A Former Coronavirus Task Force Member Speaks

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S1: Olivia Troyes says if you work in the White House, you’ve got a choice to make, you can wear a mask and try to avoid the coronavirus or ditch the mask and fit in in the West Wing mask wearing was rare. How did you deal with that? Like, did you wear a mask sometimes and not others?

S2: Correct. Unfortunately. I mean, at times I would have a amassed opinion on who I was meeting with. But if I was in the West Wing and with the vice president outside the office or meeting with the staff, it was uncomfortable.

S1: Olivia worked with the vice president until August. She was part of the coronavirus task force, which is why masks were important to her. You’ve probably heard her name since leaving her job. She has been talking to journalists and recording TV ads. Olivia’s got one goal getting Trump voted out of office when she talks about the weeks before she left government service. You can hear her frustration that she was working at what arguably should have been the safest workplace in America, and yet she felt remarkably unsafe.

S2: We finally got temperature checks at the gate and then there was a reversal on the temperature checks when advanced team members and people on the road when they started going on the road again were testing positive.

S3: Suddenly those temperature checks went away. And I thought to myself, we are putting everyone repeatedly at risk. To hear Olivia tell it, working at the White House didn’t mean you were protected from the virus, it meant you were constantly dodging it until one day it found you back in May.

S1: Olivia says she was meeting with Katie Miller, the vice president’s press secretary, when Katie coughed. I was around her. I mean, we’re talking one foot away, two feet away. And what do you do in that circumstance? Like someone coughs you’re worried about covid? Like, I just don’t even know what I do. Like, do I hand them a Kleenex? Do I say like, hey, have you been tested?

S2: So I, I remember that night when she was coffee and I kind of was taking a little bit of a step back, kind of trying to deceive myself. And I was like, OK, I may go back to my office and but I remember the joking. What joking. She coughed and there were other people in the room and someone said, oh, is that covid? You got the covid? And then they were laughing.

S1: Katie did have the covid. She tested positive the next day. That’s when Olivia found out.

S2: And by the way, that phone call didn’t come from the White House medical unit. That phone call came from another colleague and they said, I just want you to know I just want you to know that Katie Miller is positive. And I felt to everything, everything froze. I stood there and I said, well, wait, what?

S4: And I was like, I was just with her and they said, I know, I know and I know you’ve been worried about your husband for months. He’s immunocompromised. And I’m looking at my husband across the room. And I said, I can’t help it. I started to cry. I actually I was sobbing on the phone with this person. And then I kept apologizing in person because this is someone who’s more junior, a junior staffer. And I’ll be honest, I remember my husband coming up to me to hug me, and I remember yelling at him and pushing him away from me saying, don’t touch me right now. I don’t I don’t know, because I was worried because I was like, I don’t see how I possibly don’t have it. I was furious.

S1: Today on the show, there have been so many insider accounts about what’s going on in this White House, they are remarkably consistent. Olivia Troy is going to tell you hers. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. There’s no way around the fact that in Olivia’s story, Olivia ends up looking pretty good, but before she started speaking out, she did seem to be a trusted adviser to this administration. Before she officially joined the White House, she was a nonpolitical member of the Department of Homeland Security. A year and a half into that job, she got a call from a friend, a guy named Miles Taylor, about a new opening to become an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence.

S2: For someone who’s a national security for so long and you’re a career person. People do aspire to someday get to serve in the White House as an adviser or a national security professional on the National Security Council. So at first I I was very shocked and surprised when I got the call, I, I said, well, I you know, I have to think about this because I was thinking. Well, this means that I am working in a Trump White House, and I had seen a lot of things already along the way about how the president and people behaved. Did you think you could help? I did. And so I said, look, I want to go there because I want to make a difference. And I think that I can do this job well.

S1: Olivia was in the room for some of the biggest decisions that came out of this administration.

S2: So I’ve sat in the child separation meetings. I’ve sat in the immigration and border security meetings. I’ve sat in a lot of the refugee numbers and ceiling meetings. And I worked on natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. And I can tell you that what Miles Taylor has spoken about publicly, if you’ve been tracking what he’s been saying about the president withholding aid to California and to others such as Puerto Rico, it’s all true. I witnessed it. Hmm. So why do you stay? There’s this thought that that I’ve seen with the doctors and others on the task force as well who hang on that it’s better to have a seat at the table. And try to make a difference and try to do the right thing, and you feel so strongly and you’re so you’re driven by this principle of it, and you you stay because you feel that if you don’t stay, you’re almost afraid of who will come after you, who will fill your shoes after you leave. And will that person just fall in line and be detrimental and similar to everyone else that you’re seeing around you in terms of the political influence? And so you stay because you believe that you will continue to try at least try to steer things or move the needle in a direction that’s protecting Americans or in a direction that’s that’s morally right.

S1: In her role as national security adviser, Olivia was privy to some of the very first meetings at the White House about the coronavirus when they were just keeping an eye on the lockdown in Wuhan. It sounds like you had this front row seat where in the beginning you’re just kind of tracking this like, you know, I need to keep an eye on this. When did it change for you or you thought, oh, no, we need to be talking about major changes we’re making in this country towards the end of January.

