SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The number of Americans who have died from the coronavirus now approaches 100,000. President Trump threatens to override governors who refuse to reopen religious houses of worship and once again contradicts guidance on coronavirus precautions from the CDC. And Joe Biden apologizes for a remark. Joining us now is NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: I deem it essential to be with you this morning, Scott.
SIMON: (Laughter) And you are our essential worker, my friend, too. Let's begin with Joe Biden. He was being interviewed by radio personality Charlamagne tha God. And Mr. Biden said, quote, "if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black."
ELVING: So within hours, Biden apologized, said he shouldn't have been trying to be what he called a wise guy. But isn't it amazing someone who owes his nomination to black voters in the primaries can still have such a tin ear when it comes to race? You remember back a dozen years ago when he called his rival candidate Barack Obama clean and articulate and when he referred to the impeachment of Bill Clinton as a lynching. But he'll pay a price for his latest pratfall because he reinforces here the argument that Democrats take black votes for granted. And we should add Biden was also stepping on his own talking points Friday because of the run of bad news President Trump had had this week.
SIMON: And let's list some of that. Of course, it's not just President Trump's bad news, but nearly 100,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Nearly 40 million people are out of work. And so far, how does the president respond?
ELVING: He has called for all flags to be flown at half-mast to salute the victims, but he has also urged that shutdowns and quarantines be lifted and threatened governors who hesitate to greenlight people congregating for religious services. He has cast doubt on the actual death toll, suggesting the numbers might be cooked to make him look bad. And he continues to look for a magic bullet in a therapy or a vaccine or to wear a mask in public.
SIMON: He also took the time to criticize the possibility of voting by mail this week, more states obviously looking at that because of the pandemic.
ELVING: Yeah, and this has become the new focus for very long-standing allegations from the president of voter fraud or illegal voting. But voting by mail is kind of a curious focal point, especially for a president who himself votes by mail. Absentee ballots generally have tended to be used more by Republicans than Democrats. But now, of course, the issue is that voting by mail keeps millions of people safe from viruses or, for that matter, long lines and harassment at actual in-person polling places.
SIMON: The polls in a number of Senate races in a number of key states show Republicans falling behind. How concerned is the party?
ELVING: Reasonably concerned. Half a dozen Republican seats are now vulnerable, not just Colorado and Maine we've known about, but also Arizona and North Carolina and possibly others, Montana - possibility. And winning even half of those states could give the Democrats their first Senate majority since 2014 if they win the presidency and get the tie-breaking vote of the vice president.
SIMON: And I have to ask you about one of those Senate races 'cause there's been an overnight development. Jeff Sessions, former attorney general, Mr. Trump's - President Trump's first attorney general, and he recused himself from the Russia probe. President Trump has criticized him a lot, but yesterday he slammed him as untrustworthy and endorsed his rival in the Republican primary. And Jeff Sessions fired back, didn't he?
ELVING: Yes. He has endured endless abuse from the president since that recusal in March of 2017. Now he's running to get his old Senate seat back, and the president is still trash talking him on Twitter. So last night, he finally struck back, telling the president that his recusal was legally required and that the investigation that followed, the Robert Mueller investigation, ultimately worked in the president's favor, so the president should just back off and let the people of Alabama choose their own Senator. Thank you very much, Mr. President, and bless your heart.
SIMON: Why open that up now? What's the logic?
ELVING: The logic - it would be at this point, I suspect, for the standpoint of Jeff Sessions that even if he is going to lose - and polls show him trailing his opponent Tommy Tuberville, the former football coach - he is trying to reclaim some dignity, perhaps, on his way to retirement.
SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us again.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.