News Brief: Trump Addresses Race, U.S. COVID-19 Testing Goals, Federal Tax Deadline
NOEL KING, HOST:
Almost any news conference with President Trump can be a spectacle. He might say anything. That's his brand. Still, his appearance in the Rose Garden yesterday was remarkable.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
He'd come to that formal setting outside the White House to announce new measures against China. Video cameras captured a president who instead changed the subject. He talked about crumbling highways and the Paris Climate Agreement. He read a list of baseless allegations against his presumptive Democratic challenger this fall, Joe Biden, said, among other things, that Biden plans to, quote, "abolish the suburbs."
KING: What, if anything, does this tell us about how the president is positioning himself before the election? Tamara Keith covers President Trump and the White House. She's with us now. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So President Trump was in the Rose Garden yesterday to talk about Hong Kong.
KEITH: Well, sort of. You know, right at the top, he announced that he had signed a bill and an executive order to end the city's special status. Because it was supposed to be independent from mainland China, Hong Kong previously had gotten economic protections. But China is exerting much more influence over the city using a national security law to subvert human rights and Hong Kong's political independence. So now Hong Kong will be treated just like mainland China.
And this move from the president would have been pretty big news, but this was not a news conference, as it was billed. This was a rally speech disguised as an official announcement from the Rose Garden. And just to give you a sense of scale, I went through the transcript. This was a 10,000-word event. Before the 1,000-word mark, Trump started attacking Biden. It was an hour long. He took questions for just six minutes. And he said Biden's name 31 times. As we've reported, the Trump campaign has been having difficulty putting on rallies. One had to be canceled this past weekend. It seems as though President Trump has found his new venue.
KING: He did have another venue yesterday. He gave an interview to CBS News. They talked about race and policing, among other things. A reporter asked him about Black Americans being killed by police, and here's what President Trump said.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And so are white people. So are white people. What a terrible question to ask. So are white people. More white people, by the way - more white people.
KING: Tam, can you fact-check that statement?
KEITH: Yeah. So more white people do die at the hands of law enforcement than Black people, but there are many more white people in the country as a share of the population. African Americans are far more likely to be killed by police - more than twice as likely. But it's about more than the numbers. As calls have grown for police reform and racial justice, President Trump has taken a law and order stance. He started out initially showing sympathy for George Floyd. He has absolutely moved on from that.
KING: In the same interview, he talked about the Confederate flag.
KEITH: Yes. He said, quote, "I know people that like the Confederate flag, and they're not thinking of slavery." So just as the nation's focus shifted back to coronavirus, President Trump is reminding everyone that he has a race problem. A more disciplined president who was trying really hard to get reelected would come out, stay on message, talk about the policies that he's announcing, dominate the news cycle with that. Instead, he seems incapable of doing that and has created yet another news cycle or two about him and racism.
KING: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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KING: All right. How much coronavirus testing can the United States do, and how much is enough?
INSKEEP: The official in charge of testing offered a dramatic new projection yesterday. Admiral Brett Giroir was on NPR taking questions about a shortfall in testing that has constantly frustrated efforts to contain the pandemic. The admiral said correctly that testing has increased a lot since this spring, and then he set a goal for this fall.
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BRETT GIROIR: We want to have 100 million tests per month done in this country by September, and I think we're well on track to have that done.
INSKEEP: One hundred million tests in a month. We haven't heard that number before. It is far higher than the testing right now and also far higher than previous goals.
KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been looking at these numbers for weeks and months and is with us now. Rob, let me start by asking you, is it possible to do 100 million tests in a month at this point, or might it be at some point?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So, you know, I followed up with the Health and Human Services Department after the interview yesterday to try to clarify how the administration thinks it could hit that new hundred-million-a-month mark. And what they're saying is they expect to get there not by actually boosting the number of tests to 100 million but by getting to 60 million a month, combined with some new approaches to testing. That includes some new cheap, fast tests and something called pooling, which is essentially testing specimens in batches. The administration says that would enable the equivalent of 100 million monthly tests to be done by September.
KING: Why September, though? Why can't we just do it now or by August?
STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, one big obstacle is the problem that's been causing shortages all along - getting enough supplies to actually do the tests. The latest I heard about yesterday was a shortage of plastic tips for devices known as pipettes, which are needed to do the test. So, you know, unless something dramatic happens, it's far from clear whether the system could even deliver the supplies that would be needed to do so much more testing.
