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News Brief: SCOTUS Hearing, COVID-19 And Campaigning, Military Adviser On Elections


Today, the Senate starts confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett. They will last for four days.


The coronavirus is looming over those hearings. A cluster of people who went to a White House ceremony where President Trump nominated Judge Barrett came down with COVID-19, including two senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee which is overseeing these hearings. Republican leaders say they are still set on confirming Barrett before the November 3 election.

KING: NPR's Kelsey Snell is following this one. Good morning, Kelsey.


KING: So what is the Senate doing to make sure these hearings are safe?

SNELL: Well, you know, it's going to be a mixture of in-person and virtual hearings, which is something that they've been doing a bit in the Senate. They say there's plenty of precedent to make this happen safely. They'll start today with opening statements, and then there'll be member questions. And they'll wrap up on Thursday with outside witnesses. You know, it's pretty quick. The plan is to hold a committee vote on the 22, which could set up a vote in the full Senate within days of that committee action. So within that hearing room, there are going to be PPE stations, masks and gloves and sanitizers, maybe a little special family pod for seating for Barrett's family and a slimmed-down press attendant.

You know - but Democrats say this shouldn't be happening at all. Kamala Harris, the senator from California also running for vice president, is one of the people who said she won't be there in the hearing room and will participate from her office in the Capitol virtually. She said Republicans are endangering lives by doing this, and Democrats are calling for daily testing of members. They basically say that if it's too dangerous for the Senate floor to be open - which it's not for the next couple of weeks - it's too dangerous to do this hearing.

KING: I assume Judge Barrett will be there in person. What do we expect to hear from her this week?

SNELL: Well, NPR did obtain a copy of her opening statement, and she talks about how the courts are vital to enforcing the law. But she says, quote, "Courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in public life." You know, she says policies should be made by elected political branches, and the public should not expect the court to make up those value judgments that the other branches are intended to make. And she also talks about how she thinks about her rulings. She says that she thinks about it from the other side, as if her kids were in the party she was ruling against. And she asked herself if she'd understand that any decision was fairly reasoned and grounded in the law before she finalizes her choices.

KING: OK. What questions do you expect Democrats to have for her?

SNELL: It's all about the ACA. They're - it's all about health care and showing that Barrett's philosophy is further to the right than even her mentor Justice Antonin Scalia. We heard her mention that she - that his judicial philosophy is her own. And Democrats want to make it clear that they think that she is more conservative than he is. They want to talk about health care as front and center, and they want to make it immediate because there is a health care-related case before the court one week after Election Day, on November 10. And they want to make clear to voters that the future of health care is on the line with Barrett's nomination.

Part of the issue with that case on November 10 is that Democrats say it could be the vote that overturns the Affordable Care Act. And a staffer told me that if a member isn't talking about health care or talking about something health care related, they better have a really compelling reason why. You know, there have been strategy calls between members and their staff for weeks about how to approach these hearings, what to ask and what not to ask.

One of the things they want to avoid is asking questions about Barrett's faith because that's something that Republicans have been anticipating and criticizing Democrats for weeks. Instead, I'm told they want to make sure that this is about Barrett's judicial philosophy and her rulings and how that would impact people's real lives. Democrats want to personalize the concept of the Supreme Court, and they want to build a political case that if people want to defend the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights in particular, they need to elect Democrats to the Senate and to the White House.

KING: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.


KING: OK. So COVID is hanging over the hearings. It's also hanging over the campaign.

MARTIN: Yeah, with three weeks left, here is where things stand. President Trump's diagnosis was made public on October 2. He says he is ready to start traveling to rallies. His doctor, Sean Conley, says that the president is no longer contagious. But the White House has not been transparent throughout his illness, so outside health experts still have a lot of questions. Cases of the virus are up in the past week. Hospitalizations in some parts of the country are up. Deaths in the past two weeks have actually declined.

KING: NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey has been following this all the way through. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. So the president is back out there, going back out there. What do we know about his condition?

AUBREY: Over the weekend, the president's physician said he's no longer considered a transmission risk to others. They say tests show there's no longer evidence of active virus in his body. Now, I have spoken to several outside infectious disease experts who say the evidence, you know, is sufficient that the president is no longer contagious. Saturday marked Day 10 since the onset of his symptoms. He is reportedly feeling much better. They say there's no reason to doubt this assessment that he's no longer contagious.

KING: OK. That's interesting as he goes on the road and will be interacting with people. Over the weekend, the president also weighed in on this, not just his doctors. And he said, it seems like I'm immune. Could he be?

