(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
Hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And it’s 3:13 p.m. on Friday, May 29. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I’m Scott Detrow. I’m now back to covering the campaign.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: And I’m Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: I just want to give a heads-up to our listeners before we get started that this week’s roundup is going to be a bit of a tough listen for a lot of people ’cause the news has been pretty heavy this week. This week the United States passed a sad milestone in the coronavirus pandemic. More than 100,000 people and counting have died from COVID-19. And in Minneapolis, a black man named George Floyd died Monday after a white police officer held him down on the ground and knelt on his neck. Today that officer was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. And protests have erupted all across the country.
Yesterday on this podcast, we talked about how President Trump’s initial reaction seemed different. He called the death sad. He was supportive of a swift review by the Justice Department. But, Ayesha, he seemed to manage to undo all of that with a single tweet.
RASCOE: Yeah. Well, he sent these tweets – it was about 1:00 in the morning Eastern time. There was a lot of unrest last night. And Trump starts tweeting that he can’t stand back and watch this happen to a great American city. And then he used the words, these thugs are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd. And I won’t let that happen. He goes on to say that he talked to the governor and told the governor that the military is with him all the way and seemed to say that the federal government would assume control. And then he used this phrase, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. And that tweet, it got – Twitter actually put a warning on that tweet for the first time and hid the tweet, saying that it was glorifying violence.
DAVIS: And violated the terms of Twitter, right?
RASCOE: And violated the terms of Twitter. And, I mean, that tweet has obviously kind of reverberated all day long.
DETROW: And the president did try to walk this tweet back today this afternoon, which is something he very rarely does, saying looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night, saying that he wasn’t advocating for the National Guard or authorities to respond with shooting. I think that’s being met with a lot of skepticism, and a lot of people are pointing out that looting leads to shootings is a phrase with specific historic connotations when it comes to police violence.
RASCOE: As you said, with that phrase – the looting starts, the shooting starts – that was first used by this Miami police chief in the 1960s. And just to reiterate, what that police chief was talking about was basically saying that these poor black neighborhoods, the police – the threat of police violence was keeping them from kind of engaging in rioting or anything like that. So basically, what that phrase that Trump was using is talking about the very policies that the people in Minneapolis are protesting against. Like, the brutality that the people are protesting against is what that phrase harkens back to.
DAVIS: And these tweets, the ones that the president has done in the past – and I think that this one does, too – is it really strikes a racial chord. And there has been a fierce response to it, certainly from Democrats, many people calling it racist. And I would say that I think that, you know, there’s so many different sides to this president. But when he does things like this, and he’s done it in the past, this is what Republican strategists will tell me is what they view as the worst Trump. There is just no upsides to this tone coming from the president or anything that looks like it’s fueling racial tensions because it’s just – it just turns voters away in such a profound way.
And I think if you recall, you know, looking back to what happened at the racist violence in Charlottesville and how the president responded, and he came under a lot of fire, even among Republicans, for that response, is there is just a real visceral rejection from a lot of voters for anything that even seems slightly sympathetic to any kind of racist sentiment from a president.
DETROW: Yeah. And that for almost all of last year was the central focus of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and message, repeatedly going back to what the president said after Charlottesville and working it into every main point he made about the type of president he would be as opposed to Trump.
DAVIS: So, Scott, Biden also weighed in today. He gave a livestream address from his home in Delaware. What did he say?
DETROW: Right off the bat, he said that he had been in touch with George Floyd’s family, that he had spoken to them earlier today and that he was grieving with them. And then Biden went on to put this this killing into a much broader frame. And to me, it sounded like he was using a lot of the language in the context that activist groups like Black Lives Matter had been using for the last few years to talk about police violence, saying that this is part of a 400-year cycle of violence in the United States that needed to be addressed.
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JOE BIDEN: You know, it’s a list that dates back more than 400 years – black men, black women, black children. The original sin of this country still stains our nation today. And sometimes, we manage to overlook it. We just push forward with 1,000 other tasks in our daily life, but it’s always there. Weeks like this, we see it plainly, that we are a country with an open wound. And none of us can turn away. None of us can be silent. None of us can any longer can we hear the words, I can’t breathe.
