Trump is in a tug-of-war with scientists over coronavirus policy

Then on Tuesday, during a Fox News virtual town hall with virus task force members, Trump tried to prod Birx into criticizing New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) for the rapidly growing outbreak of coronavirus cases in his state.

“Do you blame the governor for that?” Trump asked Birx — a question she simply ignored as she continued on with her answer.

The high-stakes theater playing out between Trump and one of his top public health officials underscored a tense dynamic in the White House: a squadron of scientists and health experts — including Birx and infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci — caught in an uneasy tug-of-war with Trump as they push a worldview grounded in data and evidence in a West Wing where the president has mused about a “miracle” cure.

Trump has increasingly minimized and pushed aside many of the top public health and scientific experts in his administration, instead relying on advice from economic advisers and outside voices in the business community who are urging him to prioritize the nation’s economy above all else. On Tuesday, Trump told Fox News he hoped to have the country reopened by Easter on April 12 — a timeline at direct odds with the recommendations of experts such as Fauci, who had said previously that social distancing measures would probably need to remain for at least “several weeks.”

It was not the first time the president has publicly contradicted the public or private advice of Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

On Sunday evening, just before midnight, Trump shocked the scientific community with a tweet foreshadowing his desire to reopen the country imminently: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he wrote.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he spoke with Fauci on Monday morning, shortly after a new string of tweets by the president echoing a similar sentiment, and that Fauci disagreed with Trump’s assessment of the crisis.

“He believes we should be doing more, not less,” Graham said.

In a brief interview, Fauci — who was notably absent from several coronavirus events before reappearing at a White House briefing Tuesday evening — played down signs of tension with Trump.

“The one thing I can tell you, every time I speak to him about something he listens carefully and weighs it,” Fauci said. “He’s responsible for much more than what I’m responsible for.”

This portrait of mounting tensions between the president and the scientific community is the result of interviews with 15 senior administration officials, aides, outside advisers and others briefed on internal deliberations, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments.

Trump has set up something of a gladiatorial process for managing the coronavirus, in which each adviser and expert argues forcefully for their specific perspective — be it public health or economic growth — creating a dynamic that has left Birx, Fauci and others often offering Trump recommendations he is not eager to hear.

Birx speaks during a coronavirus briefing. Birx is among the public-health professionals who has had to offer Trump recommendations to combat the virus that he has not wanted to hear.
Birx speaks during a coronavirus briefing. Birx is among the public-health professionals who has had to offer Trump recommendations to combat the virus that he has not wanted to hear. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

During his coronavirus news conference Monday, Trump was asked whether Fauci agreed with him about getting the economy up and running again at the expense of the social distancing measures Fauci and others have long prescribed.

“Well, he doesn’t not agree,” Trump said, using a double negative to underscore the apparent distance between the public-health consensus and a president who sees the economy as directly tied to his reelection chances.

One person familiar with task force discussions said Trump has continued to push unproven or experimental drugs as cure-alls — despite little data so far to support their efficacy and against the advice of his own scientific advisers — because he “wants this magical moment when this is all over.”

One business executive, who has been part of some administration discussions and is familiar with the president’s views, described a “natural tension” between the politicians and the doctors on the task force, whose mind-set is “we’re going to save every life” no matter how many restrictions are required.

In recent days, Trump has grown frustrated with Fauci’s gentle corrections of his statements from the podium.
In recent days, Trump has grown frustrated with Fauci’s gentle corrections of his statements from the podium. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“A politician’s role is to weigh risks and benefits and make decisions,” this person said. “This disease is going to kill people, but poverty is going to kill a lot more people over a longer period of time.”

Unlike Birx and Fauci, who have both taken pains not to publicly criticize the president too harshly, many in the scientific community at large are deeply alarmed by Trump’s rhetoric and proposed actions, and they are making no effort to hide their concern.

This month, the editor in chief of Science magazine wrote that Trump’s demands for an immediate coronavirus vaccine — which is expected to take a year, if not longer — was like asking for a cure on “warp drive,” and admonished the president to “start treating science and its principles with respect.”

Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, in a number of tweets also warned that despite a “strong and understandable desire to return to better times and a functioning economy,” failing to combat the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, could be cataclysmic.

“So long as covid-19 spreads uncontrolled, older people will die in historic numbers, middle aged folks doomed to prolonged ICU stays to fight for their lives, hospitals will be overwhelmed, and most Americans terrified to leave homes, eat out, take the subway, or go to the park,” Gottlieb wrote.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been noticeably less visible in daily White House coronavirus briefings and has had far fewer of its own media briefings than in previous outbreaks. Some administration officials insist the CDC still plays a key role in task force meetings, where issues and decisions are hashed out.

The Department of Health and Human Services has also been disempowered ever since Trump appointed Vice President Pence to oversee the administration’s response out of the West Wing. While HHS officials still attend task force meetings and remain involved in combating the virus, they have been minimized from key efforts.

They were not, for instance, part of the decision-making for a drive-through testing initiative led by Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser — and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has recently taken over coordinating the response, further sidelining HHS. CDC Director Robert Redfield and HHS Secretary Alex Azar were initially among the key officials briefing Trump, but that is no longer the case.

However, two senior administration officials said FEMA’s role in the disaster response is appropriate for this pandemic.

Ashish Jha, professor at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said that while he has been largely heartened that Birx and Fauci remain in Trump’s orbit, the president doesn’t always seem to follow their counsel.

“What you get is a sense that while he’s keeping some scientists close, a lot of what’s coming out of his mouth and out of the White House is unlikely to be the advice the scientists are giving him,” Jha said. “There’s a lot happening there, out of the White House, that one senses isn’t being driven by scientific advisers.”

Trump still generally has warm feelings toward the medical professionals on the task force, particularly Birx and Fauci. He has privately said Fauci has unassailable credentials and exudes expertise, and Trump is usually respectful of the scientists in meetings, allowing them to explain their data and positions while asking a range of questions. Birx has regularly brought in charts and data to show the president, officials said.

But in recent days the president has grown frustrated with Fauci’s gentle corrections of his statements from the podium and slew of increasingly candid media interviews.

In an interview with Science that went online Sunday evening, Fauci described trying to grapple in real-time with Trump’s frequent misstatements. “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” Fauci said. “Okay, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.”

Fauci speaks with the coronavirus task force at the White House.
Fauci speaks with the coronavirus task force at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Other officials are growing annoyed with Fauci in part because he is no longer getting advance approval for his media interviews, which they sometimes view as intended to promote his own personal brand rather than the president, a senior administration official said.

Advisers are also irritated by some of the tweets and TV appearances from Gottlieb, who has been informally advising the task force, that contradict the president, two administration officials said.

Trump, at his core, is a businessman, said one Republican frequently in touch with the White House, explaining that when pulled between two competing poles — those of the medical professionals and some within the business community — the president will almost always come down on the side of the latter.

But some allies have also tried to impart the sheer magnitude of the crisis to the president, privately warning him that if he adjusts health policy to try to boost the economy and there is a spike in coronavirus deaths, he will personally be blamed.

“Trump needs to resist the urge to listen to economists until we have defeated the virus,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor. “If Trump tries to restart the economy too soon and the pandemic continues to spread, that will be his legacy and it will be a legacy of failure.”

“By all means,” Eberhart added, “wait, Mr. President.”

Sarah Kaplan and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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