Inside Trump’s Failure on the Virus

Inside Trump’s Failure on the Virus, by Michael Shear. Here’s an important piece where a journalist interviewed participants in the White House over the evolution of its covid policies. It’s in the New York Times, so we’ve stripped out the boilerplate anti-Trump advertisements. It’s a much longer article at the source — these are just the essentials.

Over a critical period beginning in mid-April, President 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. …

For scientific affirmation, they turned to Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the sole public health professional in the Meadows group. [Mark Meadows is the White House chief of staff. At 8am each morning he convened a small group of aides to steer administration policy.]

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. The country, she insisted, was likely to resemble Italy, where virus cases declined steadily from frightening heights.

Dr Deborah Birx, promoting the models behind Trump’s strategy, said what the political people wanted to hear and had the administration’s ear

On April 11, she told the coronavirus task force in the Situation Room that the nation was in good shape. Boston and Chicago are two weeks away from the peak, she cautioned, but the numbers in Detroit and other hard-hit cities are heading down. …

Mr. 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 doggedly to as evidence mounted that … the virus would continue to infect and kill large numbers of Americans.

Key elements of the administration’s strategy were formulated out of sight in Mr. Meadows’s daily meetings, by aides who for the most part had no experience with public health emergencies and were taking their cues from the president. …

Dr. Birx was more central than publicly known to the judgment inside the West Wing that the virus was on a downward path. Colleagues described her as dedicated to public health and working herself to exhaustion to get the data right, but her model-based assessment nonetheless failed to account for a vital variable: how Mr. Trump’s rush to urge a return to normal would help undercut the social distancing and other measures that were holding down the numbers. …

At a briefing on April 10, Mr. Trump predicted that the number of deaths in the United States from the pandemic would be “substantially” fewer than 100,000. …

The president had a decision to make.

It was the end of March and his initial, 15-day effort to slow the spread of the virus by essentially shutting down the country was expiring in days. Sitting in front of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office were Drs. Fauci and Birx, along with other top officials. Days earlier, Mr. Trump had said he envisioned the country being “opened up and raring to go” by Easter, but now he was on the verge of announcing that he would keep the country shut down for another 30 days.

“Do you really think we need to do this?” the president asked Dr. Fauci. “Yeah, we really do need to do it,” Dr. Fauci replied …

Mr. Trump’s willingness to go along [was] driven in part by grim television images of bodies piling up at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York City …

Dr. Birx [was] the response coordinator of the coronavirus task force. Unlike Dr. Fauci, who only stopped by the White House to attend meetings, she was given an office near the Situation Room and freely roamed the West Wing, fully embracing her role as a member of the president’s team.

By mid-April, Mr. Trump had grown publicly impatient with the stay-at-home recommendations he had reluctantly endorsed. Weekly unemployment claims made clear the economy was cratering and polling was showing his campaign bleeding support. Republican governors were agitating to lift the lockdown and the conservative political machinery was mobilizing to oppose what it saw as constraints on individual freedom.

At the meetings in Mr. Meadows’s office, the issue was clear: How much longer do we keep this up? …

Mr. Meadows thought of himself as a data-driven decision maker, and in addition to models and infection numbers from the states and the C.D.C., they looked at traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike (the volume of cars coming in and out of New York City was down by 95.2 percent); payroll and credit card data, and the number of people who were reporting to have self-quarantined.

If the point was to sustain a monthlong lockdown, the numbers told them, the administration succeeded. If it was to squelch the virus to containable levels, later events would show the officials were oblivious to how widely it was already spreading. …

The wind down of the federal government’s response would play out over the next several weeks. The daily briefings with Mr. Trump ended on April 24. The Meadows team started barring Dr. Fauci from making most television appearances, lest he go off message and suggest continued high risk from the virus. …

Dr Anthony Fauci. Always on the outer, and eventually kicked off the team for going off message. He was too realistic.

Hand off to the states:

During the middle weeks of April the president’s decision to largely walk away from an active leadership role — and give many states permission to believe the worst of the crisis was behind them — came abruptly into public view.

