with Donald Trump's Article 78 action is the same one that afflicts the vast majority of them. They almost never work. And here, the gag order that has been put in place follows that that's been approved by other courts, by Judge Engoron, in the civil fraud case against Trump, by the D.C. Circuit in the 2020 election interference case. It accords with First Amendment principles, and we've seen the threat that Trump's words can constitute most dramatically, as alleged by Jack Smith, on January 6th.

The appellate court is very unlikely to strike down that gag order. Couldn't tweak it like the D.C. Circuit did, but they're not going to strike it down.

BLITZER: Carrie, are you surprised Trump is taking this step suing the judge? And what could that mean for the case?

CORDERO: Well, it is. I mean, it's a specific thing to New York, as Norm was describing, and an avenue that he is available to him. I think his approach in these cases, and it's pretty evident, is the fact that he will direct his attorneys to take every single possible potential legal avenue that there is to try to take things off course on the trial or, at the very least, delay them.

And so if this was a potential legal channel available to him, then it seems like he would direct his attorneys to go ahead and try that even if, after time, it determines that it is unsuccessful.

BLITZER: Carrie Cordero, Norm Eisen, to both of you, thank you very much.

Coming up, Donald Trump is also weighing in today on abortion rights, why his new statement is generating backlash in his own party and beyond.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Tonight, Donald Trump is weighing in on a hot button issue at the top of many voters' minds, abortion.

Let's get details from CNN's Kristen Holmes. Kristen, what is Trump now saying, and what's the reaction?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, for the last couple of months, Donald Trump has privately and publicly been outwardly flirting with this idea of potentially backing a national 15-week abortion ban. Now, this gave an opening to Democrats who could tie him to unpopular abortion policies as well as attack him over an issue that has really plagued Republicans for the last two years.

And speaking to senior advisers to Donald Trump, they felt like he needed to get out there and redefine his stance. He was hearing from people on conservative social -- social conservatives who were trying to get him to back this national ban, but also from more moderate conservatives who were very concerned over the idea that he might hurt his chances with independent voters, particularly when it came to abortion.

So, what we ended up hearing from him today was really what we had heard from him almost two years ago, that he was proud of overturning Roe v. Wade, but also that he believed that all decisions on reproductive rights should be handled by the states. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My view is now that we have abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint, the states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land, in this case, the law of the state.


BLITZER: Now, the statement on abortion has, again, opened the door for Democrats. They are attacking him, seizing on the fact that he never mentioned a national abortion ban, essentially saying that he was leaving the door open for supporting a national abortion ban at some point.

And I will tell you again, I spoke to senior advisers who said this was Donald Trump putting a button on the issue. This will be the campaign stance, of course, something we'll wait and see.

But interesting, Wolf, he also was getting attacked from his own side, from the right. In particular, his former vice president, Mike Pence, who posted this on Twitter, he said, social conservatives -- excuse me. He said, President Trump's retreat on the right to life is a slap in the face to millions of pro-life Americans who voted for him in 2016 and 2020.

Again, this is an issue that has not only plagued Republicans, but Donald Trump as well. He would have rather not talked about this at all. He doesn't believe he's a political winner. But given his own public flirting with this national abortion ban, they felt like he needed to come out and say where he stood on the issue both, Wolf.

BLITZER: Kristen Holmes reporting for us, thank you very much.

Let's get some analysis right now from CNN Senior Political Commentator Scott Jennings and CNN Political Commentator Karen Finney.

Karen, Trump appears to be trying to appeal to Republican leading women who have drifted away because of Roe. Can that work, do you think?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. But I think you're right. Look, I think he's actually trying to have it both ways. He's trying to find a place sort of down the middle where he can appease the far right, which as we've seen in the early reactions, it hasn't quite worked, and so that for people who are more moderate, as you point out, and who believe the government shouldn't have the ability to tell women what to do with their bodies, that they sort of hear what they want to hear.


The problem, though, Wolf, among many, is that what this also means is that the range of horrors that we're already seeing in the states where women and doctors are criminalized, where women's lives are endangered, will continue at the state level, because, basically, he's trying to say he's for the status quo. Well, what that means is women's lives will continue to be in danger.

BLITZER: Scott, I want to get your reaction to part of President Biden's response, in which he accuses Trump of lying. Let me put it up on the screen. Trump is scrambling. He's worried that since he's the one responsible for overturning Roe, the voters will hold him accountable in 2024.

So, Scott, how concerned should Republicans be that voters will hold Trump responsible?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, the voters who are motivated by this issue will absolutely hold Donald Trump responsible. And that cuts both ways. For the pro-life voters who wanted to see Roe go away, he's responsible for it. And for the people who lean Karen's way, they also hold Trump responsible for it.

