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News brief: Jan. 6 a year later, American extremists, CDC's communication issues


One year ago today, then-President Donald Trump addressed a rally. He told supporters to, quote, "fight like hell" and added, we're going to walk down to the Capitol.


Trump himself did not go but watched on TV as thousands of people attacked police and stormed the building. They disrupted the ceremonial counting of the electoral votes of the 2020 election. Now, when it was over, lawmakers affirmed the democratic results, but many of the very same lawmakers who had just fled for their lives went on to vote in support of the defeated president's election lies. How has that affected the legislature since?

INSKEEP: NPR's Deirdre Walsh covers Congress and is with us. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: First, how are lawmakers marking this day?

WALSH: Well, I was on Capitol Hill yesterday to check out the preparations, and there's really a solemn atmosphere. President Biden and Vice President Harris are going to speak this morning from Statuary Hall. That's the area right off the House floor where rioters marched through as they tried to overturn the electoral count. White House press secretary Jen Psaki previewed that the president is expected to criticize former President Trump for what she said was his singular role and push back on the misinformation the former president continues to spread a year later.

Later today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to lead a moment of silence in the House chamber and give a speech from the floor. Several lawmakers are going to talk about sort of their personal reflections about the day and how it impacted them. A panel of historians is going to talk about the need to preserve the narrative about that insurrection. And then tonight, the official events are going to end with a vigil led by Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on the steps of the Capitol.

INSKEEP: I'm really interested by the choice of location. Statuary Hall is filled with these statues, which are all through the Capitol, in fact - significant figures in American history from every state, including, from some of the Southern states, Confederate rebels from the 1860s. And yet none of them managed to breach the Capitol, as happened one year ago today. How are Republicans marking this day?

WALSH: There really aren't going to be many on Capitol Hill today. The House isn't in session this week, and there aren't any votes in the Senate. You know, many Republican senators are traveling to Georgia for a memorial service for the late Senator Johnny Isakson in Georgia. But you know, the fact that so few Republicans are going to be around to mark the anniversary is just a reminder of how toxic and partisan the atmosphere in the U.S. Capitol still is a year later. Republicans this week have been focused on criticizing Democrats for what they say were security failures a year ago instead of calling out the former president for his role in, you know, inciting a riot.

INSKEEP: How have those events changed Congress over the past year?

WALSH: You know, it continues to be really tense. The physical damage has been repaired. You know, broken windows have been fixed. But personal relationships between the members of the two parties have really suffered. You know, there are a lot of Democrats who don't even want to work with any of the Republicans who voted to overturn the electoral count that day. Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, she does serve on committees with some of those Republicans and says she does work with them, but she still thinks of that day when she sees them around the Capitol. Here's Klobuchar.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I will always remember who the people were that didn't support the results of the democracy.

WALSH: You know, in the House, lawmakers still have to go through metal detectors every day when they go to vote when they're in session. And there's just really a real breakdown of trust still. And some say that breakdown is worse a year later. It's harder and harder to move bipartisan legislation. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy barely speak.

INSKEEP: Has Congress done much to address the threat to democracy?

WALSH: Well, Democrats are using this week to push voting rights legislation. President Biden is expected to touch on that topic today. Leader Schumer has linked, you know, what those who stormed the Capitol did a year ago to efforts around the country to pass bills to restrict access to the ballot box. He says if Democrats' legislation to preserve access to voting is blocked, you know, he's going to move to change the Senate rules. But Democrats don't have the votes right now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deirdre Walsh, thanks so much.

WALSH: Thank you.


INSKEEP: Now, the president who sought to overturn the election in 2020 is now out of power.

MARTÍNEZ: That means the president who tried to overturn the election has lost access to the levers of power. He lost authority over the Pentagon and law enforcement and lost the presidential bully pulpit. So it takes a moment to realize why some experts think democracy is in more danger now. Those who monitor extremist activities say that a portion of the population is more radicalized than a year ago.

INSKEEP: What's going on here? NPR's Odette Yousef has been trying to find out. She covers domestic extremism. Good morning.


INSKEEP: So who exactly is warning that the United States may be in a much more dangerous place now than on January 6?

YOUSEF: I'm hearing this concern, Steve, from both democracy experts and people who've studied conflicts in places where ideologically driven violence has taken root. And one of the most troubling developments they speak of is the growing number of Americans, particularly on the right, who feel that violence may be necessary to settle political differences. And the people holding these views look very different, Steve, from what the U.S. has traditionally known to be extremist threats. You know, we're not talking about neo-Nazi skinheads or violent anti-government militias anymore. We're talking about largely middle-class Americans with jobs, with families and who are starting to sympathize with views that have in the past been considered on the fringe. Here's how Robert Pape at the University of Chicago put it.

