News Brief: Inauguration Day Changes, COVID-19 Roundup, Alexei Navalny
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Drive toward the White House on 16th Street NW here in Washington, and you are stopped several blocks away by a high metal fence.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Also, National Guard troops have surrounded the entire center of Washington - the White House, the Capitol, the National Mall. Military vehicles are blocking every street and every alleyway that leads toward the scene of Joe Biden's inauguration. U.S. troops, of course, swear an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And after this month's attack on Congress at the Capitol, the troops were deployed to uphold that oath.
INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is joining us this morning. Good morning.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I just want to note - I've been to a few inaugurations - they're normally very, very public events. But how will it work this time?
GRISALES: Yes, tickets were already going to be vastly limited because of the pandemic. And the Biden transition team urged supporters not to come to D.C. And then on January 6, we saw this mob of Trump supporters descend on the Capitol building, taking over the same platform where Biden will speak from and ransack the Capitol. There's been a lot of criticism about the preparedness of security forces that day. And since then, the Capitol area has been dramatically transformed, in part because of these new threats. There's a much larger security perimeter around the Capitol. Thousands of members of the National Guard will be there. There's multiple layers of fencing and barricades, and people are barred from going to the National Mall.
Yesterday, the Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, told The Associated Press that officials are also doing additional screening of their own members - 25,000 of them - involved in securing the inauguration to address any concerns of insider threats. But despite all of these efforts, Biden and Harris say they're determined to take this oath of office outside the West Front of the Capitol, as is tradition. The incoming White House communications director, Kate Bedingfield, explained why on ABC yesterday. Let's take a listen.
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KATE BEDINGFIELD: I think that will send an incredibly important visual image to the world about the resilience of American democracy.
INSKEEP: So Joe Biden goes ahead with as normal an inauguration as he can, given conditions. What will the departing president be doing on Inauguration Day?
GRISALES: Trump has already said he wasn't planning on attending the inauguration, and this will make him the first modern president to skip the swearing-in of his successor. My colleague Franco Ordoñez spoke to a senior administration official who said that Trump will hold a departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday, and then he's expected to fly to his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. This comes just days after Trump was impeached again by the House. And Trump's decision to leave town early is something Biden himself says he agrees with. While Trump won't be there, we know Vice President Mike Pence is expected to be in attendance in addition to other former presidents.
INSKEEP: Yeah, Biden actually said he'd be honored to have Mike Pence there after Pence upheld the Constitution. Now, let's talk about Congress because they have a day of business tomorrow, the last day before the inauguration. How are they going to spend it?
GRISALES: Yes, several of Biden's intended nominees for Cabinet roles face Senate hearings. This includes the key roles of secretaries for the Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security departments. Biden had wanted to have his national security team in place by the time he was sworn in Wednesday, but it looks like he won't have those nominees in place by the start of his term. That's not the usual pattern, as it's typical for incoming presidents to have that team in place by Inauguration Day. And also, the Senate will be back in session for the first time since the deadly insurrection. And we're waiting to see when the House could deliver that article of impeachment that will trigger a Senate impeachment trial for President Trump.
INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. Current rules say that once the Senate receives it, they have to take up that business immediately.
INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks so much.
GRISALES: Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales.
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INSKEEP: All right. The United States is approaching 400,000 coronavirus deaths.
KING: And consider this. Tomorrow we hit one year since the first case of COVID-19 was documented in the U.S., not the first death, the first case. This country needs, it is very clear, mass vaccinations. And maybe some good news - Dr. Anthony Fauci says new vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca might be available relatively soon.
INSKEEP: Adding to the vaccines that are already being distributed - NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us as she does just about every Monday. Allison, good morning.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How is the vaccine rollout going anyway?
AUBREY: You know, the pace of vaccinations is accelerating. So far, about 12 to 13 million doses have been administered. That's out of a total of 31 million doses. And yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that the goal of 100 million doses in the first 100 days of a Biden administration is absolutely doable. Part of what's happening now, Steve, is that in addition to hospitals and pharmacies, more vaccination sites are ramping up. I took a virtual tour of a vaccination site at Gillette Stadium outside Boston, where they're scaling up to deliver up to 5,000 shots a day. Rodrigo Martinez of CIC Health showed me around the clinic.
RODRIGO MARTINEZ: It's a really big space. And you can see over here, here's where they get vaccinated in any of these stations. And afterwards, they can actually walk into the stadium and take a photo and send through social media that they got vaccinated at Gillette Stadium.
