How Fauci and Birx made Trump listen to science

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Still, the graphics – printed in color and inflated for effect – seemed to work, although some of Trump’s advisers are now questioning their accuracy. Trump announced hours later that he was extending his coronavirus directives for an additional 30 days, despite a strong tendency to open the country to business.

As the pandemic rages on and Trump’s response under scrutiny, Fauci and Birx – the top two medical experts in the White House coronavirus task force – have become central figures advising Trump and the fixations for a nation grappling with a generation-defining crisis. .

They were unable to recover a response from the administration filled with early missteps, changes in public messages, and persistent delays in testing and supplies. And they repeatedly found themselves at odds with some of Trump’s political and economic advisers, who privately questioned the accuracy of their models and grumbled over their disproportionate influence.

But in a myriad of ways, Fauci and Birx have succeeded where so many members of Trump’s rotating aide troop have failed to convince the President to give up his instincts, quietly contradict him in public and to stay – for now – in his good graces. At a post-impeachment time when the White House seemed to want to elevate loyalists while squeezing out careerists, longtime government officials entered Trump’s orbit and succeeded in contradicting those with years of experience in the management of a mercurial boss.

There were some signs of tension. At Thursday’s task force briefing, Trump appeared alarmed when Birx suggested that some Americans were not following the distancing guidelines, which caused a slight increase in the line of contagion. He intervened after she spoke, insisting that some states were doing well and saying that he did not want the headlines to be skipped.

But he quickly regained the praise of his advisers’ expertise, remembering hearing from Fauci and Birx that he “may need to close it” to prevent further spread.

“Close what?” He remembered asking. “What is this all about? “

Some officials working with the task force have questioned whether Fauci and Birx – who have known each other for decades and have what each describes as a mentor-mentee relationship – actively calibrate their tactics with a “good cop, bad cop” approach. Others who know the dynamics say that everyone operates simply as a public health professional and presidential adviser in the midst of the most serious crisis of any career.

A delighted “student”

Trump's path to expanding guidelines on coronaviruses was led by health experts and scenes from a New York hospital

Trump, who is known for following his guts in most areas, described himself as a “student” of the expertise of Fauci and Birx, raved by the virus that is wreaking havoc on the nation and its presidency. It is an achievement that has not gone unnoticed among Trump’s allies, some of whom view the achievement with something like fear.

“He listens to everything they say. No one else came in and caught his eye like that, “said a White House official who declined to be named, adding that no one could guess how long the current situation was.

Other Trump allies have expressed more skepticism. After models were presented this week showing that 240,000 Americans could die even with strict social distancing measures in place, some Trump aides privately claimed that Fauci and Birx were too dire in their predictions and ignored the economic or political concerns. The underlying data for the models remains unknown, although Birx said it used the work of several modelers to make the projections.

Trump said categorically on Thursday that he had made the right call, supporting Fauci and Birx and suggesting that he was not bothered by questions about the accuracy of the models.

“Here’s the thing: they were right,” he said. “Everyone questioned him for a while. Much of it questioned it. They said, let’s keep it open, let’s mount it. If we did – you saw the other graph. And if it is true or almost true or perhaps not true enough, the number was 2.2 million people would have died. “

Fauci addressed the decision earlier in the week.

“We are scientists, doctors, public health officials. We are not economists, “he said on CNN’s” New Day “. “We are sensitive to the idea that the economy could suffer, but it was clearly evident from looking at the data, that in the end, if we try to push back prematurely, not only would we lose lives, but it would probably even harm the economy. ”

Yet Thursday’s incredibly bad weekly jobless claims report, although expected, only pointed out to some inside the White House that the economic argument for reopening parts of the country had lost the upper hand on the health problems announced by Birx and Fauci. And officials continue to raise internal questions about the staggering death projections released earlier this week.

At meetings of the coronavirus task force, which Trump sometimes unexpectedly, the two immunologists took somewhat different approaches, according to people familiar with the dynamics. Both bring an “adult in the room” level of credibility which authorities say is generally well received.

Different approaches

As in public briefings, Fauci does not hesitate to offer reflections or unblemished analyzes even when they seem to contradict the president. He warned that the speed of development of a coronavirus vaccine was not nearly where Trump had suggested it could be, and he warned that the possible treatments that Trump touts in public have not yet happened. proven effective.