The question is, is this going to be the top issue in the election? And that's really the friction between the two campaigns. The Biden campaign wants this election to be largely about abortion and other cultural issues. The Trump campaign, they announced their position today, Wolf, on eclipse day, because they're hoping this issue is eclipsed by the economy, immigration, the border, what have you.

And so whatever Donald Trump's position is, he said it today, some people are happy, some people are not, but Democrats are going to call him extreme on it. The real question is, can Democrats elevate this up the line and make it more important than, say, food prices or the border chaos or crime? And I'm dubious they can do that.

BLITZER: Karen, I want to play another part of Trump's statement today. Listen to this.


TRUMP: You must follow your heart of this issue. But remember, you must also win elections to restore our culture and, in fact, to save our country.


BLITZER: The key phrase in that quote, you must also win elections. How do you interpret that?

FINNEY: Well, I also heard him say to restore our culture, and so which means to me he's completely out of touch with the eight in ten Americans who don't think the government should have a role in making these decisions for women.

And I would just correct something on what Scott said. The way Democrats are viewing this issue and voters that we're talking to, this is a human rights issue. This is not a moral issue. This is about women's lives and women being able to make our own decisions.

Now, on the electoral portion of this, Wolf, to your question, sure, again, Donald Trump, like anybody else, is looking at what has happened every single time people have gone to the polls and this has been on the ballot. And what's happened? Republicans have lost. And voters won't -- they don't buy that 15 weeks or 16 weeks is a limit. It's a ban. They understand it's a ban and they see how it's unfolding in their own lives.

And so I think the main thing for Trump is voters just are no, they can't trust him on this issue. And, again, because it's a human rights issue, it is connected to democracy. I think it's going to be a pivotal issue in this election.

BLITZER: I thought it was interesting, Scott, that former Vice President Mike Pence immediately called Trump's statement today a slap in the face to the millions of anti-abortion voters who supported him back in 2016 and 2020. Does Trump have a potential problem on his right flank?

JENNINGS: Well, there are some pro-life conservatives who are very angry with Trump today. They wanted to see him make a forceful, moral argument about why abortion is wrong. He chose not to do that. Certainly, Mike Pence falls in that camp.

The raw political calculation for Trump, though, is where are these voters going to go? They're certainly not going to vote for Joe Biden, who's been all over this issue for his entire career. He's held every position you can have on abortion. But today, he's the most liberal president we've ever had on this issue.

So, if you're a pro-life conservative and you're looking at two guys on the ballot, the Trump bet is, hey, you may not love my transactionalism on this, but what are you going to do? Vote for Biden? And they're betting those folks come home.

BLITZER: And the other option they could do, you know, Scott, is to not vote, to simply stay home. That could potentially be a big problem for Trump as well.

JENNINGS: Pro-lifers are regular voters. They tend to turn out.

FINNEY: Can I just mention, though, one thing with President Biden, as somebody who's worked on myself, who has worked on this issue for over ten years? President Biden's evolution on this issue actually represents what a lot of Americans have gone through, and that is from someone who, from a perspective of initially faith, may have said, this is not something I agree with, but then the understand.

I actually have been in meetings with the president when he was vice president and saw him come to understand what this issue means as a human rights issue for women and in a democracy, how important it is that we have control over our bodies and our lives.


And I think people see that.

BLITZER: And I think it's fair to say this is going to be a huge issue in this upcoming election.

Karen Finney, Scott Jennings, to both of you, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, we're going to take you inside a triple rocket launch by NASA aimed at learning more about today's solar eclipse.


BLITZER: While many of us watched today's solar eclipse on television or with special glasses, NASA scientists were busy launching not one, but three rockets, all designed to advance eclipse science.

CNN's Brian Todd is at NASA's facility out there on the eastern shore of Virginia. Brian, tell us about these launches that you got to see firsthand.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, three very exciting launches from this facility today, with the goal of giving scientists some crucial information about how this eclipse might have affected our satellite communications.



TODD (voice over): If you blinked, you really could have missed it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And our first APEP rocket has left the rail. TODD: In a matter of seconds, a so-called sounding rocket blasts off, then disappears from view at NASA's Wallops Island facility on the Virginia coast. Traveling at about 6,000 miles an hour, three of these rockets carried special payloads tailored to this solar eclipse, launched just before, during and just after the peak of the eclipse, each rocket traveled about 260 miles above the Earth to the ionosphere, the uppermost layer of Earth's atmosphere that borders space.

TRAVIS PAUL, SOUNDING ROCKET ENGINEER: Once the motors are done burning, we will deploy booms that take measurements, and then we'll also deploy these swarm modules that shoot out away from the body of the payload.

