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News Brief: DOJ Defends Trump, Vaccine Is A Hot Button Issue, Rochester Police

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department has made a highly unusual move to protect President Trump.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. The DOJ is stepping in to defend the president in what had been a private lawsuit. The writer E. Jean Carroll took Trump to court. She says he sexually assaulted her in a department store in Manhattan back in the '90s. She told that story in graphic detail last year, and the president denied it. But more than that, he questioned her motives. He said she was lying to sell a book that she'd written, so she sued him for defamation.

INSKEEP: The case was proceeding in a state court when the Justice Department stepped in. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is on the line. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What exactly was the Justice Department action?

LUCAS: Well, the department filed papers in federal court in Manhattan last night. And in those documents, the department says that it has determined that Trump was acting as president, that he was acting within the scope of his office when he denied Carroll's sexual assault allegations. And because Trump was acting in his official capacity and not in his personal capacity, the Justice Department says that the United States government should replace Trump as the defendant in the case. One legal step in this is that the department has removed the case from state court and put it into federal court. Now, if a federal judge agrees with the department's assessment that Trump was indeed, as the department says, acting as president within the scope of his office when he made those denials and grants the DOJ's request, legal experts say that it would likely spell the end of this lawsuit because the federal government can't be sued for defamation.

INSKEEP: So the case would not only be delayed but actually denied, turned aside. How has Jean Carroll and her attorney responded?

LUCAS: Well, on Twitter last night, Carroll wrote Trump hurls Bill Barr at me, a reference to the attorney general there. She also put out a statement from her attorney, Roberta Kaplan, who described the department's move as offensive. She called the department's arguments that Trump was acting as president when he denied Carroll's allegations as shocking. And she also noted that last month, the state Supreme Court judge had ruled that Carroll's lawsuit could proceed and that Trump was on the verge of being required to produce documents, to produce a DNA sample and to sit for a deposition in the case, which would, of course, be under oath. She accuses the president here of using the power of the U.S. government to try to, she says, evade responsibility for what amounts to private misconduct.

INSKEEP: Well, you know, she's not the first person to make that sort of allegation, as you know very well, Ryan. Democrats like to accuse the president of using Bill Barr, the attorney general, as his personal lawyer. Barr has always denied that. Yet aren't there a whole series of incidents where Barr has directed the Justice Department in ways that happen to match the president's interests?

LUCAS: There certainly is a larger pattern that critics of both the president and the attorney general would point to that say that Barr has taken actions, yes, to either benefit Trump directly or his friends. Barr intervened in the case against the president's former adviser, Roger Stone, to recommend a lighter sentence for him, overruling the prosecutors who handled his case. Barr moved to dismiss the case against the president's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador in 2016. Now, as for the Carroll lawsuit here, as I said, a federal judge is going to have to rule on whether Trump was acting as president and whether the U.S. government can take his place in this case. But either way, as you noted, this is going to drag out the timeline for any end to this case for quite some time.

INSKEEP: Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas this morning. Now, the Justice Department move does protect the president from being deposed in court before the November election.

KING: That's right. And President Trump resumed campaigning after the Labor Day holiday. He was in Winston-Salem, N.C., yesterday. He's been promoting this idea - and right now it is only an idea - that a COVID vaccine might be coming soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The vaccine will be safe. These are the greatest companies in the world that do this, the greatest labs, the greatest doctors. It'll be effective, and it'll be delivered before the end of the year.

KING: He's talked about a vaccine being ready by the end of the year, as you heard there, but health experts are doubtful about that.

INSKEEP: With us now is NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How much has the president been talking about a vaccine lately?

KHALID: Quite a bit, Steve. You know, he's been playing up this possibility of a vaccine specifically coming out before November, before Election Day. But I will say, you know, by emphasizing and repeatedly talking about the vaccine, he's drawing attention to this hypothetical but also raising concern from Democrats that this announcement could be politically motivated. And, really, the issue, Steve, has been that throughout this pandemic, the president has a history of repeatedly just contradicting some of the scientific advice that some of his own public health experts have given. I will say because of the sort of volatile atmosphere that we've heard in the past couple of days back and forth between Democrats and Republicans about this hypothetical vaccine, drugmakers did come out yesterday with a rare joint safety pledge to try to bolster public confidence in a vaccine whenever one does come out.

INSKEEP: Well, how is Joe Biden approaching the same question of a vaccine, which everybody certainly wants, or most people certainly want?

