News Brief: Pandemic Relief, Nashville Blast, EU Vaccinations
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Relief aid will be on the way to millions of struggling Americans and a looming government shutdown has been avoided. President Trump signed into law last night the massive coronavirus relief and spending package that Congress passed last week.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Trump's last-minute signature comes after his last-minute demand for higher direct payments put the whole deal in jeopardy.
FADEL: NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is with us. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: So, Scott, President Trump called the relief package a disgrace last week and then signed it. So what changed?
HORSLEY: Ultimately, the president blinked after staging one last completely unnecessary cliffhanger before the Trump series finale. You know, the president was missing in action when this bill was being negotiated. And then he tried to reassert his relevance at the last minute by demanding that the direct payments going to many Americans in this bill be increased from $600 to $2,000. That had almost no support among Trump's fellow Republicans. Here's how GOP Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania described it on "Fox News Sunday" yesterday.
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PAT TOOMEY: I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks, but the danger is he'll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire.
HORSLEY: Trump did issue a signing statement last night as a face-saving way of suggesting he'd extracted something in return for this capitulation. But like a lot of the president's deals, there's less substance than he claims. He says, for example, the Senate will start the process for a vote to raise the direct benefits. But don't hold your breath. He calls for a bunch of cuts in the incoming spending bill, which are not going to happen. And he says Congress has agreed to focus strongly on, quote, "very substantial voter fraud," which so far he and his allies have been completely unable to identify. So, in effect, the president has put out a fire that he himself started, but a lot of innocent people got burned along the way.
FADEL: Yeah. So millions of Americans are still unemployed, like Charissa Ward (ph). She was furloughed from her job as a server at Disney World in April. Her $275 weekly payments expired on Saturday. She spoke with NPR's Michel Martin yesterday.
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CHARISSA WARD: Feeling that security blanket is ripped from you, that you have that job that you knew that you could rely on and it's not there anymore, it takes a lot out of you. And then you have - I have three kids that I have to try to not make it seem stressful for while I'm, at the same time, juggling that.
FADEL: So Ward and many others thought they were losing benefits. So what does this bill mean for them?
HORSLEY: Well, ultimately, this will extend the economic lifeline for millions of unemployed Americans. But because the president waited so long to sign the bill, Ward and others will see an interruption of those benefits of at least a week, and millions of others will get a week less of the $300 supplement in jobless benefits this bill promises. All that could have been avoided had the president just acted sooner. In the end, though, this bill does provide a critical extension of unemployment relief. It has more money for food stamps, rental assistance, another round of forgivable loans to small businesses. And it does include those $600 direct benefits for many Americans. That'll take a little longer to go out because of Trump's delay. But people will find some extra money in their bank accounts as we start the new year.
FADEL: So now we have a new administration coming in next month. What are the long-term implications of this bill?
HORSLEY: Well, this is a sizable relief package, you know, $900 billion, and it comes at a really important time in the economy. We learned last week that personal income fell in November as earlier relief measures started to dry up. Personal spending fell as well, either because people couldn't afford to go out and spend money or they were nervous about doing so as the coronavirus infections started to spiral upwards. So the economy is in a precarious place and this relief package will help. It is certainly overdue but better late than never.
FADEL: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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FADEL: Authorities in Nashville have identified the Christmas morning suicide bomber.
GREENE: Yeah. So investigators gathered late yesterday just a few blocks from the blast zone to announce a breakthrough.
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DON COCHRAN: Based on the evidence that we've gathered at this point, we've come to the conclusion that an individual named Anthony Warner is the bomber, that he was present when the bomb went off and that he perished in the bombing.
GREENE: That's the U.S. attorney, Donald Cochran. Warner built a motor home bomb that destroyed a block of historic downtown buildings. We should say this investigation is ongoing.
FADEL: NPR's John Burnett is following this for us in Nashville. Good morning, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: So what do we know about this man and whether he acted alone?
BURNETT: Well, the DNA from human remains found in the wreckage matched that of Anthony Quinn Warner, a 63-year-old Nashville man. Officials say he was the only fatality in the explosion. Local media report that he was an IT specialist. He wasn't on the FBI's radar as an extremist. He hadn't made any prior threats. And as for whether he acted alone, here's the conclusion of FBI special agent in charge Doug Korneski.
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DOUG KORNESKI: We're still following leads, but right now, there is no indication that any other persons were involved. We've reviewed hours of security video surrounding the recreational vehicle as well - we saw no other people involved.
