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The Clearest Account Yet of How Trump’s Team Botched the Pandemic

By Richard J. Tofel
Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

The U.S. response to the pandemic has already spawned a range of speedily published books. A few notable examples have come from masters of journalistic narrative, including Michael Lewis and Lawrence Wright; former officials, such as Scott Gottlieb and Andy Slavitt; and newspaper reporters, especially Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta. But the most significant entry so far, the book that should be an indispensable resource for future historians, is Silent Invasion by Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force under President Donald Trump.

Birx’s book has received relatively little attention in the two weeks since it was published—it still has not been reviewed by The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, for instance, or sparked nearly as much chatter as Mark Esper’s less consequential memoir that was also just released. Much of the attention that has been paid to Birx has focused not on the contents of the book, but on Birx herself, who witnessed and failed to stem fatal mistakes and poor decision making (with the notable exception of vaccine development) during her almost-one-year tenure on the task force. That’s a shame, because the book is the best account we have so far of how Trump’s team botched the pandemic response so badly.

Birx does a very good job of distilling what went wrong. She repeatedly emphasizes what she identifies as the principal fault in the Trump administration’s pandemic response: a failure to recognize the importance of asymptomatic transmission (thus the book’s title). She laments testing problems, including initial refusals to enlist the private sector, mistakes at the CDC, and later failures to ramp up diagnostics. Birx also cites the CDC’s consistent failure to develop good data about the pandemic, and places this at the center of reforms she proposes toward the book’s end.

But what sets Silent Invasion apart is how Birx, with the writing assistance of Gary Brozek, unhesitatingly names names (and dates and places). She does so with much more detail and nuance than we’ve had from anyone else. Birx paints a portrait of an administration in full, made up of people with a mix of talents and motivations. Where other chroniclers describe the White House as if it had just one occupant, Birx gives us the full cast. The book’s first 150 pages, on the period from January through March 2020, are especially riveting. In the early crucial weeks of the crisis, she writes, “some roaming the halls of the West Wing believed that the less we did, the less we would be held accountable for whatever was about to happen.”

Birx has her own list of bad guys. The worst is Scott Atlas, the radiologist whose epidemiology advice Trump came to take. Atlas, she writes, repeatedly responded to group emails from her by hitting “Reply All” and then removing her from the list before sending. Other lead villains include presidential Chief of Staff Mark Meadows (who seems to care only about politics) and vice-presidential Chief of Staff Marc Short (who seems to care only about protecting his boss from his boss). Also: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the entrenched and inflexible staff of the CDC, the out-of-its-depth staff of the Council of Economic Advisers, the politically wobbly World Health Organization, Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota, and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who, Birx indicates, knew better but caved to political pressure. Birx is forthright in calling out numerous examples of her sexist treatment by other White House staffers, especially Meadows and Short.

The forces for good, in her view, include some surprises. She portrays Vice President Mike Pence and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner as often aiding work that Trump loudly derided. Pence never seemed publicly at variance with Trump, and Kushner has been widely criticized for inept logistical efforts, but Birx offers a few convincing examples of moments when they worked to quietly facilitate some positive actions. Birx also praises her friend Matt Pottinger, who served as a deputy national security adviser, along with governors including Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Doug Ducey of Arizona. In between, alternately bolstering and disappointing her, are her longtime colleagues Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Robert Redfield.

Other pandemic-book writers have been forced to speculate about what happened outside of Trump’s immediate environment. More than a year has passed since the former administration left office, but the inner workings of its response to the pandemic have still remained out of view. Perhaps that’s why so much coverage focused single-mindedly on Trump, the loudest and most shocking voice, while largely neglecting the rest of the team. But Birx was in the building, watching everything unfold, and she can and does shine light on details that others can’t. She later drove around the country and talked with governors and other local leaders, and has a real basis for comparing their performance.

She does not, however, neglect the central character in Washington. A career public-health worker and career Army officer (on active duty from 1980 until 2008), Birx refuses to sum up her views of Trump personally, but she offers more than enough detail for readers, including historians, to reach their own conclusions. She describes her first meeting with Trump, on March 2, 2020, when she tried to explain to him that the virus “is not the flu.” Trump listened for a minute, briefly challenged her, then literally changed the channel on one of the TV screens he had simultaneously been watching.

Birx didn’t stand up to Trump in public while she worked for him. In the book, she laments her most public lapse: When Trump seemed to advocate consuming disinfectant in a live televised briefing, and she feebly and quietly uttered, “Not as a treatment.” She should have been more forceful, she writes, “should have ignored my deeply ingrained, military-honed instinct not to publicly correct a superior.”

Birx’s refusal to publicly oppose Trump during her time in the White House continues to haunt her reputation. Her subsequent interviews—like her book—have been revealing, but they’ve also often been criticized as too little, too late. This criticism has some merit. Some cynics may believe that she has written her book to obscure the record. I’m more inclined to believe that she continues to be motivated by her own sense of duty, and wants the rest of us to see what she saw.

The book makes a compelling case that much of the blame laid at Birx’s door for Trump-era pandemic shortcomings is an oversimplification, or worse. Birx details how, in private, she and other officials sought to counter Trump’s resistance to fighting the pandemic. In August 2020, Birx writes, Trump hung up on her when she refused to back down after he insisted that “the virus is under control.” She is remarkably candid about how she and her colleagues manipulated Trump into the initial 15-day shutdown in March, and then its 30-day extension, which he almost immediately regretted. (Neither Trump nor anyone in his camp seems to have responded to Birx’s book publicly.)

Birx portrays herself as an experienced bureaucratic infighter. For example, when Pence’s chief of staff told her that the stark language in bullet points at the top of a daily report was too politically explosive, she simply inserted almost identical language farther down in the document, where the busy politicos trying to stifle her would fail to see it. She’s the sort of person who still counts it as a win when her initiatives are refuted publicly but actually remain unchanged.

But Birx seems to have been in over her head in the toxic office politics of the Trump White House. For instance, she speculates at length in the book about which of her rivals was trying to undermine her by releasing a memo she wrote warning of the late-2020 surge on the eve of the presidential election. In this instance, it seems likely that Mark Meadows was right: As Birx writes in the book, he told her that the leak was intended to affect the election, not her career.

Birx had been much more comfortable working for President George W. Bush, who, she writes, “created a space where people could succeed, supported us to make the impossible possible. Trump’s White House was the opposite in many ways.” When Birx was feeling particularly exasperated by Trump, Bush convinced her not to resign.

Deborah Birx could not bring order to the chaos of the Trump White House, or reason or compassion to its management of the pandemic. The resulting losses were huge.

But none of that takes away from what Silent Invasion has to offer. Birx has given us an important record of how and why all those losses were suffered. With COVID cases once again on the rise, her reflections can be put to important use, both as yesterday’s history is written and as today’s unfolds.

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