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News Brief: Fed Chair Interview, California's Creek Fire, Cohen Releases Book

NOEL KING, HOST:

How will and how soon will the U.S. economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic? Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, talked to NPR right before Labor Day. We just got news that the unemployment rate had fallen to 8.4%, which is high, yes, but it's down from the record high we saw this spring.

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JEROME POWELL: I guess I would just say the recovery is continuing. We do think it will get harder from here because of those areas of the economy that are so directly affected by the pandemic still. There's going to be a long period, we believe, where we'll have to take our time and see those people get back to work.

KING: OK. So, Steve, you were the one who conducted this interview with Chairman Powell, and he said there it's going to get harder. Why?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Simple answer is the pandemic. When we spoke with Powell in his office here in Washington, D.C., he said a lot of the economy obviously has reopened and about half the jobs that were lost this spring are back, but the U.S. still has more cases of coronavirus than any country on Earth. And that's going to continue limiting employment in restaurants and airlines and basically anything that involves a crowd. Only so much recovery is possible in these circumstances, which is one reason, Noel, that Powell is an advocate now for masking and social distancing. He's not a public health expert, but he knows a little bit about the economy. And he argues that keeping down the virus is good for the economy.

KING: Certainly. What does he say the Fed plans to do to get us through a long recovery?

INSKEEP: The Fed is digging in for years and years of recovery. Last spring, you'll recall, the Fed brought interest rates very quickly down to near zero. Of course, low interest rates stimulate economic growth. And here's how Powell sees the future.

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POWELL: We think that the economy is going to need low interest rates, which support economic activity, for an extended period of time and...

INSKEEP: Years.

POWELL: It will be measured in years, yes, we believe. And however long it takes, we're going to be there. We're not going to prematurely withdraw the support that we think the economy needs.

INSKEEP: Beyond low interest rates, that support by the Fed has included buying government debt and last spring's almost unprecedented offer by the Fed to loan money directly to state and local governments and businesses. An update on that - Powell says the mere fact that the Fed was willing to loan money if needed reassured everybody and made a lot of institutions more stable.

KING: The Federal Reserve has two mandates - keep unemployment low and keep prices stable. Make sure my dollar isn't worth way less a year from now. And typically, the Fed moves very fast when it sees unemployment rising or inflation rising. But it is changing that now.

INSKEEP: Which is one of the reasons that Powell spoke with us, Noel. The Federal Reserve, you're right, intervenes in the economy with interest rates and other tools to keep employment strong and inflation low. It's supposed to do both of those things. Traditionally, it tries to avoid overheating the economy. You know, if things move too fast, inflation can spin up, and that's bad. But there's traditionally some conflict here because when more people go to work when wages get higher, the Fed can see that as bad. They used to slow things down to avoid inflation. And that's what's being tweaked here. They're a little less worried about inflation.

KING: Because there hasn't been much inflation lately. Why?

INSKEEP: For better or worse, Powell believes this is a factor of globalization. If I think I want a raise, if I want to charge more for my product, I can't because the job could be moved somewhere else in the world or my work could be moved somewhere else in the world. It's gotten to the point where the Fed no longer feels they need to worry so much about inflation. And if we ever do get back to super low unemployment like we had before the pandemic, the Fed is more likely to just let that ride a little bit longer for people.

KING: Fascinating economic stuff. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it.

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KING: All right. Hundreds of people are trapped today by a fire in the Sierra Nevada mountains of central California.

INSKEEP: Fire crews have been unable to rescue these people. The fire that has them trapped called the Creek Fire is almost twice as big as it was yesterday. It destroyed a town called Big Creek, and it's only one of several big fires in California.

KING: Laura Tsutsui is a reporter with member station KVPR. She's on the line from Fresno. Good morning, Laura.

LAURA TSUTSUI, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: Tell me about these people who are trapped.

TSUTSUI: Yeah. So what we know so far is that over the weekend, 200 people were rescued from a camp site near what's called Mammoth Pool. Those folks were airlifted out. However, yesterday, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office says an additional 200 people are still trapped. The Fresno City Fire Department tweeted last night about a rescue mission to pick up stranded hikers, campers and some residents at two areas, one's called Lake Edison, the other is China Peak. A fire chief told reporters, you know, there were potentially, like, four dozen folks in those particular areas. But later, the fire department tweeted that they couldn't land the helicopter to rescue those people because of such heavy smoke conditions. They said they'd try again with night vision, but just after midnight, they said they were going to stop rescue efforts and would have to try again later today. There's also folks trapped around a place called Shaver Lake at higher elevations that those folks will likely need to be airlifted out, too. However, the sheriffs say right now those people at Shaver Lake are in a temporary refuge area, so not in immediate danger, but, you know, they still can't get out of the Sierra National Forest. In the meantime, there's also about two dozen evacuation orders and counting for sort of the lower communities in that forest. You know, the sheriff's deputies are telling people to get out.

