Trump officials’ own memoirs reveal covid chaos

Comment

In his memoir published last week, former White House adviser Jared Kushner confesses that he lost faith in then-U. S. health and human services secretary Alex Azar as coronavirus cases climbed in March 2020 — and Trump officials discovered many hospitals lacked key supplies to fight the virus.

“I couldn’t bring myself to look at Azar. I was livid that the secretary had not done more to prevent the shortage” of ventilators, Kushner writes in “Breaking History.” The president’s son-in-law details his efforts to shift control of the pandemic response from Azar to leaders of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and says it was “the best decision we could have made.”

In her own memoir, former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway reveals how former president Donald Trump shrugged off her warnings about a virus just beginning to creep across the United States. “ ‘Mr. President,’ I said. ‘I’m worried about the coronavirus,’ ” Conway writes in “Here’s The Deal,” recounting a private moment with Trump in the presidential limousine on Feb. 6, 2020. “ ‘I’m not,’ ” she recalls him replying. ‘The doctors told us there is a very low risk for the United States.’ ” Conway says she quickly regretted her “emotional” outburst and tried not to bring up the threat again for several days.

And in “Silent Invasion,” former covid response coordinator Deborah Birx revisits a day in early April 2020 when Trump turned on her, convinced she had misled him about the virus’s severity. “ ‘We will never shut down the country again. Never,’ ” she relates Trump telling her, before striding out to lead another covid news briefing. It was the effective end of Birx’s influence on the president, she writes, just five weeks after she assumed the role.

More than a dozen former Trump officials have written books that attempt to influence how history will judge the administration’s pandemic response — and not incidentally, their own roles in it. The book covers and blurbs promise revelations about a crisis that quickly swamped the country, shaped the 2020 election and continues to reverberate more than two years later.

But across more than 4,000 pages of memoirs reviewed by The Washington Post — from tell-alls by senior health leaders to lesser-known books, such as an October 2021 memoir by former national security official Keith Kellogg, the picture that emerges is of an administration uniquely unsuited to meet the demands of a pandemic. While Kushner, Conway, Birx and others serve up different slices of shared history, their memoirs collectively reveal a White House where top appointees and career scientists were forced to jockey for influence with a mercurial leader — an indictment of Trump and his feuding deputies, written by some of the people who shared the room with them.

Several claims have made news or shaped congressional investigations. In “The Chief’s Chief,” published last year, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows revealed that Trump had secretly tested positive for covid on Sept. 26, 2020, three days before a presidential debate, altering the timeline for an infection that was not publicly disclosed until Oct. 2, 2020, and extending the long list of people Trump may have exposed before landing in the hospital himself. Memoirs from former officials such as Scott Atlas and Peter Navarro provided fodder for a House panel probing whether those officials interfered with career government workers’ efforts to fight the virus.

“Your recent book provides abundant detail about your time working in the White House,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) wrote Navarro last December, saying the former trade official must comply with a subpoena and turn over the documents he details in his memoir.

In interviews, multiple authors claimed they’re writing for history — and not to salvage their own reputations or to savage others’.

“Because I was writing my own book, I purposely didn’t read anybody else’s,” Birx told The Post in a June interview, saying she drew on hundreds of pages of real-time notes and “1,000 emails” from her time inside the administration. “It’s important to write a book from documentation rather than people’s perceptions,” she said. “I treated this like you would a laboratory experiment …. it all comes back to data and results.”

Others note the self-serving nature of former colleagues’ efforts, but not their own. “What I see now mostly is political scapegoating and blaming,” Brett Giroir, the administration’s coronavirus testing coordinator, wrote in an email. Giroir’s book, which is set to be published early next year, will focus not just on the response to covid, but on the steps he argues are necessary to prepare for the next disease outbreak. “My book is VERY different” than the others, Giroir wrote.

The harshest criticism of all comes from outsiders who argue that officials’ candor is too little, too late amid a pandemic that has killed more than 1 million Americans.

“This is my first call to ban a book,” Sheila Kaplan, a former New York Times reporter who covered the government’s coronavirus response, wrote on Twitter as Birx’s book was announced. “When Birx was in office, she hung up on me when I called from NYT to ask what was happening. At this point, who cares what she has to say?”

The books do offer a window on history through conversations and moments that only senior officials witnessed. Conway writes that she pitched Trump on March 12, 2020 — the day after his rocky Oval Office address, calling for a European travel ban — about enlisting former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the government’s pandemic response. In Conway’s eyes, the plan would have demonstrated that fighting the coronavirus transcended politics.

“Looking at Trump across the Resolute Desk, I could picture all five presidents standing there, lending their support to him as he tackled this ‘once in a century’ pandemic,” Conway writes. “Trump declined.”

Almost a year later, those other presidents would release public service advertisements encouraging all Americans to get vaccinated — an ad campaign that Birx details in her book, even as Trump sat out the joint effort.

In her book, Birx also reveals her worries that the Trump administration was failing to share public health data with its Democratic rivals in 2020. She reveals that she spent months back-channeling with a key Biden adviser, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, who was “worried about an Election Day vaccine development surprise” that could help sway undecided voters.

The memoirs also offer a guide to the political rivalries in Trump’s orbit, detailing in firsthand accounts how Birx lost favor with the president, while Atlas, a Stanford radiologist with no prior pandemic expertise, quickly won it.

