When health officials say what they really think about the coronavirus and Trump


SEPTEMBER 11, 2020

Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, listens as President Trump speaks to the media in April. (Jabin Botsford/TWP)

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is by all accounts a mild-mannered and well-respected government official, someone who has served at the pleasure of the last Democratic and current Republican presidents and who has generally operated behind the scenes.

On Thursday night, though, he let his mask of diplomacy slip a little bit, so to speak.

During an appearance on CNN, Collins was shown images of a largely maskless crowd at a rally for President Trump in Michigan. While those before him have said things to the effect of, “We should follow the guidelines” and “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Collins was blunter — and uncharacteristically so.

“How did we get here?” Collins began. “Imagine you were an alien who landed on planet Earth, and you saw that our planet was afflicted by an infectious-disease and that masks were an effective way to prevent the spread. And yet, when you went around, you saw some people not wearing them and some people wearing them.”

He added: “And you tried to figure out why, and it turned out it was their political party. And you would scratch your head and think, ‘This is just not a planet that has much promise for the future’ — if something that is so straightforward can somehow get twisted into decision-making that really makes no sense.”

Collins didn’t invoke Trump personally, but it was evident that he felt this was all a bad idea — and even, very logically, how he would hope Trump would do something more to prevent such a scene.

Trump has simply refused to. In addition to continuing to hold the kinds of rallies health officials have warned against, the president has shed his briefly more pronounced advocacy for masks. After spending months declining to urge people to wear them, suggesting they might be counterproductive, and even ridiculing his 2020 Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, for how he looked in one, Trump briefly reversed course and said wearing a mask was “patriotic.”

Trump at the time was facing pressure from fellow Republicans encountering outbreak in their own states — with many of them more directly urging masks and some of them decrying the politicization of them. He even allowed himself to be seen wearing one for the first time.

But it was short-lived. Trump soon reverted to his previous stance on masks. His rallies have sometimes offered them, but not required them, with few partaking. And as thousands of maskless supporters stare back at him, he has done virtually nothing to persuade them. Collins clearly wishes Trump would use his bully pulpit on this, if not scrap the rallies entirely.

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While the health officials around Trump have generally tried to square their very different advice with Trump’s and have insisted there is little discord inside the administration, sometimes their words and actions suggest otherwise.

And it hasn’t just been when Anthony S. Fauci wiped his brow or Deborah Birx was pictured apparently trying to reconcile Trump’s decision to float the idea of injecting disinfectants.

Fauci has occasionally acknowledged frustration with how Trump has handled things. Perhaps the most remarkable example was a Science magazine interview in May in which he acknowledged Trump’s misinformation and that Fauci’s advice about not holding in-person briefings had been disregarded, but he expressed exasperation about how to respond to it.

“I know, but what do you want me to do?” Fauci said. “I mean, seriously … let’s get real: What do you want me to do?”

Fauci added: “When you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens.”

When pressed again on the wisdom of holding in-person events, Fauci responded: “I know that. I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible.”

Robert C. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also has run afoul of Trump a time or two, including when he insisted the fall and winter would be an extremely difficult time. Trump soon held a news conference in which he invited Redfield to address a Washington Post interview in which he alleged Redfield had been “misquoted.”

Except Redfield didn’t exactly play ball, saying, “I’m accurately quoted in The Washington Post.”

And just last month, even the health official Trump has most aligned with on the coronavirus task force, Birx, drew his ire. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized Birx’s credibility, Birx offered a dire assessment on the Sunday shows. She said the virus was “extraordinarily widespread” and warned that it had infiltrated “both rural and urban” areas. She suggested 300,000 people could die by year’s end. She even urged caution in reopening schools, despite Trump’s nascent push to do so on an expansive basis.

Trump responded by criticizing Birx for taking Pelosi’s “bait” and called the whole thing “pathetic.”

The media often gets criticized for too closely parsing statements by these health officials and seeking out discord within the highest levels of the federal government — as if it’s just a whole lot of palace intrigue. Fauci has even criticized the media for this, despite obviously differing with Trump on a number of occasions.

But on stuff like whether Trump should hold rallies full of maskless people, it’s been evident how these health officials have felt about it for a while. Sometimes they’ll dance around it, but sometimes in less-guarded moments, their exasperation is evident.

And Collins’s remarkably frank comments seem to betray what they’ve really felt — but have worried about saying too forcefully.

Courtesy/Source: Washington Post