Thursday, December 31, 2020

Josh Hawley’s heedless ambition is a threat to the republic


Josh Hawley’s heedless ambition is a threat to the republic



Opinion by 

Michael Gerson


Dec. 31, 2020 at 2:38 p.m. CST


The announced intention of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to object to certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college victory is a particularly bad omen for the GOP’s future. Unlike, say, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — who has an ideological commitment to public chaos and the humiliation of the U.S. government — Hawley has often tried to offer a constructive vision of conservative populism. As a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Hawley surely possesses a serious understanding of the constitutional order. He is, on personal acquaintance, a talented, knowledgeable, ambitious young man.


The problem with political decadence is not what it does to those who are already disordered. The primary problem is what it does to talented, knowledgeable, ambitious young leaders who can be warped toward a destructive influence.


Ambition is a human trait assumed by the nation’s founders and incorporated into their design of our system, which pits ambition against ambition to check and balance power. By implication, it is a neutral characteristic — a source of mischief or a spur to greatness. Ambition can lead men and women to say things they don’t believe, to the detriment of their character. The worse problem comes when it leads politicians outside the boundaries of democracy, which is where Hawley now finds himself. In the cause of his own advancement, the senator from Missouri is willing to endorse the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans — particularly voters of color — and justify the attempted theft of an election. He is willing to credit malicious lies that will poison our democracy for generations. The fulfillment of Hawley’s intention — the ultimate overturning of the election — would be the collapse of U.S. self-government. The attempt should be a source of shame.


The ultimate responsibility lies with Hawley himself. But his temptation also represents the more general triumph of a dangerous type of politics — the politics of delegitimization. We have seen hints of this over the years. Jerry Falwell Sr. hawked videotapes on television accusing President Bill Clinton of murder. Some on the far left charged President George W. Bush with complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) objected to the certification of the 2004 presidential election based on conspiratorial lies about vote counting in Ohio. (Boxer’s effort came after John F. Kerry’s gracious concession, which distinguishes it from Hawley’s move.)


Yet the greatest practitioner and innovator of political cancel culture has been Donald J. Trump. This may be his largest influence on the practice of U.S. politics. He rose to prominence in the GOP by spreading racist lies about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. Now, he is making the acceptance of conspiratorial myths about Biden’s legitimacy into a test of GOP fidelity. And Trump has made room in his party for even more extreme versions of his method, involving the accusations that Democratic leaders are pedophiles: “Stop the steal” and QAnon are on the same spectrum of vile lunacy.


This is the type of politics that Hawley is enabling — a form of politics that abolishes politics. A contest of policy visions can result in compromise. The attempt to delegitimize your opponent requires their political annihilation. And a fight to the political death is always conducted in the shadow of possible violence.


Trump has brought these trends into a dangerous new phase. As president, he is attempting to deconstruct American institutions from the top down. He intuitively grasps — like many authoritarians before him — that the biggest lies motivate the most abject servility. His message is carried like lightning on social media and is amplified by right-wing media personalities and grifters (but I repeat myself) who find profit and influence in the humiliation of their country. It is truly the technological golden age for casual sedition.


What can be done? We can refuse to inhabit the lie. We can praise and support Republican politicians such as Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and Govs. Larry Hogan (Maryland) and Brian Kemp (Georgia) who are standing in the gap. And we must ensure that the aspirations of people such as Hawley — who has made the madness more mainstream — come to nothing. This begins with a simple and sad recognition: The ambitions of this knowledgeable, talented young man are now a threat to the republic.


This is what happens when you put an arsonist in charge of the fire department.

 This is what happens when you put an arsonist in charge of the fire department. 


Meet the Trump saboteur in charge of undermining Biden — and America 


Opinion by  

Dana Milbank 


Dec. 31, 2020 at 4:20 p.m. CST 


If, in the new year, pandemic vaccines aren’t available as promised, Americans can’t return to work because economic relief isn’t delivered or an adversary successfully attacks the United States because national security agencies couldn’t pay for new defenses, a hefty share of the blame should be placed on a man you’ve probably never heard of: One Russell Thurlow Vought. 


