The gravitational pull of Donald Trump during his presidency deformed the actions of government much the way a black hole bends space and time all around it, from a distance but inexorably.
Stories detailing this terrifying physics are now emerging in a specific genre of books that do not always get as much attention as the “big books” by famous journalists with a broad view. These are books by what can only be described as “survivors” of the administration, officials inside the government who, naïvely or heroically, kept trying to do their jobs against the inertial force of Trump and his apparatchiks.
Two chilling examples of this genre are from the former White House coronavirus-response coordinator and the former United States attorney in Manhattan. Both appointed by Trump. Both eager to serve. Both serious professionals facing important challenges. Both blindsided by unseen forces whose source they could often only infer.
The most fateful, and fatal, of these stories is no doubt how Trump economic loyalists distorted fatality projections to sabotage the pandemic-mitigation efforts of Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator, a piece of maladministration that arguably led to the death of thousands of Americans.
In Silent Invasion, Birx portrays a Trump staff willing to bend reality to please the boss in a manner that “is not only intellectually dishonest, but also morally negligent.”
Birx might be vulnerable to the criticism that she just did not understand how to operate in the deep waters of White House politics. But Geoffrey Berman gives virtually the same portrayal of a callow administration in Holding the Line, his narrative of his two years as United States attorney in the Southern District of New York.
“It is important to understand how fragile the system is and how vulnerable it can be when powerful people attempt to abuse it for political gain,” Berman writes.
These are books by what can only be described as “survivors,” officials inside the government who, naïvely or heroically, kept trying to do their jobs against the inertial force of Trump.
For Birx, the malign forces were senior White House staffers. For Berman, it was above all Attorney General Bill Barr, who now is on what Berman sniffily terms a “rehabilitation tour” to sell his own book.
“Barr did the president’s bidding, no matter how he may try to deny that now,” Berman writes. “It was remarkable how many times Barr intervened in the Southern District, over the course of less than a year and a half, in ways that would benefit or please Trump.”
Berman’s bill of particulars is scorching.
The Justice Department tried to pressure him to indict John Kerry for speaking to Iranians under the Logan Act, never successfully used since its enactment, in 1799. When Berman wouldn’t do it, the brass in Washington took the case to another U.S. attorney, who also refused.
They tried to get him to indict a well-known democratic lawyer, Greg Craig, for not filing as a foreign agent, and when he rejected the case as flimsy, they took it to another U.S. attorney, who did indict Craig and lost before a jury.
When Trump’s realty company challenged the Manhattan district attorney’s effort to get his business records, Barr “turned the DOJ into the president’s personal lawyer” while Berman sought to hold the distinction between representing the office of the presidency and Trump’s private business.
“The Department of Justice is not supposed to operate according to the president’s impulses, personal relationships, and business interests,” writes Berman.
Berman’s list of transgressions goes on. But what most joins Berman and Birx is their shared search for Trump himself—for the “forces I could not see,” as Berman puts it. “But I felt them every step of the way.”
“[Bill] Barr did the president’s bidding, no matter how he may try to deny that now,” Geoffrey Berman writes in his memoir.
Birx, a longtime public-health official, captures the exact moment when those forces outmaneuvered her.
Soon after being brought in as coronavirus coordinator, Birx convinced a skeptical Trump to support stringent mitigation measures by showing him the data from the frightening surge then underway in Italy. Projecting from that and other data, she told Trump that 100,000 Americans or more would die in the first wave.
But then, partway through the lockdown efforts, the president confronted her in a White House hallway and snapped, “We will never shut down the country again.”
Birx was bewildered by the president’s sudden reversal. “I didn’t know what precisely had brought about his change of heart, or who had convinced him I was wrong, but his belief in me—in the science, the analyses, the graphs … seemed to have disappeared nearly overnight.”
She eventually tracked down what had happened. The president’s economic advisers had re-crunched her data to produce a much lower death count: 26,000 to her 100,000 or more.
They had apparently given this to the president without telling her or comparing their findings with hers.
“I saw a pandemic of historic proportions; they saw a fairly average year of seasonal flu.”
But the economic advisers were wrong. Birx figured out that they had used a lower fatality rate than Italy was suffering, even though, by her judgment, the rate in America, with more health-challenged citizens, was actually likely to be higher.
She tried to get the economists, from the Council of Economic Advisers, to compare notes and resolve the disparity. They ignored her. “When the CEA didn’t respond to a request to work out our differences, they sent a powerful signal: We don’t care about your numbers, we care about supporting the president’s wishful thinking.”
The pandemic turned out to be even worse than Birx’s projections, of course. But the damage had been done.
“The President had all he needed to confirm his initial bias that the novel coronavirus was just like the flu,” Birx concluded. “Mistakenly, he no longer believed he needed to support any of the mitigation efforts that were key to slowing the spread. He’d moved on. A set of flawed numbers from his ‘best’ people supported the notion that he’d been right all along.”
“I saw a pandemic of historic proportions; they saw a fairly average year of seasonal flu,” writes Deborah Birx.
The desire to make the boss happy can, of course, distort thinking in any organization. But strong organizations, like strong countries, build professional practices and standards to separate politics from things such as public-health data and the administration of justice.
One of the most shocking things about Birx’s story is her having had to personally collect data and make projections at all—for others in the White House to challenge. Why, in the United States of America, with the most expensive health-care system in the world, wasn’t there better data and professional analyses independent of the hotbed of the White House? Any White House?
Berman gets at a similar structural problem when he calls on the Justice Department to strengthen the independence of United States attorneys by, among other things, making final their decisions on whether to indict after an investigation.
“If this were in place, the embarrassment of the Greg Craig prosecution—declined by our office and then shopped by Main Justice to the D.C. district—would never have occurred. Barr could not have taken the ludicrous John Kerry case to Maryland.”
But then again, perhaps this is our wishful thinking. Maybe no system, no improvement in data or stronger checks, can stop an intemperate leader who surrounds himself by loyalists who are only too eager to rid him of meddlesome priests—or prosecutors and coronavirus coordinators.
Michael Oreskes is a co-author of The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country—and Why It Can Again