Fissures between the White House and national health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have begun to expand as the coronavirus pandemic spreads to more American states, creating dissonance between President Donald Trump and the professionals tasked with containing the virus further.
The two sides have grown increasingly distrustful of one another, people inside both the CDC and the White House say, as officials on each side question decisions that either appear designed to downplay the growing crisis or to generate further concern.
The cracks are falling along predictable lines. While health officials have sought to present a realistic and cautious picture of the national situation, Trump and his political allies are hoping to relay an altogether different message: that the virus is contained, Americans face little risk, and life should proceed as normal.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, didn’t deny there was a disconnect between the administration’s messaging and the warnings from public health experts when asked by CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on “New Day” Monday.
“I can only speak for myself, Alisyn. As you know, every time I have come in front of this camera – with CNN, “New Day” or any other place – I tell you exactly what I feel, based on the data. I give you my honest opinion of what we should be doing, my honest evaluation, the same way as I’m doing today. But I can’t speak for everyone who is involved in this,” Fauci said.
Trump himself continues to insist he’s satisfied with the work his team is doing to contain the virus and keep Americans safe. But top aides are doubtful he’ll remain cheery for long as headlines question his handling of the outbreak and more Americans contract the virus.
From its earliest days, Trump has sought to downplay coronavirus’ risks and lashed out when those within his administration appeared to be doing otherwise. He told a collective of executives at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, in mid-January that it would not pose a major threat to the United States, an attendee told CNN.
During a 36-hour trip to India in February, Trump grew irate upon hearing that some administration officials, including National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases director Nancy Messonnier, were offering what he determined was an overly fatalistic assessment of the crisis.
And he’s complained that certain officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, were too alarmist in their messaging about the virus. He’s said that doomsday scenarios and overly pessimistic predictions helped tank markets, according to people familiar with those conversations.
This week, some White House officials privately said certain steps taken over the past two months by the CDC were ill-advised. A delay in developing adequate tests – a critical breakdown in the administration’s response – is being pinned on the leaders of the CDC, FDA and HHS by Trump’s allies, who say the failure has led to embarrassing questions of competence for the administration.
Already, the White House was frustrated by decisions the CDC made during the coronavirus outbreak, like the call to leave Americans aboard a cruise liner in Japan and later the move to evacuate them to the United States, which were taken without input or knowledge from the West Wing. Some top officials have privately questioned whether CDC boss Robert Redfield is up to the task of confronting the virus.
Trump has privately warned those working most closely on the coronavirus response – including Azar and Vice President Mike Pence – that their message must not stoke fears or panic, according to people familiar with his directions.
Still, some of those closest to Trump have been forced to confront the realities of the situation. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a top Republican ally in the House of Representatives, appeared to be mocking the virus when he wore a gas mask to votes on the House floor last Wednesday. Late last week, one of his constituents died after contracting coronavirus.
After a number of Trump allies – including then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney – appeared to blame the news media for spreading panic about coronavirus at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an attendee of the gathering tested positive, leading to investigations into the potential spread and at least two lawmakers going into self-quarantine.
Some Republicans in Washington are concerned Trump’s premium on loyalty – only enhanced in the post-impeachment era – has hampered efforts to combat coronavirus.
“The message is if you are on the wrong side of this administration you are gone,” one senior Republican official with ties to the coronavirus response said. “People are afraid. Either there was terrible incompetence, or there was a heavy hand on the scale.”
The message coming from the White House has been to downplay the risks of the virus, leading to confusing public statements that often appear contradictory and unhelpful.
Trump’s visit to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta Friday did little to quell concerns among federal health professionals that the President is ignoring their warnings to create a rosy picture of the situation. He misstated the availability of coronavirus testing, deemed himself a natural expert in epidemiology and attacked political adversaries instead of relaying words of caution and advice that some officials have advocated.
The dynamic continued over the weekend as federal health officials continued to diverge from – or completely contradict – Trump and his top officials.
Azar was forced to clarify Trump’s statement from his visit to the CDC that “anyone who wants a test can get a test” during an off-camera briefing at the White House on Saturday.
“You may not get a test unless a doctor or public health official prescribes a test,” Azar told reporters. “That is our medical system in the United States, in the same way that you may not get a cardiac medicine if your doctor doesn’t prescribe that.”
By Sunday there were further signs of discord. Jerome Adams, the US surgeon general, warned the virus would appear in more and more states – even though some top White House aides, including chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow and counselor Kellyanne Conway, said on Friday it was being contained.
“We’re shifting into a mitigation phase, which means that we’re helping communities understand, you’re going to see more cases. Unfortunately, you’re going to see more deaths,” Adams said.
Other officials offered more clear-cut warnings to elderly Americans about traveling and convening in large groups than Trump has been willing to offer himself.
“If you get infected, the risk of getting into trouble is considerable, so it’s our responsibility to protect the vulnerable,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“When I say ‘protect,’ I mean right now, not wait until things get worse. Say ‘no large crowds, no long trips, and above all, don’t get on a cruise ship,’” he continued.
Chandelis Duster, Holly Yan, Faith Karimi and Dakin Andone contributed to this story.