In “Preventable,” his new book detailing the federal government’s failures in mitigating the pandemic, Andy Slavitt writes that he met Birx last August in Minnesota after briefing local officials. Once a close advisor to Trump, she had been excluded from his inner circle at that time and replaced by Dr Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no epidemiological experience whom Trump had hired after seeing him on Fox News.
Left out of her once important role, Birx has spent her days traveling the country and providing detailed data to government officials. It was at one of those briefings in Minnesota that she invited Slavitt to attend.
“I wanted to know if, in the event of a tense government transition, she would help give Biden and his team the best chance at being effective,” Slavitt writes in his new book, even though the election result was not still known.
“At one point, after a brief pause, she looked me in the eye and said, ‘I hope the election goes a certain way,'” Slavitt writes. “I had the most important information I needed.”
CNN has reached out to Birx for comment.
For the past six months, Slavitt has been Biden’s senior advisor on the response to Covid-19. This position in front of the public included regular television appearances and weekly briefings with reporters. Slavitt stepped down from that role Thursday, citing a 130-day limit for special government employees. His new book, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, comes out Tuesday.
Prior to serving in the Biden administration, Slavitt played a quieter role in the pandemic response by watching Trump play it down from the outside. Slavitt advised several officials while Trump was in office, including in phone conversations with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner where he urged them to take him more seriously and put more emphasis on testing.
During their conversation last August, Birx told Slavitt she was “completely silenced” and not allowed to make national media appearances. It was a turning point from Birx’s earlier proximity to Trump, which included regular briefings to reporters and private consultations in the Oval Office.
“Fighting the virus and Scott Atlas together is the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” Birx said as she briefed officials with Slavitt in the room last August, he wrote.
These measures have often drawn strong criticism from public health officials, who said Birx was covering up Trump’s unscientific claims while providing him with cover. Others have defended Birx, pointing to the long hours she has spent collecting data used to make critical decisions. In her conversation with Slavitt, Birx appeared to acknowledge the damage to her reputation.
“I have no illusions about my career in government,” she told him.
“She was downright scared”
Slavitt writes that when he met Birx in August, “his precocious optimism was long gone.” According to him, “at the end of October 2020, she was beyond all that; she was downright scared”.
Although Birx has indicated that she is ready to serve in the Biden administration after winning the election, she quietly announced her retirement in December.
Slavitt previously worked in the Obama administration on the Healthcare.gov website and was also an interim administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
He did not work in the White House during the Trump presidency, but was able to provide insight into their handling of the pandemic as he had been in contact with Kushner since April 2020. He privately advised Kushner to push back the auto -imposition of Trump. Easter reopening deadline, and also pushed back when Kushner told him once that states should be in charge of testing.
“Some of them clearly don’t want to succeed,” Slavitt said, Kushner told him of governors in April 2020. “Bad incentives to keep blaming us.”
Slavitt writes that he had been in contact with several governors and told Kushner that was not true.
HHS chief had little influence over Trump, book says
Slavitt also knew several of the Trump administration’s most prominent health officials, including then-US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who contacted Slavitt ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing in 2017.
During this conversation, Slavitt asked Azar how he could push Trump away if it became necessary.
“The president and I have talked about it. And he knows I have a strong will,” Azar told Slavitt, according to the book. CNN has reached out to Azar for comment.
Azar would become one of the first health officials to warn Trump of Covid-19 in January 2020. But his tenure as head of the department that would be critical to the federal government’s response has been marred by chaos and infighting. It also underscored how little influence Azar had over the president.
Slavitt writes that Azar oversaw “a series of unforced errors,” including early problems and restrictions within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding testing, and quotes a former senior official in the administration who told him that Azar had been almost fired and replaced by CMS administrator Sema Verma.
Slavitt also writes that Vice President Mike Pence’s director of communications, Katie Miller, issued a directive around March 2020 that “HHS was not authorized to post a communication causing public concern.” After Azar offered talking points that the situation in the United States was under control “but could change quickly,” Miller strongly rejected the suggested statement and removed Azar from a scheduled appearance on “Fox & Friends” the next morning. In February, Pence staff tried to tighten up the message by asking all officials to coordinate the statements through their office. Miller told CNN that this policy was not specific to Azar. But Slavitt writes in his book that there was one for him.
“He was banned from doing media for 45 days,” Slavitt writes, despite being the secretary of the HHS as a pandemic rapidly spread across the world.