DETROW: Biden made a point to name other people who have been killed by police while in custody, including Eric Garner, the New York City man killed in 2014 in a chokehold saying I can’t breathe. And Biden said that one of the painful things about Floyd’s death was how much – how many parallels there were to that incident as well.
RASCOE: And President Trump today and his surrogates and through his campaign, they keep talking about Floyd and his memory and his family and wanting justice for him. And they’re leaning into very heavily this individual’s story and wanting justice for Floyd. What you aren’t hearing is kind of the larger context of that this is a bigger issue in this country and a broader issue about police brutality in general, but a very heavy focus on this individual story. And we kind of talked about – a bit about that on the pod yesterday.
DAVIS: You know, one thing I’ll be curious to see is what kind of response from a policy perspective that this might provoke because Trump’s tweet aside, there really has been, across the political spectrum, sort of one voice on this – on what happened with George Floyd, that it was wrong, that it requires justice. And it seems like it’s provoking a conversation about racial justice. And I think the question goes to anyone running for office right now, well, what do you want to do about it? And I’ll be curious to see if Trump the president and Joe Biden the candidate have new ideas to put out there because it clearly now feels like it’s something that’s more on voters’ minds than it was a month ago.
RASCOE: And this – and that’s a good point because this isn’t just a hard thing for Trump to deal with and engage with. You know, I covered the last year of the Obama presidency. And he was dealing, you know, with all of the shootings that happened at that point – the police shootings. And he faced criticism from all sides for the way that he did it. And there were many who felt like he did not do enough, that he did not act strongly enough. And so this is – it’s really not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is something that all presidents have to face. And there’s a real, I think, disconnect at points where people feel like politicians on both sides of the aisle have not adequately addressed this.
DAVIS: All right. Well, we’re going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we’ll talk about the pandemic and the state of the presidential race.
And we’re back. And we’re joined by friend of the pod, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hey, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Sue.
DAVIS: Thanks for coming on. This week the United States reached a new milestone in the pandemic. More than 100,000 people have died. Richard, can you put this number into context for us?
HARRIS: Sure. Think of it this way – the leading preventable cause of death in this country is smoking. And over the past three months, when the coronavirus killed 100,000 Americans, tobacco claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, too. That’s far more people than who died in car accidents or drug overdoses during that period. And the virus has now killed more Americans than those who died in combat since the Korean War.
RASCOE: Who’s been most impacted by this virus? We hear so much about African Americans and Latinos and others being disproportionately affected. Do we know, Richard, like, who’s been most impacted?
HARRIS: Yeah. Unfortunately those racial numbers have not been gathered very well, so we can’t really give you definitive numbers. But I can say a few things about this. First of all, most of the deaths are among people over the age of 65. Some of those people lived in apartments with multigenerational families, or they lived in nursing homes, or they were in assisted living. They are more likely to be brown and black, as you said. And some of the deaths are among people who have jobs that have put them at risk because they are helping others. Think about the nurses who are fighting the epidemic in under-equipped hospitals lacking good personal protection equipment, et cetera, or aides in nursing homes. They were also struck – are being struck very hard by this as well. So this isn’t simply luck of the draw who dies. And I must say, that point sometimes gets lost on people who say we should just tough it out and open up the country again.
DAVIS: Geographically, though, it also seems to me, I think – when I think of the pandemic, I think of New York City. It seems like it was really concentrated in certain hotspots that account for most of those deaths, right?
HARRIS: Well, many of those deaths. Clearly it flared up most aggressively in the New York City area. There are some studies suggesting that it arrived actually by way of Europe and simmered unnoticed since late January, or maybe early February. The city actually came quite close to having its health system collapse, but it managed to hold things together barely. But, you know, the disease also has big numbers in Chicago and Detroit. And it’s still percolating in the Washington, D.C., area. There’ve been more than 2,000 deaths within a short drive of the White House and the Capitol, for example. It’s also increasingly hitting rural America, including largely immigrant workers who work in the meat processing plants in the Midwest. And Native Americans have been hit very hard by this in some areas. And, you know, there was a church in rural Arkansas that had an outbreak of 61 cases, so this is not just a big city problem.
DAVIS: Richard, can you put some more context around 100,000 people dead? Because in the beginning there had been estimates that it could have been more than double that. So could it be seen as a success that the number wasn’t as high as we feared it could be, or is it a failure that it’s still so many?