As President Trump’s budget director, he conspicuously failed in his stated goal of controlling the debt. Despite his efforts, the debt increased by $6 trillion on his two-year watch as director of the Office of Management and Budget, the biggest jump in history. 

He also has been disastrous in his fiscal forecasts. On Feb. 10, he predicted 2.8 percent growth for the year, saying, “our view is that, at this point, coronavirus is not something that is going to have ripple effects.” A few weeks later, the economy collapsed. 


But what Russ Vought is very good at is sabotage. He’s sabotaging national security, the pandemic response and the economic recovery — all to make things more difficult for the incoming Biden administration. That he’s also sabotaging the country seems not to matter to Vought, who has spent nearly two decades as a right-wing bomb thrower. 

He has blocked civil servants at OMB from cooperating with the Biden transition, denying President-elect Joe Biden the policy analysis and budget-preparation assistance given to previous presidents-elect, including Barack Obama and Trump himself.  


Transition figures warn that it will likely delay and hamper economic and pandemic relief and national security preparation (the Pentagon is the other key agency resisting transition cooperation with the incoming administration). 


Thursday afternoon, Vought released a bombastic letter accusing the Biden transition of making “false statements” about OMB’s uncooperativeness — and then essentially confirming that it would not cooperate: “What we have not done and will not do is use current OMB staff to write the [Biden transition’s] legislative policy proposals to dismantle this Administration’s work. . . . Redirecting staff and resources to draft your team’s budget proposals is not an OMB transition responsibility. Our system of government has one President and one Administration at a time.” 


Nobody should have expected otherwise from Vought. 

He was the author of a Sept. 4 memo attacking critical race theory and canceling racial sensitivity programs, which he called “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” The issue, apparently prompted by a segment Trump viewed on Fox News, became key to the final weeks of Trump’s race-baiting campaign. 


Vought was also the mastermind of Trump’s executive order that attempts to reclassify tens of thousands of civil servants who work in policy roles so they can be easily fired. Vought has proposed reclassifying 88 percent of OMB staff (425 people). 


He was a key figure in the Ukraine imbroglio, freezing military aid to the country as Trump pushed for Ukraine’s president to announce a probe of Joe and Hunter Biden and the Democrats. The Government Accountability Office determined the budgetary freeze violated the Impoundment Control Act. Vought also ignored a subpoena during the impeachment inquiry. 


Vought’s 2017 nomination to be OMB deputy director (he later served 18 months as acting director and has served five as director) was nearly undone over a 2016 article in which he wrote: “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, his Son, and they stand condemned.” 

Vought spent seven years on the vanguard of conservative extremism as a senior official at Heritage Action, the political wing of the Heritage Foundation. The group fought GOP leadership and pushed lawmakers into unyielding positions. 


During that time, Vought wrote a series of rambling posts for arguing that “incrementalism doesn’t work for the right,” that Republicans “are fundamentally in their DNA unwilling to fight” and that Republicans needed to have “a willingness” to shut the government down. He exhorted Republicans to “embrace the sort of brinkmanship that shows they are playing to win.” He railed against a 2012 infrastructure bill as “communism.” 


Before Heritage, Vought worked for the right-wing House Republican Study Committee whose job, he said, “is to push leadership as far to the right as is possible and flat out oppose it when necessary.” 


He has continued to lob grenades from inside the White House. At an antiabortion rally, he claimed credit for blocking Planned Parenthood’s funding. He infuriated Democrats by refusing to share projections with Congress. 


But when it comes to governing, Vought has been a loser. He ran the botched White House response to the 2019 government shutdown, issuing legally dubious decisions and, as one Republican budget expert told The Post, “making up the rules as they go along.” It became the longest-ever shutdown and ended in Trump’s surrender. 