And, you know, this pooling idea - that could help, but there are big questions about pooling - whether it's as reliable and practical and would really end up being more efficient, especially if the virus becomes even more widespread. Also, you know, some of these new tests the administration is banking on may not be as reliable.
KING: If we can test 100 million people a month, will that be enough, then, to contain outbreaks?
STEIN: The short answer is probably not. According to an analysis of U.S. testing that NPR conducted with Harvard, the country should be doing at least 1 million tests a day today just to keep the virus from surging out of control even more than it is and really should be doing more than 4 million tests a day to suppress the virus, you know, push it down enough to do things like safely send kids back to school and get people back to work. Testing 100 million a month would be getting close to that, but by September, the country could easily need way, way more testing. I talked about this with Ashish Jha at Harvard.
ASHISH JHA: What they're promising in September is what we needed in June. And given the complete out-of-control outbreaks that we're having in large parts of our country, one would worry that the number of cases will go up between now and September and not necessarily come down. And we may find ourselves at even that level of testing, even if they're able to deliver it, it may not be enough.
STEIN: It's also about getting tests back fast. And if you don't get them back fast right away, it almost defeats the purpose. And right now, it's taking at least a week sometimes to get the results back. And, you know, that's really just too late for the testing to be effective.
KING: Still some problems ahead. NPR's Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.
STEIN: You bet, Noel.
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KING: All right, today's the last day to file taxes for 2019.
INSKEEP: The federal government gave Americans a three-month grace period when the pandemic hit in March. April 15 would've been the deadline. Instead, it's today, July 15. So did that make things easier for Americans or, for that matter, for the IRS?
KING: Scott Horsley is NPR's chief economics correspondent. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: How'd this three-month extension work out?
HORSLEY: The extension did create some challenges for the federal government. Some of the money that would ordinarily come into the government's coffers back in April isn't coming in until now. And this, of course, at a time when the government is spending a ton of money trying to prop up the economy with those $1,200 relief checks and the extra unemployment benefits being paid to millions of people. Just this week, the Treasury Department issued its monthly cash flow statement, showing the federal deficit was $864 billion just for June.
KING: Wow. Wow.
HORSLEY: More red ink than the government typically spills in almost a year. So the tax delay was a factor in that, but, of course, the real driver of that is the pandemic itself.
What's more, although people have now had an extra three months to do their taxes, the pandemic sidelined a lot of the people that ordinarily help out. A lot of the volunteer centers that typically provide free tax prep assistance have been shut down because of the coronavirus. Some, like the AARP Foundation, are offering limited help either over the telephone or online. Some volunteers have also had to get creative. There's a group in Wisconsin that's been doing tax assistance at a drive-through location so people can get their returns filed without ever leaving their cars.
KING: Volunteering aside - and it's nice to hear those volunteers exist - tax preparation is a big business. How did it change this year because of the extension?
HORSLEY: Yeah, the coronavirus seems to have cut into the professional tax preparation business at least somewhat this year. Maybe some professionals closed their doors during the springtime, or maybe people were just reluctant to go and visit with them. According to the most recent statistics from the IRS, tax professionals have filed about 10% fewer returns this year. But electronic filings by do-it-yourselfers have gone up nearly 11%, so that does seem to be a shift there.
We only get the breakdown for electronic tax returns, which is how most people file. But about 1 in 10 taxpayers still go the old-fashioned route and mail in a paper tax return. For a long time this spring, there was no one there at the IRS to open those mail-in paper returns, so they piled up in warehouses and tractor-trailers. The agency's Taxpayer Advocate said in mid-May there was a backlog of nearly 5 million paper returns to get through. The IRS has been bringing people back into its service centers in the last six weeks or so to process all those returns, but the Taxpayer Advocate warned that people expecting a refund could be in for a long wait.
KING: Well, this is an interesting point because IRS employees are human beings, meaning they're affected by the pandemic, too, right?
HORSLEY: Exactly. And they're feeling the same kind of stress that other essential workers are. About 50,000 IRS employees are still working from home, and the IRS commissioner says that number is not likely to change for the foreseeable future. But tens of thousands of others have been brought back into the office, with all the challenges that go along with that.
The leader of the union who represents IRS workers says he's especially concerned about those in places like Austin, Texas, where the agency has a big service center and, obviously, the coronavirus has been spreading rapidly. The union is worried that some of its members could get sick or maybe spread the virus to others. Nationally, nearly 300 IRS employees have tested positive, and at least eight have died.
KING: Wow. NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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