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News Brief: Christopher Krebs, Pentagon Shake-Up, COVID-19 Jobless Benefits

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just over two months before he leaves office, the president has fired a top Homeland Security official.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The outgoing president removed Christopher Krebs for an accurate report about the election. Krebs oversaw an Internet security office that assessed election security. A statement by his office called it the most secure election in American history. This matches the findings of election officials across the country. It did not, however, match the president's false claims of fraud. Those claims are so baseless that in the court, the president's lawyers have been repeatedly forced to say they're not even alleging fraud because, of course, you cannot lie in court. So far, the suits have failed to change a single vote.

INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks covers election security and has been following all this. Miles, good morning.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'm not sure that a lot of people would have heard of Christopher Krebs before his firing. Who is he and what role has he played through this election?

PARKS: Right. He's basically been the federal official in charge of coordinating the election security efforts across this country. You know, there's more than 10,000 individual voting jurisdictions across the U.S. And four years ago, they were not communicating about threat information and, honestly, much about best practices in the field. So Krebs has kind of overseen this overhaul within the federal government to change that. Here he is in October, warning that it takes a while for election results to be certified after Election Day.

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CHRISTOPHER KREBS: So be patient. That's a lot of opportunity space for the bad guys, whoever they are, to come in and try to sow chaos, sow doubt, in the integrity of the process. And remember, attempts to delegitimize the election aren't going to stop on Election Day.

PARKS: In terms of his reputation, Krebs was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill. And one official who worked with Krebs that I talked to last week said he was, quote, "easily the most competent and able of any political appointee I've worked with" if that gives you an impression.

INSKEEP: And I'm just thinking about the words we just heard talking about people coming in to sow chaos, sow doubt in the integrity of the process. Attempts to delegitimize the election are not going to stop on Election Day. He's describing what the president has done over the past couple of weeks.

PARKS: Yeah. It's sort of ominous at this point hearing that clip. And you've kind of seen this happen from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that Krebs oversaw. Over the last couple of weeks, misinformation there has become maybe their biggest component of election security. A few weeks back, Krebs' agency started this website called Rumor Control aimed at fighting bad voting information. Now, Krebs has been completely adamant that this was not a website meant - started to fact-check Trump. But since the Trump campaign has been the biggest spreader of voting misinformation lately, that's essentially what that website has been forced to focus on. The agency has been debunking many of the claims that the president's lawyers, as Rachel mentioned, have been making in court and in public. So it's hard to say that last night's outcome of Krebs being fired is a complete surprise even to Krebs You know, somebody close to him that I talked to said he thought of this Rumor Control website as a sort of calculated risk considering how often President Trump makes false claims about voting. There was a chance that these two things were going to come into conflict.

INSKEEP: And we got to be clear, people are showing themselves to lie by saying one thing in public and then going in court where they can't lie and they make much more limited claims. And even the limited claims have been failing in suits so far. But we've gotten to this point and now Krebs has been fired. Does his ousting matter?

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, the impression I have from election officials is that they're definitely thankful this happened now and not a month or two ago before, you know, November 3. But it does still matter. Transitions are notoriously fragile times for national security. And Krebs was the person in charge in the federal government of defending the whole U.S. government against cyberattacks. But it's not like this security work just stops with Krebs out. One official at DHS told me that this move will actually only serve to motivate people working on election officials within the agency.

INSKEEP: Now, Miles, amid this firing and all of these false claims that have failed again and again and again in courts of law, there was an unusual development last night in Michigan that briefly, briefly got a lot of attention on social media. Would you describe who did what?

PARKS: Yeah. So this is in Wayne County, the county that encompasses Detroit. Basically, the local county board of canvassers was scheduled to meet to certify, but, you know, it sounds familiar now, partisan gridlock took over briefly. The board's two Republicans initially voted against certifying the results based on what they called security concerns, even though there's no evidence anything fraudulent happened here, they backtracked on that, as you mentioned. They did end up certifying the results, reaching a compromise to instead request the secretary of state to conduct an audit on issues in the election. So the bottom line here is that, you know, even though the Trump campaign is celebrating this as a win, it will not have any effect on the final results in Michigan. Joe Biden won Michigan by more than 100,000 votes, and there's still no evidence anything nefarious happened here or, frankly, anywhere in the country widespread.

INSKEEP: So this brief hold up fit in with the Trump campaign's disinformation efforts about urban democratic fraud and that sort of thing. But even the Republicans who did it backed off after a couple of hours and things moved forward.

PARKS: Right. And, you know, you can expect - you saw President Trump tweet about this, calling - you know, celebrating it as a big win. You can probably expect similar things in the coming days. This has been the Trump campaign game plan at this point is, you know, celebrating these minor bureaucratic wins that don't actually have an effect on the underlying election results, those results being the results that show Joe Biden won the election by a fairly wide margin.

INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks, thanks for your reporting.

PARKS: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: We now have a better idea why the departing president changed leadership at the Pentagon.

MARTIN: Shortly after losing the election, President Trump fired the defense secretary. Now it seems clear the move cleared the way for an announcement on Afghanistan. The new acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, made a statement yesterday.

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CHRISTOPHER MILLER: I'm here today to update you on President Trump's plan to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion and to bring our brave service members home.

INSKEEP: That was the statement. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman was listening and joins us. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Does what Miller said mean that all troops are coming home?