S5: It’s early. It’s because we knew that. The situation in Ohio was very severe, and then we start to see it spread to other countries, we start to see it spread in Nigeria, we see it spread, then you see it spread to Europe and you see it spread to England and. That is why at the end of January, I was already concerned about what that meant for us. Were you trying to get your boss’s attention, like, hey, hey, guys, we need to pay attention to this? Yes, I remember walking out of those meetings. I actually remember almost running back to find General Kellogg, your boss. Correct. Because, you know, he was the leader of our national security team for the vice president. And I said to him, we need to have a serious conversation about this. This is this is serious. And I remember briefing people and saying it is looking it is looking bad. It will be here. How did they respond? So General Kellogg took me seriously. So we briefed and we wrote I wrote memos.

S1: To the vice president, did it feel like you were writing memos and like throwing them into a black hole?

S5: Yes, at times. I just don’t think that they understood what was really happening here, and I think they were you know, we were at the start of an election year. There were actually conversations about the fact that, you know, that the national security team would sort of be sidelined because it was really mostly about domestic politics in the campaign.

S1: I want to talk a little bit about where you found yourself personally on the task force, because you’ve spoken a little bit about your personal relationship with the doctors, for instance, Dr. Burke. Dr. Fauci, I know that you also had a relationship with Dr. Redfield and would talk. I’ve heard you say you were the person who would have to call Dr. Fauci and say, oh, hey, you’re not needed at this press conference today sometimes when he was in a car to get there. I just feel like you have this water cooler access or had this water cooler access. To people who are making major decisions about U.S. health policy, right, well, I was I really got to know these these people on a very personal level.

S5: I still today I 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.

S1: Can you describe, like, one of those moments like is there is there one that stands out to you?

S2: There were there were so many instances, but I will say this with 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.

S5: And I remember having a conversation with Dr. Redfield where he said to me, in every pandemic, CDC does frequent briefings. They do press briefings. They to get the information out and he’s like, and I’m struggling because I have my scientist 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?

S2: 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 I’m you’re not needed is what’s going through my mind in my head. And, Wolf, I said, let me see what I can do. And. 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, they were very careful to craft these messages. When I talk about calling people, they’re in the car on the way in. And Dr. Fati, there were stories along the way where they said that he was there were the media, I think reported that his doctor felt being muzzled, whereas Dr. Grouchy people were concerned, they were worried about him, his safety, and they were wondering where he was. And I remember asking that question. Right. And I I think Dr. Foushee came out and said, no, I’m not being muzzled. Like, I don’t remember his exact words. And I was thinking to myself when I saw that I remember the White House being, like, relieved that he had said that. Right, because it would look very poorly upon them. But I personally was a person placing the calls. And I thought to myself, well, Dr. Fauci doesn’t doesn’t know that he’s being muzzled because I’m the one calling him and saying, you’re not needed today. And I try to do it in the most respectful way. I mean, this is Dr. Fauci and National Treasure. And I’m wasting his time and his aunt in the car at times, he was like, yes, you’re needed. And then I had to call ten minutes before I’d be like, sorry, you’re not needed. Today, we’re going to focus on a different topic.

S1: I want to take a moment to talk about the vice president, because as the head of the task force, I do think he bears some responsibility for how the response played out. And you did help him do that job, like I think of the most glaring example being or one of them, 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.

S2: 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? So what we did when we were handed lemons, so to speak, was I worked closely with the speech writing team. And the comms people who are responsible for doing these types of things and on this topic, I worked very closely with them because I was a fact checker, fact checker. And 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 worked on this op ed morally felt like this was wrong. And we also felt just optically that it was a bad idea.

S1: Do you mean the vice president or the person who ghostwrote it?

S5: The person who wrote it? And they wrote it anyway. Well, we work ultimately for the vice president and the chief of staff.

S1: We were told to do this. Like what would have happened if you or others, the person who ghostwrote it, instead of doing that, you tried to empower the vice president to do something different and said, hey, here are the facts. We think you need to go to the president and lay them out.

S2: Well, I think 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 said. There was a narrative that they were trying to support and get out, because when that op ed comes out, we were definitely in that we need to open up the country. And we were 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.

S1: Hmm. I’ve noticed that you seemed reticent to speak out about Vice President Pence, but I I wondered a little bit if that was changing. I noticed you were watching the vice presidential debate and you said it was pretty emotional for you.

S2: 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. I you know, he 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 shoulder. And. I knew that what we were going through is a task force probably probably was nothing compared to what he was probably facing. In terms of his dynamic with the president, why do you say that? It’s just 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 puts all put all of us in a very, very challenging position. And so when I say, you know, I have respect for the vice president, I do still have respect for him. I you know, I worked with him. I, I saw him try to do the right thing at times that I felt mattered. But he is part of this political machine and it has, you know, 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.

S1: But I want the American people to know it from the very first day President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.

