The former coronavirus response coordinator in the Trump White House, Deborah Birx, who sat silently as the president made those remarks last year during a news conference, said in an interview with ABC News on Monday that the moment still haunts her.
“Frankly, I didn’t know how to handle that episode,” she told ABC News’s Terry Moran.
“I still think about it every day.”
When President Donald Trump asked Birx for her input on the possibility of using disinfectant or the use of ultraviolet light to cure covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, she only spoke briefly to say neither could be used “as a treatment.”
On Monday, Birx tried to explain her near-silence, arguing that her long experience of military service and training had kicked in.
“You can see how extraordinarily uncomfortable I was,” she added. “Those who have served in the military know there are discussions you have in private with your commanding officers and there are discussions you have in public.”
Trump’s suggestion prompted fierce criticism and rejection from the scientific community, lawmakers and even the makers of Lysol, who jumped to advise the public not to inject or ingest cleaning products — which are highly toxic — and instead adhere to medically sound advice to protect themselves from the virus, like wearing a mask.
The moment also symbolized Trump’s strategy of minimizing the seriousness of the pandemic and of the disease itself.
Birx, a renowned AIDS researcher with decades of experience in public service, has held several high-profile positions including director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program and U.S. Global AIDS coordinator under President Barack Obama.
As a leading member of the coronavirus response team, she came under heavy criticism for not speaking up more forcefully to reject Trump’s suggestion and warn the public about its potentially dangerous consequences.
On Tuesday, the former Trump official faced yet another wave of backlash on social media as users disparaged her remarks as an attempt to wash down her responsibility — or lack thereof — in stopping misinformation amid an unprecedented national health crisis.
“Too late Dr Birx. You should have opened up about it THAT day. You had a duty to tell the American people the truth BACK THEN,” wrote former presidential candidate and former congressman Joe Walsh.
Eric Feigl-Ding, a renowned epidemiologist who has been active in fighting virus-related misinformation, wrote on Twitter:
“Maybe the ‘I’m just following orders’ silence wasn’t the best when people were dying. Also, that’s what they all said at Nuremberg,” he wrote. “When people are dying by the thousands each day … speak the truth, not silently swallow your pride.”
It is not the first time Birx has spoken publicly about her experience working with the Trump administration, which has prompted some critics to say her comments are attempts to rehabilitate her damaged reputation.
Back in January, she said in an interview with CBS News that she was “censored” by the White House and that she faced intense criticism even from some close colleagues, who accused her of becoming “a political person.”
She also said that she had “always” considered quitting her job.
“I mean, why would you want to put yourself through that every day?” Birx told Margaret Brennan on CBS News’s “Face The Nation.”
“I had to ask myself every morning, ‘Is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic?’ And it’s something I asked myself every night,” she said in January.
Like Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Birx experienced the ire of the president when, occasionally, she contradicted him. At one point, Trump called her “pathetic” on Twitter for saying the virus was rapidly spreading across the country, not subsiding.
Perhaps the most damning assessment of Trump’s pandemic response came in a report Nov. 2, obtained by The Washington Post, when Birx bluntly asserted that the country was entering the deadliest and most concerning phase of the pandemic and said “an aggressive” approach was not being implemented.
But after mounting criticism and several missteps, including reports that she had visited Fenwick Island in Delaware after Thanksgiving, disregarding recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid traveling, Birx announced in December that she will step down from her post at the CDC.
During her interview on Monday, Birx praised President Biden’s consistent and scientifically driven handling of the pandemic, saying top government officials, from the CDC director to Fauci, the president or Vice President Harris, “are communicating exactly the same pieces,” she said, “and I think that is critically important.”