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News brief: Jan. 6 hearing takeaways, long COVID, student loan poll

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

An illegal scheme to overturn the 2020 election, a vice president under pressure to do so and a lawyer for Trump who knew it was illegal.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That lawyer's name is John Eastman. He's a well-connected conservative lawyer. He pushed a false theory that Pence could block the certification of the electoral votes when he oversaw the count in Congress on January 6. At Trump's rally that morning, Eastman called out the vice president.

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JOHN EASTMAN: Anybody that is not willing to stand up to do it does not deserve to be in the office. It is that simple.

MARTINEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Deirdre, can you remind us who John Eastman is?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning. Eastman was an outside legal adviser to Trump. He was a law professor who had circulated a memo that got a lot of attention from Trump supporters because it argued that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to reject the certified electoral votes from some states. Allies like Rudy Giuliani seized on this theory and so did President Trump.

MARTINEZ: How much access did Eastman have to the Trump inner circle leading up to January 6?

WALSH: A lot. He met repeatedly with Pence's legal counsel, Greg Jacob, who testified yesterday. Jacob had researched the law. He actually went to the same law school as Eastman. And he told Eastman in no uncertain terms that the theory that he was pushing to give this incredible power to one person, the vice president, who was on the presidential ticket, was not in line with the Constitution. Eastman also talked to White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, who was incredibly blunt about what could happen if Pence did what he was asking. Here's Herschmann.

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ERIC HERSCHMANN: I said, you're going to cause riots in the streets. And he said words to the effect of, there has been violence in the history of our country to protect the democracy or protect the republic.

WALSH: As we heard earlier, Eastman was there at that rally, which preceded the riot at the Capitol.

MARTINEZ: I know the committee sued to get Eastman's emails, and the judge in that case said it was likely that he broke the law. So what do we know about his potential legal troubles?

WALSH: Right. It was federal Judge David Carter in that case where there was a ruling that Eastman had to turn over materials to the January 6 committee. Carter cited two possible criminal statute that Eastman may have violated - obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States. We heard after January 6 Herschmann shut down Eastman as he was still trying to challenge the election. And he told Eastman he should get a good criminal attorney. The committee also revealed an email that Eastman sent to Rudy Giuliani asking for a presidential pardon. He did not get one.

MARTINEZ: And one more thing. Before the hearing, we learned that Eastman emailed Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Tell us about that.

WALSH: Right. We already knew that Thomas texted with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, pushing Eastman's theory. The Washington Post reported that the panel has emails between Thomas and Eastman, but it was notable they actually never came up in yesterday's hearing. Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the January 6 committee, told reporters he sent Thomas a letter asking her to appear. For her part, Thomas said yesterday she is willing to come and talk to the committee and clear up what she says are misconceptions. We don't have any evidence that Justice Thomas knew about his wife's activities. We do know that Thomas did not recuse himself from cases related to January 6 that came before the high court. And consistently Justice Thomas has voted in Trump's favor, even though the court overwhelmingly ruled against Trump in those election-related cases.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Deirdre Walsh, thanks a lot.

WALSH: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: OK. Well, how about this? A little bit of good news coming out of researching the long COVID.

MARTIN: Take it where you can get it, right? People who contract the omicron variant appear to be much less likely to experience lingering symptoms than people who got the delta variant. This is according to the first large study published about the persistent health risks posed by omicron.

MARTINEZ: Here with more is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, this sounds reassuring. What's the evidence?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So researchers at King's College London compared more than 56,000 people who caught omicron with more than 41,000 who had caught delta and kept track of their symptoms using a special app. And they found a big difference. Those who got infected with omicron were about half as likely as those who had gotten delta to still be experiencing fatigue, headaches, brain fog, heart problems, loss of smell or other health issues at least four weeks later. Here's Claire Steves from King's College.

CLAIRE STEVES: Thankfully, with the omicron variant, the risk of going on to get long COVID is substantially reduced compared to the delta variant. That's a great news, isn't it? Because obviously the fewer people that are going on to get long COVID, the better.

STEIN: It's especially good news because omicron is so contagious, so it's infected an incredible number of people incredibly quickly. So if the risk had been the same or higher, the number of people ending up with long COVID would have exploded.

MARTINEZ: So, Rob, though, does that mean that people don't have to worry about long COVID from omicron?

STEIN: Well, unfortunately, not at all. According to this research, the chances of getting long COVID from omicron is almost 5% - 4.5% to be exact - compared to almost 11% from delta. So the risk appears to be far lower, but it's far from zero. And because so many people are catching omicron, that means lots of people are still going to end up with long COVID. Here's Claire Steves again.

