When did you first realize things were going wrong between you and President Trump?
It coincided very much with the rapid escalation of cases in the northeastern part of the country, particularly the New York metropolitan area. I would try to express the gravity of the situation, and the response of the president was always leaning toward, “Well, it’s not that bad, right?” And I would say, “Yes, it is that bad.” It was almost a reflex response, trying to coax you to minimize it. Not saying, “I want you to minimize it,” but, “Oh, really, was it that bad?”
And the other thing that made me really concerned was, it was clear that he was getting input from people who were calling him up, I don’t know who, people he knew from business, saying, “Hey, I heard about this drug, isn’t it great?” or, “Boy, this convalescent plasma is really phenomenal.” And I would try to, you know, calmly explain that you find out if something works by doing an appropriate clinical trial; you get the information, you give it a peer review. And he’d say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, this stuff really works.”
He would take just as seriously their opinion — based on no data, just anecdote — that something might really be important. It wasn’t just hydroxychloroquine, it was a variety of alternative-medicine-type approaches. It was always, “A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.” That’s when my anxiety started to escalate.
Did you have any problems with him in the first three years of his presidency?
No, he barely knew who I was. The first time I met him was in September 2019, when they asked me to come down to the White House, bring my white coat and stand there as he signed an executive order regarding something about influenza. Then, starting in January, February of 2020, it was an intense involvement going down to the White House very, very frequently.
There was a point last February when things changed. Alex Azar was running the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and then suddenly Mike Pence was, and President Trump was at the podium taking the questions and arguing with reporters. What happened?
To be totally honest with you, I don’t know. We were having, you know, the standard kind of scientifically based, public-health-based meetings. Then I started getting anxious that this was not going in the right direction — the anecdotally driven situations, the minimization, the president surrounding himself with people saying things that didn’t make any scientific sense. We would say things like: “This is an outbreak. Infectious diseases run their own course unless one does something to intervene.” And then he would get up and start talking about, “It’s going to go away, it’s magical, it’s going to disappear.”