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Don Lemon Tells All: CNN, Nikki Haley, His Battle with Elon Musk and Who You “Won’t” See on His New Show (Exclusive)

The former CNN anchor is back with a new streaming program, 'The Don Lemon Show'

<p>DAVID URBANKE</p> Don Lemon is back in the anchor chair, with the streaming program

DAVID URBANKE

Don Lemon is back in the anchor chair, with the streaming program 'The Don Lemon Show.'

There’s a lot going on in the background of Don Lemon’s little Zoom square at the moment. There are painters in his Manhattan home. There are folks walking up and down the stairs. There’s a marriage license.

“We just got it today!” Lemon, 58, says immediately when we log on, holding it up with a huge smile. (He says he will soon have a ceremony and reception with longtime partner Tim Malone.)

There’s a lot going on in the foreground of Lemon’s life as well, figuratively speaking. The former CNN star has a new show, The Don Lemon Show. (The show premieres Monday at 7 am ET.)

And, before it even premieres on X, formerly Twitter, he’s in a fracas with his new boss, Elon Musk — who also happens to be his first guest. Nevertheless, having been off the air for nearly a year, the Emmy-nominated beloved broadcaster is still excited to be back in the game. “I am energized and excited about the future and I'm just sort of rolling with what's going on. But I haven't had much sleep," Lemon says.

<p>Don Lemon Instagram </p> Don Lemon and his fiancé Tim Malone

Don Lemon Instagram

Don Lemon and his fiancé Tim Malone

Related: Don Lemon Says His Talk Show Deal with X Was Canceled After Tense Interview with Elon Musk: 'He's Mad at Me'

The day before our interview, Lemon received a text from Elon Musk. You see, Musk’s platform X was in partnership with Lemon to stream additional, exclusive content from his new show for 24 hours. (The show will still be posted on X and YouTube.) This is Lemon’s return to journalism, following his firing from CNN last year.

As co-anchor of CNN This Morning, along with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins, on Feb. 16, during a segment discussing the ages of politicians, Lemon stated that then-presidential candidate Nikki Haley, at 51, was “past her prime.” Lemon continued: "She says ... politicians are not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn't in her prime. Sorry. A woman is considered to be in their prime in 20s and 30s and maybe 40s."

Asked by Harlow to clarify what he was trying to say, Lemon responded, "That's not according to me. ... If you Google 'When is a woman in her prime,' it'll say 20s, 30s and 40s. I don't necessarily — I'm not saying I agree with that."

Viewers were quick to call Lemon's remarks sexist and ageist, with many also highlighting that he is five years older than Haley. He apologized that day, and last April he was fired.

Related: Don Lemon Paid $24.5 Million in Separation from CNN: Report

But last week, following an as-yet unaired interview with Musk for the first episode of Lemon’s new show, which was to be available exclusively via X, Musk texted Lemon. The deal with X was over, but Lemon could still post content on the platform.

So Lemon went home, in a way. On Wednesday, he went to CNN headquarters in New York City — he worked for the network for 17 years — to be interviewed by Erin Burnett. After he revealed the dissolution of his relationship with Musk, he says Burnett “called me and said, ‘Hey, would you like to come on my show?’ I couldn't say no.”

<p>DAVID URBANKE</p>

DAVID URBANKE

Tears begin to swell in his eyes. “Erin helped to give me my start in primetime on CNN," Lemon says.

He recalls her kindness years ago, before he had his own primetime show, Don Lemon Tonight. “I filled in for her for maternity leave. She could've said, ‘No, I don't want him to fill in for me,’ but she was very supportive. She told her staff to work with me and to give me everything I needed, all the support that I needed. She gave me that support as well," he explains.

Here, an exclusive PEOPLE conversation with Lemon.

PEOPLE: Was it easy to walk back into CNN last week?

LEMON: I don't know if I wanted to go back, but I couldn't say no. But it just makes me very emotional because there was so many people in that building last night who came into the studio, left their desks, left the control room, just to come say hello. And to thank me for what I have done, just to say, "I'm sorry this happened to you. We miss you. And that meant a lot.”

PEOPLE: What are your feelings today about that day on CNN This Morning, alongside Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins, when you made the remarks about Nikki Haley?

LEMON: Listen, I haven't spent much time thinking about that and thinking about Nikki Haley. I would rather not discuss it. I've moved on and Nikki Haley has moved on. My comments were misconstrued and that's it. I've explained it. I apologized for it.

We all go through painful moments and, obviously, my exit was very painful. But that pain has subsided. I took that pain and I took that challenge and I turned it into success. So, was it very painful? Yes. Well, do I wish that my exit from CNN had been different? Absolutely, but it is what it is, and I can't go back and change the past. I don't have a time machine. And it's very interesting because I asked Elon a very similar question. I asked, "Is there anything you would change?" And he said, "No, I don't have a time machine to go backwards." And I actually agree with him on that point.

