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News Brief: Trump Briefing, Schools' Dilemmas, Portland's Lawsuit

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump returned to the briefing room yesterday after quite a hiatus.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And he talked about the coronavirus pandemic a little differently than he has to date.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It will probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better - something I don't like saying about things, but that's the way it is. It's the way - it's what we have. You look over the world - it's all over the world.

MARTIN: Trump's new acknowledgment about the severity of the pandemic comes as coronavirus cases are up almost everywhere in this country. And his approval ratings are down.

GREEN: And let's bring in NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREEN: OK. So the president choosing some different words and language yesterday. What'd you hear?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, first of all, he's by himself. I mean, he wasn't flanked by people from his administration. It wasn't Vice President Pence out front. There weren't the health experts he usually has with him or who have taken center stage before. And, look, that was all deliberate because of politics. On the tone, I mean, it really was a significant shift. I mean, he was more somber than we've seen from him in these briefings for months. It was less happy talk and cheerleading as he's called it. He said that the virus would likely get worse before it got better. That's not something you usually hear him say.

And he also urged people to wear masks because they work. He even called it patriotic to wear one. That's pretty important because Republicans and people in Trump's base have been saying that they're less likely to wear one regularly and that leadership from somebody who they trust matters. He pledged to defeat the virus. And here's a bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: My administration will stop at nothing to save lives and shield the vulnerable, which is so important. We've learned so much about this disease. And we know who the vulnerable are. And we are going to, indeed, shield them.

MONTANARO: You know, as you say, Trump was more reflecting the seriousness of what's going on and seeming to accept the reality, frankly, that the virus isn't magically going to disappear. Although he did still say that it would disappear at some point. He also misled when talking about the United States doing better with coronavirus than in other places and other countries. And he didn't talk much about funding testing or the CDC, which have really become flashpoints in a lot of this.

GREEN: Well, I mean, it sounds like, too, he's making some promises there saying, you know, stop at nothing to save lives. But any details - like, did he offer a plan for his administration to defeat this thing?

MONTANARO: He did not offer a plan. You know, the way that he has sort of been attacking this has been to say, look, the federal government needs to take sort of a supportive role. And he is looking at governors for their leadership to do what they need to do in each of their states. And there are certain places he thinks are doing a better job than others. They happen to align politically with who he agrees with for the most part.

So, look, a lot of health experts say there needs to be a national strategy. And right now, there hasn't been really a top-down strategy for months. Even when they put out the plans and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and adopted by the White House, those haven't been enforced in any way. The real focus and goal of the Trump administration is to get everything back open.

GREEN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks so much, as always. We appreciate it.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREEN: All right. So universities have spent months planning for their fall semesters.

MARTIN: Right. They have workshopped different ideas to keep students safe during the pandemic. But with start dates approaching and coronavirus cases surging across the country, many schools are just totally scrapping plans for any in-person classes.

GREEN: And NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been covering this. She covers higher education. Hi, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREEN: So why the change now? What are colleges realizing they're facing here?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So months ago, or a month ago, schools were putting out these really optimistic statements saying we're going to be open, we're going to have classes in person, students on campus. As you said, they spent months working on these plans. Spelman College, an elite historically black college in Atlanta, announced in early July they'd have a mix of in-person and online classes, and they'd bring all their freshmen back to the dorms. But with cases rising in Georgia and the politicizing of the response to that spread there, the president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, told me it was irresponsible to bring students back.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: We felt very comfortable about what the protocols and practices we were putting into place on our campuses. But once our students walked outside of those gates, once they went into the city of Atlanta, they were in an environment that we felt was virtually unregulated.

NADWORNY: So this week, Spelman announced they'll be entirely online in the fall. UC Berkeley is another school that's among the wave of schools kind of changing their plans, going all online. Here's Carol Christ, the chancellor there, speaking at a Chronicle of Higher Education event this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROL CHRIST: We decided after we had a serious fraternity outbreak that it was just too risky to teach face to face.

GREEN: All right. So a lot of colleges, it sounds like, making this decision now. Is it all of them? I mean, are there some colleges out there that are still holding onto the idea that they might be able to do some learning in person?

NADWORNY: There are still about 500 colleges that say they're going to be in-person or majority in-person. Those numbers come from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. For those plans, we see things like single dorms or even hotels for quarantining and isolation of students and lots of testing. But the other thing we're seeing here is that there are still hundreds of schools that have yet to announce any plans for fall. And in a lot of places, classes start in just a couple weeks.

