Taking her turn Sunday was Deborah Birx, one of the two medical-expert faces of Trump’s coronavirus task force. In a 90-minute interview with CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” she said that she “always considered” resigning and that Trump often presented false or misleading data that she hadn’t provided to him. Birx also said she didn’t speak to Trump for months at a time.
None of that is terribly surprising. We knew that Trump made the lives of those such as Birx awful and that he presented bad data. We also know he ghosted medical experts, because the other expert on the task force, Anthony S. Fauci, has said so.
What’s perhaps more interesting — and most relevant when it comes to evaluating Birx’s tenure — is how she explains her conduct vis-a-vis Trump. She was more publicly accommodating to Trump’s impulses and comments than was Fauci. He, too, was often more gentle than critics would have liked, but he and Trump clashed regularly. Save for one brief blowup in the summer, Birx avoided such clashes.
Birx’s explanation? That she wasn’t really given the chance to correct the record. When confronted with the Fauci comparison, she said, “Well, he was given the opportunity to do that, though.” She said she liked to go on the road because she wouldn’t be “censored” like she was in Washington.
As for the idea that she didn’t do enough in real time:
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you often were perceived as explaining some of the things President Trump said rather than correcting him.BIRX: Well, when people asked me a question, I feel like I have to respond with what my perception of that moment was.
But Birx often went quite a bit further than that.
People in positions such as Birx’s deserve some sympathy. Former Trump administration officials have often explained their refusal to speak up more forcefully earlier by arguing that they could do more good if they were able to stick around and that they worried about who might replace them. And we need only look at the evolution of the coronavirus task force to get a sense for who might have replaced Birx — people such as Scott Atlas.
But while Fauci navigated this uneasy balancing act more deftly, Birx clearly erred in a more pro-Trump direction. Rather than simply provide her perception of things at a given moment, as she now says she did, she often strained to defend Trump or at least explain his conduct away. She even effusively praised him in the kind of dear-leader manner that many of Trump’s political appointees fell into.
Although she now says Trump was presenting bad or unauthorized data, during an appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network in March, she hailed his attentiveness to the data in a way that bore no resemblance to the man we saw before or after.
“He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data,” she said. “I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues.”
When Trump in April floated the idea of injecting disinfectant or light into coronavirus patients, Birx’s pained expression became a symbol of a pandemic response gone awry.
Trump turned to her at the news conference, and she did clarify that such things were being studied “not as a treatment.” But she later appeared on Fox News Channel and defended Trump for having floated such wild ideas. She suggested that he was merely processing information he had just been given — as if talking about such things with the country watching was just something you do.
She added: “The president has always put health and safety first.” And of Trump’s decision to relent to strict guidelines the month before: “He realized that the health and safety of Americans was his No. 1 interest and responsibility.”
When those guidelines were first announced in mid-March, Birx glossed over the two months Trump had spent dismissing the threat of the virus.
“Seeing the spread of the virus around the globe, the president realized that our current approach to testing was inadequate to need — to meet the needs of the American public,” she said. “He asked for an entire overhaul of the testing approach.”
Although Trump did change his tune for a while, his efforts to minimize the virus would soon resume. That also came to be accompanied by a dismissive effort toward testing that suggested that he was much more concerned about too many tests creating a political liability for him than anything else.
As for her claim that Trump was being fed bad data, Birx in May vouched for the data the administration was presenting.
“I’ve said from the beginning that we’ll follow the data,” she said. “And we provide the data that’s integrated between multiple reporting sites. And we have never altered the death numbers. And in this country, we’ve been very inclusive.”
Except by this point, the data presented had already been misleading for weeks, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote the month before.
Birx would again put a good face on the attentiveness of the effort in early August, saying that a spike in cases had led it to “reset” several weeks prior.
“I think the federal government reset about five to six weeks ago when we saw this starting to happen across the South,” she said.
The interview took place Aug. 2. Just more than six weeks earlier, though, the leader of the coronavirus task force, Vice President Mike Pence, wrote an op-ed saying “panic is overblown” about a second wave of the virus.
Birx in May also played down the significance of Trump not wearing a mask, pointing to a rare instance in which he did so.
“Well, the president did wear a mask while he was less than six feet in an occasion where that was important — I think when he was traveling last week,” Birx told Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “I’m not with him every day and every moment, so I don’t know if he can maintain social distance. … I’m assuming that in a majority of cases, he’s able to maintain that six-feet distance.”
Looking back on quotes like these can appear to be cherry-picking. As noted above, Fauci played the game to some extent — although significantly less than Birx did — including by suggesting that tensions between him and Trump were overblown. Many of Birx’s comments also came relatively early in the pandemic, with her largely disappearing from public view in recent months.
But just like being kicked off the team could lead to adverse results for the pandemic response, allowing bad data and wild claims to be spouted without correction could, too. And more than anything, Birx at times made herself into a key character witness for Trump’s response, including on the data. That’s a perception that we never saw her try to correct — until now.