The disappointing downfall of Dr. Deborah Birx


WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of President Trump’s astounding suggestion in April that people may want to inject disinfectants to flush the coronavirus from their bodies, much of the public reaction focused on Dr. Deborah Birx.

The respected AIDS doctor, who had joined the White House coronavirus task force earlier in the spring, was sitting to the president’s right in the Brady Briefing Room as he mused on alternative cures; cameras captured — and social media memes promulgated — her astonished reaction, which reflected perfectly the growing exasperation of Americans with a president who consistently subverted and maligned science, sowing confusion every time he took to the podium.

“Dr. Birx is all of us right now,” read one tweet from a prominent Trump critic that was shared thousands of times. The accompanying video was viewed by 21 million people.

Deborah Birx
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, listening to President Trump in April. (Alex Brandon/AP)

By the time of that briefing in late April, Birx had become a celebrity, impersonated on “Saturday Night Live,” profiled by countless news outlets, deemed a “coronavirus warrior” with a fashion sense to boot. Her seemingly infinite collection of high-end scarves engendered a public fascination of its own, perhaps for no other reason than that it offered a respite from the Trump administration’s procession of white men in bland suits.

Along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Birx was seen as a potential counter to Trump and those who abetted his worst impulses. She could, it seemed, steer him away from bad science and guide the nation to safety. When she and Fauci receded from public view in May, worries about the administration’s handling of the pandemic spiked.

“I think it is critically important that we get Fauci and Birx out front,” Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., herself a doctor, told Politico.

Eight months later, Fauci and Birx are in different positions. On the same day that Fauci publicly received the coronavirus vaccine at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in suburban Maryland, Birx announced that she would be retiring. And while Fauci will be an adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, Birx is unlikely to join the incoming administration. Although she had expressed an interest in working for Biden, she has not been asked to do so. A spokesperson for the Biden transition would not comment on her status.

The White House also declined to comment on her retirement, or her work on the coronavirus task force.

It hardly helped her cause that Birx seemed to ignore her own guidance when she traveled to her vacation home in Delaware the day after Thanksgiving, despite having warned Americans to stay home and avoid large gatherings. Although plenty of elected officials have done the same, and some have spurned public health advice altogether, Birx is one of the most visible medical professionals in the country, making her Delaware trip a graver offense than similar transgressions by the mayors of Austin and Denver, or even the governor of California.

“To me this disqualifies her from any future government health position,” Georgetown virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen told the Associated Press, adding that Birx had sent a “terrible message” to the American people.

Birx will leave the federal government with a long record of fighting HIV/AIDS around the world. But her role on the White House coronavirus task force was not without tumult or controversy.

Donald Trump and Deborah Birx
President Trump with Birx at a White House briefing in April. (Alex Brandon/AP)

On the one hand, Birx enjoyed a better rapport with Trump than did Fauci. While the president sometimes grew irritated at Fauci’s prominence, the woman he sometimes called “Debbie” never sought the limelight. And she made much more of an effort to praise Trump than Fauci. In a March interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Birx said Trump was “attentive to the scientific literature,” praising his ability to “analyze and integrate data.” It was a description at odds with reports of a president who disregarded scientific advice and wanted to move on from the pandemic as quickly as possible.

While she would go on to issue plenty of warnings grounded in science, the CBN interview did real damage to her credibility; many viewed her as yet another White House official more intent on pleasing the president than telling him the truth.

Her reputation wasn’t helped by an in-depth New York Times investigation into Trump’s mishandling of the virus published in July, which described her as “a constant source of upbeat news for the president and his aides, walking the halls with charts emphasizing that outbreaks were gradually easing.”

By the fall, Birx was back to warning about the spread of the coronavirus across much of the United States, arguing that the pandemic had entered a dangerous new phase.

But whereas Fauci had managed to dissociate his reputation from that of the president, Birx remained lashed to Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called her “the worst.” The president wasn’t all that much kinder. With the election nearing, he had little patience for her renewed concerns about the spread of the virus. In a tweet, he said Birx was “pathetic.”

Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci prepares to receive his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday. (Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)

Then Trump appointed the Stanford University neuroradiologist Dr. Scott Atlas as his new top coronavirus adviser. Unqualified to offer epidemiological advice, Atlas pushed Trump to disregard mask wearing and social distancing.

Atlas would resign his post shortly after the presidential election. Fauci, meanwhile, remains the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a testament to his deft handling of a complex political situation. Shortly before the election, Trump threatened that Fauci would be fired if he won.

Now Trump will go, and Birx will follow.

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