News Brief: Postal Concerns, Convention Amid COVID-19, Belarus Protests
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So this week we are expecting to hear a lot more about what is going on at the U.S. Postal Service.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Yeah. The new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has made what he calls some cost cutting measures. But that means the mail has gotten slower in an election year when record numbers of people are expected to vote by mail. So the question now is, can Congress do anything about this?
GREENE: Yeah. Lawmakers are talking a lot about this. What can they do, if anything? Let's turn to NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Good morning, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.
GREENE: So what is the role of Congress here? And what are they talking about?
DAVIS: Well, Speaker Pelosi is going to call the House back into session later this week. Lawmakers had been on their annual August recess. Generally speaking, it's hard to bring them back unless it would be an issue of major national concern. Democrats are planning to bring up a bill later this week that would block the post office from making any operational changes to services that were in place on January of this year through January of next year.
Pelosi is also asking Democrats to have local events at their post offices across the country tomorrow. And a week from today, the House Oversight Committee is planning to have a hearing with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the head of the Postal Service Board of Governors, Robert Duncan. The agency, you know, as well documented, been in financial straits for some time.
But the decisions DeJoy has made are translating into mail delays. And the fact that he has been a major donor to the president, that he's an outsider who didn't come up through the post office, has all led to concern among Democrats that these moves are politically motivated given the president's attacks on the Postal Service and mail-in voting.
GREENE: I mean, am I wrong? Republicans probably aren't going to jump on board and pass this bill. So it's - I mean, it's extraordinary that Pelosi, in the middle of a pandemic, is having lawmakers all travel back from a recess that, you know, is often important in an election time.
DAVIS: Well, I think it speaks to the concerns that lawmakers have. One example of that, Congressman Jim Cooper from Tennessee. He's one of the more sort of conservative, low-key Democrats in the House. And he called for the postmaster general to be arrested by the House sergeant at arms if he doesn't show up to testify next week.
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JIM COOPER: He's clearly not only failing to do his duties but actively undermining the essential functions of the post office by removing mail sorting machines, by eliminating post office boxes, mailboxes. This is astonishing behavior.
DAVIS: You know, I want to be clear. Many Republicans have also voiced concerns about what's happening at the post office. And it's not just because it's about mail-in balloting. The post office is a critical service for people, especially in rural America, who depend on it for things like getting their prescription drugs delivered or their benefit checks that they need to pay their bills.
GREENE: Well, and we should mention - I mean, didn't President Trump really amplify this entire controversy by saying just, I mean, directly that he was opposed to more Postal Service funding because he's opposed to more voting by mail? I mean, he's trying to walk that back now. But that was significant.
DAVIS: It was. And I think that that is partly what's fueling so much anger and provoking the speaker to do things like call Congress back into session. The White House has obviously had to respond to the president's remarks. Yesterday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN that the Postal Service would not be making any changes to their sorting machines, which assist in mail delivery before the election.
He also noted that the White House did put $10 billion on the table to fund the post office and stalled talks with Democrats on pandemic aid. And he pointed to that as saying, look; Democrats are just trying to politicize this. You're right. It's not really clear what the Senate or Republicans are going to do here. It's unlikely they're going to pass this exact House bill. But there is real bipartisan interest in doing something to assure the country about its mail service ahead of this election.
GREENE: NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, thanks so much.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
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GREENE: So what is a political convention if there are no crowds?
KING: We'll find out tonight when the Democratic National Convention starts. Four nights of this all on Zoom - or all virtual, anyway - because of the pandemic. These conventions are often viewed as the official start to the presidential campaign.
GREENE: An NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is covering it. Good morning, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So what is this convention going to look like? - probably like no other convention before.
KHALID: Exactly. That's what I was going to say. I don't think that we have any precedent for what it's going to look like. It's going to be a highly produced, made-for-TV event with a mix of live and pre-recorded speeches. But also, David, it's going to be shorter than what a typical convention is, right? I mean, normally these things go on over the course of four days. And it sort of lengthy. But each night, we're only going to have two hours of coverage. And as you mentioned, I mean, there's not going to be crowds. And so I'm really curious if it has any of the same energy and pomp if you don't have the applause line, if you don't have the party hats and the cheers and the balloons.
GREENE: Well, one thing that has not changed is all this interest in the speakers' list, who gets to speak, how long they get to speak. We're going to see former First Lady Michelle Obama, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. All that makes sense. But then you have former Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is a Republican. And he, actually, was speaking to Steve Inskeep last night about why he's going to be at the DNC.
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JOHN KASICH: So I'm trying to provide some space also for people to understand that it's OK to vote for the person and not just the party. And I'm also very, very concerned that the direction we've been heading down is one of conflict. We don't do so hot when we're tearing each other apart.
GREENE: So Asma, how significant is it that Kasich is going to be there?
