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News Brief: Biden Victory, Bar Will Leave DOJ, Vaccine Rollout

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If nothing else, events over the past few weeks have called extra attention to how this republic actually works.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yesterday, members of the Electoral College met in each of the 50 states. In a series of announcements through the day, they affirmed the results of the presidential election. California's electoral votes came late in the day and gave Joe Biden a majority.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, a Democrat, ayes 55, noes zero.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The electors have unanimously cast 16 votes for Joseph R. Biden.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: That's Georgia voting for Biden, despite weeks of effort by President Trump to overturn the will of its people. Protests, court challenges and conspiracy theories made no difference. When the voting was over, President-elect Biden went on TV to criticize the departing president for failing to respect the rule of law. He called on the country to unite against the pandemic.

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe with us this morning. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the vote of the Electoral College is something we sort of just take for granted, not something we usually pay attention to. But we did this year because of all the efforts by the Trump campaign to undermine the results of the election. Tell us exactly what happened.

RASCOE: Yeah, everything pretty much played out as expected. You know, Trump's continued to make these baseless claims about widespread election fraud, so the day got more attention than it normally would because it was another milestone solidifying Biden's win. California put Biden over 270 officially. And in the end, Biden got exactly 306 votes. There were no faithless electors, you know, changing the outcome, you know, as there were some concerns that that might happen just a little bit to change it on the margins.

MARTIN: And we heard the president-elect, Joe Biden, last night really come out strongly against President Trump in a way we hadn't heard before, condemning him about what he's been doing, right?

RASCOE: Yeah, you know, Biden - he talked about the election and basically saying that the will of the people prevailed. Democracy worked. And he called out Trump. He called out the state attorneys general and lawmakers who supported him, you know, calling their effort to overturn the election extreme. Here's more from Biden.

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JOE BIDEN: It's a position so extreme, we've never seen it before, a position that refused to respect the will of the people, refused to respect the rule of law and refused to honor our Constitution.

RASCOE: So Biden is pushing back against these unprecedented challenges to the election.

MARTIN: He also talked about the coronavirus, obviously, the enormous death toll. What was his message there?

RASCOE: He's been warning it will be a dark winter. And we heard more of that and empathy for those who have lost loved ones.

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BIDEN: My heart goes out to each of you in this dark winter of the pandemic about to spend the holidays and the new year with a black hole in your hearts, without the ones you loved at your side.

RASCOE: But his broader message was that Americans need to turn the page and need to move on from Trump's electoral challenges. He said there needs to be unity to get through the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that this country is in.

MARTIN: Well, are President Trump and Republican supporters moving on?

RASCOE: Trump is continuing to tweet as if nothing happened. But Senate Republicans are reluctantly acknowledging Biden's win. Lawmakers like Lindsey Graham are still not calling Biden president-elect, but they're saying he's likely going to be president. And at this point, even, you know, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Biden this morning on his victory. So the next thing that we'll be looking for on January 6 is Congress will tally the electoral votes. A few Trump allies have said they'll launch this last-ditch challenge. But like all of Trump's efforts to change the election so far, it will almost certainly be unsuccessful.

MARTIN: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So Attorney General William Barr is leaving the Justice Department.

INSKEEP: President Trump said in a tweet that Barr would step down before Christmas, which is coming right up. In a dramatic tenure at the Justice Department, William Barr was accused of bending law enforcement to the personal political desires of the president. But in recent days, Barr declined to join the effort to overturn the election. He instead said there was no evidence to support the president's claims of fraud.

MARTIN: Let's talk about this with NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: To say Barr has been central to the Trump administration over these last few years is understating it. He is widely viewed as the president's most effective cabinet secretary. Why is he leaving, Ryan?

LUCAS: Barr did not say in his resignation letter why he was leaving now. He did say that he would wrap up a few important things and leave officially on December 23. He said in his letter that he's proud to have played a role in the administration. He said President Trump has managed some wonderful achievements, despite what Barr describes as relentless resistance. The prime example of that, in Barr's view, was the Russia investigation, which of course, he and the president have both railed against. Barr did not get into in his resignation letter, though, the rough patches in his relationship with the president, including one that we have seen kind of take place over the past couple weeks.

MARTIN: Right. Well, let's you and I get into it because this was a significant moment. These are two men who'd been very close. And then Barr comes out and goes against what the president had been saying about widespread fraud in the election. Barr says no evidence of that.

