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Trump Pushes Through Policy Changes And Staffing Appointments In Last Days In Office

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington, where the transition has officially begun. Last night, the General Services Administration at last acknowledged Joe Biden's win, paving the way for the new Biden administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: You know, I'm pleased to have received the ascertainment from GSA to carry out a smooth and peaceful transition of power.

SHAPIRO: Now, President Trump still has not conceded the election, and there are still eight weeks left in his administration. Already, Trump has been using his final time in office to push through policy changes and last-minute staffing appointments that could complicate matters for the incoming president. Three of our colleagues have been tracking this. Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy. Scott Horsley is our chief economics correspondent, and Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon.

Good to have all three of you here.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

HORSLEY: OK, Scott, let's start with you. The economy is still only partially recovered from the deep recession caused by the pandemic. Democrats want more federal relief measures. But another piece of economic scaffolding, the Federal Reserve, is losing some of its tools. Tell us about what's happening.

HORSLEY: Yeah. Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty in financial markets. Money was hard to come by, and the Fed stepped in quickly to set up these emergency lending programs and sort of shore things up. Congress then supercharged that effort by allocating more than $450 billion for those emergency loan programs. Most of that money was never actually used, and the Fed didn't have to make that many emergency loans. But the action helped to calm things down, and credit markets are working a lot more smoothly now.

Last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, in effect, mission accomplished. He's moving to discontinue these programs at the end of the year. He's asked the Fed to give most of the money back so Congress can redirect it to other things. Here's Mnuchin on CNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUAWK ON THE STREET")

STEVEN MNUCHIN: We could do 500 billion of fiscal response immediately that won't cost taxpayers any more money. There are a lot of people who are still struggling. Although parts of the economy are roaring back, parts of the economy - small businesses, restaurants, travel and other - need more help. And that's where we want to put this money.

HORSLEY: Mnuchin says he's just following the instructions that Congress gave him last spring. There is some disagreement about that. And the Fed itself would have liked to keep the economic fire extinguisher handy just in case trouble flares up in the credit markets again.

SHAPIRO: OK. Just to stay with the economy for a moment, there are also a couple seats on the governing board of the Federal Reserve that have been vacant for a while now. And the administration and Senate Republicans made a last-minute push to fill those seats. How's that going?

HORSLEY: Not so well - it's been 16 months since Trump announced his nominees to fill those positions. The GOP Senate basically sat on them for most of that time. One nominee in particular, Judy Shelton, has been very controversial. She's espoused some unorthodox views about going back to the gold standard, that kind of thing. Three Republican senators actually came out against her nomination. But in the waning weeks of the administration, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has tried to muscle her through.

He fell just short last week only because two Republican senators were out sick with the coronavirus. There could still be another vote, but it looks like that seat might remain vacant. Trump's other nominee for the Fed, Christopher Waller, is much less controversial. But so far, McConnell has not moved as aggressively to push him across the finish line.

SHAPIRO: OK. Turning from the economy to national security, Tom Bowman, the administration has been very busy changing things at the Pentagon, both staffing changes and troop levels. Tell us about it.

BOWMAN: Well, big changes in the Pentagon leadership, Ari - Trump, of course, terminated Defense Secretary Mark Esper by tweet, mostly because Esper was reluctant to cut troops in Afghanistan. And Trump installed an acting leader, Chris Miller, a counterterror official who has virtually no experience in the Pentagon, and a couple of other top leaders who were in lockstep with Trump on cutting forces. So the current troop level is around 4,500 in Afghanistan, and the new order is to cut that figure to 2,500 by January 15, just five days before Biden's inaugurated.

Now, the military wanted to stay at about 4,500 troops until the Taliban agreed to certain conditions under the agreement with the U.S. from earlier this year, such as not attacking cities, breaking with al-Qaida. But they've not done that. Trump simply campaigned on getting troops out of Afghanistan, and that's what he's doing. There's little talk or no talk of strategy.

Now, the military will close some bases in Afghanistan, continue to go after al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But there is a concern from people I talked with that by thinning the force, American troops could be at a greater risk of attack.

SHAPIRO: All right. Now, to pivot to health policy, the president announced a flurry of new rules on Friday at the White House, and some of those had to do with drug prices. Selena, what's happening there?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, here is a rundown of what the Trump administration announced on Friday. There was a rule that would tie the prices of certain drugs in Medicare to prices paid in other countries - that's the Most Favored Nation drug-pricing rule - another on how drug rebates work in Medicare. And then also on Friday, there were two rules about the financial relationships between health care providers and another on organ donations.

But part of your question was, what's going on here? And it's kind of hard to say. There's not clearly a policy vision tying these together except for the sense that they're trying to finalize as many rules as possible so that they can go into effect before inauguration.

SHAPIRO: So those are some of the last-minute changes the Trump administration has made. Now let's look at what that could mean for the incoming Biden administration. Selena, to stay with you for a moment, could the moves that you just described interfere with the new administration's health policy goals?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The short answer is yes. This is not what the legislative team wants to be walking into. They'd rather be pursuing their own policy ideas. And you'll remember those include creating a federal public health insurance option, lowering the Medicare age from 65 to 60. Since these rules go into effect before inauguration, unless the Senate flips into Democratic control, the Biden administration can't just wipe them away. They'll be on the books, and they'll need to implement them and enforce them.

Now, I should say the Biden team might actually not want to wipe all of these rules away. They're not all hyper-partisan, conservative policy ideas. For example, the rule aimed at lowering some drug prices and Medicare by basing the price on what those drugs cost in other countries - a version of that idea was part of Biden's platform too and in the drug pricing bill Democrats passed in the House last year.

And, in fact, there's speculation that the rush on that rule has less to do with Biden than it has to do with putting a thumb in the eye of pharma for, as Trump sees it, withholding positive vaccine news until after the election. But now, in rushing, the Trump administration skipped some steps, and that makes this rule legally vulnerable. It's limited to some drugs and Medicare. So, simply put, this is not some magic bullet that's going to solve the real and complicated problem of high drug prices in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: Scott, on the economic front, what if the Biden administration says it needs those tools that the Trump administration is taking away on its way out the door?

HORSLEY: If that were to happen, the new Treasury secretary could break the glass and relaunch these emergency programs. Treasury still has about $40 billion set aside in a fund it could use for that if it became necessary. But that's a far cry from the hundreds of billions of dollars that the Fed had access to until last week.

HORSLEY: And, Tom, the troop levels could be one area where Biden and Trump may not actually be that far apart. Is it likely that we're going to see a Biden Defense Department try to change the drawdowns that the Trump administration is implementing?

BOWMAN: You know, probably not by that much. Biden has said he'd like to keep just several thousand troops in Afghanistan to go after ISIS and al-Qaida make sure the country is no longer used as a training ground for those threatening the U.S. And Biden's been pushing for such a mission for many years as opposed to nation-building with a large presence.

A bigger challenge for the Biden administration will be to push forward on the Afghan-Taliban peace talks, which really are going nowhere. So you could see Biden maybe put more political pressure on the Taliban along with countries in the region because a military action is really not having the desired effect. And what the Taliban really want is international recognition and continued international aid.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tom Bowman, Scott Horsley and Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you all.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.