Pence Defends Uneven Pandemic Response : Politics Podcast : The NPR Politics Podcast At the first coronavirus taskforce briefing in months, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated that the White House was there to support states in their response to the pandemic and touted the administration's response so far despite the country's high death toll. And Attorney General William Barr talks to NPR about the pile of controversies facing the Department of Justice.

This episode: White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Pence Stands By Campaign Events As Southern States Feel Heat Of Pandemic

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Pence Stands By Campaign Events As Southern States Feel Heat Of Pandemic

Pence Stands By Campaign Events As Southern States Feel Heat Of Pandemic

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COLE: Hi, everybody. This is Cole (ph) in beautiful Anchorage, Alaska. I'm a brewer, so I have been spending my time throughout the pandemic managing yeast, hopping IPAs and making sure everyone has a tasty beverage throughout these hard times. This podcast was recorded at...

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It is 2:40 p.m. on Friday, June 26.

COLE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be here making beer and listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Time to break out a cold one from Alaska.

FRANCO ORDONEZ, BYLINE: That's a great timestamp for Friday.

RASCOE: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

ORDONEZ: I'm Franco Ordonez. I also cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

RASCOE: So today was the first day in weeks that the Trump administration held a public Coronavirus Task Force briefing. Vice President Pence led this briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: And so we stand here today, we believe we've made progress. But as we are reminded, as we see cases rising across the South, that we still have work to do.

RASCOE: And he was joined by, you know, the now very familiar faces of Dr. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: You have an individual responsibility to yourself, but you have a societal responsibility because if we want to end this outbreak, really end it and then hopefully when a vaccine comes and puts the nail in the coffin, we've got to realize that we are part of the process.

RASCOE: Franco, you were there. What was Pence's message? Are they saying that we are in a crisis?

ORDONEZ: Well, their message certainly was - the thing that they were trying to say is that we were not in a crisis. I mean, really what the Trump administration is trying to do - led by Mike Pence, the vice president - is trying to kind of calm these growing fears about the uptick in coronavirus. Pence, you know, noted the record of - number of daily cases of coronavirus rising, particularly in the South. But he insisted that this moment is different than what the United States was grappling with two months ago. He says now these cases are focused on certain pockets and don't represent a new spread of the virus.

RASCOE: So they're saying that it's not the same as two months ago, but it seems like things aren't that great. I mean, we're hitting like record numbers of cases in places, right?

ORDONEZ: Yeah. Pence said there are 16 states with rising numbers. He tried to stress that there are 34 states that have a measure of stability in their caseload. But, you know, a lot of the focus was on the 16 states. And there was a lot of concern from other officials about the message being sent. You know, this comes at a time that the campaign is starting to get out into these communities, holding big rallies. So there were a lot of questions about what was happening and what was going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULA REID: To have an event, that even though you say it didn't result in a spike, dozens of Secret Service agents, dozens of campaign staffers are now quarantined after positive tests. And then in Arizona, one of the hardest-hit states, you packed a church with young people who weren't wearing masks. So how can you say that the campaign is not part of the problem that Dr. Fauci laid out?

PENCE: Well, I want to remind you again that the freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. And even in a health crisis, the American people don't forfeit our constitutional rights.

ORDONEZ: You know, despite their best efforts, you know, to kind of make things look good, you know, this, you know, you can argue is an acknowledgement that there is a lot of concern about this virus. And they don't have an answer for a lot of questions, particularly about the role of the campaign.

LIASSON: Well, it sounds like at a time when these red state governors like Governor Abbott of Texas are reversing their opening-up orders and governors saying, no, now you can't go to bars, now we have to go back to some kind of modified lockdown or restrictions, I mean, this is a very fraught moment politically. I thought the campaign and the administration wanted to be celebrating opening up the economy, COVID's in the rearview mirror.

ORDONEZ: Yeah. It is definitely a fraught moment for the campaign. And I think part of that's part of the reason why this coronavirus briefing was held, the first one in, again, in you know, two months is that they want to appear to be getting out in front of this, working on this. And as Pence said, their argument is that it is not like it was two months ago and kind of calming those concerns. Yet these cases are on the rise. And as you mentioned, Governor Abbott is clamping down at a time when the campaign is increasing its activity. And many of those supporters are not wearing masks, are not necessarily social distancing. So it has - it's a big challenge. And there's definitely, it seems, some conflicting messages from the administration in this regard. And there were a lot of questions about whether the administration is presenting a do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do message.

