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News brief: Masking rollbacks, Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Peter Navarro subpoenaed

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

More and more Democratic-led states are pulling back their requirements on masking.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But the federal government is saying that's too soon; people still should mask up. Here's White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki during yesterday's briefing.

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JEN PSAKI: What our responsibility to do is to abide by what the president committed to on the campaign, which is to listen to scientists, listen to data. That doesn't move at the speed of politics; it moves at the speed of data.

MARTINEZ: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here with more on how the politics is interacting with the science. Now, Mara, Democrats have been steadfast about public health measures to control the pandemic, but now we see Democratic governors more every day moving out ahead of the CDC. What is happening here?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: What's happening is that the virus is declining, at least as measured by the number of hospitalizations and deaths, and even - even though it's still high - the number of cases. So one after another, you see the Democratic governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, California, yesterday - New York and Illinois - they've all announced they're easing some of their requirements, although New York and Illinois are still keeping mask mandates for schools. They're hearing from voters in their states, mostly vaccinated, that COVID is here to stay, and they want to get back to their normal life, which, by the way, was one of the most important promises that Joe Biden made - a return to normalcy.

But yesterday, as you played that clip, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that people should still follow the CDC guidance, which is mask in areas of high transmission, which is almost everywhere in the country, when they are indoors. But the CDC said yesterday that they're reviewing the data. They're working on revising the guidance. So it's possible the White House will catch up to those governors pretty soon.

MARTINEZ: Now, I know last year President Biden talked about freedom from the virus, only to see it raging back. How is the White House talking about where the country is headed?

LIASSON: Well, that's right. You know, Joe Biden has two different imperatives. He campaigned on listening to the science, which in this case, at least so far, is the CDC, and they're not ready to move. So he can't really throw them under the bus. But he's struggling to make the transition to the new normal, which would mean not trying to get to COVID zero, where you're trying to eliminate all infections, but it would mean instead trying to keep the number of hospitalizations and deaths low, get daily life back to normal with COVID in the background, at least if you are vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: Thing is, though - we all know this - much of the virus response is political. So how do you think the two sides are positioning themselves with voters in all this?

LIASSON: Well, that is the million-dollar question here. Republicans hope that voters will be mad at Democrats, that they kept these mandates on at all and for as long as they did and that they kept schools closed. Democrats hope that voters will reward them for taking science into account. Remember; Joe Biden really shifted over the last year from trying to unify everyone, bring them along voluntarily. For a long time, he eschewed mandates, but then he switched to mandates and to blaming Republicans, who he says have prolonged the virus by resisting vaccinations, resisting mandates. And the problem is, when you have a low-trust, highly polarized society, people don't do the thing that's good for everyone voluntarily, which in this case, the only way we know to control the virus is to get vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks a lot.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Russia has planned a major military exercise in Belarus today involving thousands of Russian troops and weapons systems. Russian warships have already made their way into the Black Sea.

MARTIN: Yeah, and all that military posturing poses a threat to diplomacy efforts in this standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine. One of the strongest levers the U.S. and its allies have against Moscow right now is sanctions, particularly oil and gas, which prop up Russia's economy. And earlier this week, President Biden warned that if Russia invades Ukraine, the Nord Stream 2, this multibillion-dollar natural gas pipeline, wouldn't become operational, which would be a big hit to Russia.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Here to explain, NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, is it possible for President Biden to do as he promised and bring an end to Nord Stream 2?

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, he certainly was unequivocal about doing just that if Russia invaded Ukraine when he met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier this week. And this would be a big deal. Nord Stream 2 is an $11 billion project designed to pipe natural gas directly from Russia to Germany. It's about 750 miles long. And it runs under the Baltic Sea, which means it would avoid Ukraine, which other pipelines pass through. The construction on Nord Stream 2 is complete, but it still hasn't been certified, so it isn't pumping any gas yet.

MARTINEZ: But this pipeline deal is between two independent countries, Germany and Russia. So how exactly can the U.S. stop it?

NORTHAM: Well, that's a question that came to a lot of people's minds. And, you know, to try and understand that I called up James Waddell, and he's head of European gas at the London-based Energy Aspects. And he said it would have been better if the U.S. had done something while the pipeline was being built. Waddell says now there are a few things the U.S. could target that could stop the pipeline's operation. Let's have a listen.

JAMES WADDELL: Things like companies being able to do maintenance and providing insurance. But I think the real option and the sort of worst-case scenario for anyone buying gas, which is the big sort of five European backers to the pipeline, is if they were directly sanctioned, the financiers of the project.