BURNETT: And then police chief John Drake, who's a 32-year veteran of the force, made this statement for the benefit of his hometown, which has been deeply unnerved by this ordeal.
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JOHN DRAKE: As I've said earlier and several times before, Nashville is considered safe. There are no known threats against this city.
FADEL: So we know who the bomber is. And authorities are saying it appears he acted alone. What about motive? What do we know?
BURNETT: That's the critical question, Leila. The FBI is asking anyone who knew Warner to please reach out to them and help them understand why this man could commit this monstrous act. Some folks here wonder if he had a bone to pick with AT&T. He parked that RV directly in front of a major AT&T data center. And the blast knocked out telecom services for hundreds of miles. The mayor told CBS' "Face The Nation" that locals, quote, "feel like there has to be some connection" with the AT&T facility and the site of the bombing. But we don't know yet if that's true, and the investigation continues.
FADEL: The explosion terrorized people Christmas morning, and three days later, they name the bomber. How did they identify him so fast?
BURNETT: Yeah, it was just old-fashioned police work. First, they set up a tip line. Then they released a picture from a surveillance camera downtown that showed Warner's white RV driving down there before the explosion. People apparently recognized it and called in. Then forensic investigators found human remains at the blast site and agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation were able to match DNA from the human tissue with that taken inside the duplex that Warner owned and lived in. And finally, a Tennessee highway patrol officer found a piece of the wreckage with a VIN number on it, and they were able to track that back to Anthony Q. Warner.
FADEL: So what happens now?
BURNETT: Well, the crime scene looks like the aftermath of a car bomb I witnessed in Baghdad. Officials have asked the federal government to help the city rebuild the shattered downtown area, to give them some aid to help get back on their feet and get back to normal.
FADEL: NPR's John Burnett in Nashville, thank you.
BURNETT: You bet, Leila.
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FADEL: The European Union launched its first round of coronavirus vaccinations, rolling out an ambitious plan to vaccinate 450 million people across 27 member states.
GREENE: As you can imagine, this is no small task here. Many EU countries are seeing large surges in cases, and they're scrambling to contain the spread of a new COVID variant.
FADEL: Jason Beaubien is NPR's global health and development correspondent. He's been watching Europe closely. Hey, Jason.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.
FADEL: So despite the surge in cases and the new variant of COVID, the rollout of this vaccine is good news, right?
BEAUBIEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Europe has been very hard hit by this pandemic. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the first one authorized in the EU. And that could also have ripple effects as there are a lot of other countries outside of Europe, plus the WHO, that will accept authorization from the European Medicines Agency in their own regulatory process of vaccines. So with these vaccination campaigns really starting in Europe, vaccines are on the verge of becoming widely available globally. So on that front, this is all really good. The bad news coming out of Europe, as you said, is that this new strain of the virus that researchers are calling the U.K. variant, it's being found not only in the United Kingdom but now kind of all over the world. It's significantly more infectious. So far, it has not been detected in the U.S., but they found cases in Canada, Singapore, Japan and many parts of Europe.
FADEL: So what does this mean for travel?
BEAUBIEN: Well, what we're seeing right now is the most aggressive tightening of global travel restrictions sort of at any time since those early months of the pandemic. You've got - more than 40 countries have banned travelers from the U.K. Japan just announced that it's basically barring all foreigners at least until the end of January. Israel is going into a really tight lockdown. Some countries are also banning South Africans over a completely different variant that's been found there. And starting today, all travelers from the U.K. into the U.S. will have to have proof of a negative COVID test before boarding their flights. So these new restrictions are really being driven by fears about this new strain of the virus.
FADEL: So some good news, some bad news. What are the takeaways here?
BEAUBIEN: You know, it really depends, you know, if you're looking sort of at the short term or the long term. Clearly, the vaccines getting out into people's arms, this is really good news from the long-term perspective, right? But in the short term, concern about mutations, about the more transmissible strains, about border closures, these are all showing that the pain and uncertainty of this pandemic aren't going away in the short term. You know, in addition, several top U.S. health officials over the weekend were really trying to persuade people to take it easy this New Year's Eve. Their message is don't go out and party. Anthony Fauci, he was on CNN. He said we're at this critical moment. He said he's quite concerned that people getting together over the holidays is going to drive up the number of infections.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: As we get into the next few weeks, it might actually get worse.
BEAUBIEN: Worse than where we are right now, which is at a point where, you know, we're often hitting these daily record numbers of new cases and new deaths.
FADEL: Jason Beaubien covers global health for NPR. Thank you so much.
BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.
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