Now Vought is intentionally botching the transition, without regard for the dire consequences Americans could suffer. This is what happens when you put an arsonist in charge of the fire department. 



The Unbearable Weakness of Trump’s Minions

Senator Josh Hawley isn’t just engaging in civic vandalism—he is an emblem of a weak and rotten Republican Party.

10:50 AM ET

Peter Wehner

Contributing writer at The Atlantic and senior fellow at EPPC

Those hoping for a quick snapback to sanity for the Republican Party once Donald Trump is no longer president should temper those hopes.  

The latest piece of evidence to suggest the enduring power of Trumpian unreality is yesterday’s announcement by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri that he will object next week when Congress convenes to certify the Electoral College vote.

Hawley knows this effort will fail, just as every other effort to undo the results of the lawful presidential election will fail. (A brief reminder for those with faulty short-term memories: Joe Biden defeated Trump by more than 7 million popular votes and 74 Electoral College votes.) Every single attempt to prove that the election was marked by fraud or that President-elect Biden’s win is illegitimate—an effort that now includes about 60 lawsuits—has flopped. In fact, what we’ve discovered since the November 3 election is that it was “the most secure in American history,” as election experts in Trump’s own administration have declared. But this immutable, eminently provable fact doesn’t deter Trump and many of his allies from trying to overturn the election; perversely, it seems to embolden them.  

One such Trump ally is Tommy Tuberville, the newly elected senator from Alabama, who has suggested that he might challenge the Electoral College count. And there are others. But what makes Hawley’s declaration ominously noteworthy is that unlike Tuberville—a former college football coach who owes his political career in a deep-red state to Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary against Jeff Sessions—Hawley is a man who clearly knows better. According to his Senate biography, he is “recognized as one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers.” A former state attorney general, Hawley has litigated before the Supreme Court. He graduated from Stanford University in 2002 and Yale Law School in 2006. He has clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts; he taught at one of London’s elite private schools, St. Paul’s; and he served as an appellate litigator at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

It is one thing for Hawley to position himself as a populist, something he had done even before he was elected in 2018; it is quite another for him to knowingly engage in civic vandalism and, in ostentatiously unpatriotic ways, undermine established norms and safeguards. This is precisely what Senator Hawley is now doing—and he is doing so in the aftermath of Trump’s loss, when some political observers might have hoped that the conspiracy mindset and general insanity of the Trump modus operandi would begin to lose their salience.

A longtime acquaintance of the Missouri senator explained to me Hawley’s actions this way: “Hawley never wants to talk down to his voters. He wants to speak for them, and at the moment, they are saying the election was stolen.”

“He surely knows this isn’t true,” this acquaintance continued, “and that the legal arguments don’t hold water. And yet clearly the incentives he confronts—as someone who wants to speak for those voters, and as someone with ambitions beyond the Senate—lead him to conclude he should pretend the lie is true. This is obviously a very bad sign about the direction of the GOP in the coming years.”  

Think about this statement for a moment: The incentives Josh Hawley and many of his fellow Republicans officeholders confront lead them to conclude that they should pretend the lie is true.

Those who have hoped that Republicans like Senator Hawley would begin to break free from Trump once he lost the election have not understood the nature of the change that has come over the party’s base.

Trump was the product of deep, disturbing currents on the American right; he was not the creator of them. Those currents have existed for many decades; we saw them manifested in the popularity of figures such as Sarah Palin, Patrick J. Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Oliver North, and many others. But their power grew in force and speed over the past decade. In 2016, Trump tapped into these currents and, as president and leader of the Republican Party, he channeled those populist passions destructively, rather than in the constructive ways that other Republicans before him, such as Ronald Reagan, had done. (Even if you’re a progressive who loathed Reagan, the notion that he was a pernicious and malicious force in American politics in the style of Trump is simply not credible.)  

