The two sides have grown increasingly distrustful of one another, people inside both the CDC and the White House say, as officials on each side question decisions that either appear designed to downplay the growing crisis or to generate further concern.
Trump himself continues to insist he’s satisfied with the work his team is doing to contain the virus and keep Americans safe. But top aides are doubtful he’ll remain cheery for long as headlines question his handling of the outbreak and more Americans contract the virus.
From its earliest days, Trump has sought to downplay coronavirus’s risks and lashed out when those within his administration appeared to be doing otherwise. He told a collective of executives at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, in mid-January that it would not pose a major threat to the United States, an attendee told CNN.
During a 36-hour trip to India in February, Trump grew irate upon hearing that some administration officials, including National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases director Nancy Messonnier, were offering what he determined was an overly fatalistic assessment of the crisis.
And he’s complained that certain officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, were too alarmist in their messaging about the virus. He’s said that doomsday scenarios and overly pessimistic predictions helped tank markets, according to people familiar with those conversations.
This week, some White House officials privately said certain steps taken over the past two months by the CDC were ill-advised. A delay in developing adequate tests — a critical breakdown in the administration’s response — is being pinned on the leaders of the CDC, FDA and HHS by Trump’s allies, who say the failure has led to embarrassing questions of competence for the administration.
Already, the White House was frustrated by decisions the CDC made during the coronavirus outbreak, like the call to leave Americans aboard a cruise liner in Japan and later the move to evacuate them to the United States, were taken without input or knowledge from the West Wing. Some top officials have privately questioned whether CDC boss Robert Redfield is up to the task of confronting the virus.
Trump has privately warned those working most closely on the coronavirus response — including Azar and Vice President Mike Pence — that their message must not stoke fears or panic, according to people familiar with his directions.
Some Republicans in Washington are concerned Trump’s premium on loyalty — only enhanced in the post-impeachment era — has hampered efforts to combat coronavirus.
“The message is if you are on the wrong side of this administration you are gone,” one senior Republican official with ties to the coronavirus response said. “People are afraid. Either there was terrible incompetence, or there was a heavy hand on the scale.”
The message coming from the White House has been to downplay the risks of the virus, leading to confusing public statements that often appear contradictory and unhelpful.
The dynamic continued over the weekend as federal health officials continued to diverge from — or completely contradict — Trump and his top officials.
Azar was forced to clarify Trump’s statement from his visit to the CDC that “anyone who wants a test can get a test” during an off-camera briefing at the White House on Saturday.
“You may not get a test unless a doctor or public health official prescribes a test,” Azar told reporters. “That is our medical system in the United States, in the same way that you may not get a cardiac medicine if your doctor doesn’t prescribe that.”
“We’re shifting into a mitigation phase, which means that we’re helping communities understand, you’re going to see more cases. Unfortunately, you’re going to see more deaths,” Adams said.
Other officials offered more clear-cut warnings to elderly Americans about traveling and convening in large groups than Trump has been willing to offer himself.
“When I say ‘protect,’ I mean right now, not wait until things get worse. Say ‘no large crowds, no long trips, and above all, don’t get on a cruise ship,'” he continued.
Chandelis Duster, Holly Yan, Faith Karimi and Dakin Andone contributed to this story.