Over the last month, the scripts of the daily White House COVID-19 briefings have followed a familiar pattern: President Trump leads off with assurances that the crisis remains “totally under control” and that miracle cures are just around the corner. Then agency experts come to the microphone and tell a very different story.
For example, on March 19, the president reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “very, very quickly” approved a malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, for treating COVID-19 that it had previously approved for lupus, malaria, and rheumatoid arthritis. Later in the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-time head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned listeners that controlled testing would have to be completed before we know whether the drug works on the novel coronavirus. And FDA later warned that it had definitely not approved hydroxychloroquine for fighting the virus.
The warnings may have been too late. Within days, there was a run on the drugs, and one person in Nigeria had died and two more were hospitalized after taking large doses of chloroquine to treat what they thought were COVID-19 infections. Meanwhile, patients who need the drug for approved uses are in danger of being unable to get it.
Fast forward three weeks. FDA still has not approved any drugs, including the malaria drug for fighting the virus. Yet, despite the agency’s scientific concerns, the president openly touts the drug as a potential cure.
A pandemic is not politically convenient for any president in an election year. No doubt it can be tempting to a president to sugarcoat the truth in an effort to calm financial markets and give the overall impression that all is well under his steady leadership.
But President Trump and his appointees also oversee the vast expert bureaucracy. Their power extends not only to the decisions about whether experts like Fauci are invited to briefings or allowed to approach the microphone but also to what the experts do and the types of problems they work on. And, we know from history that if the experts produce politically inconvenient findings, those findings can be altered before they reach the public.
Over the last four decades, we have seen many instances of this political suppression of unwelcome expert analysis. It can be accomplished by reassigning experts who give inconvenient advice, manipulating algorithms and data used in expert analysis, “stacking” expert panels, and defunding expert offices.
Since internal discussions between politicians and experts are often classified as “deliberative,” it is usually impossible for the public to know whether politics distorted an agency’s scientific analysis and judgment.
We can see tell-tale signs of these internal clashes between science and politics in the president’s daily briefings. Fauci’s corrections of the president’s statements have undermined Trump’s desired message as well as his credibility. And Fauci understands that he “can’t jump in front of the microphone and push [the president] down.”
Behind the scenes, it is looking like Fauci and the government experts are losing battles to nonexperts like Peter Navarro, an administration economist, and Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham, who met with Trump to discuss hydroxychloroquine last Friday. At the Saturday coronavirus briefing, President Trump sounded like a patent medicine salesman for hydroxychloroquine as he urged listeners to “take it,” because “[i]t can clean out the lungs.”
When Fauci approached the lectern to answer a question about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, Trump cut him off, presumably wary of being contradicted.
As long as inconvenient expert information can be sidelined by the president, we are at risk of losing a lot more than just Fauci’s measured advice at public briefings. Since the political apparatus that runs expert bureaucracies has tentacles that run deeply into their daily work, we may lose a critical source of expertise at a time when we need it most. Agency scientists, for example, may be instructed by their political managers to focus on only the most optimistic scenarios, with few resources allocated to model worst-case projections.
So what can we do to ensure that expertise isn’t trumped by politics in this most perilous of times?
Restructuring bureaucracy to ensure greater autonomy is obviously not a realistic option while in the throes of a public emergency, but there may be an intermediate solution. We should create an emergency blue-ribbon panel of scientists tasked with assessing the emerging evidence and offering continuous advice on pandemic response free of political control. Such a team would need complete autonomy and independence to speak, advise, and educate, without any reassignments or clearance requirements. Unlike some legislative proposals, the purpose of this panel would be to provide immediate, real-time information and guidance to the nation as the epidemic continues to unfold. Congress or the president could ask the National Academies of Sciences to assemble the team, rather than drawing nominees from the political branches.
Most of these experts should be career scientists, like Fauci, from federal agencies, serious professionals who understand the scientific issues and are familiar with the government’s response capabilities. Some could come from academia. But their jobs would be protected, and their collective views would be shielded from political pressure and control for the duration of the crisis.
Such “firewalled” expert advice is not entirely foreign to our bureaucracy, but it is not used nearly often enough.
Presidents and their appointees will always have a microphone in times of crisis, and government experts will never be able to jump in front of them. It is time to give those experts their own microphone.