What is happening in the GOP is that figures such as Hawley, along with many of his Senate and House colleagues, and important Republican players, including the former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, are all trying to position themselves as the heirs of Trump. None of them possesses the same sociopathic qualities as Trump, and their efforts will be less impulsive and presumably less clownish, more calculated and probably less conspiracy-minded. It may be that not all of them support Hawley’s stunt; perhaps some are even embarrassed by it. But these figures are seismographers; they are determined to act in ways that win the approval of the Republican Party’s base. And this goes to the heart of the danger.

The problem with the Republican “establishment” and with elected officials such as Josh Hawley is not that they are crazy, or that they don’t know any better; it is that they are cowards, and that they are weak. They are far more ambitious than they are principled, and they are willing to damage American politics and society rather than be criticized by their own tribe. I’m guessing that many of them haven’t read Nietzsche, but they have embraced his philosophy of perspectivism, which in its crudest form posits that there is no objective truth, no authoritative or independent criteria for determining what is true or false. In this view, we all get to make up our own facts and create our own narratives. Everything is conditioned on what your perspective is. This is exactly the sort of slippery epistemic nihilism for which conservatives have, for more than a generation, reproached the academic left—except the left comes by it more honestly.

The single most worrisome political fact in America right now is that a significant portion of the Republican Party lives in a fantasy world, a place where facts and truth don’t hold sway, where “owning the libs” is an end in itself, and where seceding from reality is a symbol of tribal loyalty, rather than a sign of mental illness. This is leading the party, and America itself, to places we’ve never been before, including the spectacle of a defeated president and his supporters engaging in a sustained effort to steal an election.

The tactics of Hawley and his many partisan confreres, if they aren’t checked and challenged, will put at risk what the scholar Stephen L. Carter calls “the entire project of Enlightenment democracy.” This doesn’t seem to bother Hawley and many in his party. But what he should know—and, one hopes, does know, somewhere in the recesses of his heart—is that he has moved very far away from conservatism.

Whether the Republican Party can be salvaged is very much an open question. I don’t know the answer. But here is what I do know: Patriotic Republicans and conservatives need to fight for the soul of the Republican Party, for its sake and for the sake of the nation. America needs two healthy and sane political parties. Trump’s departure on January 20 should open up space for at least a few brave and responsible figures to arise, to help ground the GOP in truth rather than falsehoods, reality instead of fantasy, and to use the instruments of power for the pursuit of justice.  

Their task won’t be easy; right now the political winds are in their face rather than at their back. Trump’s hold on the GOP remains firm, and separating from Trump and Trumpism will trigger hostility in an often angry and radicalized base. The right-wing ecosystem is in a mood to find and (figuratively) hang traitors, whom it defines as anyone in the Republican Party who doesn’t acquiesce to Trump’s indecency and paranoia. Which in turn means that those hoping to lead a Republican reclamation project need to find ways to be shrewd and persuasive, to be crafty while maintaining their integrity. They need to connect with the base but find ways to elevate it instead of pandering to it. In better times, many Republican leaders have done so, starting of course with Abraham Lincoln, “the great hero of America’s struggle for the noblest cause,” in the words of his early 20th-century biographer Lord Charnwood. But others have done so as well.

Our collective hope should be that principled Republicans will find their voice and prevail—one courageous step at a time, one act of decency at a time, one year at a time.  

PETER WEHNER is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.




Covid, Covid, Covid’: In Trump’s Final Chapter, a Failure to Rise to the Moment

As the U.S. confronted a new wave of infection and death through the summer and fall, the president’s approach to the pandemic came down to a single question: What would it mean for him?


By Michael D. ShearMaggie HabermanNoah WeilandSharon LaFraniere and Mark Mazzetti

  • Dec. 31, 2020Updated 3:12 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — It was a warm summer Wednesday, Election Day was looming and President Trump was even angrier than usual at the relentless focus on the coronavirus pandemic.

