Team Trump blocks experts' Hill testimony for the wrong reasons

According to the White House, officials like Fauci and Birx have time to stand in the press briefing room, but don't have time for lawmakers' questions.
Image: Deborah Birx, Anthony Fauci
White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx listens as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a meeting at the White House, Wednesday, April 29, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP
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By Steve Benen

The first sign of trouble came late last week. The House Appropriations Committee confirmed to NBC News that it sought testimony from Dr. Anthony Fauci about the federal response to the coronavirus crisis, but the White House blocked his participation in a hearing.

Yesterday, the larger issue came into sharper focus.

The Trump administration has issued new guidance that bars members of the White House's coronavirus task force from appearing at congressional hearings this month, according to an administration official and document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The task force includes such figures as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious-disease official, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator.

In a memo issued yesterday, the White House Office of Legislative Affairs notified congressional staff about the new directive: "For the month of May, no Task Force members, or key deputies of Task Force members, may accept hearing invitations. Exceptions may be made only with the express approval of the White House Chief of Staff."

A White House spokesperson added that it's "counterproductive" to ask busy officials, who are focused on the pandemic response, to take the time to appear at congressional hearings.

And at least on the surface, it's tempting to think both sides of the argument have a reasonable point. From lawmakers' perspective, they rely on expert testimony to shape federal legislation directly related to the ongoing crisis. From the administration's perspective, experts like Fauci need to focus on their actual epidemiological work in the midst of a pandemic.

There are, however, two problems.

The first is the fact that Fauci is scheduled to testify to a committee in the Republican-led Senate this month, a fact Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) confirmed on the show last night. Indeed, Donald Trump himself tweeted over the weekend that, as far as he's concerned, House Democrats are merely "looking for trouble." The president added in the same missive that Fauci will, however, "be testifying before the Senate very soon!"

The partisan political game the White House is playing isn't exactly subtle.

The second problem is a bit more subtle. I'm not unsympathetic to the idea that executive branch experts are facing enormous time constraints, and congressional hearings may interfere with their schedules, but this would be a more compelling point if it weren't coming from the White House.

After all, as a Washington Post analysis noted late yesterday, Team Trump was "more than happy to have Fauci attend [the president's press briefings] from late February to late April, though Fauci rarely even spoke." The piece added, "In short, he attended more than 43.6 hours of briefings and spoke for a total of 2.8 hours. In other words, Fauci spent more than an entire workweek of time sitting around during the White House briefings."

Quite right. I've watched more than a few of those briefings, and I've seen Fauci just standing there, effectively serving as a prop, with the president leaning on the NIH leader's credibility.

If the White House wants to argue that Fauci, Birx, and other medical experts are simply too busy addressing the pandemic to answer questions about the pandemic, we can at least have that conversation. But it leads to a follow-up question Team Trump isn't prepared to answer: why do folks like Fauci and Birx have time to stand around for hours in the White House press briefing room, but not have time to answer questions from lawmakers?

The answer, in all likelihood, is that the president wants to punish his perceived political foes, while muzzling experts who may tell inconvenient truths while under oath.

* Update: A couple of hours after I published this, Trump contradicted his own team's argument. Instead of saying Fauci & Co. were blocked because of time limitations, the president said he won't allow testimony because he considers House Democrats "a bunch of Trump-haters." He added that he sees House oversight hearings as "a set-up."