Donald Trump listens as Dr Deborah Birx, then White House Coronavirus Coordinator, speaks (File)
Deborah Birx, the former White House Coronavirus Response coordinator, details how COVID-19 deniers in the Trump White House derailed the response to the pandemic.
Birx told CBS News on Sunday, “There were people who definitely believed that this was a hoax.”
The coordinator said she was “the only one full-time person in the White House working on the Coronavirus response”, relying on volunteers because the Trump Administration denied her requests for full-time staff.
Disinformation and Derision
Birx also assessed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had fallen short because “we haven’t valued prevention”, and she cited a disconnect between Federal and State systems on public health data.
But her fundamental criticism was of advisors, inside and outside the White House, pushing disinformation:
There were parallel data stream coming into the White House that were not transparently utilized….
I saw the President presenting graphs that I never made. So, I know that someone- or someone out there or someone inside [the White House] was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the President.
The coordinator did not name any adviser during the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, when Trump was touting fake and unsafe cures such as the anti-malarial drug hydroxycholoroquine, the ingestion of bleach, and ultraviolet treatment.
But she specifically mentioned Scott Atlas, the neuroradiologist who became Trump’s confidante from August and promoted “herd immunity” as the virus surged through the US.
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Birx said “no one” set down the line that “This is our official coordinator, listen to her”, and that she “was not able to do national press” to give guidance to Americans.
And, echoing the Government’s top Coronavirus scientist Dr. Anthony Fauci, she spoke of being publicly derided through leaks, if she dared issue a statement at odds with Trump’s inner circle:
It became a way that they could silence those who didn’t agree with them. And so I knew that every time I had a significant disagreement in the White House that within days a story would be planted.
Birx said she dealt with the disfunction of the Federal Government “by going out and working with the governors”.
got to see amazing things that are best practices and really bring those back. And what I’ve learned from Detroit and Chicago and Arkansas and Alabama and Texas and Arizona and up through Connecticut — I mean, it’s just been amazing to be able to see really great solutions and try to bring those back.
Reflecting on her experience, she advised the Biden Administration, “Having a team at the White House that can really respond to this is going to be really, really important, because the amount of work that needs to be done not only at the White House but also at the state level to really ensure that we come out of this in some kind of normalcy by summer will be really critical.”
Fauci: “I Was the Skunk at the Picnic”
Dr. Fauci, who is now President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, spoke on Thursday of the Trump environment where “you didn’t feel that you could actually say something, and there wouldn’t be any repercussions about it”.
He amplified in an interview with The New York Times, published Sunday, of why he remained within the Administration even as he was being publicly assailed by Trump’s advisors:
I felt that if I stepped down that would leave a void. Someone’s got to not be afraid to speak out the truth.
[White House staff] would try to play down real problems and have a little happy talk about how things are OK. And I would always say, ‘Wait a minute, hold it, folks, this is serious business.’ So there was a joke – a friendly joke, you know – that I was the skunk at the picnic.
Fauci, who spoke on Thursday of the “liberating feeling” of being able to speak publicly in the Biden Administration, reinforced Birx’s explanation of rampant disinformation:
It was clear that [Trump] was getting input from people who were calling him up, I don’t know who, people he knew from business, saying, “Hey, I heard about this drug, isn’t it great?” or, “Boy, this convalescent plasma is really phenomenal.”
And I would try to, you know, calmly explain that you find out if something works by doing an appropriate clinical trial; you get the information, you give it a peer review. And he’d say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, this stuff really works.”
He would take just as seriously their opinion — based on no data, just anecdote — that something might really be important. It wasn’t just hydroxychloroquine, it was a variety of alternative-medicine-type approaches. It was always, “A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.” That’s when my anxiety started to escalate.
However, Fauci drew the line when asked if he thought Trump “cost the country tens or hundreds of thousands of lives”.
“I can’t comment on that,” the doctor responded. “People always ask that and…making the direct connection that way, it becomes very damning. I just want to stay away from that. Sorry.”