President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic showed a “flat-out disregard for human life” because his “main concern was the economy and his reelection,” according to a senior adviser on the White House coronavirus task force who left the White House in August.
“The president’s rhetoric and his own attacks against people in his administration trying to do the work, as well as the promulgation of false narratives and incorrect information of the virus have made this ongoing response a failure,” she said in an interview.
Troye is the first Trump administration official who worked extensively on the coronavirus response to forcefully speak out against Trump and his handling of the pandemic. She joins a growing number of former officials, including former national security adviser John Bolton and former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who have detailed their worries about what happened during their time in the administration while declaring that Trump is unfit to be president.
The amount of criticism Trump has faced from former aides is unprecedented in the modern presidency, and it could pose a political risk to his reelection campaign as some of the aides who have spoken out are pressuring other former colleagues to join them.
The White House dismissed Troye as a disgruntled former employee, minimized her role on the task force and disputed her characterization that the pandemic response has not gone well.
“Ms. Troye is a former detailee and a career Department of Homeland Security staff member, who is disgruntled that her detail was cut short because she was no longer capable of keeping up with her day-to-day duties,” retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Pence’s national security adviser, said in a statement. “Ms. Troye directly reported to me, and never once during her detail did she ever express any concern regarding the Administration’s response to the Coronavirus to anyone in her chain of command. By not expressing her concerns, she demonstrated an incredible lack of moral courage.”
Deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said Troye’s “assertions have no basis in reality and are flat-out inaccurate” and that “the truth is President Trump always put the well-being of the American people first,” citing the president’s efforts to boost the production of medical equipment, his early recommendations on social distancing and the plan to quickly develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Troye had an inside view of the White House’s pandemic response, which polls show is hurting the president with voters, and her review of the effort is scathing. She said in an interview that she would be skeptical of any vaccine produced ahead of the election because of worries that its release was due to political pressure.
“I would not tell anyone I care about to take a vaccine that launches prior to the election,” she said. “I would listen to the experts and the unity in pharma. And I would wait to make sure that this vaccine is safe and not a prop tied to an election.”
Though Troye played a behind-the-scenes role during her time in the White House, she was a major participant in the task force’s work, attending and helping to organize “every single meeting” it held from February until July, she said. She worked closely with Pence on the administration’s response, including establishing an agenda for each meeting, preparing the vice president and arranging briefings for him, writing and editing his comments, and dealing with the vice president’s political aides.
She was often pictured sitting against the back wall of the White House Situation Room near Pence in photos posted to social media. Her assistant would send the seating chart to officials across the administration, who in turn would consult with her about the workings of the group and Pence.
She described herself as a lifelong Republican who always voted for the party’s nominee before 2016. Troye said she did not vote for Trump, because she disliked his rhetoric. She declined to say whom she voted for in the last election.
“But I got past it and accepted he was our president,” Troye, 43, said of the election result.
Troye said that she worked in the administration because she hoped Trump would morph into a stronger leader after a divisive campaign and that she had respect for other Trump officials, such as Pence.
“I still have a lot of respect for the vice president,” she said. “I worked very loyally for him to do everything I could for him. I don’t want this to become a speaking-out-against-him thing.”
Asked about Troye’s comments later in the day, Pence said he was very proud of the administration’s performance.
“I haven’t read her comments in any detail. But it reads to me like one more disgruntled employee that has decided to play politics during election year,” Pence said.
Trump dismissed her charges Thursday evening. “I have no idea who she is,” he told reporters. “I never met her, to the best of my knowledge. Maybe she was in a room. I have no idea who she is. She doesn’t know me.”
The novel coronavirus has infected more than 6.6 million Americans and has killed nearly 200,000 — a toll Troye said has been exacerbated by what she called Trump and his administration’s mishandling of the pandemic and by the conflicting messages he and his top aides have disseminated to Americans on masks, social distancing and other public health precautions.
Trump, she said, usually was not focused on the virus but would often “blindside” the task force and administration officials with public comments, such as his support for the drug hydroxychloroquine, his Twitter attack on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the agency’s guidance on the reopening of schools, his skeptical comments about masks and his public musings about “herd immunity.” Many of his comments were the opposite of what had been discussed in the Situation Room, where task force meetings were often held, and were at odds with scientific recommendations or the administration’s own data, Troye said.
The administration, she said, missed months to slow the spread of the virus because the president and other key administration officials refused to embrace masks, even as members of the task force and health officials “repeatedly begged” Trump to do so. Trump allies note that many of the health officials first advised against masks before advising that they be used.
“The mask issue was a critical one. If we would have gotten ahead on that and stressed the importance of it, we could have slowed the spread significantly,” Troye said. “It was detrimental that it became a politicized issue. It still lingers today.”
Senior aides to Pence held a contemptuous view of the administration’s scientists and tried to project a far too rosy outlook about the virus with cherry-picked data — and key public health agencies including the CDC were marginalized throughout her tenure, Troye said. Advisers were afraid to express positions contrary to the president’s views because they feared a public denunciation or “that they would be cut out,” she said.
“At some point, every single person on the task force has been thrown under the bus in one way or another,” Troye said. “Instead of being focused on the task at hand, people were constantly wondering what was going to drop next or when you’re going to get reprimanded or cut out of a process for speaking out.”
