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News Brief: Trump Call To Ga. Official, Georgia Runoffs, Coronavirus Latest

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump openly asked a Georgia official to help him steal that state's electoral votes.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He did this in a recorded phone call over the weekend. It was the defeated president's latest effort to overturn a democratic election and stay in power. He spoke with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state. Trump appealed to partisanship, reminded Raffensperger that he's a Republican and repeated baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud. He then urged Raffensperger to, quote, "find" exactly enough votes for Trump to win the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state. And flipping the state is a great testament to our country.

INSKEEP: Raffensperger replied that no data supported the defeated president's request.

KING: Stephen Fowler with Georgia Public Broadcasting is one of the reporters who got the audio of that call. Good morning, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So this went on for over an hour, like an hour and two minutes. What are the highlights?

FOWLER: So President Trump and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, spoke to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger running through a litany of baseless allegations about Georgia's election that you've seen spread in conspiracies on social media. Trump and other top Republicans alleged that hundreds of thousands of votes were illegally counted. And there's just no evidence of any of this. Now, before the audio was released by The Washington Post and then us, Trump said on Twitter that Raffensperger was, quote, "unwilling or unable to answer questions" about alleged election problems. But that's really not the case. As you hear in this example, Raffensperger and his attorneys patiently refute allegations, but Trump just wouldn't budge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And there's nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you've recalculated because the 2,236 in absentee ballots, I mean, they're all exact numbers that were done by accounting firms, law firms, et cetera. And even if you cut them in half, cut them in half and cut them in half again, it's more votes than we need.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.

FOWLER: And every single example, you have the secretary of state saying, no, we've proven this isn't the case and the president just, you know, isn't having any of it.

KING: Yeah. I listened to the full call, and you can hear, like you said, the Georgia officials are very patient. They're very calm, but they're also very certain. Why are they so certain?

FOWLER: Georgia has a new voting system that has a paper ballot trail for every single vote cast. So in the November general election, 5 million votes were counted three different times, including one by hand where every single ballot was examined and read by teams of human beings. And so Trump's claims that thousands of ballots were cast by dead people or scanned multiple times just didn't bear out when votes were actually counted.

KING: President Trump on this call also mentioned tomorrow's Senate races, and he seemed to be making a suggestion to the officials. What was he getting at?

FOWLER: Right. So part of the call, Trump said, is that you should hurry up and do this before the Senate race because people are angry at you. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: The people of Georgia are angry, and these numbers are going to be repeated on Monday night along with others that we're going to have by that time, which are much more substantial even.

FOWLER: So this rally that he's going to have in northwest Georgia for these Republican Senate candidates that will decide control of the chamber, this is the message that President Trump is going to say. He said it in private and he's going to say it in public again tonight, that he believes that he should win the election.

KING: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thanks for this, Stephen.

FOWLER: Thank you.

KING: All right. So President Trump is not limiting his contact with Georgia to phone calls. He'll be in the state today.

INSKEEP: So will President-elect Biden, who will appear at a campaign event in Atlanta. And Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was in Savannah yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: 2020's not really over until we get through the end of Tuesday, January 5 and elect to the United States Senate a son of Savannah, Raphael Warnock, and a son of Georgia, Jon Ossoff, to the United States Senate.

INSKEEP: So much is at stake, more than just two Senate seats, because Democrats would like, if they could, to flip the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans want to keep it, and these races will be decisive.

KING: Reporter Emma Hurt of member station WABE is covering this one. Good morning, Emma.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So we know what President Trump's message will be because of that phone call. It will likely be the same thing, as Stephen said, at the rally. What is Joe Biden's message?

HURT: Yeah. I mean, we're also certain to hear some of that phone call at Joe Biden's rally, but it'll be very different. He'll be claiming that Trump and the Republican Party right now are a threat to democracy. And this is just underlining the same message that Democrats have had, which is that these runoffs are still about Trump. If you don't like him, even though he's not on this ballot, trust us, he still is, and we still need you to vote. And I'll say, Republicans have helped Democrats make this pitch, the president by refusing to accept the results and, as we heard from Stephen, lobbying state officials on that quest. And Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler have almost tied themselves into knots trying not to cross Trump in this campaign, basically abandoning any voters in the middle.

KING: OK. So this weekend, you went out with canvassers from both parties. What did you see and hear? It must be pretty exciting at this point.