TODD: The swarm canisters, each about the size of a two-liter soda bottle and the booms, are equipped with instruments to measure the disturbances in the ionosphere during the solar eclipse. NASA officials say they need to figure out how those disturbances impact things like satellite communications.

DANA WRIGHT, LEAD EDUCATOR, NASA'S WALLOP VISITOR CENTER: The layer of the atmosphere that scientists are studying for this mission is also where our satellites are at, and we know we use our satellites for communications, we rely on them daily.

TODD: The swarm canisters floated around the ionosphere during the eclipse, took data, transmitted it back to NASA, then were programmed to drop back to Earth.

Hundreds of people flocked to a special viewing area today to watch the rockets lift off, people like David Quam, who came from the D.C. area.

DAVID QUAM, ROCKET LAUNCH SPECTATOR: This is the combination of all the wonders that we ever talk about, right? From science, so the wonder of an eclipse, the magic of what humankind can do to go observe it and bringing all those together. This is just a really exciting day.

TODD: Between the rocket launches, the total eclipse, and the science of it all, it made for an exciting day in the marshes of Southern Virginia.

REBECCA YAMAKAWA, ROCKET LAUNCH SPECTATOR: I've always wanted to see a rocket launch up close. I've always wanted to go into space because I just think it's really cool.

JONATHAN YAMAKAWA, ROCKET LAUNCH SPECTATOR: This is my ideal job. I want to be in that building working on rockets like these.

WRIGHT: Seeing them get excited and amped about anything related to science, we're all about, of course.


TODD (on camera): One NASA official told us that while they received the data from these instruments within minutes today, it will actually take months to actually analyze the data and really determine how this disturbance in the ionosphere from the eclipse might have affected our satellites. Wolf?

BLITZER: Very interesting. Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you, Brian, very much.

Coming up, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now says he set a date for a ground invasion of Rafah in Southern Gaza as protests in Israel over his leadership escalate.



BLITZER: In the Middle East tonight, Israeli troops have pulled out of Khan Younis, a major city in southern Gaza. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says a date has been set for the invasion of Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering. This as Prime Minister Netanyahu faces growing pressure at home and abroad.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond has more.


JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Israeli tanks and troops just returned from southern Gaza, signs of a major withdrawal and another political headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

His right-wing governing partners outraged, with national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, warning Netanyahu will not have a mandate to continue serving as prime minister if he ends the war without invading Rafah.

It's the latest layer of political pressure confronting Netanyahu, who's already facing a growing swell of protests calling for early elections and the hostage deal.

In the early days of the war, you really didn't see these kinds of mass demonstrations against the current government. There was a sense of wartime unity that it wasn't appropriate to protest. But now were seeing more and more Israelis, coming out to protest, raising their voices against the current government and against Benjamin Netanyahu.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: None of us wanted to protest. We just want meant to survive, basically. You can't protest when you're afraid for your life. But I think we're not afraid for our life at this moment and this is the time to replace the government.

DIAMOND: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Netanyahu should resign, accusing him of putting the survival of his government above the interests of the country.

EHUD OLMERT, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: You can't run the national interest on the basis of personal interests of the prime minister, that's what he was doing and therefore, he is not fit. More than 50 percent of Israelis think the same. They don't trust him. They think that he is running the war on the basis of his personal interests.

DIAMOND: Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu adviser, says his former boss learned decades ago to always prioritize those who will keep him in power.

AVIV BUSHINSKY, FORMER ADVISER TO PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Never betray your natural allies. They are his allies, his buddies, he has to adhere to the will, pay a heavy price political price, but this how his coalition is so crystal strong and solid.

DIAMOND: Despite the rhetoric from Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu's right-wing partners don't seem inclined to pull the rug out from under him just yet.

Calls for new elections from his chief rival, war cabinet member Benny Gantz --

BENNY GANTZ, ISRAELI WAR CABINET MINISTER: The Israeli society needs to renew its contract with its leadership.

DIAMOND: And increasingly vocal criticism from the White House or drawing little more than signature defiance from the Israeli prime minister.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Hamas hopes that the pressure from outside and inside will make Israel surrender to these extreme demands. The pressure of the international community should be directed against Hamas.

DIAMOND: For now, Netanyahu is staving off early elections, which polls show he would likely lose to Benny Gantz, who is still mulling a potential exit from the wartime unity government.

What kind of impact you think you would have for him to leave this unity government?


OLMERT: I think it will probably trigger the public reaction. The volcano of the public bitterness and disappointment and rage with Bibi's government, and that will force early election.

DIAMOND: Because right now we've seen more and more people taking to the streets, but its still not enough is what you're saying.

OLMERT: Yeah, it's moving in the right direction, but we need more.

DIAMOND: Jeremy Diamond, CNN, Tel Aviv.


