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'People Rolled Their Eyes': A Look Inside The White House Pandemic Response 

White House physician Sean Conley answers questions surrounded by other doctors, during an update on the condition of US President Donald Trump, on October 4, 2020, at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
White House physician Sean Conley answers questions surrounded by other doctors, during an update on the condition of US President Donald Trump, on October 4, 2020, at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

“What you’re seeing is a continuing undermining of career dedicated professionals and the data and facts.” – Olivia Troye


Mixed signals and information from the White House. Uncertainty around the truth of the president’s health. A former adviser to the White House COVID-19 taskforce discusses her own time in the Trump White House, and what President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis means for the United States.

Guest

Olivia Troye, former homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus adviser for Vice President Mike Pence. She left her post in August. ( @OliviaTroye)

Interview Highlights

Can you take us inside the White House prior to your departure in August? What was the attitude around mask wearing?

Olivia Troye: “The West Wing is very small. People work in very close proximity to each other. And in this situation, it would be prudent for every single person to be wearing a mask, just as a precaution for themselves and each other, their families, and also for the president and the vice president. But, as much as Dr. Conley tried to implement protocols — and others, I know the deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, spoke out very strongly about this from day one. He was one of the first people to be wearing a mask back in January. No one really adhered to the policy. It just wasn’t taken seriously. It’s like we lived in the White House bubble where somehow we thought that this virus wouldn’t penetrate. But that’s just not how the virus works. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter where you are.”

So it sounds like there was pressure to not wear masks?

Olivia Troye: “I was always very cognizant. … I washed my hands every day. I tried everything I could do to not touch common surfaces. Because for me, I didn’t want to be that person who infected the vice president, who I worked very closely with. And I think it was just a culture where people in the White House at the most senior political levels, never took it seriously. They, at times, just didn’t think it was real. They thought it was overblown. And when you walked into the room with a mask, you got the looks. And people rolled their eyes. It was just a very awkward situation.”

How would you judge what the White House has been doing around the facts of the president’s health over the past couple of days?

Olivia Troye: “I think it’s a prime case of the White House spin, and how they’ve handled the pandemic overall. … What you’re seeing on TV with Dr. Conley is the struggle that the experts and the doctors on the task force have faced every single day. I saw it firsthand. Where he is trying to give candid, accurate information. But I can tell you, I’m sure that he is getting bullied behind the scenes saying, you’ve got to stay on message. For a Navy officer, who I know has integrity, I know this has got to be very hard for him to walk this fine line where he is trying. You know, I don’t believe that he is lying. I think he is trying to tell the truth in a manner that is true to who he is and the oath of office that he took when he chose to serve in the military.

“But I also think that the dynamics around him to play down the president’s condition, if that is indeed the case, are wrong. I mean, the American public deserves to know what is happening with our commander in chief. What is going on? Is the vice president ready? Is he taking over? I mean, where is it? And I think the president, he does not like to show weakness and he does not waver on the fact that he will not let go of that office no matter what. And I think this is just very poorly managed by the chief of staff Mark Meadows, and everyone who is messaging contradictory to each other. This is how you end up in the crisis that we’re in today with a pandemic on how it’s still playing out.”

You said you’re sure that Dr. Conley is being bullied behind the scenes. Bullied by whom?

Olivia Troye: “I would say the highest ranks within the White House. The communications teams. The president’s own family members. I have seen this. I have seen how they behave when you’re just a public servant trying to do the right thing. We are in a public health emergency and crisis. This response, it’s no different than the way they had behaved when the national security community and the intelligence community have tried to give warnings on other areas of national security concerns, such as foreign adversaries or the election. What you’re seeing is a continuing undermining of career dedicated professionals and the data and facts. And you’re watching it play firsthand now directly with the president, and his condition and his life.”

When you mentioned the president’s own family members, can you tell us specifically who and what you’re talking about?

Olivia Troye: “I can tell you for a fact that Jared Kushner himself never took this virus seriously. I offered to social distance. There were times when I felt uncomfortable, because I realized he is the president’s son in law. … Sometimes he would ask why I wasn’t sitting at the table or sitting next to him. And I would say, I’m trying to be respectful of you and me. And I’m looking at the vice president at the end of the table. And I’m thinking, you’re the president’s son in law. You should be taking this seriously. You should be protecting your father in law and the commander in chief, and the vice president and all of us.

“And it was just frustrating because he waved me off and said an expletive and said, I’m not bothered with that. I’m not concerned about it. And that is just a plain disregard from day one that has been the case. And that is a prime example of a person who is in the inner circle with great influence and steering the direction of this pandemic response. And he has the audacity to sort of behave in a manner that is so cavalier when there are high stakes here.”

Where is the vice president during all this chaos? Do you think he is being bullied?

Olivia Troye: “I have seen the vice president be put in impossible positions repeatedly. Throughout especially this pandemic, and through other situations in my over two years of tenure working on his national security team and staff. And I hope that he is taking the right precautions. And I certainly hope that his own chief of staff and his immediate staff are being very cognizant of the fact that all of them have potentially been exposed to the virus. And they need to be very careful. Because at the end of the day, he is in line to assume responsibility should something happen to the president. And I know the vice president. I know he takes his role very seriously. And I hope that he is heeding the advice of those around them.”

On takeaways from her experience in the White House

Olivia Troye: “It’s something that I think about every single day. I reflect on it before I go to bed. It has bothered me every single day in my role in the White House. And just morally, it was a struggle when I worked there. And as hard as this has been to talk about this —  and I’ll get off interviews, and I will feel emotionally drained because it’s so real to me. But it’s so important. It’s so important that people really understand firsthand what has led us to where we are today.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.