When Anthony Fauci, clad in a white lab coat, invited an NBC Nightly News correspondent into his offices this week and described the coronavirus as an “outbreak” that was reaching “likely pandemic proportions,” the immunologist was acting as he long has during public health crises: delivering a fact-based warning to the public.
But at the White House, the more politically minded officials overseeing the administration’s response were irritated that Fauci — the veteran director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — had used the word “pandemic” without giving anyone on Vice President Pence’s staff a heads up, according to two people familiar with the situation.
One week after Trump returned home from India to confront an unfolding health crisis and tasked Pence with managing the government-wide response, the effort has been undermined by mixed messages, contradictions and falsehoods — many of them emanating from the president himself, including this week when he repeatedly spread false information about just how soon a coronavirus vaccine would be available.
The White House is handling the rapidly expanding coronavirus as a public relations problem as much as a public health crisis. Officials are insisting on message discipline among government scientists and political aides alike, part of what they say is a responsible effort to try to calm jittery Americans and provide uniform and transparent information.
Trump — who has closely monitored news coverage and the gyrating financial markets, which he sees as a barometer of his reelection chances — has privately griped about what he considers to be hysteria from both the media and his own public health officials, according to people familiar with his complaints, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments. White House aides managing the response have also sought to focus on tamping down what they consider to be alarmist rhetoric.
Officials are working this week to book Fauci, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and other coronavirus task force members on television programs with a broader audience than the administration’s preferred Fox News Channel. For instance, experts have appeared or, aides hope, will soon appear on shows like ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NBC’s “Today” and “The Dr. Oz Show” in an effort to reassure worried parents, while Seema Verma, director of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is doing outreach to groups such as AARP.
Pence and other members of the task force, including Ambassador Deborah Birx, a physician and global AIDS expert, also started holding daily news conferences in the White House press briefing room this week as part of an effort to keep the public appraised of the fast-moving virus.
“We have a responsibility to the American people for transparent and frequent communication while ensuring that we are well-coordinated among the entire federal government,” said Katie Miller, a Pence spokeswoman. “At President Trump’s direction, this is one team, one mission.”
On Wednesday, the team is also hosting meetings with nursing home chief executives and trade associations to share new guidelines for nursing homes, as well as with airline chief executives.
“Our mission is to get as much information as possible out, and we’re trying to do that in a way that reassures the American people about the information they’re getting, and we’re also trying to use all channels of communication,” said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff. “We want a presentation that is reassuring, that says this is the daily press briefing after the task force meeting, which tells you what all the actions are that were decided today and where we are.”
As Trump toured a laboratory at the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday afternoon, he and Fauci appeared chummy. The president heaped praise on the infectious diseases expert, telling him, “The world is extremely happy that you’re involved.”
But their bonhomie belied the tensions in an administration where the president tolerates only one star: himself. Public health experts and other government officials have found themselves struggling to manage the delicate balance of performing their jobs while not angering the president or his political aides.
A Tuesday profile of Fauci in Politico, for example, was generally viewed dismissively inside the West Wing as an unnecessary and self-promoting distraction amid the crisis.
“You should never destroy your own credibility. And you don’t want to go to war with a president,” Fauci told Politico. “But you got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.”
Pence allies say the vice president is perhaps uniquely equipped to lead the administration’s response — which involves not only traditional crisis management and bureaucratic streamlining, but also managing Trump’s shifting moods.
Trump trusts Pence, who routinely seizes opportunities to demonstrate his fealty, and therefore the vice president is able to present the president with tough information in private, these people said.
As he manages the coronavirus response, Pence also has kept an eye on the November reelection campaign, which is an abiding concern of the president’s.
Pence traveled last Friday to Florida, where he headlined a political fundraiser, and is scheduled to visit Michigan and Wisconsin on Thursday for a campaign bus tour. He plans to stop along the tour in Maplewood, Minn., to meet with the chief executive of 3M, which manufacturers now-popular face masks, and discuss supply-chain issues.
Several people within and close to the Department of Health and Human Services said Pence’s office was micromanaging communications related to the administration’s response, and was overly concerned with day-to-day news cycles and public perception rather than long-term strategy about how to contain the growing outbreak.
Two HHS officials said Pence’s office had implemented a top-down structure by dictating to the agency how it should be communicating with the public, emphasizing that officials should be honest and open but refrain from using “alarmist” language about the outbreak in interviews.
Some close to the administration were advising Pence’s staff to worry less about day-to-day news cycles and headlines. Instead, they have counseled the vice president’s office to be fully transparent with the public about why certain mitigation measures may be needed, such as closing schools, rather than worrying whether those precautions would spook the public, adding that the best thing to ensure the president’s reelection was to stamp out the outbreak.
One person added that Pence’s office was more inclined to send out officials it believed were more likely to hew to the White House’s message. On Sunday, for instance, Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar made the rounds on the weekend news shows, rather than infectious disease specialists, doctors and scientists. Fauci had previously been scheduled to speak on the Sunday shows but said he had to be re-cleared by Pence’s office once the vice president took over.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has obsessed over hourly news cycles, looking to win each one as opposed to patiently executing long-range strategies. But with coronavirus, some of his own administration officials privately say they are struggling to impress upon the president and his close advisers that they may need to weather some difficult news cycles to win the best headline of all: the eradication of the virus.
At a Monday roundtable meeting at the White House, Trump prodded pharmaceutical executives about how quickly they could get a coronavirus vaccine to market. He appeared not to understand the vaccine testing process, despite efforts by some executives to clarify the timeline, and incorrectly asserted that a vaccine could be ready “over the next few months” or “within a year.”
It fell to Fauci to correct the president.
“A year to a year and a half,” Fauci said.
Later on in the conversation, Trump chimed in, “I like the sound of a couple of months better, I must be honest with you.”
Fauci then asked that the pharmaceutical executives educate the president.
“Would you make sure you get the president the information that a vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that’s deployable?” Fauci said. “So he’s asking the question, ‘When is it going to be deployable?’ And that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.”
But on Tuesday, during a gathering of the National Association of Counties, Trump presented a rosy outlook. “We’re moving at a maximum speed to develop the therapies, not only the vaccines, but therapies,” he said. “Therapies is sort of another word for cure. ”
And he claimed that during his meeting with pharmaceutical executives, he had pressed the leaders to expedite the vaccine process.
” I said, ‘Do me a favor. Speed it up, speed it up,’ he said. “And they will. They are working really hard and quick.”
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