Donald Trump became a national celebrity starring in his very popular TV show, The Apprentice. Years later, virtually anyone who had watched the show can recall how joyfully he delivered his verdict: “You’re fired!”
Who would have predicted that, as president of the United States, he would get the opportunity to reprise that TV role, firing scores of people he had appointed to high federal posts mainly for being insufficiently loyal?
During January, February, and the first three weeks in March, as the public was growing increasingly concerned about the growing menace of the coronavirus, the president was offering a steady stream of reassurances that the virus was completely under control, and that when the weather turned warmer in April, it would simply vanish.
Still, Mr. Trump did listen to the views of five of our nation’s leading epidemiologists, three of whom headed three key public health agencies. What they told him in private was that unless very strong public health measures were taken immediately – widespread testing, tracing of contacts, quarantining, and social distancing – the virus would spread extremely rapidly.
Developing An Effective Vaccine
Throwing still more cold water into his fire, they cautioned that the development of an effective vaccine might take a year or a year and a half. But what did they know compared to this stable genius who was confident that an effective vaccine could be developed in just a month or two?
Clearly, this was not the advice he wanted to hear. He was running for reelection in November, and he certainly did not want to spook stock market investors, or to slow down our nation’s rate of economic growth, let alone endure a deep recession.
Whether or not the president explicitly ordered the epidemiologists not to issue public warnings about the coronavirus, they clearly understood that if they did so, they would immediately hear the magic words: You’re fired!
Why didn’t they just quit and then go public with their warnings? Perhaps, most importantly, each of them knew that she or he would be replaced by someone perhaps less competent, but surely more compliant. And then too, Trump – the consummate con man – may have promised them that if the virus were to continue spreading, he would ask them to solve the problem that he himself had had allowed to grow into a full-fledged pandemic.
The Truth About The Virus
But even Trump, the ultimate bully, could not completely contain the truth about the virus. Nancy Messonnier, the Director of the Center for Disease Control’s National Center of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases was the first prominent federally employed epidemiologist to sound the alarm. On February 25th, she stated that “Ultimately, we will see community spread in the country. It’s not a question of if but rather a question of when and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
Stock prices immediately plunged, and the president, evidently more upset about that than Dr. Messonnier’s warning, threatened to fire her. But he never followed through. Still, his message to federally employed epidemiologists was loud and clear: If any of you pull another stunt like that, you’ll be out the door as fast as I can yell, “You’re fired!”
Dr. Messonnier, the first to sound the alarm, while permitted to stay on the job, was then effectively muzzled. Reporters, who continue to be anxious to hear her views, have been completely shut out. And yet, her selfless actions may have saved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans.
The most familiar face among Trump’s quintet of top epidemiologists belongs to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute for Infectious Diseases. With a folksy, almost self-effacing and easy-going personality, he has been a reassuring presence at Trump’s almost daily briefings about the coronavirus.
Without always agreeing with the president, Dr. Fauci had still managed to avoid causing any major presidential eruptions. But then, on March 29th, CNN’s Jack Tapper asked if self-distancing and quarantining had been imposed earlier, those policies could have saved lives.
Fauci replied, “It is difficult to go back and say that. I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigating earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated.”
Time To Fire Fauci
To most listeners, Fauci’s response to this hypothetical question was surely not meant to be critical of the president. But one of Trump’s followers tweeted “Time to #Fire Fauci.” Trump could not allow this personal slight to go unanswered. So, he retweeted this message to his seventeen million followers.
At that time, the president was feeling especially paranoid about widespread accusations that he had not done nearly enough to stamp out the virus before it had reached pandemic proportions. In some lands, the punishment for criticizing the king was “Off with his head!” But in Donald Trump’s America, it is merely a firing offense.
At the next press conference, with the president hulking over him, the diminutive Dr. Fauci walked backed his words, while surely still believing that they were true.
Why would this highly respected scientist allow himself to basically eat crow? Now in his early eighties, he clearly doesn’t need this job. I believe he had determined to swallow his pride for the greater good of the nation. Imagine the things that Trump might do without Dr. Fauci’s moderating influence.
Now we shall call CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield to the stand. The charge? Telling a reporter from the Washington Post on April 21st that a second wave of the coronavirus might strike next winter. How dare he contradict the president who predicts that his plan to reboot the economy will succeed because under his leadership, we will soon defeat the virus and our economy will shoot up “like a rocket-ship.”
Luckily, Dr. Redfield quickly realized how grievously mistaken he had been, and willingly walked back his words the next day.
And then too, there is the strange case of Dr. Rick Bright, who had been heading the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which has been leading the government’s efforts to produce a vaccine for the coronavirus. Indeed, epidemiologists agree that a vaccine is desperately needed to conquer the virus once and for all.
You may recall that the president -- who undoubtedly knows more about the virus that his entire team of epidemiologists – has a very strong hunch that a certain drug that is effective in combatting malaria and loupes might work with coronavirus patients as well.
Fatal Side Effects
The only problem is that the drug has produced fatal side effects in some patients. Dr. Bright’s big mistake was to strictly limit the use of Trump’s favorite “miracle drug,” while devoting his limited resources to more proven drugs. For his efforts, he was summarily transferred to less vital research in another department.
The fifth member of the epidemiological quintet is Dr. Deborah Brix, the government’s top vaccine expert. Clearly the most media savvy of the president’s epidemiology team, she has managed to answer scores of difficult questions at press conferences without even once given any offense to our thin-skinned commander-in-chief. Better yet, she has done this with grace, good humor, and unparalleled evasiveness.
We may have to wait for her autobiography to learn what she has really been thinking. By the end of Trump’s term, she may well be the last epidemiologist standing.
For each of these public servants, combatting the virus is the opportunity of a lifetime to make a massive difference between life and death for countless Americans. On the downside, their boss not only insults them and restricts what they may publicly say, but he often ignores their advice.
So, there is an almost constant temptation to tell their boss to take this job and shove it. And yet, this job is the opportunity of their lifetimes. If they succeed in conquering the virus, then it will be well worth the cost.