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Trump's task force invisible as cases surge again

The often-at-odds collection of health experts and political figures who comprise President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force now appear less influential than ever as Covid-19 cases begin to spike again three weeks before Election Day.

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Kevin Liptak, Jim Acosta
Betsy Klein, CNN
CNN — The often-at-odds collection of health experts and political figures who comprise President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force now appear less influential than ever as Covid-19 cases begin to spike again three weeks before Election Day.

While still technically in place, people close to the White House task force and others inside the administration describe a panel that has, for all practical purposes, been swept aside by politics and competing interests. Instead of advising Trump on a response, members of the task force now find themselves entirely at odds with a President whose own bout with the disease has only emboldened him further to ignore their recommendations.

With Vice President Mike Pence -- the task force's leader -- on the road every day campaigning, the weekly governors' call he usually heads was led Tuesday by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Governors were provided an update on the status of the pandemic, vaccine development and concerns about small home gatherings, with input from the task force's health experts, including Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield and Adm. Brett Giroir.

The panel also continues to release weekly reports with tailored recommendations to each state, a practice it began in June.

But those reports, which often paint a picture at odds with Trump's more optimistic statements, aren't made public. And task force officials haven't conducted a briefing from the White House in weeks as Trump looks to convey a cheery view of the crisis, despite the new increases.

"We're rounding that final turn," Trump said Wednesday during a remote address to the Economic Clubs of New York, Washington, Chicago, Sheboygan and Pittsburgh. He went on to claim the media has "undermined our public health efforts and put innocent lives in danger."

"We must allow lower risk Americans to resume normal activity," Trump said, slamming "unscientific lockdowns pushed by left wing politicians."

It was hardly the message being offered by leaders in other nations that are experiencing a similar resurgence in cases. French President Emmanuel Macron announced new curfews in Paris and other cities on Wednesday. And though British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ignored some of the advice from his medical experts, he still laid out a three-tiered system this week for new local lockdowns should cases continue rising.

Trump has offered no similar plan for what Americans should do if cases begin rising, which they have started to do in 36 states. Instead of modeling recommendations already in place by his own government, Trump has embarked upon a schedule of nightly campaign rallies with no social distancing and only loose requirements on masks.

More often than not, Trump's behavior flies in direct opposition to the stance adopted by the task force. For example, in this week's state report for Idaho, the task force warned against "Covid-19 stigma" as it relates to closing schools in the event of a new outbreak. Yet Trump has forcefully and repeatedly advocated for reopening schools and keeping them open.

Trump himself long ago came to view the task force as a cumbersome collection of officials whom he believes exist mainly to contradict his rosy projections about the pandemic and advise against the reopening he was loudly advocating for in public. He sought to dissolve it in May only to reverse himself, saying he didn't realize how popular it was.

Some of Trump's top advisers, including chief of staff Mark Meadows, have also largely written off the task force as having little influence on how Trump approaches the crisis.

The group's power seemed to peak in the spring, when Fauci and Birx convinced Trump to extend lockdown recommendations amid the first wave of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Now, whatever sway the body once had appears entirely nonexistent. Since August, Trump has relied almost exclusively on the counsel of Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who has advocated against wearing masks and has been spotted even amid a viral outbreak at the White House with his nose and mouth uncovered.

During a call with reporters on Monday that included none of the task force's medical experts, White House senior administration officials discussed a controversial declaration written by some scientists that advocates for ending lockdowns, building immunity and pushing for those who are not vulnerable to Covid-19 to resume normal life.

The Great Barrington Declaration aligns "very strongly with what the President has said for months -- that is strongly protect the high-risk elderly and vulnerable and open schools and restore society to function," a senior administration official said during the call.

Yet many experts, including some on the task force itself, warn that the idea to allow the novel coronavirus to circulate freely -- also known as a "herd immunity" approach -- is dangerous.

Trump hasn't met with Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, in more than a month, though on Wednesday the agency where he works, the National Institutes of Health, said Fauci had examined some of Trump's medical data and deemed him non-infectious ahead of a town hall.

Instead of collectively providing the nation advice as cases begin to rise, Trump and Fauci have appeared at odds after Trump's campaign used a clip of Fauci in a television commercial. Fauci demanded it be taken down and issued a veiled warning on CNN that further use of his image for political ends would backfire.

Privately, Trump was irritated to learn Fauci had deemed his Rose Garden announcement of a new Supreme Court nominee a "super spreader" event and has bristled when Fauci and others on the task force caution against major gatherings like his political rallies.

Birx, who hasn't been seen at a White House press briefing since late July, has physically left the White House to hit the road herself, traveling to nearly 40 states in recent weeks to meet with state, local, and university officials. She frequently participates in news conferences with local outlets, with the White House viewing her as an asset through the earned media in the strategic places she's been deployed.

But she, too, has been frustrated by Atlas's influence with the President, according to people close to the matter. And like Fauci, she has not escaped Trump's wrath; he called her "pathetic" in August after she described an earlier surge as "extraordinarily widespread."

According to Olivia Troye, a former top adviser to Pence who left the White House and has now become an outspoken critic of Trump, the President would routinely ignore warnings offered by his health advisers during task force meetings. She described a systematic silencing of the task force experts as the pandemic worsened and White House officials decided against listening to the administration's top health advisers, including Fauci.

"It's bizarre," Troye said. "Trump would listen, then disregard him completely."

At meetings, members of Pence's staff would challenge Fauci in front of the task force. At other times, Troye said, White House officials simply brushed off Fauci's warnings.

"It was horrifying," Troye said. "It's the amateurs versus the experts. Except the amateurs have all the power."

Also caught in that crossfire have been Dr. Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and Redfield, the embattled CDC chief who was heard complaining about Atlas during a telephone call on an airplane earlier this month.

Hahn last week found himself at odds with Trump after the President trashed new FDA standards for emergency approval of a coronavirus vaccine. The President suggested the moves were political and meant to delay a vaccine until after November 3.

Meanwhile, Redfield has been encouraged to speak out against the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic as his agency suffers major reputational damage, including in a letter last week from arguably the most respected director in CDC history, Dr. William Foege.

The scathing critique of Redfield by Foege was unprecedented. After considering responding to the letter, CDC spokesman Paul Fulton Jr. told CNN the agency and Redfield had "nothing more to add at this time."

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