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News Brief: Barr Blasts Trump Tweets, Border Wall Funding, Coronavirus


Attorney General William Barr criticized President Trump yesterday.


He said this to ABC News.


WILLIAM BARR: It's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases.

MARTIN: This comes after President Trump tweeted repeatedly about the sentencing of Roger Stone, a friend of Trump's who was indicted as part of the Mueller investigation.

KING: Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been following all of this. He's in studio with us. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what was notable about what Attorney General Barr said yesterday?

LUCAS: Well, this is the first time that we've seen Barr publicly push back against the president like this. Barr's predecessor as attorney general, Jeff Sessions, never did. In this ABC interview, Barr made clear that he views the president's tweets about the department, its employees, the cases that they're prosecuting and the judges that they prosecute these cases before, that these tweets are a problem for Barr. He said they make it impossible for him to do his job. And he also said that neither the president nor his tweets nor any other outside noise is going to affect the decisions that he makes as attorney general.


BARR: I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody. And I said - whether it's Congress, a newspaper, editorial boards or the president. I'm going to do what I think is right. And, you know, the - I think the - I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.

KING: OK. So strong words - I can't do my job here if this keeps up. What did the White House say?

LUCAS: Well, there was some speculation after this interview first aired that the president wouldn't be happy about this sort of pushback from his attorney general. It has to be said, though, that Barr and Trump do have a pretty solid relationship. Barr has been in the job now for a full year, actually, as of today. Last night, though, after this interview came out, the White House press secretary put out a statement that said the president wasn't bothered by Barr's comments at all and said that the president has full confidence in the attorney general to do his job and to uphold the law.

KING: Do we have a sense of why Barr did this interview and why now?

LUCAS: Well, this appears to be an attempt at damage control by the attorney general. Barr has come under an immense amount of criticism, particularly from the legal world, former Justice Department folks, for intervening this week in the case against Roger Stone, as we mentioned earlier. Barr overruled career prosecutors to recommend a lighter sentence for Stone, and he did so after President Trump tweeted that Stone was being treated unfairly.

After Barr intervened in the case, the president congratulated Barr on Twitter about that. This has all blown up on Barr. The four prosecutors handling Stone's case, they all quit the case; one of them even resigned from the Justice Department. Now, Barr says that he made the decision to intervene in Stone's case before the president's tweets. But appearances matter when it comes to the Justice Department...

KING: Yeah.

LUCAS: ...When it comes to its credibility and the perception of fairness. To a lot of people, it appeared that Barr was maybe weighing in on the Stone case for political reasons. And that has raised a lot of questions about whether the Justice Department is being politicized under Barr's watch, and whether he's allowing it to, essentially, bend to the president's wishes.

KING: And here he is saying that's not what's happening.

LUCAS: Right.

KING: What happens next in Roger Stone's sentencing? When does that go on?

LUCAS: Well, his sentencing will be next Thursday here in federal court in Washington, D.C. There's been a lot of back and forth about the sentencing recommendation by the government. But, remember, it's actually the judge in this case, Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who makes the final call on how much time behind bars Roger Stone is going to spend. There is going to be a ton of attention on that now after this whole blow-up over the past week.

KING: OK. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks so much, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.


KING: The Defense Department notified Congress yesterday that it plans to reallocate $3.8 billion that the Pentagon had earmarked for other things.

MARTIN: Right. And instead, now it's going to go to the Department of Homeland Security, and then used to build an additional 177 miles of President Trump's border wall between the U.S. and Mexico - at least that's what the president wants to happen.

KING: NPR's John Burnett covers immigration. He's on the line from Austin, Texas. Hey, John.


KING: So what was the Department of Defense supposed to use that $3.8 billion for?

BURNETT: Well, the first time the Pentagon gave Trump money, which was a year ago, it came from military construction and counter-narcotics operations. This time, the DOD is pulling it from serious military hardware - two F-35 Air Force fighter jets, two Osprey aircraft from the Marines, a Navy reconnaissance plane, eight drones, as well as trucks and other gear the National Guard was counting on. Instead, they'll use that money, nearly $4 billion, to build more of Trump's steel and concrete wall.

And in order to pull this off, yesterday, the president re-declared a national emergency based on, quote, "the ongoing border security and humanitarian crisis at the southern border," which is surprising because the apprehensions of undocumented immigrants has plummeted 75% over the past six months. The Pentagon says it will be putting up this additional wall to block drug smuggling corridors out in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, California. But DEA numbers tell us that most illegal drugs come through ports of entry rather than cross country.

KING: So, John, in the meantime, as we're talking about all of these billions of dollars, it does seem like the price tag on the wall keeps going up and up. Is that a fair characterization?

