The Slatest

White House Coronavirus Adviser Scott Atlas’ Legacy Will Be Propping Up Trump’s Most Dangerous Pandemic Impulses

Trump listens in the background while Atlas speaks during a White House press conference.
Scott Atlas speaks during a White House press conference in September. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

White House coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas announced his resignation late Monday, days before his several-month term was reportedly set to expire, bringing to a close a highly controversial stint that saw the former Stanford University radiologist, much like his presidential boss, make wild claims that ran counter to the recommendations of much of the scientific community. Atlas had no prior experience in public health but grabbed Trump’s attention during his flame-throwing appearances on Fox News and joined the Trump administration as an adviser in August. Atlas proceeded to push a libertarian approach to managing the pandemic: He questioned the effectiveness of social distancing, considered widespread testing to control the virus unnecessary, all the while he derided widespread closures and questioned the utility of mask-wearing as part of an overall belief in the highly questionable herd immunity approach to solving the virus.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Atlas’ coronavirus views, as you may have suspected, conveniently jibed with Trump’s anti-science takes on all aspects of the virus. They also clashed with the U.S. government guidance shepherded by Anthony Fauci and coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx. “In Dr. Atlas’s view, the government’s job was not to stamp out the virus but simply to protect its most vulnerable citizens as Covid-19 took its course,” the New York Times notes. “His argument was that most people infected with the coronavirus would not get seriously ill, and at some point, enough people would have antibodies from Covid-19 to deprive the virus of carriers—so-called herd immunity. Dr. Atlas also railed against anything that smacked of a lockdown or business closure.” Atlas’ expertise is in magnetic resonance imaging, and he wrote a book about MRIs.

Advertisement

Like every shooting star in the Trump orbit, Atlas’ rhetoric was usually hyperbolic and often sloppy, inflaming existing tensions and creating new ones. Atlas was also basically unaccountable for the things he said and their impact. In one of his parting shots in the public eye, Atlas called on people in Michigan to “rise up” against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions. At the time, Whitmer was already facing death threats and had been the target of plot to kidnap the governor. “He’s an MRI guy. … He has no expertise in any of this stuff,” Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told NPR. “He’s been bringing out arguments that have been refuted week after week, month after month, since the beginning of this outbreak.”

But it was that type of thinking that made Atlas appeal to Trump in the first place. “He has many great ideas,” the president enthused about Atlas in August. “And he thinks what we’ve done is really good, and now we’ll take it to a new level.”

Advertisement