The US response to the pandemic has already spawned a number of rapidly publishing books. A few notable examples have come from masters of journalistic storytelling, including Michael Lewis and Lawrence Wright; former officials, such as Scott Gottlieb and Andy Slavitt; and newspaper reporters, most notably Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta. But the most significant post so far, the book, which should be an indispensable resource for future historians, is Quiet invasion by Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force under President Donald Trump.
Birx’s book has received relatively little attention in the two weeks since its release – it has still not been reviewed by Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, for example, or sparked almost as much talk as Mark Esper’s less consistent memoir, which has also just been published. Much of the attention that has been given to Birx has not focused on the content of the book, but on Birx herself, who witnessed and failed to curb fatal mistakes and poor decision-making (with the notable exception of vaccine development) during her near- one year of employment in the task force. It’s a shame, because the book is the best account we have so far of how Trump’s team messed up the reaction of the pandemic so badly.
Birx does a very good job of distilling what went wrong. She repeatedly emphasizes what she identifies as the primary flaw in the Trump administration’s pandemic response: a lack of recognition of the importance of asymptomatic transmission (and thus the book’s title). She deplores test problems, including initial rejections of private sector recruitment, failures at the CDC and later failures to increase diagnostics. Birx also cites the CDC’s consistent lack of development of good data on the pandemic and places this at the center of the reforms she proposes towards the end of the book.
But what sets Quiet invasion except how Birx, with writing help from Gary Brozek, without hesitation mentions names (and dates and places). She does it with far more details and nuances than we have received from anyone else. Birx draws a portrait of an administration as a whole, made up of people with a mix of talents and motivations. Where other chroniclers describe the White House as having only one occupant, Birx gives us the full cast. The first 150 pages of the book, in the period from January to March 2020, are particularly captivating. In the early crucial weeks of the crisis, she writes, “some who roamed the halls of the West Wing believed that the less we did, the less we would be held accountable for whatever was happening.”
Birx has his own list of villains. The worst is Scott Atlas, the radiologist whose epidemiological advice Trump came to take. Atlas, she writes, repeatedly responded to group emails from her by tapping “Reply All” and then removing her from the list before sending. Other senior villains include President-in-Chief Mark Meadows (who apparently only cares about politics) and Vice-President-in-Chief Marc Short (who apparently only cares about protecting his boss from his chief). Also: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the CDC’s entrenched and inflexible staff, the out of his depth staff of the Council of Economic Advisers, the politically shaky World Health Organization, Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, as Birx states , knew better, but bowed to political pressure. Birx is even citing several examples of her sexist treatment of other White House staffers, most notably Meadows and Short.
In her opinion, the forces of good include some surprises. She portrays Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner as often helping work that Trump loudly mocked. Pence never seemed publicly at odds with Trump, and Kushner has been widely criticized for incompetent logistical efforts, but Birx offers a few compelling examples of moments when they worked to quietly facilitate some positive actions. Birx also praises his friend Matt Pottinger, who served as vice national security adviser, along with governors, including Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Doug Ducey of Arizona. In between, which alternately strengthens and disappoints her are her longtime colleagues Anthony Fauci and CDC director Robert Redfield.
Other pandemic book writers have been forced to speculate on what happened outside Trump’s immediate environment. More than a year has passed since the previous administration left office, but the internal function of its response to the pandemic is still out of sight. Maybe that’s why so much coverage focused purposefully on Trump, the loudest and most shocking voice, while the rest of the team largely neglected. But Birx was in the building and watching everything unfold, and she can and will shed light on details that others cannot. She later drove around the country talking to governors and other local leaders and has a real basis for comparing their performance.
However, she does not neglect the central character of Washington. Birx, a career public health worker and career officer in the Army (in active service from 1980 to 2008), refuses to summarize her views on Trump personally, but she offers more than enough details for readers, including historians, to reach their own conclusions . She describes her first meeting with Trump, on March 2, 2020, when she tried to explain to him that the virus “is not the flu.” Trump listened for a minute, challenged her briefly, and then literally switched channels on one of the TV screens he had seen at the same time.
Birx did not publicly stand up to Trump while working for him. In the book, she laments her most public outcry: When Trump appeared in favor of ingesting disinfectant in a live TV briefing, she weakly and quietly stated, “Not as a treatment.” She should have been more powerful, she writes, “should have ignored my deeply ingrained, militarily sharpened instinct for not publicly correcting a superior.”
Birx’s refusal to publicly oppose Trump during her time in the White House continues to haunt her reputation. Her subsequent interviews – like her book – have been revealing, but they have also often been criticized as too little, too late. This criticism has some justification. Some cynics may think she wrote her book to obscure the record. I am more likely to believe that she continues to be motivated by her own sense of duty and wants the rest of us to see what she saw.
The book makes a compelling argument that much of the blame placed on Birx’s door for Trump-era pandemic shortcomings is an oversimplification or worse. Birx describes how she and other officials privately tried to counter Trump’s opposition to fighting the pandemic. In August 2020, Birx writes, Trump hung up with her when she refused to retire after insisting that “the virus is under control.” She is remarkably honest about how she and her colleagues manipulated Trump into the initial 15-day shutdown in March, and then its 30-day extension, which he almost immediately regretted. (Neither Trump nor anyone in his camp seems to have reacted publicly to Birx’s book.)
Birx presents himself as an experienced bureaucratic infighter. For example, when Pence’s chief of staff told her that the sharp language in bullet points at the top of a daily report was too politically explosive, she simply inserted almost identical language further down in the document, where the busy politicians who tried to strangle her would fail to see it. She is the kind of person who still considers it a victory when her initiatives are publicly disproved but in fact remain unchanged.
But Birx appears to have been inside her head in the toxic office politics of Trump’s White House. For example, she long wonders in the book which of her rivals tried to undermine her by publishing a note she wrote, warning of the rise in late 2020 on the eve of the presidential election. In this case, it seems likely that Mark Meadows was right: As Birx writes in the book, he told her that the leak was meant to affect the election, not her career.
Birx had been much more confident working for President George W. Bush, who, she writes, “created a space where people could succeed, supported us in making the impossible possible. Trump’s White House was the opposite in many ways. . ” When Birx felt particularly annoyed with Trump, Bush convinced her not to resign.
Deborah Birx could not bring order to the chaos in Trump’s White House or reason or compassion for its handling of the pandemic. The resulting losses were huge.
But none of it takes away from what Quiet invasion has to offer. Birx has given us an important record of how and why all these losses were suffered. With COVID cases on the rise again, her reflections can be put to use, both when yesterday’s story is written and when today’s unfolds.