Biden Addresses Mideast Violence, CDC Says Vaccinated Can Go Unmasked : The NPR Politics Podcast Escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence presents a new hurdle for an administration that has tried to stay laser-focused on its own legislative agenda. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has once again updated their guidance: vaccinated people may stop wearing masks in most indoor settings.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, international correspondent Daniel Estrin, and congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

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Biden Addresses Mideast Violence, CDC Says Vaccinated Can Go Unmasked

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AIDEN: My name is Aiden (ph). I live in Santa Barbara, Calif. Before COVID, my mom and I used to bike to school every day. There's a steep hill right before we get home. Today, my mom finally managed to bike up the whole hill again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

1:22 p.m. on Friday, the 14th of May.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Things may have changed by the time you listen to this.

AIDEN: Yeah, like maybe Mom will have her breath again (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter) Enjoy the show. I did it.

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

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: (Laughter).

KEITH: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Well, I have a rule about riding bikes, and that is I don't ride bikes up hills.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: So only flat land for me. So I - so you can imagine how much bike riding I do.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And Daniel Estrin is here from NPR's International Desk, based in Jerusalem. Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KEITH: Yes. Thank you so much for being here. We have a lot to talk to you about. At least 122 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed as the result of violent street clashes and exchanges of rocket fire and airstrikes in Israel and the Gaza Strip. It is the most serious open conflict there since 2014. Daniel, can you describe what's going on?

ESTRIN: Well, this has been brewing for several weeks now. And the tensions are all connected to the holy city of Jerusalem, which is central to Israelis and the Palestinians. And the epicenter of that city is the holy site the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site. Jews revere it as the Temple Mount, the former site of the ancient temple.

So when Ramadan, the holy - Muslim holy month of Ramadan began about a month ago, Israeli police were preventing Palestinians from gathering in a certain area in - right outside the walls of the Old City, which is where this holy site is. And this is a place where Palestinians gather every night after breaking their fast. And police said that they were attempting crowd control by fencing off an area. Palestinians saw it as Israel saying, hey, you're not welcome here in this city.

Then we saw, on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Israeli police and Palestinians confront each other, with Palestinians throwing stones and more and police firing stun grenades. And there were hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians who were wounded every day for several days.

KEITH: So that was only one of several flashpoints. Daniel, there was also a matter of Israel trying to evict some Palestinians from a neighborhood in Jerusalem.

ESTRIN: Jerusalem is predominantly Jewish in the west and predominantly Palestinian in the east. And there is a neighborhood in the east where Israel was trying to and set to evict some Palestinian families to make way for a Jewish settler group - again, that theme of dispossession of Palestinians feeling like Israel doesn't want us here and Israel wants to claim this city.

And so meanwhile, on the Mediterranean Sea - so picture it. I'm in Jerusalem, up in the hills. And then to the west of me is the Mediterranean Sea. And there's a seaside strip of land, the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian militant group Hamas rules.

KEITH: OK.

ESTRIN: And Hamas in Gaza was seeing all the tensions happening in Jerusalem and threatened to respond. And they were taking up this banner of defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque, this holy site. Hamas comes in and says, this is the way. The way is resistance, violent resistance, defending our holy site.

RASCOE: And, Daniel, something that is often heard - obviously, this is an incredibly complex situation that you have just, you know, laid out for us so well. But one thing that is often heard, you know, in these news reports is you will hear Hamas - about them doing rocket strikes. And then you hear - and about Israel doing these airstrikes and destroying, you know - trying to get at Hamas. What is going on there? What are the rockets versus these airstrikes? How are they different? And, you know, what is the actual warfare that is going on here?

ESTRIN: Yeah, that's a really good question. I mean, you basically were looking at two very different - an asymmetrical war. We have Israel, the biggest recipient of U.S. aid, armed with warplanes and the most advanced military equipment. So we have Israeli warplanes and aircraft flying above Gaza, dropping bombs on buildings, bringing down buildings in many instances, dropping bombs on targets that they say they're targeting Hamas and other militant rocket launchers.

And then, speaking of those rocket launchers, Palestinian militants in Gaza are firing rockets, which those rocket launchers are often placed in civilian areas where civilians live - that is according to Israel - and launching rockets relatively indiscriminately. Hamas has launched, until now, nearly 2,000 of those rockets. And about 90% of them, according to the Israeli army, have been intercepted midair by the Iron Dome is what it's called, an anti-missile battery. At night, you can see the streak of light of these intercepting - basically intercepting rockets that Israel shoots to intercept Palestinian rockets midair and to shoot them out of the air.

