‘Alex Azar Anonymous’: Trump health officials create club to counter former HHS chief

“I know how this goes: everyone has a different perspective,” Hahn said in an interview. “I wanted to tell what happened and why it happened and the perspective we had.”

In calls and text messages, group members exchanged notes, compared memories and sent updates on media requests and interview opportunities, said four people with knowledge of the matter.

On one occasion, a virtual meeting included former Health Department spokesman and Trump loyalist Michael Caputo, though he told POLITICO he joined just to share an update on his recovery from cancer and relay the veteran investigative reporter’s queries. Bob Woodward, who is writing another book. about the Trump administration.

The sessions once again brought together most of the so-called “Group of doctors” who sat on the White House coronavirus task force and originally came together to resist then-President Donald Trump’s push to widely reopen the country without sufficiently containing a virus that would kill nearly 550,000 Americans and counting.

And in A nod to his individual battles with Azar, some have jokingly referred to the group privately as “AAA,” or Alex Azar Anonymous, according to a person in direct contact with several members. No one involved in the effort confirmed the name when contacted for comment.

Birx and Verma declined to comment for this story, 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 upcoming books and television specials, with little expectation that the previous administration will be vindicated in those stories.

Trump himself is sitting down for at least a dozen of those flashbacks. And among many other former administration officials, there is growing anguish over how his role will ultimately play out in the government’s chaotic Covid response.

Much of the dysfunction surrounding the management response has been documented in the press in real time. POLITICO reported on efforts within HHS to water down the CDC’s guidance, the way a Caputo aide berated government science officials he accused of being disloyal to Trump, and Azar’s steps to cement control over his department.

But new first-hand accounts of high-profile clashes between former senior health officials are likely to play a prominent role in the new accounts, shedding light on how Disagreements and deteriorating relationships crippled political priorities and contributed to the confusion surrounding the response to the pandemic.

HHS leaders, including Azar, fought with Hahn over a series of policies and personnel decisions over the past year that worried officials and distracted them from the broader work of the pandemic. Both fields fought on authority amid Covid’s response and accused the other of trying to undermine them in the press.

Redfield and career CDC officials faced constant political interference over their scientific determinations, including from Caputo, who at the same time was viewed with caution 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 were concerned that Azar was leaking negative information about the virus’s handling of Trump to improve his own image.

Hahn, Redfield and Verma bonded over their mutual difficulties with Azar and his top aides, commiserating with the hostile work environment and the perception that Azar was uniquely focused on remaining in Trump’s good will. Among the reasons they met again after the administration was concern that Azar, a skilled infantry fighter, was orchestrating favorable coverage for him, several people said.

For their part, Azar and his side saw agency heads as insubordinate and were angered in cases where they bypassed the department to coordinate anti-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 further consolidated in the weeks since, as the stress of the daily combat within the administration gave way to debates among a number of former Trump appointees about whether and how to tell their stories.

A CNN special next Sunday on the response to the pandemic has sparked rampant speculation among HHS alumni about what will be revealed and, just as important, who will be blamed for the various errors by the administration.

Hahn, Birx and Redfield attended lengthy interviews for the show, as did top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who now advises 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 contestants are concerned about how their appearances will be framed, several people said, especially after CNN debuted a dramatic promo that featured the special as something of a confessional: “COVID War: Pandemic Doctors Speak Out”.

“I did not criticize Secretary Azar, I spoke about how the relationship was often tense and difficult, but that was all in the press,” Hahn told POLITICO. “I don’t think it’s a secret.”

Former Covid response officials are also concerned by rumors that Paul Mango, who was Azar’s deputy chief of staff for policy, is working on a revealing book on Covid’s response and his role in Operation Warp Speed, the accelerator. of vaccines from the previous administration. .

In an interview, Mango said he has “put a lot of pencil on paper” but has yet to decide whether to write a book detailing his management experience.

“I don’t know exactly how I’m going to use it, but I want to make sure the story has a clear story,” he said, reflecting that publishers would have a bidding war of their own. “There were some real moments that were hot moments between certain people that would make the story a little bit exciting.”

Mango lashed out at some of his former colleagues, arguing that only he and Azar were fully aware of the vaccine development effort, widely seen as a rare success story in responding to the Trump pandemic. He dismissed many of the criticisms of Azar as others “trying to protect their own reputations.”

“I have never seen such dishonest, unethical and unprofessional behavior as I have seen in the federal government,” he said. “[Azar] he didn’t get a hand of aces, and you have to deal with what you’ve got. ”

Other former Trump health officials described being inundated with interview requests over the past two months, including for books in the pipeline from two separate groups of Washington Post reporters seeking to piece together the events of last year.

Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s first FDA commissioner to remain in close contact with administration officials during the Covid response, will also publish a book in July. And Andy Slavitt, now a senior advisor to Biden’s Covid response team, has also written a book on pandemics to be published in June.

Slavitt said his account, which is labeled the “inside story of how leadership failures, politics and selfishness doomed the US coronavirus response,” is based on interviews with Azar and others involved in the response. , as well as in your own interactions with Birx. , former senior White House 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 office.

Only Birx has conducted other on-camera interviews, during which she said she constantly thought about leaving her White House job and had to deal privately with “outside advisers” who presented Trump with conflicting data on the pandemic.

Records among the small group of former Trump officials have declined in recent weeks, Hahn said, but the group’s main foundation remains.

“If they attacked one person, they attacked all of us and we were going to stay one behind the other,” he said of the pact they signed during the height of the response to the pandemic. “I wanted to make sure people understood that, and that was really the pointy edge of the stick for me.”

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