Alarming new signs are emerging that the Trump administration is shunting science aside in the battle against coronavirus.
In Wednesday’s most stunning development, a top administration official working on a vaccine claimed he was ousted after resisting efforts to push unproven drugs promoted by President Donald Trump and his conservative media cheerleaders as “game changer” treatments.
That news was followed by a bewilderingly inconsistent White House briefing. Conflicting messages on when to reboot the economy, the need for testing and the possibility of a resurgence of the virus combined with Trump’s effort to suppress facts that jar with his insistence that the end of a nightmare likely to last many more months is near.
In another bizarre twist, Trump produced Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to walk back his remarks that the coronavirus challenge could be more difficult in the fall.
Trump claimed that Redfield had been “totally misquoted” by the media. But under questioning from reporters, Redfield confirmed that he had in fact made the remarks that angered Trump.
“I’m accurately quoted in The Washington Post,” he conceded, as Trump countered that the headline was wrong. It accurately described Redfield warning that if a coronavirus resurgence came at the same time as the flu season, hospitals could be overwhelmed.
The President also openly clashed with his top public health officials on the likelihood of the virus returning for another assault in the fall – saying only “embers” of disease were likely that could be easily put out.
The President did break with Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, saying he “strongly disagrees” with aggressive plans to open businesses including hair salons on Friday as pro-Trump southern states look to ease stay-at-home orders.
But his rebuke followed days of Trump all but goading southern conservative states to open up, even though many don’t yet meet White House opening guidelines. And a source familiar with calls between Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and the Georgia governor said that both men expressed support and praise for Kemp’s move to reopen businesses.
Wednesday’s show, orchestrated by Trump in his campaign style-briefing, is unlikely to ease fears amid Americans tiring of stay-at-home orders but wary of reemerging into normal life.
It also exacerbated the consistent impression that the President’s fast shifting positions are based more on hunches and his political requirements than a factual reading of the progression of the crisis that is far from abating.
Top official said he was ousted over Trump-endorsed treatments
The drama involving Dr. Rick Bright, who led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, appeared to be the latest occasion when a senior official who contradicted Trump’s pet causes paid with his job.
Bright claimed he was transferred to another post because of his “insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address Covid-19 into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.”
But a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said Bright himself sought out chloroquine, one of the controversial treatment drugs.
“As it relates to chloroquine, it was Dr. Bright who requested an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for donations of chloroquine that Bayer and Sandoz recently made to the Strategic National Stockpile for use on Covid-19 patients. The EUA is what made the donated product available for use in combating Covid-19,” said Caitlin Oakley, deputy assistant secretary at HHS.
Trump, spent several weeks all but prescribing hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 patients, saying doctors had little to lose in using a drug not clinically trialed for the disease. A new study however suggests that the therapy might actually harm the prognosis of critically ill patients.
The President insisted he had nothing to do with Bright’s ouster.
“I have never heard of him. I don’t know who he is,” Trump insisted.
In staggeringly frank comments issued through his attorneys, Bright suggested that the leadership of the Health and Human Services Department was not committed to following science and wanted to fund drugs promoted by Trump’s political allies. He also claimed the administration tried to broaden the use of hydroxychloroquine in an unsafe manner and may even have endangered lives by pushing the drug, which is typically used to treat lupus and other conditions.
“Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk and stunts national efforts to safely and effectively address this urgent public health crisis,” Bright wrote.“Rushing blindly towards unproven drugs can be disastrous and result in countless more deaths. Science, in service to the health and safety of the American people, must always trump politics.”
Bizarre scene as Redfield walks back his fall warning
In another episode in which Trump appeared to challenge established fact, the President claimed Redfield had been “totally misquoted” by the media. But under questioning from reporters, the CDC chief confirmed that he had in fact made the remarks that angered Trump.
“I’m accurately quoted in The Washington Post,” he said, before complaining about the headline on an article in which he warned if a coronavirus resurgence came at the same time as the flu season, hospitals could be overwhelmed.
Redfield’s appearance, which was awkward to watch as a public servant was openly pressured by a President, appeared to have been ordered because his remarks countered Trump’s optimistic pledges that the pandemic is almost over.
We “may not even have corona coming back” Trump said, countering most of the science of pandemics which suggest the disease will circulate until there is a vaccine or sufficient members of the public have been infected to provide herd immunity.
Trump then asked Dr. Deborah Birx, a senior member of the coronavirus task force “Dr., wouldn’t you say there’s a good chance that Covid will not come back?”
Birx replied: “We don’t know.”
Trump insisted “we may have some embers, and we’re going to put them out – of corona.”
He refused to explain to reporters why he believed the disease would not come back in the fall.
Trump undermines Georgia opening
The President had resisted pressure to rein in Georgia’s Kemp, who appeared to respond to Trump’s calls for a reopening before May 1 with an aggressive plan.
But on Wednesday, he reversed course – in public at least, although the sources familiar with the calls by the President and Pence appeared to indicate that the rebuke may have been more for public consumption than to slow opening.
“I think spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barber shops … is too soon,” Trump said, adding that he told Kemp however he had to make his own decisions.
Trump’s row back puts Kemp in a tough political position. But it does provide Trump with some cover if Georgia’s plans to open its economy cause a spike in viral infections.
Kemp appears to be pressing ahead with his plans, though public discomfort with his approach and the President’s undercutting of his ally could dampen the extent of the opening.
“We will continue with this approach to protect the lives – and livelihoods – of all Georgians,” Kemp tweeted. “Just like the thousands of businesses currently operating throughout Georgia, I am confident that business owners who decide to reopen will adhere to Minimum Basic Operations, which prioritize the health and well-being of employees and customers.”
Fauci’s emotional plea
Wednesday’s briefing was notable for the reappearance of Fauci for the first time this week. The veteran infectious disease specialist has not been afraid to bluntly adopt positions that imply strong disagreement with the President’s stances.
“We have to proceed in a very careful, measured way,” Fauci said, in registering apparent disapproval of a clutch of southern states that appear to be putting aside White House guidelines that call for states to record a 14-day decline in coronavirus infections before they think of limited openings.
“I plead with the American public, with the governors, with the mayors, with the people with responsibility, although I know one has the need to leapfrog over things, don’t do that,” Fauci said.
“Do it in a measured way. This is a successful formula. The problem is, if we don’t do that, there is a likelihood that we’ll have a rebound. And the one way not to reopen the economy is to have a rebound that we can’t take care of,” he added.
Several southern states – including Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Texas – appear keen to heed the President’s eagerness to open up the economy. That’s even though the virus has not receded sufficiently to comply with White House guidelines in some cases. Yet other, harder hit states in the northeast, the Midwest and the West are far from reopening.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday he understood the political and economic pressure to reopen. But he warned that states must not make “stupid” decisions they might regret.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Kevin Liptak, Jim Acosta and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.