Trump’s Dismissiveness of COVID Led to a ‘Lack of Action’ Across Federal Agencies, His Former Pandemic Response Leader Says
Deborah Birx details how she attempted to sidestep promotion of debunked science and potential political interference with scientific work.
President Trump and his allies took an overly cavalier approach early in the COVID-19 outbreak, his former pandemic czar told lawmakers on Thursday, and his messaging underselling the severity of the situation discouraged federal agencies from taking action that could have saved lives.
Trump and others around him communicated a “lack of seriousness” about the virus, former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx told the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which had a significant impact in how both federal officials and the American public responded. The committee released emails uncovered in their investigation that showed Birx in 2020 sounded the alarm on the White House’s interference with scientific work and its promotion of disproven ideas.
Trump’s messaging that COVID-19 was similar to the flu, even after scientists were warning him of far greater fatality rates in China and other early-hit countries, contributed to the lack of urgency and preparedness.
“That consistent communication about the seriousness of this pandemic led to a lack of action early on, I think, across our agencies, and also led to a false sense of security in America,” Birx said.
In an August 2020 email to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and Food and Drug Administration Director Stephen Hahn made public by the committee on Thursday, Birx said she had a “very dangerous meeting” in the Oval Office the previous day. She noted Scott Atlas, whom Trump had brought on as an advisor to the White House’s COVID-19 task force, promoted several ideas that could cause significant problems. Those included that herd immunity would protect Americans, children were not at risk and could not transmit the virus, masks were not needed and that testing is overrated. She also summarized Atlas' thoughts that case identification through testing was “bad for the president’s reelection” and the task force, prior to his arrival, had “got us into this ditch” by promoting testing.
She added that Trump would only follow guidance from Atlas and she would do her best to communicate directly with states rather than finding a unifying federal message. Birx said on Thursday that Atlas told White House and task force officials that testing young people and asking them to isolate while they were infectious “was an infringement on their rights and the equivalent of a lockdown.”
Later that month, after another email in which Birx said she said she was “at a loss of what we should do,” Fauci responded that he would go directly to the media to contradict Atlas and would publicly note his disagreements with him.
Birx told lawmakers the White House began in the fall of 2020 interfering with reports the administration sent out to governors. She noted she allowed for some changes in those reports that she did not agree with, saying otherwise they would not have gone out at all. In a prior private interview, Birx told the committee she took proactive measures to ensure a weekly CDC report was not subject to political interference.
“I wanted to make sure that they weren't interfered with,” Birx said. “So I said to just send them to me and then you can say that the White House cleared them.”
Documents released by the committee earlier this year showed the White House and other Trump administration officials interfered with public health agencies as they sought to advise and speak directly to the public in the opening months of the COVID-19 pandemic, including with efforts to protect Americans attending religious services. Democrats on the committee said they had uncovered 90 instances of political interference as career employees were responding to the pandemic. Some officials also told the committee they were subject to gag orders by the White House.
Birx, who spent 29 years on active duty in the Army and 11 as a civil servant, said she accepted her position at the White House knowing it would be the end of her time in federal government.
“I knew that there would be significant personal attacks directed at me, even as a civil servant going into this Republican White House, that would result in me not being able to continue my federal career,” Birx said.