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News Brief: COVID-19 Curve, Russian Bounties, 'White Power' Tweet


What happened to efforts to, quote, "flatten the curve" of coronavirus cases?


If you look at a chart of different countries, you'll see a pattern. In a lot of Europe, the number of cases has gone down sharply. But in the United States, the number of new cases has recently gone up. Some states, like Florida, have even set records for the number of new cases in a single day. So what is going wrong here?

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to talk about that. Good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What parts of the world are reporting increases here?

AUBREY: Well, it is not just the U.S. In South America, Brazil is shattering records in terms of new cases, with 47,000 one day recently. India is also seeing a big surge in new cases. In Europe, Italy started easing lockdown restrictions in early May, opened its borders June 3, has kept numbers down to roughly 200 cases a day, so manageable.


AUBREY: And this week, the European Union is set to lift travel restrictions on some foreign visitors. I should point out - Americans are not likely to be welcome right now. We will not likely be on that list.

INSKEEP: OK. Stating the obvious here - why would we not be welcome in Europe right now?

AUBREY: Well, big picture, we've had about 2.5 million documented cases, though experts think that at least 20 million people in the U.S. have had the virus. For every one case documented, at least 10 more probably went undiagnosed. And we're approaching about 130,000 deaths. Over the past week or so, there's been 60 to 75% increases, dramatic increases, in new cases in multiple states - Florida, Texas, Arizona. And yesterday, the secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, said on NBC, to get this under control, people need to do the right thing.


ALEX AZAR: The window is closing. We have to act. And people as individuals have to act responsibly. We need to social distance. We need to wear our face coverings if we're in settings where we can't social distance, particularly in these hot zones.

AUBREY: Now, we know the president has not been the biggest supporter of masking, right? But this strong message from Azar, the vice president wearing a mask in Texas over the weekend after months of not wearing one in public, may signal a change here.

INSKEEP: Well, given all this, what is the best way to stay healthy, especially since we're coming up on a holiday when people would traditionally gather in big crowds to watch fireworks?

AUBREY: Sure. Three key messages here - outdoors is safer than indoors, fewer people, better than more people. And when you're out, wear a mask. There is increasing evidence they're helpful. I mean, look; for instance, in Illinois, there's been a significant decline in cases since May when a face-covering ordinance took effect there. I spoke to Emily Landon about this. She's an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine. And she said, look; many of the states that have not uniformly mandated masking have seen increases.

EMILY LANDON: The rates in Illinois have came down tremendously. But if you look at face-covering rules in other states, I would argue that that may be playing a role in a resurgence even though they have had similar phased reopening - to Texas and Arizona, right? The lack of a face-covering order in place may be a bigger deal.

AUBREY: So really protective. So she says, look; if you care about protecting yourself and others, cover your face. I mean, even if you're young and think you're not vulnerable to serious illness, you could be protecting others.

INSKEEP: That's remarkable if we think back to March and April. In the order in which people said things like wash your hands, stay home, social distance, face masks were almost the last thing mentioned.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Now it's turning out to...

AUBREY: Now very important.

INSKEEP: Very important. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.


INSKEEP: Did Russia offer money for people in Afghanistan to kill American troops?

KING: Two newspapers now say this did happen. The New York Times first reported the finding, which came from U.S. intelligence. And The Washington Post confirms that the White House held a high-level meeting about Russia's effort. Trump administration officials, though, were downplaying the reports. And the president says he didn't know about it.

INSKEEP: Washington Post national security reporter Ellen Nakashima is on the line. She's covering this story. Good morning.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why would Russia offer money for U.S. coalition troops to be killed?

NAKASHIMA: Well, Steve, it's not immediately clear. There is speculation that it might have to do with wanting to disrupt the sporadic efforts at peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban in 2018-2019. Or that might be some form of retribution for efforts by American troops to kill Russian mercenaries in Syria in early 2018 after they attacked a U.S. outpost in eastern Syria.

Now, it's not clear how high up the bounties were authorized, whether Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was aware. But what is clear is that for almost the last decade, this military spy agency behind the bounties known as the GRU has been authorized and emboldened to carry out a series of, you know, ever more brazen attacks to destabilize and divide its opponents in the West.

