Politics

A Former Pence Aide on His COVID Task Force: “It Is Everything That Horrifies You”

Mike Pence speaks at a podium
Vice President Mike Pence in Washington after a White House coronavirus task force briefing on June 26. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

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As part of the White House coronavirus task force, Olivia Troye had a front-row seat to the federal government’s pandemic response—and its many failures. Troye was a homeland security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence and saw firsthand how the Trump administration hid the truth about the COVID-19 crisis and prioritized the election over public health. She left the White House in August. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Troye about her role on the task force and why she’s speaking out now. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: You’ve spoken about your personal relationship with the doctors [on the task force], for instance, [coronavirus response coordinator Deborah] Birx, [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony] Fauci, [director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert] Redfield. I feel like you had this watercooler access to people who are making major decisions about U.S. health policy.

Olivia Troye: I really got to know these people on a very personal level. I still today worry about them. I care a lot about them. I have seen them go through, quite frankly, hell. I have seen them at some of the darkest moments in this administration, where they’ve been publicly discredited or there’s been an article that has been purposely placed to try to discredit them in the nation’s views.

Can you describe one of those moments? Is there one that stands out to you?

There were so many instances. But I will say this: Dr. Redfield, he especially was bullied.

Who was bullying him?

It was senior political staff, whether it was at the chief of staff level, the communications teams. And I remember having a conversation with Dr. Redfield where he said to me, “In every pandemic, CDC does frequent briefings. … I’m struggling because I have my scientists in my agency behind me saying, ‘Why aren’t you out there informing the public?’ ” And my heart broke a little in that moment for him because he was saying, “Can you help me? Can you help me figure out how to navigate this? How do I get into a press briefing again?” And I was thinking to myself, Well, that’s the million-dollar question, because I’m probably going to call you in a couple hours and tell you that you’re not needed.

It’s hard because there was a specific push to make sure that if somebody was being a little bit too forthcoming and honest about the severity of the pandemic, they didn’t want that message out. The communications people that were running this response and the messaging on it were very careful to craft these messages. … The media reported, Is Dr. Fauci being muzzled? Where is Dr. Fauci? People were concerned. … And Dr. Fauci came out and said, “No, I’m not being muzzled.” I remember the White House being relieved that he had said that, because it would look very poorly upon them.

I thought to myself, Dr. Fauci doesn’t know that he’s being muzzled because I’m the one calling him and saying, “You’re not needed today.” I tried to do it in the most respectful way. I mean, this is Dr. Fauci, a national treasure, and I’m wasting his time—he’s already in the car. At times it was like, “Yes, you’re needed,” and then I had to call 10 minutes before and be like, “Sorry, you’re not needed today. We’re gonna focus on a different topic.”

The vice president, as the head of the task force, bears some responsibility for how the response played out. And you did help him do that job. I think of the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where he said, back in June, there is no second wave of coronavirus. But, of course, there very much was a second wave.

Well, he regretted writing that op-ed. And those of us who helped on it certainly said this is a really bad idea.

Did you regret helping him with it?

I worked closely with the speech writing team and the comms people … because I was a fact-checker. What we decided, to be honest, was that we would try to write it in a way that was factual to a certain extent. So we tried to cherry-pick, because I know that the person that [ghostwrote] this op-ed morally felt like this was wrong.

And they wrote it anyway.

Well, we work ultimately for the vice president and the chief of staff. And we were told to do this.

What would have happened if you or others tried to empower the vice president to do something different, said, “Hey, here are the facts. We think you need to go to the president and lay them out”?

The problem with that is that the president knew the facts. They had been laid out for him every single day. And the vice president knew the facts. It’s just that there was a narrative that they were trying to support and get out—because when that op-ed comes out, we were definitely in the “we need to reopen up the country” [phase], and they were telling the governors to get on board. They were telling the Republican governors, “You need to set the example. You need to be out in front.”

You’ve seemed reticent to speak out about Vice President Pence, but I wondered if that was changing. I noticed you were watching the vice presidential debate and you said it was pretty emotional for you.

It was hard. This is someone that I got to know fairly well. He was always very kind to me. He was a good boss. We went through some very stressful times together, and at times he would get stressed out. And I know that he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I knew that what we were going through as a task force probably was nothing compared to what he was facing, in terms of his dynamic with the president.

Why do you say that?

The president is a force to be reckoned with, and at the end of the day, unfortunately, Mike Pence works for Donald Trump. And you’ve seen Donald Trump firsthand. He doesn’t hide it. He doesn’t hide who he is. And I think that put all of us in a very, very challenging position. So when I say I have respect for the vice president, I do still have respect for him. I worked with him. I saw him try to do the right thing at times that I felt mattered. But he is part of this political machine, and the night of the debate, watching him, the way he responded, was I frustrated? Yes, because I kept thinking, You continue to defend this person. You continue to defend the indefensible. But I know, from his perspective, he’s the vice president. He is on this political ticket. And at the end of the day, for him, it’s politics. For me, it’s lives.

So how did you make the decision to leave?

I struggled, weighing the pros and cons of it. It was hard for me to leave the task force members. I cared a lot about their work. It was very hard for me to walk away knowing that there would be a gap. But at some point, I just felt that there was a political dynamic in our own office, in the vice president’s office, that I was not going to overcome, the closer the election got, and I just decided it was time.

The White House has said they fired you. The president has said, “I don’t know her.” You have said firmly that is not the case—“I left the job and I was asked to stay.”

Correct. I resigned. I took some time actually to really think about it. I was asked by task force members to reconsider, and I just decided that it was time, knowing everything that I had seen. And I was very disappointed, especially from [Pence’s national security adviser,] Gen. Keith Kellogg, who knew my work. He knows that I did my role well, and I was very diligent and dedicated, day and night, to this role. I was surprised that he would say, “I fired her. Her performance was declining. I walked her out.” I’ve said I would love to see the videotape of that, because I lived it. That’s not exactly what happened.

You remind me of someone I interviewed a few months back who was a former journalist with Breitbart who left that organization. It was like she was on fire, like she had to talk to everyone about what she’d seen there. Is that how you feel?

It was a very hard and personal decision to speak out, and I knew that it would come with great consequence along the way. I don’t know what it means for my long-term career. I’ve certainly suffered repercussions recently because of it. …

I just felt that this was a moment like no other. Our country is in a very, very different place right now. I just felt like I had to tell the truth firsthand about what I’d seen, and if maybe it got to one voter, at least, or informed the population, if it helped them understand who or what they were voting for, if they were voting for the president—I mean, voting is a personal decision. I get that. But I said, if I could make a difference in just telling people, “Hey, you’ve seen it in the media, you’ve seen it on the news. It is everything that horrifies you. It is everything that you may suspect.” The “fake news,” that the president says a lot. It’s not fake. I lived it.

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