News Brief: USPS Controversy, Democratic Convention, Belarus Strife

Aug 19, 2020
Originally published on August 19, 2020 7:19 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It was during a recent interview on NPR that a postal worker reported a mysterious development. The Postal Service was removing sorting machines from Waterloo, Iowa.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And that news and also other developments added to suspicion about Louis DeJoy. He's the megadonor to President Trump, also an investor in postal service contractors, who is now the postmaster general. His changes came at the same time the president was raising false fears about mail-in voting. DeJoy now promises he will make no more service and equipment cuts until after the election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not impressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: Let me just say, nice try - not so nice try on the part of the postmaster general.

NICOLLE WALLACE: Yeah.

PELOSI: What he did was take three big steps forward and took one baby step back.

INSKEEP: What is happening to the Postal Service? NPR's Miles Parks has been covering this story. Miles, good morning.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does the postmaster general say that he was doing?

PARKS: Well, he says he's trying to ease concerns about the election. He had promised this organizational realignment just a few weeks ago as an effort to save money. And he still says those changes are sorely needed. But the political backlash from those changes, which it is also worth noting they were never publicly detailed, it came swiftly over the past week. And he was forced to change course, saying a statement yesterday that, quote, "to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I'm suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded."

INSKEEP: It's useful to hear you say that the Postal Service never said in public what they were supposedly trying to do. It's only now that we learn about this. But he has said I'm freezing everything. Whatever I was trying to do, we're going to try it later. Why are Democrats not satisfied?

PARKS: So it seems like why they're not satisfied is because there's been no mention of a reversal of the changes. You know, the removal of the sorting machines that you mentioned, it has been a high-profile issue. The Washington Post reported that the plan was to decommission 10% of these machines. And we know that some of them had already begun to be removed. DeJoy now says no more machines will be removed. But his statement made no mention of the machines that were already removed and whether they'll be returned. I talked to Alex Padilla, who's the secretary of state of California and a Democrat, after the statement was released yesterday from DeJoy.

ALEX PADILLA: They still have a lot of questions to answer and, frankly, information to share. Whatever these notices or changes in directives were, the public deserves to see them because the public deserves to have confidence that when they're mailing their ballots in, their ballots will be delivered on a timely basis.

PARKS: Lawmakers will have a lot of questions for DeJoy this week when he's set to testify before a Senate committee on Friday and then again before a House committee on Monday.

INSKEEP: Miles, up to now, delivering the mail had not been a partisan issue. The Postal Service is very, very popular. What are Republicans saying about these changes?

PARKS: So Republican Senator Susan Collins, who had called on DeJoy to rescind the changes, said on Twitter that she was happy that he did it. But she also said now Congress needs to pass funding for the Postal Service, which is heading towards financial ruin if Congress doesn't swoop in in the next few months. Even President Trump tweeted save the post office this week after openly questioning whether he would support funding. So it does seem like there's some bipartisan agreement that money is needed. The question now is how much. Democrats say $25 billion is the number. But Republicans in the Senate, like Senator Ron Johnson, may question in these hearings whether that much money is actually needed.

INSKEEP: I want to emphasize - the president made a confusing and partly false statement, but in not some ways a clear statement saying he resisted funding for the post office because he was afraid of mail-in balloting. Is that correct?

PARKS: That's fair. That's fair to characterize it. Yeah. He said he would sign legislation that included funding. But he still says he's against the overall expansion of mail voting.

INSKEEP: Right. Right. He backed off some of that statement. NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks so much.

PARKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Even before they became virtual events, the national political conventions were mostly a TV show.

GREENE: Mostly, yeah. But there is some essential business to conduct, like formally voting on a candidate for president. Delegates voiced support for Joe Biden. The party took the chance to showcase its diversity during the roll call across all 50 states, the American territories and the District of Columbia. Normally, the delegates would all be in a convention hall together. But this time last night, they were at scenic spots all across America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CHUCK DEGNAN: We must elect a president who will respect our voices, protect our waters and address climate change. Alaska casts seven votes Bernie Sanders and 12 votes for the next president, Joe Biden.

AMY AGBAYANI: No matter where we came from, immigrants belong in our country's long fight for justice. We belong in the America we are building together. Hawaii, birthplace of...

CRAIG HICKMAN: My husband and I aren't corporate tycoons. We just want to make an honest living and feed our community. Small businesses like ours are the backbone of rural economy...

COZZIE WATKINS: I'm putting on my mask. And we're going to every corner in North Carolina to help organize because...

CARMELO RIOS: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro was watching Night 2 of the Democratic convention. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hope you got a little bit of sleep.

MONTANARO: You know, a little.

