COVID-19 Latest, Trump-Barr Tension, Munich Security Conference Quarantined Americans to be evacuated from cruise ship in Japan, meanwhile a large number of health care workers in China test positive for coronavirus. Tension between President Trump and Attorney General Barr increases questions about independence of the Department of Justice. U.S. officials at Munich Security Conference mostly quiet on US/Taliban Peace Agreement.
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COVID-19 Latest, Trump-Barr Tension, Munich Security Conference

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COVID-19 Latest, Trump-Barr Tension, Munich Security Conference

COVID-19 Latest, Trump-Barr Tension, Munich Security Conference

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Good news for Americans quarantined on a cruise ship.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

They're getting evacuated as long as they don't have the coronavirus.

SIMON: Also, new details from China where health care workers have been infected. I'm Scott Simon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

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SIMON: Tweets from President Trump are seen as interference in Justice Department business, even by some supporters.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I think that the attorney general says it's getting in the the way of doing his job - maybe the president should listen to the attorney general.

SIMON: Senator Mitch McConnell talking to Fox News yesterday after Attorney General Barr complained the president's tweets make it impossible for him to do his job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, but no details yet from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Stay with us. We'll give you the news you need to start your day.

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SIMON: Passengers have been mostly confined to their rooms, quarantined on the Diamond Princess for almost two weeks. And despite the cruise ship being under lockdown in Japan, coronavirus infections have continued to rise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But now the U.S. State Department is sending a chartered plane to evacuate American citizens from the vessel. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins me now from Hong Kong for the latest on this global health crisis.

Good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start with what is happening with the cruise ship that's quarantined at a dock in Yokohama, Japan.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, things just continue to get worse. The Japan Ministry of Health just announced that another 67 people onboard have tested positive. This brings the total number of cases on the ship to 285 now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

BEAUBIEN: Everybody on the Diamond Princess has basically not been allowed to leave under a two-week quarantine. And this quarantine might be keeping the virus from spreading into Japan, but it's clearly not stopping it from spreading on the boat. So the U.S., yes, has finally said it's going to come in and extract any Americans who want to get off. But it's also not clear that the roughly 350 U.S. citizens are all going to accept the offers of this evacuation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why is it? What are U.S. officials requiring of the people that they're going to take off the boat?

BEAUBIEN: So I've been communicating with some of the people on the boat, and I've seen the letter the U.S. embassy sent out to them. And here's the deal. If you get off the boat and you fly back, you're going to have to do another 14-day quarantine on an airbase in the U.S. once you land. And now if this evacuation happens when they're saying it's going to happen, which looks like it would be Monday, these passengers and crew would have almost been on the verge of serving out their 14-day quarantine on the Diamond Princess. There would be another two days, and then they were supposed to be released into Japan on Wednesday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there was no guarantee that might have still happened, right? So this might be the best deal they could get.

BEAUBIEN: That's right. It's not clear that Japan was actually going to let people off given the fact that all of these new cases are being found on the boat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what about elsewhere? What's happening with this outbreak?

BEAUBIEN: You know, this remains primarily a China health problem, despite, you know, we're hearing other cases in different parts of the world, new deaths popping up. Even inside China, it remains a problem, primarily inside Hubei Province. You know, to be clear, there are thousands of cases in other parts of China, but Hubei is really the epicenter. Every day we're getting another 2,000 cases, 3,000 new cases from Hubei, a hundred deaths a day, primarily from there. And again, it's really focused in and around Hubei and the city of Wuhan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I guess the big question - is China finally getting a handle on this? I mean, have we reached the point where these numbers will or may start to go down?

BEAUBIEN: And that is really the big question that's out there right now. You know, it appeared that this thing was starting to plateau, and then China changed the case definition. They basically said that they were unable before to tell whether some cases were actual cases because they didn't have the ability to test everybody. They've thrown in this new clinical definition of what it is to be infected, and that is making the numbers go up and is also raising questions that there might be a lot of other cases out there that haven't been gotten picked up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting from Hong Kong.

Thank you so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Unusual tension this week between President Trump and his attorney general, William Barr.

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WILLIAM BARR: I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.

SIMON: That was the attorney general in an interview on ABC Thursday when he said he wished the president would just stop some of his tweets.

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BARR: To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now reports that the Justice Department is taking another look at the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and anger from the White House as the DOJ fails to prosecute Andrew McCabe, formerly of the FBI. White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe joins us now.

Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Barr's comments raised a lot of eyebrows. How unusual is it for a member of Trump's cabinet to publicly criticize him?

RASCOE: It's been pretty unusual for them to do it while still in office. Trump's made clear that he likes people who are loyal. He's been unhappy in the past when people criticize him. These comments from Barr came after the Justice Department recommended a sentence for Roger Stone, Trump's longtime confidant that - and Trump tweeted that he thought it was too harsh. The Justice Department reversed its recommendation on sentencing for Stone. And Barr used this interview to say that the president did not ask him to change the sentencing recommendation. And he wants the president to stop tweeting about these kinds of cases.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the president is not known for taking criticism well. How did he take what is a pretty public taking to task?

