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News Brief: Antony Blinken, Election Disputes, Pandemic Cases Surge

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Joe Biden is starting to put together his Cabinet.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Multiple news organizations say the president-elect has chosen an experienced former State Department official to be his secretary of state. Tony Blinken held the No. 2 State Department post in the Obama administration. He favors strong international alliances. It is thought that Blinken would be easier to confirm than some other possible nominees. The Senate approved his previous diplomatic job by a vote of 55 to 38.

GREENE: And we have NPR's Michele Kelemen here. She covers the State Department and joins us to talk about this move. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what should we know about Tony Blinken?

KELEMEN: Well, he's a 58-year-old former deputy secretary of state, but most of all, he's someone who's spent a lot of time with Joe Biden over the years, both in the White House and in Congress. You know, I remember going to briefings with Biden when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Blinken was always there. He traveled with Biden. He was a close adviser back then. So if he is confirmed as the next secretary of state, his counterparts abroad will know that he has a very long history with the president-elect. He's a safe pick. He's polished, and he knows the State Department well.

GREENE: Well, what do you think this pick tells us? I mean, beyond this being someone who knows Biden well and that they have that long relationship, what does it tell us about the president-elect's goals when it comes to foreign policy?

KELEMEN: I think it signals kind of a more traditional approach to foreign policy and diplomacy, also maybe human rights. You know, on Twitter, he raised concerns recently about a conflict in Ethiopia. And last week, he put out a much tougher statement than the State Department did about Egypt arresting high-profile human rights activists. Blinken also talks a lot about restoring U.S. leadership, especially when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. Here he is earlier this year at the Meridian International Center talking about how a Biden administration would, for instance, restore funding to the World Health Organization.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: A Biden administration would do the opposite of what the Trump administration has done in terms of pulling back from our leadership in international organizations, institutions, alliances.

KELEMEN: He talks about how the U.S. needs partners to deal with China, which he calls a competitor. And on Iran, he said it was a mistake for the Trump administration to leave the nuclear deal. A Biden administration would rejoin if Iran gets back into compliance. Those are just a few of the things that he's talked about.

GREENE: And it sounds like it's not just Blinken. I mean, we're getting a fuller picture of President-elect Biden's foreign policy team.

KELEMEN: Right. I mean, Jake Sullivan is a top candidate to be U.S. national security adviser. He actually played a key role in opening up a back channel to Iran that led to the negotiations on that Iran nuclear deal. More recently, he's been involved in this project to get a better sense of how U.S. foreign policy can help middle-class Americans. Another name that we're hearing, not a household name but a very familiar one to the State Department, is Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Several news organizations say she'll be tapped to be the ambassador to the United Nations. And that, David, would really be a signal to career foreign service officers who have been sidelined by the Trump administration. Thomas-Greenfield, who's Black, was in the Foreign Service for 35 years, and she was one of many who was kind of forced out by the Trump administration.

GREENE: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks as always.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. So as the incoming president makes personnel moves, the departing president does as well.

INSKEEP: His constantly changing legal team distanced itself from a conspiracy theorist. Sidney Powell started a press conference last week spinning out wild theories about George Soros and Hugo Chavez. The departing president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, introduced Sidney Powell. But after the embarrassing reaction, Giuliani now says in a statement she's not part of the Trump team. Giuliani apparently still is part of the Trump team and suffered absolute defeat in court over the weekend in Pennsylvania. The president has lost virtually all court challenges, and a few more key Republicans have now abandoned the departing president as he tries to overturn a Democratic election.

GREENE: And we have NPR's Franco Ordoñez here with us. He covers the White House. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So Pennsylvania, the state that put Biden over the top to win the election, as Steve mentioned, another legal defeat there for President Trump over the weekend. Bring us up to speed.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. President Trump's campaign had sought to block the certification of Pennsylvania's election results. You know, they allege that Republicans had been disadvantaged - illegally that is - because some counties allowed voters to fix errors on their mail-in ballots. But a federal judge dismissed that case, saying it would disenfranchise millions of voters. And the judge wrote this really scathing decision saying the plaintiff, Trump's team that is, came without factual proof. Trump's campaign says that it will appeal, but the deadline for Pennsylvania to certify is today. And just to note, Biden won there by more than 80,000 votes.

