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Deborah Birx signals she wants to be on Biden’s coronavirus team. He may have other ideas

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, at a news briefing in Washington
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, at a news briefing with President Trump in April.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

When Dr. Deborah Birx was brought into President Trump’s orbit to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, she had a sterling reputation as a former U.S. Army physician, a globally recognized AIDS researcher and a rare Obama administration holdover.

Less than 10 months later, as Trump’s time in office nears its end, Birx’s reputation is frayed. And after serving every president since Ronald Reagan, her future in the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is uncertain.

Over the course of the pandemic, Birx, as the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, drew criticism from public health experts and Democratic lawmakers for not speaking out forcefully against Trump when he contradicted advice from medical advisors and scientists about how to fight the virus.

On everything from Trump’s aversion to masks to his dangerous suggestion that ingesting bleach might ward off the virus, critics and backers say Birx stepped carefully to try to maintain her influence in hopes of pushing the president to listen to the scientists.

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“The president’s departure from reality become so extreme that it put her and others on the task force in an untenable position,” said Michael Weinstein, who heads the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and got to know Birx professionally after she was named the global AIDS coordinator in 2014.

“History will have to judge whether they enabled the president by giving him credibility based on their expertise, or whether she and the others did more in helping prevent more people from being hurt by the craziness,” he said.

How does a tough-minded, data-driven scientist and AIDS researcher like Deborah Birx navigate a Trump orbit often riddled with misinformation and mixed messages?

Birx has made clear that she wants to stick around to help the Biden administration roll out COVID-19 vaccines and persuade Americans to be inoculated.

She has reached out to Biden’s advisors in recent days as she tries to make the case for a role in his coronavirus response effort, according to a person familiar with the Biden team’s personnel deliberations and a Trump administration coronavirus task force official. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Birx has conveyed that, at best, she envisions herself in a scaled-back role as Biden shapes his own team. Biden has already appointed transition co-chair and Obama administration alumnus Jeffrey Zients to serve as White House coronavirus coordinator. But Birx’s reluctance to publicly challenge Trump when he downplayed the disease has left some in Biden’s transition skeptical that she retains credibility with the public, according to the person familiar with Biden transition deliberations.

Speaking at a Wall Street Journal CEO conference Tuesday, Birx, a public servant for 40 years, said she planned to remain in government but has yet to hear from the Biden transition team about how or whether she’ll be used to fight the pandemic.

Fauci and Birx could storm out and publicly speak their minds, but then they’d lose any influence they have on President Trump.

Birx was pulled away from her ambassadorial post as U.S. global AIDS coordinator to assist the coronavirus task force. She worked alongside her mentor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, who was less hesitant to contradict questionable or false statements by Trump. She was appointed to the AIDS post in 2014 by President Obama, and it is up to Biden whether to return her to that position.

“I think the one thing I bring to this is really understanding epidemics around the globe,” she said.

The Biden transition team declined to comment. A White House task force spokesman said Birx was unavailable for comment.

Birx certainly had fans in Biden’s orbit before and immediately after she was tapped to serve as coronavirus coordinator in the Trump White House.

Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, called Birx “great.” Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who will serve as Biden’s special envoy on climate change, described Birx at her 2014 swearing-in as AIDS coordinator as someone who “embodies the best of what it means to be a pioneer, to be a practitioner and a public servant all rolled into one.”

In her coronavirus task force role, Birx faced criticism for defending Trump after he suggested during an April briefing that ultraviolet light and ingesting disinfectants could serve as treatment. Birx explained that Trump “likes to talk that through out loud and really have that dialogue.”

She urged Trump to follow the data as he pushed to relax social-distancing restrictions. She wasn’t above flattering the president: Early in the crisis, she faced criticism after she said in a television interview that Trump’s “ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, now a member of the Biden transition’s Health and Human Services team, applauded Birx’s appointment. But he soon became a critic.

“My confidence in Dr. Birx has been eroding in recent weeks,” Konyndyk tweeted after Birx defended Trump’s decision in April to suspend funding for the World Health Organization. “But with this, it is lost. This statement is not credible as public health analysis, and is clearly not intended to be.”

Weeks later, Konyndyk, who led the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance in the Obama administration, tweeted that Birx “has repeatedly undermined her scientific credibility, publicly, in order to shield the President.”

Arguments over mask requirements have turned ugly in recent days as the coronavirus surge engulfs small and medium-size cities that once seemed at a safe remove from the pandemic.

By late summer, Birx’s stock in Trump’s eyes had also fallen.

Trump was irate with Birx for what he called a “pathetic” response to criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic speaker said in early August that she had “no confidence” in Birx for not pushing back harder against the president as he repeatedly diminished the impact of the coronavirus.

Days later, Trump brought on as a pandemic advisor Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution and a critic of virus-related restrictions on the economy. Birx’s public role at the White House was sharply reduced after that, and she has spent recent months traveling the country urging states to be more aggressive in fighting the coronavirus. Atlas has since quit his role as advisor.

In recent days, Birx has become more pointed in her criticism of Trump.

Asked during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday about officials in the Trump administration repeatedly flouting public health experts’ pleas for Americans to avoid large gatherings and wear masks, Birx voiced concern about leaders “parroting myths.”

“And I think our job is to constantly say those are myths, they are wrong and you can see the evidence base,” Birx said.


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