Under Pence, Politics Regularly Seeped Into the Coronavirus Task Force
WASHINGTON — Aboard Air Force Two en route to the Mayo Clinic on April 28, White House aides walked down the aisle distributing masks to members of Vice President Mike Pence’s entourage, a requirement for everyone entering the renowned hospital in Minnesota as the coronavirus spread.
But Marc Short, the vice president’s powerful chief of staff, said Mr. Pence, the leader of the White House’s coronavirus task force, would not be wearing one. Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, tried to intervene, saying it would be a bad message to the public if the vice president were to flout hospital rules.
But according to a person who witnessed the discussion and a senior administration official familiar with the episode, Mr. Short responded that photographs of Mr. Pence in a mask could be used by Democrats as campaign ammunition against President Trump, who had consistently refused to wear one as he downplayed the severity of the crisis.
Mr. Pence’s decision to walk the halls of the Mayo Clinic without a mask turned into a public relations mess — the hospital said on Twitter during the visit that the vice president’s staff had been informed about the mask policy — and Mr. Pence would later say his choice was wrong.
But it was only one example of how, over nearly eight months since the vice president was given a leading role in managing the nation’s pandemic response, political considerations seeped into decisions by Mr. Pence and his staff about how to combat a disease that has now killed more than 210,000 Americans.
At the task force, grim science-based projections were sometimes de-emphasized for rosier predictions, and guidance from public health agencies — about schools and summer camps, for example — was sometimes massaged by the vice president’s staff.
At one point, Mr. Short directed Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to soften the agency’s recommendations to a meat processing company about safety steps, in part to placate the embattled industry. Mr. Short was also part of a small group, which included Kellyanne Conway, then a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, that pushed to change C.D.C. guidance on church reopenings.
Interviews with task force members, government public health officials and current and former White House officials show how public health considerations were sometimes at odds in the task force with the White House’s imperative for 2020: winning re-election on the basis of a strong economy.
“The vice president admittedly was in a difficult situation; he was asked to lead a project where his boss wasn’t on board,” said Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, who clashed with Mr. Pence during an April conference call about coronavirus testing. During that call, Mr. King erupted at the vice president for what he believed were his evasive answers.
“And so, the question is: To what extent, if any, did he try to push back on the president, minimizing masks, minimizing testing, continually claiming the virus was behind us?” Mr. King said. “And it looks like he didn’t.”
He said Mr. Pence “was complicit in the real abdication of the federal role in confronting” the pandemic.
Several people directly engaged in the pandemic response said that Mr. Pence, whose stewardship of the task force was a subtext of the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday, was respectful of scientific arguments and often was a calming presence amid fractious arguments about how best to respond to the virus.
But his inclination to stay above the fray was also seen by some people involved in the effort as a fault, allowing an aggressive team of political aides to gain outsize influence over scientific decisions and allowing a task force created to protect public health to morph at times into an operation bent on carrying out the president’s agenda.
Mr. Pence acknowledged these political crosswinds this year during a quiet moment with a member of his staff. “Fighting a pandemic of this magnitude is very hard,” he said. “Fighting a pandemic in an election year is even harder.”
Mr. Pence took over the coronavirus response in late February, a time of reluctant recognition inside the White House that Mr. Trump’s reassurances that the pandemic posed little threat was detached from reality.
A public briefing on Feb. 25 by a top C.D.C. official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, warned that the spread of the disease could shut down businesses and schools — sending the stock market plummeting and infuriating the president as he was flying home from India.
The president put Mr. Pence in charge the next day. Some members of the task force, which included medical doctors and scientists from public health agencies as well as political appointees and national security officials, noticed an almost immediate change.
Soon after Mr. Pence took over, Katie Miller, the vice president’s top communications aide, announced to the entire task force that no health guidelines, recommendations or other public statements from the agencies were to be released without first being cleared by Mr. Pence’s press team.
Some members of Mr. Pence’s staff viewed with suspicion officials from the health agencies, including the C.D.C., which had traditionally led the federal government’s responses to infectious disease outbreaks. C.D.C. officials in particular were seen inside the White House as alarmist and a possible source of damaging leaks.
Inside the C.D.C., in the initial days after the Pence takeover, officials managing the response would learn of policy decisions by crowding into the agency’s emergency operations center to watch the White House news conferences on several televisions, one federal health official said. This sometimes led to confusion, including an episode in mid-March when the task force and the C.D.C. issued parallel and conflicting guidelines about recommended limits on the size of social gatherings.
