President Donald Trump attacked Dr. Deborah Birx for the first time on Monday after the White House coronavirus task force coordinator said she believed the virus had entered a “new phase” and that counties with significant community spread should not reopen schools in the fall.
Birx’s comments came on CNN just two days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) criticized her in a meeting with administration officials, calling her “the worst.” One Democratic aide said Pelosi was referencing Birx’s apparent deference to the president’s inaccurate statements about the virus, including that ingesting bleach should be studied as a possible cure.
“She’s not a straight shooter,” the aide said. “She sat there during the bleach [comment]. She just sat there!”
By Sunday, Birx had done precisely what Pelosi accused her of sidestepping—something Hill Democrats took as affirmation of the Speaker’s decision to go after her. She challenged several White House talking points, which appeared to infuriate the president.
“In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us,” Trump tweeted. “Pathetic!”
The president’s reaction on Monday morning came as an early-in-the-week annoyance to some in the West Wing and others close to Trump, who interpreted his angry tweeting more as an impulsive attempt to keep her in line, and less so due to any personal grudge. Two advisers noted that this was yet another instance of President Trump trampling over his lieutenants’ crafted messaging strategy—which included attacking Pelosi for attacking Birx—and that in such cases, given how frequent they are, staff has limited recourse beyond ignoring their boss.
By Monday afternoon, that is precisely what several top Trump aides decided to do, opting to look past the president’s own comment, and simply continue knocking Pelosi.
Nevertheless, Trump’s denunciation of Birx didn’t just highlight his willingness to undermine his own coronavirus task force coordinator in an effort to push forward his agenda to reopen the nation’s economy and schools. The exchange also underscored how shaky the administration’s policy rationales have been on critical pandemic-related matters. Spokespersons for the White House and the coronavirus task force did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Birx’s comments marked a significant departure from the White House’s public stance on school reopenings. She pointed to the Center for Disease Control’s school guidelines during her comments, saying she agreed with the agency’s recommendations that schools should conduct virtual learning under certain circumstances. Those guidelines, though, only call for the consideration of virtual learning. Birx said that if there is “high case load and active community spread … we’re asking people to distance learn at this moment.”
In her interview Birx said the U.S. was experiencing a “new phase” of the virus—a point Pence and others have resisted communicating or confirming as President Trump has pushed his allies to reopen the American economy. Birx said a slew of states across the country are experiencing new outbreaks and that case counts have steadily increased since Memorial Day weekend. “What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread" in both urban and rural areas, she told CNN’s Dana Bash.
The synopsis was the rare case of an administration official publicly painting a less-than-rosy picture about the virus’ spread. And it raises questions about how Pence specifically will respond. The VP has been loyal to Trump throughout the pandemic. But he has also praised Birx for months as one of the administration’s guiding forces in its coronavirus response.
Since last month, Pence has echoed the president in pushing state leaders to reopen their economies as well as their schools, according to recordings of his calls with the nation’s governors previously obtained by The Daily Beast. He’s often been joined on these calls by Birx and CDC Director Robert Redfield, as well as other leading coronavirus task force officials, who have provided governors with readouts of the latest data, trends, testing initiatives, as well as the federal government’s recommendations on reopening.
Since May, task force officials have in large part stayed on message with the president, pressing governors to consider implementing phased reopenings and pushing for school reopenings. During one phone call with governors on July 7, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told participants that schools should reopen even if there is some risk because “risk is embedded in everything we do” from “learning to ride a bike, to the risk of getting in a space capsule and getting shot off in a rocket into space.”
In recent days Birx has taken a more aggressive approach in her debriefings, insisting that states experiencing significant upticks in positivity rates—more than 5 percent—implement strict new measures to contain the virus. On the call with governors last week, she said communities should enforce strict “100 percent mask mandates,” limit indoor gatherings, including dining, and close bars.
Even before then, Birx warned state leaders that the upward tick in case counts in the South and Southwest could affect mortality rates. Since then, Birx has worked with a small group of officials to collect and analyze case counts, death rates and hospitalizations, and to coordinate with state officials on their virus responses. Over the last several weeks she has traveled across the country to states with increasing positivity rates and community spread in an effort to encourage local officials to enact stricter containment measures.
Behind the scenes, Trump has fumed about the public outcry over the increasing number of positive cases throughout the country. The president has insisted repeatedly (and in contradiction with logic) that the uptick has been tied to an increase in testing. And he has launched public attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who has been more openly pessimistic about the state of the pandemic fight.
Birx had, for months, avoided such treatment. While Fauci became a lightning rod for censure and scorn from the president and his allies, Birx gained a reputation within Trumpworld not only as a talented doctor, but as a much savvier political player.
“She is not some [MAGA] loyalist, but she knows how to play the game,” said one former senior Trump administration official. “And the president instinctively respects that.”
For months, the president’s private remarks about Birx have generally been charitable, with Trump often emphasizing how much she will back him up about what great a job he and his team supposedly have done.
During an Oval Office news conference in late April, when a Yahoo News reporter asked a question—based on misread data—about coronavirus testing, Trump mocked the journalist in front of the news cameras, saying, “Are you going to apologize, Yahoo?” and, “That’s why you’re Yahoo and nobody knows who the hell you are.” Dr. Birx, who was also seated in the Oval office that day, had corrected the reporter’s numbers, which led to the Yahoo News staffer later issuing a mea culpa on Twitter.
In the weeks that followed, Trump continued to savor the moment, bringing it up repeatedly to those close to him, according to a person with direct knowledge of the comments. “The president saw this as something that showed how much of a team player [Dr. Birx] is, and that she wouldn’t put up with lies from the press,” this source said. “He greatly appreciated how she put [that reporter] in his place.”
Still, by Monday morning, none of this mattered, at least not enough to spare her getting pilloried by @realDonaldTrump.
-with reporting by Sam Stein