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News Brief: Unemployment Data, Michael Flynn Case, Georgia Shooting

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Often, a new monthly jobs report is of interest, you know, mostly to economists and policymakers. The one coming out today could be much more significant.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. Because of COVID-19, we could see the highest unemployment rate in this country since the Great Depression.

GREENE: And let's talk about this moment with NPR's Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So how ugly do we think these numbers are going to be?

HORSLEY: Very ugly. To put this in some perspective, David, the worst monthly job loss we saw during the Great Recession, the financial crisis, was 800,000. This morning's report is going to show job losses in the millions, maybe as many as 20 million. And as painful as that is, it's still not going to tell the full story of the economic wreckage that the coronavirus pandemic has been causing.

GREENE: Why not?

HORSLEY: Well, a couple of reasons. This report is based on surveys that were conducted three weeks ago. And we know from the weekly unemployment claims that there have been millions of additional job losses since then. What's more, the unemployment rate here only counts people who are actively looking for work. And of course, right now, a lot of people are not, either because they're worried about the coronavirus or because the government has told them to stay home.

GREENE: OK. So take us through exactly what we're expecting and what we will see in this report today.

HORSLEY: The April snapshot is going to be staggering. It's kind of a freeze-frame image of an economy that was abruptly and deliberately stopped in its tracks in a desperate bid to slow the spread of this pandemic. I've been talking with some of the people behind these scary statistics, folks like Carmine DiBiase. He's a longshoreman at Port Canaveral in Florida. He told me he's really been feeling the global slowdown. He used to work five days a week, loading and unloading cruise ships.

Now, of course, that all came to a halt weeks ago when the cruise ships stopped sailing. After that happened, DiBiase and his son, who is also a longshoreman, spent about 10 hours each on their computers just trying to navigate Florida's nightmarish unemployment system. DiBiase finally got his first unemployment payment about a week ago. And that covered about half what he'd been making on the job. He knows there are a lot of people who are still waiting.

CARMINE DIBIASE: While we are tightening our belt here, I'm certainly better off than many. I haven't missed any meals yet, that's for sure - there are some people that are. They're hitting bread lines. And it's tough.

HORSLEY: I also talked with Beverly Pickering (ph). She's also been out of work. She's a dog sitter based near Detroit. Ordinarily, she looks after the pets of autoworkers when they're traveling.

BEVERLY PICKERING: That absolutely collapsed. I've had no customers traveling. And as far as dog walks, everybody's home and walking their own dogs.

HORSLEY: Of course, Detroit was also a hotspot for coronavirus infections. So Pickering had to worry about getting sick, as well as how she was going to pay her bills. A saving grace for her is the expansion of unemployment benefits, which has allowed her to collect even though she is self-employed.

She also told me she's beginning to see some glimmers of hope just in the last few days. You know, automakers have announced that plants are going to start reopening. And she is beginning to hear from clients who might need their dogs walked again soon. She's looking forward to that, the dogs are, too. She heard about one dog who's been looking out the window for her every afternoon...

GREENE: (Laughter)

HORSLEY: ...At the time they used to go for their walks.

GREENE: Oh, that's great. Well, I hope those walks will be happening again. But, I mean, Scott, we have, you know, obviously, governors, others making these hard decisions about when to reopen. But when things do start reopening, as we're seeing in some places, are we going to see more glimmers of hope? Could we have reached the bottom of this terrible job situation?

HORSLEY: You know, this April report will likely show the biggest single-month decline in employment. But it does appear, from those weekly unemployment claims, that the pace of layoffs has been slowing down. But it's still really high by historical standards. And it's not going to be a real quick turnaround, you know, with employers suddenly adding a lot of jobs. Next month's report is likely to show the unemployment rate ratcheting up even higher.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: OK. So the Department of Justice has reversed course in one of the most high-profile cases in the Mueller investigation.

KING: Right. So you remember Michael Flynn. He was the president's national security adviser. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. But now, for some reason, the DOJ is dropping its case against him.

GREENE: And we have NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas here. Hi, Ryan. For those of us who don't remember everything about Michael Flynn...

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...Can you just - I mean, a lot has happened since then. Can you take us back...

LUCAS: It has.

GREENE: ...And remind us who he is and what role he played.

LUCAS: Right. So the FBI began investigating Flynn back in 2016 as part of the broader Russia investigation. FBI agents interviewed him at the White House in January of 2017. And in that interview, Flynn lied to them about his conversations that he had had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

A few weeks later, Flynn left the administration for allegedly lying to the vice president about those talks with the Russian envoy. Then in late 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements to the FBI. The case against him was part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. And Flynn, after pleading guilty, cooperated extensively with Mueller's team in that investigation.

GREENE: OK. Pleaded guilty to making false statements, I mean, that, among other things, makes me wonder why the Justice Department decides now to drop this case.

