News Brief: Coronavirus, Trump Campaign, Iraqi Protesters

Feb 17, 2020
Originally published on February 17, 2020 9:38 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. So some of the passengers who have been trapped on a cruise ship because of coronavirus are finally off.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. Two charter planes carrying more than 300 Americans who were evacuated from the Diamond Princess have landed at military bases in California and in Texas. People on that ship had been quarantined for two weeks. The State Department says 14 of the Americans who were there have tested positive for the new coronavirus, but none of them were showing symptoms when they got onboard the planes. This is what one passenger, Cheryl Molesky, told The Associated Press.

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CHERYL MOLESKY: A little bit scary with the numbers going up of people taken off the ship with the COVID-19 virus. So you know, I think it's time to go.

KING: You heard her say COVID-19 there. That's the official name for the illness caused by this coronavirus. And as of now, Cheryl is not infected.

GREENE: All right. Let's turn to NPR's Jason Beaubien, who has been following all of this. He's in Hong Kong.

Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: So let's start with these evacuees from the Diamond Princess who've just gotten back to the U.S. What's happening to them now?

BEAUBIEN: So after doing this quarantine on the ship in Japan, they're going to spend another two weeks in quarantine at Travis Air Base in Northern California and at Lackland Air Base near San Antonio, Texas. They're going to be monitored. They'll be isolated from the other evacuees that had come out of China. They're going to be in a separate group. And anyone who gets sick will be taken from there and be treated at a civilian hospital. And you've got to expect that these 14 people who got onboard and they were known to be infected, that they're going to be isolated from the others.

GREENE: OK. This is not all the Americans, though, from the Diamond Princess - right? - who have gotten off. There are others who are still left behind?

BEAUBIEN: This is the vast majority of them. We thought it was about 380. Only about 328 got on these planes. There were other people who've already actually gone into hospitals in Japan - people who've become sick. Some other people, however, didn't want to get off the boats. They felt like they had done their time almost, with the Japanese authorities saying that on the 19 of February - so on Wednesday - they were going to be released. They're figuring they'll just try their chances there rather than come back and have to do a quarantine in the United States all over again.

GREENE: So Jason, I mean, this ship obviously got so much attention during the course of this coronavirus, as it's been spreading...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Is there something special about it - like, why things got so bad on this ship?

BEAUBIEN: This is the problem - we don't really know. This is a new virus that - it hadn't been detected before December. We don't really have a good understanding of how it spreads. What the Diamond Princess does show us, that it's - this virus is capable of spreading in contexts outside of China. You know, really, this has been a Chinese health problem. And you know, the bad food and the lockdown on this luxury liner are really minimal compared to - we had a hundred deaths just yesterday out of Wuhan, China, and, you know, getting thousands of cases every day.

But that said, the ship does show that this isn't just a China problem. There was another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, that just disembarked 1,500 passengers in Cambodia. And then the next day, one of them tested positive after arriving in Malaysia. So there's concern that these boats could show that this virus, in certain situations, can turn into incubators. So that's - it's a great concern.

GREENE: So where are we overall? I mean, are things getting better, moving in the right direction when it comes to coronavirus in China and around the world?

BEAUBIEN: So what we're seeing right now is that the number of new cases is not accelerating like it was a few weeks ago. So that is the good news. We're maybe plateauing; maybe we're getting to the point where it's under control. But at least things are not going up the way they were in the past.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting from Hong Kong. Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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GREENE: OK. So President Trump started running for reelection way earlier than most presidents. Actually, he filed paperwork the day of his inauguration. And he has been running ever since, and now he's really kicking it into, shall we say, high gear.

KING: Yeah, the president was at the Daytona 500 in Florida yesterday. He actually gave the command to start the race.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Gentlemen, start your engines.

KING: He also ran a national TV ad while the race was being broadcast. Trump doesn't face any real opposition in the Republican primary, but he's been showing up in the early primary states anyway. He was in Iowa. He was in New Hampshire. And he'll be in Las Vegas on Friday. The Nevada caucus is on Saturday.

GREENE: So what exactly is the president's strategy here? Well, let's ask NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, who's with us.

Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So we've now seen this a few times from President Trump, these rallies in early voting states right before caucuses or right before the primary. And he has basically no opposition in his own party. So what's he doing here?

RASCOE: So what's clear is President Trump knows that Democrats running for president are getting a lot of attention. That race for the nomination is kind of dominating headlines. And so this is counterprogramming. It's meant to steal some of that spotlight and that all-important TV time away from his potential Democratic rivals. With national attention focused on these states, Trump gets media hits from doing these sorts of appearances. And he uses these opportunities to criticize some of the policies Democrats are discussing.

