The first sign of trouble came in April, as the United States struggled with the first wave of coronavirus infections. Among the White House's moves was hiring Michael Caputo, a notorious Republican political operative and a Roger Stone protégé, for a leadership role at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Caputo had no meaningful background in health care, science, or responding to public-health crises, but on Team Trump, qualifications have never been much of a priority.
Once at HHS, Caputo added some officials of his own to the administration's operation, including Paul Alexander, a part-time professor at a Canadian university, who was there to serve as Caputo's science adviser. Why Alexander was brought into the operation has never been altogether clear -- there were plenty of qualified people at HHS who would've been happy to advice Caputo on scientific matters -- but Alexander was nevertheless given a prominent role at the CDC, where he tried to force scientific reports to comport with Donald Trump's election-year messaging.
But as it turns out, that's not all he did. Politico reported yesterday:
A top Trump appointee repeatedly urged top health officials to adopt a "herd immunity" approach to Covid-19 and allow millions of Americans to be infected by the virus, according to internal emails obtained by a House watchdog and shared with POLITICO.
"There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD," Alexander wrote in a July email to Caputo and six other senior officials. He added, "Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk....so we use them to develop herd...we want them infected."
When books are written on the Trump administration's catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, expect one of them to be titled, We Want Them Infected.
Stepping back, the larger context is important. While a political appointee at the CDC was advocating in support of more coronavirus infections, Donald Trump was listening almost exclusively to Scott Atlas, a radiologist he saw on Fox News, who was also advising the president on the merits of the crackpot pandemic strategy known as "herd immunity," in which officials allow the virus to spread and infect much of the population.
And while the public can take some solace in the fact that both Alexander and Atlas are no longer working in the administration, the far more discouraging fact is that they had considerable success in steering the direction of Team Trump's pandemic response.
Indeed, it was just last week when the outgoing president hosted a bizarre White House event at which Trump declared, "[Y]ou do have an immunity. You develop immunity over a period of time, and I hear we're close to 15 percent. I'm hearing that, and that is terrific. That's a very powerful vaccine in itself. And just tremendous progress has been made."
As is too often the case, the Republican flubbed the relevant details -- there were more than 15 million confirmed cases in the United States at the time, but that didn't mean that 15 percent of the population had tested positive -- but more important was the fact that the outgoing president described widespread infections as being the equivalent of a "vaccine" (they're not) and characterized infections as "terrific."
Or put another way, Trump's misguided perspective is tragically in line with the misguided emails Paul Alexander sent over the summer.