October 28, 2020

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Power Up: Former Trump advisers worry about the waning influence of scientists inside White House

  • “In preparing Homeland Security officials for questions about Rittenhouse from the media, the document suggests that they note that he ‘took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners.’”

At the White House

IT”S NOT JUST THE SCIENTISTS in the Trump administration who are alarmed by the expanding role of Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who joined the White House as a pandemic adviser in August.

Joe Grogan, the former Domestic Policy Council chief and member of the coronavirus task force who left the White House in May, told Power Up he is “troubled” by the recent spate of attacks “from within senior leadership ranks” on Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield, top infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. 

  • “Exposing the president to iconoclastic or dissenting views isn’t a mistake especially with Trump, Grogan told Power Up. “He benefits from having a multitude of views and allowing him to participate in back and forth … But I am troubled by some of the attacks that have come from within senior leadership ranks on [Birx], Redfield and Fauci. A number of those attacks are unfounded.”
  • “Who they want to get up there and speak is one thing, Grogan said, referring to briefings for the public. “But who is in the Oval Office debating issues? Is Atlas in there alone? Or in there with Birx, Redfield and other scientists who have spent their lives devoted to fighting infectious diseases?” 

Atlas, who does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, has said that fears about the novel coronavirus are overblown and introduced controversial ideas and measures to the president in response to the pandemic that has killed 206,000 Americans. NBC’s Monica Alba overheard Redfield last week in a conversation with a colleague on a commercial airline say Atlas was providing the president with incorrect information. 

  • Everything he says is false,” Redfield said during a phone call, Alba reported.
  • In a statement provided to NBC News, Atlas defended himself: “Everything I have said is directly from the data and the science. It echoes what is said by many of the top medical scientists in the world, including those at Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford.”
  • Of the backbiting against the administration’s top doctors, Grogan, who served as a senior policy adviser at the Food and Drug Administration for President George W. Bush and remains a Trump ally, explained: “There are ankle biters who are trying to jockey for position and out for themselves. But it’s damaging to have people going out anonymously to attack the country’s best experts.”

The White House disputed the idea that its top doctors have seen their roles diminished: “All of the medical experts in the Administration are working together around the clock to carry out the President’s number one priority: protecting the health and safety of the American people and defeating this virus from China,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement. 

  • “President Trump relies on the advice and counsel of all of his top health officials every day and any suggestion that their role is being diminished is just false,” Deere added.

But the president has relaxed his approach to the coronavirus even further in the final stretch before the November election. He has scheduled large campaign rallies in Wisconsin over the coming weekend in coronavirus “red zones” — “despite recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force that call for increasing social distancing in the state ‘to the maximal degree possible,’” our colleagues Michael Scherer and Lena H. Sun report. 

  • Wisconsin is listed in the document as the state with the third-highest rate of new cases in the country, with 243 new cases per 100,000 people over the previous week, about 2.6 times greater than the national average. Ahead of Trump’s scheduled rally in Green Bay, the Bellin Health System said Tuesday that its hospital in that city is at 94 percent capacity as covid-19 continues to spike in the community, according to Michael and Lena. 

During Tuesday night’s debate, Trump claimed there’s been “no negative effect” from his large-scale campaign events, “even though health officials in Tulsa said a spike in covid-19 cases was ‘likely’ sparked by an indoor Trump gathering in June, per Michael and Lena. Trump also inaccurately claimed that while he’s “okay with masks, scientists are divided on the issue. 

After Democratic nominee Joe Biden estimated wearing masks would have saved 100,000 lives, Trump claimed without evidence that Dr. Fauci said the opposite.” 

  • Fauci corrected the record on Wednesday: “Anybody who has been listening to me over the last several months knows that a conversation does not go by where I do not strongly recommend that people wear masks,” he said on ABC News’s “Start Here” podcast.

Nevertheless, members of the Trump family did not wear masks during Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland, despite guidance asking them to do so. The president has intensified his mocking of mitigation guidelines and slammed former vice president Joe Biden for wanting to “close down” the economy to stop the virus’s spread.

  • “We don’t call these ‘rallies’ anymore, because in Democratic states like where you have a governor who’s a Democrat, you’re not allowed to go to church and not allowed to go to a restaurant. You’re not allowed to go to your friend’s house. You can’t move from your house unless you’re related to the governor,” he said at a rally in Newport News, Va., last Friday.
  • A study conducted by researchers at Cornell University, first reported by the New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Noah Weiland, “who analyzed 38 million articles about the pandemic in English-language media around the world. Mentions of Mr. Trump made up nearly 38 percent of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ making the president the largest driver of the ‘infodemic’ — falsehoods involving the pandemic.
  • But by far the most prevalent topic of misinformation topic was ‘miracle cures,’ including Mr. Trump’s promotion of anti-malarial drugs and disinfectants as potential treatments for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That accounted for more misinformation than the other 10 topics combined, the researchers reported. ”

Trump has also directly and very publicly contradicted his CDC chief: “ … after Redfield testified to Congress that a coronavirus vaccine would not be widely distributed until the middle of next year, similar to what other top officials have said. Trump said Redfield was ‘confused,’” our colleagues Lena H. Sun and Joel Achenbach report. 

