(CNN) — Five months into a still-raging pandemic that has killed more than 130,000 Americans, the long-simmering tensions between President Donald Trump and the health experts who staff his government have escalated from private griping to shrugging disagreement to now open dispute.
The result, people at those agencies say, is a new sense of demoralization as they continue their attempts to fight a once-in-a-generation health crisis while simultaneously navigating the whims of a President who has shown little interest or understanding of their work.
That Trump does not trust nor follow the advice of experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, is hardly new. The President has not attended a meeting of his coronavirus task force in months and recently its sessions have been held outside the White House, including on Wednesday at the headquarters of the Department of Education. Fauci was told to participate in the meeting remotely by videoconference, preventing him from participating in a midday task force press briefing.
The President has complained to aides in meetings for months that Fauci’s television appearances — which have been sharply curtailed by the White House — often seem to contradict his own message. As early as March, Trump was growing frustrated that Fauci’s forecasts for the virus seemed less optimistic than his own, but largely avoided public rebukes.
At the same time, many of Trump’s aides have viewed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with deep skepticism for months, believing its role in early testing missteps to have been a critical failure and viewing more recent leaks of draft guidance from the agency as attempts to circumvent the White House.
Yet as cases surge across the country and Trump’s handling of the crisis causes his reelection prospects to dim, he is taking his quarrels with Fauci and the CDC public in striking new fashion.
The development bodes poorly for those hoping the federal government’s response to the virus will become more coordinated as daily case counts continue setting records and other countries bar Americans from entry.
Instead, Trump is signaling that after months of internal disputes and private griping about the agencies and officials tasked with combating the virus, he is now prepared to openly question their authority and undermine their advice.
“I think we are in a good place. I disagree with him,” Trump said in an interview on Tuesday when questioned about Fauci’s assertion the US is still “knee-deep in the first wave” of the pandemic.
Trump accused Fauci of waffling on early decisions in the crisis, saying he was better off ignoring experts and trusting his instincts.
“Dr. Fauci said don’t wear masks and now he says wear them,” he told Gray Television’s Greta Van Susteren. “And he said numerous things. Don’t close off China. Don’t ban China. I did it anyway. I didn’t listen to my experts and I banned China. We would have been in much worse shape. You wouldn’t believe the number of deaths more we would have had if we didn’t do the ban.”
Trump’s criticisms of Fauci don’t hold up entirely; the decision to advise against wearing masks was due largely to a nationwide shortage of them, and Fauci publicly backed the ban on travel from China when it was announced.
Still, Trump’s criticism of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director reflects his conviction that the health experts who he assembled early in the pandemic have steered him wrong, a view that’s been fanned by some in the conservative media who have accused Fauci and others in the administration as imposing draconian lockdown measures despite being unelected officials.
A day after criticizing Fauci, Trump accused the CDC of producing “very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools,” saying he disagreed with the health agency’s recommendations.
“While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things,” Trump wrote. “I will be meeting with them!!!”
A few hours later, Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC would issue new guidance next week on reopening schools and said they shouldn’t be viewed as a barrier to returning children to classrooms.
Why Trump did not meet with the nation’s principal health agency about reopening schools before they released their guidelines and before Trump convened a roundtable to discuss the matter wasn’t clear.
Striking out on his own
What was clear was the renewed sense that Trump is striking out on his own amid a pandemic many Americans say in polls he has mishandled and failed to take seriously.
Earlier in the crisis, Trump’s disagreements with officials such as Fauci appeared less clear-cut. After Fauci publicly broke with Trump on issues like hydroxychloroquine and the timing of a potential vaccine, the President took pains to say he respected his health experts and was listening to their advice.
Even as he privately complained that he was being undermined, Trump said during press briefings that there was little daylight between himself and doctors on the White House coronavirus task force. And after he retweeted a message with the hashtag #FireFauci, Trump downplayed their differences.
When Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, advised Trump to keep lockdown recommendations in place at the start of April, he agreed.
But that appeared to be the height of their influence. Since then, Trump has consistently undermined their recommendations and offered conflicting information about the severity of the outbreak and prognoses for the coming months.
The rift between the White House and the CDC is not contained only to Trump. Some West Wing officials have quietly accused the agency of bungling early efforts to ramp up testing, one of the critical missteps in the US handling of the crisis.
Others at the White House have questioned some of the data they have received from the CDC, including Birx, saying it may be incomplete or delayed.
Dilemma over schools
This week, as the administration has launched an aggressive effort to convince schools to reopen, the CDC cited several guidelines for keeping students safe, including reconfiguring classrooms to allow for social distancing and updating ventilation systems.
The agency’s director, however, has insisted their guidelines should not act as a barrier to opening schools.
“What is not the intent of CDC guidelines is to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed,” Dr. Robert Redfield said. “I think it’s critical and it would be personally very disappointing to me and I know my agency if we saw that individuals were using these guidelines as a rationale for not reopening our schools.”
During a roundtable event on reopening schools and in tweets afterward, Trump characterized the decision to reopen schools as a political one and said he would pressure governors to allow students back into the classroom.
After the event, some leaders at the CDC voiced chagrin that the issue of reopening schools had become politicized.
“The real tragedy in all of this is the politicization of it,” one senior CDC official told CNN speaking about the roundtable on Tuesday.
“We really spent time putting together the science behind this and we believe it’s the right call. But now because the President has made it into a political issue, it likely won’t happen,” a second senior official added.
Public health experts at the agency have been discouraged in recent weeks watching Covid-19 cases surge past 130,000 deaths in the US.
In the last two weeks, the agency has been rife with infighting, including finger pointing between two labs still dealing with the fallout of the initial rollout and investigation over botched test kits, according to one scientist involved in the process.
One federal health official told CNN there is also anxiety over who is leaking official documents to the public, including drafts of some recommendations that were cause for tension between the agency and the White House.
Meanwhile, others are questioning why data about who is contracting the virus — which shows Blacks and Latinos at higher risk and emphasizes the growing racial disparity of who contracts the virus — is not being more broadly released.
“That’s what we do, we put out data. I don’t understand why we are not putting this information out,” one official said. “That’s what our agency does. It doesn’t make any sense why there would be a top down order to stop this from getting out.”
By Wednesday morning, the discouraging outlook at the CDC was felt throughout its divisions as the agency continued to fight questions about about its own trust and credibility, especially after reports that it was planning to release new guidance of how students can safely physically return to classrooms.
That was before Trump issued his tweet disparaging the CDC guidelines on returning students to school.
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