“It always ladders to the top,” said one person helping advise the administration’s response, who noted that Trump’s aides discouraged Azar from briefing the president about the coronavirus threat back in January. “Trump’s created an atmosphere where the judgment of his staff is that he shouldn’t need to know these things.”
Interviews with 13 current and former officials, as well as individuals close to the White House, painted a picture of a president who rewards those underlings who tell him what he wants to hear while shunning those who deliver bad news. For instance, aides heaped praise on Trump for his efforts to lock down travel from China — appealing to the president’s comfort zone of border security — but failed to convey the importance of doing simultaneous community testing, which could have uncovered a potential U.S. outbreak. Government officials and independent scientists now fear that the coronavirus has been silently spreading in the United States for weeks, as unexplained cases have popped up in more than 25 states.
“It’s a clearly difficult situation when the top wants to hear certain answers,” said one former official who’s briefed the White House. “That can make it difficult for folks to express their true assessment — even the most experienced and independent minds.”