News Brief: Town Halls, Amy Coney Barrett, Europe's COVID-19 Cases

Oct 15, 2020
Originally published on October 15, 2020 8:00 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, a tale of two town halls.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

They are the replacements for one televised town hall. When that debate fell apart the other day, Joe Biden agreed to a town hall alone tonight on ABC. And the president then scheduled a competing town hall on NBC. Away from the TV screens, the Biden campaign set another fundraising record. Along with the Democratic Party, it collected $383 million in September.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So Steve gave us a snapshot, but just explain more fulsomely how we ended up with two competing town hall events.

LIASSON: What happened was, as you said, they were supposed to square off in Miami at a town hall debate tonight. But then President Trump got the coronavirus, and the independent commission that sets up these debates and decides on the rules decided to make this one virtual with the candidates in two separate places. They weren't sure if the president would still be contagious, but then Donald Trump said he wasn't interested. Here's what he said.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not going to waste my time in a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate is ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want.

LIASSON: Yeah, they cut your mic off whenever they want. Joe Biden said that in that case, he'd do his own televised town hall with ABC. Then just yesterday, NBC confirmed that it would do an hour-long event with Trump. They'll both start at 8 p.m. Eastern tonight. The ABC event with Biden is going to run longer to match the same 90 minutes that ABC gave to Donald Trump a month ago for a similar town hall.

MARTIN: For a similar town hall, right. So it's hard not to see this as Donald Trump and NBC setting up a ratings battle, right? I mean, who possibly wins in this format?

LIASSON: Well, I don't know who's going to get higher ratings, but you would think at this point the two candidates would be looking for votes, not eyeballs. It is unlikely that the two separate events at the same time will be must-watch TV since past televised town halls have not attracted all that many viewers, the kind of audience that would tune into a debate. And as to the format, it would seem to favor Biden's political skills, his ability to empathize with the people who are going to be asking the questions. Donald Trump generally doesn't engage with people in these formats directly. He just sticks to his message. Here he is at his last town hall responding to a woman who asked a very impassioned question about what would happen with coverage for her preexisting condition if the Affordable Care Act was repealed.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want to know what you are going to do about that.

TRUMP: So, first of all, I hope you are taken seriously. I hope you are. And we are not going to hurt anything having to do with preexisting conditions. We're not going to hurt preexisting conditions. And in fact, just the opposite. If you look at what they want to do, where they have socialized medicine, they will get rid of preexisting conditions.

LIASSON: This turned into a five-minute exchange in which the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, interjected to point out that Donald Trump is in court right now fighting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and he hasn't yet come up with a plan to replace it. The problem for Donald Trump is that he has to change the dynamic of the race from a referendum on him to a binary choice. And to do that, he has to disqualify very aggressively Joe Biden. And that kind of approach is hard to do in a town hall format where voters want answers to their questions, not scorched-earth attacks.

MARTIN: So if we could, Mara, let's just take a step back and talk about where the race is at at this point. We're only 19 days away from November 3. What's the state of play?

LIASSON: Well, the candidates are going around the country looking for votes. The polls have been very steady. Biden's still in the lead. His lead is smaller in the swing states, but the Trump campaign says they are within striking distance. We have a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll out today that shows Biden with an 11-point lead nationally. And Donald Trump is actually going to hold a rally tomorrow night in Macon, Ga., of all places. It's the kind of place in the kind of state that Republicans should be able to take for granted. But it shows you how the map of competitive states has expanded and how Donald Trump is playing defense.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: What's in a question, really? How much can an answer reveal about the person taking the questions and the one doing the asking?

INSKEEP: Judge Amy Coney Barrett faced many questions about how she'd handle the Supreme Court seat. Her official task here was to give senators some idea of her thinking without committing herself on future cases. Her political task was to say nothing that derails a nomination Republicans are determined to confirm. If she's quickly confirmed, Barrett would join the court for a case challenging the Affordable Care Act, but she insisted she is not hostile to that act, even though the president who nominated her is. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is leaving little doubt about where the nomination is headed.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is the first time in American history that we've nominated a woman who's unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology. And she's going to the court.

INSKEEP: The exchange prompted social media commentary as to whether a man would have faced that question. Barrett's supporters have taken many chances to mention her family.

MARTIN: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson followed the hearings, and she is with us now. So, Carrie, senators had more than 20 hours of questions for Judge Barrett. They didn't always get answers, as we have noted. What were the areas she tended to avoid?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Rachel, it was a long list. She wouldn't answer questions about whether the president could pardon himself or move the Election Day. She wouldn't address long lines at the polls or allegations of voter suppression. She wouldn't say that human activity causes climate change or that climate change is real. And she wouldn't say it's wrong to separate children from their undocumented parents at the border to deter immigration. She says these are all policy debates or issues that could come to the Supreme Court someday, so she didn't want to talk about them.

