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News Brief: DNC Ends, Postmaster General To Testify, Navalny In Grave Condition

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Democrat Joe Biden promised last night to end a chapter of American darkness.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. On the fourth and final night of the all-virtual Democratic National Convention, Biden outlined four historic challenges - a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial injustice and climate change. He said President Trump wakes up thinking the presidency is, quote, "all about him, never about you." Biden also promised a more competent approach and said the nation had a great purpose to be a light to the world once again.

INSKEEP: NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid has been watching all week, is in Delaware and is on the line. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did Biden say he would govern?

KHALID: Well, his central message was one of unity and competence, Steve. You know, he spoke about trying to bridge the country's political divisions.

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JOE BIDEN: I'll work hard for those who didn't support me - as hard for them as I did for those who did vote for me. That's the job of a president - to represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.

KHALID: He did not mention Donald Trump there, but to me, this was a very clear implicit criticism of the president. And as he continued speaking, the criticism that Biden had of the president became even more direct.

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BIDEN: Our current president's failed in his most basic duty to the nation. He's failed to protect us. He's failed to protect America. And, my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable.

KHALID: He was speaking there about the pandemic and the president's response to COVID-19. You know, the coronavirus has really become a major theme for the Biden campaign. It has essentially drowned out all other concerns you had been hearing about the president. You must have noticed how little we actually heard about impeachment all week. The main concern now is the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I'm thinking of the style of the speech, too, Asma, and what it suggests about the man. There's a kind of old-school way that he talks about patriotism. I mean, any candidate will reference patriotism, but he does it in a particular old-style way. There are references to people as God's children, reference to God's special purpose for the country and also a moment when he grew very quiet, consoling people who'd lost loved ones in the pandemic.

KHALID: You know, he often speaks about God. And I do think what he was trying to emphasize last night, to me, was character. All week long, we had been hearing other people tell Joe Biden's moral decency. Last night, it was Biden himself who seemed to focus on connecting as a human being. And the theme is really that, you know, he can empathize with people, the implication being that President Trump cannot. And again, he was trying to lay out this contrast with Trump. And in the end, you know, there was, I think, a lot of darkness all throughout the week at this Democratic convention. But to me, Joe Biden's speech actually was rather aspirational and uplifting for voters who are looking for a more optimistic future in the country.

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BIDEN: Love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. And light is more powerful than dark. This is our moment. This is our mission. May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight, as love and hope and light join in the battle for the soul of the nation. And this is a battle we will win. And we'll do it together. I promise you.

KHALID: And, Steve, you know, this was a really direct-to-camera format. It was very different than what I felt in the room, which was - I was one of the few members of the, quote, unquote, "audience" as a member of the press there. It was very quiet for those of us in the room.

INSKEEP: Instead of thousands of convention people, there were - what? - how many of you just there in the darkness?

KHALID: A couple dozen reporters. And then afterwards, when he went out to see the fireworks, we followed him. And it was like a drive-in campaign rally of supporters there to cheer him on.

INSKEEP: OK. Asma, thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Asma Khalid as the Democratic convention concludes. Next week, it's the Republicans' turn, and we will have full coverage here on NPR News.

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INSKEEP: OK, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy appears before a Senate committee today. And he can expect versions of this question. What the heck are you doing?

GREENE: That's right. The changes he's ordered at U.S. Postal Service triggered consternation. People report service delays. DeJoy has also raised suspicion about whether he would keep the postal service in shape to deliver votes by mail. The president, we should say, has falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are insecure.

INSKEEP: NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak is with us now. Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: We should note the postmaster has said it's ridiculous to think he would interfere in the election. But the president has so publicly questioned mail-in balloting that he's facing these suspicions. So what do lawmakers hope to learn from DeJoy?

MAK: Well, they'll want to know a couple of things. DeJoy announced some major changes to shake up the Postal Service leadership, eliminate employee overtime and remove some postal sorting machines. After a backlash, which you guys have discussed, he's now announced that these changes will be put on hold for the time being. But lawmakers will want to know whether there was any political purpose behind these reforms. Of course, they were taken just a few months before Americans are expected to vote by mail in greater numbers due to the pandemic. There've also been some questions about how DeJoy, who's someone with no previous experience working inside the U.S. Postal Service, came to be selected as the nation's postmaster general. This has not been typical over the past few decades. What DeJoy has, critics say, is that he does have, as a longtime businessman, political connections.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the postmaster general's political connections to the president?

