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News Brief: Biden Security Team, Tenn. COVID-19 Cases, Opioid Settlement

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are beginning in Europe, where leaders have been responding to President-elect Joe Biden's key Cabinet picks.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And some are looking for a chance to rebuild what has been the world's most important alliance. President Trump bullying many European allies over NATO defense spending. He threatened to pull troops out of Germany and applauded Hungary's authoritarian leader. His critics said Trump withdrew from global leadership. Now Biden says this to NBC.

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JOE BIDEN: America's back. We're at the head of the table once again. I've spoken with over 20 world leaders, and they all are literally really pleased and somewhat excited America is going to reassert its role in the world and be a coalition builder.

INSKEEP: Much of that work falls to Biden's new national security team.

D GREENE: And let's turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt based outside London. Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, David.

D GREENE: So talk us through some of the reaction you've been hearing there.

LANGFITT: Yeah. I think mostly would be relief, David, after 3 1/2 years of President Trump. Tony Blinken - he's slotted to be the next secretary of state under Biden - he's a big supporter of this trans-Atlantic relationship that Steve was just referring to. Blinken speaks French, lived in Paris as a kid. Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, he was a key negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, which, of course, involved European partners. And I think what Europe expects is no more of these kinds of Trumpian insults and a much more predictable way of doing business.

D GREENE: But, I mean, some of these tensions and relationships are - I mean, they run deep. Is the Biden team really going to be able to build this trans-Atlantic relationship back that quickly?

LANGFITT: No, you're exactly right. The landscape has changed. And I think that what you're going to see from the Biden team is to try to sort of signal very clearly that it's going to be a different approach. So I think you'll see a reaffirmation of support for NATO, rejoining, of course, as Biden has said, the Paris climate accords. But Europeans, I think, are really wary, David, about what will happen in 2024 and would there be an election of another populous? So they're much warier than I think that they used to be. This morning, I was talking to Anthony Gardner. He's a former U.S. ambassador to the EU under the Obama administration. He's also an adviser to the Biden campaign on Europe. And this is how he put it.

ANTHONY GARDNER: Well, there'll be a honeymoon for sure. There's elation in most European capitals. But with anything in life, you know, these honeymoon periods don't last forever. And there's no guarantee that, indeed, after four years of Obama administration, we won't revert back to another bout of demagogic populism, which is all to say how important it is that we seize this moment.

LANGFITT: And I think what he means there, David, is getting quick wins in maybe areas like trade that will prove that working with allies like the EU is better than going it alone, which is what Trump has done.

D GREENE: Yeah. I mean, it's going to be unpredictable, of course, what happens in the rest of the world and what these allies will have to deal with together. And it seems like one of the most urgent issues that both the U.S. and Europe faces is a rising China, right? I mean, how would a Biden administration work with Europe to deal with China?

LANGFITT: And, David, you're right. This is huge and long overdue. And what Gardner said this morning is they need to find a way to build a united front against China, especially on trade issues and unfair trade. And this is difficult because some EU countries are so dependent on the China market and the China strategy is to divide and conquer. And this is what Anthony Gardner said.

GARDNER: This won't be easy because the EU doesn't want to feel that the United States is pressuring the EU to take the US side in confronting China. We're going to have to be very levelheaded and to sit down with the EU and say, look, together, we have enormous leverage.

D GREENE: Frank, I mean, we're talking about things being different. Are there any Trump policies we might expect Biden to keep?

LANGFITT: You know, honestly, none quite come to mind right now, David. But I think Biden sees the same problems that Trump saw and, frankly, everybody in Europe does. I've been talking to people for the last several weeks about this. What I think you'll see is a very different approach from Biden trying to work with other countries and put collective pressure on China, reform the WTO, things like that.

D GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Frank, thank you so much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, David.

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D GREENE: So it is getting harder to find places in the United States that are safe in this pandemic. Cases are rising across the country.

INSKEEP: The virus hit the West Coast and the East Coast first, and now there are hot spots throughout the Midwest and the South, including the state of Tennessee.

D GREENE: And that is where Blake Farmer is. He's with WPLN in Nashville. He's on the line. Hi, Blake.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

D GREENE: Just paint us a picture. What does Tennessee feel like right now as these COVID numbers go up?

FARMER: Well, the numbers I'm watching so closely are deaths that are rising in a way that was just hard to even imagine a few months ago. More than 70 new deaths yesterday. And that's not even the highest day we've had in recent weeks. The intimidating thing is that deaths, as we've learned through this pandemic, tend to lag big spikes in new coronavirus cases. And cases show no signs of a downturn here in Tennessee with positivity rates that we talk about sometimes so high that epidemiologists assume there are many more people not even getting tested at this point. So Tennessee is just bracing for what could be to come. We haven't brought in mobile morgues yet, as some places have required, but hospitals are just in critical shape, hitting new highs every day.

D GREENE: And, I mean, we've heard about health care workers around the country who are just feeling this pressure, working nonstop to try and handle this. What are they telling you in Tennessee?