RASCOE: And the person who might, you know, be seen as kind of delivering that message - President Trump because he has refused to, you know, wear a mask. People around him are tested, unlike the general public. But President Trump wasn't there today, right? And this wasn't even at the White House.

ORDONEZ: No. This meeting was at Health & Human Services, at HHS. And, you know, members of the Coronavirus Task Force were wearing their masks when they were not speaking. There were staffers, though, of the vice president's office who were not wearing masks. This continues to be an issue of, you know, there's a lot of concern about what type of messaging they're saying and that they should kind of show the message that they want people to follow. And this has been a challenge. But for President Trump, he doesn't want to show weakness. He wants to show a sense of normalization. This is not what President Trump wants. He does not want fear. He does not want people kind of going back. He wants a message of strength, and this works against that message.

RASCOE: But I guess when you talk about strength and weakness, the idea that wearing a mask is, you know, a sign of weakness is - that's what Fauci and Birx are pushing against, right? They are saying that to wear a mask is to try to protect other people. Even if you might be OK if you got the coronavirus, you could spread it to everybody else. And that's been the message from the beginning, right?

ORDONEZ: Yes, absolutely. The message from health officials has been you wearing a mask will help protect others. The people that are, you know, people who are - other people. If you wear a mask, you're protecting those who you come into contact with, especially when you're unable to social distance. Dr. Birx, even today, mentioned the elderly family members and that we need to - people need to, you know, protect and social distance in order to protect them. Dr. Fauci talked about responsibility that young people have to help protect the rest of the society. They talked a lot about how, in states like Florida and Texas, that over 50% or about 50% of the cases - new cases are among people 35 and younger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: One of the things that we're seeing among the cases - we hear this in Florida, we hear this in Texas and elsewhere - is that roughly half of the new cases are Americans under the age of 35. Which is, at a certain level, very encouraging news as the experts tell us because, as we know so far in this pandemic, that younger Americans are less susceptible to serious outcomes of the coronavirus. And the fact that we are finding more younger Americans who've contracted the coronavirus is a good thing.

LIASSON: I mean, he's saying good news is that at least the people who are getting it are younger and they can survive it more. That's an extraordinary statement.

RASCOE: It really is.

LIASSON: That's saying, OK, the good news is these people are less likely to die of it. But when you compare us to every other country except for maybe Brazil or Russia - and I'm talking about percentages, not the fact that we're bigger or do more testing, just per cases per million - we're off the charts. And other countries have gotten it under control. It sounds like, when given the choice between freedom and public health, the administration has come down on the side of individual liberty. Didn't he say, in terms of the rallies, people have their constitutional rights to assemble? That's more important than requiring people to wear a mask or protect others.

RASCOE: All right. Let's just leave it there. Franco, thank you so much. Have a good weekend. Get some rest because they work us really hard. You know, I'm not talking about nobody, but they work us hard.

ORDONEZ: Thank you.

RASCOE: But have a great weekend. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about all the news this week out of the Justice Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: And we're back, joined by our always amazing justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey. How are you?

LIASSON: Yay, Carrie's back.

RASCOE: Yes. I'm all right. You know, I'm here. We making it.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

RASCOE: (Laughter) So there has been a lot of news this week out of the Justice Department. What is going on? Or where do you want to start?

JOHNSON: Why don't we start with Michael Flynn? Remember him? He's President Trump's former national security adviser. He pleaded guilty twice to making false statements to the FBI. And this week, he got a huge victory from the federal appeals court here in Washington. The federal appeals court basically said because the Justice Department under Bill Barr wanted to back away from prosecuting him because Flynn himself wanted to back out of his guilty plea. It was no business for a lower court judge to be inquiring into the motives of the Justice Department and why exactly it wanted to drop the case against him. It was an enormous surprise to a lot of people in Washington. But the opinion was written by Neomi Rao, an appointee to the federal bench by President Trump. And she basically believes in a very strong executive branch and a strong Justice Department, and that's where she's landed.

RASCOE: So Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. But then he started making, you know, making moves to, like, withdraw that. Also, outside of that, there was just the White House and Trump saying that he had been mistreated. Like, that's what this whole thing was about. Flynn is making accusations against the Justice Department that he entered into his plea, I guess, under duress or not under the right circumstances.

