News Brief: Wildfires, Woodward's 'Rage,' Voters In Pa. County Speak Out
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Rachel, here in Los Angeles, the air was just nasty all weekend from some wildfires that are not very far from here. But it is so much worse as you go up the coast.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Right. We know millions of acres have burned in California but also Oregon and Washington state. And these fires have killed at least 30 people as of now. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate. Fires have just consumed entire communities. The Oregonian newspaper spoke to Mayor Tim Kirsch of Mills City, Ore., as he was looking at all the destruction.
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TIM KIRSCH: It's pretty sad. We lost a couple of really nice, historic structures in town, a number of residences. It's hard to even think about.
GREENE: Well, let's stay in Oregon. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Rebecca Ellis is with us. Hi there, Rebecca.
REBECCA ELLIS, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So I know you're in Portland, where you are really - I mean, even in the city feeling the effect of all this. I mean, can you just talk us through the latest here?
ELLIS: Yeah. I mean, the fires in Oregon have reached from the southern border to the coast all the way up to the suburbs of Portland. And there are at least 10 big fires spread out across the state that we're tracking right now. And tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their home at this point. And firefighters are getting a handle on some of these fires after a week. But two of the biggest fires that are threatening cities near Portland continue to rage. And that's the Beachie Creek Fire and the Riverside Fire, both south of Portland. Those are about a mile apart right now. And there's a risk they'll combine into one fire in the coming days.
GREENE: As I mentioned to Rachel here in LA, I mean, it's been hard to breathe all weekend. But I know it's a lot worse up there. I mean, how bad is the air quality in Portland?
ELLIS: So this weekend, Portland's air quality was so bad, it was off the charts of the EPA's Air Quality Index. And it's this really thick, acrid smoke that has descended on the region. It was a big topic of discussion at a press conference held yesterday on the nearby fires. Here's Clackamas County's public health officer, Sarah Present.
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SARAH PRESENT: Right now, our region is experiencing the worst air quality in the world. And it's absolutely having an impact on people's health. We know that air quality can worsen asthma or COPD, lead to increased heart attacks, irregular heart rhythms and even death.
ELLIS: And, obviously, Portland's not alone here. The West Coast has been blanketed in these clouds of smoke and ash. And there a number of towns and cities in Oregon this weekend that were breathing more toxic air than Portland. People are being told to stay in their homes. Don't drive because the visibility is so poor. And it's gotten so bad that public health officials have told people not to vacuum inside their own homes. And that's because the smoke particles work their way into apartments and houses, and using a vacuum cleaner kicks up these particles and can worsen indoor air quality.
GREENE: Wow. Well, I mean, we mentioned at least 30 people killed in these fires. But, I mean, when you're talking about both fires and poor air quality and all the other effects of this, I mean, do we really have a sense for, say, how many people have lost their lives in Oregon, like, directly or indirectly because of all this?
ELLIS: Yeah. I mean, it's a really good question. Officials sounded alarm bells last week, saying the state was bracing for a mass fatality incident, as they called it. And right now, there are dozens of people still missing. Officials have confirmed at least nine deaths so far. And that's from three different fires. And they're warning the death toll is likely going to rise as these fires continue. And as you mentioned, this does not include these people who may die as a result of the extremely poor air quality. I mean, people have been stuck in the smoke for days now. They can't escape it. You go to bed breathing this really, like, thick and smoky air, and you wake up breathing the same air.
GREENE: Hopefully, there'll be some kind of relief coming soon if the weather changes. Rebecca Ellis of Oregon Public Broadcasting for us in Portland this morning. Rebecca, thank you.
ELLIS: Thank you.
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GREENE: So what exactly did President Trump know about the coronavirus when he was downplaying it to the American people?
MARTIN: Journalist Bob Woodward reveals a lot in a new book that's getting a ton of attention, even before its official release date tomorrow. One big question is if Woodward knew early on that Trump was misleading Americans, should Woodward have shared that, regardless of his publication date?
GREENE: All right. Well, the new book is called "Rage." And Woodward sat down last night with our colleague, All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly, who is here. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, David. Morning, Rachel.
GREENE: Let's start here with this controversy that's blown up over whether Bob Woodward should've shared some of this reporting sooner and not just followed the publication schedule for his book. I mean, how did he answer that charge?
KELLY: Yeah, we dove right in on this. And I want to let you listen to exactly how that part of our exchange started. So I'm going to play you a long chunk. This is starting with my very first question to Bob Woodward.
A lot of people believe that you sat on information that could have saved lives. So I want to start with your interview with the president on February 7. He told you he understood the virus was deadly, that it was airborne, that it was dangerous. February 7, and you had it on tape. Did you have a duty to get that information out?
BOB WOODWARD: I knew at the time and believed he was talking about the virus in China because he had talked to Chinese President Xi the night before. And as you know, at that point in February, there was no virus awareness in the United States.
KELLY: You describe in the book, though, that you were surprised at what he was saying.
