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News Brief: Presidential Debate, Plot Against Michigan Governor, White House Outbreak

NOEL KING, HOST:

Back in the spring, far-right militia members carrying guns protested at Michigan's state Capitol.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

They demanded an end to coronavirus restrictions that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put in place. At the time, some observers worried that anti-government sentiment seemed to be growing. And now six men are facing federal charges that they plotted to kidnap the governor. Another seven who were linked to that plot face a range of state charges. Authorities have not said whether the men were motivated by the COVID restrictions.

KING: Abigail Censky is a reporter with WKAR in East Lansing, Mich. Good morning, Abigail.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So it is early there, but what has it been like in the hours since these men were arrested?

CENSKY: So the Capitol has definitely been shell-shocked by these threats of violence against the governor. People did show up with big block letters that said Big Gretch outside of the Capitol to support the governor last night. And Republican leaders still spoke at a rally, but people are still kind of processing what happened yesterday.

KING: You've been going to these armed protests for the past few months to report on them. What have they been like?

CENSKY: So despite a majority of Michiganders supporting the job that the governor has been doing, there have been thousands of people who came to the Capitol in April and armed protesters entering the Capitol in May. And if you were at those protests, you might not be surprised by this plan. There was a lot of anti-Whitmer and misogynous sentiment, signs like tyrants get the rope, comparisons to Nazi Germany and graphic depictions of violence. At one of the protests I covered, a man brought a Barbie doll hanging from a noose. And those tapered off over the summer after our stay-at-home order ended. But there's still resentment toward Whitmer and - in the form of fledgeling recall efforts and a petition to strip the governor of her emergency powers.

KING: OK. What else do we know about this alleged plot to kidnap her?

CENSKY: So the criminal complaint said that these men were allegedly incensed by her, quote, "uncontrolled power" right now. There's kind of two levels of anger. At the bottom, you have these fringe and extremist groups who protest at the Capitol, and in the upper echelons of the Michigan state legislature, you have leadership that are very angry with the governor's COVID-19 response. She's issued hundreds of executive orders without a lot of legislative input. And state Republicans have been calling it a power grab for months. They've sued the governor and passed bills that would limit her emergency powers. So they may not be calling her a tyrant, but they'd mingle with protesters, and boiling under the surface, they have a huge amount of contempt for her coronavirus response.

KING: Lawmakers would mingle with the protesters. That's interesting. Is Gov. Whitmer still enforcing those COVID-19 restrictions?

CENSKY: So in a shocking Supreme Court case, they upended her emergency powers last Friday. And a lot of those are no longer being enforced, but there are stopgap measures being enforced by the public health department.

KING: OK. Abigail Censky with WKAR in East Lansing, thanks so much.

CENSKY: Of course.

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KING: Will there be another presidential debate or two this election season?

INSKEEP: Responses from the president are putting that in doubt. You will recall that he attended the first presidential debate, and just two evenings later, the president tested positive for coronavirus and was soon in the hospital. For safety, the commission that runs presidential debates has said the next meeting, October 15, should be virtual. The president said no to that. He told Fox News he doesn't want to sit at a computer, and his campaign said he'll hold a rally instead. Both campaigns yesterday talked about changing dates, but Joe Biden's camp ultimately said the president is being erratic and that he doesn't get to dictate the schedule. And since he's already backed out of that second debate, Joe Biden has moved on, scheduled a town hall meeting on ABC with Biden alone for Tuesday, the very night that there would have been a debate.

KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez has been following this one. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Where do things stand right now?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the dibute (ph) here - dispute - excuse me - is whether it's safe for everyone involved to meet in person. At least that's what the presidential debate commission said in its announcement of a virtual debate. Here's the commission's Frank Fahrenkopf on Fox News yesterday.

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FRANK FAHRENKOPF: Too many questions as to whether or not we could present this with many, many people who are going to be present in Miami who would be, you know, vulnerable if they were going to catch something if we weren't comfortable. So we thought the best thing to do to make sure that the debate continued was to do it virtually.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, but the president released a statement last night citing a memo from Dr. Sean Conley, the president's doctor, stating that the president should be able to safely return to public events beginning on Saturday. There has been a lot of back and forth. Trump says he's not willing to participate virtually, as you noted. He calls it a waste of time. Here he is talking to Fox News' Sean Hannity last night.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not interested in doing a virtual - I'm not Joe Biden. I'm not going to do a virtual debate, sit behind a computer screen. And that gives him the answers.

