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News Brief: Louisville Protests, Trump On The Election, Homeless Veterans

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president spent part of yesterday promoting his narrative of an unfair election, and the Justice Department backed him up in a way that one expert calls improper.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. There was a small incident in one state, and, to be clear, we don't even know all the facts yet. We do know the president has been constantly questioning the ballots. We do know polls consistently show him trailing Joe Biden. The president has promoted ideas about fraudulent mail-in ballots even though they've been used safely for years. And he's been giving no evidence for why he's concerned. And then yesterday on Fox News Radio, the president said he finally had something. A few ballots in Pennsylvania appear to have been thrown away.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what's going to happen. This is what's going to happen, and we're investigating that.

KING: The FBI and a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania then took the unusual step of releasing partial results of their investigation, and that information seemed to support the president's narrative.

INSKEEP: So what evidence do we have? NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is here. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what is this investigation about?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Steve, investigators are looking into some military ballots that were already cast. And it does appear that something did happen here and that those ballots were improperly opened by county election staff. Nine of them were found to have been thrown out, and seven of those were not with their special envelope. All seven of them were cast for President Trump. Local election staff said that they were opened by mistake because they look a lot like other envelopes that need to be opened quickly. But this is in the early stages. As Noel said, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and there are no charges filed yet or any official action.

INSKEEP: And a small number of ballots in a state where millions are likely to be cast. But what is the connection between these nine ballots and the larger election issues the president has been raising?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the president says this could be happening at thousands of places, but it's a fear that's really not substantiated. We have reported before that experts see little evidence of meaningful fraud due to mail-in voting. But it's a case that feeds into his larger argument that mail-in voting cannot be trusted.

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TRUMP: We want to make sure the election is honest, and I'm not sure that it can be. I don't know that it can be with this whole situation - unsolicited ballots.

ORDOÑEZ: But as you know, Steve, this is a year when we're expecting record mail-in voting because of the coronavirus. The Trump campaign jumped right on this saying it was an example of Democrats trying to steal the election. In that Fox interview, the president also said he would concede if the Supreme Court decided Joe Biden won. But that's short of a court decision. The vote count would amount to a, quote, "horror show."

INSKEEP: OK. A few things to note here - he's already assuming it goes to the Supreme Court and isn't decided by the people. That is interesting. You said it was military ballots, which have been mail-in ballots for many years without trouble. And he also mentioned unsolicited ballots. In spite of the president's statements, most states do not send out unsolicited ballots. They may send out unsolicited applications for ballots in most cases. But then there's this FBI and U.S. attorney statements about the case. How unusual is it to have a U.S. attorney comment at this stage of an investigation?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, it's very unusual. The investigation is just beginning. My colleague Carrie Johnson interviewed Justin Levitt a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He said it was improper to announce partial facts and potential issues. And he said it was grotesquely improper to announce whom the ballots were cast for since that really shouldn't matter in the investigation. The other issue is this is just, as you noted before, a very small number of ballots.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks very much for the update, really appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: We'll continue following that story. NPR's Franco Ordoñez.

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INSKEEP: We have more now in the aftermath of grand jury findings in the death of Breonna Taylor.

KING: For the second time this week, protesters in Louisville, who are demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, defied a 9 p.m. curfew. Police moved in last night. Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott was arrested, along with other protesters. WFPL reporter Ryan Van Velzer recorded the arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We love you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Her name is state Rep. Attica Scott.

KING: A police union spokesperson says Scott is charged with unlawful assembly and first-degree rioting. That's a Class D felony. Now, that is the same level felony as wanton endangerment, the only charge brought against one of the three officers involved in Taylor's death. This, for the record, is why so many people are so angry. Marcus Reed (ph) runs a barbecue joint near where Breonna Taylor was killed.

MARCUS REED: And if it was me, I'd probably get 20 years. But, you know, since it's police and he's not my skin color, they - just a slap on the wrist.

INSKEEP: Amina Elahi of member station WFPL is covering the story in Louisville and is going to help us work through the questions that many people have in the aftermath of this story. Good morning.

AMINA ELAHI, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's start with this. There is one officer who is charged with wanton endangerment for firing bullets that went into a neighbor's apartment, but the two officers who fired directly at Breonna Taylor are not accused even of endangerment, much less a more serious offense for the bullets that killed her. Why not?

ELAHI: That's the same question family attorney Lonita Baker has, and you could understand why. Taylor was unarmed, and she was killed. So Baker wants to know why Taylor wasn't endangered by former detective Brett Hankison or other officers' actions. The attorney general said the charges were based on the bullets Hankison blindly shot through a covered window passing through the wall of Taylor's apartment into her neighbor's. And he said the other two officers weren't charged because they were found to be justified in shooting back in response to an alleged warning shot from Taylor's boyfriend.

