Joe Grogan, then Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council, speaks with media at the White House in October 2019.

Joe Grogan, then Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council, speaks with media at the White House in October 2019. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Former Top Trump Official Recounts Early Days of the Pandemic

Joe Grogan was Domestic Policy Council director and a White House COVID task force member.

Tensions between career and political officials during the Trump administration and the propensity of both to leak damaging information came to a head at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, compounding the former administration’s challenges in addressing the growing global crisis, Trump’s former domestic policy adviser told Government Executive in a recent interview. 

Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council from February 2019 to May 2020, was also a member of the White House coronavirus task force. Before that, the former pharmaceutical industry lobbyist served as a health care policy adviser in the Office of Management and Budget. During the George W. Bush administration, Grogan served as executive director of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS and then as a senior advisor at the Food and Drug Administration.

Grogan resigned from his post on May 24, 2020. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics as well as a member of the Covid Collaborative, a diverse coalition of experts working on pandemic education and recommendations. 

Government Executive interviewed Grogan on March 30, shortly after six doctors who served in the Trump administration spoke with CNN about the administration’s pandemic response. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Portions of the interview were paraphrased; direct quotes are noted. 

Can you talk about what your role was in regards to the pandemic and how things played out initially? 

In mid-January 2020, I “didn’t really like what I was hearing” about reports of the coronavirus in China and worked to elevate the issue within the White House. At that time, the White House was engulfed in the impeachment hearings, which “blotted out the sun for us.” 

“I made a number of recommendations around potentially bringing in a czar similar to what the Obama administration did with Ron Klain … but ultimately the decision was made to set up a task force and I served on the task force from the first meeting all the way until I left in mid-May.”

Throughout the pandemic, there's been so many reports of career officials getting sidelined for political reasons. How did you perceive that during your time in the administration? 

“There was a lot of distrust built up over the previous years, with political staff and career staff leaking documents, and conversations that were pre-decisional or should have been confidential,” in order to “embarrass” President Trump or the administration. This “accelerated in the pandemic, made it almost impossible to function as a coherent whole; impossible to build up that level of trust.” 

Near the end of March 2020, “constant” leaking started. “Documents were flowing out of HHS that were pre-decisional that were, in many instances, ill thought out, that were not complete and it was just mind boggling what was leaking.” 

What are some of the early successes and failures of the pandemic? 

Despite the early challenges, an early success was the establishment of “Operation Warp Speed” to accelerate the development of vaccines.

The FDA “was in a very strong position” as it had many long-time officials in place, was “well funded” and was able to work collaboratively with industry. The National Institutes of Health devoted a significant amount of money to vaccines and there was the “robust” private industry (drug companies and supply chains) to support the vaccine work.

A key failure was “the inability to contemplate that there was asymptomatic spread of this virus on the part of the bureaucracy, on the part of the professionals” and key agencies not understanding that masks would be vital to curbing the spread of the virus. He added that in the “pandemic playbook” left behind by the Obama administration, “the word mask doesn’t appear at one point.” 

Former top officials are starting to speak out, as demonstrated by the CNN documentary. Can I get your reaction to that and how you believe you fit into that. 

So far, the documentary appears to be “well done.” These former officials have “something to say and then people should judge.” 

However, reporting about the revelations has mischaracterized what some of the officials actually said in the interviews. For example, it was “inaccurate” to report that former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta that the Chinese were to blame for the initial COVID outbreak. What Redfield actually said was much more nuanced about his thinking about the origins of the virus.

“This was a huge, momentous historical event that, frankly, changed the course of American history. People talking about it at this point, I think is all to the benefit so that we can learn from the mistakes … I think the successes need to be evaluated objectively too and some level of compassion and empathy is required to understand what politicals and career people went through.” 

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

“I'm really struck by the success of the vaccines and the ability to develop a public-private partnership across multiple sectors in the middle of this pandemic. And we are now in a lot of policy debates about what to do around drug pricing and all these other issues and, frankly, I think I'm worried that we're going to learn all the lessons from this and screw up the one area that worked really well and and not improve the areas like in testing where we need to make greater investments.” 

The government should learn from the pandemic and “on a bipartisan basis, make a number of changes to our public health infrastructure,” to be prepared for future outbreaks. 

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