KHALID: Sure. You know, Joe Biden has publicly expressed hope for a vaccine multiple times, but, look, really the issue is that Democrats don't trust President Trump's words. And both Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, have been emphasizing that any hypothetical vaccine needs to have the backing of scientific experts. And so yesterday, Biden's campaign had this press call where they laid out three specific questions that it says the Trump administration needs to answer about vaccines. And just really quickly, Steve, I wanted to outline those.

INSKEEP: Sure.

KHALID: No. 1, they've been saying, you know, the Trump administration needs to specify what criteria would be used to evaluate that this vaccine is safe. No. 2, who would validate that the vaccine is being driven by science and not politics? And No. 3, what's the plan to distribute this vaccine? This last point was emphasized by one of Biden's advisers, Jake Sullivan, on this press call yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: The vaccine is only as good as the ability of the administration to get it into the arms of hundreds of millions of people in this country.

KHALID: And, Steve, Sullivan has pointed out that in the past, logistics and operations have been, in his view, a weak point of the Trump administration and that throughout this pandemic when we've talked about, you know, testing or getting PPE to folks, that the Trump administration, in their view, has failed on these logistical issues.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about logistics and operations of a campaign. Is it starting to look more like a normal campaign now that we're past Labor Day?

KHALID: Sort of. Joe Biden will be in Michigan today, and Trump will be there tomorrow. Both men will also be in Pennsylvania later this week. And so to me, this shows this clear focus on some of these blue wall states that Trump narrowly flipped in 2016 to take the election. The other interesting point is that Jill Biden, Joe Biden's wife, will be in Minnesota today, along with the president's son. Minnesota - a very interesting state. No Republican presidential candidate has won there in about 50 years. So it will be interesting to watch.

INSKEEP: Wow. And one of the places the candidates are now willing to travel. Asma, thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In Rochester, N.Y., last night, there were protests and also celebrations.

KING: Yeah. That's right. People were reacting to the announcement that the city's police chief, La'Ron Singletary, will step down.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) It is our duty to win.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) It is our duty to win.

KING: Demonstrators painted black lives matter on the street where Daniel Prude was pinned down and arrested in March. He struggled to breathe in that encounter, and he died a week later.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann has been following developments in Rochester. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: This sounds like an enormous development for Rochester that the police chief and top subordinates would all step aside.

MANN: Yeah. This is big. You know, La'Ron Singletary had insisted repeatedly he'd stay the course, refusing to step down. He's local, a Black man who grew up in Rochester. But, you know, after this horrific video was released last week of Daniel Prude lying naked on the pavement, a hood over his head, surrounded by officers, these demonstrations erupted, people on the street insisting Singletary be held accountable for Prude's death. And the chief's departure was one of their key demands. He did finally bow to that pressure yesterday. Ashley Gantt, one of the protest organizers, spoke last night, calling this a victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

ASHLEY GANTT: I want you to understand that these things don't happen because people are being good people or because they think it's the right thing to do. These things are happening because of you, because of people power, because we're out here every night putting our foot on their necks.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yes.

MANN: And as you noted, Steve, Singletary isn't alone heading out the door. The entire command structure of the Rochester Police Department either retired yesterday or accepted demotions. So the leadership of this force will now have to be totally rebuilt.

INSKEEP: How do you do that in a moment of crisis?

MANN: This is going to be complicated. There are real questions about how this police force will function, be managed during this transition. When these protests began, Rochester police aggressively used pepper spray, pepper balls, riot control vehicles that angered a lot of people here. Police have now scaled back on some of those aggressive tactics. Church leaders also stepped in to help calm things down. So in that little window of calm, Rochester City Council is going to work now with the mayor to hire a new chief. And yesterday, City Council President Loretta Scott told reporters that this is going to be the start of sweeping reforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORETTA SCOTT: We're going to be looking for something different than we normally look for in a police chief. The systems need to change, and we won't lose focus of that.

MANN: Now, this is interesting. Rochester officials already promised some concrete changes, including defunding the police here in part, shifting some of the police department's budget toward more mental health and crisis intervention programs. Another big development yesterday is that a civil lawsuit was filed against Rochester police by Daniel Prude's family. That lawsuit alleges police used inappropriate force. They say authorities, including La'Ron Singletary, tried to cover it up, claiming publicly that Prude died of a drug overdose. This is also being investigated by New York's attorney general.

INSKEEP: Well, if the police chief is resigning, are the protesters ready to go home then?

MANN: No, they still have one key demand, Steve. They want Mayor Lovely Warren to resign. She's also Black, born and raised in Rochester. So far, she's refusing to step down, but pressure on her to go is intense.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Brian Mann talking about the latest developments in Rochester, N.Y., where the police chief and the entire command staff have said they will resign or be demoted. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.