ORDOÑEZ: Joe Biden - he was speaking to reporters in Phoenix. Here's what he said.

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JOE BIDEN: We set the dates. I'm sticking with the dates. I'm showing up. I'll be there. And in fact, if he shows up, fine; if he doesn't, fine.

ORDOÑEZ: He says he'll be there. But Biden has also scheduled a town hall on ABC for that night. And Trump, he says he might hold a rally that night.

KING: Let me go back to what you said about the president's doctor, Sean Conley. He says the president should be able to safely return to public events beginning on Saturday, which would be, like, eight or nine, 10 days after the president was given the diagnosis. That would seem to contradict some stuff that public health officials have said about how long you need to quarantine for. What do we know about the president's health right now?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's right. I mean, Dr. Conley says the president has completed his course of treatment for the coronavirus. He says that he has responded extremely well. And he says there's no sign of, quote, "adverse therapeutic effects." And he says that he fully anticipates the president's safe return to public engagements. You know, the president said last night that he may actually hold a rally in Florida tomorrow night and possibly one in Pennsylvania on Sunday.

KING: OK. And so what does all of this mean for President Trump's attempt to be reelected?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, the president is really eager to get back on the campaign trail, a final election push. I mean, it's really around the corner. And they're just weeks away. Biden was in Arizona, you know, an important target. In Nevada, he's going to be there today, you know, and the president, meanwhile, is behind in the polls. He really needs to shake things up. And the White House is trying to say that he's out there and that he's fine. But, you know, there's a lot of questions left.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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KING: Here is what the CDC has been saying about coronavirus for months. If you get the virus, isolate until you don't have it anymore.

INSKEEP: And if you have been around someone who has the virus, quarantine for at least 14 days. Just to remember the timeline here - the president tested positive for COVID last week. We learned about it just one week ago today. His doctors will not say if he has tested negative at any point since then. In appearances on Fox News last night, he could be heard coughing and clearing his throat. And yet we're hearing, as Franco mentioned, that the president is getting ready as soon as this weekend to head out in public again. Authorities in Washington, D.C., including the mayor, still have questions about the very recent past. They want the government to conduct contact tracing on people who may have been exposed to the virus at a White House event in late September.

KING: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been following this one. Good morning, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So the mayor of D.C. and a few other officials sent a letter to the White House. What does it say exactly?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the letter is pretty simple. It actually is an open call to White House staff and visitors and says if you worked at the White House in the past two weeks or attended the Rose Garden ceremony on September 26, or you had close contact with people who worked there or attended the event, then you need to get tested. And it also notes that a negative test does not mean you just don't have to quarantine for 14 days. You can test negative and have no symptoms and still be infectious. And the letter notes that this call is happening because of the officials' understanding that there's been limited contact tracing to date.

KING: So one of the really interesting things here is that the White House is in Washington, D.C., proper, but it is considered federal land. So can the D.C. government require contact tracing in this case?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The short answer is no. So even though there are reports of an increase in coronavirus tests in the district and there have been some high case numbers in the last few days, folks have been worried that these cases are linked to the outbreak at the White House, the D.C. government can't control what happens at the White House. So the mayor sent a letter to the White House earlier this week suggesting that they coordinate on this. And the D.C. health director apparently did make contact with the White House earlier this week. But now this open letter suggests that internal process wasn't satisfactory. So there is an entity that could contact trace an event like this that's really complicated with people who flew in from all over the country, and that is the CDC. But it seems like the agency's role in this is really limited. And here's what Dr. Leana Wen told NPR. She's an emergency room physician who's also a medical analyst for CNN and other media.

LEANA WEN: I was shocked when I found out that there weren't extensive contact tracing efforts underway. This is what the CDC does. The CDC should be coordinating this effort with state and local health departments all over the country.

KING: So is the White House just not doing contact tracing at this point?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, they've said that it's actually too long before the president's diagnosis to be relevant...

KING: The September event.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Exactly. And so the Trump administration says the White House medical unit is contact tracing but only cases they identify, which makes it seem like they might be contact tracing a small subset of people. So in the absence of a real robust, transparent effort at this from the federal government, there's now this open call from local health departments in the D.C. region, kind of like a bat signal. If you work at the White House or you were at the Rose Garden on September 26, quarantine for 14 days and get tested.

KING: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thanks, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "FORGIVENESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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