MARTIN: So, I mean, did we learn anything about more generally her approach to the law or how she might rule if she lands on the court?

JOHNSON: There are some major areas where we got some clues over the last few days. The first is abortion. She said she didn't consider the landmark abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade, a super precedent, meaning that it was beyond legal challenge. Instead, she said, it's still very much subject to legal challenges through the courts. Barrett also refused to answer whether a case called Griswold v. Connecticut was correctly decided. That case found a right to privacy for married couples using contraception - legalized contraception for married people. And those answers have got abortion rights groups pretty rattled today.

MARTIN: Let's talk about when the Affordable Care Act came up. It's gotten a lot of attention in these hearings. Democrats say that President Trump is putting Judge Barrett on the court explicitly to help throw out that law. How'd she respond to that?

JOHNSON: Well, remember, the court is hearing a challenge to the ACA one week after the election. And Kamala Harris, who's running for vice president, suggested that Barrett had been auditioning for the court by writing critical things about earlier decisions on Obamacare. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also pressed the nominee, but Barrett really strongly denied it. And here's what she had to say.

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AMY CONEY BARRETT: All these questions, you're suggesting that I have animus or that I cut a deal with the president. And I was very clear yesterday that that isn't what happened.

JOHNSON: And the judge basically said no one knows how she's going to rule on that case if she's appointed to the Supreme Court because she hasn't looked at the issues yet and she doesn't know.

MARTIN: Carrie, when's the final vote?

JOHNSON: A final vote is likely to come by the end of October, shortly before the election.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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MARTIN: All right. Some public health experts have talked about how societies have to do this sort of dance with COVID-19. When rates are down, people feel confident. They go back to the middle of the dance floor. Then the virus spreads, and people are forced to sashay right off again. Europe is moving off the dance floor right now.

INSKEEP: After a summer during which restrictions were loosened and the continent largely opened up, Europe is reporting twice as many new daily cases as the United States. And each European government is addressing this problem or failing to in its own way.

MARTIN: With us now from Berlin, Esme Nicholson. Esme, thanks for being here.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you are in Germany. Let's start there. Just tell us what's going on.

NICHOLSON: Well, as you know, Germany has fared well and has actually been seen as a bit of a pandemic role model. But this morning, the CDC equivalent here, the Robert Koch Institute, reported its highest number of new infections since the start of the pandemic. And in personal news, I just heard that my child's day care teacher tested positive, so now we're waiting to hear from contact tracers about testing. So the situation is certainly changing here. And the chancellor, Angela Merkel, is worried. In fact, yesterday, she summoned Germany's 16 state governors to Berlin to meet in person for the first time since March. And it's worth mentioning that Merkel can't actually make any unilateral decisions about measures because the power lies with the states. So her role really is to foster consensus, which is something she constantly does with the European Union. She's known to be a very skilled negotiator.

MARTIN: Yeah. So how has that manifested? What's she been able to do?

NICHOLSON: Well, she's - it's been no easy task. And she's managed to get the governors to agree on a slate of what are actually fairly low-key measures. That's because infection rates are still comparatively low here, about 6,000 a day currently. But she has warned that more will come if necessary, and it's still clear that she wants to avoid another lockdown.

MARTIN: Let's talk about France. President Emmanuel Macron has announced new restrictions because of an uptick in the virus there. What's his strategy?

NICHOLSON: Well, the French approach is much tougher than Germany's, mainly because the infection rate is four times as high, but also because President Macron has more powers than Merkel in what is a much more centralized country. So from Saturday, there are going to be nighttime curfews in Paris and in eight other cities for at least the next month, meaning that if you refuse to stay home after 9 p.m., you face fines. But Macron's announcement wasn't just about legal measures. He also urged fellow citizens to be cooperative, and his message was conveyed in an interview rather than his address, which some believe was an attempt to appeal to people in a less top-down way.

MARTIN: And finally, Esme, just briefly, what about the U.K.? It's had more deaths because of COVID than any nation in Europe.

NICHOLSON: It has. And, you know, the U.K. system is different again. And although it's a very centralized country like France, health care is actually managed separately in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And, in fact, Northern Ireland's first minister, Arlene Foster, announced yesterday that a nationwide lockdown will come into effect from tomorrow for the next four weeks. Boris Johnson is currently under fire for refusing to do any kind of a lockdown because of what he says it will do to the economy.

MARTIN: Journalist Esme Nicholson talking to us from Berlin. Esme, thanks so much.

NICHOLSON: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.