INSKEEP: OK. So the two officers were justified, according to the grand jury, because they were firing back at someone. The third officer is in trouble because he fired through a covered window without having any idea where his bullets would go. Now, there's the question of this - a grand jury says no charges for the death of Breonna Taylor, and yet the city of Louisville agreed to pay $12 million in a settlement to the family. How could that be?

ELAHI: Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said it was important for the city to begin the healing process, and he said he thought it was the right decision at the time. But let's note that the city did not admit wrongdoing as part of that settlement.

INSKEEP: OK. And there's a question of legal guilt and then also a political or moral question, I suppose. Now, lawmakers and lawyers for Taylor's family are asking for the grand jury evidence to be released to the public. Noel heard that from Louisville state Rep. Charles Booker yesterday. Let's listen.

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CHARLES BOOKER: Throughout this process, transparency was never there. The community was left in the dark. Leadership, even elected leaders like myself, we were left in the dark.

INSKEEP: OK. So that leads to another question. Will the Kentucky attorney general, Daniel Cameron, release evidence?

ELAHI: We don't know yet. He said it was his job to present the facts to the grand jury. But he didn't say what facts he presented. And he didn't answer questions about whether the grand jury was presented with evidence or charges specific to the two other officers who shot Taylor. Notably, they weren't charged. So Kentucky's governor and Louisville's mayor have called on the attorney general to release the evidence to the public. But at this point, it's not looking likely because he says it wouldn't be appropriate given other ongoing investigations.

INSKEEP: One more question. These two officers who were not charged who fired into Breonna Taylor's apartment, what, if anything, happens to them now?

ELAHI: Well, they're still on administrative leave. They're still on the payroll. And now they're under another internal investigation. So the mayor says depending on what that investigation finds, he may fire them or they might face other repercussions or training.

INSKEEP: Amina Elahi of member station WFPL in Louisville, thanks so much.

ELAHI: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: The pandemic and the economic crisis could be undoing a decade of progress for U.S. military veterans.

KING: Yeah. Over the past 10 years or so, the number of homeless vets in this country has dropped by about half. Now, a lot of hard work by the VA, by community organizations went into that; so did a lot of government funding. But now the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says more of them are becoming vulnerable to homelessness.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans and is here with more. Quil, good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess it's intuitive that when the economy gets bad, more people end up on the streets. But how specifically are veterans affected?

LAWRENCE: We don't really have exact numbers yet. They do an official count every year in the winter. So this year's official count was done in January. And when these numbers come out, you know, they won't show any impact of the virus. But I've been calling charities that work on this around the country, and in New Orleans, for example, five years ago, I did a story on how they had essentially solved veterans homelessness. So I called up one of the outreach workers I've kept in touch with, DaVaughn Phillips.

DAVAUGHN PHILLIPS: We have a lady now, she's living with her kids and facing eviction because she lost her job. Coming into the program now, she actually have an interview that's coming up. The interview is for a job paying a little less, but the kids are now virtual learning, and many families don't have the support to do child care and have someone to pay for child care.

INSKEEP: Okay. So first, that's awful, Quil. Second, I want to note that the fact that you're paying sustained attention over years to this story is why we're able to tell that something is changing, something going wrong here. So thank you for that.

LAWRENCE: Hey, we're NPR.

INSKEEP: Exactly. What's the federal government doing as this problem emerges?

LAWRENCE: Well, there were hundreds of millions of dollars in the CARES Act, that first coronavirus stimulus bill back in March, that will sustain a lot of these VA programs throughout the year. And I've been told actually by some charities that the VA is making them whole, I was told, keeping this infrastructure in place that had made all of this progress over the last decade. Steve Peck runs U.S. Vets in LA, in Los Angeles, which has the highest number of homeless vets in the country. And he says his occupancy at the 11 housing communities he runs is actually lower because many vets are avoiding these big group housing shelters. But the VA has been keeping his funding nonetheless at the same level. It seems like they're really planning to keep this infrastructure going for the future after the pandemic when they want to keep working on this. But, I mean, Peck says he's worried because a lot of the stimulus programs are going to expire next month.

STEVE PECK: This money is running out. The costs aren't going to go away. The pandemic won't be over in October. So we're not quite sure what's going to happen after that.

LAWRENCE: So there are measures moving through Congress to expand support for homeless veterans, but it seems that that help is sort of a step behind the pandemic, which continues, as you know.

INSKEEP: Quil, briefly, what happens as the weather turns colder?

LAWRENCE: Well, some of the stimulus money, which has the second-order effects, is running out. Eviction moratoria are ending, and we're waiting for a second stimulus to get through Congress. All of that has effects on homeless veterans. We'll have to wait and see. But these advocates are worried.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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