Trump officials, after encountering Covid response, coordinate narrative

Trump officials, after encountering Covid response, coordinate narrative

“I know the way it goes – everyone has a different perspective,” Hahn said in an interview. “I wanted to say what happened and why it happened and the perspective we had.”

In calls and texts, group members exchanged notes, compared memories and sent updates on media requests and interview opportunities, four people with knowledge of the matter said.

On one occasion, a virtual meeting brought together former Health Department spokesman and Trump loyalist Michael Caputo – though he told POLITICO he joined only to share an update on her recovery from cancer and forward the demands of veteran investigative journalist Bob Woodward, who is writing another book. about the Trump administration.

The sessions again brought together most of the so-called The “group of doctors” that served on the White House coronavirus task force and that initially banded together to resist President Donald Trump’s push to widely reopen the country without containing enough virus that would kill close to 550,000 Americans and more.

A one A nod to their individual battles with Azar, some jokingly referred to the group privately as “AAA,” or Alex Azar Anonymous, according to a person in direct contact with several members. No one involved in the effort would confirm the name when contacted for comment.

Birx and Verma declined to comment for this article and Redfield did not respond to requests for comment. Caputo, who did not regularly participate in the discussions, defended Azar as a “man of honor” and expressed his admiration for all of Trump’s top health officials – several of whom helped him with his diagnosis. and its cancer treatment.

Azar declined to comment.

Behind-the-scenes efforts are only part of the larger race to shape the story of the Trump administration’s response to the health crisis, which has been marked by constant internal conflict. The turbulent times will be the subject of many books and TV shows to come, and the previous administration is hardly expected to be confirmed in these accounts.

Trump himself sits for at least a dozen of these retrospectives. And among many other former administration officials, there is growing angst as to how their role in the government’s chaotic Covid response will ultimately be portrayed.

Much of the dysfunction surrounding the administration’s response was documented in the press in real time. POLITICO reported on efforts within the HHS to water down CDC guidelines, how a Caputo aide berated government science officials he accused of being disloyal to Trump, and Azar’s actions to cement control of his department.

But new first-hand accounts of high-profile clashes between former senior health officials are likely to play a big part in new narratives, highlighting how disagreements and frayed relationships have blocked political priorities and added to the confusion surrounding the pandemic response.

HHS leaders, including Azar, have waged war on Hahn over a series of political and personnel decisions over the past year, which officials feared would be distracted from the larger work on the pandemic . The two camps quarreled on authority amid Covid’s response and accused the other of trying to undermine them in the press.

Redfield and CDC career officials have faced constant political interference with their scientific determinations – including from Caputo, who was at the same time viewed with suspicion by HHS leaders. White House officials had installed Caputo, a longtime political agent, at HHS shortly after the pandemic emerged, at a time when they feared Azar would disclose negative information about the virus’ handling by Trump to improve his own image.

Hahn, Redfield, and Verma bonded over their mutual struggles with Azar and his key associates, complaining about the hostile work environment and the perception that Azar was particularly focused on staying in Trump’s good graces. Among the reasons they reunited again after the administration were fears that Azar – a skilled fighter – was orchestrating favorable cover for himself, several people said.

For their part, Azar and his camp viewed agency heads as insubordinate and bristled in cases where they bypassed the department to coordinate work on the pandemic directly with the White House – especially after the vice president of the At the time, Mike Pence, took control of the Covid task force in late February 2020.

These divisions only deepened in the weeks that followed, as the stress of daily battles within the administration gave way to debates among a range of Trump-appointed alumni over whether and how to tell their stories.

A CNN Sunday special on the response to the pandemic sparked rampant speculation among HHS alumni about what will be revealed – and equally important, who will be blamed for the administration’s various missteps.

Hahn, Birx and Redfield have had lengthy interviews for the program, as have infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who now advises President Joe Biden, and former senior HHS officials Brett Giroir and Robert Kadlec. Azar declined an invitation to participate, according to a person who told him about the process.

But some attendees are concerned about how their appearances will be framed, several people have said, especially after CNN launched a dramatic promo that made the special something of a confessional – “COVID War: Pandemic Doctors Speak Out.”

“I didn’t trash Secretary Azar – I said the relationship was often strained and difficult, but it was all in the press,” Hahn told POLITICO. “I don’t think it will be a secret. “

Former Covid response officials are also concerned about rumors that Paul Mango, who was Azar’s deputy chief of staff for policy, is working on a revealing book on the Covid response and its role in the operation. Warp Speed, the vaccine accelerator from the previous administration. .

In an interview, Mango said he had “put a lot of pens on paper” but had not yet decided to write a book detailing his experience in administration.

“I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to use it, but I want to make sure the story gets it right,” he said, thinking the publishers would stage a bidding war on his behalf. “There were some real moments that were hot moments between some people that would make the story a little exciting.”

Mango brushed off some of his former colleagues, saying only he and Azar were fully aware of the vaccine development effort, widely regarded as a rare achievement in Trump’s pandemic response. He dismissed much of the criticism of Azar because others “were trying to protect their own reputation.”

“I have never seen such devious, unethical and unprofessional behavior that I have seen in the federal government,” he said. ” [Azar] didn’t get an ace hand, and you have to face what you have.

Other former Trump health officials said they have been inundated with interview requests over the past two months, including for books in preparation by two separate groups of Washington Post reporters seeking to reconstruct the events of the past year.

Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s first FDA commissioner who has remained in close contact with administration officials during the Covid response, is also due to release a book in July. And Andy Slavitt, now a senior advisor to Biden’s Covid Response Team, has also written a book on the pandemic to be released in June.

Slavitt said his account – which is labeled as “the inner story of how failed leadership, politics and selfishness doomed the US response to the coronavirus” – is based on interviews with Azar and others involved in the response, as well as his own interactions with Birx. , former senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, and half a dozen others.

“I got a lot of cooperation,” he said.

For many former Trump health officials, CNN’s upcoming special will mark their first in-depth public comments on their time in administration since leaving government.

Only Birx did other on-camera interviews, in which she said she was constantly thinking about quitting her job at the White House and had to privately confront “outside advisers” who presented Trump with conflicting data on the pandemic.

Registrations among the small group of former Trump officials have declined in recent weeks, Hahn said, but the principle the group is based on remains.

“If one person was attacked, we were all attacked and we were going to support each other,” he said of the pact they made at the height of the pandemic response. “I wanted to make sure people understood that, and that was really the sharp edge of the stick for me.”


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