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News Brief: Trump Rhetoric, Pandemic Research, Israeli COVID-19 Cases


In two holiday speeches - one at Mount Rushmore and one at the White House - President Trump painted a picture of a divided America.


The president said the Fourth of July was for, quote, celebrating "our history, our heroes and our heritage." And he went on to say there is no room to question any of it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children or trample on our freedoms.

MARTIN: Stoking racial divides helped him get elected in 2016. Will it work again?

GREENE: We have NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe here. Hi, Ayesha.


GREENE: So can you just take us through some of what we heard from President Trump over the weekend?

RASCOE: President Trump had two events this weekend, one at Mount Rushmore and another at the White House. But the message at both was pretty much the same. He positioned himself as this defender of American heritage with a warning to those people he accused of threatening that heritage. This was not a unifying message. He basically claimed that those that talk about the country's history of slavery and the racism that has dogged the U.S. since its founding, that they, quote, "are not interested in justice or in healing." He talked about defeating not an external enemy, but the radical left, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters. It was about leaning into cultural divides.

He did not explicitly mention the Confederacy. But he has loudly defended Confederate statues and military bases named after Confederate figures. And that is the backdrop for this conversation. And in both speeches, he also talked about this idea. He signed an executive order to create this national garden of American heroes, which would have statues of various American figures from history.

GREENE: Well, so we're - what? - a little less than four months away from Election Day. And polls right now show President Trump trailing Democrat Joe Biden. I mean, is this the president's reelection pitch? Or to what extent does this give us sort of an idea of what that pitch is going to be in these four months ahead?

RASCOE: Trump is making this bet that his messages of defending our heritage and of law and order will resonate with enough voters to make a difference. It's a message that appeals to his largely white base, who he is hoping will turn out at a level that is enough to get him reelected. This is the sort of message that worked for him in 2016. But, of course, that was a different time without a pandemic. So he's staking his reelection not on his handling of the coronavirus, but on this politics of grievance and this idea that he will protect his base from a seemingly changing America.

GREENE: I mean, it is kind of really notable, though, that, I mean, we have this pandemic. And 130,000 Americans, you know, people in our country, have died from this disease. Is the president saying much about that at all in these speeches?

RASCOE: He's not saying much. But he did say, especially on Saturday, that his administration's strategy is working well. And he's going back to this idea that because the country is testing so much, that's why we're seeing so many cases, which is not accurate. He also said that 99% of cases are, quote, "totally harmless," which is not true and minimizes those who end up in the hospital because of the virus.

GREENE: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, who covers the White House for us. Ayesha, thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.


GREENE: So the message from health officials is clear, right? Where facemasks. Otherwise, economies might have to be shut down again to contain this coronavirus.

MARTIN: Yeah. The argument here is that masks minimize the passing of droplets from one person to another. But scientists are weighing whether the virus could be spreading in another way.

GREENE: And we have NPR's Allison Aubrey with us this morning. And, Allison, I thought - I mean, for everything that is unpredictable, I thought we had a handle on how this thing could be spread. But now scientists are saying that there might be some unanswered questions.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Sure. Hi, David. So the main way the virus is thought to spread is from person-to-person via respiratory droplets. So say I'm infected. And I sneeze or sing or talk loudly and particles containing the virus fly out of my mouth. David, you're standing close by - within about three feet - you can become infected. But some scientists say there's evidence that there is another way that lingering, like, smaller bits of virus can aerosolize and float in the air and perhaps infect people that way. Scientists call this aerosolized spread. Here's how physician Carlos del Rio describes it.

CARLOS DEL RIO: An aerosol is something that will remain in the air for long periods of time as opposed to either dropping quickly or being only from person to person.

AUBREY: Which opens up the possibility that someone could get infected even if they're socially distanced because, perhaps, they don't need to be sneezed on or breathed on directly.

GREENE: Well, so where does that leave us? Like, is this a way it's spread or not? Like, does the World Health Organization tell us that this is something we have to worry about more now?

AUBREY: Well, the World Health Organization says the primary way the virus spreads from person to person is via these respiratory droplets and that there's not convincing evidence of this aerosolized spread. But months into the pandemic, more than 200 scientists have signed a letter to the WHO asking them to take a look at some of the new evidence to try to understand it better, because if there is significant aerosol spread, it may make sense for people to, say, wear masks, better masks, indoors even when they're not standing close to other people.

