Last week, standing in front of one of the main buildings on the University of Connecticut campus, Deborah Birks, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, sighed indignantly through her peach-colored mask.
Birx has been traveling almost continuously since June, working with local and government officials to develop area-specific strategies to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus. Connecticut was her 32nd state, and as in the rest, she was littered with questions about mixed messages from the White House.
Seemingly disappointed by the fact that 200,000 deaths later there was still uncertainty about the federal government̵
“We were able to give our best health and scientific advice to the leadership and … I continue to do so every day, whether he is governor, president, or community member. The consistency of this message is absolutely crucial, “Birks said. Pressed again to see if the masks were needed, the leader of the working group rolled his eyes: “Let me be clear: We know how effectively they block our droplets. This is not just theoretical[al]. “
Birks’ frustration can take months. But the context was inevitable. Just days earlier, President Trump had returned home from Walter Reed Medical Center and, still infected with the virus, triumphantly took off his mask on the White House balcony for a television broadcast.
It was a move that directly contradicted the caution that Birx and others uploaded. But while she seemed annoyed by it all, she was hardly the only senior health official to show that they were out of their minds with Trump.
After months of trying to avoid direct meetings with the president, the working group’s staff is no longer on top of his demands. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Health and Infectious Diseases, has been speaking for weeks against Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who has no experience in dealing with infectious diseases but has become Trump’s coronavirus guru, fueling his desire for positive news. for “data on picking cherries. He recently denied Trump’s campaign of “harassment” in their ads.
Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also followed the Atlas, saying “everything he says is untrue;” the CDC backed the White House’s preference not to recommend testing for asymptomatic individuals. And despite requests from the White House to remain undercover, last week the Federal Medicines Administration published guidelines for manufacturers of vaccines against COVID-19 that would make pre-election release virtually impossible.
Asked to comment on growing frustration among officials, White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern did not speak directly to the tension in the task force and instead said, “President Trump’s top priority is the health and safety of the American people.”
Morgenstern acknowledged that Trump sometimes disagrees with working group employees in good faith. But previous administration officials say such leaks and criticisms from senior health officials are generally unheard of. And they point to a growing revolt among the ranks of the presidential task force on the coronavirus at an increasingly uncertain time: the beginning of the autumn season, when cases are on the rise.
“In previous emergencies that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx have gone through, there have been better and worse reactions, but they have all shared some basic core competencies. The fact is that the COVID administration’s response lacks core competencies, “said Tom Frieden, a former CDC director for the Obama administration. “It is true today that there is no national plan, no clear organization, we are not on the same page and there is a failure in communication. There have been no consistent reports from the federal government. In addition, there is a politicization of wearing masks and a lack of discipline in thinking about when to close and what to open. It’s amazing. “
The connection between Trump and his COVID advisers has always been established. The president has painted a rosy scenario for fighting the virus since he arrived in America. He openly insists on reopening the country as soon as possible. He accused career scientists of plotting against him by dragging his feet on a vaccine. And he improvises on the effectiveness of therapies and treatments in ways bordering, experts say, on the irresponsible.
But friction has become particularly pronounced in recent weeks, as the White House hosted what Fautsi called a super-distributor and as elections approached.
“I think both Redfield and Birks sincerely want to do good,” said Zeke Emmanuel, a former health policy adviser in the Obama administration. “But trying to figure out how to do good in this administration was difficult for them.”
As Trump increasingly turns to Atlas for guidance, Birx, Fauci and Redfield have been removed from the task force. In recent interviews, Fauci explicitly said that the working group does not even meet as often as it used to, sometimes once a week. Birx was on the road, appearing only in interviews with local media. Redfield, meanwhile, has been involved in virtually zero media appearances following a recent series of meetings with the White House over masks, testing and school openings, even when former CDC director William Fogg sent a public letter urging him to “face a bully.”
But as they have slipped out of the limelight, the trio and others are more assertive, holding their ground on political disputes. And for those who were in the bureaucratic trenches at the crossroads of politics and health policy, it was a pleasant surprise to see the lack of consent.
