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News Brief: Vaccine Doses, Executive Orders, Biden-Putin Call

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Joe Biden has dreams of late summer. I mean, don't we all? But that is specifically when he's hoping nearly every American will be vaccinated against COVID-19.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Yeah, and to make that happen, Biden announced that his administration is trying to get 200 million additional doses of vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. He also said that states will see a boost in supply over the next three weeks, which will be a huge help because, as we've talked about before, people trying to get vaccines are often having their appointments canceled or delayed because there just aren't enough doses to go around.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is with us now to walk through what Biden is pledging, some of the challenges in all of this. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: President Biden says we need more vaccine. What details can you share about his announcement?

DETROW: Yeah. So the federal government is in the process of buying 100 million new doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and 100 million from Moderna as well. And Biden says those should arrive over the course of the summer. And when they are distributed, the U.S. would have 600 million doses, which would be enough supplies to vaccinate 300 million Americans, which is nearly the entire population. Of course, that is if everything is on schedule. And Biden did concede that that is a very big if.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This will be one of the most difficult operational challenges we've ever undertaken as a nation. I've said that before, but I must say it again because we're going to do everything we can to get it done. But a lot of things can go wrong along the way.

DETROW: And the latest data from the CDC shows how challenging this is. So far, about 44 million vaccines have been distributed to states, 23 million shots have been administered, but only 3 million people at this point have gotten both of those shots. Remember, both these vaccines require two rounds of shots that are separated. This was urgent all along, but recent news of more contagious variants around the world makes it even more urgent to speed up the vaccination process.

MARTIN: So the president wants to secure these couple hundred million more doses. That's going to help over the next few months. But what about the distribution issues now? I mean, vaccination sites don't have enough vaccine to meet demand.

DETROW: Yeah. He announced a couple changes, some logistical and some just about getting more vaccines out. Biden said that there's going to be an increase over the next few weeks in the supply going to states. Up to 10 million doses a week will be going out now. That's up from 8.6 million. He also addressed one big complaint from state officials. They have said they're often in the dark about how many vaccines are coming beyond next week. And that makes it really hard to plan distribution. So Biden says going forward, the federal government is going to provide a three-week forecast to states so they can better adjust.

MARTIN: We heard in that clip earlier Biden say that a lot of things can go wrong - clearly. Just explain, though, Scott, how important is it to his presidency for this to go right?

DETROW: You know, President Biden is going to have a very clear success or failure on this, and that's almost certainly going to be a big way that voters will judge him. And I think Biden's probably pretty fine with that. This is something that's very hard to spin, right? Last year, President Trump learned how his promises and claims on testing were not selling. He said everyone can get a test if they want one. People around the country just knew that wasn't true based on their personal experience. And for Biden, people are going to be vaccinated or not, and they're going to see life start to return to normal or not. He has made tackling this vaccine a central part of his presidency. But you have already seen - as Biden has turned to governing and being the person in charge, you've already seen the White House struggling a little bit with how to frame their goal on vaccinations. For example, Biden has consistently said his goal is to get 100 million shots into people's arms in his first 100 days. A lot of experts criticized that as too low. So you saw on Monday, he started to change a little bit, saying, well, actually, we're hoping to get 150 million shots. He was back to 100 million yesterday. But that's just one example of how it's a little more challenging when you're the person in charge in real time.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Scott Detrow, we'll be checking back with you on this. Thanks.

DETROW: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right, we're going to take a closer look now at another campaign promise from the new president. Biden has pledged to address systemic racism in this country.

MCCAMMON: Yesterday, he talked about the death of George Floyd as a turning point for America.

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BIDEN: Those eight minutes and 46 seconds that took George Floyd's life opened the eyes of millions of Americans and millions of people all over the world.

MCCAMMON: Biden signed executive actions on Tuesday meant to address racial inequities in housing, private prisons and the treatment of Native Americans and Asian Americans.

MARTIN: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us this morning. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, this was, as we noted, a fundamental promise by Joe Biden in the campaign. So it makes sense. He had to address it right out of the gate.

JOHNSON: Absolutely, Rachel. Remember, Biden always said on the campaign trail that he ran for president after seeing the tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., several years ago. And here's what he had to say yesterday.

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BIDEN: I ran for president because I believe we're in a battle for the soul of this nation. And the simple truth is our soul will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to persist.

JOHNSON: And a little more detail on the executive orders. The first one directs federal agencies to overcome a history of discrimination in housing and restore some critical tools to uncover racism when it exists in things like denying people who are applying for mortgages or rental units. The second executive order instructs the Justice Department to phase out contracts with private prisons. And the final two orders promise support for Native American sovereignty, and they call on federal agencies to fight xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which has really spiked since the pandemic.