KHALID: I mean, look; I think, symbolically, it's quite significant. I mean, he has been a longtime critic of President Trump. And he's part of a vocal number of Republicans who have lined up against Trump and have decided that they're going to go for Joe Biden this election season. But I will say, David, I'm still really interested in how much these kind of high-profile Republicans really influenced the electorate, because when you look at polling, a large percentage of self-identified Republicans do say that they are going to support President Trump again for reelection.
What I think is more interesting is sort of symbolically what this suggests about the Democratic Party in this moment. And that is that there is this sense that there is a kind of unique Joe Biden coalition in this moment. And they're not united by policy. They're not really united by what they want to do if Joe Biden wins election come November. But they're really united by one singular feature, and that is to get rid of President Trump and ensure he doesn't have another four years.
But I will say, you know, David, there are definitely progressive activists who are not thrilled that Kasich is going to be there. They wanted to see more Muslim speakers, more Latino speakers, more progressive speakers. And, you know, there are policies that Kasich implemented as governor of Ohio that some people feel really hurt, specifically low-income folks, folks who are, really, base voters within the Democratic Party.
GREENE: Well, there is formal business even though this is all virtual. Biden is going to accept the nomination Thursday. We'll hear from his running mate, Kamala Harris, on Wednesday. What is their focus going to be?
KHALID: Yeah. I mean, the focus is really supposed to be about showing the unity of the party. The Biden campaign says they want to highlight a contrast in what a Biden presidency would mean for leadership compared to what folks have seen so far from President Trump. But, you know, the president's going to be counterprogramming this week. He'll be in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania. And he is a master at reality TV. So how he tries to counterprogram this week is going to be really interesting to watch.
GREENE: A lot to watch. NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks, Asma.
KHALID: You're welcome.
GREENE: And we can tell you that NPR's coverage of the Democratic National Convention is going to start tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern time. You can visit npr.org or ask your smart speaker to play NPR or your local station by name to join us live.
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GREENE: Tens of thousands of people gathered in the city of Minsk yesterday. They're calling on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to resign.
KING: Yeah. These were the biggest demonstrations in Belarus' history. Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. And protesters say his reelection earlier this month was rigged. Now, complicating this is that Belarus is strategically located between Russia and EU countries.
GREENE: And we're joined by NPR's Lucian Kim, who is in Moscow following this story. Hi, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
KHALID: So the story has been changing so quickly - such dramatic images of the streets of Minsk. I mean, can you just catch us up with the latest?
KIM: Yeah. Well, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya - she's the main opposition candidate - made a video appeal from her exile in neighboring Lithuania. She said she's ready to act as a national leader, sort of as a transitional figure, to let the country calm down. And she also called on the security forces to switch sides and abandon President Lukashenko. Meanwhile, there are reports of strikes all around the country. And Lukashenko went to a heavy equipment factory where workers greeted him with chants of go away.
He's saying there will be no new elections. And he won't act under pressure from the street. Although, he's now indicating he may be open to sharing some power. Over the weekend, Lukashenko warned of a NATO buildup on Belarus' borders. It has borders with three NATO countries. And it looks like Lukashenko may be trying to draw in his only ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, into what is actually a very domestic uprising.
GREENE: Well, I mean, that's so significant, to talk about Putin showing some sort of interest here. We all remember what happened in Ukraine. And other countries sort of squeezed in the middle after political protests there. We saw Russia forcibly annex Crimea illegally. I mean, what is Putin's interest here? And what might happen if Russia gets involved?
KIM: Well, it's probably not just Putin's interest. I mean, it's Russians' interest in general. Russians view Belarus as a key component of their defense since over, the centuries, Swedish, French and German armies have all invaded Russia via Belarus. Russia has been propping up Lukashenko with cheap energy. And the thinking in Russia seems to be that even if he can be a very difficult partner, he's far better than any pro-Western leader in Belarus.
Putin is in a real bind here. On the one hand, he has recognized Lukashenko's election victory. And he supports authoritarian leaders in places like Syria and Venezuela. He hates street protests. And recognizing the result of a people power revolution in Belarus could set a dangerous precedent for Russia itself. But on the other hand, it's clear that Lukashenko has lost the support of his own people. Belarussians are generally positively inclined toward Russia. So if Putin uses force here, he could lose the hearts and minds of his closest neighbors.
GREENE: Well, what is Lukashenko doing to try and keep power?
KIM: Well, for now, he still controls the security forces. That's crucial. And he's scrambling to turn what is a very domestic conflict into an international one. That's why he's talking about a NATO buildup. Today, military exercises start on the border with Lithuania. He may think that this will give him a pretext, if he needs it, to ask Russia for military assistance. And over the weekend, the Kremlin said it's ready to give it.
GREENE: NPR's Lucian Kim reporting for us in Moscow on that situation in Belarus, where there are massive protests continuing. Lucian, thanks so much.
KIM: Thanks, David.
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