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[00:00:02]

The postmaster general tells Congress that ballots will get delivered through the mail on time, but lawmakers still worry politics may stop couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. I'm Scott Simon. And I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. And this is up first from NPR News.

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Whether folks are receiving important medications or simply trying to stay in touch with loved ones, the Postal Service has always delivered Mr. Joy. I don't think you have.

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We've got the latest on the USPS and on the wildfires in California.

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There's little rain in the forecast and no sign of relief. And a prominent Russian dissident suspected of being poisoned is medevac to Germany. So stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.

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Postmaster General Lewis Dejoy says the U.S. Postal Service is fully capable of handling mail in ballots securely and on time.

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Its sacred duty is my number one priority between now and Election Day.

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That's him before a Senate committee yesterday in a virtual hearing that was often contentious.

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And those were his first public remarks since being criticized for making operational changes that resulted in mail delays. NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been following all of it. Susan, thanks for being with us. Hey, good morning, Scott.

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And what were lawmakers hoping to learn during this hearing?

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Well, there's been a huge wave of political backlash against a joy in the past couple of weeks coming from lawmakers in both parties. There's been these widespread reports of mail delays due to the removal of sorting machines and some 700 mailboxes around the country.

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Many members of Congress have been hearing it from their constituents. And there's also been fears from Democrats that there's been political influence at the post office considering President Trump's ongoing attacks and undermining of mail and voting, which he has said he believes will hurt his chances of re-election. In response to all of this earlier this week, Dejoy pause plans to overhaul the agency, but he testified that they will continue after the election.

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How did the postmaster general defend or explain those changes?

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He said he didn't know about them until the media reported them. He said he was not directly involved in that decision making and that he has never spoken to President Trump about the Postal Service.

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He said some mail delays are due to the coronavirus because in many places they were out of enough mail carriers. And he did acknowledge that boxes and sorting machines had been removed, but said it was part of routine removals and that they would not be put back. He did try to calm fears that there was any political meddling here, and he said that people will be safe to vote by mail.

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First, I'd like to emphasize that there has been no changes in any policies with regard to election now for the country for the 2020 election.

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And he also testified that he himself regularly votes by mail.

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Mr. Dejoy will be before lawmakers again on Monday, virtually. What are you watching for there? Right.

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The House is up next. You know, lawmakers are seeking assurances that the mail system has not been affected by any political decision making and that the system has the resources it needs to deal with this election.

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And Dejoy made a couple important points on that front. He said even if up to 125 million people voted by mail this year, it's still a fraction of what the Postal Service does every day, which is closer to 430 million pieces of mail. And he said voters shouldn't be scared to vote by mail, but that they should vote early to give enough time for ballots to be delivered and counted.

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And so the House votes today on a bill written by Democrats that would give aid to the U.S. Postal Service. What kind of aid? Any chance it would make it through the Senate?

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It would block the post office from implementing any changes backdated to January one of this year through January one of next year. And it would provide about 25 billion to the post office, which has had a lot of financial trouble. It's set to lose nine billion or more this year, but it's not going anywhere. Trump has already issued a veto threat. The White House has called it an overreaction to sensationalized media reports. And they said there is no evidence of political influence on this decision making.

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NPR's Susan Davis, thanks so much. You're welcome. And you can catch Sue on the NPR Politics podcast. So check it out and subscribe today.

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California remains under a state of emergency this weekend as firefighters battled major wildfires across the state. At least 100000 people are under evacuation orders.

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That's just one crisis the state is trying to handle right now. There's also, of course, the pandemic and the threat of more rolling blackouts as a record breaking heat wave continues.

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NPR's Lauren Sommer is here with an update. Good morning.

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Good morning, Lauren. These fires are historically widespread, right? Are firefighters making any progress?

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Yeah, unfortunately, a lot of these fires are still expanding. The two largest are burning around the Bay Area right now, and they're both already among the top 10 largest fires that California has recorded in the last century. They're only about 15 percent contained right now. And you know what containment measures is? How much fire line the crews have been able to dig around it because, you know, that's the buffer that keeps it from growing. Many of these fires started as smaller fires, but they were ignited by thousands of lightning strikes last week.

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And and since then, they kind of merged together.

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I mean, the pandemic has to be complicating every single part of this, including, I suppose, the idea of having people cluster together in evacuation centers.

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Yeah, definitely. I mean, there are many evacuation centers open, but there's also a major effort underway to put evacuees in hotels simply to improve social distancing. You know, firefighting crews are stretched really thin right now and new crews are arriving from 10 states. But they're also having to be careful about staying socially distanced. And then there's smoke spreading across northern California, including my house where I am right now. And and that's creating poor air quality that can harm people's lungs, which, you know, is a concern when you're already dealing with a respiratory virus.