“You’re killing me! This whole thing is! We’ve got all the damn cases,” Mr. Trump yelled at Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, during a gathering of top aides in the Oval Office on Aug. 19. “I want to do what Mexico does. They don’t give you a test till you get to the emergency room and you’re vomiting.”

Mexico’s record in fighting the virus was hardly one for the United States to emulate. But the president had long seen testing not as a vital way to track and contain the pandemic but as a mechanism for making him look bad by driving up the number of known cases.

And on that day he was especially furious after being informed by Dr. Francis S. Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, that it would be days before the government could give emergency approval to the use of convalescent plasma as a treatment, something Mr. Trump was eager to promote as a personal victory going into the Republican National Convention the following week.

“They’re Democrats! They’re against me!” he said, convinced that the government’s top doctors and scientists were conspiring to undermine him. “They want to wait!”

Throughout late summer and fall, in the heat of a re-election campaign that he would go on to lose, and in the face of mounting evidence of a surge in infections and deaths far worse than in the spring, Mr. Trump’s management of the crisis — unsteady, unscientific and colored by politics all year — was in effect reduced to a single question: What would it mean for him?

The result, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former administration officials and others in contact with the White House, was a lose-lose situation. Mr. Trump not only ended up soundly defeated by Joseph R. Biden Jr., but missed his chance to show that he could rise to the moment in the final chapter of his presidency and meet the defining challenge of his tenure.

Efforts by his aides to persuade him to promote mask wearing, among the simplest and most effective ways to curb the spread of the disease, were derailed by his conviction that his political base would rebel against anything that would smack of limiting their personal freedom. Even his own campaign’s polling data to the contrary could not sway him.

His explicit demand for a vaccine by Election Day — a push that came to a head in a contentious Oval Office meeting with top health aides in late September — became a misguided substitute for warning the nation that failure to adhere to social distancing and other mitigation efforts would contribute to a slow-rolling disaster this winter.

His concern? That the man he called “Sleepy Joe” Biden, who was leading him in the polls, would get credit for a vaccine, not him.

The government’s public health experts were all but silenced by the arrival in August of Dr. Scott W. Atlas, the Stanford professor of neuroradiology recruited after appearances on Fox News.

With Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the coordinator of the White House virus task force, losing influence and often on the road, Dr. Atlas became the sole doctor Mr. Trump listened to. His theories, some of which scientists viewed as bordering on the crackpot, were exactly what the president wanted to hear: The virus is overblown, the number of deaths are exaggerated, testing is overrated, lockdowns do more harm than good.

As the gap between politics and science grew, the infighting that Mr. Trump had allowed to plague the administration’s response from the beginning only intensified. Threats of firings worsened the leadership vacuum as key figures undercut each other and distanced themselves from responsibility.

The administration had some positive stories to tell. Mr. Trump’s vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed, had helped drive the pharmaceutical industry’s remarkably fast progress in developing several promising approaches. By the end of the year, two highly effective vaccines would be approved for emergency use, providing hope for 2021.

The White House rejected any suggestions that the president’s response had fallen short, saying he had worked to provide adequate testing, protective equipment and hospital capacity and that the vaccine development program had succeeded in record time.

“President Trump has led the largest mobilization of the public and private sectors since WWII to defeat Covid-19 and save lives,” said Brian Morgenstern, a White House spokesman.

But Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to put aside his political self-centeredness as Americans died by the thousands each day or to embrace the steps necessary to deal with the crisis remain confounding even to some administration officials. “Making masks a culture war issue was the dumbest thing imaginable,” one former senior adviser said.

His own bout with Covid-19 in early October left him extremely ill and dependent on care and drugs not available to most Americans, including a still-experimental monoclonal antibody treatment, and he saw firsthand how the disease coursed through the White House and some of his close allies.

Yet his instinct was to treat that experience not as a learning moment or an opportunity for empathy, but as a chance to portray himself as a Superman who had vanquished the disease. His own experience to the contrary, he assured a crowd at the White House just a week after his hospitalization, “It’s going to disappear; it is disappearing.”

