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News Brief: Oregon Wildfire, Bob Woodward Book, DHS Whistleblower,

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An orange glow filled the sky over San Francisco yesterday, one of many signs of fire across the West.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Extreme heat and 50 mph wind gusts are fueling the fires. In Oregon, more than three dozen wildfires are affecting every region of that state. Gov. Kate Brown called it a once-in-a-generation event. The fires all but destroyed five small towns on Wednesday. At least three people are reported dead.

INSKEEP: Emily Cureton is the central Oregon bureau chief for Oregon Public Broadcasting and is following all of this from Bend, Ore. Good morning.

EMILY CURETON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Could you just describe what the last 24 hours have been like in Oregon?

CURETON: Well, state officials are calling the destruction seen so far unprecedented. As of yesterday afternoon, fires are burning on more than 500 square miles of the state. Communities located hundreds of miles apart have been substantially destroyed. This includes Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix and Talent, Ore. At a press conference yesterday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told Oregonians to brace for a death toll. Here's Brown.

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KATE BROWN: This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state's history.

CURETON: Brown sent a letter yesterday to President Donald Trump requesting a federal emergency declaration to free up more state resources for things like search and rescue, shelter, food and mortuary assistance.

INSKEEP: Granting that we're early here and the numbers will change, how can we measure the death and destruction?

CURETON: Three people are confirmed dead as of Wednesday. This includes a 13-year-old boy and his grandmother. And more deaths are expected. Search and rescue operations in burned areas have been slowed by the dangerous windy conditions over the last three days. And resources are being stretched thin as these evacuations continue. As for property, early reports indicate at least hundreds of homes in central and southern Oregon have burned. My colleague Dirk VanderHart spoke to Dennis Mahlum yesterday in Salem. Mahlum's house burned down near the Santiam River in the community of Gates.

DENNIS MAHLUM: Pretty much the whole town is gone. There isn't much left there. So the worst part of it is we're hearing from my son up in the Molalla area, and I think his home burned to the ground last night, too.

CURETON: For context there, the son's home is 50 miles from Mahlum's, on a different river. And adding to the disasters, nearly 50,000 people are without electricity this morning. Then there's smoke blanketing much of western Oregon, making the air unhealthy to breathe. That's especially bad news for vulnerable people and people with COVID-19.

INSKEEP: Well, how do people protect themselves from the pandemic while also protecting themselves from the fire?

CURETON: The Red Cross has set up temporary evacuation points around the state. And these aren't like shelters of the past. I mean, they're essentially parking lots where evacuees can come to stay in and around their vehicles while volunteers try to meet their needs. Red Cross spokesman Chad Carter told me that people who need shelter are being handled on a case-by-case basis.

CHAD CARTER: So when someone shows up and they do need shelter, we're prioritizing based on the size and scope of the disaster hotel rooms. That's the safest place for folks to be because of COVID-19.

CURETON: That said, there just aren't enough available hotel rooms near the evacuated community. And some more traditional shelters are being set up.

INSKEEP: What are fire managers expected today, very briefly?

CURETON: Hopefully, weaker winds. The forecast is changing and we are told that is a hopeful change in weather conditions, where we might be able to pivot from survival mode to containment.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks so much.

CURETON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: Emily Cureton of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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INSKEEP: President Trump provided two very different assessments of the pandemic. Off camera, he knew it was serious, far more deadly than the flu. On camera, he told you that it would go away and was far less deadly than the flu.

MARTIN: This is not the first inside account to offer damaging revelations about the president. In this case, though, the source of the information is the president. He spoke with journalist Bob Woodward for a new book called "Rage." We're going to hear some of his remarks in the order they happened. On February 7, the president told Woodward that he had learned just how dangerous the virus was. Here's audio from The Washington Post.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch - you don't have to touch things, right? But the air - you just breathe the air. And that's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your - you know, your - even your strenuous flus.

MARTIN: Later that same month, the stock market plunged over fears of the pandemic. And the president began saying the virus was far less deadly than the flu.

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TRUMP: It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle. It will disappear.

MARTIN: By March 10, he had known for more than a month it was far more deadly than the flu. But here's what he told the nation that day.

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TRUMP: Now I guess we're at 26 deaths. And if you look at the flu, the flu for this year, we're at 8 million - we're looking at 8,000 deaths and, you know, hundreds of thousands of cases. We have 8,000 deaths. So you have 8,000 versus 26 deaths at this time.