LUCAS: This is an unusual decision. But there is a review that Attorney General William Barr ordered earlier this year. He put the U.S. attorney for Missouri, Jeffrey Jensen, in charge of it to take a look at the Flynn case from top to bottom. And after reviewing everything, the Department concluded that continuing Flynn's prosecution wouldn't be in the interest of justice. And this decision revolves around the interview that I mentioned earlier that Flynn had with the FBI, the interview where he lied to the agents.

The department now says that after looking at some recently discovered documents and newly declassified information, that it has concluded that it was unjustified, that there was no legitimate investigative basis for that interview. Basically, it says that interview never should have taken place. It also says that Flynn's lies about his talks with the Russian ambassador weren't material to an investigation seeking to determine the nature of Flynn's relationship with Russia.

GREENE: Could this have significant implications for the FBI here?

LUCAS: Well, I mean, certainly, for Flynn and his supporters, they view this as vindication of their long-running allegations of misconduct by the FBI. There are allegations that bad actors in the FBI were out to get Flynn from the beginning. That's, in part, why Flynn and this case have become a central element of attacks against Mueller and the Russia investigation, and certainly something that President Trump has latched onto as well. He has pushed that view as well. On the other hand, there are certainly people who will take a look at this and say, Flynn did stand up in court twice and plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

GREENE: Well, I mean, then you have Attorney General Bill Barr, who has been among the vocal critics of the Mueller investigation, to say the least. What was his role in this decision and in all this?

LUCAS: Right. The outside prosecutor, Jeff Jensen, who reviewed the Flynn material decided after his review that this case should be dropped. He says that he briefed Barr on this. And the attorney general agreed. Now, Barr spoke to CBS News last night. He told them it was his decision. And here's a bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS WITH NORAH O'DONNELL ")

WILLIAM BARR: I want to make sure that we restore confidence in the system. There's only one standard of justice.

LUCAS: Now, for many former prosecutors and critics of Barr, this move does the exact opposite of that. Critics point to this as another instance of Barr putting his thumb on the scales of justice for a friend of the president. And rather than restoring confidence, for a lot of people, this actually deepens concerns about the politicization of the department under Barr's leadership.

GREENE: NPR's Ryan Lucas for us this morning. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: So last night, police arrested two white men in connection with the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man who was out for a jog in southeast Georgia.

KING: The two men are a father and son. They're facing charges of murder and aggravated assault. The shooting happened back in February. But there wasn't much of a response. And then this week, some cellphone footage of the incident was leaked to the public.

GREENE: Emily Jones of Georgia Public Broadcasting has been following this story. Hi, Emily.

EMILY JONES, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So why did it take so long for these arrests to be made?

JONES: Well, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation didn't become the lead agency on the case until this week and then acted within days of taking over, making these arrests. But the larger question is why local authorities didn't act sooner. The facts in the case are somewhat clear. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in a mostly white neighborhood. And two men - the two who were arrested - 64-year-old Gregory McMichael and his son, 34-year-old Travis McMichael, got out their truck with guns to confront Arbery. They told police that they thought he looked like a burglary suspect. And then this video that came out this week shows the confrontation.

As for why this may have taken so long, Gregory McMichael has worked in law enforcement in the area for more than 20 years, including time working as an investigator in the district attorney's office in Brunswick. This case passed through two district attorneys, both of whom had to recuse themselves due to conflicts of interest with McMichael. And then a third DA took over. And this past Tuesday, that DA asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over the case. And now, two days later, that's when the arrests happened.

GREENE: All right. So how is Arbery's family reacting to these arrests?

JONES: I spoke to his aunt not long afterwards. Her name is Thea Brooks. And she was happy, relieved, excited that there was finally an arrest in Ahmaud's shooting death.

THEA BROOKS: I started running for Maud down the street, literally (laughter). Literally, I started running. Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am.

JONES: And, David, let's remember, this shooting happened back on February 23, more than 10 weeks ago. This family has just been shell-shocked by what happened and all of the frustration and anger about the lack of legal action. They finally got what they've been calling for, which is some sort of accountability to get their day in court. The family's attorney, Benjamin Crump, says the arrests are the first step to justice. But, quote, "it's a travesty that it took this long."

GREENE: Well, and we have seen protests this week around this case. Do you think these arrests - you know, to what extent are they going to calm the public?

JONES: Well, the arrests have changed the mood, certainly. People have been very angry. And now there's this sense of relief and happiness. But, you know, across the U.S., there have been several high-profile killings like this one. And in many cases, there's not justice to the full satisfaction of those involved. So what these arrests in Brunswick mean is an important step for this case. But for protesters and civil rights activists and the family, it's not enough. There are already calls for the district attorney to resign.

GREENE: All right. Emily Jones of Georgia Public Broadcasting covering this story for us. Emily, thank you so much.

JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.