It's also a way to build up enthusiasm for his reelection campaign, the same way that Democrats are trying to boost enthusiasm through their primaries and caucuses. He did have 150,000 voters turn out in the Republican primary in New Hampshire. Now, that was about half of the Democratic turnout. But still, that's a high number for an incumbent. And the Trump campaign views these primaries as test runs for turning out the vote in the general election.

GREENE: But when it comes to getting that media attention, I mean, obviously there's more value if it's a state that actually could be competitive in November, right? And it sounds like he's choosing strategically. Like, Arizona, Colorado are on his schedule this week.

RASCOE: Yeah. So all of these states that we've talked about could loosely be described as battleground states. Ne-vah-da (ph) and - Nevada and Colorado have been Democratic in recent elections but not overwhelmingly so. Arizona is one state that's actually been turning red to blue. But Trump won it in 2016 and would like to win it again. Trump lost New Hampshire by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2016, so that's another potential target. So again, it's counterprogramming to Democrats, but it's also laying that groundwork for November, along with digital ads and all the other ways that they are trying to get their message out.

GREENE: I mean, all the ways. But the one way he seems to love the most is these rallies - right? - I mean, these arenas full of committed Trump loyalists. I mean, that's the base. Is he really focused as well on trying to win over undecided voters?

RASCOE: So he is focused on the base, but he also knows that this is going to be a very close election. So he's going to have to expand at least a bit - or at least try to limit some losses in some demographics, like among African American voters. That's why you hear him hammering away on his economic message and record low unemployment.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe talking to us about President Trump's reelection strategy.

Ayesha, thanks.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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GREENE: We're going to turn to Iraq now. Anti-government protests there have been raging since October.

KING: Yeah, protesters say they want a new kind of government. They say they are done with corruption. They want Iranian influence in their country to end. And they're angry about U.S. military attacks. Hundreds of those protesters have been killed by security forces and militia gunmen.

GREENE: That's right. Recently, they have come under even more pressure, and it's almost crushed this protest movement.

So let's turn to NPR international correspondent Jane Arraf, who is in Baghdad. Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, there.

GREENE: You've been telling us about these protests for some time now. I mean, four months - they're still going, but it sounds like they're beginning to wane. What's happening?

ARRAF: Yeah. I mean, they have really hung in there through shootings, kidnappings, intimidation. And at least 600 of them have been killed. They managed to last that long partly because they're backed by an influential Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. And if that name sounds familiar...

GREENE: Yeah.

ARRAF: ...It's 'cause he's the guy who raised - yep - he raised a militia to fight U.S. forces in 2003. And then late last year, Sadr leaves for Iran. And a lot of these protests going on in Iraq are against Iranian control of Iraqi politics and security. So earlier this month, Sadr did a turnaround. He announced he was withdrawing his support, and then he went a step further. And he sent in his people to clean up the protests.

GREENE: Oh, really? So that must have had a huge impact. Well, I mean, if we look at these four months, though, I mean, have these protests had some sort of effect, some sort of impact?

ARRAF: Well, they did. They had an effect because they've managed to topple a government, in a sense. The prime minister was forced to resign. But the bigger impact of Sadr's actions has been on the protesters. You know, they've been attacked by not just government security forces but these Iran-backed groups that the government doesn't dare name. And when Sadr withdrew, a new crackdown began - more kidnappings, more beatings, more stabbings. And you can see the effect in Tahrir Square. I asked one protester, Ali (ph), what he thought was the future of the protests after this.

ALI: It is lost, actually, because no one with us. We are alone. We don't have weapon. We don't need the weapon anyway. We have only the flag. And on the other side, he's have everything. He's have the money. He's have the president. He's have the militia. He's have the weapon.

ARRAF: So there is a core group staying. You know, some are afraid to leave because they're afraid they'll be kidnapped once they leave the square. But it is diminished. And part of the reason that protesters are under attack is because they're seen by militias and part of the government as being backed by the United States. So the protesters are still out there, but there are still deaths and dozens of people being wounded every day, including a new way of shooting at them by security forces and gunmen, which is using hunting rifles.

GREENE: Wow. What did they want in the first place? Can you remind us what these were all about?

ARRAF: They wanted an end to corruption. They wanted a new kind of government not linked to parties. And they wanted it to be, for the most part, secular and inclusive. Here's one young woman, a university student who came to a protest Friday.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: We're making a new path for ourselves so we can make a better future with or without the government. We want to make a better future for us, for all these people, for the poor, for the homeless. We can make Iraq great again.

ARRAF: So at the same time, there was a much bigger protest of Sadr followers, women, who have a different vision of it. They were protesting against immorality...

GREENE: Wow.

ARRAF: ...And in many ways, it's a competition for what Iraq should be.

GREENE: What a powerful voice we're hearing from her. NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad.

Jane, thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AHMED MUKHTAR'S "IRAQ TO ASPANIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.