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News Brief: Election Certification, Treasury Pick, Brazil's Pandemic Crisis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Early Monday afternoon, thousands of people watched online as a previously obscure Michigan board did its work.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. This board of two Republicans and two Democrats met to certify Michigan's election result. And after some passionate public comments, they voted to certify, as the law requires them to do. With that, President Trump's strategy to somehow win the election he lost suffered yet another blow. Also the same afternoon, his administration agreed to cooperate with the transition. The head of the General Services Administration, a Trump appointee, did not quite admit that Biden won. She did say that she had seen enough after watching more states certify and as numerous Trump lawsuits failed.

INSKEEP: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe joins us. Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So we should note that Emily Murphy of the General Services Administration said she delayed the transition for weeks on her own and that she decided to go ahead with the transition on her own. And then as soon as she said that, the departing president said, actually, no, he recommended it. So what did he say, for the record?

RASCOE: Well, he said that he had recommended that she and her team do what needs to be done to start the process. You know, as you said, it directly contradicted what Emily Murphy, the head of GSA, what she had said because she said she came to it independently. You know, this is President Trump seeming to try to take control of a situation in which he doesn't have much control. He's still saying - he tweeted last night that he is not going to concede the elections - the election, but that doesn't carry any legal weight. The actions that the GSA took, that's what carries the legal weight.

INSKEEP: How much pressure had been building on the president and the administration to move ahead?

RASCOE: You know, they filed a bunch of lawsuits, but the lawsuits aren't really going anywhere. Most of them are being thrown out. As you said, Michigan certified its results. There was a big loss in Pennsylvania in federal court there. So that was drying up. And then you had Republican senators coming out and saying - putting pressure on President Trump, saying that it was time to begin the transition. You had a Republican senator from Tennessee, Senator Lamar Alexander, reminding Trump that when you are in public life, people remember the last thing that you do. And so there was this kind of growing chorus of Republicans slowly but surely saying that it was time to begin moving on.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Alexander urged the president to put the country first and have a prompt and orderly transition. So the GSA - Murphy at least used the word ascertain in a letter that did not quite call Biden the president-elect but also said that they could move ahead in the event of a transition. In a practical sense, what does all that mean?

RASCOE: It means that Biden's team should now have access to government office space. They'll be able to formally meet with Trump administration officials to discuss policy issues and receive some $7.3 million to pay staffers and other expenses. And, you know, this is something that the Biden team and others had really expressed a lot of concern about because up until now, they couldn't get information about national security briefings or vaccine distribution. And obviously, that's a big deal when we're in the middle of a pandemic. So they will now be able to get those types of briefings and get that information. And the Biden transition team said that this was a definitive administrative action to begin the formal transition process. They also said that this will give them the chance to gain a complete understanding of the Trump administration's efforts to, quote, "hollow out government agencies."

INSKEEP: Lots to come. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now, President-elect Biden's early Cabinet picks suggest an emphasis on diversity.

GREENE: Yeah, they sure do. So Biden is a 78-year-old white guy who was running mate to our nation's first Black president. He then chose the first Black woman on any major party ticket as his running mate. And now he says he's going to nominate a Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security, which plays a huge role in security along the Mexican border. He also chose the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. There have not been many directors of national intelligence. That's a fairly new position. But the office of treasury secretary has existed since Alexander Hamilton's time, and Janet Yellen would be the first woman ever in that job.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about Yellen's nomination. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So she's a first here and yet a very familiar name.

HORSLEY: That's right. She's a barrier breaker but in a sort of reassuring way. After news of her nomination broke yesterday, the compliments came in from across the political spectrum. Wall Street basically took the announcement in stride. I think that speaks to her record. She's obviously held a number of powerful economic posts already. She led the Central Bank for four years under Presidents Obama and Trump. And she was also a top White House economist under President Clinton. She's been described as extremely competent and experienced. She's well known by other central bankers around the world, which would be helpful as treasury secretary. And she's a consensus builder, which Washington could certainly use right now.

INSKEEP: What could we expect her priority to be, assuming she is confirmed by the Senate?

HORSLEY: She has echoed the president-elect in saying the first job is to get control of the pandemic, which right now is out of control. You know, infections have been surging. Hospitals are filling up. Yellen told Bloomberg Television last month that that's the biggest challenge for the incoming administration.

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JANET YELLEN: I think we need a much more effective effort than we've had, and if we have that, it'll be good not only for health but for being able to open up the economy.