RASCOE: Surprise, surprise - he tweeted. He said that he has the legal right to weigh in on cases, though he has not chosen to do that, quote, "so far." My colleague Ryan Lucas has reported that the DOJ let the White House know about the interview after it was taped but before it aired. And then yesterday, there was some big news. The DOJ said it would not seek any criminal charges against Andrew McCabe for authorizing an aide to talk to the press about an investigation. This is one of the people involved in the Russia probe who has been a big target for President Trump's criticism. McCabe was fired from his job in March 2018, but Trump still talks and tweets about him all the time. Here's how he described him earlier this week...

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nothing happened with all the people that did it and launched a scam. Where's Comey? Where's Comey? What's happening to McCabe? What's happening to Lisa and Peter Strzok? And Lisa Page? What's happening with them? It was a whole setup. It was a disgrace for our country. And everyone knows it, too. Everyone, including NBC, which gives a lot of fake news.

RASCOE: The president has not tweeted or spoken about this new development with McCabe. It will be a test of whether he listens to Barr's warning about tweeting and whether he'll weigh in, as he said, he has every right to do in a Justice Department case.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is next on this story? Stone is being sentenced this week, right?

RASCOE: Yeah, he'll be sentenced this week - on Thursday. Trump has been asked whether he'll offer him a pardon. He said this week he didn't want to talk about that yet. And we'll know more about this AP report of the DOJ taking another look at Michael Flynn's case in which Flynn pleaded guilty. The president has two rallies this week, one in Phoenix on Wednesday and in Colorado Springs on Thursday. So we'll see if he talks about it there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Thank you so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

SIMON: And for more of our White House coverage, be sure to check out the NPR Politics Podcast.

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SIMON: There's a truce in the making between the U.S. and the Taliban. If successful, it would open the way for a deal that might eventually bring American troops home from Afghanistan and end 18 years of war.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there hasn't been much talk about it from the stage of a major international meeting going on right now in Munich.

SIMON: NPR's Rob Schmitz is at the Munich Security Conference.

Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: U.S. officials met with their counterparts from Afghanistan. What do we know about the details?

SCHMITZ: Well, we first heard about this deal yesterday from a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. And according to this official, the U.S. and Taliban have agreed to a seven-day reduction of violence that will cover the entire country. And if the Taliban, which controls roughly half of Afghanistan, is able to make good on this, then a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement would be signed within 10 days. And it would mean a drawdown of U.S. troops from the current levels around 13,000 to less than 9,000 U.S. military personnel. And here at the security conference in Munich, we were expecting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to mention the deal in their speeches this morning. But neither of them did. After his speech, Secretary of Defense Esper finally addressed the deal when asked about it by a moderator. Here's what he said.

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MARK ESPER: I think there's general agreement. It's my view, as well, that we have to give peace a chance, that the best, if not only, way forward in Afghanistan is through a political agreement. And that means taking some risks. That means enabling our diplomats. And that means working together with our partners and allies on the ground to effect such a thing.

SCHMITZ: And, Scott, one of those partners, the government of Afghanistan, sent its president, Ashraf Ghani, here. And he met with Secretary Pompeo yesterday.

SIMON: Well, what is it that Secretary Pompeo did talk about?

SCHMITZ: Well, it's interesting. His entire speech this morning was sort of a rebuke to the theme of this very conference. Organizers have coined to this conference Westlessness (ph) to frame the idea that the world is becoming less Western. Pompeo talked about how the world still looks to the West for guidance and a model and how, quote, unquote, "non-Western countries," especially those with autocratic governments, are an increasing threat to a Western-built international order. The threat of China was a big focus of his speech. He and Defense Secretary Esper talked at length about how China telecoms company Huawei aims to use its 5G infrastructure to steal data, spy on us and undermine Western democracies. And what's interesting here is the U.S. delegation, which included two dozen members of Congress, were all unified in this position. Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized Huawei, as did Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

SIMON: Of course, China has a delegation there, too. And I wonder if they responded.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Yesterday, during a session, a member of China's National People's Congress stood up and challenged Speaker Pelosi, asking her whether democracy in the U.S. was so fragile that Huawei could possibly pose a threat to it. Pelosi sort of snapped back at the Chinese officials. She accused Huawei of stealing U.S. technology, and then went on to say that China's human rights violations are evidence alone that countries should avoid working with Huawei.

And, Scott, I think, the reason that Speaker Pelosi and others in the U.S. delegation are hammering on this issue so much is their audience here in Munich. Many European countries are in the process of deciding whether to allow Huawei build their 5G networks. But these warnings from the U.S. seem to be sort of ringing hollow in their ears because they're also worried about the U.S. intelligence apparatus spying on their telecommunications networks, too.

SIMON: And back to the Afghanistan agreement - seven days of reduced violence doesn't sound like a huge step forward.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

SIMON: When's it supposed to begin?

SCHMITZ: Well, those details were not - they were not revealed today or yesterday. No one seems to be talking about this yet. I think perhaps the officials, as was hinted at by one of the officials, are waiting for President Trump to weigh in on this before the weekend is finished.

SIMON: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Munich, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you, Scott.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, February 15, 2020. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. UP FIRST back Monday with news you need to start your day. And please follow us on social media. We're @UpFirst on Twitter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, of course, you know the news does not stop when this podcast ends. We have a solution for that.

SIMON: Weekend Edition Saturday and Sunday. You can find it on your NPR station at stations.npr.org.

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