Aug 31, 2023 - Podcasts

Another scary freeze for McConnell and the GOP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell once again seemed to freeze during a press conference yesterday, for the second time since late July. This time, he was in his home state of Kentucky and the incident sent ripples of worry through the Republican Party in Washington.

  • Plus, the rise of the apocalyptic seed vault.
  • And, hate crimes are still increasing in the U.S.

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Guests: Axios' Hans Nichols, Russell Contreras and Ayurella Horn-Muller.

Credits: Axios Today was produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Robin Linn and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.


NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It's Thursday, August 31.

I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: the rise of the apocalyptic seed vault. Plus, hate crimes are still increasing in the U.S.

But first, concerns grow over GOP leadership after Mitch McConnell again freezes before reporters. That's today's One Big Thing.

NIALA: Senator Mitch McConnell once again seemed to freeze up during a press conference yesterday, for the second time since late July. This time, he was in his home state of Kentucky.

MITCH MCCONNELL: What are my thoughts about what?

REPORTER: Running for re-election in 2026.

NIALA: At this point, McConnell froze for about seven seconds before one of his aides intervened.

AIDE: Did you hear the question, Senator? Running for reelection in 2026?


NIALA: But McConnell was still unable to answer the question

AIDE: All right, I'm sorry, you all, we're going to need a minute.

NIALA: The incident sent ripples of worry through the Republican Party in Washington yesterday. Axios politics reporter Hans Nichols was at the White House. Hans, I have to say the video of this, much like the last one, is disconcerting and difficult to watch, regardless of what your political affiliations are.

HANS NICHOLS: Yeah, it's scary. I don't think that any human could watch that and think that Mitch McConnell was OK. He appeared disoriented and he appeared confused. You know, the official explanation that he was lightheaded simply doesn't pass the smell test. And, you know, I suspect, and, you know, talking to top Republicans, they're going to have to update that, if not entirely alter it, and give an explanation that makes a little bit more sense. Because Republican senators know that they're going to be asked questions, And the lightheaded defense simply isn't going to cut it.

NIALA: What do we know about what's going on with McConnell medically? He's had a series of falls and a head injury this year. So do we have any more information on that?

HANS: No, we know very little. And, to be clear, Mitch McConnell isn't in the line of succession. There's a higher standard for the president, the vice president, the speaker of the house, and the president pro tem of the Senate. He's a very important, crucial person. He is, you know, has fundamentally been part of this push to remake the federal judiciary. He is crafty. He has wrong-footed his opponents. He has aggravated Democrats. He's bedeviled Democrats. But he is not in the line of succession. And so there's a different standard for, you know, lawmakers and presidents, uh, in terms of releasing medical information.

NIALA: Are Republicans asking if McConnell is still fit to serve as Senate Minority Leader?

HANS: Not publicly. Right? You know, you saw the last time he had this scary incident, the conference really rallied around him. There weren't obvious challenges, publicly or privately to his leadership. And I suspect that will be the same here, for a few months, maybe even through the election. I don't suspect that will be the case in 2025 and 2026, but, you know, that's a long way away.

NIALA: And do we know if he plans to run for re-election?

HANS: The irony here is that that was the question that he was asked. And, you know, the, the public line has never been anything other than that. I simply don't think we can know for any certainty, and in a lot of ways, you know, health and fitness will probably play a role in determining how long he serves in the United States Senate.

NIALA: Hans Nichols, part of Axios's politics team. Thanks, Hans.

HANS: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: Hate crimes increased by an average of 22% in the nation's 10 largest cities last year. That's according to a new report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and it continues a 22-year trend of increases in these crimes nationwide. Axios race and justice reporter Russell Contreras explains.

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: Since the election of Donald Trump, the pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd, the number of hate crimes in the U.S. has reached record levels every year.

