News Brief: AG Barr Defends Actions, COVID-19 Vaccine Status, U.S Soldier Charged
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Attorney General William Barr says he is responsible for a series of actions that appear to benefit President Trump.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
But the attorney general insists there is no political influence in those decisions from the White House. Now, just a recap here - Barr replaced a U.S. attorney who was thought to be investigating matters of interest to the president. A whistleblower alleged political interference in the sentencing recommendation for the president's friend, Roger Stone. And an appeals court upheld a move to drop charges against the president's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Now, all of this led to a big question from our colleague, Steve Inskeep.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How do you answer a voter who sees a pattern here of continually upholding the personal interests of the president?
WILLIAM BARR: Well, I'd say that there is no such pattern. I would say that that is a media narrative that has been adhered to, where things that happen all the time in the Department of Justice are misrepresented to the public and cast as somehow suspicious.
MARTIN: Steve sat down with the attorney general in the attorney general's office yesterday. And Steve is with us now. How does Barr make the case that there is nothing suspicious?
INSKEEP: Well, Rachel, he wanted to take cases one at a time and said there were specific reasons to justify each action. He said, for example, it was just a personnel move when he announced that Geoffrey Berman was leaving as United States attorney in New York.
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BARR: Geoffrey Berman was interim. He was appointed by the court as a temporary U.S. attorney holding the fort. He was living on borrowed time from the beginning. And when a really strong, powerful candidate raised his hand - that is Jay Clayton, currently the chairman of the FCC - wanted to go back up to New York but very much would desire this job, I view that as an opportunity to put in a very strong person as a presidential appointment to that office.
INSKEEP: He said the president has the right to appoint a U.S. attorney. But the thing is, Berman briefly declined to step aside. His critics said the U.S. attorney was working on cases of interest to the president, as David said. And his replacement was a guy with no experience as a federal prosecutor. Ultimately, Berman did leave after it was agreed his trusted deputy would take over for now. And it does look like, by the way, under Senate rules, the Senate won't confirm the replacement unless the New York senators, who are Democrats, approve. So there is a check on the president's power here.
MARTIN: Right. So does the attorney general admit that it at least looks bad when the president makes law enforcement moves that seem to benefit him?
INSKEEP: No, not at all. Now, Barr has said in the past the president has the power to supervise law enforcement even in a case where he has an interest. But in these specific cases, he doesn't admit there's any conflict at all.
MARTIN: The president clearly has an interest in the election, though. How does Barr see his role in making that election secure?
INSKEEP: He says he's really concerned about foreign interference. Now, that, Rachel, is obviously a bipartisan concern. But there's debate over what Barr is concerned about - interference with mail-in ballots. Some states want to lean more heavily on them because of the pandemic. The president has falsely said there's evidence of fraud in mail-in ballots - massive evidence is what the president has falsely said. The attorney general knows that a lot of people have voted by mail in the past. But he questions doing so many this year.
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BARR: I'm talking about a comprehensive rule where all the ballots are, essentially, mail-in. And there's so many occasions for fraud there that cannot be policed. I think it would be very bad. But one of the things I mentioned was the possibility of counterfeiting.
INSKEEP: Did you have evidence to raise that specific concern?
BARR: No, it's obvious.
INSKEEP: So he says he has no evidence but that it's obvious there could be a problem. He's faced a lot of pushback here, as the president has, because there is a track record with mail-in ballots. Washington state, for example, has done elections almost entirely by mail for many years. And officials there say the ballots have various characteristics that make them very hard to counterfeit.
In fact, the secretary of state of Washington state invited the president and the attorney general to come to Washington state if they'd like and see what the security measures are like. I put that statement to Barr. And he said he'd be happy to call her.
MARTIN: All right, Steve, we appreciate it. NPR's Steve Inskeep with that sit-down interview with the attorney general. Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: Glad to do it.
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MARTIN: All right. After the lockdowns and all the lives lost, the pandemic in this country is getting worse, not better.
GREENE: That's right. Yesterday, the U.S. actually reached another grim record, more than 40,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day. And the number of Americans who have been infected with coronavirus is likely 10 times higher than our current estimates. That is according to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield. Despite the surge of COVID-19 cases in the country, President Trump tweeted late last night that the country, quote, "will not be shut down." All the while, pharmaceutical companies around the world are racing to develop a vaccine for this disease.
MARTIN: We've got NPR science correspondent Joe Palca with us. He has been tracking all the information when it comes to the possible vaccines. Hi, Joe.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So how many vaccines are we talking about? How many are in the pipeline?
PALCA: Well, according to the WHO, there are 16 - I mean, 16 that are actually in human trials. There's more like 200 that are actually being tested at various places. It's important to understand what a vaccine is trying to do. A vaccine works by showing our immune system something that looks like a virus. And that prompts the immune system to make what's called antibodies. So if the real virus should show up, our immune system is ready to fight it off.