HARRIS: I would say it’s a failure because actually, the United States could have done a lot better. If the government had been fully prepared for this, the numbers could have been substantially lower. There was a study out quite recently that suggested that even a couple of weeks’ difference in our response in instituting social distancing, et cetera, could have made a very market difference. And if you look around the world, many, many other countries have had far more success than the United States has had in dealing with this.
DAVIS: But, Richard, the pandemic certainly is not over. We’ve hit this sad milestone, but it rolls on. I know many states are reopening. Life is sort of maybe getting back to a little bit of normal. I know here in D.C., the stay-at-home order is lifting today. What do the next sort of months look like from a public health perspective?
HARRIS: Right. Well, it is, of course, a crystal ball. But public health experts in the U.K., remember, initially said that more than 2 million Americans could die if we didn’t take any steps to control it. The White House has gravitated toward another estimate which showed 120,000 Americans would die of states rapidly and carefully kept to social distancing policies. And we have not hit that figure yet, but it seems we are headed in that direction as social distancing eases up. That model that the White House really likes now suggests that the U.S. will have at least 115,000 deaths but possibly more than 170,000 deaths, and that’s just by the end of July. Things don’t end at that point. Remember; the national strategy is to leave a lot of decision-making to individual states. But unlike other countries, including South Korea and New Zealand, the goal here is not to eradicate the disease but to keep it simmering along at levels that won’t be overwhelming for however long it takes to come up with a vaccine.
DETROW: And, Richard, just to ask a very obvious question – I feel like there’s sometimes magical thinking in all of us on an individual level that, you know, as things start to open back up, the risk is lower. I mean, the coronavirus is just as infectious and dangerous as it was in the beginning of March, right? Like, absolutely nothing has changed, nor will it change for a very long period of time.
HARRIS: Right. I guess the big wild card here is that people are not going to rush back into offices. And clearly, the areas where it’s most likely to be spread are indoor areas. In the summertime, people spend more time outdoors. The risk of spreading it is lower. And if people are, you know, maybe going out to outdoor cafes, et cetera, et cetera, there will still be some spread there. But if you’re avoiding large gatherings and if offices are not calling large numbers of people back in to cram into open office spaces, I think that that will help.
DAVIS: It’s also happening in the middle of a presidential year, and I’m not sure how we can separate sort of the pandemic from the politics in this moment, especially because presidents tend to be judged on how they handle crises. And the president is not only in the middle, still, of handling this crisis, but he’s also running for reelection. And I wonder, Ayesha, as we sort of come at this milestone, how does the country think President Trump has handled this?
RASCOE: Well, when you look at a lot of the polls that are out, you see that he’s not getting high marks for his handling of the coronavirus. And in fact, at this point, other than, like, kind of this brief point, he’s been getting – like, the majority of the country has given him low marks. President Trump’s overall approval rating is still pretty much stuck in this, you know, kind of narrow band, you know, in the 40s or so percentage.
But there has definitely been – and especially even looking at, like, among older voters who are very important, they have not been happy with the way that he handled the coronavirus. And that’s really different from – because most governors in the country have gotten really high approval ratings for the way they’ve handled the virus.
DETROW: Yeah. And I know that a lot of Democrats have been particularly focused on these trend lines of older Americans turning against the president on this. If you look at the coalition that President Trump put together in 2016, older voters – especially older white voters – were a key part of that demographic. And now you’ve seen several national polls and polls in key states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, showing that voters over 65 are now leaning toward Joe Biden or leading toward Trump by a much smaller margin. If that were the case in November, it would make it pretty much impossible for President Trump to win a second term.
So that’s just one of many trend lines that Democrats are looking at and feeling like – you know, they didn’t think he was a particularly popular president to begin with, but they feel like he is especially vulnerable, given the way his administration has handled this.
DAVIS: Scott, I was looking through battleground state polling this morning, and as of today, Biden is leading in every battleground state except for North Carolina, where they’re essentially tied. And I wonder if it’s fair to say that Biden has managed to take the lead in this race without really ever leaving his basement.