BURNETT: Absolutely. The last status report I saw from Customs and Border Protection said they're putting up about 575 miles of new wall for $11 billion. If you add this, now we're looking at something like 750 miles and it's pushing $15 billion. This is already the most expensive border wall in the world at $20 million a mile. Democrats in Congress have not given the president all the money he had asked for to spend on the wall. So Trump has now declared national emergencies twice so he could go to the military and say, I need you to help me build my wall to protect the country's southern flank.

KING: And is what the president's doing legal?

BURNETT: (Laughter) Well, several anti-wall groups sued him before. Then they said only Congress has the purse, and the president can't go around them and help himself to the Pentagon's coffers. The lower courts agreed, and they blocked military funds to build the wall. But then conservative justices on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and on the Supreme Court have allowed the president to keep using the military as his emergency piggy bank for the wall. Nonetheless, the American Civil Liberties Union said yesterday it'll go back to federal court and ask a judge to block these new transfers of military money for the wall.

Notably, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, a Republican from the Texas Panhandle, didn't sound too happy about the announcement. He said Congress gave DOD its budget, and DOD cannot change its priorities without congressional approval. That, quote, "undermines the principle of civilian control of the military" and violates the separation of powers. He said it's unconstitutional - this from a presidential supporter. So we'll see how it all plays out.

KING: Interesting. NPR's John Burnett in Austin. Thanks, John.

BURNETT: My pleasure.


KING: All right. So how do you stop an illness from spreading when there is no vaccine and no treatment?

MARTIN: That's a problem that DARPA is grappling with. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It's a U.S. defense agency that develops cutting-edge techniques primarily to help the military. And this is happening at a critical time, right? China's Hubei province reported more than 14,000 new cases of the coronavirus yesterday.

KING: NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca is in the studio with us. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what is DARPA doing, exactly?

PALCA: Well, they've created this platform called the P3, the Pandemic Prevention Platform. And it's actually a four-year program - we're in the middle of it - that started two years ago. And their idea is to respond rapidly to any emerging threat, and it just happens now that COVID-19 is the threat. But they want to be able to respond where there is, as you said, no vaccine or no drugs. So Amy Jenkins runs the program for DARPA.

AMY JENKINS: We envisioned the P3 platform actually functioning as a firebreak in the instance that there's a pandemic outbreak.

KING: What does that mean, firebreak?

PALCA: Well, it's something that will work, at least temporarily, to protect someone from contracting the virus before a vaccine is ready. It might also be a stopgap therapy if there's nothing else available. And the Defense Department is interested because they are in a situation where they might have to deploy troops into an area where there is a pandemic - not that they're thinking about doing it now, but they might someday.

And even if there were a vaccine, if you give somebody a shot with the vaccine, it still takes a couple of weeks, usually, for someone to develop immunity. So they want something they can put into the troop right away, and off they go and they won't be hurt. And the idea is that this will at least give them temporary protection, maybe six months or so. And then they will still be able to get a vaccine to protect them against any further exposure.

KING: How does this P3 thing work?

PALCA: Well, it has two parts. Part No. 1 is they're trying to develop techniques to find antibodies that would work against the invading organism. Now, you know, antibodies are what our immune systems create to fight infection. And what they're going to do is take blood from people who have gotten sick with this COVID-19 virus, and then take their blood and look for antibodies in the blood. And that's - part of it is they're trying to speed up the time it takes to find those antibodies.

The second part is to produce those antibodies in sufficient quantities to be able to give to troops. Now, usually that means putting them in big bioreactors, which are big, stainless steel tanks that grow the proteins that are making up the antibodies. They're trying to do something different. They're going to take the genetic material that codes for the antibodies and put them into people and let people's own cells make the antibodies.

KING: Gosh, that is really interesting. So I guess the big question here is, are they working on anything that will be usable or useful for COVID-19, which is what the coronavirus is being called formally?

PALCA: Of course. Well, I put that question to DARPA's Amy Jenkins.

JENKINS: This technology could be used in this current coronavirus. I will caveat that, that this is still a very early technology. It has, yes, been in human clinical studies, but it has not been in thousands of patients. It's been in tens of patients.

PALCA: So she's saying, maybe. And we talked about this. They were hoping, when they started the program, to be able to provide something in 60 days. And now she's saying, well, maybe with these caveats that she just mentioned it might take 90 days. But still, she's saying it's possible that they'll have something to add to the armamentarium to fight this.

KING: Some amount of room for optimism, yeah?

PALCA: I would say.

KING: NPR's Joe Palca. Joe, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.