KEITH: Ayesha, I want to turn to domestic politics a bit. The White House is answering questions again today about this, saying that their objective is to work toward de-escalation and lasting peace in Gaza. We talk often now on this podcast about the crises that the White House wasn't planning for that a president gets thrown at them that they weren't expecting. And certainly, in the early part of this administration, dealing with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was not high on the to-do list for the Biden administration. Like, they did not come in saying, we're going to have Middle East peace in our first 100 days.

RASCOE: I'm sure it's always - for every administration, it's a part of their foreign policy. But it wasn't the top thing that they were talking about. Right now, what President Biden is saying is that he had said yesterday that he did not feel like Israel had overreacted or that there had not been a significant overreaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There has not been a significant overreaction. The question is how we get to a point where - they get to a point where there is a significant reduction in the attacks, particularly the rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centers.

RASCOE: And they are hoping that this situation can de-escalate from the very violent and deadly situation that is going on right now.

KEITH: And, Daniel, what does Israel want from the U.S.? Is there any relationship between the Palestinian government and the U.S.? There certainly wasn't for much of the Trump administration. Has that changed? You know, is there the capacity there for the U.S. to exert influence over this and calm it down?

ESTRIN: Well, I think Israel expects the U.S. to support its right to defend itself against rocket fire. And I - and that's what we see in U.S. statements. I mean, just moments ago, I got a message that the State Department's envoy landed here, Hady Amr. And he put out a statement saying that I'm here to seek calm and also to defend Israel's right to defend itself.

And now you hear progressive voices in the U.S. saying that President Biden is not tough enough on Israel in this conflict. And you see that the Biden administration is taking a very cautious approach here. And I think to explain that thinking, the Biden administration sees that it's more effective to publicly support Israel while - that allowing them to press Israel privately and have kind of frank conversations. And we know that from previous conflicts between Israel and Gaza, where U.S. officials were effective - at least that is how they have interpreted it - by defending Israel publicly and then, behind closed doors, being extremely involved and speaking to Israel about all the things that they don't like, whether it's certain military operations, and just to have those frank conversations behind closed doors also to be more effective in mediating a cease-fire. I think that is the Biden administration's thinking here.

KEITH: Yeah. Ayesha, can you talk any more about the domestic political pressure that the Biden administration and President Biden face as relates to this?

RASCOE: Yeah. You know, I mean, there are Democrats and progressives who, you know, as Daniel said, want a tougher or - response for Israel. They are concerned about the treatment of Palestinians. And this is something that it is much more complicated and much more complex than maybe what other presidents have had to deal with because you're dealing with, you know, lawmakers like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and others. She's part of a larger group of lawmakers who are raising questions and pressing, really, the administration on the treatment of Palestinians and the support for Israel in a way that may not have been seen, you know, in previous years from Democrats.

KEITH: Well, Daniel, thank you so much for being with us. This was extremely helpful.

ESTRIN: Thanks for having me.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we will talk about new CDC guidance on masks for people who are vaccinated.

And we're back. And Kelsey Snell is here now. Hello, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

KEITH: Of course, you cover Congress.

SNELL: I do.

KEITH: But we are bringing you here for a conversation that will cover both Congress and also the big news out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday that people who have been vaccinated and are now fully vaccinated two weeks out from their last required shot - you don't have to wear a mask anymore.

RASCOE: Mask off, mask off.

KEITH: Full stop.

SNELL: Mask off, but also so much confusion - so much confusion, Tam.

KEITH: Yes.

RASCOE: And, Tam, you've been reporting on this because, yes, certain people can take their mask off, but there's some, you know, nuances here. Can you talk about that?

KEITH: Yeah. So this is individual guidance. This is guidance from the CDC saying to people who are fully vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask. You are well protected. These vaccines work. They will prevent you from either catching coronavirus or, if you do catch it, it will be mild. You are unlikely to spread it to other people. If you somehow get a breakthrough infection and get asymptomatic COVID, you are unlikely to spread it to other people. You're safe. You're fine. As CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, you can do the things.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment.

KEITH: But this is individual advice. This is not advice for the community. This is not guidance about grocery stores, schools, restaurants, workplaces. They have - they are now in the process of updating their guidance. But for all situations, there are a lot of questions.

SNELL: Yeah. I mean, OK, so I live in Washington, D.C., and we have a mask mandate here. You're required to wear it indoors and outdoors. Does that change?

KEITH: It will depend on whether the local government adapts to this CDC guidance. And some state governments and local governments have already adapted and changed their guidelines. Other states and local governments have not. Kroger grocery stores announced that they are not lifting their mask requirement. However, the White House has lifted their mask requirement. And we know that the president was in a meeting yesterday with members of Congress who were all vaccinated, and the news comes out, and they all took their masks off. In the White House press briefing room today, the reporters who are vaccinated are not wearing masks, the press secretary not wearing a mask, all of her aides not wearing a mask. So more than 100 million American adults are fully vaccinated now. More and more every single day are reaching the point of full vaccination. But obviously, there is a - still a large share of the U.S. population who is not yet vaccinated.