An analogy I've been using is, let's say you want to - you go and show somebody a picture of someone and say, look; if this person shows up at your door, don't let them in. But here's the thing - to pursue that picture analogy a little bit further - you have to decide how to present the picture. Do you go door to door? Do you show it to people? Or can you put it on highway billboards? Or you pop up ads on a computer? So vaccine designers have to choose what picture of the virus to use and how best to show it to the immune system.
MARTIN: So what are some different ways that they have done that?
PALCA: Well, the immune system sees proteins on the virus surface. So most, if not all vaccines are using something - the most prominent protein on the virus surface called the spike protein. Now, some vaccines work by just injecting a bolus of these spike proteins into somebody. They're actually a synthetic version of the spike protein.
Some work by taking the actual coronavirus and killing it, rendering it inactive, and using that inactivated virus as the basis of a vaccine. Some employ what's called a viral vector that carries instructions into the body. And some just use the genetic material for making the spike protein that's either RNA or DNA. You inject that directly into somebody.
MARTIN: Which vaccine is the closest Joe? I mean, this is the important question, right?
PALCA: Well, furthest along is the University of Oxford working with AstraZeneca. It's one of these so-called viral vector approaches. And they actually began what's called efficacy testing, which is comparing a group who get the vaccine with a group who don't, and seeing if the vaccinated people are protected and don't get sick. There's another vaccine that also works with a viral vector by a Chinese biotech company.
And then there's an American company called Moderna that's using what's called an RNA vaccine. That's injecting the viral genetic material directly into somebody. And, you know, it's possible that we'll have some idea of whether any of these vaccines - the ones that are still being in early testing, we'll have a good idea, possibly, by the end of the year if any of them actually work.
MARTIN: OK. And we know that everyone's working really, really hard to get one of these vaccines to work soon. But we just don't know exactly when that will be. NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you, Joe.
PALCA: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: All right. Does the U.S. military have a problem with white supremacists and other extremists? A number of incidents in recent history have raised this very question.
GREENE: Yeah. And, actually, this week, the Justice Department labeled U.S. Army Private Ethan Melzer a traitor, calling him, quote, "the enemy within." Melzer is a 22-year-old soldier from Louisville, Ky., who is facing federal terrorism-related charges. Prosecutors say he plotted an ambush of his own unit as part of a satanic white supremacist network.
MARTIN: We've got NPR's Hannah Allam with us this morning to talk about it. Hannah, good morning. What exactly is Private Melzer charged with doing?
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Good morning. Yeah. He faces many charges, including conspiracy and attempt to murder U.S. military personnel. And all this is tied to what the Justice Department is calling a plot by Melzer to ambush his own unit once they were deployed to Turkey. The indictment says Melzer joined the Army in 2018, within a year was a member of a U.K.-based neo-Nazi group called The Order of the Nine Angles. Prosecutors say Melzer found out he was being deployed to Turkey and allegedly passed details about that deployment to members of the group, including the location and the defenses of his unit.
The court papers include transcripts of Melzer saying he's willing to die in this operation, that he sees it as part of a greater cause. So authorities consider him an accelerationist, someone who believes in violence to collapse society and create a new order. And for white supremacists, that end goal is typically an ethnostate. It's a trend we've seen in a series of recent attacks. And now, here it is popping up in a high-profile military investigation.
MARTIN: I mean, we've seen several cases - right? - involving far-right extremists in the military in the past couple of years. Can you just take a step back? How widespread is this problem?
ALLAM: Well, the short answer is we don't have a good handle on the scope. Defense officials have reported a slight increase in the number of domestic terrorism investigations involving service members. But that's only one category. And it doesn't address sort of the full picture of extremism in the ranks. So there is a need for better data. It's been a frustration for civil rights groups and extremism researchers who've been asking for years for the military to improve tracking and screening.
MARTIN: So what's the military doing about this?
ALLAM: Military officials have said that they are expanding screening. And they are working more closely with other counterterrorism authorities, partnering to address extremism. But lawmakers, extremism monitors and other critics all say, you know, the Pentagon can do much more.
One policy that's often mentioned is the distinction the military draws between simply belonging to an extremist organization and actively participating in one. And analysts I've spoken with say there should be the same zero-tolerance policy for violent white supremacists as there is for Islamist extremists. Here's Colin Clarke with the Soufan Group in Washington.
COLIN CLARKE: If this was an affinity for jihadism, they wouldn't say, well, you're not an active participant. You just, you know, have a real affinity for ISIS. No, you know? First hint that anybody expressed sympathy for a jihadi group, they would be done.
MARTIN: Interesting. And, Hannah, I mean, we're at this moment when big U.S. institutions are struggling with how to address systemic racism. Is extremism in the military, white supremacy, part of that conversation?
ALLAM: It is. And we've seen signs that the Pentagon is making it more of a priority. And a case like Melzer's at this moment makes it even more urgent. You know, right now, there's a lot of attention to the campaign to change the Confederate names of bases.
ALLAM: And researchers hope it's also a moment for the military to think about what else they can do to keep extremists out of the ranks.
MARTIN: NPR's Hannah Allam. Hannah, thank you. We appreciate it.
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