JOHNSON: Ayesha, nothing about this case is normal. So twice I sat in court and watched Michael Flynn plead guilty to making false statements. But he switched lawyers. His new lawyer in the case decided it was the Justice Department who had allegedly engaged in wrongdoing. And she made a whole bunch of accusations against the Justice Department, the prosecutors working for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the FBI agents. And when he came on board at the Justice Department, the new attorney general, Bill Barr, ordered kind of a reinvestigation of the case. He came up with some things he thought should have been turned over to the defense. He thought that there was not a legitimate basis to interview Michael Flynn in the White House in early 2017. So the Justice Department decided to drop the case, and Flynn's defense was delighted. The problem is the lower court judge was very confused since he had taken a guilty plea from Michael Flynn. He wanted to hear from an outside lawyer to argue on behalf of keeping the case alive. But this week, the appeals court said no, stop, dismiss this case.

LIASSON: I know that this whole case is unusual, but is it fair to say that what happened is an example of what it means when a president gets to put his hand-picked judges on the courts?

JOHNSON: I think Neomi Rao, who started out, Mara, as you'll remember as kind of like the deregulatory czar in the Trump White House going through all those regulations...

LIASSON: Yes. That's the one I'm thinking of (laughter).

JOHNSON: Yes. And she was very much behind what they called the destruction of the administrative state, the deep state. Well, now she's got a lifetime appointment on the federal bench. And she's asserting her very strong beliefs in the power of the executive branch. It'll be interesting to see if she's ever on the bench when a Democratic administration comes into power, whether she retains those views of executive power or whether they change based on the party of the president involved. I'll be watching for that.

RASCOE: And President Trump always talks about how one of his biggest accomplishments is appointing all these judges, right? And so this was - this is an example of where it may have had an impact. And, you know, we're talking about, you know, this unusual Michael Flynn case. We also had this kind of explosive testimony before the House Judiciary Committee this week - right, Carrie? - with whistleblowers who are currently serving as lawyers in the Justice Department testifying about what they believe is kind of political influence, right?

JOHNSON: I can not overstate how big a deal this was, how unusual this was. And over 20 years of covering or following the Justice Department, I remember a lawyer at this level testifying before Congress about what he considered to be wrongdoing once. And I didn't even remember it off the top of my head. These two guys came in this week to the House Judiciary Committee and basically said the Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr is playing politics with cases. The first whistleblower is Aaron Zelinsky. He helped prosecute Roger Stone, the president's longtime friend and political adviser. And he says he was pressured to try to lower a sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone. And he heard from people in the U.S. attorney's office. It was because Stone is a friend of President Trump, and the acting U.S. attorney at the time was afraid of what President Trump might do if they didn't take it easy on Roger Stone.

Now, the second whistleblower is from the antitrust division. His name is John Elias. He said that he saw two sets of investigations being opened in a trust for political reasons. One set because Attorney General Barr doesn't like the marijuana industry. And the second was opened a day after President Trump tweeted something negative about a deal that California had reached with automakers over admissions standards. Now, both those investigations were closed with no action. But he says the mere opening of those investigations was a waste of resources and an abuse of power.

LIASSON: Wow. You know, it's true that Donald Trump does not like oversight. He has removed inspectors general. He's removed FBI directors. He's removed U.S. attorneys. Anyone charged with overseeing the executive branch and/or investigating people who might be in Trump's inner circle, he has made moves to get rid of them. So I guess my question is, is this another step down the slippery slope of eroding the rule of law? There were a lot of former Justice Department employees who wrote a letter to that effect. Donald Trump is often called a stress test on democratic institutions. Carrie, do you think this is another example of that?

JOHNSON: I think, Mara, of the Justice Department is under extreme stress right now. We've got thousands of former DOJ lawyers...

LIASSON: Oh, thousands, not hundreds.

JOHNSON: Thousands signing letters over the past week. We've had the faculty of George Washington University, where Bill Barr attended, signed a letter to chastise the attorney general for allegedly taking action on behalf of the president and his allies. Morale at Justice is really low right now, Mara. And even though there have been a lot of departures over the last few years, there are more departures now.

RASCOE: And you mentioned Bill Barr, and he is the man kind of at the center of all this controversy other than President Trump. He spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep yesterday. And he was asked about some of this stuff. Like, how did he defend his actions? And how did he defend, like, what's going on at DOJ right now?

JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general denied to Steve that he was taking any action or that there was any pattern of action benefiting the president's allies or cronies. At one point, he says, the job of the attorney general is ignoring the mob and the media horde and the conspiracy theories out there and doing what he or she thinks is right. And he says he's doing what's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILLIAM BARR: There was a Democratic senator who said that, you know, being the attorney general is like being a sheriff standing in front of the jail. There's always the mob. And these days, the media is very prominent among the mob, who either want someone hung or they want him sprung. And part of what the Department of Justice is about and the attorney general is about is ignoring the mob and the calls and the false narratives and doing in each case what they think is right.

