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News Brief: Iowa Caucuses, Impeachment Trial, Coronavirus


Rachel and I are sitting with the morning crowd at Smokey Row - really cool coffee shop in Des Moines, Iowa. Good morning, everyone.


GREENE: We are here because in the state of Iowa, it is caucus day.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: Every time that my party has earned the White House in the last 50 years, it has been with a candidate who is new to national politics...

JOE BIDEN: There's no time for on-the-job training...

ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working people...

BERNIE SANDERS: We are taking on the entire political establishment, both the Republican establishment and the Democratic establishment.



Voices of some of the contenders in the Democratic primary. It is really starting out tonight. The Iowa caucuses are the first contest in the 2020 election. Not much suspense on the Republican side, but a slew of Democratic candidates hoping to take on President Trump in November. Tonight, Iowa caucus-goers gather in schools, gyms, churches. They're going to talk, debate and settle on their picks. One question here and elsewhere - will Democratic voters favor a candidate from the party's progressive wing or someone more moderate?

GREENE: Well, NPR's Scott Detrow is here with us at Smokey Row. He's been driving all over Iowa chasing candidates, talking to lots of people. Hi there, Scott.


GREENE: OK. The last few days, what have you been hearing?

DETROW: You know, I made my way around the state seeing all the top-polling candidates. And one thing that was really striking to me is that hardly anyone was talking about the other Democrats in the race. It's been an unusually friendly race so far between the Democrats. And I think that also underscores that for the candidates, for so many voters and caucus-goers, this is a contest all about defeating President Trump.

So Joe Biden spends about a half hour talking about Trump's decisions, his character, his fears for the soul of the nation - as he puts it - before he pivots to what he would do as president. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are very different. They talk a lot about the big plans they have for their presidency - increasing taxes on the ultra-wealthy, making education more affordable, pivoting to single-payer health care, things like that.

It was notable - Pete Buttigieg is the only candidate making contrast to other Democrats in his closing argument. Not really attacks - he did it in a respectful, thoughtful way. But he's telling Iowans Joe Biden really wants to just kind of hit reset and go back to how things were before. Bernie Sanders really wants a revolution. And Buttigieg is saying there's a big middle ground in between the two of those, and that's what he's trying to occupy.

GREENE: Interesting.

MARTIN: How many people really, at this point, haven't made up their minds? Did you get a sense of that?

DETROW: So many people...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...So many people. This has been the theme of this year, this contest in Iowa and elsewhere. My colleague Danielle Kurtzleben calls it analysis paralysis. And I think that's...

GREENE: (Laughter).

DETROW: It's the perfect way to put it because so many voters are dwelling on, how do we defeat President Trump? And they don't know what metric to measure it by. And this constant theme of talking to people is, I want to get this right. I want to back the candidate who can win. I want to make the right choice. So I saw people this weekend leaving events. When you leave an event, the campaign says, hey, have you decided? Can you commit to caucus? And people were saying, oh, I've got a few more stops to make. I'm still shopping. I'm still trying to check...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENE: I'm still shopping (unintelligible). Get back to me.

DETROW: Yeah. So I mean this - and that really underscores, we could see a whole range of outcomes tonight.

GREENE: Well, I mean, it's such an Iowa thing, too. You can go into the room tonight and kind of get a sense for what your neighbors and people in your community are thinking and saying and how they are articulating a message. Just remind us - this is not voting; this is caucusing - how does this work?

DETROW: It is very different. Yeah. Everyone is in the same room. Campaign surrogates make their pitch, and then people sort themselves into group, backing the candidate they want. Now, the rules changed a little bit this year, and that's going to be important. So once that happens - if at your location your candidate does not hit that viability threshold of 15%, then you need to pick a new candidate. It's an 11-person field. And even though all 11 are not seriously contesting Iowa, this is going to come into play.

This is what's new. It'll only go two rounds. And for the first time, when the results come out, we are going to learn the vote totals of the first round, which means there could be a scenario where one candidate gets the most votes in the first round and after that reallocation, somebody else ends up with the most support and the most delegates. And you'll have two candidates saying, I won the Iowa caucuses.

But here's what matters. The delegates is what gets you the nomination, and that is what matters. And that's what we're going to focus on when we get results.

MARTIN: Anything in particular you're going to be looking for tonight?

DETROW: I think that indecision and how it plays out. We talked about the four candidates. Amy Klobuchar has been gaining support; Andrew Yang has really carved out a unique space for himself. They could be factors, too. There's a lot of outcomes that could come. And you know what? It's exciting to have a real result to look at after a year of wondering what it would be (laughter).

GREENE: Finally.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. Scott Detrow for us. Thank you, Scott. We appreciate it.

DETROW: Sure thing.

GREENE: All right. So a lot happening here in Iowa we're going to be covering. We also have other important stories that we are covering, and that includes the dangerous coronavirus. That outbreak is getting more widespread in the world. Authorities in the state of California yesterday confirmed three more cases. That means there are now 11 confirmed cases in the United States, including two confirmed instances of person-to-person transmission.