This study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism shows this trend is not subsiding. The study found that Los Angeles in 2022 had 609 hate crimes. And that's the most of any other city last year. New York saw 607 hate crimes, also a record. And Chicago saw the biggest percentage increase in hate crimes with an 84.6% spike. While Black Americans were the most frequently targeted in many cities, the study says there were also other cities where the LGBTQ+ community, Asian Americans, and Jewish Americans were the most attacked. This report comes just days after Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will investigate the Jackson, Florida shooting as a hate crime. That shooting claimed the lives of three black people.

A bit of positive news, though. Early reports show that hate crimes are falling in major cities in the first part of 2023 so far. But, hate crimes tend to pick up at the end of the year around religious holidays and during the months before presidential elections. This is something we'll be watching here at Axios.

NIALA: That's Axios' Russell Contreras.

After the break: Doomsday seed vaults and why we may need them more than ever.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today, I'm Niala Boodhoo. The damaging effects of climate change are driving a renewed effort to protect global crop and agricultural production. One tool, so-called doomsday seed vaults. These reserves are designed to protect seed supplies from extreme weather events and many other threats, too.

I asked Axios's Ayurella Horn-Muller to explain. Hey, Ayurella!


NIALA: So, these names that are used to refer to these vaults, Doomsday or Apocalyptic, are kind of ominous. But they're also a little misleading, right? What exactly is a seed vault and what is its purpose?

AYURELLA: So, In order to withstand climate extremes like droughts, floods, and heat waves, our crops that we rely on and we consume, they need to be more resilient. And that resiliency comes from genetic diversity, which we find in these seed reserves. A seed vault or otherwise known as a seed bank or a gene bank, there are these reserves where scientists worldwide are collecting and preserving parts of living things, which are most commonly in the form of seeds. They serve as this protected kind of storage site where backup copies of plants and crops that are vital to humanity and are endangered ecosystems, can be safeguarded well into the future.

They provide the genetic diversity that research and breeding programs need to improve and develop, new cultivars or, uh, cultivated plants. And those cultivars may have improved disease resistance, improved crop yield, improved quality, storability, improved processing, and just like a host of different things that could be incorporated into plant and crop breeding programs.

NIALA: So, it sounds like we're not waiting for a doomsday scenario to use these. We actually may need these right now.

AYURELLA: Right. So we have, there's a global network of more than 1,700 gene banks worldwide. And I think one of the most notorious ones is, is often referred to as the doomsday vault. That's the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and that's buried deep within a Norwegian mountain in the Arctic Circle. It's a facility where they're currently storing over 1.2 million duplicates of seed samples. Those are from nearly every country in the world. So this vault was created in 2008 to protect seed supplies for future growing needs against threats like climate change, extreme weather events, wars. And this vault is not an active repository, so that means that it is not something that is being accessed, there's only ever been one exemption to that, and that was in 2015, when as a result of the Syrian civil war the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas was unable to maintain its gene bank in Syria and it made the first-ever withdrawal of seeds from the Svalbard Seed Vault, uh, to regenerate, to store those seeds in active collections.

NIALA: How important are these seed vaults to maintaining global food security in the future?

AYURELLA: These seed vaults are extremely important. So to withstand climate extremes crops really need to be resilient. And that resilience, it comes from genetic diversity, and a major use of the diversity in gene banks is to better bolster and prepare crops to cope with climate emergencies.

Gene banks and seed banks are also important in that they offer these emergency stockpiles of many of the crops that we consume and rely on. So a United Nations report that published this summer found that the world is far off track to meeting its goal of ending hunger and food insecurity by 2030. Between 691 and 783 million people faced hunger in 2022. That was an increase of roughly 122 million people since 2019, according to that report. And per the UN, climate extremes have played a central role in pushing up the total number of food insecure people today. So these seed vaults are crucial to protecting the future of our food supply.

NIALA: Ayurella Horn-Muller covers climate justice for Axios. Thanks, Ayurella.

AYURELLA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: That's it for us today!

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening. Stay safe, and we'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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