200,000 Dead as Trump Vilifies Science 09/23 06:16
NEW YORK (AP) -- "I did the best I could," President Donald Trump said.
Huddled with aides in the West Wing last week, his eyes fixed on Fox News,
Trump wasn't talking about how he had led the nation through the deadliest
pandemic in a century. In a conversation overheard by an Associated Press
reporter, Trump was describing how he'd just publicly rebuked one of his top
scientists --- Dr. Robert Redfield, a virologist and head of the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention.
Redfield had angered the president by asserting that a COVID-19 vaccine
wouldn't be widely available until late 2021. So hours later, with no
supporting evidence, Trump called a news conference to say Redfield was
"confused." A vaccine, Trump insisted, could be ready before November's
Mission accomplished: Fox was headlining Trump's latest foray in his
administration's ongoing war against its own scientists.
It is a war that continues unabated, even as the nation's COVID-19 death
toll has reached 200,000 --- nearly half the number of Americans killed in
World War II, a once unfathomable number that the nation's top doctors just
months ago said was avoidable.
Over the past six months, the Trump administration has prioritized politics
over science at key moments, refusing to follow expert advice that might have
contained the spread of the virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. Trump
and his people have routinely dismissed experts' assessments of the gravity of
the pandemic, and of the measures needed to bring it under control. They have
tried to muzzle scientists who dispute the administration's rosy spin.
While there is no indication that Trump's desperation for a vaccine has
affected the science or safety of the process, his insistence that one would be
ready before the election is stoking mistrust in the very breakthrough he hopes
will help his reelection.
Today, he is pushing hard for a resumption of normal activity and trying to
project strength and control to bolster his political position in his campaign
against Democrat Joe Biden.
In hindsight, Trump says, there's nothing he would have done differently,
citing his early move to restrict travel from China --- a move that data and
records show was ineffective. Still, he gives himself high marks on his
handling the pandemic --- except for bad messaging.
"On public relations I give myself a D," he told Fox this week. "On the job
itself we take an A-plus."
In late January, after the virus had first emerged in Wuhan, China, the CDC
launched its emergency operations center. What was needed, epidemiologists
said, was an aggressive public education campaign and mobilization of contact
tracing to identify and isolate the first cases before the disease spread out
Instead, Trump publicly played down the virus in those crucial first weeks,
even though he privately acknowledged the seriousness of the threat.
"I wanted to always play it down," the president told journalist Bob
Woodward in March. "I still like playing it down because I don't want to create
But the virus kept coursing through the country, and the world. And with a
president bent on minimizing the dangers, the U.S. would become ever more
polarized, with the simple acts of wearing masks and keeping a distance
transformed into political wedge issues.
"You have to be calm," Trump said on March 6, during a visit to the Atlanta
headquarters of the CDC. "It'll go away."
By mid-March, hospitals in New York and elsewhere were deluged with patients
and storing bodies in refrigerated morgue trucks.
And that was just the beginning.
The death chart was the awakening. On March 31, the nation was still
grappling to understand the scope of the pandemic. Schools were disrupted,
people sheltered at home and professional sports were paused. But the ascending
lines of mortality on the chart said things were going to get way worse.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases, stood next to the president to explain the numbers. The doctors said
that models of the escalating pandemic showed that, unless the country adopted
masks, practiced distancing and kept businesses closed there would be 100,000
to 240,000 deaths. They stressed that if the U.S. adopted strict measures, the
deaths could remain under 100,000.
"We would hope that we could keep it under that," Trump said then.
Still, instead of issuing a national mask mandate and other recommended
measures, the Trump administration within weeks posted its "Opening Up America
The CDC began developing a thick document of guidelines to help local
leaders make decisions about when reopening in their corner of the country was
safe. But the White House thought the guidelines were too strict. They " would
never see the light of day, " CDC scientists were told.
The Associated Press would eventually release the 63-page document, which
offered science-based recommendations for workplaces, day care centers and
Meanwhile, the president refused to wear a mask in public, planned political
rallies where masks were not required, and downplayed the CDC's data tracking
the disease's toll. And in May, communities reopened without the CDC's
The predictable happened: Cases surged as soon as communities reopened. And
by the end of May all hope for keeping the death toll under 100,000 vanished.
The president's argument was the toll from remaining closed would be too
high --- both economically and for people struggling with isolation at home and
unable to send their children to school. Unspoken: the potential impact on his
own reelection prospects.