WOODWARD: Yes, because it was - oh, did he get it from President Xi? And so I spent a good deal of time trying to get information and, in fact, the transcript of the Trump-Xi call the night before because I thought that would be a clue to what went on. You know, the...
KELLY: You didn't need other sources to know that what the president said to you on February 7 directly contradicted what he was saying in public in February.
WOODWARD: But see. He was talking about China as far as I understood it because there's no virus issue.
KELLY: There were cases here.
WOODWARD: Yes. But as you know, you've got Tony Fauci out there at the end of February saying everyone can do it, everything and not worry. So as far as I'm concerned, it's a China problem. And by March, it's clearly an American problem. And so I'm asking the question, what did the president know? When did he know it? And how did he know it?
KELLY: So, David, you hear Bob Woodward there forcefully defending his reporting. He told me - and I'll quote - "If at any point, I had thought there's something to tell the American people that they don't know, I would do it."
GREENE: A lot there. Well, I know Woodward ends the book, Mary Louise, with his judgment that Trump is the wrong man for the job. How did he justify that conclusion?
KELLY: Yeah, Woodward believes that his reporting shows Trump failed to keep the country safe. People can debate that. It is, of course, interesting because this is Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, of Nixon fame.
KELLY: And so I asked how the moment compares to then, how worried he is about the stability of our country. And he said, despite everything going on, that he and I could still sit and have this conversation. That he can make the kind of judgments about our president that journalists in a lot of places can't make to him is evidence that leadership has failed, but democracy has held.
WOODWARD: And I asked him this question. Suppose you lose. What are you going to do at the election? And he said, I don't want to comment on that. But we still - we can sit and have this conversation. And I can make the kind of judgments of our leader that journalists in many countries in the world cannot make. So I say in the book that, for the moment, democracy is held. But leadership has failed.
GREENE: I know, Mary Louise, much more from your interview on All Things Considered tonight.
GREENE: Thanks for bringing us this. We appreciate it.
KELLY: You're welcome.
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GREENE: All right. So as we heard, Bob Woodward thinks that President Trump is the wrong man for the job. So what do voters think?
MARTIN: President Trump was talking to a crowd of them last night in Henderson, Nev. People packed an indoor warehouse, which was a violation of state regulations. Most were not wearing masks.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had five sites, all outside sites, like, last night - tremendous room. And a great gentleman who owns this building said, you know what? What they're doing is really unfair. You can use my building. Don, I want to thank you.
MARTIN: Trump and Joe Biden are going after voters in swing states like Pennsylvania, where the race is very close. Trump narrowly won there four years ago. He got a big boost from an unexpected win in Erie County. So how are voters there thinking about Donald Trump this go-round?
GREENE: Well, let's turn to another Don, not the Don that President Trump was talking about there. It's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea, who has been an Erie County, Penn., talking to voters. Hi, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
GREENE: So remind us a little bit about Erie County in the northeast part of that state. Why'd you decide to go there?
GONYEA: There are a couple hundred counties across the country that voted for Obama when he was on the ballot and then went for Trump. But few had the kind of dramatic swing that we saw in Erie County. Obama won it in '08 by 20 percentage points. He won it by nearly as large a margin in '12. Then comes 2016. Trump carries it by less than 2,000 votes. It's one of those places where his message on trade and working-class voters really resonated. So I went back to see how people are feeling.
GREENE: Well, I know you covered a lot of ground listening to people. I mean, what are you hearing in terms of what people are thinking this time around?
GONYEA: Let's start with Trump voters. They give the president full credit for the strong economy pre-COVID and no blame for the current economic slump. Fourty-four-year-old Kori Curtis owns a farm. I spoke to her at the county GOP headquarters. She was loading Trump signs into the back of her car. I asked her about those revelations in Bob Woodward's new book and the tapes of Trump himself saying he played down the pandemic early on to avoid panic.
KORI CURTIS: Why wouldn't you react that way? I mean, you don't want the country in a panic. It was scary when it started. It's never happened in our lifetime. So I could understand that you would set back a little in what you say so that we didn't go into a frenzy.
GONYEA: Let's go to another voter, registered independent Mary Ann Frontino. She is a Biden voter. She responds to the book, as well.
MARY ANN FRONTINO: Well, panic is his middle name. I mean his entire campaign is trying to dig up panic, so people will vote for him.
GONYEA: That's just a small taste there, David. But it kind of gives you a sense of the divide.
GREENE: What is your sense? Do you have a takeaway after spending time in Erie?
GONYEA: You know, I talked to the union president. There's a big locomotive plant that has lost half of its unionized workforce over the past decade. And a lot of those voters went for Trump last time. The union president said his membership is divided. He said, you can feel that all across the county. And he said there's, like, a tension in the air. People are just on edge about the election.
SCOTT SLAWSON: It's, like, charged. I don't know how to explain it, but it is. It's, like, everybody's just like a cat waiting to pounce.
GREENE: All right. We'll be listening closely as you bring us all of these voices as we're getting closer and closer to Election Day. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thanks.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.