BLITZER: Thank you, Jeremy.

Coming up, is the women's NCAA double tournament overshadowing the men's? What yesterday's record breaking title match up as about the unprecedented excitement or women's college basketball? We'll discuss that and more with legendary sportscaster Bob Costas.



BLITZER: Just in to, CNN, yesterday's women's NCAA title game between South Carolina and Iowa officially shattered ratings records with nearly 19 million viewers. The championship capping a truly historic season of excitement for women's college basketball here in the United States.

Here's "Saturday Night Live", its take. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's hard to get excited when there was better games on.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, the women's tournament.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, the women -- the women are exciting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The women's tournament is where the actions at.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But we've got to talk about the men, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Okay. Fine. Let's just get it out of the way.

Okay. The men's final this Monday is I believe between Quimminac College versus Northern Southern State.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Neither of those are real schools. It's actually Purdue, Connecticut


BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in sports journalist and CNN contributor Bob Costas.

Bob, as you know, the interest in the tournament was in large part driven by Iowa's Caitlin Clark. Watch what she said after the game.


CAITLIN CLARK, IOWA PLAYER: When I think about women's basketball going forward, obviously its just going to continue to grow, whether its at the WNBA level, whether it's at the college level, like everybody sees it, everybody knows. Everybody sees the viewership numbers. When you're given an opportunity, women's sports just kind of thrives.


BLITZER: She went not to say she hopes her legacy is helping to make women's sports as popular as men's.

How far has Caitlin Clark gone to make that a reality?

BOB COSTAS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Caitlin Clark has been a seminal figure. Back-to-back women's college player of the year. But the attention she brought lifted everybody else.

You think about Dawn Staley, the South Carolina coach, three-time Olympic gold medalist as a player, won another Olympic gold medal as the women's coach three-time champion women's college coach at South Carolina, an excellent player herself -- obviously, people knew about her people within the sports community, but now there's more attention on her. There's more attention on the entire South Carolina roster and everybody that Iowa played this year.

There'll be a ripple effect. Well, as many people watch her in the WNBA has watched under these circumstances, no, but there will be a ripple effect. This, by the way, was the highest rated game, not just in women's history, the highest rated basketball game of any kind, men's or women's, college, or NBA, in five years.

BLITZER: Yeah, it's really amazing when you think about it. And as you know, UConn and Purdue takes center-stage later tonight in the men's championship, the three-point shot has dominated basketball for a long time, as we know. But these teams are unique in that they're both led by two seven-foot big men. Talk about that.

COSTAS: Yeah. Donovan Clingan, seven two for UConn, and Zach Edey, who has been a real force in college basketball the last few years, in the middle of for Purdue. UConn is the defending national champion going for back-to-back. And until Bama game of a pretty good game until UConn pulled away in the late stages, they were blowing air everybody out in this NCAA tournament.

Purdue was a number one seed a year ago and lost to a 16th seed, Fairleigh-Dickinson. So, they're on a redemption tour of their own. There should be a very good game tonight.

BLITZER: Yeah, it should be. And we'll be watching.

Before I let you go, Bob, today as you know, is 50th anniversary of Hank Aaron's breaking Babe Ruth record for career home runs. I know you knew how Hank Aaron well. Talk a little bit about what an amazing day and accomplishment that was.

COSTAS: You know, this is a moment that still resonates. I don't mean to diminish anyone else. Barry Bonds on his natural merits is one of the greatest players of all time, but there is controversy surrounding him, and I think to a lot of people, he is the statistical homerun leader. But Henry Aaron will forever be the home run king.

That meant something different 50 years ago. And it wasn't just a triumph of athletic skill. It was a triumph of character and will based on everything he faced, all that hatred, the hate mail, the death threats. He saw some of the worst of America, but he triumphed and showed himself to be part of the best of America. There's a special respect that people feel for Hank Aaron beyond his

baseball achievements and those achievements were monumental.

BLITZER: What was it like to watch that moment?

COSTAS: I'm sorry, say it again?

BLITZER: What was it like to actually watch that moment? That was history.

COSTAS: Oh, yeah, I watched it on television. I was a college student at Syracuse, but a huge baseball fan. And what really struck me was that so many people foolishly thought, oh, well, people will freak get about Babe Ruth. No, no, we had an eclipse today.

Hank Aaron statistically eclipsed Babe Ruth, but he didn't consign them to the dustbin of history. Babe Ruth is still a figure of legend, just as no ones accomplishments, whatever they may be statistically, can eclipse Hank Aaron's place in history.

BLITZER: Yeah. You said it well, I was a college student at the time, and I remember it.

Bob Costas, thanks very, very much. And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

COSTAS: Thank you, Wolf.


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