Yesterday, the Trump administration announced it was disbanding its coronavirus task force. After a media backlash, President Trump quickly reversed himself. The rationale for the reversal is revealing. Trump admitted his surprise that people like and trust the task force (“I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday”).
But the impulse that led to the original decision to dissolve it has not changed — the administration’s plan is to marginalize its public-health experts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled guidelines for states and businesses for how to safely reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration buried them. An administration official told the CDC its guidelines “would never see the light of day,” reports the Associated Press. The New York Times adds that chief of staff Mark Meadows complained the guidelines were “overly prescriptive.”
That is an odd complaint for a nonspecialist to make about guidelines that are voluntary. It is even odder that the administration chose not to revise the guidelines to be less prescriptive, but to bury them altogether. Couldn’t they simply find some public-health officials to recommend something less prescriptive?
The obvious reason is that the administration is unable to produce the technological conditions necessary to meet the guidelines — or any guidelines. Many aspects of the coronavirus remain a mystery to science. But public-health officials have agreed on a general strategy of first reducing infections to a low level, and then containing outbreaks through a combination of testing, contact tracing, and (in many cases) quarantining. The U.S. government has been unable to ramp up testing or contact tracing fast enough to reopen on a schedule acceptable to Trump. His answer is simply to open up anyway and hope for the best.
Trump has listened only intermittently to his administration’s public-health officials. Weeks ago, the White House had already split between pro- and anti-public-health factions, the former being called the “doctors group.” “Some in the ‘doctors group’ were distressed by what one official dubbed the ‘voodoo’ discussed within the broader task force,” reported the Washington Post last week.
When the the doctors have contradicted Trump’s sunny messages, he has either muzzled them (Dr. Nancy Messonnier), contradicted them (Dr. Robert Redfield, Dr. Anthony Fauci), or booted them (Dr. Rick Bright). The tension between his impulses and his medical experts is so obvious that the inevitability of Fauci’s firing was casually referenced on Saturday Night Live.
But Trump is very unlikely to fire Fauci, unless Fauci decides to go really, really off message. Trump generally tends to deal with disfavored officials by ignoring them, leaving them frustrated and helpless. Trump realizes Fauci has become a popular stand-in for the public-health advisers in the White House who (unlike Trump) have the public’s trust.
Trump is now ignoring their advice. But he wants to have them around as political cover, even as he slowly drains them of all authority and influence.