Is the White House starting to censor public-health officials?

Muzzling experts before they can answer questions might save Team Trump some embarrassment, but it fixes the wrong problem.
Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health in Washington on Jan. 18, 2018.Susan Walsh / AP file
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By Steve Benen

The New York Times has an interesting report this afternoon on the administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak, noting for example, that Donald Trump told associates that he put Mike Pence in charge of the response because the vice president didn't "have anything else to do."

I feel safer already.

The Times went on to report that the administration has tapped Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the director of the United States effort to combat H.I.V. and AIDS, to serve as the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House. Or put another way, Team Trump has identified three entirely different people as the point person for the federal response over the last 24 hours: from HHS Secretary Alex Azar to Pence to Birx.

But perhaps most important was the Times' report that Pence hopes to prevent the contradictory statements about the crisis that have emanated from the White House in recent days.

The vice president's first move appeared to be aimed at preventing the kind of contradictory statements from White House officials and top government health officials that have plagued the administration's response.... Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country's leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.

I can appreciate why message discipline is a priority. After all, when the public hears competing assessments from the authorities during a public-health emergency, people won't know whom to believe.

But Pence's solution seems to miss the point. The problem this week wasn't that officials were able to speak freely; it was that too many White House officials didn't know what they were talking about. Muzzling experts before they can answer questions might save Team Trump some embarrassment, but it fixes the wrong problem.

Ron Klain, who earned plaudits as President Barack Obama's "czar" for the Ebola response, explained on Twitter this afternoon that the Obama administration never told CDC or NIH officials "what they could say, or ever censored their medical statements." Klain added that if the White House is doing that now, "it is a danger to public health."

Laurie Garrett, an award-winning journalist who covers these issues extensively, called the effort to put a lid on scientists "insane," adding that muzzling Fauci is like "putting ankle bracelets on Michael Jordan during the NBA playoffs."