Scott Atlas, the perfect Trump official, steps down
WASHINGTON - Dr. Scott Atlas, the controversial coronavirus adviser to the White House, left federal employment the same way he did: with an appearance on Fox News.
It was the Stanford neuroradiologist's interviews about President Trump's former favorite source of information that led to his appointment in August in a position he appeared to have little experience in. And it was the same network that broke the story Monday night that Atlas left Washington after a seemingly unproductive and contentious tenure, even by the standards of the past four years.
President Trump and Dr. Scott Atlas on September 23 at the White House (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
After his resignation, Atlas spoke to Tucker Carlson, the Fox News primetime host, throwing himself up as a victim of conventional wisdom. "We see that objective journalism is almost dead, and I think we have now seen that science has been politicized and is very, very dangerous," said Atlas with no apparent hint of self-awareness.
"I think we should all be concerned," he added.
In his resignation letter (first received and published by Fox News), Atlas said his goal at the White House was to "provide Trump with" the best information to serve the common good ". He is now likely to return to Stanford, where the faculty recently denounced him for an approach to the coronavirus that "contradicts basic research."
Nearly 90,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since Atlas began his tenure at the White House where he met Dr. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx as physicians who seem to have the greatest access to the President's ear. But when a devastating fall wave of the virus began, Trump wasn't particularly concerned about the pandemic. With the prospect of re-election dwindling, he urged that society reopen as soon as possible, believing an economic revival would save his doomed second term bid.
Atlas served largely to reinforce that message, undermining longtime public health experts both inside and outside the federal government. He went on Russian state television and then apologized. He threatened the Michigan governor and then apologized. He slandered face masks. He cited incorrect numbers and pushed for dangerous concepts, most notably the idea that the free circulation of the virus would lead to collective vaccination known as "herd immunity".
A medical worker takes a COVID-19 patient's pulse on Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. (Go Nakamura / Getty Images)
However, before the United States could achieve anything near herd immunity - which would happen if an estimated 70 percent of the population were infected and battled with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus - society would have to get the virus through burn and kill hundreds of thousands of people, according to most epidemiologists. Atlas skipped that part.
His departure from his post on Monday was accordingly greeted with some relief, as another sign that Trump was on his way out while President-elect Joe Biden was busy building a more capable coronavirus team.
"His time has been marred by a deluge of misinformation, from promoting anti-mask quackery to falsehoods about testing," tweeted Dr. Ashish Jha, an epidemiologist who runs the Brown Public Health School.
Atlas may have been unconventional to common officials, but in his relentless desire to contradict and irritate the establishment - "owning the libraries," as the Twitter meme says - he was the perfect Trump appointee. In this sense, Atlas was no different from other past officials who refused to obey the rules or play well with others. This stance has led countless government officials - from chief strategist Steve Bannon to ex-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt - to make negative headlines and force the White House into an increasingly defensive stance that is difficult to maintain over time.
In the end, Atlas apparently learned that even a government that lives on chaos has its limits. It was an expensive lesson because he held a position of immense importance that a qualified medical professional could have used to make scientifically sound recommendations. Instead, Atlas used his bully's pulpit to falsely claim that masks weren't working, which resulted in one of his messages being deleted from Twitter.
That deletion may have endeared him to conservatives who have ever been aware of social media bias, but not to many exhausted Americans who simply want to leave the pandemic behind, let alone his colleagues on the coronavirus task force.
Dr. Robert Redfield testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Sept. 23 (Alex Edelman / AFP via Getty Images)
"Everything he says is wrong," said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on an airplane in late September. And that didn't stop Atlas from saying it, even as the death toll from the coronavirus topped a quarter of a million Americans and states bracing for another round of bans.
Atlas almost seemed to enjoy undermining advice he hadn't yet consented to. After the Michigan governor issued new restrictions, Atlas urged the people to "stand up" against them. If he'd listened to the news, Atlas would have known that right-wing militias had threatened to kidnap the governor. If he had disapproved of bans so vehemently, he could easily have convened a discussion with doctors, governors, nurses, and teachers about how to properly handle a spike in cases.
He also tried to take up a fight with Fauci, whose warnings had irritated the president. But the Brooklyn-born immunologist deflected the attacks without taking the bait. "I have real problems with this guy," said Fauci, wiping him off like Atlas was little more than a schoolhouse bully.
Trump wondered if he could fire Fauci after the election. Instead, Atlas is now gone while Fauci - a senior official - is slated to advise the Biden administration on Jan. 20.
A zealous culture warrior, Atlas was hailed on his departure by passionate pro-Trump vendors like the Federalist, undoing his claim that he was the victim of the culture of annulment for speaking difficult truths.
Dr. Anthony Fauci. (Jabin Botsford / the Washington Post via Getty Images)
In fact, most health professionals agreed that they were hardly truth. Atlas and his followers have long touted Sweden for its sloppy approach to the pandemic, arguing that herd immunity would save both the nation's economy and its citizens as long as vulnerable populations stay to themselves while everyone else frolics in beer gardens, maskless and unencumbered and restaurants.
The main argument against this approach is Sweden itself, which has not achieved the herd immunity promised by Atlas. "We are not seeing any signs of immunity in the population," said the Swedish state epidemiologist last week, confirming what many had feared about the Swedish experiment.
When he left, Atlas posed as an iconoclast who had gotten out of hand because of his original thinking. On the day of his resignation, there were 168,000 new coronavirus infections in the United States.
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