WASHINGTON (AP) — In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, President Donald Trump was flanked in the White House briefing room by a team of public health experts in a seeming portrait of unity to confront the disease that was ravaging the globe.
But as the crisis has spread to all reaches of the country, with escalating deaths and little sense of endgame, a chasm has widened between the Republican president and the experts. The result: daily delivery of a mixed message to the public at a moment when coherence is most needed.
Trump and his political advisers insist that the United States has no rival in its response to the pandemic. They point to the fact that the U.S. has administered more virus tests than any other nation and that the percentage of deaths among those infected is among the lowest.
"Right now, I think it's under control," Trump said during an interview with Axios. He added, "We have done a great job."
But the surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths tells a different story. And it suggests that the president is increasingly out of step with the federal government's own medical and public health experts.
The U.S. death toll, which stands at more than 156,000, is expected to accelerate. The latest composite forecast from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects an average of nearly 1,000 deaths per day through Aug. 22.
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, warned this week that the virus has become "extraordinarily widespread."
Trump didn't like that. He dismissed her comment as "pathetic" and charged she was capitulating to criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had earlier criticized Birx.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, who has avoided contradicting the president throughout the crisis, said on Sunday it was time to "move on" from the debate over hydroxychloroquine, a drug Trump continues to promote as a COVID-19 treatment even though there is no clear evidence it is effective.
Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, last week acknowledged during an ABC News interview that the initial federal government response to the virus too slow.
"It's not a separation from the president, it's a cavernous gap," said Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University. "What we're seeing is that scientists will no longer be cowed by the White House."
Until recently, the medical experts on the White House coronavirus task force have walked a tightrope. They have been pressing to deliver the best science to the public while trying to avoid appearing to directly contradict Trump — in hopes of maintaining influence in the decision-making process.
The effort has played out, at moments, as an awkward dance.
For months now, the West Wing has controlled the media schedule of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who drew the ire of the president and his advisers in the early days of the pandemic because of the outsized media attention he received and his perceived willingness to contradict the president, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has struck a far more cautious tone than Trump or any other member of the task force about the nation's move to "reopen," provoking the frustration of a president who sees a resurgent economy as key to winning another four years in office.
Birx, until recently, had largely stayed on the president's good side, though her rosy depictions of the pandemic fight drew recent skepticism from Democrats and other public health officials. But Trump also shredded Birx privately as well as in his public comments this week for not striking a more optimistic tone about states that are doing well and for saying she had "tremendous respect" for Trump's rival Pelosi, the officials said.