INSKEEP: It's hard not to wonder if there is a feeling of revenge from the Russian perspective because the United States bogged Russia down in Afghanistan - the old Soviet Union down in Afghanistan many years ago.

NAKASHIMA: That's also part of the speculation. But really, at this point, even the U.S. officials and others briefed that I was - talked to really said the motive was not clear.

INSKEEP: So you said this has been going on for years. Is it clear to you that the bounties resulted directly in the deaths of American soldiers?

NAKASHIMA: According to our sources, several U.S. service members were killed as a result of these bounties. The targeting was said to have taken place in 2018 and 2019. And it is not clear when those deaths occurred.

INSKEEP: Now, the next question is how much the president knew about this. And the reason that's a question, of course, is because President Trump has been advocating, in many ways, better relations with Russia, has wanted to get them back into what was the G-8, is now back to the G-7. How much did the president know?

NAKASHIMA: That is still an open question. As you noted, the president has been saying all along that he was not informed. As the head of the intelligence community, the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also said that neither the president nor the vice president was ever briefed on it. It could also - it could be that officials were waiting to brief him until they had verified the intelligence and come up with response options.

INSKEEP: What questions do lawmakers have about this?

NAKASHIMA: Well, they want to know whether the report of the bounties is true, whether indeed Trump was briefed and if not, why not? And most importantly, what is this administration going to do about it at this point?

INSKEEP: Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post. Thanks very much, pleasure talking with you.

NAKASHIMA: Thank you.


INSKEEP: When President Trump inflames racial tensions, are his actions intentional?

KING: It is a question that a lot of people are asking today because, yesterday, the president retweeted a video, it's of a man riding in a golf cart. And the cart has Trump signs on it. It appears to be a president supporter. Now, the man in the cart yells, white power, at a group of protesters. White power is, of course, a white supremacist slogan. The president often or sometimes does this. He'll use racist language, or he'll retweet racist language. The question is, who is he talking to?

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe's covering this story. Good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. Let's start with this video, which I've seen, I imagine you've seen - many people maybe haven't. What happens in it?

RASCOE: This video posted on Twitter, it was apparently taken at The Villages, which is this retirement community in Florida. And it shows, you know, as you said, Trump supporters riding in these golf carts with Trump campaign signs. And there are these other people protesting, yelling insults about the president as the people in the golf carts drive by.

Almost immediately, you hear some protesters yelling racist at the people in the golf carts. And then you very clearly hear one of the people in the carts respond by saying, white power. So yesterday morning, the president retweeted the video saying, quote, "thank you to the great people of The Villages." He went on to bash the Democrats. But then, after a lot of pushback yesterday, the tweet was deleted.

INSKEEP: Now, we should note, when you hit play on this tweet, white power is almost the first thing you hear. A guy shouts it in the golf cart. And then one of the anti-Trump people alongside the little parade there shouts it back and says, there you go, as if to say I've caught you...


INSKEEP: ...And he repeats the slogan. It's kind of hard to miss. Did the president really miss it?

RASCOE: Yeah. Well, the White House right now is saying that the president did not hear that one statement in the video and that all he saw was, quote, "tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters." Now, I have to point out, in that statement from the White House, there was not an apology or even a condemnation of the white supremacist phrase that was used.

INSKEEP: How does this fit in with the way the president has approached race again and again and again over the last several years?

RASCOE: I mean, as you said, this is part of a pattern for the way that he has dealt with race even before he was president. You know, the NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll released earlier this month found that two-thirds of Americans say that Trump has mostly increased racial tensions. And now, with the election just over four months away, we see Trump doubling down on what he's done in the past, which is to try to play up white grievances, culture war issues, talking law and order, bashing protesters who tear down monuments, things like that. This is a playbook that he has used over and over again.

INSKEEP: Hadn't the president actually been trying to increase his very low numbers among Black voters, trying to peel away a few Democrats?

RASCOE: Yeah. The campaign had been trying to do this outreach to African American voters mostly focused on economics and record-low Black unemployment. That's obviously gone now. I think the intention was never to make massive inroads with Black voters. But also, you know, in a close race, just winning a little bit more than he did in 2016 could make a difference. And the appeals were also about trying to prove to skeptical white voters that he's not racist. But, you know, all of this, with tweeting this video and all of these other things, make that much harder.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.