“I have a lot of respect for Deborah Birks and I think she understands what needs to be done. I think she’s doing her best to come out and explain these messages. Because science is not so complicated anymore, “said Andy Slavitt, former director of the Obama Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. “I suspect she feels it’s important for her to be there, and she sees herself as a public health warrior. But I think there is a limited amount they can do without the support of their boss. So you have to settle for the person sitting in the Oval Office. I think she faces those consequences, but she’s doing what is probably the most productive thing she can do. “
Fewer members of the task force in recent days have more openly opposed Trump than Fauci. The esteemed expert on infectious diseases has not refused to issue terrible warnings about the current course of the disease. But he is also far more willing to give up the kind of diplomatic sophistication that marked his public statements about the president and the White House in the early months of the pandemic.
In an interview with The Daily Beast in September, Fauci questioned the president’s schedule that the COVID-19 vaccine was approaching, and pointed to a significant lack of confidence in the vaccination process. In another interview with the Beast on Monday, he took his biggest hit so far at Trump and his election campaign, urging them to refrain from using it in future advertising campaigns.
“By doing this against my will, they are actually harassing me,” Fautsi said. “Because campaign ads are for votes, harassing me can have the opposite effect of excluding some voters.”
While part of the friction may stem from the working group’s ongoing difficulties in controlling the pandemic, officials working with the administration say much of it was caused by Trump, whose attention and understanding of the virus has always been a source of frustration.
“As the election heated up, it was harder to get him to focus on the guidelines and data we thought were most important in saving lives,” said a senior administration official working with the White House Task Force. it is still so. It is known that if you bring him something that will probably not help his re-election or the opening of the economy [to his liking] again, then you may not present it to the president at all. “
That mood was highlighted Monday night when Trump returned to the campaign track at a rally in Sanford, Florida, for the first event of its kind since he was hospitalized. On stage, he joked about his perceived “immunity” from the virus, how he “kissed everyone in this audience,” including “all the boys and beautiful women,” and continued to call for the rapid opening of the U.S. economy to “make our country is rolling”.
For veterans of the coronavirus task force, who turned to critics of the president, it was simply a continuation of the frivolous way he handled the Day 1 emergency.
Olivia Troy, a former senior adviser to the task force that left in August and has since approved Democrat nominee for 2020 Joe Biden, described how the president would appear at coronavirus meetings and repeatedly asked things like “Is this worse than flu? ”and“ Children are not affected, right? ”just to say that children can really be affected.
“[He] he would nod, but he would go out in public and say the opposite. “It was going to happen all the time, and it was infuriating,” she said. “Dr. Fauci would tell the vice president and some of the president’s senior officials that children could be his big distributors because the data is unconvincing, just to see the administration and Trump completely ignore them, over and over again. “
Troy recalled that at some meetings with members of the COVID task force earlier this year, the president would be routinely distracted and instead “wanted to talk about the media that angered him.”
“Sometimes he went around.” [the room] and spends his time complimenting people on theirs [recent TV] appearances. He would compliment Kelian Conway or someone for how well he thought someone did it, saying, “Oh, you did a great job today!” She added. “That was it [during meetings] when we tried to get him to focus on the issues of life and death across the country. “
Conway did not return a request for comment.
The fact that members of the task force are now pushing Trump harder is no surprise. But for other onlookers, fame is not gained right now. The time to speak out and push away, they say, should have been months ago.
“I don’t think they’re talking about the truth to the American people yet, except for Fauzi,” said Leslie Dutch, who led Ebola’s response to the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services. “I think Trump’s introduction of COVID-19 into the White House, the growing epidemic in the country and the doubling of Trump’s madness after their illness have shown them that he will never do the right thing. Every glimmer of hope or reason is removed. If you have any fidelity to the truth, to the Hippocratic oath, or to the principles you tell yourself and your family are important … it becomes impossible to remain silent and be complicit. “