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News Brief: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dies, Pandemic Roundup


There was a lot of meaning in the laughter that Senate Leader Mitch McConnell drew last year.


Yeah, he was taking questions from an audience in Kentucky. And in the recording, you can hear people laugh as they realize that he plans to betray his own principle. In 2016, McConnell blocked President Obama's Supreme Court nomination, saying the people should vote for president first. But when he was talking to that audience in 2019, someone asked what he would do if a Supreme Court vacancy came during this election year.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Oh, we'd fill it.


MCCONNELL: Yeah. You know, the reason I started with the judges is important as all these other things are that we're talking about. I mean, what can't be undone is a lifetime appointment to a young man or woman who believes in the quaint notion that the job of a judge is to follow the law.

KING: And now he's making good on that. A little more than an hour after news broke that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, McConnell said the Senate would vote on President Trump's chosen replacement. So what are the implications here for the court and the country?

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Mara, good morning.


INSKEEP: And we're also joined by NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, good morning to you.


INSKEEP: And Mara, we'll start with you. How quickly is the White House moving here to fill this vacancy if they can?

LIASSON: They're moving very quickly because they can. This is the third seat they've had to fill since Trump was elected. A top adviser to the vice president pointed out yesterday that the president has already interviewed, vetted a lot of possible court nominees. The president said he would name someone this week. He's - we already have a short list. He says it's going to be a woman. We've been told some of the names that are being seriously considered are two recently confirmed federal judges, Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa.

INSKEEP: OK. And let's get a hypocrisy update here from Susan Davis. I know there's a large number of Republican senators who said in 2016, there should not be a vote on a Supreme Court nominee in an election year. That was the principle they laid down explicitly in order to block President Obama. How many of them are changing their minds?

DAVIS: Well, all of them - but I would say, also, in the course this time, McConnell and Republicans have always made the argument that what the standard was in 2016 is because the Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the White House. And they say when the same party controls both, that standard doesn't apply. This is, of course, a completely arbitrary standard. This is not about the rules of the Senate, but it is happening within the confines of the Senate.

INSKEEP: Sounds like one of those obscure baseball statistics, like saying this is the third third baseman since 1972 to bat .270 left-handed. I mean, it's such a narrow standard that they claim to have upheld. But I do have to stop and note, that wasn't what McConnell's statement was at the moment the vacancy occurred. He said the people should decide. That was the principle he laid out. But please, proceed.

DAVIS: That is true, and this is what I'm saying. It's an arbitrary standard that they've set. But it's within their power of the majority. And Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri - he's a member of the leadership team - he told CBS' "Face The Nation" yesterday he believes they can do it before the election.


ROY BLUNT: This should take as long as it needs to take but no longer. There is plenty of time to get this done. But to get it done before Election Day, everything has to work, I think, pretty precisely.

DAVIS: And Republicans are lining up behind McConnell. Just two senators - Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine - have said they oppose going forward before the election. There'd need to be two more senators to say the same thing to stop the process. It's also going to matter who the nominee is and how fast they can move. But I'd note that those two federal judges that Mara just mentioned have already been vetted, and they have already been supported by people like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

INSKEEP: And it is the Senate's power under the Constitution, as you point out. So what options, if any, do Democrats have?

DAVIS: Very few. They have a handful of minor delaying tactics - days, not weeks here. But Chuck Schumer is the top Democrat in the Senate. He's publicly warning Republicans that there will be retribution if the party takes control of the Senate in this November elections, which is very possible. Progressives and activists are calling for Democrats to do literally everything possible to try to slow this down until after the election. This is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking yesterday in New York.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We all need to be more courageous, and we all must - must act in unprecedented ways to make sure that our rights are stabilized. And to Mitch McConnell, we need to tell him that he is playing with fire.

DAVIS: There's already been some suggestions in Democratic circles that they go so far as passing new articles of impeachment in the House, either against the president or Attorney General Bill Barr, essentially because it would force the Senate into an impeachment trial and slow down the Senate's ability to confirm a nomination. I would say we are not there yet, but I think that level of conversation speaks to how politically mobilizing and divisive this nomination fight's going to be.

INSKEEP: Mara, what are the implications for President Trump's reelection campaign?