HORSLEY: In recent weeks, we have gotten some encouraging news on the vaccine front, which offers some hope for a better economy in the spring or maybe the summer. But, you know, widespread distribution of a vaccine is still months away. And in the meantime, a lot of families and businesses are going to be struggling just to get through the winter.

INSKEEP: Scott, for some reason, I'm thinking of the presidential transition after the election of 1932. Franklin Roosevelt won the election. The transition went for months, and the Great Depression, which was going on, got a lot worse before Roosevelt finally took office. Now, here we are in the middle of a transition with a pandemic getting a lot worse. What is happening over the next couple of months?

HORSLEY: You know, the president-elect and his team are urging Congress to pass a new round of coronavirus relief now before Biden is sworn in. Yellen has stressed that the money Congress pumped into the economy early on was really helpful, but that was only a down payment. And additional bills are now coming due. You know, just as an example, we've got 13 million people relying on emergency unemployment benefits that are set to expire in just over a month. Democrats want to see those programs extended, and they also want to see more federal help for state and local governments.

INSKEEP: Isn't the outgoing administration taking away some of the options for the Federal Reserve, which has been propping up the economy?

HORSLEY: Yes. Last week, the outgoing treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, decided to end some of the Fed's emergency lending programs. He basically said mission accomplished. Others say the emergency is not over yet and that taking away those tools gives one more challenge for the incoming president and his team.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: All right. You would think that having one of the world's worst coronavirus outbreaks would be terrible news for any political leader.

GREENE: Right. But in Brazil, COVID has killed more than 169,000 people. And yet the nation's president is a lot more popular now than when this pandemic began.

INSKEEP: How could that be? NPR's Phil Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro. Hey there, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about the president, Bolsonaro, but let's start with his country. How serious is the pandemic where you are?

REEVES: Well, it's pretty alarming, Steve. I mean, for a long time, Brazil was stuck on this high plateau with more than a thousand deaths a day, and then they dropped by more than half. And now we're seeing numbers edging up again, particularly in the country's two biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Here in Rio, where I am, daily average deaths are up by more than 180% on two weeks ago. The number nationwide of confirmed cases has now crossed 6 million. And there's a report out this morning saying that scientists from a group of top Brazilian universities believe there's pretty conclusive evidence that a second wave has begun right across the country, even though government officials aren't acknowledging that. And these scientists reportedly blame several factors, including a lack of systematic testing and tracing.

INSKEEP: Well, given all of that, why would President Jair Bolsonaro be so popular?

REEVES: Well, you know, his message, that the economy must stay open at all costs, resonates with a lot of Brazilians, especially the multitude who live hand to mouth. But on another level, it's really simple. His government's put a lot of money in the pockets of the poor. It's made emergency aid payments to almost 70 million people. That's cost Brazil so far tens of billions of dollars. And these payments are actually agreed by Congress. But Bolsonaro has been getting the credit, and that's helped push his poll numbers up. But, you know, it is surprising when you consider his behavior when you see this rise in popularity. I mean, he's been downplaying the virus, as you know, from the get-go. He's undermined social distancing, doesn't wear a mask a lot of the time, dives into crowds. He's expressed scant sympathy for COVID-19 victims, saying everyone has to die sometime. And the other day, he told Brazilians they mustn't be a nation of sissies, although he used a homophobic Portuguese term for sissy.

INSKEEP: Is he making any effort to get a vaccine now that vaccines are becoming available?

REEVES: Yeah, he's particularly supporting the vaccine that's being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. But his government signed up for several other vaccines under trial as well. But he's also playing politics with vaccines, like picking a fight over them. The governor of Brazil's most populous state, Sao Paulo, is promoting and helping to test the Chinese-made vaccine called CoronaVac. He's already shipped some of this in, though it's not yet approved. And that governor, Joao Doria, is a big rival of Bolsonaro's and also a potential challenger in the presidential election in a couple of years' time. Bolsonaro's railed against CoronaVac. When his own health minister tried to buy some, Bolsonaro canceled the order. When health regulators stopped the trials briefly recently, Bolsonaro called it a personal victory. So like his idol, Donald Trump, he's a populist who thinks China bashing plays to his base.

INSKEEP: And is willing to put politics, apparently, above vaccines.

REEVES: It seems so.

INSKEEP: Philip, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.