Frank public disagreements between Trump and a senior official are virtually unprecedented in his administration. Earlier in the crisis, Trump became furious when an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that the situation would seriously worsen in the United States, believing that his assessment was too fatalistic.

Brutal openness also didn’t always attract Fauci to Trump; the president complained in private when he appeared to be contradicted by the country’s best infectious disease specialist. But Trump also said that he preferred the direct approach and preferred that his collaborators be more open (which few of them actually believe).

Birx, who has been appointed by the State Department to act as the White House coronavirus response coordinator, has chosen a somewhat different approach. Aides describes her as patient in meetings with the president, even when he offers long medical opinions or theories that have little scientific basis. Instead of interrupting or cutting Trump, she waited for him to finish before presenting more reality-based ideas.

She has found key areas where she can use her apolitical credibility to bolster Trump’s proposals, including his call to limit travel from China and Europe. She was one of the first proponents of these measures, which Trump now repeatedly cites as evidence of his handling of the crisis, even if other areas are far from sufficient.

And she has come to almost every case-packed meeting filled with tables and graphs, the data she relies on to inform Trump of the spread of the virus. While it has generally acted as a reassuring presence at daily White House briefings, it is Birx this week to deliver the sinister models showing hundreds of thousands of potential deaths in the United States.

Before the crisis, Trump only knew Fauci from afar, who had been a regular television presence during epidemics for the past three decades. However, they had not interacted in the first three years of Trump’s tenure.

Although Birx was not personally close to the president, she was able to develop a close relationship with this White House in part because Trump campaign manager Matt Mowers was his chief of staff for almost two years, according to a source close to his situation.

Personal report

Now, after countless hours of meetings, the two have developed a rapport with Trump, who praised them as “great geniuses.” During Wednesday’s briefing, Trump recalled Fauci’s basketball prowess as a high school player in the 1950s. Birx used personal anecdotes to relay the importance of both Americans’ social estrangement. general and of Trump himself. When she told reporters last month that she quarantined herself after detecting a slight fever, Trump withdrew with simulated horror.

Both are regular occurrences in the west wing as the coronavirus response consumes the White House. Birx received offices in the west wing in mid-March and Fauci is in the building almost daily for meetings.

“All of a sudden, now I’m in a situation where I spend more than an hour every day with him,” Fauci told CNJ’s Sanjay Gupta in an interview this week. “I mean, let’s go, we brief him, we have a press conference, we debrief after the press conference. “

Their efforts have aroused so much contempt and praise from the political left and right, all complicated by the fact that each worked under previous presidents, a trait that Trump has sometimes viewed with skepticism.

When Fauci was spotted rubbing his forehead after Trump made an aside about “the deep state” in a briefing last week, online critics jumped up, claiming he was insulting the president. Threats against Fauci by online conspiracy theorists and some from the far right have become so violent that he receives heightened security from the US Marshals Service, a request that was approved by the Justice Department on Wednesday.

Birx has been criticized on the other hand, some Trump critics have questioned his independence after dismissing reports of shortages of ventilators and hospital beds, despite concerns voiced by employees of the hospital. hospital and governors. Her comments on Trump’s working style have also been criticized as too obsequious by some on the left.

“He was so attentive to details and data, and his ability to analyze and integrate data was a real advantage in these discussions on medical issues,” she told the Christian Broadcasting Network during an interview last week.

The two were also headliners in an administration response hampered by failures and delays in distributing essential supplies, not to mention the two months that Trump has spent minimizing the risk of contagion in the United States. United. Whatever success they have had in convincing the President to do more to prevent the spread of the disease, it will inevitably be seen alongside the bigger failures of the response.

So far, however, their presence in the White House has reassured worried Americans about how the federal government is handling the pandemic. And – at least for the moment – they are holding out.

“We strongly argued with the president that he was not withdrawing these guidelines after 15 days but that he was extending them, and he listened,” Fauci told CNN this week. “Dr. Debbie Birx and I walked into the oval office together and we looked at the desk and said, here’s the data, take a look. He looked at them, understood them, and just shook his head and said, ‘I guess we have to do it. ”

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