S3: Before there were more than five, but the United States, 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?

S5: I struggled, I struggled, weighing the pros and pros and cons of it, and it was hard for me to leave the task force members. I cared a lot about their work, I cared a lot about the task force and what they were doing, and it was very hard for me to. 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 and the vice president’s office that I was not going to overcome the closer the election, the election got. And I just decided it was time.

S1: Something I guess I should say out loud is that 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.

S2: Correct, I resigned, I was asked to reconsider. 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 General Kellogg, who knew my work, who I helped for several years, you know, for for quite an extensive amount of time.

S5: And he knows that I did my role well and I was very diligent and dedicated day and night to this role. I was the person on that team that was on call 24 hours a day for over two years. And I was surprised that he would go to the extent and say, you know, I fired her. Her performance was declining. I walked her out. And, you know, I’ve said I was I would love to see the videotape of that because I loved it. That’s not exactly what happened.

S1: You really remind me of someone I interviewed a few months back who was a former journalist with Breitbart who left that organization. And she just. It was like she was on fire when she had to talk to everyone about what she’d seen there. Is that how you feel?

S2: Like 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 and because of it. But for me, I felt that this was a moment that mattered. And this election matters for so many reasons. And I just felt that this was a moment like no other. And our country is in a very, very different place right now. And I just I felt like I had to tell the truth first hand about what I what I’ve seen and if if maybe it got to you know, when one voter at least are, you know, informed the population as they were going in to vote and 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.

S5: But I said if I can make a difference in just telling people, OK, 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. It’s and the and the fake news that the president says is fake news. He uses that a lot. It’s not fake. I lived it. Hmm. What kind of repercussions of your face? Well, you know, I started a new job. I don’t know that they’re necessarily happy. So I’ve taken a leave of absence from that. I’ve lost friendships, especially with people that I was very close to in the White House. But there are others who have come forward and said, you know what, that took courage. And, you know, there’s you know, and I don’t know I don’t know if I’ll work in Washington, D.C. again. I mean, I I know that it is a very small town. And I know that people, you know, especially in Republican circles. I think are not happy that I’ve spoken out, but then there is a whole circle of Republicans who say, look, I, I hear you, I feel the same way. This is this is not representative of Republican values. And I’ve been neutral for many years. Right. In your career until officer, you serve regardless of who’s in office and you check your politics at the door. And I haven’t been political for a very long time. But this is the Trump Republican Party right now, I would say not the Republican Party that I grew up knowing and and valuing.

S1: It makes me wonder if you think your work is done in terms of speaking out if Trump is voted out of office.

S5: You know, I am concerned about the base of the party, this new movement that has come to be under Trump and I, I will be watching that closely, because if the Republican Party is really now the party that Donald Trump has made it to be, then it’s clearly not the right home for me anymore.

S1: I mean, some people have said. Oh, you know, if Trump isn’t re-elected, the Republicans will wake up and they’ll have a realization like, oh, that didn’t work out. I mean, I’m curious your perspective here, not just because of your insider status at the White House, but because you are national security. You you know a lot about the circumstances here and whether that’s a realistic thing to expect.

S5: I don’t think it is. I don’t think that it will be over once Donald Trump is is out of office. I I think that there is a strong base who has found a home. I think that there are some extremists who have found a home and who have found a spokesperson as they view him, this president, this President Trump. And judging by the way that GOP leaders continue to support him and don’t speak out against some of these populations like the far right and white supremacists, I think we are looking at a longer term sort of impact and perspective. When you see them talk about these issues very carefully, because they’re concerned about their own election and they’re concerned that the Trump base will not support them in their own elections. And I think that’s frightening.

S1: Do you struggle with your own responsibility, having worked in the White House and with a coronavirus task force? Because when I see you speak, I see. Someone who’s, like, very motivated to speak out, but then also I wonder, like, is it partially just you you want to get, like, that icky feeling of having worked?

S5: On this off of you, I had certainly a moral struggle, I have had this moral struggle at various times throughout my tenure in this White House and. When I left, I was told by actually a former colleague, a former White House staffer, that it would take time, that it would take time to process everything that had happened and everything that we had seen. And that it was OK not to feel normal. For for quite some time, and this person was right, I think there is somewhat of a sense of trauma and I don’t it’s emotionally actually draining to talk about it when I speak out. So I put on a face of strength and. I try not to get nervous and because I feel like it’s important to talk about it, but it’s certainly not something that is easy and I’m still sort of dealing with it one day at a time.

S6: Olivia Troyes, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. Olivia Troyes left her position in the White House in August, and that’s the show, What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Mary Wilson, Elena Schwartz and Daniel Hewitt. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. I’m Mary Harris. You can find me during the day over on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Meanwhile, if you stay tuned to this feed tomorrow, we are so psyched to welcome back Lizzie O’Leary. She’s the host of What Next TBD, our Friday show. She’s back from maternity leave. So, you know, welcome to how we all work now with our kids, like helping us write scripts. All right. I’ll catch you all back here on Monday.