Deborah Birx says Trump’s COVID response may have cost 400,000 lives: Did she do enough?

Leaders of Trump’s coronavirus task force say it was even worse than previously reported — but stayed silent

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published March 29, 2021 11:57AM (EDT)

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

The head of former President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force acknowledged in an interview with CNN that the administration's inadequate pandemic response may have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Multiple task force members revealed, in interviews aired in a CNN special Sunday, that the response was even worse behind the scenes than previously known. Dr. Deborah Birx, who stood alongside Trump at his supposed press briefings and frequently defended the administration's pandemic policies, told the network that she believes the vast majority of the nearly 500,000 deaths could have been prevented with a more aggressive response.

"I look at it this way: The first time, we have an excuse. There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge," she said. "All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially."

Birx said later in the interview that the federal government "did not provide consistent messaging" on the pandemic.

"That was fault No. 1," she said.

The comments drew severe backlash from some Democrats, who have long criticized Birx for enabling Trump's worst impulses. Last March, Birx praised Trump as "so attentive to the scientific literature" and touted his "ability to analyze and integrate data." She was also castigated for presenting overly optimistic data and staying silent when Trump suggested injecting coronavirus patients with bleach.

"Where was your voice last year?" questioned Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "After a year of such tremendous loss, we need to make sure we remember the truth. This lost year should never have happened."

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., argued that Birx was partly responsible for Trump's "malicious incompetence that resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths."

"Who was one of his enablers?" he tweeted. "Dr. Birx, who was afraid to challenge his unscientific rhetoric and wrongfully praised him."

Birx's estimate of how many deaths resulted from the administration's response is higher than some recent analyses. A commission impaneled by the Lancet medical journal concluded that roughly 40% of COVID deaths last year were preventable. An analysis by Harvard Researchers last June compared the U.S. response to other countries and concluded that more than 70% of early U.S. pandemic deaths were avoidable.

Birx told CNN that she drew Trump's wrath when she did speak out about the threat posed by the spread of the virus. She recalled an interview with CNN last August CNN in which she warned about outbreaks in rural communities.

"That got horrible pushback," she said. "That was a very difficult time because everybody in the White House was upset with that interview and the clarity I brought about the epidemic."

Birx said Trump called her personally after the interview.

"I think you've heard other conversations other people have posted with the president. I would say it was even more direct than what people have heard," she recalled. "It was very uncomfortable, very direct, very difficult to hear."

"Were you threatened?" asked CNN's Sanjay Gupta.

"I would say it was a very uncomfortable conversation," she replied, adding that someone later blocked her from future national TV appearances.

"My understanding was I could not be national because the president might see it," she said.

Birx previously told CBS News in January that she had been "censored" by the Trump White House and had "always" considered quitting.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was freer to be the "skunk in the picnic" and push back against Trump's claims because he had the backing of the National Institutes of Health and did not work directly in the White House.

"Deb had a much more difficult situation," he told CNN. "She had an office right there in the West Wing. So, I am very, very reluctant to condemn anything that — even though people felt she should push more, she did a lot of good."

Elsewhere in the special, Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accused former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar of pressuring him to revise reports detailing the pandemic's weekly death toll.

"The one time that was the most egregious was, not only was I pressured by the secretary and his office and his lawyers, but as I was driving home, his lawyer and his chief of staff called and pressured me again for at least another hour," Redfield said. "Even to the point of, like, accusing me of failing to make this change that would cost, you know, thousands of lives. I finally had a moment in life where I said, you know, enough is enough. You know? If you want to fire me, fire me. I'm not changing the [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report]."

Azar told the network that "any suggestion that I pressured or otherwise asked Dr. Redfield to change the content of a single scientific, peer-reviewed MMWR article is false."

"Now he may deny that, but it's true," Redfield said.

Former FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn also called out Azar, telling the network that he prevented the FDA from regulating coronavirus tests. Hahn told CNN that was "a line in the sand for me."

Gupta pressed Hahn on reports that Azar shouted at him over the spat.

"You should ask him that question," Hahn said.

Azar told CNN that "Hahn's recitation of this call is incorrect" and "the only intemperate conduct ... was Dr. Hahn's threat to resign," which Hahn denied.

Brett Giroir, the Trump administration's testing czar, also told the network that top administration officials lied about the number of tests that were available.

"When we said there were millions of tests — there weren't, right?" he said. "There were components of the test available but not the full deal."

Birx said that White House officials really believed Trump's frequent claim that "testing was driving cases, rather than testing was a way for us to stop cases."

But public health experts say the task force officials failed by not pushing harder for Americans to know the truth about the deadly pandemic.

"It's ridiculous," Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's public health school, told The Washington Post. "Brett Giroir knew we had a problem with testing. With PPE. With vaccine distribution. He told me as much. But he felt he needed to say what the administration wanted to hear publicly."

Some former administration officials agreed.

"They were all complicit in a narrative to downplay the threat because they felt that's what Trump wanted," a former official told the outlet. "They manipulated their statements to please Trump, right up until the point that it was painfully clear they had made a bad personal trade."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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