MARTIN: The Department of Homeland Security put travel restrictions on all U.S.-bound passengers who've been to China in the last 14 days. China reported more than 2,800 new cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to more than 17,000 in that country. At least 360 people have died. The Philippines saw its first virus-related death; that is the first death outside of China.

GREENE: All right. We have NPR Health correspondent Rob Stein with the latest here. And Rob, just bring us up to date. I mean, it sounds like this outbreak really is spreading quickly.

DETROW: Yeah. And as of 5 p.m. last night Eastern time, the federal government started banning anyone traveling from China who isn't a U.S. citizen or an immediate family member of an American from entering the United States. And in addition to that, any Americans returning to the U.S. from China's Hubei province - that's the epicenter of the outbreak - are being quarantined for 14 days at military bases around the country. A planeload of people who came back last week are already quarantined at an Air Force base in California.

This is the first time in 50 years the federal government is using its quarantine authority. And any U.S. citizens who have been in any other parts of China in the past two weeks are being subject to screening at airports and close monitoring for 14 days. And as of early this morning, all flights from China are now being rerouted through 11 airports. So this is all pretty aggressive - unprecedented stuff.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, a quarantine is a huge deal - right? - I mean, for U.S. health officials to take that step. What are experts saying about that response?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah. So you know, most of the public health experts I've talked to over the last few days say some of these steps do make sense given how many uncertainties there are about this virus and how dangerous it might be - that, you know, quarantining people who are at high risk of having been exposed to the virus, that might be a smart idea, although they quibble about some of the logistics and how it's being done. But many are really worried about some of these steps, particularly the travel ban - that it might, you know, just go too far and actually be counterproductive. Here's Lawrence Gostin from Georgetown University.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: I think that the Trump administration is sliding from complacency and overconfidence to panic and overreaction to a point where we're going to instill panic and fear in the American public. We have to keep our head here and remain calm.

GREENE: I mean, panic, fear - what other concerns are there exactly with implementing such a strict travel restriction?

STEIN: So you know, critics say, historically, travel restrictions simply just, you know, haven't worked. That's why the World Health Organization is advising against banning travel. I mean, the critics say that it could actually make it a lot harder to get this thing under control if countries start closing borders. With - China could stop, you know, cooperating with the rest of the world to get this outbreak under control. And it could be harder to do things like get people and supplies in and out of countries to fight the outbreak. And where could this lead? You know, if the U.S. starts banning people from other countries, the fear is they could start hiding cases.

GREENE: That's NPR's Health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks a lot.

STEIN: You bet.


MARTIN: OK. The impeachment trial of President Trump is nearing its end after senators voted against allowing witness testimony last week.

GREENE: Right. So closing arguments in the impeachment trial are going to be delivered today. And there's little doubt the Senate, on Wednesday, will vote to acquit the president on two articles of impeachment. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee was one of his party's swing voters who announced that he will not support additional witnesses. And he explained his reasoning to our co-host Steve Inskeep on Friday.


LAMAR ALEXANDER: I don't need to hear any more evidence to decide that the president did what he's charged with doing. So if you've got eight witnesses saying that you left the scene of an accident, you don't need nine.

GREENE: Now, we should say the president might not have to wait until Wednesday to proclaim exoneration. (Inaudible) delivering his State of the Union speech tomorrow before that final Senate vote.

MARTIN: All right. We're going to turn now to NPR's Tim Mak. He's joining us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the trial starts again today. At this point, it feels like a foregone conclusion. Explain what's going to happen next.

MAK: Well, the House impeachment managers and the president's defense team will be given two hours each to make closing arguments starting at 11 o'clock Eastern today. Then senators will be given until Wednesday to give speeches. And they may want to lay out the way they voted on witnesses or explain their views on the trial more broadly. On Wednesday at 4 o'clock, we expect that the schedule will - the Senate will vote on whether to convict or acquit the president on those two articles of impeachment. And because 67 votes are required to convict and remove the president and there's no sign of a large number of Republicans turning against the president, the outcome seems all but certain.

MARTIN: So this is all happening as Iowa has its caucuses tonight. David and I are here in Des Moines. I mean, is there any sense at this point as to how a possible acquittal for Trump might affect the election?

MAK: Well, it will mean a couple of things. It will mean that the four 2020 candidates in the Senate are free to return to the campaign trail. And the trial will still be ongoing, however, when the president delivers his State of the Union Address on Tuesday. And it will give him a primetime stage to talk about impeachment - if he wants to - and a chance, as you mentioned, to talk about what he sees as an exoneration.

MARTIN: Is anyone talking about what sort of precedent this is going to set for future impeachment cases?

MAK: Well, both sides have talked about that repeatedly through the trial. The president's team says that the impeachment process was brought in a partisan manner and lowers the bar for future cases of impeachment in the future. But the House impeachment managers argue that the president - that if the president is not convicted and removed, he will continue to obstruct Congress, refuse to respond to their legitimate investigations or even may see the acquittal as a green light to continue the same kind of alleged misconduct that got the president impeached to begin with.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tim Mak. We appreciate it. Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.