ROBERT PAPE: We need to realize that this isn't just something to hand off to law enforcement and think, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, just - you know, the FBI - this is just an FBI sort of problem. No, this is an all-hands-on-deck problem here. And that's why democracy is under challenge.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the scope of that challenge. Some of the people, some of the people who were arrested for attacking the Capitol one year ago today have since said, oh, gosh, I can't believe I did that; I didn't know what I was doing. But it sounds like some other people have gone right on with their activities.

YOUSEF: That's true. And you know, more importantly, we've seen support for the activities that happened on January 6 really, you know, spread throughout the - a larger portion of the populace. You know, immediately after January 6 last year, the movement kind of went underground. You'll remember, Steve, former President Trump was kicked off Twitter. Some online spaces like Parler, where the far-right gather, disappeared, and things kind of went quiet. But over the past year, we've seen a new strategy from some in the far-right to organize more offline, to decentralize activity to more local settings like school board meetings and to latch on to more emotional sort of culture war issues that we've seen like racially inclusive education and vaccine mandates. And that's filtered up. You know, what we've seen really in the past year is a profound shift in American culture and politics.

INSKEEP: And this has made what would be described as extremism mainstream?

YOUSEF: Well, yeah. I mean, we're seeing this blurring of mainstream and extreme now. I remember a few months ago, I spoke with an anti-fascist researcher who told me that she stopped doing her work because it's no longer as simple as researching neo-Nazis and white nationalists in her neighborhood. You know, she honestly didn't know what to do about suburban moms who seemed to have been radicalized over issues like kids wearing masks in schools. So the solution to this right now is going to have to be more holistic than law enforcement, and it's not clear what that'll look like.

INSKEEP: NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism, which gives you a lot to do. Thanks so much.

YOUSEF: Thank you.


INSKEEP: OK. As you may know, the new CDC guidelines for COVID-19 isolation and quarantine have received a lot of criticism.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Yesterday, the American Medical Association labeled them confusing and counterproductive. It's even become fodder for comedians such as Desi Lydic from "The Daily Show."


DESI LYDIC: If you test negative but you're an Aries or any other fire sign, test again. Your immune system is a free spirit, so the tests have trouble detecting COVID.

INSKEEP: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been looking into the CDC's messaging and joins us now. Or maybe it's several days from now. I can't keep track. Selena, good morning.


INSKEEP: How did things get so off track?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, first of all, this came out via press release. It was only about 500 words, and it was just unclear about how long to stay home and when to test or how to test or if you even need to test. There was no technical briefing along with this with studies to support the change with evidence, and CDC didn't give important partners, like state and local health associations, a heads-up that this press release was coming. Dr. Tom Frieden directed the agency during the Obama administration.

TOM FRIEDEN: There's a right way to do public health messaging. It means getting clear, simple, technically sound and practical recommendations and then holding a media briefing to explain the reasoning behind them. For whatever reason, that's not how CDC recommendations are being rolled out.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says, as a result, there's been a lot of misunderstanding about the guidance and criticism of the agency, and some of that criticism points to a pattern of CDC not doing enough communicating about its guidance and policies to people all throughout the pandemic.

INSKEEP: With that said, Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, has been here on NPR, has been on other networks, has been presenting at the White House COVID-19 response briefings. Why's that not enough?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, basically because, first of all, these are White House-led briefings. There has hasn't been a CDC-led media briefing for two years. It's just not the same as subject matter experts, career scientists sharing with the press and the public what they know in detail.

INSKEEP: Has the agency done that in the past?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, actually not so long ago. Back in 2009, career scientists at CDC were briefing the public daily for a stretch of the H1N1 pandemic. Glen Nowak ran CDC communications at the time, and he's now a professor at the University of Georgia.

GLEN NOWAK: We did a press conference every single day for eight weeks, including weekends. We did press conferences as long as we had something that was new, something that was different, there was a need to do it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: CDC scientists would field detailed questions from health reporters about the data or the vaccine supply or the guidance. And Dr. Frieden, who directed the agency then, said he actually thinks some of the current criticism of CDC is unfair, that the virus is changing in a way that justifies the changing guidance, but that the agency needs to get back to being more transparent and more communicative.

FRIEDEN: The fact is, there are dedicated scientists at CDC who are the world's experts in a lot of these issues. And they need to be speaking directly to the public along with Dr. Walensky.

INSKEEP: What does the agency say when they're asked about being more transparent and communicative?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The CDC press office did not respond to my questions about CDC-led briefings by airtime. But this isn't just about optics. People need to understand public health guidance to follow it. And unclear communication can be used as fuel for disinformation that can undermine trust in CDC, so the stakes are really high.

INSKEEP: Selena, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for your insights.


INSKEEP: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.