Atlas had become widely disliked in the White House — even among aides who shared his view that the country should reopen and that officials should not worry about young, healthy people contracting the virus, according to two senior administration officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
Atlas’s resignation was first reported by Fox News on Monday evening. The White House declined to comment.
Although Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no infectious-disease or public health background, fell out of favor with senior White House advisers in recent weeks, he was the only medical adviser the president met with regularly for several months, according to several senior administration officials. Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner brought in Atlas, who was officially made a special government employee this summer with a 130-day detail, which expires this week. Aides noted, however, that the president could have extended Atlas’s tenure if he had desired to do so.
Trump sidelined the task force’s other doctors, including White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx and Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, soon after Atlas arrived and advocated an approach more in line with what the president wanted to hear.
Atlas’s resignation comes as more than 267,000 Americans have died of the virus and 13.5 million have been infected. The country is entering the worst stretch yet of the pandemic, with more than 95,000 hospitalizations and more than 1,000 deaths reported Monday.
Atlas embraced strategies that most public health experts warned were dangerous. He advocated allowing the virus to spread among young, healthy people to help the country reach “herd immunity” levels — a strategy experts warned would result in tens of thousands of needless deaths — and said the country should focus on protecting the vulnerable and the elderly, including those in nursing homes, even though millions of such people share households with young people.
He also shot down attempts by Birx and Fauci to expand testing; openly feuded with other doctors on the coronavirus task force and succeeded in largely sidelining them; and advanced fringe theories, such as that social distancing and mask-wearing were meaningless and would not have changed the course of the virus, according to three current and former senior administration officials.
Atlas also argued that more of the population was already protected against the coronavirus because of so-called T-cell immunity, in which people with exposure to previous coronaviruses — such as the common cold — have T cells that also protect them against covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. No scientific study has yet proved this theory, however, and Atlas’s advocacy of it dismayed other task force officials.
He fought fiercely with Birx and to a lesser extent with Fauci, as well as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, former White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway and several other aides, according to another senior administration official.
“He was the worst thing to happen to Trump in 2020 from a personnel perspective,” said a former senior administration official who regularly sparred with Atlas, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss a former colleague.
A fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Atlas was rebuked earlier this month by university faculty, who passed a resolution saying his “disdain for established medical knowledge violates medical ethics.”
Condoleezza Rice, the head of the Hoover Institution and former secretary of state under President George W. Bush, also criticized the doctor, saying his views were inconsistent with the conservative think tank’s policies on masks, social distancing and testing, according to a Stanford news release.
At the White House, however, Atlas won the president’s favor by advancing a message that the pandemic was nearly over, even as cases and deaths continued climbing. He also told the public that a vaccine could be available before the Nov. 3 election, even though that timetable was highly unlikely, and he convinced the president that the task force’s other doctors were misleading him.
In recent weeks, he had been largely absent from the White House and did not attend a recent coronavirus task force meeting. He did not appear after the election with Vice President Pence at the first task force news conference in months, after making numerous appearances with the president over the summer and in the fall.
In a resignation letter posted to his Twitter account, Atlas defended his approach.
“Perhaps more than anything, my advice was always focused on minimizing all the harms from both the pandemic and the structural policies themselves, especially to the working class and the poor,” Atlas wrote. “Although some may disagree with those recommendations, it is the free exchange of ideas that lead to scientific truths, which are the very foundation of a civilized society.”
“And more and more, the relatively low risk to children of serious harms from the infection, the less frequent spread from children, the presence of immunologic protection beyond that shown by antibody testing, and the severe harms from closing schools and society are all being acknowledged,” Atlas wrote.
Atlas also continued to promote a herd immunity strategy, although he refused to call it that, even when Trump did not fully embrace the approach, a senior administration official said. He annoyed Trump and angered several White House aides by doing an interview with Russia’s state-backed RT network just days before the presidential election. Atlas later apologized for the interview and said he “was unaware they are a registered foreign agent.”