In “Preventable,” his new book detailing the federal government’s failures on mitigating the pandemic, Andy Slavitt writes that he met with Birx last August in Minnesota after she briefed local officials. Once a close adviser to Trump, she had been cast out of his inner circle by that time and replaced by Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no epidemiological experience whom Trump hired after watching him on Fox News.
Sidelined from her once prominent role, Birx spent her days traveling the country and providing detailed data to government officials. It was one of those briefings in Minnesota that she invited Slavitt to attend.
“I wanted to get a sense for whether, in the event of a strained transition of government, she would help give Biden and his team the best chance to be effective,” Slavitt writes in his new book, even though the outcome of the election was not yet known.
“At one point, after a brief pause, she looked me in the eye and said, ‘I hope the election turns out a certain way,'” Slavitt writes. “I had the most important information I needed.”
CNN has reached out to Birx for comment.
For the last six months, Slavitt has served as Biden’s senior adviser on the Covid-19 response. That public-facing position included regular television appearances and weekly briefings with reporters. Slavitt stepped down from that role on Thursday, citing a 130-day limit on special government employees. His new book, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, comes out Tuesday.
Before serving in the Biden administration, Slavitt played a quieter role in the pandemic response as he watched Trump downplay it from the outside. Slavitt advised several officials while Trump was in office, including in phone conversations with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, where he urged them to take it more seriously and place greater emphasis on testing.
During their conversation last August, Birx told Slavitt she had been “completely silenced” and was not allowed to make appearances on national media. It was a sharp turn from Birx’s earlier proximity to Trump, which included regular briefings in front of 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 writes.
Those moves often elicited strong criticism from public health officials, who said Birx was papering over Trump’s unscientific statements while providing him cover. Others defended Birx, pointing to the long hours she worked gathering data used to make critical decisions. In her conversation with Slavitt, Birx appeared to recognize the damage to her reputation.
“I have no illusions about my career in government,” she told him.
Slavitt writes that when he met with Birx in August, “her early optimism was long gone.” According to him, “at the end of October 2020, she was beyond all of that; she was downright scared.”
Although Birx had indicated she was open to serving in the Biden administration after he won the election, she quietly announced her retirement in December.
Slavitt previously worked in the Obama administration on the healthcare.gov website and also served as the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
He did not work at the White House during the Trump presidency, but was able to provide an inside look at their handling of the pandemic because he had been in contact with Kushner since April 2020. He privately advised Kushner to push back Trump’s self-imposed reopening deadline of Easter, and also pushed back when Kushner once told him states should be in charge of testing.
“Some of them clearly don’t want to succeed,” Slavitt says Kushner told him regarding governors in April 2020. “Bad incentives to keep blaming us.”
Slavitt writes that he had been in touch with several governors and told Kushner that wasn’t true.
Slavitt was also familiar with several of the most prominent health officials in the Trump administration, including then-US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who had reached out to Slavitt ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing in 2017.
During that conversation, Slavitt asked Azar how he would be able push back on Trump if it became necessary.
“The President and I talked about this. And he knows I’m of strong will,” Azar told Slavitt, according to the book. CNN has reached out to Azar for comment.
Azar would go on to be one of the first health officials to warn Trump about Covid-19 in January 2020. But his tenure leading the department that would be critical to the federal government’s response was marked by chaos and infighting. It also highlighted how little influence Azar had on the President.
Slavitt writes that Azar oversaw “a series of unforced errors,” including the early troubles and restrictions within the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over tests, and quotes a former senior administration official who told him Azar was almost fired and replaced with CMS administrator Seema Verma.
Slavitt also writes that Vice President Mike Pence’s communications director, Katie Miller, had issued a directive around March 2020 that “HHS was not permitted to issue any communication that raised concern among the public.” After Azar had proposed talking points that the situation in the US was under control “but could change rapidly,” Miller soundly rejected the suggested statement and pulled Azar from a planned appearance on “Fox & Friends” the next morning. In February, Pence’s staff attempted to tighten the messaging by directing all officials to coordinate statements through their office. Miller told CNN this policy was not specific to Azar. But Slavitt writes in his book that there was one directed at him.
“He was prohibited from doing any media for 45 days,” Slavitt writes, despite being the HHS secretary while a pandemic was spreading rapidly throughout the globe.