HURT: It's really mind-blowing the scale that we're seeing. I mean, no state has ever seen anything like this before where the whole country's political apparatus is focused so intently on just 7.7 million voters. So on both sides of the aisle, we're seeing unprecedented investment. I mean, the candidates spent the weekend going to canvas launches all over the state. Doors are being knocked multiple times. I hear from canvassers who are often encountering piles of campaign literature already on doorsteps. And they just sort of add to the pile. I mean, Republican staff on the ground here is 10 times what it was in November. And there are, like, hundreds of Republican staffers who've been loaned from across the country. And Democrats didn't have a ground game in November because of COVID. So this one is unprecedented, too, because they really leaned into it. And we're seeing, you know, north of nearly $800 million in total spending on these races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. So it's just wild.

KING: Jeepers. What President Trump is doing is casting doubt about the election process in Georgia. Did you - when you were out this weekend, did you talk to anyone who said his statements are affecting their decision to vote or not to vote?

HURT: Yeah, this is the big question. I mean, I do hear a lot of skepticism about the election system because of all this and people saying, I don't know if my vote's going to count, but I still voted because I don't know what else I can do. Really, I'm only hearing secondhand people who know people who say they won't vote because it's worth noting that President Trump is telling people to go out and vote. Despite all the other things he's saying, he is saying that. And it's also important to know that Republicans are still the incumbent party in Georgia. They've been better at showing up to vote. And despite all that Trump is saying, I think this divided government argument really resonates with some of these voters.

KING: Emma Hurt of member station WABE in Atlanta. Thanks, Emma.

HURT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. More than 350,000 Americans have now died from the coronavirus.

INSKEEP: They will continue dying until a vaccine is fully distributed. The problem is the vaccines being spread now are not always being used.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is following this story. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK, so when the vaccines were approved, there was all of this optimism, you know, pictures of people getting the first vaccine. But now there is something of a slump. What is going on?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, the U.S. has shipped about 17 million doses so far, but the vast majority of these doses have just not been used. They haven't made it into people's arms. Officials at Operation Warp Speed have acknowledged this slow start, saying it should be better. Here's U.S. Army General Gus Perna, who was really put on the defensive as he tried to explain the slow start.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUSTAVE PERNA: There's two holidays. There's been three major snowstorms. There is everybody working through, you know, how to do the notification, how to ensure that it stays in accordance with the cold chain. There's numerous factors.

AUBREY: Now, Perna expressed his optimism that the pace can accelerate beginning this coming week or so.

KING: Do the public health experts that you routinely talk to trust that that is the case?

AUBREY: You know, it's mixed, and it's complicated. I mean, there are 70,000 providers involved in vaccinations - doctors offices, retail pharmacies, hospitals. And, really, the plan to get the shot into the arms of millions of people relies on the existing health care delivery system we have, which is pretty fragmented. So Jason Schwartz of Yale University says this next week or so will determine whether this rollout is really struggling as much as these initial figures suggest.

JASON SCHWARTZ: The case will clearly accelerate going forward. The question is, will it accelerate quickly enough to keep up with the five, 10 million doses of vaccines that will be coming online every week or whether or not there's really a need to make mass vaccination clinics, purpose-built programs, facilities, distribution sites.

AUBREY: To help vaccinate people more quickly. Now, he says the answer is likely both. For instance, in New Jersey, there are plans for vaccination megasites across the state in an effort to inoculate as many people as quickly as possible.

KING: And you brought to our attention another idea of how to speed up vaccination, which is to give people smaller doses of the vaccine. What is that about?

AUBREY: Yeah, that's right. Over the weekend, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, he's a top Operation Warp Speed official, he suggested that one strategy that could work to double the number of people who could get the Moderna vaccine is to cut the dose in half. He pointed to data that indicated the people in the clinical trial who got a smaller half-dose ended up with the same immune response as those who received the full dose.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONCEF SLAOUI: We know that for the Moderna vaccine, giving half a dose to people between the age of 18 and 55, we know it induces identical immune response. And therefore we are in discussion with Moderna.

AUBREY: And in discussion with the Food and Drug Administration. Now, Noel, this would be an FDA decision. It's really unclear what will come of this idea. Remember, at the moment, the big challenge, there are millions of doses out there that haven't been given yet.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much, Allison.

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