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News Brief: Presidential Debate, COVID-19 Death Toll, Calif. Wildfires


So the moment has come. It will be President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the debate stage tonight for the first time.


Right. This is the first of what will be three presidential debates. It comes right after this massive investigative report in The New York Times about President Trump's taxes. First, we learned the president paid very little federal personal income tax for years as he claimed massive business losses. And in a second story, The Times details the role that "The Apprentice" TV show played in Trump's life. The reality show, according to The Times, was a lifeline for Trump who was struggling to keep his businesses afloat.

GREENE: And we should say NPR has not examined those tax returns independently. But the revelations about Trump's finances will likely be an issue at tonight's debate, which is taking place in Cleveland, Ohio. And that is where we find NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: In the wake of this reporting, I mean, what are you expecting to hear about the president's taxes as we go into this first debate?

KHALID: Well, I will say, David, we have not yet heard anything from Joe Biden on this story. And so tonight is really our first chance to hear his response. I anticipate he will find a way to bring it up, if the moderator doesn't bring it up first. And I say that because Biden's campaign was quick to capitalize on this story. Mere hours after it broke, his campaign put together this online video comparing what it says are average taxes paid by teachers, firefighters and nurses to the $750 The New York Times says Trump paid in 2016 and 2017. The campaign also released a calculator where you could compare what you paid in taxes to the president. And it all overall fits into this broader narrative that Biden has been trying to play up the past few weeks. He's been saying that this election is really about Scranton versus Park Avenue where Joe Biden is looking out for the working man and, in his view, Trump is the candidate for the ultra rich elite. I will say, though, no matter how this comes up tonight, I think we can anticipate hearing possibly two lines of defense from the president, either that this story is fake news or that he is smart and entitled to tax credits like other people.

GREENE: Well, surely we're also going to hear the president defending his record on handling the pandemic. I mean, Joe Biden has tried to make that such an issue. We've reached a million deaths - more than a million deaths around the world. That's sure to come up. I mean, talk us through how that will come up and what other topics we might be hearing about.

KHALID: Well, the pandemic will certainly, you're right, come up. Chris Wallace of Fox News is anchoring, and he's released a list of topics, which also include the economy, election integrity, race and violence, Trump and Biden's records and, of course, the Supreme Court. Over the weekend, Trump announced his nominee to the court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. And it appears, you know, he has the Republican votes to confirm her. So what I'm interested in is how Biden confronts this issue. You know, arguably you would assume by trying to tie it to health care since Judge Barrett has criticized past rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act.

GREENE: Interesting timing for this debate, right? I mean, it's the first debate, Asma, but an estimated million voters have already voted in this election. So does that make the stakes different somehow?

KHALID: You know, I think that's a really valid question, David. What I will say is that, you know, there are still a lot of people left to vote, and polls have shown President Trump trailing. So I would anticipate he's going to try to, you know, change up the race in some ways. I will say he is an unpredictable kind of forceful debater, somebody who is a TV entertainer with a loose definition of the truth. And Joe Biden has been saying that his strategy, you know, to debate the president is to just tell the truth. So it will be interesting how this all shapes up. What I will say, David, is we are in an incredibly polarized moment of politics with not a lot of undecideds.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Asma Khalid in Cleveland for the debate tonight. Asma, thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. As we said, more than a million people around the world have now died from COVID-19.

MARTIN: And the horrible reality is that it could be more.


MICHAEL RYAN: If anything, the numbers that are currently reported probably represent an underestimate of those individuals who have either contracted COVID-19 or have died as a cause of it.

MARTIN: That's Michael Ryan. He's director of the World Health Organization's health emergencies program. The U.S. has been hit hardest with the most deaths and infections around the world. But India is now showing troubling signs that they could surpass the U.S.

GREENE: Yeah. They are reporting staggering infection rates right now and even as they're continuing to reopen the economy. And let's talk to Lauren Frayer, who covers India for NPR. Lauren, good morning to you, and talk us through what exactly is happening in that country right now.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So what's happening is that every single day, India has been adding the most coronavirus cases in the world. India is where the virus is spreading fastest. Yesterday, India crossed the 6 million mark mark - 6 million coronavirus cases in total. The U.S. is the only other country to pass that milestone. And India, as you mentioned, is on track to surpass the U.S. total caseload probably sometime in October.

GREENE: Lauren, didn't India have a really strict lockdown at some point? So how did we get here?

FRAYER: Yeah. So it's not like India didn't take this seriously. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a mask in public very early on. In late March, he ordered nearly 1.4 billion people not to leave their homes. This was the biggest coronavirus lockdown in the world. White-collar workers adapted OK, working from home, ordering takeout. But in India, hundreds of millions of people live in poverty, and they just could not adapt as well. Here's the sound of one of the many migrant workers who got stranded far from home when factories and other workplaces abruptly shut.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: In this song, the man is begging the government to restart public transit as he walks - literally walks - across India to his home village where he can get food rations. And all spring, we had almost daily reports of people starving to death on the sides of roads in situations like this. So, you know, the government saw that and lifted the lockdown. It saw this human tragedy and also the economic damage. India's economy shrank by 24% last quarter. And so since then, things have been opening up, and the virus has spread all over the country, even to indigenous tribes on the remote Andaman Islands.