INSKEEP: What to make of all this? NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What were the president's original sources of information that the pandemic was really serious?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, two key sources were his top national security advisers. One was his national security adviser Robert O'Brien, who told Trump that the virus will be the biggest national security threat that he would face in his presidency. Another was another national security adviser for that region, who compared this to the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed as many as 50 million people. But President Trump was also talking with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the significance of the virus in early February. And all that time, he was talking publicly about how this virus would go away.

INSKEEP: What seems to have prompted him to speak falsely that way?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, the - President Trump says that he did not want to create a panic. He wanted to instead show confidence. But the reality is there was already a lot of fear around the world. By mid-February, the virus had spread rapidly from China - also South Korea and Italy. And those fears included economic concerns, as Rachel noted. International markets took a major hit, you know, amid fears of a prolonged global economic slowdown.

INSKEEP: How's the president defending himself now that the book is out?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he's arguing now that there was not much of a discrepancy between what he said and the book. But I was at the White House yesterday and asked the president whether he was misleading the public. He told me he didn't want to scare people.

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TRUMP: We don't want to run around screaming, shouting. Oh, look at this. Look at this. We have to show leadership. And leadership is all about confidence. And confidence is confidence in our country.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, the president said he saw his role as being one of a cheerleader. And that was something that he HAS said throughout the crisis.

INSKEEP: Although, there's cheerleading. There's optimism. And there's saying things that are not true. How does his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, deal with the untruth here?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he wasted no time attacking Trump on this and accused Trump of a life-and-death betrayal of the American people.

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JOE BIDEN: He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months. He had the information. He knew how dangerous it was. And while this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose.

ORDOÑEZ: He also said Trump's slow response cost lives.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez.

Now we have another story about the gulf between what the administration knew and what it was willing to say.

MARTIN: A government whistleblower contends that the administration wanted intelligence that matched the president's politics. The whistleblower is Brian Murphy. He led the intelligence branch of the Department of Homeland Security. He says he was asked to stop reporting on the threat of Russian interference to the election. He was supposed to emphasize the threat from China instead. He was also told to downplay the threat from white supremacists but highlight the threat of antifa and other leftist groups, all to please the president.

INSKEEP: Mr. Murphy says he lost his job for speaking up. NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam is here to focus on one of the allegations. Hi there, Hannah.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi there.

INSKEEP: Which allegation?

ALLAM: Well, I'm focusing on where Brian Murphy describes what he calls attempts to influence intelligence on domestic terrorism. And the upshot there is Murphy says his bosses, the top DHS officials, told him in no uncertain terms on different occasions to play down the threat of white supremacists and to play up the threat of antifa and other militant leftists. And he says he was told to do this so that DHS intelligence assessments were in line with what President Trump says publicly. And Trump frequently and erroneously, we should say, portrays antifa as an equal or even greater threat than the exponentially deadlier extreme right.

This is something I've discussed with Seth Jones at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has a long background in counterterrorism work here. He and other researchers say White House assertions of widespread violence from the left are baseless.

SETH JONES: The far left simply does not present the same threat that the far right does in capabilities, in plots, in attacks or in fatalities - none of those.

INSKEEP: And we should note we've heard the same thing from other DHS officials on the record on this program. How does Murphy describe the campaign to get him to change his findings?

ALLAM: Well, he talks about being asked by the top leaders to soften language in a report on white supremacy, to make it, quote, "less severe." And at the same time, he says, he was being asked to include more information on the far left. And he talks about antifa and anarchists in particular there. The White House has dismissed the allegations as false and defamatory. They call Murphy a disgruntled employee. He was removed from the intel post last month under criticism about his office gathering information on protesters and journalists.

But yes, as you said, he is not the first to raise these concerns. We've heard former officials say this. We've heard it from researchers who work closely with the government on policymaking. And, I mean, we hear it ourselves in the markedly different ways the president speaks about attacks for the perpetrators - a right-wing ideologue versus, say, a leftist or a Muslim.

INSKEEP: So then what does this whistleblower complaint add to what we knew?

ALLAM: It takes it up a notch in terms of - you know, here's an insider alleging that political appointees attempted to manipulate actual intelligence. And so it's one more account saying the Trump administration looked the other way as violent white supremacists and other far-right actors got more organized and better-funded. And now we're seeing some of those groups show up at protests, intimidate people and launch attacks.

INSKEEP: Hannah, thanks for the analysis. Really appreciate it. Thank you.

ALLAM: That's NPR's Hannah Allam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.