Former president Donald Trump and one of his top White House aides personally intervened to keep his administration’s two most prominent public health experts from making television appearances, his former White House communications director has said.
In a sworn deposition before the House January 6 select committee, ex-White House communications boss Alyssa Farah Griffin told investigators she frequently received “signal” from Mr Trump’s reelection campaign asking the White House to refrain from keeping “the doctors” — meaning longtime National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease director Dr Anthony Fauci and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr Deborah Birx — off of television as a way to “talk about coronavirus less” despite the ongoing pandemic.
“Sometimes, the campaign would signal to talk about coronavirus less. That was ... a battle I was dealing with: ‘Don't put the doctors on TV, don't talk about- - just don't talk about coronavirus in general. It's not driving home a message for us,’” said Ms Griffin, who served as the White House Communications Director from April to December of 2020.
Ms Griffin said she tried to “kind of work around” such directions by booking Dr Birx on successions of local television interviews from a remote studio on the White House grounds. She said she’d arrange for the interviews with outlets where the virus was surging “because no one would notice”.
But one of Mr Trump’s top advisers, then-counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, did notice, and along with Trump aide Hope Hicks, confronted Ms Griffin for a dressing down while Mr Trump looked on.
“She and Hope cornered me in the Oval in front of the President and said, ‘Alyssa keeps putting the doctors on TV. It's driving down our numbers. It's scaring people over COVID,’” she recalled under questioning from the January 6 panel.
Ms Griffin said Ms Conway told Mr Trump that he needed to ”tell her to not have the doctors on”.
“And so the President told me point blank to not have them on TV anymore,” she said.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Fauci enjoyed near universal approval among Americans after being a top public health expert and adviser to presidents since the Reagan administration, but after appearing to clash with Mr Trump and gaining a cult following among liberals, he became more and more reviled among Mr Trump’s supporters to the point where he required a Secret Service protective detail.
In April 2020, CNN reported that then-vice president Mike Pence’s office was responsible for barring Dr Fauci and Dr Birx from appearing on that network until CNN executives agreed to air Mr Trump’s coronavirus briefings without interruption, but the Trump White House frequently denied that there was any effort to keep either expert away from television interviews.
As the 2020 election approached, Dr Fauci’s status as a hate object for Trump supporters led the then-president to frequently criticise him from the stump at his signature political rallies, much to the delight of attendees who would chant for the veteran physician to be fired.