As virus surges, some say Trump seems to have stopped trying
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump finally received some good news this past week: Amid spiking coronavirus cases nationwide - more than 100,000 new cases a day since Nov. 4, with deaths rising, too - pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its experimental coronavirus vaccine was more than 90% effective.
But the president was furious.
The news came six days after Election Day - too late to help Trump in his contest against President-elect Joe Biden - and he thought both Pfizer and his own Food and Drug Administration had withheld the announcement to prevent delivering him the sort of pre-election public-relations victory that could have helped him in the polls. Instead of touting the vaccine success as a crowning achievement of his administration, as advisers encouraged, Trump barely mentioned it except to gripe on Twitter that "the Democrats didn't want to have me get a Vaccine WIN, prior to the election."
Since Election Day and for weeks prior, Trump has all but ceased to actively manage the deadly pandemic, which so far has killed at least 244,000 Americans, infected at least 10.9 million and choked the country's economy. The president has not attended a coronavirus task force meeting in "at least five months," said one senior administration official with knowledge of the meetings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details.
Now, as he fights for his political life, falsely claiming the election was somehow rigged against him, Trump has abdicated one of the central duties of the job he claims to want: leading the country through a devastating pandemic as it heads into a grim winter.
"I don't know that I think that's where his focus is," said one senior administration official. "But I know that's where our focus needs to get back to."
This account of Trump's indifference and inaction on the newly surging coronavirus pandemic is based on interviews with more than a dozen administration officials, Trump allies, health advisers and others familiar with the response, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
On Friday, Trump appeared in the Rose Garden to offer an update on Operation Warp Speed, his administration's effort to fast-track a vaccine. The president and his team shared some encouraging news: that at least 20 million vaccine doses could be ready as early as December, with 25 million to 30 million doses coming each subsequent month. But Trump seemed deflated, with the dour disposition of a man who understood that the coronavirus progress was too late to help him in the polls. Biden is projected to win with 306 electoral votes, compared with Trump's 232.
Until his Friday news conference, Trump had barely appeared in public since his Nov. 3 defeat, save for an angry, ranting news conference in which he lobbed baseless claims of voter fraud and a visit to Arlington National Cemetery for Veterans Day, where he violated the cemetery's policy requiring all visitors to wear a mask. He also made no mention of the rising toll of the virus in his Rose Garden news conference, which included rambling criticism of Pfizer and attacks on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
In one social media missive, Trump retweeted an angry message that accused CNN of stopping its " 'COVID-COVID-COVID!' drumbeat" after the election.
Trump has increasingly eschewed the advice of even his own public health and medical experts. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, has suggested several times reducing in-person dining in restaurants and bars, but Trump has dismissed her suggestions, a senior administration official said. He has also ignored the calls by Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for more aggressive messaging on the importance of mask-wearing, officials said.
The president is no longer regularly briefed on the pandemic by his team of doctors, and he rarely reads the daily virus reports prepared by Birx, a senior administration official said. The reports have grown increasingly grim in recent weeks, aides said, but are largely ignored in the West Wing. Several of the administration's top medical experts - including Birx, Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams - have only infrequently visited the White House in recent weeks, multiple administration officials said.
Olivia Troye, a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence and aide on the White House coronavirus task force who resigned from the administration and supported Biden's presidential bid, described the current situation as "very upsetting."
"You would think that now that his presidential campaign is over that he could perhaps leave a legacy of last-minute leadership during this time - an ounce of it, maybe," Troye said. "He has an opportunity here to focus on the well-being of Americans."
Jack Chow, a U.S. ambassador for global HIV/AIDS during the George W. Bush administration and a former World Health Organization assistant director general, was similarly alarmed by Trump's handling of the crisis.
"The duty of a president is to protect the national security of the United States, and this is the most prominent disease of mass destruction America's ever faced, and we have a commander in chief who has run away from the problem and has made it worse," Chow said. "We had an opportunity twice over the past eight months to bring it down to safer levels, and we failed. We are on the verge of losing control of this pandemic."
The White House disputed much of the criticism of Trump's engagement with the coronavirus pandemic. The president is regularly briefed on the topic by Pence, one administration official said, and Birx has an office in the White House.
"President Trump and his entire administration remain intensely focused on defeating this virus and saving lives as Operation Warp Speed continues to fast track lifesaving treatments and vaccines in record time," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews, referring to the fast-track vaccine effort. "Thanks to President Trump's leadership, we're on track to deliver safe and effective vaccines to 20 million Americans in December and another 25-30 million per month after that. The Task Force continues to work with state and local jurisdictions to ensure communities have the tools and resources to better treat patients and protect the most vulnerable."
Although many federal health officials firmly believe more needs to be done to strengthen the country's virus response, most are too afraid to call publicly for firmer action, two people familiar with task force meetings said. For several weeks, Birx and Fauci pushed to dramatically expand testing, raised concerns about hospital overcrowding and sounded alarms both in public and private about the deadly winter the country is hurdling toward - to no avail.