SNELL: And there are a lot - many people who are not going to be able to be vaccinated for a long time. Like, I'm thinking about kids under 12. There are millions of children under 12 who can't get vaccinated and many children, you know, who either can't or just won't wear masks. So that creates another layer of decision-making and potentially chaotic decision-making for parents and families who are trying to already navigate some pretty complicated, you know, COVID world problems.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, I think what I would say and what the CDC is saying is that, yes, kids still are going to need to wear masks indoors. You should try to take your kids to well-ventilated places and let them play outdoors without masks. You know, outdoors is safer. But we are going to be in a period of time where, yeah, you don't know whether the person not wearing a mask next to you is totally, fully vaccinated or unvaccinated and just doesn't like a mask.

But what the CDC is saying here is that we kind of need to adjust our brains. We have all been living in this hunker-down, fear mindset for the last 15 months. And what they're saying is if you were vaccinated, you need to consider - you don't have to, but you should consider adjusting your risk analysis because your risk is dramatically lower.

RASCOE: And the thing is, you know, this has been more than a year. This was a traumatic thing that happened that drastically changed all our lives. And so people respond to that in different ways, trauma in different ways. And so this point right now where people are like, I don't know if I want to give up my mask; I don't feel comfortable; what if other people are lying about it - like, that's not really unexpected, but it seems like what the CDC is saying, you know, just - you can just mind your own business and just worry about you like you did before the administration - hopefully you were doing before the administration. You were just minding your own business.

SNELL: Did they say why they made the decision now? That's something that I've heard a lot of people asking, is this felt like it came out of nowhere. Why did it happen just all of a sudden on a Thursday afternoon?

KEITH: Yeah, I was talking to Dr. Leana Wen, who is a public health professor at George Washington University and on CNN all the time. And she was like - she's somebody who had been advocating for more relaxed mask rules for people who are vaccinated. And she was shocked, though, that this happened as quickly as it did and in the way that it did.

The CDC explanation is - and we should say the CDC was pretty roundly criticized for the guidance that came out only about two weeks ago that was super confusing with the red and green chart and where you wear a mask and where you don't wear a mask. It was very confusing. But they insist they are not responding to criticism. They are not trying to create incentives one way or another for people to get vaccinated, though they do want everyone to get vaccinated. They are not doing this policy to create an incentive of any kind. They said that they're following the science, and the science has evolved - that even in the last two weeks, they have gotten more data and more studies that show that these vaccines really work, and they even work against all these variants that we are super worried about. So if the vaccines work, if they prevent - largely prevent asymptomatic spread, then they felt that they had to take this action.

But, you know, in a way, it was definitely a surprise to the White House. They didn't find out until 9 p.m. the night before. And I'm told the president wasn't told until the next morning. So the president found out yesterday morning about something that was announced yesterday afternoon. This was a decision made by the CDC probably without much account for the headache that it's going to cause for grocery stores and local governments and anybody who had a sign on their door that said you must wear a mask. But they felt that this was what the science dictated that they do.

RASCOE: And, Kelsey, Congress is a particular workplace where this might be complicated. What is going on there with the mask mandate in Congress?

SNELL: Well, they - there are different rules for different parts of the building and the office buildings that are kind of attached to the Capitol. The guidance that came out is that members still have to wear masks on the floor of the House until all members and floor staff are fully vaccinated, but they can take their masks off in other places. But, you know, that is not resolving the tensions that have been kind of intermittently erupting over masks in the House.

There was an incident today where Congressman Eric Swalwell of California tweeted about how he was yelled at by a Republican staffer for wearing a mask. And it was a confrontation that reporters watched and that is kind of, you know, becoming a thing on Twitter. And this is happening at a time when there's a lot of tension about how to get Congress back to normal. Should they be having in-person committee hearings? Should they be having shorter vote windows so people can move more quickly? It's difficult, and it's something that is part of a broader kind of acrimonious vibe in the Capitol right now. People don't trust each other a lot, and there's a lot of anger between members. It's a mood that I don't think I've experienced before in any other context.

KEITH: It sounds to me like the side-eyes that might be happening on the street or in the grocery store are happening in the halls of Congress, too.

SNELL: Absolutely. But there have also been some instances of real aggression over this.

KEITH: Wow. All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break now. And when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

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KEITH: And we're back. And it's time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of the pod where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about, talking about, politics or otherwise. Kelsey, what can't you let go of?