Sometimes the interventions were more direct. In April, a team of C.D.C. scientists inspected a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota and wrote a report to the company about new guidelines that needed to be adopted to ensure the safety of workers and the sanitation of the food. Mr. Short directed Dr. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, to soften the language of the report sent to the company, reducing the agency’s recommendations to suggestions.
Not long after Dr. Redfield dictated changes to the report to his staff in Atlanta from the vestibule outside Mr. Pence’s office, he confided to one of Mr. Pence’s aides at the time, Olivia Troye, that he felt that he was in an impossible position.
“My scientists are telling me what I need to do,” he said, according to Ms. Troye, who worked on the task force for Mr. Pence. But, he added, “I want to make sure the vice president is happy.”
Ms. Troye left the White House this summer and has since become an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump and his coronavirus response.
From then on, a former senior health official recalled, Dr. Redfield would tell colleagues that the C.D.C. was not a regulatory agency, reflecting Mr. Short’s view of the limits of its authority.
In a response to questions, Ms. Miller, the vice president’s communications director, said, “It’s now twice in two weeks that The New York Times is relying on disgruntled former staff hearsay to print more opinion as ‘news’ four weeks before an election.”
Through the spring, Mr. Short told numerous colleagues that the threat of the virus was overhyped, a position held by other senior White House officials, including Mark Meadows, the chief of staff. Mr. Meadows and other top West Wing officials took a dim view of the task force, seeing it as a sideshow without much influence on the administration’s pandemic response.
Mr. Short supported a White House decision, later walked partly back by Mr. Trump and never completely carried out, to wind the task force down by Memorial Day, when many in the administration believed the outbreak would bottom out.
As the task force’s public presence receded and the group began meeting less frequently, other White House officials, including Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a controversial radiologist now advising Mr. Trump on the pandemic, became more prominent than the doctors on the task force, including Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator.
The administration’s crash vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed, drew Mr. Trump’s attention, with its seeming promise of a quick fix, one that has yet to materialize despite the president’s repeated assurances that a vaccine is just around the corner.
Several people who participated in the task force said that Mr. Pence often tried to beat back Mr. Short’s and Ms. Miller’s attempts to weave overtly political messages into the vice president’s frequent public briefings.
“I never saw the vice president do anything that I thought was negligent,” Ms. Troye said.
Mr. Pence also tried to defuse tense moments. In one flourish during a task force meeting, Peter Navarro, a trade adviser, stood up and dropped a pile of papers on the conference table that he said were studies showing the benefits of hydroxychloroquine — a malaria drug promoted by the president. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top infectious disease doctor on the task force, responded that the evidence was inconclusive that the drug had any success in fighting the virus.
Rather than referee an escalating dispute, Mr. Pence directed the conversation to a different subject.
Joe Grogan, the former director of the White House’s domestic policy office and a former task force official, said Mr. Pence “built people up under a lot of stress.” Seema Verma, the Medicare chief and a task force member, said that Mr. Pence had led an “inclusive, deliberative process” within the task force.
“He encourages vigorous debate among the experts and those advising him — a process he calls ‘iron sharpening iron’ — which is a hallmark of his leadership style and how I’ve known him to operate,” said Ms. Verma, who worked with Mr. Pence as his health policy adviser when he was governor of Indiana.
Mr. Pence has also led regular conference calls with governors, cooling tension between Mr. Trump and perceived political enemies who had been critical of the federal response, including Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington.
Others, such as Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, had a direct line to Mr. Pence, at one point privately appealing to him for the federal government to set up test sites in June when the state was desperate for help stemming a surge in cases.
And yet the ideological impulses of his staff sometimes led to embarrassing episodes for Mr. Pence. In mid-June, Mr. Short directed the vice president’s speechwriter to produce an opinion piece in Mr. Pence’s name for The Wall Street Journal promoting the administration’s response to the pandemic and downplaying the risks.
Published under the title “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’” the piece said that the “media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different.”
After the piece was published, Dr. Fauci made indirect criticisms of its arguments during interviews. “People keep talking about a second wave,” he said during one interview. “We’re still in a first wave.”
Mr. Pence used a subsequent task force meeting to raise these criticisms with Dr. Fauci. So I’m right, the vice president said with a wry smile. “There isn’t a second wave.”
At the time, coronavirus cases were exploding across the south, a precursor to a summer surge in the death toll nationwide.