March 26, 2021
A small group of top Trump health officials recently held a series of discussions to coordinate their accounts of the administration’s troubled Covid-19 response, worried they will be scapegoated by old colleagues — including their onetime boss, former Health secretary Alex Azar, according to six people with knowledge of their interactions.
Much of the group — which includes former FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, former CDC Director Robert Redfield, former Medicare chief Seema Verma and former White House Covid coordinator Deborah Birx — had fraught relationships with Azar, whose own accounts of the administration’s pandemic efforts have often diverged from theirs.
Azar feuded openly with Hahn and Redfield during the pandemic, and he fought with Verma throughout his tenure atop the health department. And as book writers, documentarians and former administration officials race to chronicle the cutthroat Trump era, they’re mounting a new effort to defend themselves.
“I know the way this goes— everyone has a different perspective,” Hahn said in an interview. “I wanted to tell what it was that happened and why it happened and the perspective that we had.”
In calls and text messages, members of the group have swapped notes, compared recollections and sent updates on media requests and interview opportunities, four people with knowledge of the matter said.
On one occasion, a virtual meeting included former Health Department spokesperson and Trump loyalist Michael Caputo — though he told POLITICO he joined only to share an update on his recovery from cancer and pass along inquiries from veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward, who is writing another book about the Trump administration.
The sessions once again brought together most of the so-called “doctors group” that sat on the White House coronavirus task force, and originally banded together to resist then-President Donald Trump’s push to broadly reopen the country without sufficiently containing a virus that would go on to kill nearly 550,000 Americans and counting.
And in a nod to their individual battles with Azar, some have jokingly referred to the group in private as “AAA,” or Alex Azar Anonymous, according to a person in direct contact with multiple members. No one involved in the effort would confirm the name when reached for comment.
Birx and Verma declined to comment for this article, and Redfield did not respond to requests for comment. Caputo, who has not regularly participated in the discussions, defended Azar as a “man of honor” and expressed admiration for all of Trump’s top health officials — several of whom helped him with his cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Azar declined to comment.
The behind-the-scenes efforts represent just one part of the broader race to shape the story around the Trump administration’s response to the health crisis, which was marked by constant internal conflict. The turbulent period will be the subject of numerous forthcoming books and television specials, with little expectation the previous administration will be vindicated in those accounts.
Trump himself is sitting for a least a dozen of those retrospectives. And among many other former administration officials, there’s rising angst over how their roles in the government’s chaotic Covid response will ultimately be portrayed.
Much about the dysfunction surrounding the administration’s response has been documented in the press in real time. POLITICO reported on efforts inside HHS to water down the CDC guidance, the way a Caputo aide berated government science officials he accused of being disloyal to Trump, and Azar’s moves to cement control over his department.
But new firsthand accounts of high-profile clashes among former top health officials are likely to factor prominently into new retellings, shedding light on how disagreements and frayed relationships stalled policy priorities and added to the confusion surrounding the pandemic response.
HHS leaders, including Azar, warred with Hahn over a series of policy and personnel decisions over the past year that officials worried distracted from the broader pandemic work. Both camps tussled over authority amid the Covid response and accused the other of trying to undermine them in the press.
Redfield and the CDC’s career officials faced constant political interference over their scientific determinations — including from Caputo, who was at the same time regarded warily by HHS leaders. White House officials had installed Caputo, a longtime political operative, at HHS shortly after the pandemic emerged, at a time when they worried Azar was leaking negative information about Trump’s handling of the virus to improve his own image.
Hahn, Redfield and Verma bonded over their mutual difficulties with Azar and his top aides, commiserating about the hostile working environment and perception that Azar was singularly focused on staying in Trump’s good graces. Among the reasons they reconvened after the administration were concerns that Azar — a skilled infighter — was orchestrating favorable coverage for himself, multiple people said.
For their part, Azar and his camp saw the agency heads as insubordinate, and bristled at instances where they circumvented the department to coordinate pandemic work directly with the White House — especially after then-Vice President Mike Pence took control of the Covid task force in late February 2020.
Those divisions have only further cemented in the weeks since, as the stress of daily combat inside the administration gave way to debates among an array of former Trump appointees over whether and how to tell their stories.
An upcoming Sunday CNN special on the pandemic response has prompted rampant speculation among HHS alumni over what will be revealed — and just as importantly, who will get blamed for the administration’s various missteps.
Hahn, Birx and Redfield sat for lengthy interviews for the program, as did top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who is now advising President Joe Biden, and former senior HHS officials Brett Giroir and Robert Kadlec. Azar declined an invitation to participate, according to a person who spoke to him about the process.
But some participants are worried about how their appearances will be framed, several people said, especially after CNN debuted a dramatic promo that cast the special as a confessional of sorts — “COVID War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out.”
“I didn’t trash Secretary Azar — I spoke about how the relationship was often strained and it was difficult, but that was all in the press,” Hahn told POLITICO. “I don’t think it’ll be a secret.”
Former officials on the Covid response are also fretting over rumors that Paul Mango, who was Azar’s deputy chief of staff for policy, is working on a tell-all book about the Covid response and his role in Operation Warp Speed, the previous administration’s vaccine accelerator.
In an interview, Mango said he’s “put a lot of pen to paper” but has yet to decide whether to write a book detailing his experience in the administration.
“I don’t know exactly how I’m going to use it, but I want to make sure history has the story straight,” he said, musing that publishers would hold a bidding war for his account. “There were some real moments that were hot moments between certain individuals that would make the story a bit titillating.”
Mango swiped at some of his former colleagues, arguing that only he and Azar were entirely knowledgeable of the vaccine development effort, widely seen as a rare success story in Trump’s pandemic response. He dismissed much of the criticism of Azar as others “trying to protect their own reputations.”
“I’ve never seen such underhanded, unethical, unprofessional behavior as I saw in the federal government,” he said. “[Azar] wasn’t dealt a hand of aces, and you have to deal with what you have.”
Other former Trump health officials described being inundated with interview requests over the last couple months, including for books in the works by two separate groups of Washington Post reporters seeking to reconstruct the events of the past year.
Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s first FDA commissioner who remained in close contact with administration officials during the Covid response, is also due out with a book in July. And Andy Slavitt, now a senior adviser to Biden’s Covid response team, has also penned a pandemic book that will publish in June.
Slavitt said his recounting — which is labeled as the “inside story of how leadership failures, politics, and selfishness doomed the U.S. coronavirus response” — is built off interviews with Azar and others involved in the response, as well as his own interactions with Birx, former White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and a half-dozen others.
“I got broad cooperation,” he said.
For many former Trump health officials, the upcoming CNN special will mark their first extensive public comments about their time in the administration since leaving government.
Only Birx has done other on-camera interviews, during which she said she constantly thought of quitting her White House job and had to contend in private with “outside advisers” who presented Trump with contradictory data on the pandemic.
Check-ins among the small group of former Trump officials have dropped off in recent weeks, Hahn said, but the principle underpinning of the group remains.
“If one person was attacked, we were all attacked, and we were going to stand behind each other,” he said of the pact they struck during the height of the pandemic response. “I wanted to make sure people understood that, and that was really the pointy edge of the stick for me.”