INSKEEP: When you said a virtual tour, Allison, what's that mean - somebody walked around with a phone camera and showed you everything?
AUBREY: Absolutely. I was on FaceTime. He was on FaceTime. I did not actually walk into the stadium. I'm here in Vermont.
INSKEEP: Absolutely safe. Safety is good.
AUBREY: That's right.
INSKEEP: Safety is good. So is there going to be enough supply of the vaccine if they get the distribution worked out?
AUBREY: You know, I spoke to Josh Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins. He's a contender for the top post at the FDA. He says the approach that Biden has outlined to use more mobile clinics and federally qualified health centers as vaccination sites, that should help reach people in hard to reach, marginalized communities who may be hesitant. As to the supply, he says this really could be a challenge moving forward.
JOSH SHARFSTEIN: We're going to move from a period where there's more vaccine than there is demand to where there's more demand than there is vaccine. And once that happens, it will be fantastic if there are additional vaccines that are found to be safe and effective. And it's possible that there could be two this spring.
AUBREY: In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as you guys mentioned in the intro, said yesterday, the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine will likely both be evaluated by the FDA in the next few weeks. So time is of the essence here, Steve. As these more contagious variants spread around the globe, we really are in a race against the virus.
INSKEEP: This is one circumstance where we can predict some of the future because this disease spreads on a timeline depending on how people are behaving at the moment. What do the next few months look like?
AUBREY: You know, I spoke to Ali Mokdad of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, some of the most well-known modelers. He says we could be heading in the right direction.
ALI MOKDAD: All indications right now, simply because of the seasonality and the rise in vaccination, we're going to see much better days ahead of us. If we keep up and keep our guards and remain vigilant, we can have a good summer.
AUBREY: So encouraging but vaccinations need to stay on track. And people need to adhere to social distancing and masking.
INSKEEP: A good summer - something to look for. Allison, thanks so much.
AUBREY: That's right. Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey.
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INSKEEP: Alexei Navalny, the most outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, returned to Russia yesterday despite warnings from authorities that he would be arrested.
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ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).
KING: After his plane landed in Moscow, Navalny said the criminal cases against him had been fabricated. He said the truth is on his side. He said he has no reason to be afraid. And then he said goodbye to his wife, and he was arrested.
INSKEEP: Wow. NPR's Lucian Kim is covering this story in Moscow. Hey there, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Why did Navalny return to Russia if he knew that he would be arrested almost as soon as he got off the plane?
KIM: Well, Alexei Navalny has never shied away from publishing an investigation into government corruption or attending a protest rally because he was afraid of arrest. He spent literally hundreds of days in jail in the past and has faced criminal cases that he says are trumped up. He was in Germany for the past several months recovering from a poisoning with a nerve agent but vowed to return to Russia. Yesterday, the flight he was on was diverted to another airport at the last minute, maybe because crowds of his supporters had gathered at the airport where he was scheduled to land. Navalny had time to make the statement we just heard, and then he was arrested by police.
INSKEEP: You've just given us a picture of this man's long-running battle against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin has certainly replied in kind. Isn't his government suspected of some role in this poisoning?
KIM: Well, absolutely. That's what Navalny has said from the beginning, that Putin ordered this poisoning. The Kremlin denies any involvement. Putin is so allergic to Navalny that he doesn't even mention his name. And he has suggested that Navalny is too insignificant to be killed.
INSKEEP: Well, what does his return mean for Russia's opposition? I mean, certainly he was considered significant enough to arrest.
KIM: Well, let's be clear. There is no organized opposition in Russia besides a handful of political parties that cooperate closely with the Kremlin. And that's what makes Navalny such an outstanding figure - because he mastered social media long before the government did. He kept soldiering on even when he was relatively unknown, calling people to protest and running a presidential campaign in 2018 that was really doomed from the start. So his return is hugely important to people who oppose Putin. Many Russians - and I personally know quite a few - have left Russia because of the repressive political climate here. Navalny could easily have stayed in exile. But he's now giving a signal that his place is in Russia and he sees himself as a future leader of the country.
INSKEEP: Lucian, obviously we're hearing about Navalny's return and Navalny's arrest. I'd like to know, as best you can tell, if Russians are hearing about this. Does this news get on state media at all? And you mentioned social media. Is it free enough there that people are likely hearing about this, even if it's not on state-run media?
KIM: Absolutely. Russians still have access to information via the Internet. One of the few independent TV stations here ran a livestream on YouTube that had more than 5 million views. So people who want to know can definitely find out what's going on.
INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks for the update - really appreciate it.
KIM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.