LUCAS: He did. And the president made clear that he didn't like hearing that. Barr's comments, you know, directly contradicted the president's own baseless claims that the vote had somehow been rigged. At the time, Trump fired back by saying that Barr hadn't even looked for voter fraud. But there's more that has led to this unraveling relationship. The president also has been irate when it emerged last week that the Justice Department is investigating President-elect Joe Biden's son Hunter for possible tax evasion. This is the sort of news that the president wanted out before the election. And over the weekend, he railed against Barr for not getting it out before the vote. Now, I have to say, it is department policy to not take action in the runup to an election that could affect the outcome. So Barr was just following Justice Department policy in that regard.

MARTIN: This is Barr's second time in this job. What legacy is he leaving now?

LUCAS: Well, he's been on the job for about two years this go round, and it has been a controversial two years. Republican senators like Lindsey Graham say that Barr did a stand-up job. Barr was effective in promoting the president's agenda, defending the president. But he was also very, very polarizing and divisive. Former Justice Department officials have repeatedly called on him to resign, saying that he has politicized the department.

Even current federal prosecutors have taken the highly unusual step in a couple of instances of speaking up publicly against Barr. And they point to a number of things - Barr's rollout of the Mueller report, for example, his intervening in the Justice Department's cases against the president's friends Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, Barr's pushing baseless claims ahead of the election about mail-in voting. And then, of course, during racial justice protests this summer, Barr played a key role in the forceful clearing of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square in front of the White House ahead of the president's photo-op in front of the church.

MARTIN: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you. We appreciate it.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. More doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine are going to be arriving at hospitals across the country today.

INSKEEP: Yeah, some Americans got their first doses yesterday, which was the same day that the U.S. death toll exceeded 300,000 people. At the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Dr. Michelle Chester, who administered the hospital's first shot, said help is finally on the way.

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MICHELLE CHESTER: Let's take advantage of this glimmer of hope, which is the vaccine, so we can move forward as a community, as a nation and as a world.

MARTIN: We've got NPR health reporter Pien Huang with us. Good morning, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What can we expect for the rest of the week on the vaccine front?

HUANG: So those health care workers that we saw getting vaccinated yesterday kicked it off. More than 400 sites around the country will be getting their first shipments today. Here's Health Secretary Alex Azar speaking in Washington, D.C.

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ALEX AZAR: On Wednesday, vaccine will be delivered everywhere from sites here in Washington to the shores of Guam to the northeastern corner of Maine.

HUANG: All in all, around 3 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine are going out this week. And while states are really glad to be receiving these vaccines, there's a lot they need to figure out to get those vaccines into millions of people's arms quickly. Remember, it was just authorized on Friday. So they need to train a lot of people on how to thaw them and mix them and give them out, how to assess people for potential contraindications and how to make sure people come back at the right time for that second shot.

MARTIN: Of course, all these first shipments - they're limited. There's not enough to even cover all the health workers, right? When can we expect more supply?

HUANG: Well, General Gus Perna, the logistics lead for Operation Warp Speed, says that every week from now on, states will be getting more vaccines.

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GUS PERNA: It is not a one-and-done delivery. It is a consistent flow of ordering, preparation and delivery. It rolls out as vaccines are available. And more and more people get access to the vaccine every day.

HUANG: Perna says they're providing look-ahead forecasts so that states can plan ahead six weeks in the future. And now we've seen most of those first doses going to health care workers so far. But next week, some states are expected to start immunizing nursing home residents, as well, through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens. Teams from these pharmacies are going to be visiting nursing homes to give shots to both residents and to staff. And as for who goes next, it's really up to those states who they prioritize. It could be people like essential workers, or it could be people with underlying health conditions. The CDC is planning on coming out with more guidance on that on priority groups in the coming weeks.

MARTIN: So we're talking about the Pfizer vaccine that was produced in tandem with a German company. But we could be getting news of another vaccine this week, right?

HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. So that's a big decision coming this week that could really increase the supply of vaccines. On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration is considering a vaccine from the drug company Moderna for emergency-use authorization. This is the same process that the Pfizer vaccine went through last week. And the Moderna vaccine is actually similar to the Pfizer vaccine in how it works and also comparable in safety and efficacy. So if that one gets authorized, the government says they have 6 million doses of that ready to ship out.

MARTIN: All right. NPR health reporter Pien Huang on the latest on the vaccine and the distribution plan. Pien, thank you.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.