NORTHAM: And I have to say, some of the holdup to get Nord Stream 2 online is believed to be political.

MARTINEZ: All right, that's interesting. There's a raft of sanctions, though, that the U.S. and its allies are drawing up should Russia invade. Why go after a pipeline that hasn't even started pumping gas yet?

NORTHAM: Well, the U.S. has always been opposed to this pipeline because it could give Moscow too much leverage over Europe, and Europe relies heavily on Russian natural gas to, you know, heat homes and run factories. And there's a lot of pressure on President Biden to take a hard line on Nord Stream 2, particularly from congressional Republicans. I spoke with Matthew Bey, and he's an energy specialist at RANE, which is a risk consultancy company.

MATTHEW BEY: You can probably make the argument that it is just as much about the domestic audience as it is the international audience, whereas if there is an invasion of Ukraine, President Biden will be basically forced to do something. And what is the do-something that right now the Republicans are asking him to do? It's sanction Nord Stream 2.

NORTHAM: And of course, this runs the risk of alienating European countries and particularly Germany, which has always been a big backer of the project.

MARTINEZ: And there's always a possibility at this point that Russia could retaliate and shut off the flow of natural gas to Europe. How serious would that be?

NORTHAM: It would be a lose-lose situation. Russia relies on revenue from sales to Europe, and Europe relies on Russia for natural gas.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Jackie Northam. Jackie, thanks.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much.

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MARTINEZ: Another member of former President Donald Trump's inner circle has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

MARTIN: Yeah. Peter Navarro - he was a trade adviser in the Trump administration, and he's been pretty out in the open about his efforts to overturn the presidential election. In fact, Navarro detailed those attempts to delay the certification of results in a memoir about his time in the Trump White House.

MARTINEZ: Joining us to discuss all of this is NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. I know you've been tracking all of these subpoenas from the January 6 committee, and according to your tally, Navarro is the 80th subpoena. So why does the panel want to talk to him?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Navarro has boasted in multiple forums, including his own book as we mentioned, about this plan to delay certification of the 2020 election results. He even put together a three-part report making false claims of election fraud. Committee Chair Bennie Thompson said Navarro has not been shy about his role and even discussed former President Trump's support. So now the panel is asking Navarro to turn over documents in about two weeks and testify in about three weeks. In a statement, Navarro attacked the committee as, quote, "domestic terrorists" and signaled he would not testify. Rather, he claimed executive privilege prevents him from doing so. And this is despite Trump losing a Supreme Court ruling on a related argument earlier this year.

MARTINEZ: All right, so how does the committee see Navarro fitting into its larger investigation?

GRISALES: They see him as a key figure, connecting a network of individuals who tried to overturn the election result. In his book, Navarro described a, quote, "Green Bay sweep" as the, quote, "last, best chance to snatch a stolen election from the Democrats' jaws of deceit." And he also talked about this plan in multiple interviews, including during an appearance on MSNBC last month.

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PETER NAVARRO: We had over a hundred congressmen and senators on Capitol Hill ready to implement the sweep. We were going to challenge the results of the election in six battleground states.

GRISALES: And then Navarro, in separate interviews, mentioned the names of some of those congressional members, including Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. And he also said Trump was, quote, "on board" with the effort.

MARTINEZ: OK. Now, what are we expecting next with the investigation?

GRISALES: The focus now is chasing multiple efforts to overturn the elections results, from fake electors to various attempts to seizing voting machines. The committee wants to present their findings perhaps as early as April, but they are drowning in a new wave of evidence, with the National Archives recently turning over thousands of new Trump documents to the committee, and that's as the committee has interviewed more than 500 witnesses. This marks a large scale of voluntary cooperation that includes key figures tied to former Vice President Mike Pence. Thompson recently said they're weighing prime-time hearings.

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BENNIE THOMPSON: But I think it's important that the information we are receiving, the testimony we're receiving, we digest it, and then we put it where the public will understand clearly the work and information that we've received.

GRISALES: And Thompson said it is important that the panel shares a new narrative of how January 6 unfolded, working through the subplots that fueled the attack, to where the public will better understand the players and the forces at play. And it's becoming clearer as this investigation progresses that January 6 was not a one-off but a buildup of a pattern driven by Trump and his allies and supporters that culminated in this siege. And this is expected to be followed by an interim report perhaps this summer and a final report this fall.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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