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News Brief: Coronavirus Roundup, Wisconsin Primary Results

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president is defending his response to the pandemic.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At his White House briefing last night, the president pushed back against evermore detailed accounts of his leadership in this crisis. The pandemic has now killed around 23,000 Americans. But the president used his time last night in the coronavirus briefing to attack the media. He also generated fresh conflict for the TV cameras, asserting that he can tell states when to restart their economies.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The federal government has absolute power. It has the power. As to whether or not I'll use that power, we'll see.

MARTIN: In reality, the Constitution reserves many powers for Congress, the courts, the states and the people.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Detrow watched the briefing for us. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did this couple of hours differ from some other briefings by the president?

DETROW: Yeah. So even by the standards that President Trump has set over the course of his term and over the course of these briefings, this one was particularly angry and defensive. And some context here - several major news outlets had published lengthy stories in recent days looking back at the early days of the pandemic - January, February, early March - the times when the president and many senior advisers were downplaying the scale of the threat of the coronavirus and were not taking the drastic steps that they and most states ended up taking in - later on in March. This clearly got to President Trump. And he spent more than 45 minutes at the onset of this briefing just attacking the media and defending himself.

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TRUMP: All I'm saying is this. How do you close down the greatest economy in the history of the world when, on January 17, you have no cases and no death?

DETROW: And then President Trump also repeated earlier criticisms of governors like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, saying they exaggerated their needs for ventilators, pointing out that hospitals have not been overwhelmed on a large scale as was initially feared. And that was due to social distancing actually having an impact, and also the federal assistance and the state-run efforts to get the supplies they needed.

INSKEEP: Now, after that defense of his record and attack of the media, the president did get around to the question of when the United States can reopen, which is another subject where he has been pushing and generating controversy. He says he will unveil a task force today, which is charged to put together a plan to reopen the country. But what is his power here?

DETROW: Yeah. There is a lot of demand for some sort of national plan and some guidelines for how to get the country reopened at some point in time. But this is something that, legally, will come down to governors and mayors, who are the ones, of course, who ordered the restrictions and closed schools to begin with. And even though President Trump spent a lot of time last week saying he wants governors to take the lead, yesterday, he pushed back on the fact it is not his legal call. He also said something pretty notable, that the president has ultimate authority. Of course, constitutionally, that is not the case, especially in a situation where it was state laws to begin with.

And on that note, on Monday, you saw two different compacts of states representing more than 100 million people combined - a group of West Coast states and a group of East Coast states - where the governors are saying that they will coordinate with each other on when to start easing restrictions, and they will make these decisions based on the data. And that's because even within these same groups, there are big differences from state to state. Yesterday, Delaware's governor, John Carney, said that in his state, it's getting worse, not better, though in New York, Cuomo said the worst is now passed, assuming New Yorkers are still careful going forward.

INSKEEP: I suppose governors would listen to the president if they found his leadership to be credible. The president, of course, is on television for a while yesterday, spent some of the time playing a video. What was it?

DETROW: Yeah. A lot of critics have said these briefings often substitute for Trump campaign rallies. So it was notable that he spent this - he basically played a campaign ad during the briefing for a while and said that it was put together by White House staffers, who are, of course, government employees.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Detrow.

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INSKEEP: A sailor from the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt has died from complications of coronavirus.

MARTIN: The U.S. Navy ship became the scene of an outbreak and then a source of controversy. Captain Brett Crozier wrote down his concerns about the safety of his crew. After that letter appeared in a newspaper, the Navy then removed him. The acting Navy secretary then visited the carrier and denounced the captain so harshly that he then lost his job.

INSKEEP: During all of this, the crew has been trying to look after each other, and NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is following their story. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who was the sailor who died?

BOWMAN: Well, the Navy hasn't released his name yet, Steve, pending family notification. I'm told he's a chief petty officer in his 40s. And he and four other sailors were isolated after testing positive for the virus two weeks ago. And this is the first death among the crew. He did not show any symptoms, though, I'm told and was checked twice a day. And at one point in April 9, he was checked, and he was unresponsive, given CPR. He went to the ICU at a naval hospital in Guam and died yesterday. The chief of naval operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, offered his condolences and said, quote, "we pledge our full support to the ship and crew as they continue their fight against the coronavirus."

INSKEEP: OK, the first active-duty military member known to have died of complications of coronavirus, but not the only person on that ship with the virus. How are others doing?