The mixed messaging and political interference has damaged the CDC’s credibility, friends and supporters  told Lena and Joel. There are fears that Trump will replace Redfield with someone like Atlas:

  • “Inside the CDC, staffers acknowledge Redfield’s limitations as a leader but are fearful that, if he is ousted or quits, the White House will install someone of a more distinctly political or ideological bent — such as [Atlas] … who has said pandemic fears are overblown, has become a Trump favorite and has publicly criticized Redfield in recent days. Atlas has no experience in infectious diseases but attends all meetings of the White House coronavirus task force.”
  • “Moving to replace Redfield with someone such as Atlas would further erode morale and probably lead to resignations,” CDC staffers told Lena and Joel.
  • The White House was circumspect when asked if Trump still has confidence in his CDC director: “President Trump has always followed the science and done what was in the best interest of the American people,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. “His early actions and therapeutic breakthroughs have saved American lives.”

‘Anti-Dr. Fauci’:  Olivia Troye, Vice President Pence’s recently departed homeland security adviser who was involved in many of the task force meetings and is now supporting Biden, said on CNN “there are still people walking around the White House today who don’t actually believe this virus is real. A lot of them disregard it.” 

Atlas himself has publicly espoused controversial views: He’s questioned the lockdowns, social distancing, and mask mandates,  saying he’s unsure “scientifically” if masks are effective He’s pushed to reopen schools. And he’sselectively presented research and findings that support his argument for herd immunity and his other ideas, two senior administration officials said,” our colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey reported last month. 

  • “Atlas meets with Trump almost every day, far more than any other health official, and inside the White House he is viewed as aligned with the president and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on how to handle the outbreak, according to three senior administration officials,” they reported.

CNN’s Jim Acosta reported last week that Birx shares Redfield’s fears of Atlas: “According to people familiar with her thinking, Birx views [Atlas] … as an unhealthy influence on [Trump’s] thinking when it comes to the virus,” Acosta reported. 

  • “Birx believes Atlas is feeding the President misleading information about the efficacy of face masks for controlling the spread of the virus, the source said,” per Acosta.
  • “Dr. Birx speaks for herself but that’s a completely false story and she denied it today. It’s completely false,” Atlas responded during a briefing.

Grogan lamented the politicization of leaked documents and guidance he says “kills the public health response,” and emphasized how much he respects Birx, Fauci and Redfield. 

  • “They are talented decent scientists of integrity and we are so lucky to have them on this,” Grogan said. “The criticism and the personal attacks is outrageous.” 

The campaign

GOP PRIVATELY FRETS AFTER DEBATE: “The aftermath of the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden triggered a reckoning among Republicans on Wednesday about the incumbent’s incendiary remarks on white supremacy and his baseless claims of electoral fraud, with GOP officials privately expressing alarm about the fallout with key voters as the president’s allies argued that he electrified his core supporters,” Robert Costa and Matt Viser report.

Few Republicans criticized Trump directly: “But hewing too close to him is also seen as a mistake by some Republicans, particularly for those who wish to court moderates and independent voters,” our colleagues write.

  • There was fault on both sides,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is facing a tough reelection contest, told reporters. “The interrupting on both sides, the name-calling was very unbecoming for a presidential debate.” Asked if it was a mistake for Trump not to condemn the Proud Boys and white supremacists, Collins said, “Absolutely.”
  • Key quote: “This election is drifting toward what feels like a blowout [victory for Biden], and there needs to be some type of event that changes that. The debate was a chance to change the direction, and while it might be too early to be seen, there is no real reason to believe it was a game-changer,” said Brendan Buck, a former top adviser to the past two Republican House speakers, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and John A. Boehner of Ohio.
  • Ex-Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) on his former GOP colleagues: “People are voting already, so they know it’s going to be tough to put forward a new narrative,” Flake said. “They’re more than a little worried because it feels like even if you go in a different direction, it’d be too little, too late. That’s devastating. ”
  • Another prominent Republican will now vote for Biden: “It gnawed at my conscience,” Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor and chairman of the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush, told the New York Times of his decision to defect from Trump.
  • “I’ve concluded that he’s dangerous to the existence of the republic as we know it.”

DEBATE RULES CHANGES ARE BEING CONSIDERED: “The commission that oversees the general election presidential debates said it will be making changes to the format of the remaining two debates. One key change it plans to implement: Cutting off the microphones of Trump and Biden if they break the rules …,” CBS News’s Melissa Quinn and Norah O’Donnell report.

  • The commission later confirmed it’s ‘carefully considering changes’: Their “goal of tinkering with the format to produce a better result, at least for this race, faces an uphill task — namely, a president who showed himself willing to flout the existing rules and turn the debate into a street brawl,” our colleague Toluse Olorunnipa points out.

Moderator Chris Wallace said cutting the mics won’t solve everything: “As a practical matter, even if the president’s microphone had been shut, he still could have continued to interrupt, and it might well have been picked up on Biden’s microphone, and it still would have disrupted the proceedings in the hall,” Wallace told the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum. The veteran Fox News anchor further pointed out the glaringly obvious, cutting off the microphone of the president of the United States is a big deal.

