The Memo: Gulf grows between Trump and scientists

The distance between President Trump and the nation’s top scientists is growing wider by the day.

On Thursday, Rick Bright, the whistleblower who says he was unjustly ousted from his position leading a biodefense unit within the Department of Health and Human Services, told Congress that “lives were lost” because of the administration’s failures.

Bright also lamented what he sees as the lack of a comprehensive strategy to meet the once-in-a-lifetime threat. 

“Our window of opportunity is closing,” he said. “If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.”

Two days previously, Anthony Fauci, probably the best known public health figure combating the crisis, made plain his disagreement with the president on several issues — including Trump’s assertion that COVID-19 might go away even in the absence of a vaccine.

“That is just not going to happen,” Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Trump is not concealing his irritation with either man. But his reactions suggest that he grasps their capacity to damage him on the biggest issue of his presidency — one where polls show he does not enjoy the public’s trust.

Trump launched a preemptive attack on Bright on Thursday morning on Twitter. 

The president called Bright a “so-called Whistleblower,” said he had “never met him or even heard of him” and insisted he was a “disgruntled employee” who was not respected by peers.

Those criticisms were perhaps to be expected given Bright’s vocal objection to the manner of his firing. Bright alleges that he was removed, in part, because of his general warnings about the pandemic and in part because he did not share Trump’s enthusiasm for anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.

Trump’s criticisms of Fauci were more striking.

Fauci’s reluctance to back the opening of schools in the absence of a vaccine drew a rebuke from Trump.

“I was surprised by his answer,” the president told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “To me, it’s not an acceptable answer especially when it comes to schools.”

Trump also jabbed at Fauci more generally, saying that he “wants to play all sides of the equation.”

The president is showing no signs of bending to comport with the scientific consensus, however. Trump suggested that testing might be “frankly, overrated” during a visit to a medical equipment distribution center in Pennsylvania on Thursday. 

Many public health experts have asserted that widespread testing is essential before the nation can reopen safely.

Beyond that, experts who spoke to The Hill said they had been struck by the sense of a widening fissure between Trump, and the doctors and scientists — some of whom are members of his own administration.

Kavita Patel of the Brookings Institution said that the overall effect was “where the two hearings [on Tuesday and Thursday] were ‘Trump versus science.’ That made it political but it wasn’t supposed to be.”

Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert and Georgetown Law School professor, said that “the president and White House are playing down the seriousness of COVID-19, while the scientists are asking the public to sacrifice for the common good. The public are caught in the middle, confused and divided.”

The White House has pushed back against the idea that the president and the scientists are in conflict with one another.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, asked by reporters on Thursday morning whether Trump was critical of scientists, replied, “That’s not at all the case.” 

Thought McEnany acknowledged that Trump and Fauci had differing views when it came to reopening schools she also said: “The president has a number of experts he takes into consultation and he decides what is best to go forward. The president regularly talks to the doctors. …He ultimately makes the decision as to how to move forward. After all he was elected by the American people to do just that.”

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sought to rebut the specific criticisms made by Bright. 

“Everything he is complaining about was achieved,” Azar said. “Everything he talked about was done. He says he talked about the need for respirators; we procured respirators under the president’s direction.”

Fauci has found himself the target of criticism from beyond the White House.

Tucker Carlson of Fox News Channel argued on his show on Tuesday that too much deference was being shown to Fauci.

“Fauci, like every other human being, is flawed,” Carlson said. ”He says things that are wise, and things that are profoundly silly. He is not the one person that should be in charge.”

More controversially, Carlson branded Fauci “the chief buffoon of the professional class.”

Fauci has, on one hand, taken some positions that he has later reversed, such as on the efficacy of wearing face masks. He also said in January that the virus was not “a major threat” to Americans.

But he is generally revered within the scientific community for work that stretches back to the worst days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Still, the president’s blasts at Fauci and Bright suggests battle lines are being drawn. That, in itself, causes consternation in some quarters.

“It is not a political game we are playing, it’s a scientific one,” said Patel, the Brookings expert. “It’s the virus doing the talking, not Democrats.”

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


Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus Donald Trump Rick Bright Tucker Carlson
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