With the novel coronavirus pandemic impossible to ignore out of existence, President Donald Trump has found a new foil -- in science.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented 11 times across nine federal agencies when it says the Trump administration's attacks on science have directly undermined the federal government's response to the crisis, including the stalling of Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidance and changing COVID-19 data collection services to be housed under the Department of Health and Human Services instead of the CDC.
It cites more than 150 attacks on science by the Trump administration since he took office from rolling back climate change safeguards to altering scientific content on federal websites.
"This is not normal. This is an egregious pattern of ignoring, sidelining, and censoring the voices of scientists and their research," wrote the organization's research analyst Anita Desikan in a blogpost Monday. "By shifting policymaking away from science-based decisionmaking, the Trump administration is prioritizing political concerns at the expense of all our health and safety."
The nonprofit science advocacy organization argues there has never been a clearer example of the Trump administration's "willful disregard of science" than with the coronavirus pandemic.
"To protect our very lives, it is more important than ever that we, the American people, have unfettered access to federal scientists," Desikan added.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews, when presented with the organization's charge, said in a statement to ABC News on Thursday that Trump has "always acted on the recommendations of his top public health experts throughout this crisis as evidenced by the many bold, data-driven decisions he has made to save millions of lives."
But in an effort to paint a rosy picture of his administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the president has undermined and sidelined the nation's top health experts, most recently coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, criticizing her in a tweet a day after she warned the virus is "extraordinarily widespread."
Trump's self-described strategy of "positive thinking" is preventing him from seeing the grim reality before him and is forcing him to undermine the scientific community, some experts say.
Relating pro-hydroxychloroquine and anti-masking movements to existing anti-vaxers and climate change deniers, Dr. Neil Schluger, chairman of the department of medicine at New York College of Medicine, told ABC News the mixed messaging can lead to a further mistrust of scientists.
"There's always been people, for all sorts of reasons, who don't believe or trust experts. ... But it's an unusual circumstance when parts of the government who don't have expertise about these things are promoting a point of view that is against the agencies weighing in," Schluger said. "It is a bit of a shocking moment for the scientific community to see its credibility questioned in the way it is."
At odds with the facts
From the early days of the pandemic, Trump has relentlessly defended his approach to the crisis and presented ideas that fly in the face of most scientific recommendations -- from holding mega-rallies across the country and touting an unproven drug, to suggesting the potential of injecting bleach as therapy -- that were at odds with the data and warnings of his own health officials.
Now, as deaths increase in more than 30 states according to an ABC analysis of the COVID Tracking Project, Trump is sticking to an anti-science sentiment saying this week the "virus is receding" and that "this thing is going away."
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a public forum hosted by Harvard School of Public Health on Monday "there is a degree of anti-science feeling in this country," on the heels of telling lawmakers just last week that he does not believe the coronavirus will disappear "because it's such a highly transmissible virus."
As Trump pushes "Operation Warp Speed" to create a viral vaccine in record-breaking time, he may be setting himself up for another conflict with the challenges of science. He said in a radio interview on Thursday that a vaccine could be expected right around Election Day, which is on Nov. 3.
This timeline contradicts public health and vaccine experts saying that a vaccine will more likely be available at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021 -- and even when a vaccine is approved, there's the hurdle of distributing it.
"The vaccine is really a larger reflection about how Trump is more concentrated on the outcomes, rather than the path to the outcome and learning from that path," said Dr. Alfred Kim, assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. "It also puts massive pressures on the scientific community and becomes a danger to the public when false expectations are set."
Hydroxychloroquine: Trump's first 'game changer'
Trump's tendency to set up false expectations is clear in his persistent push for a miracle drug.
Contradicting the Food and Drug Administration and the medical community at-large, Trump continues to tout the promise of hydroxychloroquine, a drug still unproven to treat COVID-19.
The anti-malaria drug, which Trump introduced in March as a "game changer" and later said he took as a prophylactic, had its emergency authorization use revoked by the FDA in June before citing "serious heart rhythm problems and other safety issues."
Rather than acknowledging the new scientific information, Trump has doubled down his support and claims the drug was only discredited because of politics against him.
"Hydroxy has tremendous support, but politically it is toxic, because I supported it," Trump told White House reporters Monday, a week after tweeting a misleading video promoting the drug, which was later flagged by Twitter for disinformation and taken down.
Coronavirus testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir, however, told NBC on Sunday that he "can't recommend" hydroxychloroquine at this time and that it was time to "move on."
And Fauci told ABC's "Good Morning America" last month that "the overwhelming, prevailing clinical trials that have looked at the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine have indicated that it is not effective in coronavirus disease."
Kim said with regard to hydroxychloroquine that "there was this need to be able to grab onto some hope that there is a therapy, so we can say we can overcome this problem."
"But the reality was, since we didn't know very much about COVID in the first place, that any conclusions, especially early on, should have to be taken with a substantial amount of skepticism," he added.
Undermining the scientists
While Trump has regularly taken an issue with science when it contradicts his own world view, he has recently ramped up his attacks as the consequences of his push toward "Opening Up America Again" have come into question.
In the face of growing criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx broke from Trump by offering a grim assessment of the resurgence of cases to CNN Sunday, saying the pandemic is "extraordinarily widespread" in rural as well as urban areas.
She also expressed concern at opening schools in areas of high community spread as Trump continues his push for full in-person instruction. Trump slammed Birx's performance for the first time, tweeting, "in order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait and hit us -- pathetic."
The president dialed it back by Monday evening, saying in a press conference he has "a lot of respect" for Birx but would not answer a follow-up question on whether his characterization of the virus aligned with that of the task force doctor.
The Washington Post reported on the same day that the amount of time Birx spends in the Oval Office has decreased in recents weeks.
Before Trump reversed on Birx, he and White House aides appeared to undermine Fauci, with Trump even retweeting on multiple occasions the hashtag "Fire Fauci."
Trump has openly and repeatedly said he disagrees with the doctor's blunt assessments of the country's testing capability and outlook of the spread since March. In July, Trump started saying Fauci "made a lot of mistakes," falsely blaming him for the government's reversal on masks.
One top Trump aide even published an op-ed in USA Today trashing the nation's top expert on infectious diseases as never having been right on anything since they met.
The consequences to sidelining science
Dr. Sara Tariq, a professor of medicine and associate dean at the University of Arkansas Medical School, told ABC News that she's concerned science is being sidelined at a critical time.
"I'm very concerned that our nation is sidelining data and reasoning and science and statistics in light of the sort of individualistic approach to how we as Americans deal with adversity," Tariq said. "Our sense of self-liberty is very strong, but I worry that it's those same things that make us amazing -- our liberty, our individualism, our freedom -- in this situation, are really harming us."
Fauci told FiveThirtyEight last month the country's hyper-partisan environment has made it more difficult to suppress the virus: "I think you'd have to admit that that's the case."
"You have to be having blindfolders on and covering your ears to think that we don't live in a very divisive society now, from a political standpoint," he said. "You'd have to make the assumption that if there wasn't such divisiveness, that we would have a more coordinated approach."
Task force doctors like Fauci and Birx have largely resorted to cable news interviews and expert panels to provide updates directly to the public for the past two months, as opposed to flanking the president at briefings.
Dr. Schluger argues there's also a responsibility that falls on scientists to learn how better to disseminate information to the public themselves and not rely on government agencies or media, intertwined in politics, to relay the facts accurately.
"The scientific community is going to have to figure out how -- how to communicate better with the general public and how to convince people that, frankly, there is such a thing as expertise," he said.
ABC News' Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.
What to know about the coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
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