BOWMAN: Well, nearly 600 now of the 5,000 soldiers have tested positive for the virus, Steve. Four of them are hospitalized, but I'm told not in the ICU. All are stable. As of yesterday, more than 90% of the crew's been tested, and more than 4,000 sailors are ashore in Guam. And, of course, all this began with a letter from the carrier's captain, Brett Crozier, urging his superiors to move faster because he said the virus was spreading quickly. He wanted 4,000 sailors taken off immediately. And he sent that letter to more than 20 people, some outside the chain of command. And then, of course, he was relieved after that letter leaked to the press.

INSKEEP: Tom, I'm just thinking this has got to be a microcosm of the whole problem facing the Navy. There are 10 other aircraft carriers where something like this could happen. There are scores and scores of other ships where something like this could happen, not to mention Navy bases.

BOWMAN: No, that's right. Officials have said there's no reason to think the Roosevelt is a one-of-a-kind problem. Ships are highly vulnerable because of the tight quarters. Crews are on top of one another. So the Navy's watching this particularly closely. There are two other carriers they're keeping tabs on. The Reagan, based in Japan and undergoing maintenance, has had 15 virus cases. All those sailors are off the ship. And then you have the Nimitz, which is in port, and its sailors are restricted for two weeks. There are no positive cases, but, again, they're keeping a very close eye on this. They're very concerned about it.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman this morning.

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INSKEEP: Well, Wisconsin is an important presidential battleground state. And in last week's primary elections, Democrats, we now know, scored a significant victory.

MARTIN: Yeah. Remember; Democratic Governor Tony Evers had tried to postpone the election because of the coronavirus. The election included the Democratic presidential primary, which Vice President Joe Biden won. But also on the ballot was this important seat on the state's conservative Supreme Court. That same court ultimately ruled that the election would go on as scheduled. Voters showed up at the polls in person and at personal risk and voted to replace the conservative incumbent on that bench with a liberal justice.

INSKEEP: And Maayan Silver of our member station WUWM is here to talk about those results. Good morning.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And by here, of course, I mean sheltering somewhere, right? I mean, are you in your basement or at WUW - where are you?

SILVER: (Laughter) Yes. I'm at home in Milwaukee.

INSKEEP: OK. OK, as long as we're clear on that. OK. So there was this - Joe Biden's victory was expected at this point, but this upset in the state Supreme Court race - an incumbent endorsed by the president, I believe, was thrown out. What happened?

SILVER: Yeah. Liberal-backed candidate Jill Karofsky beat the Trump-endorsed incumbent, Daniel Kelly. So she had a socially distant victory party. It was just Karofsky and her two kids. And she thanked her team and supporters. But she also had a caveat.

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JILL KAROFSKY: Look; we shouldn't have had an election on Tuesday. And for many, many people, they had to decide between whether or not they were going to risk their own health or the health of people they loved, or their lives or the lives of people that they loved, in order to vote. It was an untenable decision.

SILVER: Yeah. The GOP-controlled Legislature and the conservative majority in the state Supreme Court fought hard to hold the election date in place despite calls to postpone or change to all mail-in. So this was a big defeat for them.

INSKEEP: I guess, in theory, these judicial elections are nonpartisan, but it's clear where the political parties stood between these two candidates. And there were Democrats who said that they felt that going ahead with the election under these circumstances amounted to voter suppression, preventing people from voting because it would just be too dangerous to them. Is there evidence of that now that we know the results?

SILVER: Well, so Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez had called this election voter suppression on steroids. So in larger cities, voters reported waits on average of one to two hours, even up to four hours. But some voters just couldn't wait that long or didn't want to brave the polls and risk their health. Nearly 10,000 voters requested mail-in ballots on time and didn't get them. And there were post office problems or postmark problems. So there were voters who were disenfranchised, and we'll never know just what turnout would have been if it hadn't been for coronavirus.

But all in all, 1.1 million mail-in ballots were requested and returned. That makes the total vote count right in line or even higher than previous state Supreme Court races and also on par with other presidential primaries.

INSKEEP: And I suppose we should mention also the ultimate result was in favor of the people who said the election was unfair.

SILVER: Yes, it was, in fact.

INSKEEP: Maayan Silver of WUWM in Milwaukee, thanks very much.

SILVER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.