The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to get ahead in the Trump administration

The incentive structure is clear: Appease the Toddler in Chief.

White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx attends a meeting with Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and others. (Evan Vucci/AP)

During the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts warned of “a meritocratic apocalypse.” Michael Lewis was even more emphatic on this point in “The Fifth Risk,” noting the myriad ways that the transition gutted bureaucracies that no one ever hears about until something goes wrong.

At 67,000 dead and climbing for covid-19, something has gone seriously wrong.

One would think that with this acute of a crisis, the Trump White House would rely on its remaining competent bureaucrats, the non-D-listers still willing to be serving in this administration, to wonk its way out of this problem. You would be wrong.

Consider two stories that broke over the weekend. The first, on Friday evening, concerned Donald Trump firing yet another inspector general. The Department of Health and Human Services’s Christi Grimm wrote a report in late March highlighting the serious challenges that hospitals were facing as the novel coronavirus spread, including "capacity to treat patients with COVID-19” including but not limited to “assistance related to personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, staffing, supplies and durable equipment; maintaining or expanding facility capacity; and financial concerns.” This highlighted some serious problems that needed fixing.

According to the New York Times’s Peter Baker, Grimm got crosswise with the White House for … doing her job: “President Trump moved on Friday night to replace a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services who angered him with a report last month highlighting supply shortages and testing delays at hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic.” Trump suggested on Twitter that Grimm was an Obama appointee even though she was a career official who had served under presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well.

So who is providing advice to this administration? I’m glad you asked, because five of my Washington Post colleagues wrote a story on that very question over the weekend. The article is infuriating, because after reading it, one has to conclude that the Trump administration did not just botch February — when it could have taken preparatory actions to mitigate the harm done by covid-19 — it also botched March and April on over-optimistic assessments followed by risky gambles for resurrection.

Trump’s abysmal leadership on this issue has been well documented in this space. See here, here, here, here, here, here and here for starters. This is well-trodden ground, most recently by Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman. Both Sherman and my Post colleagues, however, also reveal the incompetency of Trump’s current staff as well, led by Jared Kushner. Sherman notes that “Kushner’s involvement wrought chaos: business leaders wanting to contribute masks or ventilators didn’t know who in government to call.”

According to my Post colleagues, however, other high-ranking Trump officials also committed serious policy own-goals. Former chief economic adviser Kevin Hassett devised a model projecting far fewer deaths than have already occurred — a projection that Kushner and others embraced in their planning.

Marc Short, who serves as Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, also made serious mistakes. According to The Post story, “[Short] repeatedly questioned the data being shared with Trump, and in internal discussions said he did not believe the death toll would ever get to 60,000 and that the administration was overreacting, damaging the economy and the president’s chances for reelection, according to people who have heard his arguments.”

The part of The Post story that really stands out, however, is this:

The task force members with medical degrees — Birx, Fauci and Hahn, as well as CDC Director Robert Redfield, Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams and Brett Giroir, who leads the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps — splintered off in mid- to late-March and began meeting on their own almost daily, three senior administration officials said. Some in the “doctors group” were distressed by what one official dubbed the “voodoo” discussed within the broader task force …
The doctors group strove to present a unified front to the president on various medical and scientific issues. They recently discussed how antibody tests, designed to identify people with possible immunity from the virus, are not a panacea to reopening the country because the results sometimes are inaccurate.
“There’s a little bit of a God complex,” one senior administration official said of the group. “They’re all about science, science, science, which is good, but sometimes there’s a little bit less of a consideration of politics when maybe there should be.”

That last paragraph is breathtaking. Every single Trump officials who has focused on non-health factors in crafting a policy response has screwed it up. Kushner, Short, Hassett, Larry Kudlow: All of them dramatically underestimated the effects of the coronavirus. Any competent staffer, even one who cared only about partisan politics, would have advised Trump to focus on public health now with the aim of having the economy in recovery mode by November. What’s actually happening is far worse than I would have thought even two weeks ago.

The amazing thing about all this is the refusal of Kudlow or Kushner to acknowledge any error:

So, the way to get ahead in the Trump administration is to offer soothing words to the Toddler in Chief and not do anything in public that might cost him politically.

This brings us to the matter of Deborah Birx, a competent public health official who has maintained her standing with Trump. On occasion, she has gone on television to deflect or defend Trump, talking about the president’s “ability to analyze and integrate data.

Birx’s refusal to correct Trump in real time has rankled many observers who now view her as a shill for Trump. But Birx is also in an impossible situation. Anyone who studies Trump for any length of time knows that he cannot abide being contradicted in public by an underling. Anthony S. Fauci’s outspokenness in some interviews has clearly cost him some capital within the White House.

I get the frustration surrounding Birx’s refusal to acknowledge Trump’s errors. But I also get that if Birx did that, it would accomplish little but marginalize her in the policymaking process, and there are already too few competent people in this White House. Without Birx, Fauci would be marginalized further, and Trump would only listen to his incompetent political aides.

Birx is compromising herself by serving in this high a profile under Trump. But if there was ever a time to sacrifice one’s reputation to make a small difference in the greater good, this would be the time to do it.