US Coronavirus Death Toll 140,000 : The NPR Politics Podcast The U.S. continues to break its record daily high of new coronavirus cases. The White House has begun to openly criticize the country's most visible public health expert: Anthony Fauci.

And an NPR investigation has found that some 65,000 votes were invalidated because of hang-ups with mail-in voting. As more Americans plan to vote by mail in November, such hangups could have huge consequences.

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and correspondent Pam Fessler.

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President Trump Fights Anthony Fauci. Nearly 140,000 Americans Are Dead.

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President Trump Fights Anthony Fauci. Nearly 140,000 Americans Are Dead.

President Trump Fights Anthony Fauci. Nearly 140,000 Americans Are Dead.

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ROSHIA: Hi. This is Roshia (ph) on the way to the hospital in the rain to meet my wife, Sarah (ph), as she's about to give birth to our first child.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Whoa.

ROSHIA: Our bags are packed, and we've got a bluetooth speaker for our birthing playlist and possibly some podcasts along the way. This podcast was recorded on...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

2:04 p.m. on Tuesday, July 14.

ROSHIA: A lot of things may have changed - including Sarah and I's whole lives. Enjoy the show.

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

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Aw.

KEITH: I hope that she didn't listen to our podcast during labor because she may hate us forever due to the association.

KHALID: (Laughter) Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

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

KHALID: So yesterday, more than 60,000 new COVID cases were diagnosed. And, you know, we're at a point where we are constantly seeing record numbers of new cases. And yet, throughout this crisis, the president continues to offer very little scientific guidance. He was seen wearing a mask for the first time in public over the weekend. But he's also continued to share conspiracy theories and misinformation on his Twitter feed. And now, Tam, the administration has also started to criticize its most visible public health expert. So what's going on?

KEITH: That's right. Dr. Anthony Fauci is the nation's leading infectious disease expert. He's at the National Institutes of Health. He's also a very high-profile member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force - though one who has not been at the last couple of Task Force briefings. And Fauci himself says he hasn't spoken to the president in weeks and weeks. Over the weekend, The Washington Post published a story about Fauci. It was sort of a profile. And in it they said that the White House sent them a lengthy list of times that Fauci was wrong early on in the pandemic. And that it sort of read like an opposition research dump - an opposition research dump on someone who is part of leading the federal response to this terrible pandemic. I've spoken to a couple of White House officials since then and they are insisting, no, it wasn't an oppo (ph) dump. It was just an overly thorough response to a direct question that we got from The Washington Post. And the question that they got from The Washington Post was prompted by President Trump himself, who - in a series of interviews - has said, yeah, I like that Fauci guy, but he's wrong about a lot. Or I disagree with Fauci. So they were asking, you know, what's he been wrong about? They got a bulleted list.

LIASSON: Well, you know, this - what we want to call a warfare, tension between the president and Fauci is pretty longstanding. In the very beginning, he was like the good housekeeping seal of approval. He was at the briefings. He was the trusted scientist who, when the White House was telling people to socially distance and shut down, he was the guy who laid down the rules, explained why they were necessary. Over time, when opening the economy became the more important priority, Fauci's usefulness to the White House has decreased. There are a lot of times when administrations disagree among themselves. But I can't think of another administration who has been openly at war with their own agencies and top officials. It's like the president's tweeting I disagree with the CDC. Their recommendations are too tough and expensive, and I will be meeting with them. Wait a second. They work for you; so does Anthony Fauci.

KEITH: Well, Anthony Fauci kind of works for no one (laughter).

LIASSON: Well, yeah, I guess it's independent but...

KEITH: Anthony Fauci is at the National Institutes of Health. He has been there for a couple of generations, basically, and he's nobody's guy, right? Like, he doesn't toe the line. He is very focused on what is best for public health. And when presented with questions in interviews that create the potential for tension between the official line of the White House and what he sees as the scientific right answer, he will always choose to say the scientific right answer. And that leads to things that frustrate White House officials.