KING: OK. Very scary thing for the people who are trapped. And, Steve mentions that the fire is almost twice as big as it was yesterday. Are fire crews able to contain it or to stop it from getting bigger?

TSUTSUI: Right. At this point, it's at 0% containment. It seems like it's just growing and growing. And one thing to note, I mean, yeah, it's about 135,000 acres at the moment. It's just grown so much and, you know, spanning two counties and being that it's up there in the forests, you know, in these mountains and sort of foothill areas, it's difficult to get from one side of it to another. So there's about, like, a thousand people from local, state and federal personnel working to fight this. They're doing it from two - from sort of the north side and the south side. But at this point, you know, the weather is working against them. There's some winds coming over from the east called mono winds that are, you know, really creating, like, dry air conditions that are working against them. And, of course, it's very, very hot here in California right now.

KING: Authorities are calling this fire unprecedented. Why?

TSUTSUI: I mean, honestly, it's been a few decades since a fire burned like this in the Sierra National Forest and, again, at this size, it's moving so quickly and growing so fast. And for folks in Fresno and the communities up there, they're really connected. So it really is going to hit both Fresno, where I am reporting from, and all the people evacuating pretty hard.

KING: Laura Tsutsui from member station KVPR. Thanks, Laura.

TSUTSUI: Thank you.

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KING: All right. Michael Cohen was President Trump's lawyer and his fixer.

INSKEEP: While managing problems for Trump over the years, he was also committing crimes. They included campaign finance violations during the presidential campaign of 2016. Mr. Cohen went to prison and then was furloughed due to the pandemic, so he's confined at home right now. And while doing that time, he wrote a memoir. It's called "Disloyal: The True Story Of The Former Personal Attorney To President Donald J. Trump." Cohen writes that his former boss is, quote, "a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man." Here's what he said on NBC.

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MICHAEL COHEN: Donald Trump will do anything and everything within which to win, and I believe that includes manipulating the ballots. I believe that he would even go so far as to start a war.

INSKEEP: The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, says Cohen is lying about her boss' lying.

KING: NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has read the book. Good morning, Anastasia.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Noel.

KING: So among other things, Michael Cohen writes that President Trump has a low opinion of all Black folks.

TSIOULCAS: Yes. There are a lot of allegations regarding things that Cohen says Trump said to him. Among them, Cohen says that the president told him that Black and Latino voters are, quote, "too stupid," unquote, to vote for him. He also says that Trump was nostalgic for apartheid-era South Africa and said that Nelson Mandela ruined the country. He actually used language quite a bit saltier than that. And Cohen also includes in the book a photo still that he says comes from a video that was made long before Trump ran for office. According to Cohen, Trump's team hired an Obama lookalike actor that Trump berated on camera and then pretended to fire. And, you know, it was a moment of a reality TV star cosplaying political power who then came to hold that very power.

KING: OK. So some claims about race and racism. The evangelical vote, which was critical in President Trump's 2016 campaign, Cohen makes claims that President Trump said some things about religious leaders, too.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, Noel, Cohen describes Trump as essentially using the evangelical community with no real interest in their beliefs and values. Again, according to Cohen, Trump was incredulous that evangelicals hold the beliefs that they do. And, again, I'm paraphrasing and softening the language here.

KING: Vladimir Putin also turns up in this book.

TSIOULCAS: That's right. Cohen claims that Trump idolizes Putin's massive wealth and the enormous power he wields. According to Cohen, that's Trump's vision of political perfection. And Cohen also alleges Trump has had close ties to Russian billionaires because he isn't otherwise able to secure funding for his businesses.

KING: Let me ask you, lastly, Michael Cohen is a convicted criminal who's doing a three-year bid for campaign finance violations, lying to Congress and tax evasion. How does he address the fact that many people may not see him as credible?

TSIOULCAS: Well, his tone alternates between taking accountability for his own behavior and trying to describe what he found so magnetic in Trump. This is a guy who repeatedly read "The Art Of The Deal" when he still in high school. He was already living in a Trump-branded apartment even before he started working for the Trump Organization. He was all in on the brand.

KING: NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thanks, Anastasia.

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

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