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Morning news brief

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Questions about President Biden's age and health are not going away. Last night, the first Democratic senator called on Biden to withdraw from the race. Senator Peter Welch of Vermont, a Democratic stronghold, says voters, quote, "cannot unsee President Biden's disastrous debate performance."

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Welch says there's a promising bench of younger Democratic leaders who can step in. One of them, he says, is Vice President Kamala Harris. He called her, quote, "a capable, proven leader." It's the latest example of how all this attention on Biden is also putting his vice president under fresh scrutiny.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Asma Khalid joins us now to tell more. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

PFEIFFER: Biden keeps insisting that he is staying in the race, but that is not stopping calls for him to reconsider. So what is Harris saying about these suggestions that she take over at the top of the ticket?

KHALID: Well, she has not been entertaining any of the speculation. She has said he, Biden, is the candidate, period. And Harris, you know, really, in this moment, is one of the few people who can be a validator for Biden. And that's what she's been trying to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: I see Joe Biden when the cameras are on and when the cameras are off, in the Oval Office, negotiating bipartisan deals.

KHALID: And, you know, Sacha, out on the campaign trail, she has been defending Biden, trying to refocus this race on Trump.

PFEIFFER: This is clearly putting the Democratic Party in turmoil now. How are the Republicans taking advantage of that?

KHALID: Well, the vice president has long been a lightning rod for Republicans. They have suggested she's incompetent and mocks the way she talks and laughs. But I will say, the attacks seem to really have been escalating since Biden stumbled in the debate recently. The Trump campaign has put out an ad warning that a vote for Biden is really a vote for Harris. And this week at a rally in Florida, Trump took aim at both Biden and Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The radical left Democrat Party is divided, in chaos, and having a full-scale breakdown all because they can't decide which of their candidates is more unfit to be president - sleepy, crooked Joe Biden or laughing Kamala.

KHALID: And, you know, he did mispronounce the vice president's name there. But whether it is pronounced correctly or not, you can expect next week at the Republican convention, Trump will likely have more to say about Kamala Harris.

PFEIFFER: Asma, you have been covering Harris, the vice president, closely for the past few years. What would be your sort of summary or overview of how she has done on the job?

KHALID: Well, she went from being a star in the Senate to this role where you have to be No. 2. And by definition, you sort of have to be in the background a bit. She struggled at first to find her footing, specifically on an assignment to try to deter migrants from coming to the southern border. And she, like Joe Biden, has had low approval ratings. I will say, a major turning point, though, for Harris was the Supreme Court's abortion ruling in 2022. Abortion is an issue Harris can speak to with ease and passion. Democrats see it as one of the most important policies that could help them win, and Harris has been their main messenger. Take a listen to Mini Timmaraju. She leads the group Reproductive Freedom for All.

MINI TIMMARAJU: She is leading on the No. 1 persuasion issue in this country, reproductive freedom. She's not just the top spokesperson, she's been the person leading strategy.

KHALID: And a big part of that strategy is to directly link Trump to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which limited abortion access in the country.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you.

KHALID: You're welcome.

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PFEIFFER: Former President Donald Trump wants to distance himself from Project 2025. That's the controversial playbook for a new conservative government drawn up by the Heritage Foundation.

MARTÍNEZ: Trump wrote on his social media website that he knows nothing about the project and that he thinks they're proposing ridiculous things. Meanwhile the Biden campaign is doing everything it can to tie Trump and Project 2025 together.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Franco Ordoñez has been covering the Trump campaign. He joins us now in the studio. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: What should we know about Project 2025?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, the heart of it is a 900-page, pro-Trump guidebook that outlines how to expand his presidential powers. It details plans to gut the civil service - or as Trump says, demolish the deep state - and reshape the American government with more loyal federal workers. It's also a way for Trump to kind of not repeat some of the mistakes made during the early days of his first administration, when he didn't have the plans, the personnel or infrastructure ready to stand up a new government after his inauguration. I spoke with Ryan Williams, who worked for Mitt Romney on his 2012 presidential campaign. He put it this way.

RYAN WILLIAMS: We had professional leaders who had served in cabinet positions involved in our transition. That didn't happen with Trump. And his transition was plagued by infighting.

ORDOÑEZ: But, you know, he is distancing himself - Trump, that is - especially after the head of Heritage made comments that raised some eyebrows about a second American Revolution and warning it could "remain bloodless" - this is a quote - "remain bloodless if the left allows it."

PFEIFFER: Yet as we said earlier, Trump said he knows nothing - that's his word, nothing - about Project 2025. But there is some overlap with this and his agenda.

ORDOÑEZ: Yes, there is. I mean, this is not Trump's plan, but it is a plan for Trump. In many ways, what it does is take some of Trump's biggest policy goals and kind of outlines a legal pathway to execute them, such as on overhauling the federal workforce. It also offers guidance on Trump's proposed mass deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants. And there are some differences, of course. On abortion, for example, Project 2025 goes much further on restrictions than Trump has said he would go. But another important point, Sacha, is that - the people involved. And many of those are allies, loyalists, and they worked in the past administration.