KHALID: You know, is there a root of a deeper frustration there, though, between the White House and Fauci? Because, you know, we've seen the president, time and again, seem to be very reluctant at following the medical advice that the government's own public health officials are putting forward, you know? He has not sort of openly worn a mask - let's just say that, for starters, that's one piece of advice. And it seems like he doesn't follow the advice that we're getting from public health officials.

KEITH: Well, he has a different agenda. And Mara sort of nodded to this, and in my conversations with White House officials, certainly this has been the case. You know, Fauci has said this himself - he is focused on public health and public health alone. The president has more things to worry about, like the economy, like his reelection.

LIASSON: And, you know, the other thing we have to point out is Dr. Fauci became a superstar. You know, not only was - he had incredible numbers on his credibility, but he even became a bobblehead doll.

KHALID: Oh, did he really? I didn't know that.

KEITH: Oh, and he's on socks, and doughnuts and prayer candles.

LIASSON: (Laughter) So he became kind of like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you know? He became a cultural icon and kind of the truth speaker on COVID-19, and it's possible that the president just didn't like that.

KHALID: But this is more than your typical political personality conflict, right? I mean, even if the president doesn't like Dr. Fauci's, you can say, superstardom, I mean, there are real life-and-death consequences to having such mixed messages from the government. We're at a point now where more than 130,000 people have died here in the U.S. And yet, the federal government has not had - and continues not to have - a coordinated federal response.

LIASSON: But that's a bigger problem. When you have a confused message, it's the same thing as having no message. People literally don't know what to do. They don't know how schools should open safely. They were not sure whether they should wear masks, shouldn't wear masks. The states have been on their own in this.

KHALID: All right. We're going to take a quick break. And Mara, goodbye for now. We're going to let you go because we're going to shift topical gears after the break.

LIASSON: Thanks a lot. I'll see you soon. Bye-bye.

KHALID: And when we get back, more on a special NPR analysis that discovered thousands of Americans had their absentee ballots thrown out during the primary elections. We'll be right back.

And we're back. And NPR's Pam Fessler has joined us. Hey there, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Asma.

KHALID: Pam, you cover voting, and we've invited you on to the pod because you've been looking into absentee and mail-in voting, which, you know, we all know is kind of quite the rage these days because of the pandemic and the reality that that actually might be the safest way to vote this November. And, Pam, you did this really interesting story the other day where you looked at what happened during the primaries, and you found that thousands of people who thought they had followed the rules, they thought they had voted correctly, actually had their ballots tossed out.

FESSLER: Right. And it's really interesting. I mean, we've known for years actually that many ballots - absentee ballots get rejected for one reason or another. But, of course, as you mentioned, this year, it's, like, so much more important because we're expecting so many more people to vote absentee. So what we did is we called election officials in a lot of the states that have held primaries so far this year. And we found out that at least 65,000 primary ballots were rejected this year simply because they arrived past the Election Day deadline, which is the deadline in most states.

And you should know that this is actually only one reason that these ballots are rejected. A lot of ballots are rejected for other reasons, such as people didn't sign them or that their signature didn't match or they made some other mistakes. We just found out yesterday that California - they had 100,000 ballots rejected in the March primary 70,000 of those were just because they did not arrive on time.

KEITH: We're in a pandemic. The mail system seems to be somewhat stressed as it is. And it seems like people are sort of being - voters are being faulted for things moving slowly.

FESSLER: Right. I mean, I think it's a combination of things. I mean, some - the mail is taking longer. I talked to one man in Miami who - this was back in 2018, but he had mailed it. And when he found out later on, it wasn't postmarked for about 11 days.

KEITH: What?

KHALID: Oh, wow.

