At an event in Virginia over the weekend, Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were on hand for the departure of the USNS Comfort, a massive floating hospital. Before the president spoke, however, the Pentagon chief was careful to thank his boss for his "bold leadership," which Esper said is "uniting the American people."
The unfortunate flattery wasn't altogether surprising. As the crisis has taken shape, every leading official in the administration has gone to awkward lengths to pepper their remarks with over-the-top gratitude for the president who's in constant search for praise.
As the New York Times reported the other day, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, is going along with the script.
Dr. Birx, who has built a well of bipartisan admiration in her years as a health official, has more recently accommodated herself to the political winds with the kind of presidential flattery that Mr. Trump demands from aides. "He has been so attentive to the details and the data, and his ability to analyze and integrate data has been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues," she gushed in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Wednesday.
As part of the same interview with TV preacher Pat Robertson's network, Birx added that the president "understands the importance of the granularity."
Part of me is sympathetic. Birx and her team are no doubt eager to do important work in a time of a deadly crisis. They're also eager to maintain a degree of influence with the president -- who, after all, will be responsible for making most of the key decisions in the fight to address the coronavirus pandemic.
It's likely that Birx expected Trump to see the interview, which led her to peddle implausible praise about his capacity for expert data analysis, all as part of an effort to stay in his good graces so she could help steer him in responsible directions.
But there's a downside that matters: when Birx pretends that the president cares deeply about data, details, and granularity, and the public sees this, it diminishes her credibility at a time when it's critically important for Americans to trust her assessments.
Complicating matters, as the Times' report added, Birx also recently made comments "casting doubt on talk of ventilator and hospital-bed shortages," further raising questions about her independence.
Trump has already positioned himself as someone whose word is untrustworthy. The more respected members of his team ought to take care to avoid a similar fate.