GREENE: Allison, can I ask you about something Ayesha brought up, which was President Trump's remarks on Saturday? He said 99% of coronavirus cases are harmless, which, as Ayesha said, that is just not true. I wonder what the response has been from health officials, from state leaders, from everywhere.

AUBREY: Right. Yeah. Sure. Well, Trump's FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, would not back up the president on this comment. Keep in mind, about 80% of cases are considered mild. But 15 to 20% require hospitalization. Three to 5% of people require ICU care. And New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy pointed to the death toll on NBC.


PHIL MURPHY: This thing is lethal. New Jersey's paid an enormous price. We've lost over 13,000 confirmed fatalities from COVID-19. We're starting to see small spikes in reinfection from folks coming back from places like Myrtle Beach and as well as in Florida, other hot spots. To me, it says we need a national strategy, I think, right now. And masking has got to be at the core of that.

AUBREY: So instead of it varying from state to state, there should be a consistent policy nationwide.

GREENE: We heard the governor of New Jersey there talking about people returning from the beach. And, I mean, I guess we're not going to know for a little while if this holiday weekend impacted the numbers of infections. But, I mean, in general, can you tell us where things stand at this moment?

AUBREY: Well, overall, nationally, there was a slight decline in new cases the weekend. But numbers are still high in hot spots. Both Florida and Texas reported big daily rises. Florida reported about 11,000 new cases on Saturday. Texas reported about 8,300 new cases on Saturday. So that's the picture.

GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, David.


GREENE: All right. So let's talk about, now, what happened with Israel's plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

MARTIN: Right. So Israel had set July 1 as the date that it was going to move forward with annexing lands that Palestinians claim for themselves. That hasn't happened, though. And now Palestinians and Israelis are both scrambling to contain a new outbreak of coronavirus infections.

GREENE: What a moment. Let's go to NPR's Daniel Estrin, who is on the line from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.


GREENE: So give us the latest update first on these annexation plans.

ESTRIN: With every day that passes, annexation seems more and more unlikely. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says he will continue talking with the U.S. about annexation. But the White House is reportedly raising the ante now and telling Israel, if you annex some parts of the West Bank, you have to hand over other parts of it to the Palestinians. That's a tough ask.

You've got Joe Biden, who opposes annexation. And Netanyahu knows that if he annexes, that could set him on a collision course with a potential Biden presidency. European countries are against it, calling it a move against international law. And Israel's own government is divided on annexation. Netanyahu's defense minister says anything unrelated to the coronavirus has to wait.

GREENE: Well, I mean, as Rachel mentioned, there is this scramble there for Palestinians and Israelis to contain a new outbreak of coronavirus. So I mean, talk about how the virus is affecting life in Israel.

ESTRIN: You know, the first wave this spring, Netanyahu was actually praised for his handling of the coronavirus. There were very strict lockdowns. And Israel flattened the curve. And then the lockdowns were lifted. And like Allison was describing - very much like in some states in the U.S. - there is a major peak now in Israel. The numbers are higher than during the peak of the pandemic this spring, when Israel was on lockdown.

And Netanyahu is facing criticism that, you know, while these numbers were rising in the last few weeks, he was busy with other interests, like annexation and even seeking tax breaks for himself. Israel has reimpose some restrictions. Some weddings and bars are capped at 50 people. If you don't wear a mask in public, you can be fined about $150. But I think the Israeli public has lost a lot of confidence in the government's handling of the pandemic.

GREENE: And then what about Palestinians in the West Bank? How are they coping with this pandemic?

ESTRIN: In a very different way right now. Palestinians are also experiencing a huge spike because the officials there eased lockdowns. And now Palestinian officials are responding more strictly than Israel. The West Bank is under five days of lockdown now. That might be extended. No more moving around. Most businesses are closed.

The Palestinian health system is weak, so they can't afford a high number of cases. And the economy is frozen. So basically, Palestinians went from worrying about Israeli annexation plans to worrying about the here and now of, how am I going to make ends meet under these very strict lockdowns?

GREENE: All right. It's amazing to hear how this pandemic affects life all over the world. NPR's Daniel Estrin for us on the line from Jerusalem. Daniel, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

ESTRIN: Thank you, David. 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.
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