Trump's negligence on the pandemic comes at a particularly precarious time, just as his administration is winding down and Biden and his team are preparing to assume power, experts said. But Trump - who so far has refused to acknowledge the election results - is further hindering the process by refusing to start a formal transition.
One senior administration official described Trump's government as performing an elaborate "Kabuki theater, pretending that Biden didn't win," a pantomime that has further hurt the administration's virus efforts.
Trump - who has already fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top Pentagon officials - has hinted that he may use his final weeks in office to purge the government of those he views as disloyal, leaving officials paralyzed by fear over who might be next, several administration officials said.
In internal emails, top officials are still refusing to acknowledge the election results. Some messages include phrases such as "if there's a transition" and "if there's a second term," one senior administration official said, adding that there's little discussion about the coronavirus at the White House.
Experts said both the Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration need to send a strong and united message emphasizing that the country is entering its worst stretch yet of the pandemic and urging people to take the virus seriously, including by wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings. They also said the administration needs to assess where personal protective equipment shortages are and direct resources to those areas, as well as rapidly expand testing and share information and resources with the Biden team about how to distribute the expected vaccine.
"If you're going to confront the pandemic - and this campaign will extend beyond Jan. 20 - absolutely they ought to be preparing the Biden team, briefing them about the landscape of programs, any bottlenecks that they've encountered, so that the Biden team can develop their strategy," Chow said, referring to Inauguration Day. "Right now, you have two parallel universes with an iron wall in between, and if that persists for much longer, the Biden strategy will be potentially slower and weaker than what is needed to take on the third wave."
Career officials across several agencies - including the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health - are trying to quietly work on the pandemic response and take notes on shortcomings, one senior official said, in the hopes that the Biden administration can address the problems when it takes over.
Kavita Patel, a physician and former health adviser in the Obama White House, described "a lot of frustration" at the staff level in the Trump administration. Some Trump officials have reached out to her, she said, saying they want to be helpful to the incoming Biden administration, "but they're being told very actively to not speak to anybody."
"Members of the Biden-Harris task force are on TV, in the media, talking about the vaccine, talking about staying at home, making the public messages that I expected the White House coronavirus task force to do," Patel said. "We have a task force now, [but] it's just a task force from the transition team with unfortunately no power in the executive branch. The CDC can't act on President-elect Biden's word."
A senior White House official said in addition to sending out Birx's daily report, the administration has been focused on deploying personal protective equipment and therapeutics where needed and sending teams to hot spots across the nation. Subgroups within the broader task force have also continued to meet regularly, this person added, including a group that consists of Birx, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short and Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Director Brad Smith.
Behind the scenes, however, many administration officials paint a portrait of chaos, with senior advisers enabling some of Trump's most questionable instincts on the pandemic.
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has criticized Fauci and others for being what he viewed as too apocalyptic about the virus, two administration officials said. Meadows told others that he believed focusing on the coronavirus hurt Trump politically.
Some current and former aides said Meadows also has bizarre views on the virus. He has told others, for example, that he believes one of the main ways the virus is spread is through waiters touching the cups of different people at restaurants, according to people who have heard his comments.
Meadows tested positive for the virus just after the election, but he told others not to disclose his condition, according to one administration official.
Two former administration officials put some of the blame for the laggard White House response on Kushner. Scott Atlas - a Trump coronavirus adviser who has espoused the dangerous theory of herd immunity and clashed with the other doctors - was recruited by Kushner and often spent time in Kushner's office suite before he officially took the job, these officials said. They added that Kushner had been one of the leading voices stressing to Trump the importance of moving on from the virus.
The White House - which probably hosted a superspreader event in late September celebrating the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett - no longer consults health experts before planning events, including the East Room celebration on election night that appears to have led to several infections, two officials said. One person present at the party, who came in contact with at least two individuals who later tested positive for the virus, said she had not heard from any White House contact tracers.
Johnny McEntee, a Trump loyalist who started as the president's body man and now is director of personnel for the entire U.S. government, has also told others he is not concerned about the virus, said people familiar with his comments. He is engineering much of Trump's post-election purge of allegedly disloyal officials.
Yet the virus has breached the president's inner sanctum, making it one of the nation's notable pandemic hot spots. After an initial outbreak in October that sickened the president, the first lady and their teenage son, Barron, and other top White House and Republican officials, a second wave of illness has now hit close allies of Trump.
In addition to Meadows, David Bossie, the Trump adviser initially tasked with overseeing the presidential campaign's post-election legal strategy, has tested positive for the coronavirus, as has Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski and about a half-dozen other administration officials. The chief of staff of the Republican National Committee also tested positive, along with at least seven additional RNC staffers.
Experts worry that Trump's mishandling of the virus so far is only going to get worse as the nation heads into winter. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner under Trump, said it was clear the federal government was unlikely to change its approach, so states need to step up their own efforts.
"The numbers are going to get very big in terms of hospitalizations and deaths," Gottlieb said. "We are just going to have a lot of death and disease."
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