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US Vice-President Mike Pence (right) speaks alongside US President Donald Trump during a press conference about the coronavirus at the White House on Wednesday. Photo: dpa

PoliticoAfter fumbled messaging, Donald Trump gets a coronavirus tsar by another name

  • Health official Debbie Birx appointed as ‘coronavirus response coordinator’ under Vice-President Mike Pence
  • Facing outbreak threat a month ago, Trump said ‘we have it totally under control’. This week, under fire, he changed course

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Adam Cancryn, Quint Forgey and Dan Diamond on on February 27, 2020.

In the end, US President Donald Trump got a coronavirus tsar – without having to call it a tsar.

Vice-President Mike Pence, whom Trump appointed on Wednesday to lead his coronavirus response, announced a global health official as the “White House coronavirus response coordinator” – installing a tsar-like figure under him to guide the administration’s response to the outbreak after a protracted public dance around how to display the power of the federal bureaucracy to the American people.

The move marked the administration’s latest attempt to show it is in control of the spreading global threat after weeks of fumbled messaging, rising market jitters and mounting backlash from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The two-day journey of upgrading the federal government’s public response highlighted a sharp contrast between Trump’s political instincts to play down the virus risk in an election year and calls from health officials and lawmakers to show the government in command of a deadly and frightening threat.

The new role will put Ambassador Debbie Birx, who has served since 2014 as the US government’s leader for combating HIV/Aids globally, at the centre of what now appears to be three leaders of the government response.

Trump revealed in a news conference on Wednesday evening that Pence would head up the administration’s management of the coronavirus, overseeing a task force nominally led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Birx will report to Pence but serve on the task force that Azar chairs.

Over three decades of public health experience, Birx “has been utilising the best science to change the course of the HIV pandemic and bring the pandemic under control”, the White House said in a statement, adding that she “will bring her infectious disease, immunologic, vaccine research and inter-agency coordinating capacity to this position”.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Pence said “we are ready for anything” to fight coronavirus.

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“I promise you, this president, this administration, is going to work with leaders in both parties. We'll work with leaders across this nation, at the state and local level. And this president will always put the health and safety of America first.”

Birx's appointment marked the latest swerve by the White House in assigning responsibility to tackle the burgeoning public health crisis.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Trump said “we have it totally under control” and maintained “it’s going to be just fine”. The virus has since exploded globally from China to nearly 50 countries, with more worries emerging inside the US.

A week after Trump’s Davos comments, the White House announced a task force to handle the widening outbreak. A month later, Trump was forced to vastly upgrade the response when his bold predictions proved to be wrong.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (left) speaks as US Vice-President Mike Pence listens during a coronavirus task force meeting in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Appointing a “coordinator” allowed Trump to fulfil an increasingly urgent call from lawmakers to put a trusted public health official at the centre of the White House response as a tsar.

Some administration officials had opposed appointing a tsar – a move President Barack Obama used in 2014 during the Ebola threat – because it could be perceived as an admission of failure up to this point, while others have been criticising Azar for months for his work on the president’s health initiatives far beyond coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Azar told lawmakers “I serve as the lead” on coronavirus efforts, and he denied a POLITICO report stating that the White House was weighing whether to appoint a tsar to coordinate its response to the spreading epidemic.

The leadership change – putting Pence in charge – was a shock to Azar and his team, four people familiar with the matter said, coming soon after the health secretary returned from his full day of congressional testimony.

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Azar had reason to be confident: Trump had reassured him earlier in the day that he was doing a good job atop the task force and would not be replaced. And technically, he was not, even though he has lost ultimate authority over the federal response.

Azar insisted at Trump’s Wednesday news conference, however, that he would remain the chair of the White House task force, indicating Pence would play a supervisory role. That was before Thursday morning’s coronavirus “coordinator” announcement, which Trump hinted at the prior night.

At a congressional hearing on Thursday, Azar downplayed the significance of Pence's appointment, calling it a “a lot of continuity” of the administration’s response to date.

“What the vice-president will do is actually a function very similar to what acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has been doing very ably for me,” he told the House Ways and Means Committee, describing the role largely as ensuring alignment across the government and coordinating decision-making outside the health care arena.

“The vice-president’s involvement and leadership across the whole of government brings just the weight of the office of the vice-president to that task.”

Azar later insisted that he was consulted and involved in the decision to put Pence in charge, telling lawmakers that he was supportive as soon as the suggestion was made. “I said, quote, that’s genius,” he said.

Azar also told reporters after the hearing that he was “involved” in the decision Wednesday to name Birx.

“She’s a terrific leader. And she will do wonderful work helping us with just the internal processes,” he said. As for Pence’s new role, Azar said “the vice-president helps me, in terms of heft within the executive agency” but maintained that he’s still leading the inter-agency task force work among a slew of other responsibilities as the nation’s health chief.

The compromise position allows the White House to respond to frustration inside and outside the administration while allowing Azar to save face. Trump remains pleased with his health secretary and had reassured him as recently as Wednesday that he was happy with his work on the coronavirus, people close to the White House said.

The White House is battling bipartisan criticism from members of Congress sceptical of the administration’s response and emergency funding request, which some lawmakers have slammed as insufficient to counter the growing threat.

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The administration’s disjointed messaging about the severity of the threat earlier this week frustrated even Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially after White House National Economic Director Larry Kudlow declared the containment effort as nearly “airtight” at nearly the same time CDC officials were warning of its “inevitable” spread.

An exasperated Senator John Kennedy aired his concerns directly to Trump on Tuesday, after the Louisiana Republican struggled to extract basic answers about the disease from acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

“We had one story from the classified briefing, we had another story from one Cabinet secretary, then we had another story from another Cabinet secretary,” said Kennedy, who on Thursday praised the decision to elevate Pence. “[Trump] said, I hear what you’re saying, I’m gonna get this straight.”

The announcement of Birx’s latest role within the administration came hours after news broke in California of the first potential case of coronavirus spreading within the US.

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during an April 2014 swearing-in ceremony for Debbie Birx (left) as ambassador-at-large and coordinator of US government activities to combat HIV/Aids. Photo: AP

It also follows intense scrutiny of Pence’s record as governor of Indiana overseeing a massive HIV outbreak in the state that public health experts deemed preventable – an episode that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised directly with the vice-president on Thursday morning.

“I expressed to him the concern that I had of his being in this position,” she said during her weekly press conference.

Birx brings bipartisan credibility to the job, having won widespread praise from Democrats in the run-up to her 2014 confirmation as head of the Obama administration’s global HIV/Aids office.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat Ben Cardin in 2014 called her “one of the most well-qualified nominees that has ever come before the US Senate for confirmation,” ahead of a unanimous vote to install her in the job.

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Congressman Eliot Engel, now the top Democrat on the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, similarly lauded her as a “dedicated force in efforts to eliminate the global scourge of HIV/Aids”.

Yet despite her Obama-era appointment, Birx is a Republican and could be characterised as a conservative, one person who knows her said.

This person added that she’d be “good on camera” and has already worked closely with several of the administration’s current top public health officials – including Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, with whom she served as an Army doctor.

Most notably, this person said, she aided Redfield’s candidacy to become CDC chief in 2018, serving as a reference and advocating for him within the administration.

Nancy Cook, Caitlin Oprysko and Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.