As the American death count from coronavirus ticks above 100,000, the panel assembled by President Donald Trump to confront the pandemic has been sharply curtailed as the White House looks ahead to reopening.
Vice President Mike Pence convened the White House coronavirus task force on Thursday for the first time in a week. The group of doctors and high-ranking administration officials, which met daily even on weekends at the height of the pandemic, has seen its formal sessions reduced from three per week at the start of May to one per week now, according to White House schedules.
The task force has essentially been sidelined by Trump, said senior administration officials and others close to the group who described a greatly reduced role for the panel created to guide the administration’s response to the pandemic.
Asked about the dwindling number of task force meetings, one administration official said there are not as many decisions that need to be made on an urgent basis.
“You don’t need a decision every day” on some of the items on the task force’s agenda, the official said. “We’re monitoring things,” the official added.
Aside from the slimmer schedule of meetings, members of the task force have seen their visibility diminished, officials noted, as public health experts like Drs. Deborah Birx, Anthony Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams are now only occasionally appearing at news conferences, often without speaking roles.
That has allowed Trump himself to resume his position as the public face of the administration’s response to the outbreak — even as he continues to make questionable statements about the pandemic and undermines precautionary measures such as wearing masks outdoors when social distancing is difficult.
The demise of the task force isn’t necessarily a surprise. Trump himself said earlier in May that the group would shift its focus toward reopening, and Pence told reporters that individual government agencies would soon begin playing a bigger role in the response.
“I think we’re starting to look at the Memorial Day window, early June window, as a time when we could begin to transition back to having our agencies…begin to manage our national response in a more traditional manner,” Pence said.
Trump later reversed course and said the task force would continue “indefinitely,” explaining that he hadn’t realized how popular the panel was before announcing he was scrapping it.
Yet as Memorial Day came and went, it is clear the coronavirus task force is operating in a drastically reduced capacity and its members are no longer playing the same central role they once did.
Instead, Trump has undercut some of the task force’s recommendations — like guidance on wearing masks in public or specific thresholds for reopening states — as he works to project a nationwide return to normalcy.
Asked about the status of the coronavirus task force, the White House pointed Thursday to remarks by press secretary Kayleigh McEnany during a May 6 briefing.
“He decided that Coronavirus Task Force is here to stay. They’ve done great work,” she said. “I’ve witnessed it. I’m in the Coronavirus Task Force meetings and they’ve gotten our country through this.”
The panel was originally convened in January but didn’t come under Pence’s authority until late February, when Trump recognized the coronavirus was causing him political damage.
Trump has maintained a somewhat uneven relationship with some of its members, including Fauci, with whom Trump has openly disagreed on reopening timelines, treatment drugs and mask-wearing.
While he took their advice in April to extend social distancing guidelines, against his own instincts, and later adopted their recommendations on when states should reopen, Trump has since contradicted much of their advice.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted an article saying, “masks aren’t about public health but social control” with his own message: “So many different viewpoints!” He did not mention the viewpoint of his own government, which is that masks are recommended in instances where social distancing is difficult. Trump himself has refused to wear a mask in public.
So, too, has Trump encouraged states to reopen that haven’t yet met the threshold recommended by his task force, which includes 14 days of sustained reduction in new coronavirus cases.
State governments didn’t necessarily view the task force as their main point of contact with the federal government, instead going through traditional agency channels, a source familiar with the matter said. Pence and other members of the task force continue to brief governors via teleconference at least once a week.
As the task force meets less frequently, the agencies represented on it — which include the Departments of State, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, Treasury, Agriculture, Labor and Veterans Affairs — have focused more on executing their individual missions, such as doling out their respective pots of stimulus money or focusing on aspects of the response that would traditionally fall under their purview.
The task force served initially as a convening authority, but with workflows and lines of communication established, the White House no longer believes every virus-related issue needs to flow through the task force, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Members of the group and their staff continue to communicate and report progress at the task force level, the person noted. But the meetings have turned increasingly from putting out fires to planning for the future — and for a potential second wave of Covid-19 in the fall.
Parts of the task force’s early initiatives have begun to wind down. For example, officials have said Project Airbridge, an effort to fly in personal protective equipment from China and other countries on government-funded private flights, would conclude around the end of the month, in what administration officials characterized as a sign that fears of desperate PPE shortages have eased.
While new members have been added to the task force since its inception, none have been formally removed. The White House announced in mid-May that five new faces — including Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins — would join the task force, reflecting a focus that was shifting toward returning Americans to work and developing a vaccine.
And while Trump publicly unveiled a list of more than 200 names from the private sector as an economic reopening advisory council, a formal economic task force focused on the effects of coronavirus hasn’t been assembled.
Officials acknowledge the next phase of federal response efforts — reopening the country and reinvigorating the economy — will still involve a public health education component as Americans seek assurances it’s safe to venture out once permitted.
Health officials on the task force believe Americans will also need frequent reminders to observe social distancing, wear masks and practice vigilant handwashing, a dynamic that was made clear when images of packed pools and beaches on Memorial Day drew out health officials for stark warnings.
Birx and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn each made public statements Sunday warning Americans that the virus is continuing to spread, a message somewhat at odds with the sentiment from Trump and others that the country is transitioning seamlessly from pandemic to prosperity.
Fauci said during a CNN town hall last week that he and other scientists in the administration had discussed with White House communications aides the importance of playing a more prominent public role as states begin to reopen and of reminding people about social distancing becomes even more vital.
“I think you’re going to probably be seeing a little bit more of me and my colleagues,” he said on Thursday.
But the increased visibility of the scientists has yet to materialize. Of the three White House officials dispatched to appear on the Sunday talk shows two days after Fauci’s prediction, only one — Birx — was a scientist.
More often, Fauci, Birx and other task force officials have been denied speaking roles at Trump appearances, where their mask-clad faces have stood in stark contrast to Trump’s — such as during a May 15 news conference in the Rose Garden, when the President touted his administration’s efforts to develop a vaccine while Fauci stood silently, in a mask, behind him.
A federal official said a major point of contention currently between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House is resuming the agency’s daily briefings, which the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services made the CDC halt earlier in the year, when some CDC officials offered dire warnings that angered the President.
“Obviously the CDC hasn’t instituted the briefings it once had,” the official said.
Recently, the CDC and its director, Dr. Robert Redfield, have made “multiple efforts” to get the briefings reinstituted, but they’ve “given up asking.”
“(Redfield) has tried on and off for awhile,” the official said. “I’m not aware of any imminent plans for the CDC briefings to return.”
The visual of task force members flanking the President in the briefing room each evening served as the only set piece of the administration’s early response to the virus, and their daily presence at the time was symbolic as much as anything.
Trump has acknowledged that health officials on the task force provided assurances to a jittery American public and ultimately led him to preserve the council after he considered disbanding it.
“I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday when I started talking about winding down. It is appreciated by the public,” he said in May.