PFEIFFER: Project 2025 could present an opportunity for the Biden campaign, especially at a time where the campaign is in its own turmoil. What's the campaign doing? How is it approaching it?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, it's kind of been one of the few slivers of good political news for Biden in what's been really a tough two weeks after his bad debate. I mean, the campaign also got some help from actress Taraji P. Henson, who warned about Project 2025 onstage when she hosted the BET Awards. You know, the campaign is blasting messages about it. It launched ads and even created a website tying Trump to Project 2025.

PFEIFFER: What is the Trump campaign saying about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're pushing back, and they're pushing back hard. I mean, I spoke with senior adviser Danielle Alvarez, who said the campaign has been saying for months that these outside groups do not speak for them. She accused Biden of trying to distract from questions about his mental acuity and whether he'll even stay in the race.

DANIELLE ALVAREZ: And so Democrats are desperate. And they're throwing a Hail Mary, attempting to talk about outside groups as though they're President Trump's policy positions.

ORDOÑEZ: She stressed that the campaign has its own policy proposals, Agenda 47 and the Republican platform, which is all true. But it is also true that those involved in Project 2025 are very much intertwined with Trump world. And some of them are likely to be back, helping Trump again should he return to office.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: Residents of Houston, Texas, are trying to recover after Hurricane Beryl tore through the city.

PFEIFFER: It knocked out electricity to more than 2 million homes and businesses and caused widespread damage. That's all while the region continues to bake under blistering heat. And the storm killed at least nine people and injured many more.

MARTÍNEZ: Lucio Vasquez with Houston Public Media has been right in the thick of it all. Lucio, what have you been seeing out there?

LUCIO VASQUEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, well, I've been out the last few days, and I can tell you I've seen a lot of fallen trees, downed power lines, structural damage to a lot of buildings. And it's also incredibly hot right now and a lack of electricity means lots of people don't have A/C. Nearly 1 million people are still without power at the moment. This comes about two months after another deadly storm battered the Houston area and left 1 million people in the dark. A lot of folks were still recovering from that previous storm when Beryl came through, unfortunately.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Now, you've been speaking to residents in Houston. What are you hearing from them?

VASQUEZ: I've been hearing a lot of frustration, most of which specifically directed at the city's main utility company, CenterPoint Energy. Many residents have questioned why so many people lost power and why it's taking so long for the power to be restored. I spoke with a woman named Earnestine Sykes yesterday. She was charging her phone inside of a community center packed with people going through the same thing she was. Her power had been out since Monday morning and yesterday was her second day at this community center, so she was pretty frustrated by the ordeal.

EARNESTINE SYKES: And they say, oh, we're so sorry for the inconvenience. Well, if you're sorry, do something about it, don't let it keep happening. It's happening too often. And that's what I want to say to them. If they're sorry, do something about it. Don't apologize to me no more.

VASQUEZ: And again, this level of frustration has been a through line in many conversations I've had with people over these last few days.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Aside from powering cell phones, I mean, medications that need to be cold aren't being kept cold because of a lack of power. Now, what's the overall emergency response been like there?

VASQUEZ: Well, at the local level, we've seen a lot of cooling centers and distribution sites open up across the city and county. At the federal level, President Biden approved a major disaster declaration that'll unlock federal resources for the region. But here in Houston at the moment, there's stress in Houston's hospital system. It's currently overwhelmed. Authorities are getting a lot of calls for carbon monoxide poisonings - people are using generators inside their homes. And there's other storm-related injuries as well, like cuts and bruises. Houston Mayor John Whitmire admits the city needs to do better.

JOHN WHITMIRE: During a crisis, it exposes the city's lack of maintenance in the infrastructure and city services. We're going to correct that going forward.

VASQUEZ: It's worth noting CenterPoint says their new standard is to place power lines underground. But most of Houston's lines are still above ground, so to achieve that new standard will take time and likely cost the city a lot of money.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, short term, though, any indication as to when the power might be fully restored?

VASQUEZ: You know, that's a great question, and it's a question that I think is on everyone's mind right now, right? I mean, CenterPoint has released a map showing the areas that are currently being assessed and which areas are still in need of repair. Missing, though, is when the power will be restored. The company's crews have been working to get the lights back on since Monday afternoon. Of the 2 million that lost power, about half are still in the dark.

MARTÍNEZ: Really quick, Lucio, I mean, you're reporting from Houston, but you're there. How are you holding up?

VASQUEZ: You know, I've been better.

(LAUGHTER)

VASQUEZ: You know, I will say, my power got back earlier than most, and I'm very thankful. But it's been a bit of a whirlwind here in the newsroom, and I'm feeling for a lot of my colleagues who are still probably in the dark as we're speaking right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, thank you for your reporting. That's reporter Lucio Vasquez with Houston Public Media. Thanks.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
A Martínez
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.
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