"I'm a data person": Birx pushes back on report that she tailored coronavirus data to suit politics

"I am too forceful and too direct often about the data," Birx said when asked about the report on Fox News

Published July 22, 2020 10:03PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Deborah Birx (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump and Deborah Birx (Getty Images/Salon)

White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx defended herself Wednesday as "a data person" following a recent New York Times report painting her as someone who had sometimes tailored her analysis of the pandemic to better suit the politics of administration officials.

Fox News host Brett Baier framed the question by citing a key line from The Times article, which read: "Inside the White House, Dr. Birx was the chief evangelist for the idea that the threat from the virus was fading."

"Did you read that piece?" he asked. "And what did you make of it?"

"I'm a data person, so I went back to that very specific day," Birx replied. "I report out data every single day, so I went back to that day and looked at my report."

"It said we're seeing improvements in New York and New Jersey, but we're seeing increasing concerns — and we're not at peak in Boston and Chicago," she said. "We have new concerns in Houston, and we have new hotspots developing in Washington, D.C. and across the south."

"So, to me, that's a very balanced report," Birx continued. "That's what epidemiologists and data people do: They just put the data out there as it exists."

"I was surprised by the piece, because most people will tell you that I err on the other side — that I am too forceful and too direct often about the data and what it's showing," she added. "And I've never actually been called an optimist in that way before."

The Times article focused on the pivotal month of April, at which time the severe outbreaks in New York and New Jersey had declined as others emerged elsewhere. According to the report, many of the most important decisions during that period did not fall with the official White House task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence but rather a shadow group which met every weekday morning in White House chief of staff Mark Meadows' office.

"One of their goals: to justify declaring victory in the fight against the virus," Michael Shear wrote for The Times. "In that effort they frequently sought validation from Dr. Deborah L. Birx, a highly regarded infectious disease expert, who was the chief evangelist in the West Wing for the idea that infections had peaked and the virus was fading quickly."

That group was reportedly dedicated to churning out evidence in support of the administration's decision to reopen the economy. Birx was the only public health expert present. If she indeed conferred legitimacy on their decisions, she stood in stark contrast to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease expert.

"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 report added.

Since April, a raft of reports have claimed that the White House selectively sidelined Fauci. In an apparent effort to discredit the publicly popular Fauci, the Trump administration last week sent various news outlets a dump of documents described as "opposition research."

However, Birx's Wednesday defense raised the possibility that Fauci might not be the administration's only apparent option for a potential scapegoat. The report documenting Brix's performance drew from administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a separate Fox News interview Wednesday with network medical expert Dr. Marc Siegel, the president appeared to come to Birx's defense.

"Dr. Birx is a big advisor of yours that isn't getting enough attention," Siegel said.

"She is responsible for all the incredible work that has taken place on AIDS in Africa," Trump replied. "Millions of people are alive right now because of her."

"She's an unbelievable woman. A woman of tremendous substance and style, frankly," he continued. "She has an amazing style. She walks into a room with a scarf and can do 15 things with it."

But Trump did not allude to her work on the pandemic. And Birx did not join Trump at Tuesday's coronavirus press briefing, a brief tradition which ended shortly after he waxed poetic on camera about the remedial effects of ingesting disinfectants.

In that moment, the president had turned to Birx to inquire about the medical virtues of what he characterized as "the heat and the light."

"Deborah, have you ever heard of the heat and the light?" Trump asked. "Relative to certain viruses, yes. But relative to this virus?"

"Not as a treatment," she replied, shifting in her seat. "I mean, certainly fever — is a good thing when you have a fever. It helps your body respond. But not — as I have not seen heat or light."

Neither Fauci nor Birx accompanied the president at the podium Wednesday, though Trump said he had spoken with Fauci. Birx was apparently in the hallway.

"I just spoke to Dr. Fauci," said the president. "Dr. Birx is right outside, and they're giving me all of everything they know as of this point in time. And I'm giving the information to you, and I think it's probably a very concise way of doing it."

"It seems to be working out very well," he added.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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