JOHNSON: Barr basically gave no ground. He believes in a very strong president and a very strong presidency. And I'm hard-pressed to find much daylight between the president and the attorney general. Interestingly, Barr at one point had admonished the president to please stop tweeting about criminal cases. But this past week, both Barr spokeswoman and the White House press secretary tweeted very favorable things about Michael Flynn.

RASCOE: All right. So we'll leave it there for now. It is Friday, so that means Can't Let It Go. That's what's up next. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: And we're back. And it's time for Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we can not stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Carrie, what can't you let go of this week?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, Bill Barr did a lot of interviews at the Justice Department this week. And what I can't let go of is that earlier this week, he invited Texas Senator Ted Cruz in, and they did this interview on the seventh floor of the Justice Department in the conference room sitting in club chairs with an enormous gray shag rug.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: And I got to tell you, of all the press conferences I've attended for national security matters and public corruption matters in that conference room, to see it, you know, all decked out with a shag rug was really something. But then they took it to another level when the senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, decided to bestow a nickname on the attorney general.

LIASSON: And what was it?

JOHNSON: Honey badger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: And I got to say I'm - you know, there's a popular video on the Internet of the honey badger.

(LAUGHTER)

BARR: Oh, yeah. Right.

CRUZ: And I got to say, you have been the honey badger.

BARR: Thank you. Thank you.

LIASSON: Uh-oh. That is such a great nickname.

RASCOE: He's definitely a go-getter, as they say (laughter).

JOHNSON: He doesn't quit. That's for sure. That's for sure.

LIASSON: And he pushes - he pushes the envelope.

RASCOE: All right, so I'm going to go next. And what I can't let go of this week is Mary Jackson. And Mary Jackson is one of the women from "Hidden Figures." Obviously she's a real person, not just - the movie was based on part of her life. But basically, NASA headquarters in D.C. are changing their - the headquarters, the name is going to be changed to Mary Jackson. And she - Jackson was the first black woman engineer to work at NASA, and she was this driving force to get U.S. astronauts into space. And so I think that, especially at this moment in time, to have, you know, Jackson getting this type of recognition that she didn't get for a long time. Like, before this movie - and like, her contributions have really been overlooked. She died in 2005. And so before you had the movie and all of this, people didn't really know this story.

JOHNSON: You know, Ayesha, I can't get that image from the movie out of my head where Mary Jackson and some of the other women engineers had to run all over the campus, because they couldn't use the bathroom in the building where they worked. It was just awful.

RASCOE: Yeah. I mean, and, you know, it was. And they had such an integral role. And they were doing these historic acts, but their very humanity was not even being honored, right? Like, it's that dichotomy of them doing all of this work but having their kind of basic - the basics questioned. And now after all of that, after not even having a bathroom, now your name is on the building. So I think that is an amazing story. And so now, Mara, what can't you let go of?

LIASSON: Well, my Can't Let It Go is kind of similar to yours. It's about monuments to history and how you recognize history and understand it. So the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond is, of course, embroiled in this big controversy about what to do with these Confederate monuments, which were erected in the early 1900s, most of them by the Daughters of the Confederacy, to celebrate the South and its legacy, which included slavery.

So a lot of them have been torn down, some of them by design by the city's officials, some of them pulled down by protesters. But the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond has been transformed in a way that I found very powerful. With a light projector, there has been the portrait of George Floyd projected on the base of the statue. Generally you can only see these at night. Same thing when the portrait of Harriet Tubman was projected onto the base of the statue. And of course, a BLM flag or poster was kind of draped over Robert E. Lee's horse. But the point is that we're having this incredible, powerful conversation through art, through monuments about how we understand our history.

RASCOE: Yeah. And the governor of Virginia has said that these statues, though, and statues like this of Robert E. Lee, that they're coming down because of, you know, all of the pushback that they've had. So let's move to our listener Can't Let It Go. We've been asking listeners what they can't let go of. This week's comes from Whitney (ph).

WHITNEY: Hi, this is Whitney from St. Louis. And what I can't let go of this week is my 4-year-old niece, who told us that she wants to be a farmer when she grows up. And when we ask what crops she wants to raise, she said bubblegum.

JOHNSON: Aw, yeah.

WHITNEY: So I would love to retire to Nora's (ph) bubblegum farm. And NPR Politics team, you're invited as well.

RASCOE: Oh, wow. That sounds great. I would love to go to a bubblegum farm.

LIASSON: We'll go pick bubblegum off her farm.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

RASCOE: OK. So that's a wrap for today. Let's end the week with a thanks to the folks who put the show together. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

RASCOE: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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