Birx, a career civil servant, repeatedly likens her efforts to a chess match, suggesting she sometimes concealed her long-term goals with Trump in hopes of winning short-term policy victories. “I couldn’t do anything that would reveal my true intention to use the travel ban as one brick in the construction of a larger wall of protective measures we needed to enact very soon,” she writes of a March 11 meeting where she successfully advocated for limiting travel from Europe.

But as others presented hopeful — if deeply misleading — data that minimized the virus’ risks, the president and his deputies grew convinced that the White House coronavirus coordinator had overstated the pandemic threat and deliberately misled him. Increasingly, they turned to figures like Atlas, whose minimalist approach to responding to the pandemic aligned with Trump’s as the president sought reelection.

For instance, Birx details how Atlas predicted covid would lead to no more than 10,000 deaths when he first contacted a senior Trump official in March 2020. (Birx’s disclosure prompted the House committee probing the coronavirus response to publicly release that Atlas email exchange.) At the time, infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci and Birx were projecting 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in the best-case scenario for the U.S. if everyone followed recommendations to curb the virus.

In his own book, Atlas reveals his first contribution after joining the administration in July 2020 was to soften a planned Trump tweet, which would have encouraged “everyone” to wear masks to protect against covid. Atlas changed it to stress the value of wearing masks only in crowded places, where social distancing was not possible.

Even books that only peripherally deal with the virus offer new insights into the administration’s response, as well as its rivalries and regrets.

William P. Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, details in “One Damn Thing After Another” how he pleaded with the president and other senior officials to cut back on Trump’s covid press briefings, worried that his extemporaneous riffs were backfiring.

“Mark, he is just blowing it,” Barr says he told Meadows in spring 2020. “The more he runs off at the mouth, the more erratic and out of control he seems.” Days later, Trump would infamously extol the possibility of using light or bleach to fight the virus, leading to public outrage and halting the briefings for months.

Multiple books delve into the administration’s efforts to accelerate the development of coronavirus vaccines through Operation Warp Speed — a subject closely explored in former health official Paul Mango’s book, “Warp Speed.”

The technocratic tell-all details the strategic, manufacturing and financing processes that delivered the shots within a year — an unprecedented achievement with recommendations on how to replicate similar projects. But the narrower story also minimizes the human dramas depicted in other books and contemporaneous reporting, such as overlooking Trump’s well-chronicled anger that the vaccines weren’t finalized before Election Day on Nov. 3. For instance, Mango says that Trump delivered just one message in a Nov. 9 Oval Office meeting after Pfizer reported its vaccine was safe and effective. “ ‘Get it out as quickly as possible. Americans are dying,’ ” the president reportedly told Mango and other officials.

(The following day, Trump would publicly accuse Pfizer of deliberately waiting to release its vaccine data until after the election.)

But all of the authors spend time apportioning blame for a response that stumbled across 2020, with delays in procuring testing and supplies, and conflicting messages to Americans about what they should do to protect themselves. Many fault a government bureaucracy that they say was too slow to address the fast-spreading outbreak. Birx writes at length about persistent data problems at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that she says necessitated a major overhaul, even as media headlines suggested she was undercutting the agency by contracting out its data collection.

“In many ways, anti-Trump sentiment has prevented people from seeing the full spectrum of the breakdown at the CDC in the pandemic’s early months and that continues today and still needs to be addressed,” she writes.

Other former Trump aides try to pin the president’s most unpopular pandemic decisions on officials like Birx and Fauci an attempt to absolve Trump of blame for government restrictions that some conservative voters say went too far.

“The president had no choice but to trust them,” Meadows writes of Birx and Fauci, contending that the projections by the infectious-disease experts led to unnecessarily harsh shutdowns in early 2020. (Public health experts have largely hailed Birx and Fauci for their advocacy of social distancing and other measures to curb the virus’ spread.)

Atlas similarly faults the “Birx-Fauci lockdowns” for harming the economy, students’ education and Americans’ mental health — but goes further than his former colleagues to criticize Trump for empowering them.

“On this highly important criterion of presidential management — taking responsibility to fully take charge of policy coming from the White House — I believe the president made a massive error in judgment,” the Stanford radiologist writes. Atlas saves his strongest praise for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rising Republican star who may be the GOP nominee in 2024 — and who has taken a notably lax approach to instituting coronavirus restrictions compared with other governors.

“He was virtually always right,” Atlas writes, describing an early 2020 conversation with the Florida governor.

What even ‘tell-alls’ leave unsaid

Even books billed as “tell-alls” don’t reveal the full story.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor whom Trump had considered naming coronavirus coordinator, recounted in his own October 2021 memoir, “Republican Rescue,” how Trump called him from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was being treated for covid, to ask whether a similarly sick Christie would publicly blame the president for infecting him.

In a recent podcast, Christie said he was confused about why Trump was so concerned — until Meadows’ memoir revealed that Trump had tested positive several days earlier, hours before Christie met with Trump to do debate preparations.

“None of us found out ‘til Meadows’ book came out. But he tested positive on Saturday morning,” Christie said in June on the “Ruthless” podcast. Then he revealed a detail he hadn’t included in his own memoir — that after Trump was released from the hospital, the president told multiple reporters that Christie was the reason he got sick.

“Now he knows he gave it to me. He knows it,” the former governor said.

Leave a Comment