MAK: Well, DeJoy has given millions of dollars both to President Trump and the Republican Party. In fact, over the past five years, he's contributed $3.2 million to Republican causes, including to help President Trump get elected. His house in Greensboro, N.C., is known by locals as the castle. And it's been a prominent spot for Republican fundraisers. DeJoy has even gotten the president's attention in the past. Here's the president at an event last September.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A friend of mine who's been with us from the beginning - he's not a politician, but he might as well be one. He loves us. He loves this party. And he loves your state, lives here. Louis DeJoy, one of the most successful people.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Tim, the postmaster general is selected by this purportedly independent process. Why is that being questioned now?

MAK: Right. Well, DeJoy was chosen by this group called the Postal Service's Board of Governors - four Republicans, two Democrats all of whom were nominated by Trump and subsequently confirmed by the Senate. But during this search, one of the Democrats on the board resigned, claiming he raised questions about DeJoy's background check. This, along with his political contributions, have raised questions about whether he was picked for political reasons.

INSKEEP: And can you also clarify for us what the various companies that he has owned or taken part in have to do with the postal service or with that industry?

MAK: Right. Well, so the companies he's been associated with are mainly in the shipping sector. They've seen their share of controversy. But what's undisputable when it comes to him is that he took his father's business from a few trucks to a $120 million business in 2000. And supporters of DeJoy think that that's exactly what the postal service needs - some sort of business-minded postmaster general to cut costs at an organization that has struggled with its finances and is in the red.

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak.

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INSKEEP: A leading opposition figure in Russia remains in grave condition.

GREENE: Yeah, Alexei Navalny's staff believes someone poisoned the tea he was drinking at an airport cafe in Siberia. He went into a coma not long after that. Navalny is known as one of Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critics. And while the United States has no official statements yet, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien did say this on Fox News.

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ROBERT O'BRIEN: He's a very courageous man. He's a very courageous politician to have stood up to Putin inside Russia. And our thoughts and our prayers are with him and his family.

INSKEEP: NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is on the line. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Got a pretty crucial question here, I suppose. Where exactly is Navalny being treated? Is he anywhere safe?

KIM: That's the big question. He's in a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk, which is more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow. That's where the plane he was on yesterday had to make an emergency landing because he lost consciousness. He's in a coma, as you mentioned, hooked up to a ventilator in the intensive care unit. Navalny's press secretary says the hospital is not properly equipped and that his life is in danger. One of the doctors there talked to reporters this morning. He says they found no trace of poison. This is really contradictory because officials have told Navalny's colleagues on the ground that, in fact, a toxic substance had been found. And it's so poisonous that people around him have to wear protective suits.

INSKEEP: Wow. Weren't there plans to get him out of Russia, where he'd be a little bit farther from Putin?

KIM: Yes. Navalny's people say they were told all the permits were going to be issued. And then at the very last minute, the doctors there refused to let him be transported. Navalny's wife, Yulia, is also in Omsk. She says the doctors are stalling, hoping that the poison in his body will break down and that any clues will be lost. Yesterday, activists in Germany said they'd already arranged for a plane to come pick up Navalny and that it was on its way to bring him to Berlin. In 2018, the same group organized the evacuation to Berlin of another Kremlin critic, Pyotr Verzilov, who was also apparently poisoned.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, does that backdrop with Germany play some kind of a role here in the fact that Navalny hasn't moved?

KIM: Well, Germany definitely plays a huge role here. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, although she has a very cool relationship with President Putin, still has a lot of leverage. Yesterday, standing next to French President Emmanuel Macron, she came out and said she was shocked by the news of Navalny's illness and said she would insist on getting clarity on exactly what's happened. She also said Germany was ready to provide medical treatment and even political asylum to Navalny. And at the time, the Kremlin was indicating it had nothing against him getting treatment abroad.

INSKEEP: Why does Germany have leverage? Is it just because they're a big economic partner with Russia?

KIM: They're a big economic partner. Right now, Russia and Germany are building a second gas pipeline, which will connect both countries directly, the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, which the Trump administration has opposed.

INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim with an update on Alexei Navalny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.