What I said [on Feb. 16 on the air] I think it was misconstrued, but there were other things that were going on that I possibly did not know about, and so that's all I have to say on that subject.

Related: Don Lemon Speaks Out for First Time After CNN Firing: 'I Have a Responsibility to Tell the Truth'

PEOPLE: In your career, you’ve always been a trailblazer. For many years you were one of the few, if not the most prominent gay Black people at the anchor desk. 

LEMON: Trailblazers don't look back. There has been no one before you, so you create the way. And you get all the slings and arrows. Then everyone comes in and just sort of rides in easy. It hasn't been easy, but I love that. People don't often give you your flowers in the moment, but I do have people who contact me all the time and say, "Don't think that I don't know what you did for me."

PEOPLE: And now you are on a new trail, with a new show. 

LEMON: Like I said at the Time 100 gala, “I wanted to do something that scares me.” I've had this sort of idea swimming around in my head. I've always known that the future was going to be in streaming and it was going to be on these small device. Whether I had left CNN or not, that's what I was going to lean into. To talk about things that are in the zeitgeist, to put issues out there that may not be handled or at least platformed on traditional broadcast television. I have the opportunity to talk a lot longer without having to rush to get to commercial breaks. I can do real conversations and I don't have to be concerned about what you say, is it advertiser friendly, does it have to be sanitized? I don't have to worry about that. I can have real conversations.

<p>Taylor Hill/FilmMagic</p> Don Lemon at the Time 100 gala last year

Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Don Lemon at the Time 100 gala last year

PEOPLE: Did you have any qualms about joining forces with Elon Musk and X? The platform — and Musk — has a reputation for intolerance, antisemitism, transphobia. Not the most accepting culture. 

LEMON: I disagree, quite frankly, with most of what Elon Musk tweets about and talks about. But he owns X, which is formerly Twitter. And it's one of the biggest social media and information platforms in the world. I thought it was the best opportunity to reach the biggest audience so that people could see the work that I'm doing. I also, unlike Elon Musk, truly do believe in freedom of speech.

PEOPLE: Why did you choose Musk for the first show?

LEMON: As the show came into fruition, we started to think about guests. I said, "Who would be the best guest for the first show? Who would be the most impactful?" And I said, "I think that would be Elon Musk because this show is going to be about true freedom of speech and it's going to be a global town hall for everyone. Elon Musk would be the best person." We reached out to him. He said yes, willingly, and the rest is history.

PEOPLE: You certainly had an idea that it could all fall apart. 

LEMON: The possibility of Elon Musk being unpredictable and erratic, yeah. Of course I knew that. I went into this with my eyes open. I've interviewed many world leaders, presidents to convicts, and no one has been more sensitive or touchy than Elon Musk. And during the interview and during other interviews, he constantly says he doesn't care what people write or say about him. For someone who doesn't care about what people write or say about him, he sure does care about what people write or say about him. He's not used to being held to account. He's not used to having to answer to anyone, especially someone like me who doesn't share his worldview, who doesn't look like him. You know what I'm saying? When I questioned him about things that he put out on social media, posted or tweeted, that weren't factual, it was very uncomfortable for him. To the point to where [he and his team] wanted to see the interview before it aired. Which was a a big capital N no.

PEOPLE: What did you want to happen with this interview? Some people would say, “Don’t give him the air time, even more of an audience.”

LEMON: My philosophy then when I was in cable was that no one ever wins a cable news argument. I just wanted us both to be authentic. there was so much to get out of the way. "Why did you tweet this about Black people? Why did you say this about DEI? Why did you say this about a woman pilot? Why did you say this about Jewish people?" I had to know that and the audience needs to know that. And for him to think that that wasn't going to happen, that was really naïve if he thought that.

He's a very consequential person to the world. He controls the satellites. Electric cars, the auto industry. Rockets, space, and one of the biggest information platforms in the world.

I learned a lot about him and I think he learned a lot about me. Well, he could have, but I think it just went right over his head.

Related: Don Lemon and Partner Tim Malone Dress as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for Halloween

PEOPLE: What is the state of your relationship with Musk now?

LEMON: Our business relationship is over, so I'll move on from there.

PEOPLE: Who’s next on your show?

LEMON: We have the Ambassador to the United Nations. We have Sheryl Lee Ralph.

PEOPLE: Any chance of Nikki Haley?

LEMON: No, but I will tell you, I invited Nikki Haley. She turned it down. I would love to have spoken to her, and I would love, I would have loved to have the opportunity to explain to her, to tell her exactly, uh, what I meant. Because, I actually think that she's a very viable woman. As I've said, my comments were misconstrued. But, I would love to have had her on, And, if she wants to come on, I would, I would love to have her. I would welcome her.

The Don Lemon Show premieres Monday, March 18 on YouTube. His first guest is Elon Musk.

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