DETROW: He’s left his home once since mid-March, and that was on Memorial Day to plant a wreath at a brief ceremony. And yeah, the Biden campaign has felt very good about this. Something that Joe Biden repeatedly says when he’s criticized for not leaving his basement is, first of all, he’s following the recommendations of Delaware’s governor of the stay-at-home order, which is going to lift in the coming days but hasn’t yet.
And he points out, look; every time the president keeps talking, his numbers go down, which is a little bit of an exaggeration, but not really if you look at the trend line of not just President Trump’s approval rating but, you know, how voters think he’s handling this crisis. And also, trend lines like do you trust the information the president provides – that number is pretty low.
So I think a lot of times during the primary, Joe Biden was criticized for framing his campaign around this idea of, like, a return to normalcy and bringing back the Obama administration’s coalition and policies. A lot of Democrats said, you need to do better than that; you can’t just talk about the past. Well, right now, when 100,000 people have died, when unemployment is at the highest level since the Great Depression and when many of us cannot leave our house without masks, if at all, a return to normalcy is a pretty good selling point. And the Biden campaign has been pretty content to let the Trump administration do its thing and to, you know, put out statements and recorded videos and rare interviews criticizing those policies.
DAVIS: All right, Richard, thank you so much for joining us. I really look forward to the day that we can have you on the podcast with some good news about the coronavirus.
HARRIS: Well, thank you. I look forward to that, too.
DAVIS: All right, we’re going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we’re going to talk about the things from the week that brought us a little joy and a little laughter.
And we’re back. And it’s time for Can’t Let It Go, the part of the pod where we talk about the thing we can’t let go this week, politics or otherwise. Scott Detrow, what can’t you let go this week?
DETROW: So I think we should acknowledge that this was a super depressing podcast – I mean, very weighty, serious topics. And there’s been a lot that’s been pretty down over the last few months. I feel like I’ve been very vocal about that both on the podcast and on social media. But I feel like one thing that has made me happy and I’ve thought a lot about and been appreciative of is the way that things have kind of, like, slowed down and kind of, like, focused down to where you live. And it’s just, like, a lot slower to me. It feels like when I was, like, a kid almost in terms of, like, the pace of the day, which hasn’t been the case for so long.
So, like, one example of that that I personally cannot let go in my life right now is that we got one of those Little Tikes basketball hoops for my son, who’s 2.
DAVIS: Oh, yeah.
RASCOE: Yeah, yeah.
DETROW: Now, he is not that into it. He’s, like, dunked the ball a few times. I keep trying. He’s like OK, yeah, whatever. But my wife and I are obsessed with it. And we now play Horse every single night after he goes to bed on this, like, 2 1/2-foot hoop. And it brings me so much joy. And this is not something I would be doing in any world other than right now.
DAVIS: Ayesha, what can’t you let go?
RASCOE: So I agree with Scott. It’s been, you know, quite a week and, you know, quite a few couple of months. But one thing that I can’t let go of – and this is really from last week, but I wasn’t on the pod on Friday last week, so I’m going to use it anyway – is everyone was doing these commencement addresses, right?
RASCOE: And so you had Obama, you know, all these people doing them. But then the best one that I saw was from Cookie Monster.
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COOKIE MONSTER: Hello, class of 2020.
RASCOE: He gave a Cookie-mencement (ph) or something of that. And, you know, 2020 has, you know – literally, you can use two cookies to make 2020, the year 2020. But he talked about how, you know, it has been kind of a crummy time…
RASCOE: …But (laughter) how, you know, we can all be, you know, smart cookies and things like that.
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COOKIE MONSTER: You graduates have all the ingredients for an amazing future, just like the ingredients in a cookie.
RASCOE: I found it very uplifting. So I really – like, I recommend everybody, after a very long week, if you need a pick-me-up, go look at Cookie Monster’s commencement address. It is only three minutes, and it’s full of light and love.
DAVIS: I have been watching a lot of “Sesame Street” of late, as I imagine you guys have, too, because we all have little kids at home. And I will say unabashedly, Cookie Monster, my favorite. He’s my No. 1.
RASCOE: It’s between him and Oscar the Grouch. Like, I love…
RASCOE: …That Oscar is just so, like, over it all. Like, I always have related to him (laughter) in just being negative and crummy when everyone else is so happy. But Cookie Monster, like, he’s almost like the preacher. Like, he has a message. Every time you hear, you have to stop and listen to Cookie Monster.
