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Morning News Brief: Harris' First Foreign Trip, Job Numbers, FBI Investigates DeJoy

NOEL KING, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris will go to Guatemala on Sunday, and then she's on to Mexico.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's her first diplomatic trip while in office. President Biden sent her. His administration is under pressure to do something about large numbers of migrants who've been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border every month. The vice president will also discuss the White House plan to ship COVID-19 vaccines to Central America.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith will be travelling with the vice president. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Let's talk about vaccines, vaccine diplomacy they're calling it. What news is she bringing?

KEITH: Yeah. The Biden administration has taken a lot of criticism thus far for not sharing a lot of vaccines fast enough while they focused on vaccinating Americans. So the big news is that they're starting to send vaccines out into the world. The White House yesterday announced its plans for shipping doses, and a portion of those will go to Mexico and Guatemala, other Central American countries, as well as countries in Asia and Africa. It is a big push, but there will be more to come. This is not nearly enough, not even close. They're talking about shipping millions of doses. Experts say there need to be billions of doses shipped out. But Harris will be able to talk about the White House strategy for boosting global vaccine supplies. President Biden is going next week to Europe and will be talking about this a lot on his first foreign trip. He wants to galvanize the world's leading economies to get behind a push to end the global pandemic by sharing and producing more vaccines.

KING: So the news on vaccines will probably be well received. She also has another assignment on a problem that goes back much longer and is more entrenched, which is immigration. What has she been tasked with doing on this trip?

KEITH: Yeah. So if you look at polling, this is a big red flag for President Biden. A lot of people don't approve of the job he's doing when it comes to immigration because of these large numbers of people largely from Central America trying to come to the U.S. through the Mexican border. Biden asked Harris to take this on, though not all of it. Right from the start, the White House tried to draw a distinction between border issues, which are not part of her portfolio, and addressing the root causes of this migration, which is. So Harris is focusing on the major challenges that are pushing people to make that perilous journey, which she says will not be fixed overnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: We have the capacity to give people hope and hope in particular in this case that if they stay, that help is on the way.

KEITH: So she's been working to direct some aid to the countries and encouraging businesses to invest there. On the trip, she'll meet with President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But she's also going to be talking to community leaders, entrepreneurs and labor groups.

KING: You know, this is a portfolio - you know well that this is a portfolio that Biden had when he was vice president. What has she learned from him possibly? What's going to be different this time around?

KEITH: And that is the big question hanging over this trip and this high-profile job. And it's something her Republican critics have keyed in on. Harris aides are aware of the challenges, and they're signaling it will take time. Mazin Alfaqih is a senior adviser to Harris.

MAZIN ALFAQIH: We are taking a very critical eye at the programs that have and have not been successful and looking to scale up ones could have been. We're also looking to broaden partnerships, understanding that the U.S. government and foreign assistance alone cannot tackle this problem.

KEITH: Experts I talked to said that Harris needs willing partners in these countries, and that's hard when corruption has been a longtime issue. So that corruption conversation is going to be a big part of what she's talking about on this trip.

KING: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam. And have a safe trip.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. If you have a couple minutes, here's an interesting thing I've been doing recently. Go online and Google your town or your city plus hiring bonus. It's everywhere - candle companies, convenience stores, gas stations, pizza places, even schools.

INSKEEP: Wow. At least four entire states are offering a bonus to every single person who goes back to work. Even with more than 15 million Americans out of work, many employers say they cannot find the staff to meet demand. And the why of this has been debated for months. Today's jobs report for the month of May may give us some insights.

KING: NPR's Scott Horsley is with us now following this story. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What does job recovery look like at this point?

HORSLEY: In April, it was slow. The U.S. employers added just 266,000 jobs that month. That was about a quarter of what was anticipated. And as you point out, that's kind of a head scratcher because there's no question businesses need more workers as pandemic fears start to fade and as newly vaccinated Americans flock to restaurants, amusement parks and movie theaters. An index of service sector activity that came out yesterday showed business was growing at a rapid pace. Anthony Nieves compiles that index for the Institute for Supply Management, and here's how he paints the picture.

ANTHONY NIEVES: The pent-up demand is real. I think it's almost like a jailbreak. People are looking to get out and do things, and definitely the demand is exceeding the supply.

HORSLEY: That should translate into a lot of hiring, but that didn't happen in April.

KING: Even though millions of people are still unemployed.