Weeks after his own recovery, he would still complain about the nation’s preoccupation with the pandemic.

“All you hear is Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid,” Mr. Trump said at one campaign stop, uttering the word 11 times.


In the end he could not escape it.

The Base Will Revolt’

By late July, new cases were at record highs, defying Mr. Trump’s predictions through the spring that the virus was under control, and deaths were spiking to alarming levels. Herman Cain, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate, died from the coronavirus; the previous month he had attended a Trump rally without a mask.

With the pandemic defining the campaign despite Mr. Trump’s efforts to make it about law and order, Tony Fabrizio, the president’s main pollster, came to the Oval Office for a meeting in the middle of the summer prepared to make a surprising case: that mask wearing was acceptable even among Mr. Trump’s supporters.

Arrayed in front of the Resolute Desk, Mr. Trump’s advisers listened as Mr. Fabrizio presented the numbers. According to his research, some of which was reported by The Washington Post, voters believed the pandemic was bad and getting worse, they were more concerned about getting sick than about the virus’s effects on their personal financial situation, the president’s approval rating on handling the pandemic had hit new lows and a little more than half the country did not think he was taking the situation seriously.

But what set off debate that day was Mr. Fabrizio’s finding that more than 70 percent of voters in the states being targeted by the campaign supported mandatory mask wearing in public, at least indoors, including a majority of Republicans.

Mr. Kushner, who along with Hope Hicks, another top adviser, had been trying for months to convince Mr. Trump that masks could be portrayed as the key to regaining freedom to go safely to a restaurant or a sporting event, called embracing mask-wearing a “no-brainer.”

Mr. Kushner had some reason for optimism. Mr. Trump had agreed to wear one not long before for a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, after finding one he believed he looked good in: dark blue, with a presidential seal.

But Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff — backed up by other aides including Stephen Miller — said the politics for Mr. Trump would be devastating.

“The base will revolt,” Mr. Meadows said, adding that he was not sure Mr. Trump could legally make it happen in any case.

That was all Mr. Trump needed to hear. “I’m not doing a mask mandate,” he concluded.

Aside from when he was sick, he was rarely seen in a mask again.

The president had other opportunities to show leadership rather than put his political fortunes first.

After he recovered from his bout with the virus, some of his top aides, including Mr. Kushner and Jason Miller, a senior campaign strategist, thought the illness offered an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of compassion and resolve about the pandemic’s toll that Mr. Trump had so far failed to show.

When Mr. Trump returned from the hospital, his communications aides, with the help of Ivanka Trump, his daughter, urged him to deliver a national address saying: “I had it. It was tough, it kicked my ass, but we’re going to get through it.”

He refused, choosing instead to address a boisterous campaign rally for himself from the balcony of the White House overlooking the South Lawn.

Mr. Trump never came around to the idea that he had a responsibility to be a role model, much less that his leadership role might require him to publicly acknowledge hard truths about the virus — or even to stop insisting that the issue was not a rampaging pandemic but too much testing.

Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, briefed the president this fall on a Japanese study documenting the effectiveness of face masks, telling him: “We have the proof. They work.” But the president resisted, criticizing Mr. Kushner for pushing them and again blaming too much testing — an area Mr. Kushner had been helping to oversee — for his problems.

“I’m going to lose,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Kushner during debate preparations. “And it’s going to be your fault, because of the testing.”

Mr. Morgenstern, the White House spokesman, said that exchange between the president and Mr. Kushner “never happened.”

Mr. Azar, who was sometimes one of the few people wearing a mask at White House events, privately bemoaned what he called a political, anti-mask culture set by Mr. Trump. At White House Christmas parties, Mr. Azar asked maskless guests to back away from him.