GREEN: Yeah. I mean, I can't imagine being a student. I know you've been talking to some students about living in this state of just not knowing what their fall is going to look like.

NADWORNY: You know, many of them have been consumed by this uncertainty all summer. I talked with Irem Ozturk, a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Her college recently decided to go all online for the fall.

IREM OZTURK: It's heartbreaking for me. Four weeks from now, we're supposed to have our first classes and, you know, I have only four weeks to come up with a plan.

NADWORNY: She's originally from Turkey, so as an international student, she's allowed to stay on campus, but she expects it to be pretty lonely. You know, for the most part, students understand the situation. They get it. Reagan Griffin Jr., he's a sophomore at the University of Southern California, he had a feeling throughout the whole summer that USC was probably going to go online, but that didn't make the official announcement any less of a bummer.

REAGAN GRIFFIN JR: For my shoes, it's extremely frustrating because you got a taste of it, right? You had this hope of what your college experience would be. And for me, it was everything that I thought it would be and more. And then after one semester, that just gets stripped away.

NADWORNY: So despite the fact that all of his classes in the fall will be online, Griffin is actually still moving to an LA apartment in a couple weeks. He told me just being near campus gives him a little hope for the semester.

GREEN: Oh, that's so sad, but looking for some kind of hope by just being there.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

GREEN: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, thanks a lot.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREEN: All right. So federal agents clashed with protesters again last night in the city of Portland, Ore.

MARTIN: Right. The influx of agents in Portland has led to confrontations, chaos, criticism. The Oregon attorney general is suing several federal agencies saying that there have been civil rights abuses through all this. Homeland Security officials say what they're doing is legal and appropriate.

GREEN: And let's pose that question to NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste, who is with us. Hi, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREEN: So how is the federal government justifying what we've seen in Portland?

KASTE: Well, they came out swinging yesterday saying that they've really been the victims of a mischaracterization of what they're up to in Portland. They say the news media is getting this wrong, that they are not there to police protests or suppress free speech. They're not there for patrolling the streets of Portland. They say their mission, which is backed by federal law, is to protect the federal buildings in that sort of protest zone in downtown Portland. And, of course, the primary building they're worried about is the federal courthouse. Here's Chad Wolf talking about this yesterday. He's the acting secretary of Homeland Security.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAD WOLF: We support and we will protect those who want to peacefully protest. Unfortunately, what we are seeing in Portland every night roughly from midnight to 4:30 or 5 a.m. is the complete opposite. These individuals are organized, and they have one mission in mind - to burn down or to cause extreme damage to the federal courthouse and to law enforcement officers.

GREEN: OK. But, Martin, if they say that is why they're there, why are these agents detaining people? I mean, we saw at least one video of officers arresting a man in the street and putting him in an unmarked vehicle.

KASTE: Right. Well, they talk about the fact that the law also says that in their work protecting federal property and federal employees, they are allowed to leave the premises. They can go off of federal property, obviously, just like other federal law enforcement agencies routinely do to investigate people who might be behind crimes that did occur maybe around the courthouse. For instance, that well-known case of the man trundled away in that unmarked minivan, they say that was about the fact that he'd been spotted near a group of people where a powerful laser had been shining into the eyes of officers. They're worried about eye injury happening. That, in their eyes, is a crime. He was associated with that somehow. They tracked him kind of away from the main crowd to kind of do a less confrontational interrogation. But they did detain him, and a lot of legal experts say, you know, that's an arrest, and that does not sound like probable cause. So, yes, they can investigate federal crimes away from federal property, but how they do it is still subject to the Constitution.

GREEN: What about the complaint we've heard from many people that these agents look like soldiers and that it's hard to really identify what agencies they come from?

KASTE: Right. Well, they did cover that. I mean, a lot of these officers have been lent to this effort by the Customs and Border Protection. And a lot of them have sort of camo uniforms from the southern border. They say that they do have patches. You can ID the agency they're with. And they're not wearing nametags because they're worried about their officers being doxxed, that someone's got to take their private information put it online. So they say they can be identified but not necessarily by name.

GREEN: OK. That is NPR's Martin Kaste, who covers law enforcement for NPR, giving us what the government is saying their role is in the city of Portland, Ore., where there's been a lot of criticism. Martin, thanks so much for your reporting. We really appreciate it.

KASTE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.