LIASSON: Well, he has two opportunities. The first is to cement his place in history as the guy who created a durable 6-3 conservative majority on the court for generations - that's been a 40-year goal of Republicans - also an opportunity to reset the presidential race to make it about something other than COVID and his leadership. Remember he used the courts and his promise to put conservatives on the courts to pull together the Republican base in 2016. At his rally this weekend, supporters started chanting fill that seat - sounded like the new version of build that wall. So it's a chance, also, for him to remind Republican voters who held their noses and voted for him in 2016 why they did. Remember; it's the judges. And although it's unclear how many Republicans who really care about the courts aren't already voting for him - but big opportunity for him to reset the campaign.

INSKEEP: Any sign that Democrats who traditionally have not been as motivated by the issue of judges are motivated this time?

LIASSON: Absolutely. We've seen Democrats have massive fundraising hauls. They're kind of breaking a new record every hour. As you said, Democrats typically aren't energized by the issue of the courts, but now there are some signs that they are. Some polls show they do care about the courts. Voters also choose Biden as the guy who would do a better job at choosing a Supreme Court justice. Joe Biden did speak about this yesterday, said the people should choose the person who picks the nominee. Here's what he said.


JOE BIDEN: If Donald Trump wins the election, then the Senate should move on his selection and weigh the nominee he chooses fairly. And if I win this election, President Trump's nominee should be withdrawn and, as the new president, I should be the one who nominates Justice Ginsburg's successor.

LIASSON: Democrats say their first job is to win the election, try to get the Senate majority back and then make Republicans pay a high price for pushing this nomination through.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson and Susan Davis. Thanks to you both.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

LIASSON: Thank you.


INSKEEP: Very soon, possibly today, we will have an official number that 200,000 Americans have died of coronavirus.

KING: And while their families and friends and communities are grieving, there are still so many questions, like when will we have a vaccine, and is the virus going to get worse when the weather gets colder? Here's Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner, being interviewed yesterday on CBS' "Face The Nation."


SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I think we have at least one more cycle with this virus heading into the fall and winter.

INSKEEP: We're joined now by NPR's Allison Aubrey who, week after week after week, has taken us through this crisis and given us health information. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Can you help us get some perspective on this number of 200,000?

AUBREY: You know, even as new cases decline nationwide, the U.S. now has the largest number of deaths of any country in the world. Consider India, a country that has about four times as many people, has less than half the number of documented COVID deaths. As a nation, we've just been hit really hard. Early in the pandemic, when it was concentrated in urban areas, specifically New York City, most Americans, Steve, didn't know anyone who had died or been sick with COVID. You know, it felt like a distant threat to many. But in recent months, there's been this distinct shift. Cases are dispersed all throughout the country, including small towns from the Sunbelt, hotspots in the Midwest now.

INSKEEP: Have you been affected, your family?

AUBREY: Absolutely. My father-in-law died from COVID complications earlier this summer. And like so many families who've dealt with this loss, the hardest part was just knowing he would die alone. He'd been in a long-term care facility, so we could not go see him or hold his hand.

We just received a copy of his death certificate, Steve. And when I saw the term COVID-19 printed there on the certificate as a cause of death, it was this very chilling moment. This term did not even exist eight months ago. And even though the number of deaths each day is now declining compared to, you know, earlier this summer, coronavirus is on track to be the third-leading cause of death this year behind cancer and heart disease.

INSKEEP: Allison, thank you for sharing that story. I think we...


INSKEEP: ...Feel it - we understand it when you talk about one death. And now we have to multiply that in our minds by 200,000. And the number is certainly going to continue going up before a vaccine arrives. What is...

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...The latest understanding of the timing for a vaccine?

AUBREY: You know, despite comments from President Trump that a vaccine could be available for all Americans by April, the timing is really up in the air. Both the CDC director and Admiral Brett Giroir of the coronavirus virus task force have said a vaccine won't be widely available until probably mid-2021. And yesterday on CNN, Giroir said that the availability of a vaccine really does depend on this evidence.


BRETT GIROIR: We have to wait till the trials demonstrate that a vaccine is safe and effective. There are all kinds of safeguards to make sure that this is an independent scientifically based decision. And until that happens, you can't even start the process. So right now we do not have a safe and effective vaccine. The evidence and the data will drive that. I can't predict that.

AUBREY: The president's comments may have further undermined trust, Steve. A poll released over the weekend found 69% of respondents say they don't trust President Trump's claims about a vaccine. Basically, they just don't have confidence in the president vouching for a vaccine.

INSKEEP: Especially, I suppose, if there were announcements right before the election - and there have been some signs of a possible announcement about that time. Is that correct?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, the politicization of this has really undermined trust. But here, I think we really should pay attention to what the CDC director is saying and what members of the corona (ph) task force are saying.

INSKEEP: Listen for the science. Allison, thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.