INSKEEP: Once you did wake up, what felt like the most important news from last night?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, Democrats needed to boost Biden. And they've been doing that, you know? They walked through some of his long track record in public office and his personal life, leading his family. There was even this kind of cutesy video about his romance with his wife, Jill. The message overall that I think they were hoping people took away was that the Bidens are good people.

They're like the kind of people you want as your neighbors. They're not perfect. But they're perfectly relatable and open to change and evolve. And, of course, they clearly love each other. You could see that at the end of Jill Biden's speech. She was the closing speaker. And she certainly did testify to her husband's character. But she also had a bigger point to make. She was speaking here from a high school classroom where she used to teach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JILL BIDEN: You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways. There's no scent of new notebooks or freshly waxed floors. The rooms are dark, as the bright, young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.

MONTANARO: So whether to send kids back to school is the big debate right now. And Democrats' point is that if this were handled better through a unified, national response, there wouldn't be a question if kids and teachers can go back safely.

INSKEEP: How did Democrats face the question of what they'd do if Biden became president?

MONTANARO: Well, certainly, him becoming president is a huge (laughter) piece of what they wanted to be able to try to do. There were a lot of issues that they had to kind of walk through and deal with, you know, in addition to coronavirus. And health care, obviously, stems from that. Part of that, you know, is trying to set aside differences that they have to try to defeat Donald Trump. That was summed up by Ady Barkan, an activist with ALS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADY BARKAN: We must elect Joe Biden. Each of us must be a hero for our communities, for our country. And then, with a compassionate and intelligent president, we must act together and put on his desk a bill that guarantees us all the health care we deserve.

MONTANARO: Biden hasn't always agreed with the progressive base on how to go about getting health care for Americans. But you heard there even Barkan, who's passionately pushed for single-payer health care, backing Biden, someone he calls compassionate and intelligent, and putting progress ahead of purity.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, isn't foreign policy, experience in that, one of Biden's major claims to be qualified?

MONTANARO: And, you know, that got some attention last night. It's something that's gotten kind of lost this year. But it's a principal job of the president. Being commander in chief is arguably something that the president has the most control over. And it's always been a pet issue for Biden. He's a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, was very involved in President Obama's foreign policy, sometimes notably disagreeing with him, like on what to do about Syria.

INSKEEP: Sure.

MONTANARO: So he's prided himself with having relationships with these world leaders. And you heard people like John Kerry and Colin Powell speak to that.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: We want you to know that NPR's coverage of the Democratic National Convention continues tonight at 9 o'clock Eastern time. You can visit npr.org or tell your smart speaker to play NPR or your local station by name to join us live.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In Belarus, pressure on the country's authoritarian leader to step down continues.

GREENE: Yeah. This pressure is coming from people who say the recent reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, who's been in power for nearly three decades, was rigged. Strikes by factory workers at state-controlled companies have added to ongoing mass protests. That effort is being led by an exiled political novice named Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (ph). And now the European Union is convening an emergency session today to talk about a possible response as well as possible sanctions.

INSKEEP: NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim has been following all this. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand why it is now that people are protesting after so many years for him in power?

KIM: Well, they're protesting because they say there was such massive vote rigging. Watching this from Moscow has been like a roller coaster ride, with moments when the opposition looks like it's tipped the balance, and then Lukashenko comes back swinging. At a meeting with his security council, he really went after the opposition. They formed what they're calling a coordination council, which is supposed to enter into dialogue with the regime.

But Lukashenko said this is just a front and that he'll deal with individual members of this council appropriately, which is pretty sinister given the crackdown going on right now. Lukashenko has really been playing up this idea of a foreign threat since Belarus does border three NATO member states. But that looks more like sort of a faint or a distraction from a very domestic conflict and may be one way for him to draw in his only ally, which is Russia.

INSKEEP: And we should just note - we look at a map, Russia is right to the east and very influential in Belarus, a former Soviet republic. Other European nations are right to the west. The European Union is out there. And they're meeting to discuss Belarus. What can they do?

KIM: Right. This is an emergency video conference summit. Yesterday, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Belarus. Apparently, they see any solution to Belarus's problems taking place in concert with Russia. There is a debate what the EU should do. Some want to punish Lukashenko for human rights abuses with sanctions. But others, including members of the Belarusian opposition, argue that punitive sanctions could stop him from entering dialogue and push him closer to Russia. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate, has made an appeal to European leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I call on you not to recognize this fraudulent elections. Mr. Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world.

KIM: She went on to appeal to all countries to respect international law and the sovereignty of Belarus. And that message seemed directed particularly at Vladimir Putin.

INSKEEP: Well, what is Putin going to do?

KIM: That's what everybody is waiting to see right now. Yesterday, it really looked like he had thrown his weight behind Lukashenko. So it looks like, again, the EU is facing off against Vladimir Putin.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim. Thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.