GREENE: Well, despite that fact, I mean, a lot of Republicans are remaining quiet and not calling on President Trump to admit the obvious, that he lost. But you did have Republican Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania after this decision now coming out and calling for the president to concede.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. He released a statement soon after the ruling saying President Trump has exhausted all plausible legal options to challenge the result in Pennsylvania. He went on to congratulate President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and said that Trump should move forward with the transition process in order to protect his legacy. Toomey is a Republican. He is retiring in two years, but he's joining a small number of Republican senators who said Trump needs to concede. Trump was also criticized by Chris Christie, an ally of his. Here he is on ABC yesterday.

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: I've been a supporter of the president. I voted for him twice. But elections have consequences, and we cannot continue to act as if something happened here that didn't happen.

ORDOÑEZ: Still, most Republicans are trying to thread that needle, saying Biden should go ahead and in many cases get transition resources but also Trump should be able to pursue all legal avenues.

GREENE: I mean - but you just listen to Toomey, though, saying that the president has exhausted all plausible legal options. You have Christie there saying you can't continue to act as if something here happened that didn't happen. Beyond lying and saying that fraud exists that doesn't, what are the president's options here to go forward? The window's basically closing, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Time is running out. In Georgia, results have already been certified by the Republican state leadership. But on Saturday night, Trump's campaign said it's requesting a recount. This would be the third time those 5 million ballots will be counted. I mentioned the certification deadline in Pennsylvania. That's today. And Michigan's canvassing board also meets today when the election results are expected to be certified. Biden won Michigan by 150,000 votes. Trump's campaign has sought to overturn those results as well. And we'll remember, Trump invited those Michigan Republicans to the White House in a pressure offensive.

GREENE: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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GREENE: I mean, this is just startling. The United States recorded a million new coronavirus cases in just a matter of six days.

INSKEEP: This country has now seen more than 12 million documented COVID infections. And as cases keep surging, public health experts are urging Americans to stay home this Thanksgiving holiday. Some relief could be around the corner with newly approved treatments, maybe even vaccines, which have looked very good in tests. But it will be many months before all Americans can be vaccinated.

GREENE: And NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us this morning. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: I mean, the surge is just getting scarier by the day. What is the latest?

AUBREY: Yeah. As we head into this holiday week, it's a very grim picture, David. We're averaging 170,000 new cases a day, a 60% increase compared to just two weeks ago. Deaths are averaging about 1,200 per day and rising. That's nearly a person dying from COVID every minute in the U.S. I spoke to former CDC director Tom Frieden about this surge.

TOM FRIEDEN: It's shocking. We're losing the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every three days in the U.S. And what, frankly, scares me is that Thanksgiving could become the Super Bowl of superspreading events.

AUBREY: You know, it just doesn't take much, David. All you need is one asymptomatic person in your gathering to start a round of infections. The CDC now says most coronavirus cases are, in fact, spread by people without symptoms.

GREENE: Well - and the CDC is just bluntly saying, don't travel this holiday season. Do you think people are listening?

AUBREY: You know, I bet people are rethinking their plans, especially travel. But a survey out from the University of Michigan this morning finds that 1 in 3 people polled say the benefits of gathering with family for the holidays are worth the risk of spreading or getting the virus. I should point out the survey was completed before the CDC advisory. But, you know, it just shows the temptation to gather, David. People want to see family. I certainly would like to, too. But as Tom Frieden says, better to have a Zoom Thanksgiving than an ICU Christmas.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, a Zoom Thanksgiving is different, but at least for this year, it might be what we have to do, obviously. Let me ask you, Allison. I mean, you have a president-elect who during a campaign said that tackling this pandemic is just a top priority. What do we know about how prepared Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are to take action when they come into office?

AUBREY: You know, they say they're going to be ready on day one. But the health experts advising the Biden-Harris team say they need access to the career scientists, to their data, to help this new administration transition smoothly, especially when it comes to all the real-time data on the pandemic and vaccine distribution planning. It's a monumental task, David, with very complicated logistics. I spoke to ER physician Rob Rodriguez of UC San Francisco. He is one of Biden's advisers.

ROBERT RODRIGUEZ: The current administration needs to step up. They really need to think about the health of the American people and start granting us full access.

AUBREY: The president-elect himself has been saying lives are at risk. And Dr. Rodriguez says that one of the biggest challenges when it comes to a vaccine is the hesitancy among people. With more promising vaccine news, including new information out on the effectiveness of another vaccine, the Oxford U-AstraZeneca vaccine, this is all top of mind. So the Biden team is definitely thinking ahead to a vaccine education strategy. It's a big job to answer people's questions, make them feel comfortable getting it on top of the logistics of actually distributing it.

GREENE: Monumental task, as you say. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.