STEVES: Unfortunately, while the risk of long COVID is lower, the numbers of people that are affected by long COVID will actually go up rather than go down, despite the fact that there is a reduction in risk. So it's certainly not a time for us to reduce services for long COVID because it's not a problem, unfortunately, that's going away.

STEIN: And who knows what kind of risk from long COVID the next variant might pose.

MARTINEZ: Does Steves know why someone who catches omicron is so much less likely to end up with long COVID?

STEIN: Well, this study didn't directly address that, but Steves and others say it makes sense that omicron would be less likely to leave people with long-term health problems because it doesn't tend to make people as sick as delta.

STEVES: Because of that lesser severity of disease and also because it seems to be a bit more superficial in terms of the disease, that it's probably getting in to our bodies less. It's less affecting us in terms of severity of our immune response. And therefore, that's leading to less likelihood of long COVID.

STEIN: And not because people in the study were vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: Now, I got to say, Rob, I mean, this sounds like good news. Is it?

STEIN: Yeah. On the one hand, it definitely is good news. But, you know, I talked about this with Akiko Iwasaki, who studies long COVID at Yale, and she says the results are still alarming because it shows that even vaccinated people are ending up with long COVID from omicron.

AKIKO IWASAKI: People assume that because omicron is milder, that, you know, let's just get it over with, you know, let's just get infected and get it over with. But the fact that close to 5% of the people with breakthrough infections are getting the long COVID, that's scary.

STEIN: So, you know, A, she hopes the findings will prompt more people to do things like keep wearing their masks and taking other precautions to protect themselves from COVID and from possibly still getting long COVID.

MARTINEZ: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing, A.

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MARTINEZ: All right. One of President Biden's campaign promises was student debt forgiveness. Now facing the midterms, with his approval numbers slumping, the president is under more pressure to deliver on that promise.

MARTIN: A new NPR/Ipsos poll asks Americans which is more important - loan forgiveness or more affordable college in the future?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Cory Turner is here to walk us through the results. Cory, let's start with whether Americans support some kind of student loan forgiveness. What'd you find?

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Slightly more than half, 55%, of all respondents do support the path Biden is reportedly considering, A, which is forgiving up to $10,000 per person. For more generous relief, like $50,000 or even full cancellation, support dips below a majority. Biden has also floated the idea of excluding top earners, presumably to broaden support for cancellation. But the poll found that using income limits did essentially nothing to budge people's support for or against debt relief.

MARTINEZ: What about the borrower side of things? What does the poll tell us specifically about how borrowers are feeling?

TURNER: A couple of things. You know, unlike non-borrowers in the poll, big majorities of borrowers support all three debt relief options. We also know that student loan payments have been paused for more than two years and that most borrowers have not been repaying their loans during that time. Now, in the poll, we found nearly half of borrowers said this payment pause had improved their mental health. So Ipsos specifically asked borrowers, how have they used the money that they haven't had to pay? Borrowers mentioned three big buckets. They spend it on essentials, like food and gas. They used it to pay down other debts, like credit cards or a car payment. And then they put it in savings. Mallory Newall at Ipsos says the pause gave borrowers a kind of freedom.

MALLORY NEWALL: But that freedom is not really to make a big purchase like a house or a car or take a vacation. It really is about reprieve, a little bit of breathing room in your day-to-day life.

MARTINEZ: Now, in the poll, you asked, should the government prioritize forgiving some debt for those with existing student loans or making college more affordable for current and future students? What do they say?

TURNER: This, for me, it was maybe the most important result or most interesting result in the whole poll. Eighty-two percent of all respondents said the government should prioritize making college more affordable for future students over erasing student debts. Even a majority of respondents with student loans, A, 59%, said the government should prioritize helping future students.

MARTINEZ: Wow. I didn't expect that. What do you make of that?

TURNER: I'm not entirely sure. You know, it's no secret. Obviously, college is not affordable for many Americans who take out huge loans because they see it as their only path into the middle class. And forgiving some of those debts would obviously help tens of millions of people. As we've said, President Biden is under a lot of pressure to do something ahead of the midterm elections. But it also tells us, you know, erasing debts without changing the system that created them is really fraught. The problem is President Biden's plans to make college more affordable up to this point haven't gotten very far. And so this fall, you know, we're going to see a whole new generation of students who will be taking out new loans with even higher interest rates than they were last year. And in 10 or 15 years, they'll be the ones pointing back to this moment and asking, what about me?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Cory Turner. Thanks a lot, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.