Trump's coronavirus team puts internal battles on public display

Analysis: The administration's internal battles over information have muddled the message as the pandemic surges.
Image: U.S. President Trump leads daily coronavirus response briefing at the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump departs after addressing a coronavirus task force daily briefing as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stands by on March 26.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

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By Josh Lederman

WASHINGTON — During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House did what most administrations do when a crisis erupts: It sought to show government leaders and top experts working in tandem to solve the problem.

Now, the Trump administration is going to war with itself, putting vicious internal power battles on full public display ahead of an election that polling shows is becoming largely a referendum on the competence of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response.

In the span of a few days, the White House launched an anonymous smear campaign against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the nation, then turned on the presidential trade adviser when he did the same thing on the record. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health and Human Services Department are publicly feuding over control of hospital data. And Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence are suggesting that schools might want to ignore the CDC’s safety advice so they can fully reopen.

So when the government itself can’t agree on who’s right and who’s wrong, whom should the public believe?

“This is such an incredible distraction from what we need to be talking about as a nation, and that’s how do we follow the road map that public health is laying out so that we can get this under control,” Dr. Richard Besser, the former acting CDC director, said on MSNBC. “It’s just mind-boggling that that’s where we are in terms of responding to this pandemic.”

Early in the pandemic, the team that Trump assembled generally got high marks for unified, frequent and candid communication with the public, including at televised coronavirus task force briefings in which science, data and charts accompanied trusted presenters such as Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx and Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

Now those briefings have all but ended, returning only briefly in recent weeks as the virus spread has escalated across the nation, with Trump seeking to change the conversation to economic recovery and other more optimistic topics. Fauci, once a frequent face of the administration’s response on television screens, has been relegated to podcasts and FaceTime interviews as the Trump administration restricts his TV appearances.

Fueling Trump’s efforts to undermine trust in elements of his own government is the growing gap between his assessment of the state of the pandemic and the much grimmer assessments from the CDC, Fauci and other medical experts in his administration.

Four months ahead of the election, Trump appears to have made the calculation that voters will ultimately choose one of those versions of events to believe, and that attacking the credibility of those painting a more dire picture will make voters more likely to believe his version and the “great job” he says he’s done on the pandemic.

Up until now, Fauci has largely been winning the trust argument. A New York Times-Sienna College poll last month found 2 in 3 voters approved of Fauci, compared to just 1 in 4 for Trump. And in a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, just 35 percent of voters said they approved of Trump’s handling of the virus, his lowest mark on that question to date, while 67 percent said they didn’t trust the information he’s providing about COVID-19.

But the public display of backbiting among the leaders tasked with pulling the country out of the pandemic that’s already killed nearly 138,000 in the U.S. comes with the clear risk of diminishing Americans’ trust in the government’s response altogether.

"I cannot figure out in my wildest dreams why they would want to do that,” Fauci told The Atlantic on Wednesday after the White House distributed opposition research about him to reporters. “I think they realize now that that was not a prudent thing to do, because it’s only reflecting negatively on them.”

There are growing signs that at least some in the White House have realized the strategy may be backfiring.

After White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended its decision to provide reporters this week with a list of past “wrong” comments by Fauci, Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro doubled down by publishing an opinion piece in USA Today declaring Fauci “wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.”

Although Navarro’s words largely echoed what Trump and the White House have already said about Fauci, the White House quickly distanced itself from his writing, announcing on Twitter that Navarro had failed to get it cleared in advance and that it reflected “the opinion of Peter alone.”

And two White House officials told NBC News that Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows advised the staff to stand down on the attacks against Fauci, with one official saying Meadows “wasn’t happy” with Navarro.

Meanwhile, Pence's office sought to paper over the public divisions by releasing a photo of Fauci, who hasn’t briefed Trump in person in weeks, meeting with the vice president and task force members in the Situation Room.

By late Wednesday, even Trump seemed to sense the need to combat the notion that his team was in disarray, telling reporters of the editorial that Navarro “shouldn’t have been doing that.”

“I have a very good relationship with Dr. Fauci, and we are all in the same team,” Trump said. “We want to get rid of this mess that China sent us.”

The campaign to undermine government elements that deviate from Trump’s optimistic message about the coronavirus has extended to the CDC, which has come under attack from the White House and several other Trump administration agencies.

After the White House and the Education Department argued the CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools were too strict, a fresh power battle emerged between the agency and the Health and Human Services Department over control of COVID-19 data that hospitals report to the federal government. The New York Times first reported that the administration told hospitals to start bypassing the CDC and sending the data right to a central Washington database.

That prompted immediate concerns the hospital data could be misrepresented by the Trump administration to downplay the severity of the crisis, a concern that’s been raised repeatedly about COVID-19 case numbers, which Trump has inaccurately insisted merely reflect an increase in testing.

The CDC, which falls under the Health and Human Services Department, declined to comment. But Michael Caputo, the top Health and Human Services spokesman, said the new system will allow the government to more quickly track coronavirus data that, like COVID-19 test results, have frequently suffered from long lags in processing and reporting. He said the CDC would still play a role in the process.

“They will simply no longer control it,” he said.

Geoff Bennett and Peter Alexander contributed.