FESSLER: Yeah. You have problems like that. But I think a lot of it, you know, people wait too long. Or they wait and, you know, they want to see what's happening. They want to vote, you know, as close to the election as possible. They put the ballot in the mail, and it just takes longer than they think. The post office is telling people that they should try and give at least a week before the deadline for it to be delivered. The other problem is that in some cases because the demand is so much higher this year, it's taking quite a while for a lot of the local election offices to get those ballots out to people once they request them. For example, my son voted in the - was planning to vote in the New York primary, and he didn't get his absentee ballot until the day after the election.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

FESSLER: Yeah. It was not - he was not very happy about that.

KHALID: So, Pam, I want to ask you about one of the specific places that you reported on. It's a New York City suburb called Montclair, N.J. What happened there?

FESSLER: Yeah, that is an interesting case because I think it really illustrates why this is so important. They had a mayoral election in May. And in that case in New Jersey, they had to be postmarked. The absentee ballots had to be postmarked by Election Day, but they had a two-day window for it to be received. So it had to be received within two days of the election. So what happened is it turns out that 1,100 ballots in that mayoral election were not counted, most of them because they arrived too late. And it turns out the mayoral race was won by only 195 votes.

KEITH: Wow.

KHALID: Wow. Do you find that there's any patterns in terms of whose votes are most likely to get rejected? Like, is it more of a problem for people who are first-time voters, for example?

FESSLER: Yeah. Oh, definitely, definitely. And there's - you know, the data's somewhat limited on this because we don't always know what the demographics are of the people who cast absentee ballots. But MIT and Stanford did a study of the March primary in Florida, and they found - that there were about 18,000 absentee ballots there that were rejected - that generally first-time voters and first-time voters using mail-in balloting tend to have higher rejection rates and for obvious reasons. I mean, they're just not used to it. They don't know these rules. They might not know that, you know, you're not only supposed to sign - you know, supposed to sign the envelope or you might have to sign something else or what the deadlines are. They also found that younger voters and voters of color tended to have their ballots rejected at a higher rate than some of the other voters. People who have looked at mail-in voting - and I use mail-in and absentee voting interchangeably because they're basically the same thing.

KHALID: OK.

FESSLER: It really doesn't seem to favor one party over the other. I think what these numbers show us and what some of these early studies show us is that it might tend to favor people who have used absentee and mail-in voting in the past.

KHALID: So people who are just more familiar with the process.

KHALID: Right. Exactly.

KHALID: Yeah. But, Tam, it does feel like this idea of mail-in voting is not truly an apolitical issue. And I say that because, you know, President Trump himself has said that Republicans should fight hard against it. He said - I remember there was a tweet where he said, quote, "there could be tremendous potential for voter fraud." And so you have that comment, you know, from the president, from a person who's going to be on the ballot this November.

KEITH: Yeah. So the president - President Trump has tweeted and otherwise spoken out against mail-in voting repeatedly. It's like every few days, there's a new tweet with a lot of exclamation points about it. You know, that it's a formula for rigging an election. You know, the fascinating thing, though, is that he is trying to draw a distinction where there isn't one between mail-in voting and absentee voting. It's a very weird thing because he's talking about it like there's a difference and mail-in voting has fraud, and absentee voting is just fine. But even Republican lawyers in various cases and filings have said it's a distinction without a difference. And the other thing to note about this is that although President Trump is very publicly bashing this way of voting, Republicans are out there trying to get more people to sign up to vote absentee or vote by mail because, you know, Democrats could end up potentially with an advantage if the president suppresses interest in this way of voting among Republicans.

FESSLER: Yeah. And, actually, one of the interesting things we're seeing is requests for absentee ballots are much higher in a number of states among Democrats than among Republicans, you know, in recent weeks. And a lot of local Republican operatives think it's because President Trump has been denigrating the process so much. And it could hurt them.

KHALID: All right. Well, Pam, thank you so much for your reporting. And I'm sure we'll have a chance to talk more about this with you because it's not an issue, I'm sure, that's going to go away this November.

FESSLER: Thank you.

KHALID: And we'll be back tomorrow. Until then, you can head to n.pr/politicsgroup to join our Facebook group. It's a place for you to connect with folks, ask questions about politics and you can meet other podcast listeners.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: 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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