If you’re confused by the fact that President Trump keeps saying that the coronavirus is nothing to worry about while officials who actually deal with infectious diseases keep warning of a potential public health crisis, don’t worry. Now that Vice President Pence has taken over the coronavirus task force, he’s making sure the flow of information will be curtailed.

The New York Times reports:

The White House moved on Thursday to tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearance with the office of Vice President Mike Pence, according to several officials familiar with the new approach.

Here’s the goal of this reorganization:

The vice president’s first move appeared to be aimed at preventing the kind of contradictory statements from White House officials and top government health officials that have plagued the administration’s response. Even during his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Trump rejected the assessment from a top health official that it was inevitable that the coronavirus would spread more broadly inside the United States.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.

Two things. First, Fauci is probably the most respected public health official in the United States; there is no one better equipped to explain what is happening with the coronavirus, what is likely to happen, and how we should react to it. Now, he’s been muzzled.

Second, while one certainly wants to avoid contradictory statements from the government, the reason this happens is that Trump keeps saying things that are either blatantly untrue or simply absurd.

This is a persistent theme of the Trump presidency: He says things that are false or ridiculous, and then everyone who works for him has to scramble to either retcon them into existence or just pretend that he’s right and the moon is made of green cheese.

Just last week, we learned that the national security adviser sometimes begins meetings “by distributing printouts of Mr. Trump’s latest tweets on the subject at hand” so officials can “find ways of justifying, enacting or explaining Mr. Trump’s policy, not to advise the president on what it should be," as the Times reported.

Trump’s news conference on Wednesday showed this in action. Trump bragged about the economy, attacked Democrats, displayed mind-boggling ignorance about how the government works, and said boosterish things that directly contradicted warnings from experts.

Something else was notable as well: a stark difference in the comments from Pence and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar on one hand, and Fauci and Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the other.

Here are some remarkable excerpts from Azar’s comments:

Thank you, Mr. President, for gathering your public health experts here today and for your strong leadership in keeping America safe. ... The President’s early and decisive actions, including travel restrictions, have succeeded in buying us incredibly valuable time. ... The President’s actions taken with the strong support of his scientific advisors have proven to be appropriate, wise, and well-calibrated to the situation. ... Because of this hard work and the President’s leadership, the immediate risk to the American public has been and continues to be low.

I guess if you want to keep your job, that kind of commitment to flattery is what you have to show in an administration currently embarking on a purge of disloyal officials.

But when it was time for the career civil servants to speak, they addressed the issue without mentioning Trump at all. You could almost feel him seething in the background.

In fact, Fauci directly contradicted Trump on one vital question. Trump claimed that a vaccine for this virus is right around the corner: “The vaccine is coming along well. And in speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop fairly rapidly.”

But when Fauci spoke, he made clear that while they hope to identify a vaccine in the next few months, even if they do it will take at least a year before it could be verified to be safe and be ready to be distributed.

“If this virus — which we have every reason to believe it is quite conceivable that it will happen — will go beyond just a season and come back and recycle next year — if that’s the case, we hope to have a vaccine,” he said.

So we’re not going to get any more of that. If everything the government tells us comes through Pence, it will all be delivered amidst encomiums to the boundless majesty and perfection of Donald Trump.

I’d like to give Pence the benefit of the doubt that he can manage the coronavirus response well. Some have said Trump should have chosen someone with a medical background, but while that might be helpful, you also need someone who understands the various agencies involved and has the authority to get people and organizations to follow instructions quickly.

But the beginning of this effort is not promising. Pence announced on Thursday that he has added to the coronavirus task force White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, whose main job appears to be going on television to praise Trump’s economic genius. What Kudlow could contribute to a public health crisis is unclear, but this suggests that political considerations — in other words, the aggrandizement of the president — are among the highest priorities.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the need to protect Trump politically will lead to the sidelining of key professionals, less accurate information reaching the public, and a less efficient response. If the government handles this challenge well, it may be in spite of, not because of, the White House’s efforts.

Let’s hope the consequences aren’t as dire as we fear.

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