Eager to find a quick fix that would justify a fast reopening timetable set
by the White House, Trump himself championed the use of hydroxychloroquine, an
anti-malarial drug, as a "game changer" to treat COVID-19. He persisted despite
repeated warnings from the Food and Drug Administration and others that there
was no proof that it was effective, and there was reason to believe it could be
The administration also touted the use of convalescent plasma as a
treatment, though Fauci and others thought the supporting data was weak.
Trump and his administration did not take scientific naysaying well.
Trump installed a lobbyist, Michael Caputo, to head communications for the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CDC and the FDA.
Caputo had worked as a public relations consultant hired by the Russian energy
giant Gazprom to improve President Vladimir Putin's image in the U.S., and had
no public health background.
Caputo hosted a video on Facebook in which he likened government scientists
to a "resistance" against Trump, and emails surfaced in which he castigated CDC
officials, challenging their scientific pronouncements and trying to muzzle
staffers. He would take a leave in September after his actions were revealed.
But the CDC's science-based recommendations continued to be routed through
the White House task force for vetting before release.
The administration's meddling and public rebukes has driven CDC morale to an
all-time low, according to agency officials who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because they were afraid of losing their jobs. The constant battling
against the administration's political forces has made the difficult job of
managing a pandemic even harder, and created a high rate of burnout.
Redfield has been criticized for not being a strong enough defender; those
who long worked at the agency hope to see its leadership stand up for science
in the face of politics.
"I'm sure this won't be easy, but it's essential to CDC's reputation," said
Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a 20-year CDC veteran who is now a medical professor at
the University of Florida. "We need a strong and trusted CDC to get ourselves
through this pandemic --- as well as through the next public health emergency
after this one."
Even as Fauci was restricted in his interactions with the media --- his
candor did not wear well with the administration --- Trump elevated a new
public face for his pandemic response task force: Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford
University neurologist with no background in infectious disease.
White House officials said Atlas' role is to play devil's advocate, and to
question data brought by doctors and public health experts --- with an eye
toward Trump's goal of a wider economic reopening in the weeks before the
election, according to two White House officials who spoke on condition of
anonymity to discuss internal operations.
In Atlas, Trump has a doctor who has downplayed the need for students to
wear masks or social distance. Atlas has advocated for allowing the virus to
run amok to create "herd immunity," the idea that community-wide resistance can
be built by infecting a large portion of the population. The World Health
Organization has discredited the approach as dangerous.
White House officials say Atlas no longer supports it.
As Fauci said in August, there is "a fundamental anti-science feeling" at a
time when some people are pushing back at authority. "Science tends to fall
into the category of authoritative. People don't like that."
Trump's tweets and other pronouncements have served to rally that
opposition, down to the local level.
At least 60 state or local health leaders in 27 states have resigned,
retired or been fired since April, according to a review by the AP and Kaiser
Health News. Those numbers have doubled since June, when the AP and KHN first
started tracking the departures.
Many quit after experiencing political pressure from public officials, or
even violent threats from people angry about mask mandates and closures.
In Ohio, Dr. Joan Duwve was nominated by the governor for the job of state
health director on Sept. 10. But just hours later, she withdrew her name from
consideration. She said in a statement to The State newspaper that she did so
to protect her family, after she learned that armed protesters had gone to the
home of the woman who would have been her predecessor, Dr. Amy Acton, before
she eventually resigned in June.
The White House has realized there is a downside to publicly undermining
science. Officials recognize voter mistrust in the administration's pandemic
response and concerns about political interference in speeding the vaccine
production timetable is an emerging public health crisis of its own. They say
they're worried there will be unnecessary deaths and economic impact if
Americans are afraid of getting vaccinated, according to two White House
officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the administration's
The White House has ordered a campaign to bolster public confidence in the
development process. It would include elevating the profiles of Trump targets
like FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and the CDC's Redfield.
One person is not on board --- Trump. Less than seven weeks from Election
Day, he appears driven to say and do what he sees as necessary to secure a
second term, whether backed by science and evidence or not. So he embraces
rallies that break all the rules proposed by his own scientists, and taunts
Biden for following them.
And despite the grim death toll, the president continues to frame the past
six months as a success.
"When the terrible plague arrived from China, we mobilized American industry
like never before. We rapidly developed life-saving therapies, reducing the
fatality rate," Trump told a raucous Ohio crowd at a rally Monday. "We're going
to deliver a vaccine before the end of the year. But it could be a lot sooner