SNELL: I am staying in the Capitol for mine this week. There was a lawsuit that kind of came to light last night. A staffer for Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado is accusing him in a lawsuit of a reckless approach to the coronavirus and exposing his staff to the virus. But a piece of this lawsuit is what really has been just stuck in my brain. It alleges that the congressman had his son living in the basement of the Capitol for some undisclosed period of time in a storage space. But this - you know, where this brought me is, where would I want to live if I had to live in the basement of the Capitol? And I think that maybe this is my Senate bias, but maybe I would want to live on the Senate side because in my experience, there are fewer rats on that side of the Capitol.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: But, like, can you imagine living in the White House?

RASCOE: In the basement - like, in the basement down here?

KEITH: Like, in the briefing room or something (laughter)?

RASCOE: Well, there are lots of mice down here, and it, like, floods - not anymore, not anymore. They got that fixed. But it's - yeah. No, no. I couldn't.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: I don't - but I guess you theoretically could. You know, we could - you could sleep in this booth.

KEITH: You'd have to curl up in a tiny, little ball because it's so small, you couldn't lay flat.

RASCOE: (Laughter) No, you couldn't lie flat. I might - I'm only 5 feet tall, so I might be able to, but it would be complicated. Definitely would be rat food.

KEITH: Ayesha, what can't you let go of?

RASCOE: What I can't let go of this week is - and I think a lot of people haven't been able to let go of it - is Bennifer.

KEITH: Oh.

RASCOE: And that is Jennifer Lopez, J.Lo, "Jenny From The Block," and Ben Affleck, who - I think he's an actor or something. No, just playing.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Are they really back together?

RASCOE: Well, I mean, seemed like they hanging out. Let me put it that way (laughter).

SNELL: Just like - they're, like, in Wyoming or something, right? Like, they went on a vacation.

RASCOE: I didn't think it was real at first, but they have pictures of them, like, in a car together, although I don't think Jennifer - she didn't look very happy in the car with him.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: I'm just going to go now.

RASCOE: Tam is not trying to keep up this conversation. I could talk about this all day. But Tam's like...

KEITH: What if they listen to our podcast? They're going to be like, why are these people talking about us?

RASCOE: Oh, no.

SNELL: I'm pretty sure they know why these people are talking about them. That's kind of the whole motivation behind celebrity.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: We love them. If they - you know, I would love to talk to both of them. It's all love.

KEITH: Yes.

RASCOE: But Tam...

KEITH: Open invite.

RASCOE: Yes, yeah. I think Kelsey was trying to ask you what you can't let go of this week.

KEITH: So what I cannot let go of is, you know, there have been many ideas to create incentives to get people who have just not found the time or may otherwise have reluctance to get the COVID vaccine, and, you know - like, hundred dollars in West Virginia, a gift certificate for L.L.Bean in Maine, home to L.L.Bean.

SNELL: Real Maine-specific.

KEITH: It's super Maine-specific. But here's the thing. Then, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said, hold my beer...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KEITH: ...And announced a $1 million lottery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DEWINE: I know that some of you now are shaking your head and say, that Mike DeWine is crazy. This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money. But truly, the real waste at this point in the pandemic, when the vaccine is readily available to anyone who wants it - the real waste is a life that is lost now to COVID-19.

KEITH: Yeah, so there's going to be actually multiple million-dollar drawings for anyone over 18 who has been vaccinated - for state residents. And then for younger people who get vaccinated, they could be the lucky winner of a full ride, all-expenses-paid trip to college in the great state of Ohio. So, like, this is not beanbag. These are real prizes.

SNELL: Yeah, those are very valuable prizes.

RASCOE: I mean, I have to say when I first heard this, first, I had to make sure that it was real. And then I was kind of like, what in the world? You know, there are people out there in other countries who are really desperate to get vaccines. And we're here, like, take a million dollars (laughter). Like, it just seems a little off.

KEITH: Yeah. And, you know, there are other people who would argue that there are better ways to spend the money or greater need. And then there are people who just think Mike DeWine is a crazy genius. So we don't know yet really how well this is working or if it has worked. But I did reach out to the governor's office today, and his spokesman tells me that they are hearing reports of increased demand when they talk with local officials.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KEITH: You know, that's anecdata at this point, but they are looking to back that up with real statistics. At this point, the state was about 36% fully vaccinated, which is right around the national average. And they are hoping to supercharge that.

RASCOE: I may just be a hater 'cause in Maryland, they haven't put this out - because if they did, I would definitely take the million dollars if I won.

SNELL: (Laughter).

KEITH: Right. You get the satisfaction of knowing that you are not spreading a deadly virus across the country.

SNELL: And I went to a bar with my softball team and had a beer, and it was great.

KEITH: That is very exciting.

SNELL: And that is priceless.

RASCOE: Yes.

SNELL: Priceless.

RASCOE: So they say.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: But I would take a million dollars.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: Yeah, I'd still take a million dollars.

KEITH: All right, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. And thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Claire Oby.

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

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

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

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

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