FARMER: Well, increasingly, they're sounding the alarm. They're running short on people to care for everybody because nurses are part of the community, too, and they're getting sick with COVID. And for a long time, hospital administrators really wanted to put a good face on it, make sure people knew they could handle their usual patient load along with COVID. And that's just less so now. Dr. Katrina Greene works at an HCA emergency room here in Nashville.

KATRINA GREENE: We are worried about what the delays in care will mean for our patients. And I am personally terrified that my hospital being full could result in someone dying in the waiting room.

FARMER: I've been keeping an eye on the rest of the region, and the situation has become particularly severe in parts of Texas, like El Paso and Lubbock. For now, they're able to transport COVID patients to other parts of the state. But there will be a time when those hospitals are hitting capacity. And in populous (ph) north Texas or Dallas and Fort Worth, the largest hospital system there says it could be less than a week out from filling up their ICUs.

D GREENE: But the weird thing about this pandemic is that you do find some places that seem to be unscathed, right?

FARMER: Well, to some degree. I think we've scratched our heads a bit when you see neighboring states where we've got a bad spot with COVID and the other just hasn't seen it yet. Right now, Georgia is my head scratcher. Things haven't really accelerated there, even though the Republican governor there has taken a similarly passive approach to Tennessee's governor on masks and business restrictions. But our brief history with this pandemic tells us that it's just a matter of time unless some drastic action is taken. And, of course, people are very weary of pandemic restrictions.

D GREENE: Well, weary of restrictions and wishing they didn't exist at a time where they really want to be with their families over Thanksgiving, but that's the reality we're facing, I guess.

FARMER: Yeah. I mean, I barely want to talk about it. You've got a lot of Republican governors who've been hesitant about making rules on private gatherings, trying to just lead by example. I know Missouri's governor's done like Tennessee's and said, well, our family has called off the big meal, but clearly it's just really hard to draw this direct line between, you know, going to see my aunt in Kentucky and the fact that hospitals are about to be in desperate shape. So hospitals are really trying to encourage people to just hang on a little bit longer.

D GREENE: All right. Talking to Blake Farmer from WPLN in Nashville. Blake, thank you so much.

FARMER: You're welcome.

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D GREENE: All right. New court documents are revealing the key role the Sackler family played in America's opioid epidemic.

INSKEEP: According to the CDC, almost 450,000 people died from overdoses of prescription or illicit opioids from 1999 to 2018. Purdue Pharma was a key player, the maker of the pain med OxyContin. The company has already pleaded guilty to three felony criminal charges tied to its part in the opioid epidemic. But members of the Sackler family, who owned Purdue Pharma, faced no criminal charges.

D GREENE: NPR's Brian Mann has been covering all of this and joins us. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

D GREENE: OK. So remind us, what did the company Purdue Pharma say it did wrong here?

MANN: Well, actually, David, you know, this is the second time Purdue Pharma has admitted criminal wrongdoing in its marketing of opioids, the first time back in 2007. And after that plea deal, the company that is privately owned and run by the Sacklers agreed to follow these strict guidelines for selling their drugs more safely. Instead, Purdue Pharma now admits that the company pretty much immediately launched a new series of criminal schemes designed to boost opioid sales. This is illegal activity that went on for at least a decade.

D GREENE: I mean, but wait a second. You have a company admitting two times to criminal activity, selling opioids. The epidemic has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Who is going to face trial here?

MANN: Yeah. The short answer is no one, at least at this point. The Justice Department says criminal charges are still possible against individuals at Purdue Pharma. But under this agreement, members of the Sackler family admit no personal wrongdoing. They're facing no criminal charges. NPR has been able to look at piles of internal company documents released in recent weeks because of these lawsuits and also from a congressional probe. And they show the Sacklers really in charge during this period. One internal memo describes them as acting as the de facto CEO of Purdue Pharma during the time when these illegal schemes were underway. Another document describes one key planning meeting where members of the family were allegedly the only decision-makers in the room.

D GREENE: Wow. Well, then what is the Justice Department saying about all that?

MANN: Well, the Justice Department is also saying in newly public documents that, yeah, the family played a hands-on role running Purdue Pharma. You know, federal prosecutors themselves allege that some of the Sacklers personally approved a marketing plan that pushed opioid sales in ways that were, and I'm quoting here, "unsafe and medically unnecessary" in order to boost their profits. The DOJ also accuses the family of fraudulent financial activity as part of an alleged scheme to hide billions of dollars from creditors. But again, David, so far, no criminal charges.

D GREENE: Which is like the central question here. Like, why wouldn't DOJ bring criminal charges in a case like this?

MANN: Yeah, it's a great question. And last month, members of Congress sent a furious letter to the DOJ opposing this deal, in part because of all these new revelations about the role the Sacklers allegedly played. They point out that street drug dealers regularly get prison time. Despite their company's guilty pleas, the Sacklers, by contrast, are set to remain one of the wealthiest families in America. I should say that as part of this settlement, Purdue Pharma does promise to pay big fines, but the company was already in bankruptcy. And so it's hard to see who's going to feel the pain in this criminal plea.

D GREENE: All right. A lot of reporting there from NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.