The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Birx dilemma is a lesson for the ages

With President Donald Trump in the background, Deborah Birx answers a reporter's question during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 20, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If you paid attention to Deborah Birx’s body language while President Donald Trump held forth on the pandemic last year — touching her forehead as though she might have a fever, twisting her mouth as though she’d just tasted mold — you knew the day would come when she would seek public absolution.

Birx doesn’t deserve our pardon, but it’s worth trying to understand the essential choice she made. In fact, “Birx’s Dilemma” ought to be taught in public policy schools until the end of time.

Birx isn’t one of the political hacks who did Trump’s bidding until it was time to save her reputation by making an empty show of principle. (Ahem, Elaine Chao.)

No, Birx is a retired Army colonel and respected doctor who made a tangible difference in the global fight against AIDS. As Trump’s White House coordinator for the pandemic response, she worked tirelessly to get the coronavirus under control — no one disputes that.

She was put in an impossible predicament, something Birx has been vocal about since she left the White House, most recently in a much-hyped CNN interview with Sanjay Gupta that aired this past weekend.

Birx says now that she was constantly marginalized by the loopy sycophants in Trump’s orbit and berated by the president himself. “It was very uncomfortable, very direct, and very difficult to hear,” she said of one memorable conversation with the now-former president.

She admits that the death toll in the United States — now more than 550,000 — could have been “mitigated or decreased substantially” by a competent federal response.

Birx isn’t alone in having served Trump despite his Nero-like performance during a national health crisis. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top doctor for infectious diseases and now a key adviser to President Biden, found himself in the same untenable position.

But unlike Fauci, who stumbled more than once but managed to stay truthful enough to get himself ostracized by Team Trump, Birx practiced some impressive moral yoga in her defense of the president’s response.

During an interview a year ago with the Christian Broadcasting Network, for instance, Birx lauded Trump for being “so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data.” No doubt she’d like to have that one back.

In a recent interview with CBS’s Margaret Brennan, Birx admitted she had “always” thought about quitting her job. She didn’t say why she hadn’t, but we can deduce the calculation she made.

Birx operated on the same premise that many others in senior roles, including career soldiers such as former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly and onetime national security adviser H.R. McMaster, accepted as well.

She apparently woke up every morning believing it was nobler to try to manage an ignorant, mercurial president than it was to speak out publicly and risk losing all influence.

She no doubt told herself she had an obligation, as a policy expert, to do whatever she could to protect Americans from the administration’s abject incompetence. And if that meant she had to echo untruths and offer up a bunch of silly praise, so be it.

(It’s ironic that many of the decent public servants who made this calculation spent careers in the military. You would think, two generations after Robert McNamara’s misguided attempts to conceal the truth about Vietnam, that more of them might have internalized the cost of perpetuating political myths.)

This was Birx’s dilemma: to work within the system and maybe mitigate the tragedy, or to say what she knew and resign herself to powerlessness.

We can’t say what the world would look like now had Birx sounded the alarm. We’ll never know if the resulting public outrage would have led to a better response and a lower death rate, or whether Birx’s apostasy would have driven Trump deeper into his bunker.

What we do know is that, by tempering her remarks, Birx enabled and amplified Trump’s lies — that the virus was a media creation, that reopening the economy wasn’t dangerous, that the government had things under control.

What we also know is that Birx’s attempt at balancing public propaganda with private intervention didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of Americans from dying for lack of a coherent policy.

And the larger lesson here — as though we should have to learn it again — is that appeasement never works.

It doesn’t work for nations facing down aggressors. It doesn’t work for a political party that’s been taken over by a nativist bully. And it doesn’t work when you’re serving a president who demands unyielding loyalty and a willful disregard for the truth.

No one can effectively or morally serve a president who is neither. You will never create a better reality by abiding a series of lies.

I don’t doubt Birx’s sincerity — or her agony. The burden she shoulders now should serve as a cautionary tale for generations to come.

Deborah Birx faced a painful dilemma. Like so many others during the Trump years, she chose wrong.

Read more:

Ann Telnaes cartoon: Too little, too late for the 550,000 dead Americans

Michael Gerson: The GOP is facing a sickness deeper than the coronavirus

Sara DeWitt: Yes, your kids are spending more time on screens. Stop feeling guilty about it

Marty Makary and Nicole Saphier: The case for vaccinating children for covid-19

Paul Waldman: Why Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx met different fates