Deborah Birx, the former response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, is widely hated. According to her critics, Birx sucked up to then-President Donald Trump, collaborated in his disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic, and failed to call out his falsehoods. She’s often contrasted with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who, according to the popular narrative, bravely stood up to Trump. But a new CNN feature on the Trump team’s pandemic response, based on extensive on-camera interviews with members of the team, finds that the real story is much more complicated.
In the interviews, aired by CNN on Sunday night, several current or former officials—among them, Birx, Fauci, and Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—spoke frankly about political pressures they faced. Birx said the administration blocked her from doing national TV interviews that might contradict Trump. Redfield said Alex Azar, who was then the secretary of health and human services, leaned on him aggressively “on more than one occasion” to alter the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. (Azar denied this.) Stephen Hahn, the former commissioner of food and drugs, also said Azar pressured him.
Fauci told the program’s host, CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, that he and Birx conferred regularly and pursued the same agenda, but from different positions. “I was the bad cop. She was the good cop,” Fauci explained. He noted that “it was easy for me,” as a career civil servant with job security, to contradict Trump, “because I had my base” at the National Institutes of Health. Birx was in “a much more difficult situation,” Fauci observed, since she served at the pleasure of the White House.
Birx, a veteran of the global campaign against HIV, tried to work with the Trump administration the way she had learned to work with foreign regimes that denied facts about HIV. “I’ve dealt with presidents and prime ministers around the globe who will often have misperceptions about diseases,” she told Gupta. “I’ve always found that if you can find that common ground with the information and data, they will change policies.” That experience, she explained, was why she initially praised Trump for being “attentive” to science and data. And for a while, it worked. If Trump hadn’t taken her seriously, she told Gupta, “he wouldn’t have shut down the country for 15 days and then another 30,” as she and Fauci had recommended.
But then Trump began to override her advice. Why didn’t she push back in public? Birx cited two episodes that might explain this. The first happened in late February, when Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned Americans that the pandemic would overtake the United States. Messonnier “got moved aside because of saying that,” Birx told Gupta. Apparently, Birx worried that the same would happen to her. “I knew I was being watched,” she told Gupta. “Everybody inside [the White House] was waiting for me to make a misstep, so that they could, I guess, remove me from the task force.”
The second episode happened in August, when Birx contradicted Trump in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash. Birx told Bash that the virus was rampant and was threatening rural areas. “Everybody in the White House was upset with that interview,” she recalled, speaking to Gupta. Trump responded to the August interview by phoning Birx to chew her out. “It was very uncomfortable, very direct, and very difficult to hear,” she told Gupta.
What comes across in Birx’s conversation with Gupta, in her tone and words, is emotional sensitivity. During the interview, she spoke repeatedly of what the people around her thought, how they felt, and how those signals affected her. She made clear that she was alarmed by Messonnier’s fate, that Trump’s rebuke wounded her, and that the idea of being in open conflict with him distressed her. This sensitivity to conflict didn’t affect Birx’s integrity. But it gave Trump and others leverage over her.
It’s bizarre, however, to blame Birx while letting her colleagues off the hook. CNN’s review clearly implicates Fauci and others in two big mistakes early in the pandemic. First, they underrated the possibility that the virus was spreading asymptomatically. In his interview with Gupta, Fauci defended his incredulity at the time, noting that no previous respiratory pandemic had spread that way. He and Redfield also blamed China for hiding information. But during the program, CNN showed video of Redfield confirming, at a January 2020 press conference with Fauci, that China had “reported evidence of transmission in the asymptomatic phase.”
The second mistake was discouraging use of masks. CNN showed video of Fauci and Redfield urging the public, early in the pandemic, not to wear masks. Gupta noted that by March 8, 2020, Fauci and others knew the virus was “spreading asymptomatically” and was spreading in the United States—yet “you told 60 Minutes” there was “no reason to be walking around with a mask.” Fauci explained that “we were told at the level of the task force that we have a real shortage of masks,” and therefore, to protect the mask supply for health care workers, “We don’t really want the whole country going out and trying to use up all the masks.” That was a deliberate decision—albeit for the sake of medical personnel—to discourage risk reduction in the general population.
But these early failures pale in comparison to the damage done by subsequent decisions. In Birx’s estimation, the first COVID surge killed about 100,000 Americans. Hundreds of thousands more died later because states and the public resumed normal business without waiting for infections to subside. Fauci told Gupta he was dismayed when Trump demanded to “liberate” states from COVID restrictions. Birx recalled that in April, Trump told her he would never let the country be shut down again. And that “was the last time I really had any briefing with” the president, she told Gupta. By the fall, “I didn’t have access to him.” She was pushed aside in favor of Scott Atlas, a quack who promoted the resumption of normal business, thereby accelerating the pandemic.
Atlas was exactly what Birx had feared. She had stayed in her job, circulated data in hopes of chastening the White House, and lobbied for public health measures, knowing that if she stormed out, Trump could find somebody who would tell him what he wanted to hear. Why, then, did she stay after Atlas took over? Why didn’t she speak out?
In a way, she did. But she didn’t do it on national TV, where the White House was blocking her appearances. She took her case for masks and restrictions to governors. “We developed the whole state-level strategy,” she told Gupta. Fauci confirmed this: “Deb would be with her suitcase, getting on a plane and visiting everybody. I would be constantly on the phone with governors and mayors, talking about what they need to do.” On these trips, Birx told Gupta, she was able “to be frank with regional and local press and governors and mayors, and be very clear about mask mandates and closing bars and severely restricting indoor dining,” in a way “that I was never allowed to say nationally.”
To this day, people who detest Trump seethe at Birx’s flattery of him. But she was hardly alone. In his interview with Gupta, Fauci also praised Trump. “We gave the strong recommendation that we really shut things down,” said Fauci, “and I thought that he accepted it pretty well. I really did.” Redfield concurred: “I found the president to listen to what I had to say, really listen.” Gupta showed video of Redfield fawning over Trump during the March 2020 press event at which Trump said, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” which wasn’t even close to true. Redfield pleaded that he had meant to praise Trump for suspending travel from China, not for leadership “across the board.”
All of these people—Fauci, Birx, Redfield, Hahn, and others—were trying to save lives. Sometimes, to that end, they appeased the mad king. “I spent 23 years in the military,” Redfield told Gupta. That was how he viewed his role as CDC director: “Stay in the command chain” as long as you can help your country. “And that’s what I did,” he concluded. That’s what Birx did, too.