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Birx rightly said most US Covid-19 deaths were preventable. But she won’t acknowledge her complicity.

The former Trump health official’s comments to Sanjay Gupta and the ensuing backlash, briefly explained.

Birx looks on as Trump speaks during a press briefing on March 20, 2020.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of former President Donald Trump’s failed coronavirus response, is facing criticism after making an obvious but notable claim in a new CNN documentary: that the vast majority of the US’s nearly 550,000 coronavirus deaths could’ve been prevented.

“I look at it this way: The first time, we have an excuse. There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge,” Birx told CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta. “All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

In sum, Birx suggested that thousands of American deaths were all but unavoidable as a result of the initial surge of the coronavirus in February and March of last year. But she said better adherence to public health guidelines — including mask-wearing and social distancing — could’ve saved the lives of many of the 450,000 people (and counting) in the US who have died since then.

While Birx’s suggestion that as many as 100,000 deaths were too difficult to prevent is arguable — a better-prepared federal government could have limited spread and saved lives by building out a testing infrastructure much more quickly than the one overseen by Trump, for instance — her conclusion that many lives could have been saved is absolutely correct.

And yet her comments on CNN have brought her fresh criticism anyway, as they failed to address her own role in the Trump administration’s response.

Indeed, a look back at the historical record makes clear that Birx was not a victim of circumstance.

Birx helped create a distorted picture of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response

There’s something important Birx has yet to acknowledge in her CNN interview or elsewhere: that she contributed to the problem by whitewashing Trump’s incompetence instead of sounding the alarm about it.

To cite the most notorious example, CNN’s coronavirus documentary aired almost exactly one year to the day after Birx went on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and effusively praised Trump as being “so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data” in a clip that was viral then and went viral again with Birx’s new interview.

But what was already clear by the time of that CBN interview was that Trump was behaving the opposite of what Birx wanted people to believe. Instead of listening to public health experts, Trump spent the earliest months of the pandemic saying the coronavirus would go away on its own “like a miracle,” dismissing efforts by Democrats to take it more seriously as “a hoax,” and then pushed to reopen churches and businesses even as the virus spread unchecked.

That the Trump White House was engaged in politically motivated wishful thinking instead of trying to save lives was painfully obvious by late March 2020. And yet Birx opted to try and stay in Trump’s good graces instead of telling the public the truth.

Intentionally or not, Birx repeatedly misled people on Trump’s behalf. During a briefing in April of last year, for instance, she cherry-picked numbers from sparsely populated states to make it seem like cases were declining across the country when they actually weren’t. There were numerous occasions in which she appeared to go out of her way to run interference for poor decisions Trump made, ranging from defending his refusal to wear a mask to cajoling the CDC to exclude presumed positive cases from the coronavirus death count.

But, as Birx told Gupta, even this wasn’t enough to prevent Trump from turning on her.

Last August, Birx went on CNN and acknowledged a truth that was obvious to anyone who wasn’t guzzling the Trump Kool-Aid — that the coronavirus was “widespread” in “both rural and urban” areas, and “that is why we keep saying, no matter where you live in America, you need to wear a mask and socially distance, do the personal hygiene pieces.” But those comments set off Trump, who she said called her to instigate an “uncomfortable conversation” that was borderline threatening.

“That was a very difficult time because everyone inside the White House was upset with that interview,” Birx told Gupta. “I think you’ve heard the conversations people have posted with [Trump]. I would say it was even more direct than what people have heard ... It was very uncomfortable, very direct, and very difficult to hear.”

While she was a fixture at Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings — including an infamous incident in which Trump suggested to her that disinfectant injections or sunlight treatments could be miracle cures for the coronavirus — Birx faded into the background following her August CNN interview. She wasn’t heard from again nationally until the weekend after Trump left the White House in January, when she did an interview with CBS that kicked off an effort to rehabilitate her image.

In a separate interview for CNN’s coronavirus documentary, Dr. Anthony Fauci — who unlike Birx was more critical of the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response, and who continues to serve in government as a medical adviser to President Joe Biden — defended Birx, arguing that he had more freedom to speak out than she did because Birx’s office was literally in the White House.

And it should be noted that while Trump administration officials may have prevented Birx from doing national TV interviews following her August appearance on CNN, she did spend the fall traveling to states to consult with them about how best to handle the coronavirus response.

At no point, however, did Birx acknowledge the obvious truth: that she was working for a president who was unwilling to prioritize American lives over his hope of winning another term. And that, tragically, is what she will be best remembered for.