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Sen. Tim Kaine: Trump Is 'Trying To Foment Division'


We're going to start the program today talking about food. For many people across the country, food has become a serious source of stress during this pandemic because they're out of work or are having trouble accessing what they need. We've seen pictures of long lines outside of food banks while at the same time, we're hearing reports of farmers dumping food or plowing it back into the ground.

In a few minutes, we're going to hear about why that's happening. And we're going to hear from Virginia Senator Tim Kaine about a pilot program that would expand how recipients of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, could get groceries. But first, we want to deal with those provocative tweets President Trump directed at Senator Kaine's state and a few others in support of people protesting social distancing guidelines.

Senator, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

TIM KAINE: Michel, so good to be with you today.

MARTIN: But before we talk about the subject for which we called you today, I do have to ask you about something that President Trump said yesterday. He called out your state among others on Twitter writing, quote, "liberate Virginia and save your great Second Amendment. It's under siege." And these tweets were directed at states that have Democratic governors and also states that have strict social distancing rules. What did you take that message to mean?

KAINE: I viewed it as the president trying to foment division in our country in the midst of a global pandemic. It's exactly opposite to the behavior you would expect of a president. And so yesterday, on a conference call with the vice president and other administration leaders, I challenged him on that and said, we should be trying to bring people together.

The president is tweeting this out to his followers in Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota, urging them to protest the social distancing guidelines that his own administration is urging us to follow. And that puts people's lives at risk. We don't need a president who's trying to divide us during a pandemic.

MARTIN: Well, you were on this call with Vice President Mike Pence, who's the head of the president's coronavirus task force. And you challenged them about that, as you just told us. What did he say when you - or how did he respond when you raised this issue?

KAINE: When I (laughter) - when I asked the question, why is the president trying to foment division in the midst of a global pandemic, I thought my phone had been disconnected. There was stone silence for about 30 seconds. But then he started to basically just give me platitudes about how much respect they have for governors. And I said, this is the opposite of respect. It's disrespectful.

And then Senator Schumer, the Democratic leader, jumped in and said, Senator Kaine has said what everybody here is thinking. You shouldn't be urging protesters to hurt their own health by going out and violating these social distancing rules and taking this kind of pro-insurrection policy toward America's governors, who are on the front lines trying to solve this problem.

MARTIN: Are you concerned that that people will take it even further than that - as opposed to not just protest but some sort of armed conflict?

KAINE: Well, yes. There - yes. I mean, look. People are showing up with all kinds of arms, and there's all kinds of online traffic from extremist elements. This is not a majority or even a sizable minority of the population, but it doesn't take many to do extremist things. At a minimum, they're endangering their own health. If they're violating these guidelines and going out and being together, you know, you're going to see some people getting sick after this.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the suggestion that you had that you and your counterpart, Senator Mark Warner, asked the USDA if Virginia could be part of this pilot program. There are six states participating. What does this program look like? And has the USDA responded to your request? This, as we said, is to allow SNAP recipients to buy groceries online.

KAINE: Michel, yeah, this is a great program. And it is a pilot program that was set up in the Farm Bill in 2014. And it's not only to be able to purchase online but to then purchase from vendors - you think of Walmarts or Amazons - who do home delivery or will let you do curbside pickup. And a lot of folks, especially if they're ill - they would want the ability to get groceries delivered or groceries that they could pick up curbside. It's just that the normal SNAP program does not allow that.

We're encouraging the USDA to take this pilot. Six states are already doing it. We want Virginia to be part of it. We've had a good relationship with USDA on requests like this. They haven't yet approved the Virginia request, but we're hopeful that they will in the spirit of other similar actions they've been willing to take.

MARTIN: What is your sense of how significant the food and security problem is in your state?

KAINE: I think it is very, very significant. I know that you're going to talk a little bit about these, you know, lines at food banks that are really long. And we're definitely seeing that. We're hearing evidence of folks who have SNAP benefits. Their benefits run out earlier than they did before. So we're seeing major, major need. We hope to increase SNAP benefits during this presidentially declared emergency. But at a minimum, a program like this would be a good thing to do.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, senator, I have to ask you - you said that USDA - you've been working well with them. They've been cooperative. It has been suggested - and the president has been asked about this - that states that have populations that are favorable to him, governors who are of his party, are receiving preferential treatment when it comes to these programs. Has that been your experience?

KAINE: I have heard reports of that - not in this program, not in the SNAP area. But in some of the business loan programs, I've definitely heard concerns about that expressed from business leaders.

But that's why, Michel, it's really important that the provisions that Congress put into the CARES bill that deal with transparency and oversight be followed. It was interesting that that was the only part of the bill that we passed that when the president signed it, he said he didn't feel obligated to follow it, and then he fired the inspector general that was charged with overseeing the program. So we are really worried about political misuse, especially in the business loan programs.

MARTIN: OK. But what is Congress willing to do other than be worried about it? Are they willing to undertake any other steps to assure that these programs are being administered fairly?

KAINE: The House Oversight Committee is already very focused on complaints and concerns about diversions of medical equipment. But also, we need to go back and insist that the White House follow the transparency and accountability provisions that we put in the last bill that we did. And I think we need to get a commitment from them that they will do so before we increase the spending on some of these business loan programs.

MARTIN: That is Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia.

Senator Kaine, thanks so much for talking to us.

KAINE: Absolutely, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.