GREENE: Wow. All right. So that gives you a sense of the impossible decisions this government has had to try and make. I guess I just wonder, though, looking at the reality here, you have an economy reopening, as you said, to try and help people, but you have a public health - a dire public health situation with this virus spreading. Is there any reason for hope that this could get better in India sometime soon?

FRAYER: Two things - India's relatively low fatality rate from the coronavirus and high testing rates. So, yes, India may soon overtake the U.S. in total confirmed cases, but it's got less than half the number of deaths from the coronavirus as the United States. Now, a huge caveat - only a small fraction of deaths in India are ever medically certified, so these numbers could be wildly off. But assuming the data is correct, scientists attribute this to India's young demographics. More than half the population is under the age of 25. Also testing - a few days ago, India did a million and a half tests in a day. That's a lot of tests. I spoke by phone with Dr. John Victor Peter. He runs a chain of hospitals in south India.

JOHN VICTOR PETER: Testing has been ramped up phenomenally. If you test and pick them up, you can isolate them and break the chain of transmission. And I think we are beginning to see maybe some glimmer of change.

FRAYER: So he cites this glimmer of change. And actually today, India confirmed 70,000 new cases. That's a sharp decline from recent days - too soon to tell whether the virus has peaked in India yet.

GREENE: NPR's Lauren Frayer, our India correspondent, talking to us as the world goes over the 1 million death mark from coronavirus. Lauren, thanks a lot.

FRAYER: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. Here's just one voice from California's Sonoma County.

SUSAN GORIN: We were enveloped in smoke, never recognizing that that fire would ember and come cascading down the hill and over the ridge the very next evening.

MARTIN: That's the county supervisor, Susan Gorin. She fled her home Sunday night, escaping the Glass Wildfire burning in Northern California's wine country. It is one of two fires that came on suddenly and burned some communities to the ground. At least three people have been killed. More than 68,000 Californians are now under an evacuation order in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

GREENE: Kevin Stark with member station KQED is in Sonoma County near one of these fires. Thanks for being here, Kevin.

KEVIN STARK, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, David.

GREENE: I guess you have the county supervisor who's experiencing this fire firsthand. Tell us more about what happened there.

STARK: Yeah. So she described how the fire started as a concerning, you know, but small fire some distance from her home in Santa Rosa, a suburb. You know, this is an area that has burned several times in recent years. So for the people near the fire, they're performing what has become a familiar dance. You know, they're checking evacuation alerts. They're readying go bags. They're monitoring fire reports. And in some cases, they're fleeing their homes not knowing when they will be returning or what they will be returning to. This seems to happen almost every year, you know. And on Sunday night, the winds picked up, and the wildfire spread rapidly across Napa Valley. It was a reminder of a traumatic event when Gorin's home burned in a fire a few years ago in 2017. You know, she described the embers on the tinder-dry vegetation that sparked more fire, which spread, forcing her to evacuate. This is what fire officials describe as, you know, explosive fire growth.

GREENE: With the evacuations that are happening, I guess I just wonder how much harder that is given that we're in a pandemic.

STARK: Yeah. It's a great question. I mean, normally, people would flee to these large evacuation centers, fairgrounds, community centers. But remember, you know, this is the area of COVID, so that would be dangerous. So now officials have set up what are kind of like evacuation pit stops. You know, people are screened for the coronavirus symptoms. They're funneled towards hotels and college dorms. You know, many people where I am now, they're sleeping campers. They're in RVs and cars. You know, it's just really, really difficult to get to some shelter. You know, Susan was lucky enough to grab a place that she could escape.

GORIN: I'm evacuated in Nevada with a lot of friends and neighbors. We were lucky to get a motel room. They're hard to come by.

GREENE: Wow. And it sounds like there's just no sign of this ending soon.

STARK: Well, right now, firefighters have been focused on protecting people's homes, keeping people safe. When possible, they're dropping suppressant and water on the flames. But, you know, they're just beginning to try and control the fire. It's still growing and without any containment. Mark McGuire, he's a state senator for Sonoma County, spoke at that fire briefing, and he tried to put this fire into context for people.


MARK MCGUIRE: This fire is the biggest threat, the biggest threat to public safety in Northern California. I want to I remind folks is we do have significant fires across this state. As difficult as last night was, firefighters saved much more than were lost.

STARK: This fire was really being driven by some strong winds, but it has settled down, and we're hoping to have a better couple days.

GREENE: All right. We'll hope for that. The report from the fires that are really causing damage in wine country in Northern California - Kevin Stark with KQED, thanks so much.

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

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.