Chasm Grows Between Trump,Virus Experts08/05 06:26
WASHINGTON (AP) -- In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, President
Donald Trump was flanked in the White House briefing room by a team of public
health experts in a seeming portrait of unity to confront the disease that was
ravaging the globe.
But as the crisis has spread to all reaches of the country, with escalating
deaths and little sense of endgame, a chasm has widened between the Republican
president and the experts. The result: daily delivery of a mixed message to the
public at a moment when coherence is most needed.
Trump and his political advisers insist that the United States has no rival
in its response to the pandemic. They point to the fact that the U.S. has
administered more virus tests than any other nation and that the percentage of
deaths among those infected is among the lowest.
"Right now, I think it's under control," Trump said during an interview with
Axios. He added, "We have done a great job."
But the surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths tells a different
story. And it suggests that the president is increasingly out of step with the
federal government's own medical and public health experts.
The U.S. death toll, which stands at more than 156,000, is expected to
accelerate. The latest composite forecast from the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention projects an average of nearly 1,000 deaths per day
through Aug. 22.
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, warned
this week that the virus has become "extraordinarily widespread."
Trump didn't like that. He dismissed her comment as "pathetic" and charged
she was capitulating to criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had
earlier criticized Birx.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, who
has avoided contradicting the president throughout the crisis, said on Sunday
it was time to "move on" from the debate over hydroxychloroquine, a drug Trump
continues to promote as a COVID-19 treatment even though there is no clear
evidence it is effective.
Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, last week acknowledged during an ABC
News interview that the initial federal government response to the virus too
"It's not a separation from the president, it's a cavernous gap," said
Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University. "What we're
seeing is that scientists will no longer be cowed by the White House."
Until recently, the medical experts on the White House coronavirus task
force have walked a tightrope. They have been pressing to deliver the best
science to the public while trying to avoid appearing to directly contradict
Trump --- in hopes of maintaining influence in the decision-making process.
The effort has played out, at moments, as an awkward dance.
For months now, the West Wing has controlled the media schedule of Dr.
Anthony Fauci, who drew the ire of the president and his advisers in the early
days of the pandemic because of the outsized media attention he received and
his perceived willingness to contradict the president, according to three White
House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing not authorized to speak
publicly about private conversations.
Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has struck a far more
cautious tone than Trump or any other member of the task force about the
nation's move to "reopen," provoking the frustration of a president who sees a
resurgent economy as key to winning another four years in office.
Birx, until recently, had largely stayed on the president's good side,
though her rosy depictions of the pandemic fight drew recent skepticism from
Democrats and other public health officials. But Trump also shredded Birx
privately as well as in his public comments this week for not striking a more
optimistic tone about states that are doing well and for saying she had
"tremendous respect" for Trump's rival Pelosi, the officials said.
Throughout the pandemic, some government public health officials have
privately expressed worry to West Wing staffers that they are fearful of
contradicting the president even as they try to focus on the data and the
science behind the administration's response to the virus, officials said. But
publicly, there has been a concerted effort to appear that the team and the
Oval Office are speaking with one voice.
Redfield disputed on Monday that the health officials were looking to
distance themselves from the president.
"I don't think that's an accurate characterization," Redfield said in an
interview. He added, "I think we communicate freely and directly as we see the
outbreak as members of the task force."
On Monday, Trump seemed to walk back from his criticism that Birx was
"taking the bait" from Pelosi and said that he had great respect for the doctor.
He suggested his frustration was spurred by his administration not receiving
proper credit for testing so many people or for pushing to replenish the
stockpile of ventilators early in the crisis. On Tuesday, he boasted that the
U.S. has increased testing capacity by 32,000% since March 12 and has "far and
away the most testing capacity in the world." Trump in early March declared
"anybody that needs a test gets a test." Yet, in many parts of the country, it
can still take a week or longer for patients to receive test results.
His positive self-evaluation gives short shrift to the fact that the U.S.
has the world's fourth highest per capita virus death rate, according to Johns
Hopkins University's coronavirus resource center.
In the Axios interview, Trump insisted that the appropriate statistic to
judge the virus response is the ratio of deaths to cases. By that metric, the
U.S. ranks 14th among the 20 countries most affected by COVID-19. Chile, India,
Argentina, Russia, South Africa and Bangladesh all have lower rates of deaths
to infections, according to the Johns Hopkins-compiled data.
"It's not a bragging right that over 3% in your country that's infected is
dying," Georgetown University's Gostin said.
Trump's undercutting of his health advisers makes it all but impossible for
the federal government to speak with a single, authoritative voice at a time of
national crisis, critics say.
"It's a very dangerous place for the country to be," said Kathleen Sebelius,
health and human services secretary under President Barack Obama. "The reason I
say it is very dangerous, is that we continue to have a White House that has
made a public health crisis in this country into a debate about whether people
like Donald Trump or not. We have never seen a situation like this before, and
we are paying the price."