Amid chaos at the White House as the coronavirus pandemic worsened, Donald Trump took to referring derisively to the Covid taskforce chaired by his vice-president as “that fucking council that Mike has”.
The revelation about the president’s contempt for his key advisory body is one among many in a new book, Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History, which is published in the US on Tuesday. The Guardian obtained a copy.
Previous revelations from the book have included that Trump wanted to send infected Americans to Guantánamo Bay and that he mused about John Bolton, his national security adviser, being “taken out” by Covid.
Authors Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, both Washington Post reporters, also report in depth on how the extraordinary influence of “outside consultants” to Trump, including the controversial Stephen Moore, relentlessly undermined the work of the president’s scientific advisers.
The book is a deeply reported account of the beginning of a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 in the US and a federal response hamstrung by incompetence and infighting.
Trump’s derisive term for his task force, the authors write, was “a signal that he wished it would go away” and “didn’t want anyone to exert leadership”.
“Many on the task force didn’t want the responsibility either, fearful of the consequences.”
Under the chairmanship of Vice-President Mike Pence – who is shown resisting his own appointment to replace the outmatched health secretary, Alex Azar – the task force was led by Dr Deborah Birx, a US Army physician widely praised for her role in the fight against Aids but whose star waned under Trump.
Abutaleb and Paletta portray Birx as a confident leader unafraid to challenge powerful men, but also someone who “overplayed her hand” when she decided to praise and flatter Trump as a way to manage him.
Of an interview Birx gave to the rightwing Christian Broadcasting Network, in which she praised Trump’s “ability to analyse and integrate data”, the authors write: “It was the kind of sycophancy one expected from Pence or [treasury secretary] Steve Mnuchin, not a government scientist.”
The authors also say Birx worked well with Pence and was admired by fellow workers, though by April 2020, chief of staff Mark Meadows was deriding the task force as “useless and broken”.
Birx served until the end of the Trump administration in January this year. Unlike her fellow task force member Anthony Fauci, now chief medical adviser to Joe Biden, she did not remain in public service.
Abutaleb and Paletta also report that in March, as cases spiraled and the US death toll passed 1,000, unofficial adviser Stephen Moore, Trump’s “emissary [from] the conservative establishment … strode into the Oval Office to convince the president” to end shutdowns and get the economy moving.
He told Abutaleb and Paletta Trump’s controversial and soon dropped promise to reopen the US economy by Easter was “the smart thing to do”, because “the economic costs of this are mounting and there’s not a lot of evidence that lockdowns are working to stop the spread”.
Lockdowns to stop the spread of Covid-19 remain in use around the world.
Moore is also quoted attacking Fauci, a common target for conservative ire over subjects including mask-wearing and the origins of Covid in China.
“Fauci is the villain here,” Moore says. “He has the Napoleon complex, and he thinks he is the dictator who could decide how to run the country.”
Moore also says conservative activists he advised as they staged protests against lockdowns and masks – and who he famously claimed were successors of the great civil rights protester Rosa Parks – asked: “What’s wrong with this fucking Fauci? Sometimes they’d call him Fucky, not Fauci.”
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