On April 10, Mr. Trump declared that, in his role as something akin to a “wartime president,’’ it would be his decision about whether to reopen the country. “That’s my metrics,” he told reporters, pointing to his own head. “I would say without question it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.” …

Three days later, he reiterated his responsibility. “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be,” he said.

The following day, Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci presented Mr. Trump with a plan for issuing guidelines to start reopening the country at the end of the month. Developed largely by Dr. Birx and held closely by her until being presented to the president — most task force members did not see them beforehand — the guidelines laid out broad, voluntary standards for states considering how fast to come out of the lockdown.

In political terms, the document’s message was that responsibility for dealing with the pandemic was shifting from Mr. Trump to the states. …

Birx’s models versus Fauci’s anecdotes:

Inside the White House, Dr. Birx was the chief evangelist for the idea that the threat from the virus was fading.

Unlike Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx is a strong believer in models that forecast the course of an outbreak. Dr. Fauci has cautioned that “models are only models” and that real-world outcomes depend on how people respond to calls for changes in behavior — to stay home, for example, or wear masks in public — sacrifices that required a sense of shared national responsibility. …

Late at night in his home office this spring, Dr. Fauci, who declined to comment for this story, dialed local health officials in New Orleans, New York and Chicago, where he heard desperation unrecognizable in the more sanguine White House meetings.

Dr. Fauci had his own critics, who said he relied on anecdotes and experience rather than data, and who felt he was not sufficiently attuned to the devastating economic and social consequences of a national lockdown.

As the pandemic worsened, Dr. Fauci’s darker view of the circumstances was countered by the reassurances ostensibly offered by Dr. Birx’s data. …

The White House was guided by the overly optimistic models relied upon by Dr Birx, which failed because their assumptions were broached:

[Dr. Birx] had assembled a team of analysts who worked late nights in the White House complex, feeding her a constant stream of updated data, packaged in PowerPoint slides emailed to senior officials each day.

There were warnings that the models she studied might not be accurate, especially in predicting the course of the virus against a backdrop of evolving political, economic and social factors. Among the models Dr. Birx relied on most was one produced by researchers at the University of Washington. But when Mr. Hassett reviewed its performance by looking back on its predictions from three weeks earlier, it turned out to be hit-or-miss.

The authors of the University of Washington model spoke to Dr. Birx or members of her team almost daily, they said, and often cautioned that their work was only supposed to offer a snapshot based on key assumptions, like people continuing to abide by social distancing until June 1.

Break the assumptions, break the model. A model is a calculation based on a set of circumstances, so of course it fails in different circumstances. The mistake is pretending not to notice that the circumstances are different.

“We made clear that to get the epidemic under control and bring it down to effectively zero transmission required the social distancing mandates to be in place,” said Christopher J. L. Murray, the director of the modeling program. “April 22 — somewhere around that period. That’s when the tone shifted. They started to ask questions about what will be the trajectory and where with the lifting of mandates?” …

Dr. Birx declined to be interviewed. A task force official said she had only used the University of Washington model in a limited way and that the White House used “real data, not modeled data, to understand the pandemic in the United States.” …

Dr Birx delivered what the political types around her wanted to hear. But reality does not bend to political will — it’s the other way around.

Of course, nowhere here do they mention the reason the US lockdown didn’t work as well as “expected” was that the borders were not closed, so new virus infections kept waltzing in from outside.

But despite the outside warnings and evidence by early May that new infections, while down, remained higher than anticipated, the White House never fundamentally re-examined the course it had set in mid-April.

Dr. Fauci, a friend of Dr. Birx’s for 30 years, would describe her as more political than him, a “different species.” More pessimistic by nature, Dr. Fauci privately warned that the virus was going to be difficult to control, often commenting that he was the “skunk at the garden party.”

By contrast, Dr. Birx regularly delivered what the new team was hoping for.

“All metros are stabilizing,” she would tell them, describing the virus as having hit its “peak” around mid-April. The New York area accounted for half of the total cases in the country, she said. The slope was heading in the right direction. “We’re behind the worst of it.” She endorsed the idea that the death counts and hospitalization numbers could be inflated.

