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On The Trail: Trump's demands for loyalty extend to scientists

The Trump administration's decision to sideline one of the government’s top vaccine specialists at the height of a global coronavirus pandemic has shocked scientists and science advocates who say the president is placing a greater value on loyalty to himself than on the facts and data that could save lives.

The administration this week forced out Rick Bright, the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and an acting deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for preparedness and response.

BARDA, the nation's top vaccine research organization, had entered into a partnership with Johnson & Johnson just weeks ago to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus that has killed tens of thousands of Americans.

Bright's ouster came after he voiced skepticism that two drugs President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE had called potential “game changers” in the battle against the coronavirus — hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine — would actually prove effective.

Trump urged the Food and Drug Administration to approve the two treatments for use in COVID-19 patients in March, and Fox News hosts had been touting their potential — until several studies around the world were halted because the drugs did not show promise in treating COVID-19 or, in the case of a study of Veterans Administration patients given the drugs, fatality rates were actually higher.

Bright said his ouster was retaliation for speaking out in internal administration debates.

“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” Bright said in a statement. “Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the Administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit.”

Trump said Wednesday he had never heard of Bright.

But scientists said Bright's ouster fits a broader pattern that Trump established in the earliest days of his administration to bend hard data to his own benefit — or to squelch the scientists who challenged his beliefs on climate change and environmental regulations.

“The Trump administration has consistently worked to disregard inconvenient science, and it doesn't take much to be inconvenient,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. “This can have immediate and possibly fatal impacts if it means that ineffective or harmful drugs are mindlessly hawked.”

The pattern has continued as the coronavirus pandemic has spread. Trump initially downplayed the threat of the virus, even as the World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency of international concern. Trump later put a hold on American funding for the global agency.

When a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nancy Messonnier, said in February that the spread of the virus to the United States was “inevitable,” Trump threatened to fire her.

When Trump put Vice President Pence in control of the administration’s response, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci says US could have herd immunity by end of summer 2021 Let the littlest state lead us on COVID-19 Atlas departure from White House cheered by public health officials MORE, canceled several appearances on television shows. CDC director Robert Redfield has walked back statements or clashed with the media — as recently as Thursday — after his comments had been construed in ways that seem to contradict Trump's rosy forecasts. Trump himself has retweeted a post that included a hashtag to fire Fauci.

“In the pandemic, there's no greater time when you actually need the expertise up front. Nobody expects there isn't going to be any politics, but manipulating the information and suppressing the information is deadly,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Literally every person in the country is put at immediate risk.”

In a paper to be published Thursday, Rosenberg's group will report on a survey from last year showing high levels of dissatisfaction among government scientists who say they are demonized and their expertise dismissed.

A White House official denied any distance between Trump and his scientific advisers, including Fauci, Surgeon General Jerome AdamsJerome AdamsWhite House moves forward with holiday parties during pandemic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread Health officials warn of post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 case surge MORE, coronavirus response coordinator Deborah BirxDeborah BirxAtlas departure from White House cheered by public health officials Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread MORE and FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn.

“Despite the media’s ridiculous efforts to somehow create distance between the President and his top health experts, it is simply fake news. President Trump has relied on and consulted with Dr. Adams, Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Hahn, Dr. Redfield, and many others as he has confronted this unforeseen, unprecedented crisis and put the full power of the federal government to work to slow the spread, save lives, and place this great country on a data-driven path to opening up again,” the spokesman, Judd Deere, said in an email.

For years, the Trump administration has been accused of altering studies, deleting mentions of climate change, stifling its scientists and obscuring government data. The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented 126 such incidents since Trump took office in 2017; the Sabin Center counts 417 events, the most recent of which was Bright’s dismissal from BARDA.

Trump’s habit of dismissing scientists in the name of political expediency is a potential threat to longstanding international cooperation between America and its chief allies, all of whom are the world's most significant funders of scientific research.

“Globally, we have been unbelievably important as a very large science enterprise with great freedom to pursue research, to interact with industry and to work internationally,” Rosenberg said. “The U.S. is no longer the trusted partner that we once were, because nobody knows whether we're going to be there.”

He said even tossing around ideas such as defunding the World Health Organization or pulling out of international agreements “signals to the world that the U.S. as an international technical and scientific partner is going to change with the political winds to a much greater extent that it has before.”

“In other words, we are an unreliable partner,” Rosenberg said.

Trump has touted his own scientific knowledge. In a visit to CDC headquarters in early March, Trump said his hosts had asked him how he knew so much about the virus he had been downplaying just days earlier.

“I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it,” Trump said. “Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

Fauci is perhaps the most intriguing case study in how Trump treats scientists, largely because he has been around Washington long enough to carry a brand of his own. He has alternated between insisting there is no distance between himself and the president who heeds his advice and making statements that directly contradict what Trump has said, sometimes only moments before.

On Thursday, Trump told reporters twice that the virus “may not come back at all” in the fall, citing “ten different people” without naming them. Fauci said he was “convinced” that the virus will resurge in the fall, citing Redfield.

Morgan Chalfant contributed. 

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.