HORSLEY: Yeah. And that's the paradox. People have offered a number of possible explanations. Some workers are still wary of taking jobs for health reasons, especially if they or someone in their household is not vaccinated or if they'd be working around people who aren't vaccinated. Some people are still busy caring for children who are not in school or in some cases caring for others in their family who've been adversely affected by the pandemic. And then a third factor are those enhanced unemployment benefits, including the extra $300 a week that the federal government's been paying. Those benefits could make a job in a low-wage industry like restaurants or hotels less attractive. And so now two dozen-plus states with Republican governors have announced plans to cut those benefits off early, in some cases as early as next week. Now, most of those states announced that decision after April's disappointing jobs report. If the jobs numbers continue to disappoint, you can expect Republicans will use that as a cudgel against Democrats in Congress and against the Biden administration.

KING: Jobs are one part of the economy. How does this fit into the bigger picture of recovery or non-recovery?

HORSLEY: The economy is definitely on the mend, but we're still a long way from replacing all the jobs that were lost during the pandemic. At the pace we added jobs in March, it would take about 10 months. At the pace we added jobs in April, it would take three times that long. So April was clearly a bump in the road. We'll be watching closely May's numbers to see if that was just a quickie speed bump or the beginning of a much rockier path ahead.

KING: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: The head of the post office is under federal investigation.

INSKEEP: A probe centered on alleged campaign finance violations, which date back to when Postmaster General Louis DeJoy ran a private business. The Washington Post first reported these contributions some time back. DeJoy was a major Republican fundraiser before he was appointed to run the post office last year during the Trump administration. President Biden and a lot of Democrats want him out of the postmaster general job, but they cannot fire him because DeJoy can only be removed by the USPS Board of Governors.

KING: Jacob Bogage covers the Postal Service for The Washington Post. He's been reporting this one out. Hi, Jacob.

JACOB BOGAGE: Hey, good morning.

KING: Let's get some more specifics here. What is Louis DeJoy alleged to have done?

BOGAGE: Yeah. What we're talking about is something called a straw donor scheme. It's the campaign finance equivalent of asking your older brother to go to the liquor store to buy you a six-pack because you're under age. What he's alleged to have done is to ask employees from his former company, New Breed Logistics, to make donations to his favored causes and candidates - very frequently Republicans - and then he would make them whole through bonuses or through pay raises. It is bright red first page of the rule book thing you should not do in campaign finance law.

KING: And have the employees said, we felt pressure to do this and so we did it even though we didn't want to?

BOGAGE: Yeah. I mean, when Louis DeJoy was appointed the postmaster general about a year ago now, as any journalist would do, you start making calls to former employees to get a sense of what it was like to work for him and what his leadership style is like. And within 10 minutes of being on the phone with former employees, they would say this was part of the culture at New Breed, and they would offer it up kind of unprompted. And when my colleagues have reached out to former employees, including folks who had access to payroll records and ran the HR department, they would say this is something we were asked to do routinely.

KING: What is Lewis Louis DeJoy saying in his own defense, if anything?

BOGAGE: He's saying he's never knowingly violated campaign finance law and that he'd cooperate with the Department of Justice investigation. He also points to previous inquiries by the Department of Inspector General for the Postal Service in which they've cleared him of any wrongdoing. But those were about different issues entirely.

KING: OK. So as Steve mentioned, President Biden and a lot of Democrats would like him to be out of this position, but they can't fire him. Congress, in the meantime, is considering a bill with bipartisan support to cut some costs at the post office, which he leads. Remind us again why that is.

BOGAGE: Yeah. We're all sending less mail. The Postal Service generally doesn't get taxpayer funds to run its operations. It runs itself on the sale of postage products. And we are all sending a whole lot less mail now than we did, say, 10 years ago. That has led to a real budget crunch. And so there is some entrenched costs that folks in Congress want to take care of, but it's still not going to fix - this bill - the major problem with the Postal Service has, which is we all just send less mail.

KING: So things are a little messy anyway. And then you add in this investigation, and what does it all mean?

BOGAGE: That's what we're trying to find out. It can definitely damage the Postal Service's long-term reputation, if nothing else. This is an agency that lives on its reputation and its ability to attract customers. And if the leader is somehow embarrassed or damaged, is that going to impact the way customers and lawmakers see its reform efforts? We don't know.

KING: Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post. Thanks so much, Jacob. We appreciate it.

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

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