For Dr. Birx, Italy’s experience was a particularly telling — and positive — comparison. She routinely told colleagues that the United States was on the same trajectory as Italy, which had huge spikes before infections and deaths flattened to close to zero.

“She said we were basically going to track Italy,” one senior adviser later recalled.

Dr. Birx would roam the halls of the White House, talking to Mr. Kushner, Ms. Hicks and others, sometimes passing out diagrams to bolster her case. “We’ve hit our peak,” she would say, and that message would find its way back to Mr. Trump.

Dr. Birx began using versions of the phrase “putting out the embers,” wording that was later picked up by the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, and by Mr. Trump himself. …

Dr. Birx’s belief that the United States would mirror Italy turned out to be disastrously wrong.

The Italians had been almost entirely compliant with stay-at-home orders and social distancing, squelching new infections to negligible levels before the country slowly reopened.

Americans, by contrast, began backing away by late April from what social distancing efforts they had been making, egged on by Mr. Trump.

The difference was critical. As communities across the United States raced to reopen, the daily number of daily cases barely dropped below 20,000 in early May. The virus was still circulating across the country.

Italy’s recovery curve, it turned out, looked nothing like the American one. …

What a disaster Dr Birx was. Probably heady with power and rewarded by those around her, even while Dr Fauci was kicked off the team. If only she had done the job she was supposed to do, paid attention, and told the truth.

The consequence? Every other advanced or smart country did it, but not the US:

Other nations had moved aggressively to employ an array of techniques that Mr. Trump never mobilized on a federal level, including national testing strategies and contact tracing to track down and isolate people who had interacted with newly diagnosed patients.

“These things were done in Germany, in Italy, in Greece, Vietnam, in Singapore, in New Zealand and in China,” said Andy Slavitt, a former federal health care official who had been advising the White House.

“They were not secret,” he said. “Not mysterious. And these were not all wealthy countries. They just took accountability for getting it done. But we did not do that here. There was zero chance here that we would ever have been in a situation where we would be dealing with ‘embers.’ ”

Sadly for the US and its civilization, Mr Trump got this issue wrong. If the US election focuses on this issue, Trump will lose. The left and the media will try to focus the electorate on the virus in October.

It’s not something Trump’s had any experience with. His intuition was correct, calling for border closures early. But he was overruled by the swamp, who don’t want to close off the spigot of new left wing voters under any circumstances.

However, the identity politics and coalition of the fringes strategy of the left may yet win this for Trump. The Republican Party is becoming the party for whites, by default, simply because it’s the party that discriminates much less against whites. It’s not like the Republicans embrace or even talk about white nationalism or a white identity group, it’s just that they are at least aiming for color blindness and equal treatment. There are still enough white voters to win a couple more elections.

BLM may have given this election to the Republicans with law and order. While peaceful protests work in favor of the Democrats,  violent demonstrations favor the Republicans. There’s been a awful lot of rioting, which drives people of all races who want security and order to the Republicans.

If it wasn’t for covid, Trump would have been a shoe-in to win this election on the back of an economy unleashed from some of its regulatory burden. But with his reliance on Dr Birx, he may yet lose the US election to a radical party of left wing extremists bent on fundamental transformation of the US into a socialist “paradise” of racial tribes from all over the planet.

Because Dr Birx is the key person who led the US astray, Trump could yet win a second term with a bit of political ju-jitsu. He could fire Dr Birx, blame his past overly-optimistic statements on her bad advice, blame past policies on her as swamp incompetence or malfeasance, close the borders for America’s safety, and generally do the opposite of whatever Birx suggested. It might just work.

(However, Trump will have difficulty carrying the anti-lockdown troops on the right with him. They have been wrong on everything substantial so far, having conspicuously failed to understand the issue or the data. Worse, in order to salvage some credibility, they are now convinced that covid is almost safe and that everyone will eventually get it anyway. So, to be proven right, all measures that slow or stop its spread are evil! Unreal, but that’s where they are headed — everyone must get sick.)