  • Regarding the reviews of his performance, “I’ve read some of the reviews. I know people think, well, gee, I didn’t jump in soon enough,” Wallace said. “I guess I didn’t realize — and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20 — that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate.”
  • As for Trump’s role in taking the night off the rails, “Well, he certainly didn’t help,” Wallace said. Pressed to elaborate, he offered “To quote the president, ‘It is what it is.’”

Right-wing voices dominated Facebook after the debate: “Right-wing voices made up nine of the 10 top-performing posts on Facebook since the presidential debate Tuesday. Many Americans who primarily get news from Facebook are living in a media ecosystem where the winner of the debate is clear: Trump crushed Biden,” Kevin Schaul and Kevin Uhrmacher report.

Biden distanced himself from the left in the debate, but they’re not going anywhere: Biden stiff-armed the Green New Deal liberal climate plan at Tuesday’s debate and offered a pointed reminder of his opposition to Medicare-for-all. He boasted of defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders ‘by a whole hell of a lot’ and sidestepped calls from the left to expand the Supreme Court,” Sean Sullivan, David Weigel and Annie Linskey report.

  • What’s going on?: “Biden’s debate comments, which reflected his commitment to winning over moderates in battleground states, prompted some concern among left-leaning activists, including at least one whose group reached out to his campaign to express his worries. But they were also followed by an embrace from some of the very liberal leaders Biden is keeping at arm’s length — including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the chief sponsors of the Green New Deal.”

The people

TRUMP PUTS PROUD BOYS IN THE SPOTLIGHT: “When Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio woke up Wednesday, four news vans were parked in front of his home. The chairman of the far-right fraternity with a violent reputation was sleepy but not surprised; his phone had been ringing nonstop since Trump told his members to ‘stand back and stand by’ during the first presidential debate the night before,” Derek Hawkins, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Craig Timberg report from Portland.

  • The power of a president’s words: “By Wednesday morning, the hashtag #WhiteSupremacy was trending on Twitter in the United States, among accounts on both the left and the right. Trump’s comments were enshrined in memes, including one depicting Trump in one of the Proud Boys’ signature Fred Perry polo shirts. Another meme showed Trump’s ‘stand by’ quote alongside an image of bearded men carrying American flags and appearing to prepare for a fight. A third incorporated ‘stand back and stand by’ into the group’s logo.” 

An example of what the group is:

Outside the Beltway

THIS RECESSION IS HISTORICALLY AWFUL: “The economic collapse sparked by the pandemic is triggering the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history, delivering a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom, according to a Washington Post analysis of job losses across the income spectrum,” Heather Long, Andrew Van Dam, Alyssa Fowers and Leslie Shapiro report.

  • The devastating details: “While the nation overall has regained nearly half of the lost jobs, several key demographic groups have recovered more slowly, including mothers of school-age children, Black men, Black women, Hispanic men, Asian Americans, younger Americans (ages 25 to 34) and people without college degrees.” 

There are also major disparities that may ripple out for years: “White Americans have recovered more than half of their jobs lost between April and February. Meanwhile, Black Americans have recovered just over a third of employment lost in the pandemic,” our colleagues write.

And women’s progress in the workplace is also at stake: Mothers of children ages 6 to 17 saw employment fall by about a third more than fathers of children the same age, and mothers are returning to work at a much slower rate,” our colleagues write.

And things are about to get worse: “U.S. airlines said they will begin furloughing tens of thousands of employees [today] after congressional leaders and the Trump administration failed to reach a deal on a coronavirus relief package,” Ian Duncan and Lori Aratani report. “Initial figures for how many people would be out of a job were as high as 70,000 people.”

  • And Washington is stuck: Democrats pulled back plans to vote on their $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, which is opposed by House and Senate Republicans and has no chance of becoming law. Democratic leaders delayed that vote to allow more time for a bipartisan deal to emerge,” Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and Rachael Bade report.

Global power

NORTH KOREA KEPT BUILDING UP ITS NUCLEAR CAPACITY: “While the country has refrained from carrying out provocative tests of its most advanced weapon systems, it never stopped working on them, U.S. intelligence officials said. Indeed, new evidence suggests that Kim Jong Un took advantage of the lull by improving his ability to hide his most powerful weapons and shield them from future attacks,” Joby Warrick and Simon Denyer report.

  • That lull began after Trump and Kim’s first summit in 2018: Some advances continued while the pair exchanged love letters. “At six of the country’s missile bases, trucks hauled rock from underground construction sites as workers dug a maze of new tunnels and bunkers, allowing North Korea to move weapons around like peas in a shell game. Southeast of the capital, meanwhile, new buildings sprouted across an industrial complex that was processing uranium for as many as 15 new bombs, according to current and former U.S. and South Korean officials, as well as a report by a United Nations panel of experts.”

Key quote: “North Korea hasn’t stopped building nuclear weapons or ­developing missile systems; they’ve just stopped displaying them,” said Jeffrey Lewis director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for ­Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif, told our colleagues. “They stopped doing the things that made bad news cycles for Trump.” 

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