ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump has repeatedly criticized the World Health Organization's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Well, at today's daily briefing at the White House coronavirus task force, he indicated that what he sees as the WHO's mismanagement may come at a price.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They missed the call. They could have called it months earlier. They would have known, and they should have known, and they probably did know. So we'll be looking into that very carefully, and we're going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO. We're going to put a very powerful hold on it, and we're going to see.
SHAPIRO: Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, today was Election Day after a last-minute bid to postpone because of the pandemic failed late yesterday. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, political correspondent Scott Detrow and Shawn Johnson, capital bureau chief for Wisconsin Public Radio, are all three with us now.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there.
SHAPIRO: Shawn, let's start...
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi.
SHAPIRO: ...With you. You are in Madison. What was it like for voters in Wisconsin today trying to maintain social distance and still cast ballots?
SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: I could tell you the answer to that question was very different depending on where you were in Wisconsin. So in Milwaukee today, you saw some of the most pronounced lines, and that's because they had a shortage of poll workers, poll workers that didn't want to go out and work amid the COVID-19 crisis. And because of that shortage, they reduced the number of polling places from 180 to just five. So you had huge lines there, people waiting in line for hours to vote.
In Madison, where I'm at, that was a different story. They had more polling places open, largely quiet today as people were voting. But you did see people coming out to vote wearing masks, gloves, protective gear - poll workers doing the same thing. One of the voters I spoke with today in Madison was Steve Clavin (ph). He's 65. Clavin said he wishes the election would have been delayed, but when that didn't happen, he felt he needed to vote in person.
STEVE CLAVIN: I know I'm in the higher-risk group, and I felt like it was just really important to be here and to exercise my right to vote and to counteract the voter suppression that I think is going to take place as a result of this decision by the Supreme Court.
JOHNSON: And I can tell you that at least among the voters I talked to in Madison today, that was a common feeling. They didn't really want to be there, but once the election went forward as scheduled, they felt that they needed to be.
SHAPIRO: At the briefing today, President Trump said he supports Wisconsin going forward with its election today. What was his reasoning, and how does that sync up with what you're hearing in Wisconsin?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Trump said today that he doesn't trust mail-in voting, which is something that our governor, Democrat Tony Evers, wanted to move to avoid crowds that happened with in-person voting. He said it was a political move, the president said - a political move by Democrats in Wisconsin. And when he was asked how it lines up with social distancing guidelines, you know, he essentially blamed it on Wisconsin's governor.
I mean, I can tell you that what he's talking about with a mail-in election, which is something that our governor wanted to move to but Republican lawmakers rejected - the debate sounds very similar. If you're looking for what Wisconsin can say about how this debate might play out nationally, I can tell you this is something that Democrat Tony Evers strongly supported and Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin were strongly against.
SHAPIRO: Well, as we mentioned, at today's briefing, President Trump also lashed out at the World Health Organization, even threatening to cut off funding. Richard Harris, turning to you - what do you make of that threat?
HARRIS: Well, it's not the first time the president has complained that the WHO should have acted months earlier. But in fact, the WHO acted quickly. Their - officials in China learned about the outbreak at the end of December, when it was still just a few dozen cases. The WHO shared that news with the CDC and others in early January, and by the end of January, the WHO had declared it a public health emergency of international concern. That's their highest level of alert. It's true they didn't use the word pandemic for a while, but the WHO was constantly updating countries around the world about the developing epidemic and really treating it very seriously.
SHAPIRO: If Trump follows through with his threat to cut off funding to the WHO, how significant would that be in the middle of this pandemic?
HARRIS: Well, the United States is the largest single contributor to WHO. It contributes more than 20% of the agency's 4 billion-plus annual budget. The president mentioned a figure of $58 million, which is the amount of money the U.S. was supposed to pay as a regular assessment in January. But the U.S. has long contributed far more than the minimum partly out of concern for the billions of people who have poor access to health care but really also out of self-interest. As we have seen, diseases don't respect international borders. So whether it was Ebola outbreaks or Zika or SARS or now the new coronavirus, we need information from around the world, and we need action from around the world to bring diseases under control.
SHAPIRO: Well, Richard, as you mentioned, the president has floated the trial balloon of cutting off funding to the WHO before. And, Scott, turning to you, put this in context for us with the president's statements in general. I mean, how does this fit in with his approach?
DETROW: Yeah, this is an important point. The president regularly floats things, threatens things then changes their mind or just doesn't follow through. That's been the case his entire presidency. There are two recent examples during the coronavirus crisis, though. That day that he said and tweeted that he was considering stopping people from leaving New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, that would have had been a drastic step that would have affected millions of people. But at the end of the day, President Trump said he wouldn't actually do it. Another example is that he's been talking for several days about stopping flights into specific U.S. cities, but there's been no official action yet.
SHAPIRO: Scott, the president also expressed his unhappiness yesterday with an inspector general report about testing. And today there's news that he pushed aside the head watchdog for the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package. What's going on there?
DETROW: Yeah. President Trump has long bristled at inspector general reports that he doesn't like, and now the president has sidelined the acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, who had been selected to oversee this massive new spending effort. President Trump did not give a specific reason for the move today other than alluding to the fact that Fine had worked under the Obama administration. That is true, but he also worked under the George W. Bush administration. He has had a long career at the Pentagon and, before that, the Department of Justice. He talked to NPR about his career in 2011 and about how he approaches his job.
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GLENN FINE: Whenever you're doing a sensitive report, it's bound to make someone unhappy. We're not going to be the most popular people here in the Department of Justice, but our job is to do an aggressive, tough but fair review and to lay out the facts. And we try to do that.
DETROW: So Fine has now been demoted, which means that he is not eligible to be the chief watchdog for this $2 trillion effort. And let's remember this. Just last week, President Trump fired the Intelligence Community inspector general, who had played a key role in validating that whistleblower report that led to his eventual impeachment.
SHAPIRO: One last question for you, Richard - the president today also talked about the troubling observation that African Americans are far more likely to die of COVID-19. For example, more than 70% of the deaths in Louisiana are among black patients. What is behind that trend?
HARRIS: Well, scientists are still trying to sort that out, but a few things stand out. Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed out that some of the health conditions that put people at higher risk for serious complications and death include high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease, and those are more prevalent among African Americans. People are also examining the link to poverty because poor access to quality medical care, of course, doesn't help at all. And the disease has exposed yet again the persistent and serious health disparities that we see in this country.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, political correspondent Scott Detrow and Shawn Johnson, capitol bureau chief for Wisconsin Public Radio.
Thanks to all of you.
JOHNSON: Sure thing.
DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.