Troye said the White House did not quickly resolve problems with coronavirus testing in the early months as the virus spread, though she concedes those hitches were not personally Trump’s fault.
Trump rarely attended task force meetings and was briefed only on top-level discussions by Pence or the government’s public health officials. When Trump attended one meeting, Troye said, he spoke for 45 minutes about how poorly he was being treated by certain personalities on Fox News.
“He spent more time about who was going to call Fox and yell at them to set them straight than he did on the virus,” she said.
Troye said Trump was constantly looking to reopen states and schools — even when others feared that doing so would be unsafe — and would regularly disregard what his advisers suggested.
“There were a lot of closed door conversations I have had with a lot of senior people across the administration where they agree with me wholeheartedly,” she said of her assessment of Trump.
Urging others to speak
With less than seven weeks until the election, there is a concerted effort by a coterie of former Trump administration officials to push more former aides to speak out, particularly boldface names who can secure national media attention and aides who can tell damaging stories in detail.
The president, for his part, has described many of those critical as “disgruntled former employees” who were not cut out for his administration. Administration officials note that a number of former employees also have praised the president extensively and that the president has overwhelming support in his own party.
Some former and current officials say they do not think ex-Washington officials will move many voters in key states. But Miles Taylor — who worked in the Department of Homeland Security between 2017 and 2019, including as chief of staff — said compelling narrators with first-person testimonials can influence voters.
“Is the voice of an ex-Trump official going to change millions of votes? No. But if you can change the minds of several tens of thousands of people in swing states, it could absolutely impact the election,” said Taylor, who has formed a Republican anti-Trump group called Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform (REPAIR).
Troye is joining the group, and on Thursday afternoon she released a video, through Republican Voters Against Trump, detailing her problems with Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Taylor said it had been difficult to secure marquee names to speak out against the president because “the president has done a very effective job of creating a culture of fear.”
According to people familiar with their views, those privately critical of Trump include Mattis, former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, former top economic aide Gary Cohn and former homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. These people, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of these officials. The former officials either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to discuss their views.
Kelly is among those most torn about what to do, according to people who have spoken with him. They say he describes the president in derisive terms — as a narcissist who does not understand the military, cares only about his political fortunes and is unqualified to be president. Kelly declined to comment for this article but has told others he is undecided over whether he should speak out more before the election, citing his previous role in the military and his concern about generals speaking out against elected presidents.
Beyond the fear of being attacked, there are other reasons that former advisers have not spoken out publicly.
Some of them are still staunchly Republican — even if they dislike Trump — and do not want to publicly support Biden. Some, like Nielsen, would have to defend their own roles in some of Trump’s most contentious decisions.
Taylor said he is encouraging former officials such as Mattis and Kelly to see that now is the time to end their reticence.
“It took longer than it should have for every single one of us,” Taylor said. “All of us, myself included, should have spoken out sooner.”
Why Troye says she stayed
Troye said she expects sharp denunciations from former colleagues in the administration and also expects to be denigrated by the White House and the president on Twitter.
“Honestly, I am scared,” she said. “I have never done anything like this.”
Troye has long had an obscure profile in Washington — working behind the scenes at the Pentagon as a political appointee during the George W. Bush administration and then as a career official at the Homeland Security and Energy departments during the Obama administration before joining the vice president’s office in 2018 as an employee detailed from DHS.
Troye said she was disturbed by the president’s handling of myriad issues over two years — most notably his “military dictator, false prophet-like” march to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo with the Bible this summer after protesters were cleared from Lafayette Square.
Thoughts during her tenure of leaving gave way to other considerations, she said. Troye held a key role on the coronavirus task force but also carried out an array of other duties for the vice president, advising him on mass shootings, immigration, hurricanes and some foreign affairs issues, she said. The vice president would sometimes dial her cellphone, Troye said.
“I was the 24-hours-on-call person for major events for two years for him in the role,” Troye said.
In private, she said, Pence would say the “right things” in calls to governors and “was in an impossible situation with the president.” Troye also praised a number of the administration’s top health officials.
Troye said she and other advisers regularly encountered a desire on the part of the president and his political advisers, along with some senior members of the vice president’s team, to move on from the coronavirus even as thousands were dying and to focus on the economy or the campaign. She was asked by senior Pence aides, she said, to help on an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that minimized the fears of a second coronavirus wave and touted the administration’s work on the virus as a success story.
“It was ludicrous,” she said of the piece, which ran in June. Troye, however, said she helped write it.
There regularly were suggestions from Pence’s top political advisers for his coronavirus remarks “that I could just not support, and it became harder and harder to push back,” Troye said.
These advisers, Troye said, wanted to wind down the task force at the end of April. “In the middle of a pandemic, how could you do that?” she said.
She declined to name these Pence aides publicly but said there was consistent pressure from Pence’s senior officials to focus more on the economy and the reelection campaign. She added that she felt Pence’s top officials often showed derision toward the administration’s medical experts.
Asked about her own regrets, Troye said that she wished she had spoken out internally more often and that she had wrestled with many “sleepless nights” about her actions and time in the administration.
“I wished I had been more aggressive in fighting internal forces that were working against the CDC and other policies for the president’s personal agenda,” she said. “I wish I would have been more aggressive with the staff on the vice president’s team and some of the president’s staff.”
Greg Jaffe, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.