“When we said there were millions of tests available, there weren’t, right?” said Brett Giroir, who served as the nation’s coronavirus testing czar, referencing the administration’s repeated claims in March 2020 that anyone who sought a coronavirus test could get one. “There were components of the test available, but not the full meal deal.”
“People really believed in the White House that testing was driving cases, rather than testing was a way for us to stop cases,” said Deborah Birx, who served as White House coronavirus coordinator. Birx also said that most of the virus-related deaths in the United States after the first 100,000 in the spring surge could have been prevented with a more robust response. “That’s what bothers me every day,” she said.
CNN’s special with Giroir, Birx and four other senior physicians was pitched as a tell-all with former Trump officials, who are increasingly speaking out about what went wrong after more than 400,000 people in the United States died with the virus during the Trump administration. An additional 130,000-plus have died of covid-19 since President Biden’s inauguration, according to data compiled by The Washington Post
But the finger-pointing and portrayals of some episodes prompted critics to say that former Trump administration officials who managed the pandemic response have turned to a new project: managing their legacies.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s public health school and a prominent pandemic commentator. “Brett Giroir knew we had a problem with testing. With PPE. With vaccine distribution. He told me as much. But he felt he needed to say what the administration wanted to hear publicly.”
The CNN special is among the first of a slew of in-progress books and other projects plumbing the Trump administration’s oft-chaotic response to the coronavirus, providing former officials an opportunity to air their side of the story — often in a far more favorable light than previously reported. Some of those officials also have compared notes and aligned their recollections, a dynamic detailed by Politico last week, as they work to rehabilitate their reputations and shape future perspectives on the pandemic.
“I was marginalized every day. I mean, that is no question. The majority of the people in the White House did not take this seriously,” said Birx, who increasingly broke with the administration on its testing strategy and mitigation efforts as the year progressed. Birx said she was personally rebuked by Trump after warning in an August interview that Americans needed to take strict safety precautions because the virus was “extraordinarily widespread.”
“He felt very strongly that I misrepresented the pandemic in the United States, that I made it out to be much worse than it is,” she said. “I feel like I didn’t even make it out as bad as it was.”
Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that political meddling with his agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports — the vaunted scientific reviews that researchers use to detail their findings — went further than had been reported last year. Redfield alleged that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar personally intervened to try to change reports that political officials did not like.
“I was on more than one occasion called by the secretary and his leadership, directing me to change the MMWR. He may deny that, but it’s true,” Redfield told CNN. Azar has denied the claim, and several former senior HHS staff said in a joint statement that the secretary and his deputies “always regarded the MMWR as sacrosanct.”
One of the disputes between Azar and Redfield centered on CDC’s decision to publish an advisory committee’s recommendations on which Americans should be prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine, said two former officials speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Stephen Hahn, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told CNN interviewer Sanjay Gupta that his relationship with Azar deteriorated after the health secretary revoked the agency’s ability to regulate some coronavirus tests. Hahn framed the issue as a “line in the sand” that put patients at risk and, responding to Gupta’s questions, implied that Azar had berated him during the dispute.
“There is definitely that sort of pressure, Sanjay. You know, it’s true. At the end of the day, someone’s trying to ask me to do something that I don’t think is right,” Hahn said. Azar told CNN that he disputed Hahn’s recollection of the conversation, and said the then-FDA commissioner threatened to resign on their call, which Hahn denied.
Birx used her CNN interview to criticize Scott Atlas, a radiologist who was installed as a high-level White House adviser in August 2020 despite his lack of infectious-disease experience. Atlas caught the White House’s attention after defending the administration’s response and arguing concerns about the virus were overblown, and Trump quickly came to favor him over Birx and other officials.
“I told people I would not be in a meeting with Dr. Atlas again. I felt very strongly that I didn’t want an action that legitimized in any way his position,” said Birx. The Post last year reported on Birx’s clashes with Atlas and her efforts to warn about the pandemic’s risks that conflicted with the White House’s more optimistic response. CNN said Atlas didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Robert Kadlec, the former assistant secretary for preparedness and response, told CNN that early plans to ramp up coronavirus supplies by invoking the Defense Production Act — which would have compelled manufacturers to prioritize the administration’s supply requests — were slowed down by an administration fight over funding that dragged on through February. “The thing is, is that in order to invoke the Defense Production Act, you have to basically have a contract. That didn’t happen till April because we didn’t get our money till March,” Kadlec said.
While tell-alls are a regular Washington phenomenon as officials exit government and offer more candid personal perspectives on White House policy battles, some longtime hands noted the stakes are elevated in this case because of the historic importance of the coronavirus — and the United States’ unexpectedly poor performance.
“I think what makes the urgency greater is that the event was a once-in-a-100-year pandemic when more than half a million people died” in the United States, said William Pierce, a senior director at public-affairs firm APCO Worldwide and a former senior health official during the Bush administration. “Histories are going to be written about this for the next 100 years.”
Several former Trump officials defended the growing number of tell-all interviews, saying they are important to understand what went wrong.
“It could be a very valuable exercise to tell their stories and let people evaluate them so we’ll be better prepared next time,” said Joe Grogan, who led Trump’s domestic policy efforts and was part of the White House’s coronavirus task force before leaving the administration in May 2020.
Others were more critical of their former colleagues’ comments, saying that they had waited too long to speak out and are now attempting to rehabilitate their reputations.
For instance, Birx had praised Trump’s response after being installed as White House coronavirus coordinator in March 2020, commending his attentiveness to scientific literature — even as the then-president was pushing anti-malaria drugs such as hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus treatment over the objections of his scientific advisers.
“They were all complicit in a narrative to downplay the threat because they felt that’s what Trump wanted,” said another former senior Trump administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They manipulated their statements to please Trump right up until the point that it was painfully clear they had made a bad personal trade.”
Asked why they didn’t speak out sooner, some officials said they calculated that by staying in the administration, they were better able to influence the response, said eight people involved in the coronavirus response, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss still-confidential conversations.
But the damage to their reputations appears to have lingered, as many have gone to relatively low-profile roles since leaving the Trump administration. Birx this month joined an air-cleaning company and is serving as a senior fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. Hahn joined the board of a small therapeutics company, and Redfield is serving as an adviser on Maryland’s coronavirus response. Others like Giroir and Azar have yet to announce their next roles.
It’s a contrast to their predecessors in previous administrations, who often announced prominent positions shortly after leaving government. Margaret Hamburg, who served as Barack Obama’s FDA commissioner before stepping down in April 2015, was named five days later as foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine, an influential advisory group on health and science issues. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who led HHS until the end of the Obama administration in January 2017, was announced six days later as the new president of American University in Washington, D.C.
CNN also interviewed Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert who’s now advising Biden and who was publicly critical of aspects of Trump’s response last year — unlike some of his political counterparts. The career civil servant has continued to speak out since Biden’s inauguration, recently lamenting the “lost opportunity” when Trump chose to get vaccinated in private rather than in public, and defending his own decision to stay in government service last year.
“When people just see you standing up there, they sometimes think you’re being complicit in the distortions emanating from the stage,” Fauci told the New York Times. “But I felt that if I stepped down, that would leave a void. Someone’s got to not be afraid to speak out the truth.”