One of the striking patterns in the federal government’s crisis response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been the extent of the disconnect between the federal infectious disease professionals and the White House. Until the President’s press conference it was almost as if they were operating on two separate planets – with the former issuing a frank and increasingly serious set of warnings while the President and his top advisors ranged from happy talk to lashing out at political enemies. That disconnect is not entirely a bad thing. At least the people at the CDC weren’t clearly being muzzled by the White House. The President has the bigger megaphone. But their message was getting out as well.
The President was clearly angered by those sobering warnings, especially because he and his closest advisors have appeared to view most of the crisis through the prism of the stock market. Indeed, creating the task force seems to have been motivated in large part to assert control over statements from the federal government. Dr. Nancy Messonnier warning that outbreaks in the US were not a question of if but when was a particular sore point.
As we noted yesterday, Trump has now put Mike Pence in charge not only of crisis management but public statements as well. Anthony Fauci, the man many of us have known for decades as the steady and candid voice of federal expertise on infectious disease, was instructed not to speak publicly without prior approval by Pence.
So where are we at now?
The President’s behavior since this crisis began to accelerate has been abominable beyond belief. That is a given. Shocking, terrible, purely self-interested. All that is a given. Enough of a given that saying it repeatedly among those who know it has limited utility. I’ve tried to get a sense listening to various experts of what is happening on this task force the White House has created. It is a mixed bag. You have a number of people who are legitimate professionals and experts. Dr. Deborah Birx, the Director, is in that category. So is Fauci, who is also part of the group. Then you have others like Larry Kudlow and Ken Cuccinelli who are really just Trump happy talk mouthpieces or bad actors.
The issue is who ends up driving the effort and who is window dressing. Given Trump administration history, the outlook isn’t encouraging. But that’s what we need to know and we don’t have the luxury of assuming the worst.