Divisions and Disagreements

The decision to run the government’s response out of the West Wing was made in the early days of the pandemic. The idea was to break down barriers between disparate agencies, assemble public health expertise and encourage quick and coordinated decision-making.

It did not work out like that, and by fall the consequences were clear.

Mr. Trump had always tolerated if not encouraged clashes among subordinates, a tendency that in this case led only to policy paralysis, confusion about who was in charge and a lack of a clear, consistent message about how to reduce the risks from the pandemic.

Keeping decision-making power close to him was another Trump trait, but in this case it also elevated the myriad choices facing the administration to the presidential level, bogging the process down in infighting, raising the political stakes and encouraging aides to jockey for favor with Mr. Trump.

The result at times was a systemwide failure that extended well beyond the president.

“What we needed was a coordinated response that involved contributions from multiple agencies,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration for the first two years of the Trump administration.

“Someone needed to pull that all together early,” he said. “It wasn’t the job of the White House, either. This needed to happen closer to the agencies. That didn’t happen on testing, or on a whole lot of other things.”

The relationship between Mr. Azar and Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, grew increasingly tense; by early November, they were communicating only by text and in meetings.

Dr. Birx had lost the clout she enjoyed early on in the crisis and spent much of the summer and fall on the road counseling governors and state health officials.

Mr. Meadows was at odds with almost everyone as he sought to impose the president’s will on scientists and public health professionals. In conversations with top health officials, Mr. Meadows would rail against regulatory “bureaucrats” he thought were more interested in process than outcome.

Some of the doctors on the task force, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, were reluctant to show up in person at the White House, worried that the disdain there for mask wearing and social distancing would leave them at risk of infection.

Vice President Mike Pence was nominally in charge of the task force but was so cautious about getting crosswise with Mr. Trump as they battled for re-election that, in public at least, he became nearly invisible.

The debates inside the White House increasingly revolved around Dr. Atlas, who had no formal training in infectious diseases but whose views — which Mr. Trump saw him deliver on Fox News — appealed to the president’s belief that the crisis was overblown.

His arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was itself something of a mystery. Some aides said he was discovered by Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary. Others said John McEntee, the president’s personnel chief, had been Googling for a Trump-friendly doctor who would be loyal.

Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, opposed hiring Dr. Atlas. But once the president and his team brought him in, Mr. Short insisted that Dr. Atlas have a seat at the task force table, hoping to avoid having him become yet another internal — and destructive — critic.

Once inside, Dr. Atlas used the perch of a West Wing office to shape the response. During a meeting in early fall, Dr. Atlas asserted that college students were at no risk from the virus. We should let them go back to school, he said. It’s not a problem.

Dr. Birx exploded. What aspect of the fact that you can be asymptomatic and still spread it do you not understand? she demanded. You might not die, but you can give it to somebody who can die from it. She was livid.

“Your strategy is literally going to cost us lives,” she yelled at Dr. Atlas. She attacked Dr. Atlas’s ideas in daily emails she sent to senior officials. And she was mindful of a pact she had made with Dr. Hahn, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Redfield even before Dr. Atlas came on board: They would stick together if one of them was fired for doing what they considered the right thing.

Health officials often had a hard time finding an audience in the upper reaches of the West Wing. In a mid-November task force meeting, they issued a dire warning to Mr. Meadows about the looming surge in cases set to devastate the country. Mr. Meadows demanded data to back up their claim.

One outcome of the meeting was a Nov. 19 news conference on the virus’s dire threat, the first in many weeks. But while Mr. Pence, who led the briefing, often urged Americans to “do their part” to slow the spread of the virus, he never directly challenged Mr. Trump’s hesitancy on masks and social distancing. At the briefing, he said that “decision making at the local level” was key, continuing a long pattern of the administration seeking to push responsibility to the states.

Mr. Azar had been cut out of key decision-making as early as February, when Mr. Pence took over the task force. Mr. Azar would complain to his associates that Mr. Pence’s staff and task force members went around him to issue orders to his subordinates.

