The Memo: Concerns grow over political pressure on coronavirus experts


Experts are worried that scientists and other key public health figures are facing increasing political pressure as the coronavirus crisis deepens. 

The near-daily press briefings at the White House have seen tense moments between President Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the two main public faces of the crisis from the scientific community.

At the same time, recent comments Birx made in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network sparked concern among the left and beyond.

In the interview, Birx described Trump as “so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data.” The president’s “ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit,” she added.

Jeremy Konyndyk, an Obama administration veteran who once headed the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, tweeted a clip of the interview, calling it “incredibly disappointing” and adding, “I realize she needs to stay in his good graces to be effective, but this just is not credible.”

The situation for figures like Birx and Fauci is a complicated one.

For public health purposes, they want to have influence with Trump and not be sidelined. But they also need to retain their credibility amid Trump’s penchant for misstatements and dislike of being contradicted. That balance is made all the more difficult when he casts doubt on whether hospitals need as many ventilators as they’re requesting, or rails against media coverage that he deems unfair.

Dr. Kavita Patel, a health specialist at The Brookings Institution, said the scientists were in an inherently difficult position — trained in an area that demands dispassionate analysis but having to deal with the glare of the national spotlight and Trump’s tempestuous personality.

“You can’t feel comfortable because you have to balance the psychology and the emotions of who you are delivering the message to,” noted Patel, who served in the Obama administration and also worked on the staff of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Alarm bells rang loudest in the scientific community when Trump was holding out the possibility of trying to get the nation back open for business by Easter, which is now less than two weeks away.

He later backed off that objective, announcing at Sunday’s White House briefing that current restrictions would remain in place through April 30. He also held out June 1 as a date by which he thought “we will be well on our way to recovery.”

Trump directly referenced data and projections from Fauci and Birx as having guided his decision.

“The modeling” the two scientists had shown him, he said “demonstrate[d] that the mitigation measures we are putting in place may significantly reduce the number of new infections and, ultimately, the number of fatalities.”

On Monday, Fauci told CNN’s “New Day,” that he and Birx “went in together in the Oval Office and leaned over the desk and said, ‘Here are the data. Take a look.’ He looked at them, he understood them and he just shook his head and said, ‘I guess we got to do it.’”

Fauci in particular seems to have walked a tightrope with Trump.

He was notably cooler than the president on the chances of an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, proving effective in treating COVID-19.

An interview Fauci gave with Science Magazine this month expressed some of the tensions inherent in working with the president.

Referring to Trump’s tendency to misstate facts, Fauci said: “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down. OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.”

Comments like that have earned him hostility from the president’s loyalists, particularly on social media.

Public health experts who know Fauci worry about the effects, as the polarized atmosphere of the time adds to the stress of trying to combat a pandemic.

“When the president says something and you know the facts are not there, how do you stand up and say the president was wrong?” wondered Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a public health specialist.

“Some … have  done the balancing act well, like Tony. But at a personal level — I am a friend of his — I am really worried about him having to go through this: the stress, the strain, the abuse that he is taking, for simply telling the truth,” he added.

The question of whether scientists would bend the data to curry favor with Trump is a trickier one to answer.

Birx received criticism in some quarters almost two weeks ago for appearing to overstate accuracy problems with a World Health Organization diagnostic test for coronavirus. She later walked those comments back.

In the public health world, concern appears to be more focused on whether Trump will ignore science rather than whether the scientists will yield to pressure in their findings or comments.

Patel, the Brookings expert, said that Trump’s Sunday shift extending the restrictions gave her some hope — but hardly overwhelming optimism.

“Yesterday was a glimmer of hope” she told The Hill on Monday, referring not just to Trump’s move but to his willingness to explicitly link that decision to data.

“Having said that,” she added, “it was only yesterday when you felt like there was this turning point and it was three months too late. You had started to see data from China in late December and early January that was very disturbing.”

On all sides, there is a fearfulness about the ability of anyone to unify a deeply divided nation around any established set of guidelines — or even facts.

“Science has to lead and people have to come together,” said Gostin. “We have to end the divisiveness that is showing all the fault-lines of the political class at this moment.”

If the American response is instead driven along partisan political lines, “I don’t think history will ever forgive it,” he added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus Donald Trump
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