BOWMAN: Not at all. Thousands of troops will still remain in both countries. Now, the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan, and they have not stopped attacking cities, and they've not broken with al-Qaida. Both are key conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February. And in Iraq, those U.S. troops continue to go after remnants of the Islamic State, not just in Iraq, Steve, but in neighboring Syria as well; so no conclusion by a long shot. The White House has mandated a troop reduction in Afghanistan, going from about 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15 and a smaller drawdown of 500 in Iraq to 2,500. It will happen. These are orders from the commander in chief.

INSKEEP: OK. But when you say it will happen, we're in a world where we have to describe that the words don't mean what they mean. Concluding the war, which is what he said, doesn't mean the war is concluding. Bringing our troops home doesn't actually mean the troops are coming home, but there is a reduction in troops. Did Acting Secretary Miller say anything about how conditions have changed in a way that will allow some of the troops to come home?

BOWMAN: Steve, he said nothing. He took no questions. And before he spoke, a senior Defense official, who insisted on being unnamed, repeatedly refused to talk about the specific conditions leading to the cuts. Steve, the bottom line is this - the president campaigned on getting troops home. He's doing it. And officials are not being honest that this is fulfilling a campaign pledge. It has little to do with the deliberate, reasoned reduction the military wants.

INSKEEP: Although when you say he's doing it, they're still not actually doing it if some troops are going to remain. So what does all this mean for the Biden administration that does take over January 20?

BOWMAN: Well, probably not too much. The remaining troops can focus on counterterrorism, which is what Biden wants. And he has said he would like to keep a few thousand troops in Afghanistan for that purpose. And the sense is he and his advisers will be deliberate, holding the Taliban to their agreement, not just make a knee-jerk announcement as we see here.

INSKEEP: All of this comes as we're hearing of a White House meeting where there were discussions of possible missile strikes on Iran. And I want to emphasize the word possible. How do those things match up with bringing troops home?

BOWMAN: Well, they really don't. As far as this, we know there was a meeting with the president's most senior advisers and we know that Acting Defense Secretary Miller, Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, all opposed any kind of military action with Iran. There was no indication the president is going forward with it. Some fear that could escalate and threaten the U.S. forces in the region if that happened.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman.

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INSKEEP: OK. Up to 12 million Americans could lose their jobless benefits right after Christmas.

MARTIN: That's according to a new study that was released by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. Congress has been at a standstill over a new economic relief package since the summer. And as the coronavirus continues to spread out of control, many parts of the U.S. are facing new lockdowns.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold has been covering the economic effects of the pandemic and is on the line. Chris, good morning.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So it sounds like a lot of people are going to be in trouble right at the end of the holidays.

ARNOLD: Yeah. And the simple version of what's going on is back when the pandemic hit, Congress passed this big relief package, the CARES Act. Do you remember that? And so what that did is two things. It expanded the universe of people who can qualify to get unemployment benefits. And, you know, some of them are self-employed or a bunch of different things. And it extended the amount of time that people could collect them because it's a big national crisis. It's what we do in recessions, as has happened before. But two big federal programs that are part of that expire on the same day. It's the day after Christmas. I spoke to Andrew Stettner with the liberal-leaning Century Foundation, which did the study.

ANDREW STETTNER: Congress is set to cut off 12 million Americans from the only thing holding them back from falling into, you know, poverty and hardships that could scar them and their children for a lifetime.

ARNOLD: And he says, look, you know, this is happening at the worst possible time. Anybody who's had the radio or the TV on knows the virus is raging around the country. He says this could be, quote, "a crippling end to one of our darkest years."

INSKEEP: With all that said, Chris, the unemployment rate, while it's really bad, is not as bad as some feared and has actually been improving. Aren't some people in a better situation than it might have been?

ARNOLD: Sure. I mean, some people might be able to find unemployment rates coming down, but there are still 10 million fewer jobs than before the recession hit. That's a lot of jobs. And so in many states, too, things are going in the wrong direction. Things are being locked down, restaurants, et cetera, more than they're opening up. And a lot of people just don't have good options.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from some of the people looking for work?

ARNOLD: I spoke to Todd Anderson (ph) in northern Michigan. He's a single dad. He's got four kids. He's been going through this, including two, you know, 5-year-old twins. And in the spring, he lost his landscaping job. He did stuff for resorts that hold big weddings and that went out the window. And the unemployment money for him just hasn't been enough. He's been selling off his belongings to try to make money - cabinets, he had a pair of hiking boots.

TODD ANDERSON: And I sold tools - tools of my trade I sold hoping that, hey, I can rebuy them as I get on my feet.

ARNOLD: And to save money, he was living in this tiny cabin in the woods with his kids, and he says they didn't even have furniture, like a real table to eat at and stuff. But winter was coming, and so that wasn't going to work. So he was able to borrow just a little bit of money from family to get a security deposit together so that he and his kids could move into actually just a small house.

ANDERSON: I sat down the first night after we moved in, and they watched me cry because we could sit around a table, and we didn't do that for six months. So to be able to have dinner together, as a dad, that's kind of important to me. So we just try to muscle through. I try not to tell them that we're broke.

ARNOLD: But, you know, Steve, Anderson's unemployment money barely covers the rent. And he says if Congress doesn't extend those benefits, he just doesn't know what he and his kids are going to do. Meanwhile, there just isn't any indication that Congress is on the cusp of working this out and compromising and getting a deal together this year. There's a lot of people pushing for it but not a whole lot of action happening on extending those benefits.

INSKEEP: Chris, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Chris Arnold. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.