Inside the Trump administration’s rush to abandon leadership role on the virus

WASHINGTON – Each morning at 8 as the coronavirus crisis was raging in April, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, convened a small group of aides to steer the administration through what had become a public health, economic and political disaster.

They saw their immediate role as practical problem-solvers. Produce more ventilators. Find more personal protective equipment. Provide more testing.

But their ultimate goal was to shift responsibility for leading the fight against the pandemic from the White House to the states. They referred to this as “state authority handoff,” and it was at the heart of what would become at once a catastrophic policy blunder and an attempt to escape blame for a crisis that had engulfed the country.

Over a critical period beginning in mid-April, President Donald Trump and his team convinced themselves that the outbreak was fading, that they had given state governments all the resources they needed to contain its remaining “embers” and that it was time to ease up on the lockdown.

In doing so, he was ignoring warnings that the numbers would continue to drop only if social distancing was kept in place, rushing instead to restart the economy and tend to his battered re-election hopes.

For scientific affirmation, they turned to Dr. Deborah Birx, the sole public health professional in Meadows’ group. A highly regarded infectious diseases expert, she was a constant source of upbeat news for the president and his aides, walking the halls with charts emphasizing that outbreaks were gradually easing.

On April 11, she told the coronavirus task force in the Situation Room that the nation was in good shape.

A sharp pivot soon followed, with consequences that continue to plague the country today.

Even as experts warned that the pandemic was far from under control, Trump went, in a matter of days, from proclaiming that he alone had the authority to decide when the economy would reopen to pushing that responsibility onto the states. The government issued detailed reopening guidelines, but almost immediately, Trump began criticizing Democratic governors who did not “liberate” their states.

Trump’s bet that the crisis would fade away proved wrong. But an examination of the shift in April and its aftermath shows that the approach he embraced was not just a misjudgment. Instead, it was a deliberate strategy that he would stick to as evidence mounted that the virus would continue to infect and kill large numbers of Americans.

He and his top aides would openly disdain the scientific research into the disease and the advice of experts on how to contain it, seek to muzzle more authoritative voices like Dr. Anthony Fauci and continue to distort reality even as it became clear that Trump’s hopes for a rapid rebound in the economy and his electoral prospects were not materializing.

Now interviews with more than two dozen officials inside the administration and in the states, and a review of e-mails and documents, reveal previously unreported details about how the White House put the nation on its current course during a fateful period this spring.

• Birx was more central than publicly known to the judgment inside the West Wing that the virus was on a downward path. Her model-based assessment failed to account for a vital variable: how Trump’s rush to urge a return to normalcy would help undercut the social distancing and other measures that were holding down the numbers.

• The president quickly came to feel trapped by his own reopening guidelines. States needed declining cases to reopen, or at least a declining rate of positive tests. But more testing meant overall cases were destined to go up, undercutting the president’s push to crank up the economy. The result was to intensify Trump’s remarkable public campaign against testing, a vivid example of how he often waged war with science and his own administration’s experts and stated policies.

• Trump’s bizarre public statements, his refusal to wear a mask and his pressure on states to get their economies going again left governors and other state officials scrambling to deal with a leadership vacuum.

• Not until early June did White House officials even begin to recognize that their assumptions about the course of the pandemic had proved wrong. Even now there are internal divisions over how far to go in having officials publicly acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said the president had imposed travel restrictions on China early in the pandemic, signed economic relief measures that have provided Americans with critical assistance and dealt with other issues, including supplies of personal protective equipment, testing capacity and vaccine development.

At a briefing on April 10, Trump predicted that the number of deaths in the United States from the pandemic would be “substantially” fewer than 100,000. As of Saturday, the death toll stood at 139,186; the pace of new deaths was rising again; and the country, logging a seven-day average of 65,790 new cases a day, had more confirmed cases per capita than any other major industrial nation.

Source: Star Tribune