MARTIN: So those are the specific executive actions. But of course, the leadership all comes from the White House, and that is going to be pushed by a particular person who's been tapped with dealing with this, right?

JOHNSON: Indeed. Former ambassador Susan Rice is going to be leading the charge from the White House Domestic Policy Council. She's assembled a team that's going to work to ensure that agencies across the government put equity at the core of their mission.

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SUSAN RICE: We'll hold the federal government accountable for advancing equity for families across America. I have the support of every White House office and every agency in this work because, as President Biden has made clear, advancing equity is everybody's job.

JOHNSON: Now, Rachel, we know the president has picked the most diverse Cabinet in American history, but the Biden team quietly has been putting civil rights experts in jobs all across the government that don't require Senate confirmation, not just inside the Justice Department.

MARTIN: So how is this going over with the people for whom this is their life's work? I mean, we're talking about the advocates on civil rights issues.

JOHNSON: For sure. I spoke with David Fathi. He directs the National Prison Project at the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. He says this phase-out of contracts with private prisons who work with the Justice Department is a good first step. But he says the president has an obligation to do a lot more because of all his promises on the campaign trail.

DAVID FATHI: There is much, much more work that needs to be done. Most obviously, this order does not apply to immigration detention, where more than 80% of detained immigrants are held in private, for-profit prisons.

JOHNSON: Advocates also want to see a lot more on policing, a ban on chokeholds, a requirement that officers intervene if they see a fellow officer engaged in abuse or excessive force. More to come on all of that.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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MARTIN: All right. What do you say to the guy responsible for interfering in your country's democratic election system? I mean, I suppose you start with hello, but I don't really know where you go after that.

MCCAMMON: Right? We are talking about the phone call that President Biden had with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday. White House officials say Biden took on big issues like the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, cyber-espionage and Russian bounties on American troops.

MARTIN: All right. All controversial issues. How were they received? We're going to ask NPR's Lucian Kim, who is with us from Moscow. Good morning, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what Sarah just noted, all these three topics, very important, but the substance of the call actually had to do with an important arms treaty, right? What can you tell us?

KIM: Exactly. The main thing they talked about was actually the New START Treaty. This is the last nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, and it literally expires at the end of next week. The Trump administration tried to add new conditions to the treaty in its negotiations with Russia. That failed. Now there's not any time left, and it looks like both sides are going for a straight five-year extension as provided for in the treaty. As for the other things they talked about, you know, the Kremlin emphasizes in its readout that they talked about cooperation in fighting the coronavirus and bilateral trade. The White House readout, however, brings up some of the thornier issues, as you mentioned, specifically, the cyberattack on U.S. government agencies, Russian election interference. So the Kremlin was much more diplomatic and conciliatory in its tone while the White House was much tougher.

MARTIN: And we should just note, this is a stark difference between the conversation topics as we understood them between President Trump and Vladimir Putin than it is between now-President Biden and Putin. I mean, they have a relationship, too. Biden has met Putin when he was vice president in the Obama administration. What do we know about the personal relationship between the two?

KIM: Well, it's not an easy one. I don't think there's any love lost between Biden and Putin. But all the Russian experts I've talked to say Putin is pragmatic, he's ready to do business, and he's really desperate to get the attention of the United States. You know, despite Trump's admiration for Putin, he left relations in a really bad place. The last time we know there was a phone call between the presidents of Russia and the U.S. was last summer, six months ago. Biden understands the U.S. needs to deal with Russia, and he's in a hurry to extend this New START Treaty. What I think is telling is how he made the call. He did it after Antony Blinken was confirmed as secretary of state and as Blinken and the other foreign ministers of the G-7 group of nations condemned Navalny's imprisonment. Besides that, quite symbolically, Biden also called the secretary general of NATO yesterday. So this all sends a very clear message to Putin that the U.S. is working with its allies again and will very loudly criticize the Kremlin.

MARTIN: I mean, we remember George W. Bush saying I looked into his eyes and saw Putin's soul. We remember Hillary Clinton with the big red reset button. I mean, what's Joe Biden's relationship with Russia going to be? What changes can we see?

KIM: Well, in the short term, it looks like both sides can agree that renewing New START is a win-win situation for both countries. But in his phone call, Biden alluded to a lot of the huge stumbling blocks that lie ahead. And these are the issues that won't go away and will dominate the bilateral agenda.

MARTIN: NPR's Lucian Kim from Moscow. Thanks, Lucian.

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