DAVIS: Also, Elmo, kind of a whiny narcissist.
RASCOE: A little bit, but great (laughter).
DAVIS: Well, this is a perfect segue into what I can’t let go of because I think all of our joys this week involve our kids, and mine is definitely connected. And I’m glad that I’m in the pod with you guys because my CLIG connects to an earlier CLIG. Do you remember last year – I think was April of last year – we did a live show in Philly together? And at that live show, the thing I couldn’t let go was Lizzo. I had just discovered Lizzo, and I was like, this is going to be my music of the summer.
RASCOE: Oh, yeah.
DAVIS: I don’t want to take credit for the fact that Lizzo became really big after that, but…
DETROW: You were ahead of the curve.
DAVIS: …I can’t prove that it wasn’t because of that.
RASCOE: I do remember that because I hadn’t started listening to her yet. And so – yes, you were a little ahead of the curve for the Politics team.
DAVIS: For the Politics team, certainly. But so I have – you know, I have – my daughter is a little bit younger than Scott’s. And she loves music, and she loves listening to music. And we’re always looking for new music to find. And she was – she would like to listen to music as she’s going to bed the other night. And I’m sure you guys know what Kidz Bop is, right?
RASCOE: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
DAVIS: For anyone – listeners that don’t know, Kidz Bop is like – they do, like, sanitized versions of pop songs so you can, like, listen to pop songs with your kids, and it takes out all the bad parts. So I opened up a Kidz Bop album. And they had “Truth Hurts” as one of their songs. And I was like, how is this possible that they have made this a kid-friendly song? And they managed to do it. And…
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “TRUTH HURTS”)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) I just took a DNA test. Turns out I’m 100% that kid even when I’m crying…
DAVIS: I’m 100% that kid. So I started playing this, and I just started cracking up. And my daughter now loves this song, but I think it’s partly because she saw how much of a reaction I had to it and couldn’t get enough of it. And so now when it plays, she sort of, like, bops her head and, like, bops her hips out and dances to a little Lizzo. And it brings me joy every single time.
RASCOE: That’s great because she’s 100% percent that kid, yeah (laughter).
DAVIS: She is 100% that kid for sure.
DETROW: And that will be fun in, like, however many years when she’s like, oh, that’s the lyric?
DAVIS: Yes, I thought the same thing. All right, so we’ve also been asking our listeners for what they can’t let go of. None of us have heard this one yet, so I’m pretty excited to hear what it is.
JANICA: Hey, NPR Politics. This is Janica (ph) from Austin, Texas. And the thing I can’t let go of is chickens. During the quarantine, I got three chickens. And I’ve just been trying to socialize them and get them used to people. And in the process, I’ve learned so much about chicken personalities and what it’s like to be a chicken. Yesterday I had a chicken sleeping on my lap, which was really, really sweet.
RASCOE: Oh, wow.
DETROW: I love that.
DAVIS: I have never thought of a chicken as being a cuddly animal.
DETROW: Well, now you know.
RASCOE: And then that’s my nightmare, right? I don’t like big birds, and I don’t like…
DETROW: Does a chicken quantify as big?
DAVIS: That sounds honestly like torture to me.
RASCOE: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I’m very afraid of – and I have, like, a special fear of chickens, like, live chickens. So…
DAVIS: I’m with Ayesha on this one.
RASCOE: I – yeah.
DAVIS: The thought of chickens in my house, like, is terrifying to me.
RASCOE: I mean, they look really scary. Like, not just – roosters, especially. She didn’t say roosters. But chickens, like, they look very scary. And so I don’t know why you would want to get close to them, but I’m very happy for the listener (laughter).
DAVIS: I also like that everyone – like, there’s a lot of people getting pets during the pandemic. A lot of people have gotten dogs and cats. I kind of respect that she went chicken.
DETROW: Miles Parks and I have gotten into bird-watching and bird feeders. But a chicken, like, I feel like that’s just, like, 30 times the commitment. And I’m impressed.
DAVIS: All right. Well, that is a wrap for us for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producer is Barton Girdwood. Our production assistant is Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexi Schapitl, Alaina Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
RASCOE: I’m Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
DETROW: And I’m Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.
DAVIS: 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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