“I don’t take responsibility at all,” he once said rather bluntly when asked about the slow ramp-up in testing.
For all of Trump’s attempts to slough off blame for what has happened, though, he is increasingly saying things that will make that very difficult. He has made clear — in case it wasn’t already — that he is leaning on health officials to do and say things they might not otherwise do or say of their own volition.
Over the past three days, Trump has urged health officials at both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tailor their recommendations to his non-medical-expert will.
“Act now @US_FDA,” Trump said, while citing a non-randomized study that suggested that the drug might actually help.
On Wednesday, it was Trump saying he would urge the CDC to scale back its “very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools.”
Trump tweeted that “they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!”
On the latter account, health officials appear to have acceded.
At events over the past two days, both CDC Director Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar have played down — if not disowned — the CDC’s guidelines when it comes to reopening schools. Redfield said Wednesday that the guidelines were not intended as a “rationale to keep schools closed.” Azar said Tuesday that schools should not “hide behind” the guidelines as a means to stay closed.
And now, Vice President Pence has said the CDC will issue new guidelines that will provide “more clarity.” In doing so, Pence explicitly cited Trump’s contention that the guidelines were too tough.
What Trump’s public comments lay bare is that he is affecting those health officials’ recommendations. While those recommendations will always be subject to political officials such as Trump making the ultimate decisions — as coronavirus task force members Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx have both reinforced — Trump isn’t just overriding them: He’s very publicly calling for them to be changed. That’s a key distinction.
But while the new efforts may be more overt, they’re hardly without precedent.
When the FDA first approved hydroxychloroquine for emergency use, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn contended that it wasn’t done because of political pressure. Yet Trump, in his own comments, bragged that he had pushed the FDA to speed along the process. Trump said the drug was “something that I have been pushing very hard. I got the very early approval from the FDA.”
He added: “I got it done, because I said: ‘Look, some of these people are very sick and they’re not going to make it. Let’s do it. Let’s get it done.' ”
The FDA later warned about the dangers of overuse of the drug and then pulled its emergency use authorization entirely. A very logical conclusion regarding Trump’s comments is that he pushed for an apolitical group of medical experts to approve a drug — and succeeded — before it later admitted that the decision was without merit.
(Trump’s continued push for hydroxychloroquine Monday, it bears noting, also comes despite very significant reservations about the study he cites.)
Similarly — and perhaps more important — Trump was among the earliest proponents of reopening the economy across the United States, even as health officials were reluctant. States and localities wound up reopening large portions of their economies without meeting the CDC’s guidelines, and some of them have now reversed course. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), for instance, has expressed tempered remorse for how quickly the state moved on things such as reopening bars.
Given that experience and the resurgence of coronavirus cases — especially across the South and Southwest — you might think politicians would begin to heed the recommendations and guidelines of those same health officials.
Trump, though, has long telegraphed a desire to move things along more quickly than those officials have prescribed. And today, he’s saying those things much more publicly, and more explicitly differing with health officials. The practical effect — especially if schools across the country heed his call to reopen faster and more aggressively than the CDC guidelines suggest — is that he’s owning whatever results come from it.
That hasn’t worked out terribly well for Trump thus far. But he’s apparently undeterred.