AUBREY: The president's doctors have said that there are detectable levels of antibodies in his bloodwork. He did receive an experimental antibody cocktail drug. And I spoke to an infectious disease doctor about this, Rochelle Walensky of Massachusetts General Hospital. She says it's reasonable that President Trump would have some immunity at this point.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: It is the case that most people develop antibodies after about seven to 10 days and that they peak in their antibodies at around 49 to 50 days. So he may very well have a robust antibody response right now.

AUBREY: But the question is, how long does this immunity response hold up? And it just really isn't clear at this point.

KING: And so these last weeks of campaigning are happening as cases in this country, as Rachel noted, are going up.

AUBREY: That's right. Over the last week or so, there have been about 48,000 new cases documented each day. That's about a 10% increase compared to just a few weeks back. Deaths are decreasing, though, about a 5% decline compared to two weeks ago. But at the same time, hospitalizations are inching up in many spots in the Midwest, including Ohio and Wisconsin. That's not a good sign as we head into these colder months, especially as the virus continues to spread so widely through many parts of the country, including the upper Midwest, Rocky Mountain states - Utah, Montana. In Florida yesterday, the state department of health reported nearly 5,600 new cases. That's the highest number of new infections since August.

I spoke to Rochelle Walensky about this. She says even if the president is no longer infectious, the idea of rallies in Florida and other states right now is concerning.

WALENSKY: He's thinking very much about himself and not about the people he would be putting at risk in those rallies. We saw, after the Tulsa rally, there were infections, after the Rose Garden event that there were infections. So there is this habit of people gathering around the president leading to superspreader events.

AUBREY: And given the backdrop of cases circulating so widely, this could be dangerous.

KING: 'Cause even if he's not infectious, there could be people at the rallies who are. NPR's Allison Aubrey.

AUBREY: That's right.

KING: Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thanks, Noel.


KING: President Trump's top military adviser has been in self-isolation at home for the last couple days.

MARTIN: Yeah, General Mark Milley and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff took that step after they attended meetings with a colleague who tested positive for COVID-19. While he's been at home, Milley talked with NPR about the troops that he oversees and this tense political moment. As the election approaches, Milley is insisting the military will stay out of it.

KING: General Milley talked to our co-host Steve Inskeep, who's on the line this morning. Hey, Steve.


KING: So how's the general approaching the election this fall?

INSKEEP: He repeated the classic U.S. military stance that the military is controlled by civilians. They're going to stay out of elections. These are normal, normal, ordinary things that U.S. officers always say. But they're meaningful now because there's so much tension. You'll recall that Milley was criticized for being present near the White House when law enforcement attacked protesters over the summer. He said he regrets being there, that as soon as he realized what was happening, he moved aside. More recently, some analysts have spun out potential nightmare scenarios involving a disputed election. And the general told us that none of those scenarios should involve calling in the troops. Let's listen.

MARK MILLEY: I think that we are the only one or at least one of the very few that swears an oath of allegiance to an idea that's embedded in a document called the U.S. Constitution. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to an individual, a king, a queen, a president or - or anything else. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to a country, for that matter. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to a flag, a tribe or religion or any of that. We swear an oath to an idea or a set of ideas and values that are embedded in our Constitution. And we, the U.S. military, are willing to die to preserve those ideals and values, and we're willing to die in order to preserve them and pass them on to the next generations.

INSKEEP: And Noel, we've reported that the United States has a legal process in the Constitution for deciding election disputes, and Milley expects that to work.

Are you confident that the legal process is strong enough that you will always know who your civilian leader is, who the president is, whose orders you need to take?

MILLEY: I am. I'm very confident in the resilience of the American institutions.

INSKEEP: And he says he will follow whoever is commander in chief within the law.

KING: OK. Last week, the FBI arrested several people who were accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan's governor, and that raised all of these concerns - ongoing concerns about domestic terrorism. Does the military monitor extremists in its ranks?

INSKEEP: Milley says they do. They check a lot of factors like people's rhetoric or even the tattoos they may wear. And he says there has been an issue with extremism, but he says the problem seems rather minor and has been for a while.

KING: OK. And last thing - last week, it was, the White House talked of sending U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. What did Milley say about that?

INSKEEP: Well, Robert O'Brien, the national security adviser, talked of bringing home a lot of troops early in 2021. And then President Trump sent this tweet saying troops should be home by Christmas, which sounded like an opinion rather than an order. And Milley didn't say exactly what orders he has received, but it's not those orders.

MILLEY: Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I'm not going to engage in speculation. I'm going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.

INSKEEP: Milley says his orders are to respond to conditions and the troops cannot pull out until U.S. interests in peace in Afghanistan have been served.

KING: Co-host Steve Inskeep. Thanks for bringing us this, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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