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I'm sorry about your house. I mean, it just seems like California is always facing these destructive fires that have been happening for several years in a row now. What is the state been doing to get a handle on this?

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Yeah, a lot of the effort has gone into emergency response, like improving firefighting capacity. But a lot of the problem is still that California has landscapes that are overgrown because fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. And for decades, those fires were put out. The state just announced a partnership with the federal government to try to reduce vegetation on a million acres. But with millions of Californians living in fire prone areas, the state also needs to focus on helping making the houses safer, like getting rid of a wood roof.

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And with the economic downturn, you know that funding was canceled this year.

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There's another issue here, right? The heat wave has brought record temperatures. I mean, 130 degrees in Death Valley. Will climate change just bring more of that?

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And what's being said about that? Yeah, what we know is climate change just sets the stage for more extreme fires. You know, higher temperatures, dry grass and brush, which makes it more flammable. Nighttime temperatures have been warmer, which is normally a time of day that firefighters count on to be cooler. So fire activity drops. California's governor, Gavin Newsom, has been talking about climate change at just about every briefing.

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These fires are more ferocious and they're moving at much more rapid speed. Any objective observer? Well, acknowledge that.

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And that was also a message he sent at the Democratic National Convention last week. Right.

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Is there going to be any relief in the weather forecast for the people of California?

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Temperatures have decreased slightly, but the remnants of Hurricane Genevieve are actually out in the Pacific, and that's expected to arrive in northern California on Sunday and Monday. And and that could create thunderstorms, which would not have a lot of rain, but could cause more dry lightning. So there's a lot of concern about a new wave of fire danger in the state.

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That's NPR's Lauren Sommer. Thanks very much. Thanks.

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A flight carrying Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who is comatose, has landed in Berlin and doctors there are now attending to him.

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Mr. Navalny is a leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he was in Siberia Thursday when he suddenly fell gravely ill. His supporters say he was poisoned. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Berlin. Rob, thanks for being with us.

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Thank you. What will doctors in Berlin be looking for as they treat Mr. Navalny?

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Well, the priority for doctors here will be to keep Navalny alive. He's fighting for his life at the moment. He's on a respirator and in a coma, but in stable condition. Doctors will run a series of diagnostic tests to confirm whether he was poisoned. His supporters suspect that he drank in a Siberian airport was tampered with. And poisoning is a common method.

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The Russian state has used in the past in dealing with its critics took a full day of wrangling between Novotny's team and doctors in Siberia to finally gain his release from the hospital. Do we know what was behind that delay?

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Well, Navalny supporters think doctors were under orders by the Russian state to not allow him to be released until the poison was out of his system. We've seen this before. Pyotr Verzilov, a Russian dissident and former spokesman of the punk band Pussy Riot, was suspected of being poisoned two years ago. And here's what he said yesterday in a press conference about the parallels between his and Navalny case.

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The similarities here are striking not only the medical condition, but also in the behavior of Russian law enforcement officials and doctors. Because the main accusation that my family, friends and lawyers were addressing at the moment of my poisoning was that during the first day, I was completely sealed off in the intensive care unit and no analysis, no official medical statements were made, which were obviously extremely crucial to understanding what specific substance I was poisoned with and how it happened.

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And Scott, in Verzilov case, he was finally released a few days later and was flown to Berlin, where doctors concluded he was likely poisoned. Now, for its part, the Russian government has denied poisoning itself and is now denying having anything to do with the current condition of Alexei Navalny.

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Berlind organization arranged for the travel for Mr. Navalny and Chancellor Merkel supported that decision. Relations between Russia and Germany have been tense. How does that story affect that?

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Well, Merkel and her government have become increasingly frustrated with Putin and his government for a number of reasons. Germany believes Russian intelligence hacked Merkel's personal email almost exactly one year ago. A Russian national assassinated a former Chechen military commander at a park in broad daylight here in Berlin. And there is strong evidence that Russia was behind that. So Germany expelled Russian diplomats late last year as a response to that.

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Lastly, the recent unrest in Belarus over a potentially fraudulent election has prompted Merkel to not recognize the results of that election. And Putin answered by telling her that any attempts to interfere in Belarus's domestic affairs would be unacceptable. So the case of Alexei Navalny here comes amidst a lot of tension between these two countries.

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NPR's Rob Schmitz from Berlin, thanks so much for being with us. Thanks, Scott. And that's a first for Saturday, August 22nd, I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. And I'm Scott Simon.

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Up first is back Monday with news to start your week, follow us on social media. We're at up first on Twitter and keep an eye on this feed for the occasional special episode.

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