On tenterhooks about his job status, Mr. Azar found an opening that offered a kind of redemption, steering his attention through the summer and fall to Operation Warp Speed, the government’s effort to support rapid development of a vaccine, lavishing praise on Mr. Trump and crediting him for nearly every advance.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Azar portrayed Dr. Hahn to the White House as a flailing manager — a complaint he also voiced about Dr. Redfield. In late September, he told the White House he was willing to fire Dr. Hahn, according to officials familiar with the offer.

For their part, Dr. Hahn, Dr. Redfield, Dr. Birx and other senior health officials saw Mr. Azar as crushing the morale of the agencies he oversaw as he sought to escape blame for a worsening crisis and to strengthen his own image publicly and with the White House.

Health officials on the task force several times took their complaints about Mr. Azar to Mr. Pence’s office, hoping for an intervention.

Caitlin B. Oakley, a spokeswoman for Mr. Azar, said he had “always stood up for balanced, scientific, public health information and insisted that science and data drive the decisions.”

Once eager to visit the White House, Dr. Hahn became disillusioned with what he saw as its efforts to politicize the work of the Food and Drug Administration, and he eventually shied away from task force meetings, fearing his statements there would leak.

If there was a bureaucratic winner in this West Wing cage match, it was Dr. Atlas.

He told Mr. Trump that the right way to think about the virus was how much “excess mortality” there was above what would have been expected without a pandemic.

Mr. Trump seized on the idea, often telling aides that the real number of dead was no more than 10,000 people.

As of Thursday, 342,577 Americans had died from the pandemic.

Trump vs. Vaccine Regulators

In an Oval Office meeting with senior health officials on Sept. 24, the president made explicit what he had long implied: He wanted a vaccine before the election, according to three people who witnessed his demand.

Pfizer’s chief executive had been encouraging the belief that the company could deliver initial results by late October. But Mr. Trump’s aides tried in vain to make clear that they could not completely control the timing.

Dr. Fauci and Dr. Hahn reminded West Wing officials that a company’s vaccine trial results were a “black box,” impossible to see until an independent monitoring board revealed them. A vaccine that did not go through the usual, rigorous government approval process would be a “Pyrrhic victory,” Mr. Azar told them. It would be a shot no one would take.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the scientific leader of Operation Warp Speed, said the president never asked him to deliver a vaccine on a specific timetable. But he said Mr. Trump sometimes complained in meetings that “it was not going to happen before the election and it will be ‘Sleepy Joe’” who would ultimately get credit.

In late October, science and regulations worked against Mr. Trump’s waning hopes for pre-Election Day good news. At the F.D.A., scientists had refined the standards for authorizing a vaccine for emergency use. And at Pfizer, executives realized that the agency was unlikely to authorize its vaccine on the basis of so few Covid-19 cases among its clinical trial volunteers.

They decided to wait for more data, a delay of up to a week.

When Pfizer announced on Nov. 9 — two days after Mr. Biden clinched his victory — that its vaccine was a stunning success, Mr. Trump was furious. He lashed out at the company, Dr. Hahn and the F.D.A., accusing “deep state regulators” of conspiring with Pfizer to slow approval until after the election.

The president’s frustration with the pace of regulatory action would continue into December, as the F.D.A. went through a time-consuming process of evaluating Pfizer’s data and then that of a second vaccine maker, Moderna.

On Dec. 11, Mr. Meadows exploded during a morning call with Dr. Hahn and Dr. Peter Marks, the agency’s top vaccine regulator. He accused Dr. Hahn of mismanagement and suggested he resign, then slammed down the phone. That night, the F.D.A. authorized the Pfizer vaccine.

In the weeks that followed, Mr. Pence, Mr. Azar, Dr. Fauci and other health officials rolled up their sleeves to be vaccinated for the cameras.

Mr. Trump, who after contracting Covid-19 had declared himself immune, has not been vaccinated.


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