Archives for category: Propaganda

NPE ACTION’S NEW PROJECT TO BRING TALES FROM THE FRONTLINES OF PUBLIC SCHOOL ADVOCACY

Public schools remain incredibly popular among Americans across the political spectrum, even under the strains of a global pandemic and a divisive political culture being inflamed by opportunists seeking to push radical, unpopular agendas. Parents, students, volunteers, and communities who rely on and cherish their public schools deserve to be heard now more than ever. Public Voices for Public Schools, a community project of the Network for Public Education Action, launches today with tales from the frontlines of public school advocacy.

Unfortunately, public education in America has been under systematic attack for decades by an axis of right-wing political radicals, self-appointed reformers, opportunists, segregationists, and wealthy special interests, all working together to dismantle and privatize our treasured public schools. Their efforts have done lasting harm to students and their communities, and it is time those communities have a platform where their stories can be shared.

“After my two sons enrolled in a private school thanks to vouchers, I began to understand that school is about more than academics,” said Dountonia Batts, a former voucher parent. “As charter schools and vouchers expanded, the school system in Indianapolis was falling apart. All of the high schools in our neighborhood had been shut down, even as charter high schools were popping up. I realized I could no longer accept school vouchers for my children because it was unethical.”

People like Batts rarely get a chance to be heard, especially by policymakers who are often targeted for pressure by pro-privatization groups with access to campaign donations and full-time public relations machinery. That’s why Public Voices for Public Schools is so important, as it is a place to elevate the regular people in our community and help them have access to the tools to engage their elected representatives directly.

“Once I understood that our funders wanted us to help them burn down the entire public school system, I realized I had very different intentions than the school reform movement,” said Gloria Evans Nolan, a former Missouri education reformer. “I could see for myself the toll that education “reform” was having on my city. The result was that our sense of community was dropping away. We were also losing our history. Every school I attended is now closed.”

Public Voices for Public Schools will regularly bring you stories from parents like Batts and Nolan, students, academics researching the effects of privatization, along with many others. Visit us at pv4ps.org where you can join our shared community and always be kept up to date. You will learn what you can do to preserve a pillar of our democracy, our neighborhood public schools.
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I recently learned of a rightwing website collecting complaints about school boards, presumably to encourage dissension and hostility at school board meetings.

The School Board Watchlist (SBWL) is America’s only national grassroots initiative dedicated to protecting our children by exposing radical and false ideologies endorsed by school boards and pushed in the classroom. SBWL finds and exposes school board leadership that supports anti-American, radical, hateful, immoral, and racist teachings in their districts, such as Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, sexual/gender ideology, and more. SBWL also provides information on how parents and students can get involved in their local school board and put an end to the racialization of the classroom.

This group wants vigilantes to report their school board if students learn about sexism, racism, and other realities of our past and present. This is McCarthyism revisited.

On the “About Us” page, the group identifies itself as a project of the radical rightwing Turning Points USA. SourceWatch reports on the funders and ideology of Turning Points USA.

Evidently, these people don’t understand that state standards authorize the teaching that they find reprehensible.

Republican leaders in North Carolina, who hold a majority in the General Assembly, but not the Governorship, suspect that liberal teachers are “indoctrinating” their students. Since they won control of the legislature, Republicans have passed legislation for charters and vouchers and displayed an animus for public schools and their teachers. Does it occur to them that the citizens of NC would not have elected them if they were “indoctrinated”?

The parent group Public Schools First NC summarized a recent press conference.

This week, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson was joined by Sens. Deanna Ballard, Phil Berger & Michael Lee & State Supt Catherine Trait at his Tuesday press conference for the release of the “Indoctrination in North Carolina Public Education Report.” These leaders claim that there is widespread indoctrination occurring in public school classrooms across the state. Many public education advocates say the report does not contain substantive or reliable evidence of such assertions. HB324 was written in response to claims of indoctrination and limits what can be taught in classrooms. The bill passed in the Senate this week. All Republicans voted yes, while all Democrats voted no. The bill was then sent to the Governor’s desk. If he vetoes the bill as expected, it will be returned to the legislators who do not appear to be enough votes to overturn the Governor’s veto. Nevertheless, the narrative around the passing of HB324 has increased the strife among educators, parents, and their legislators and is not improving the many financial needs of our schools nor the need for more educators in the classroom. Its impact has been largely negative during this first week of school when larger issues need addressed. Many fear this is another way to undermine and erode our community’s support of our public schools.

According to a statement by the Public School Forum of NC, “A growing body of research demonstrates that inclusive teaching practices that connect academic concepts to the everyday lives and experiences of their students can improve students’ academic outcomes, attendance, brain processing, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills; promote feelings of safety and belonging; and can increase engagement and motivation.”

Legislation that will inhibit the teaching of important concepts including inequity and systemic oppression will not change hard history. Further, this assertion that teachers are indoctrinating their students is simply untrue. “Most educators say that CRT itself isn’t taught in K-12 public schools. Nevertheless, conservative supporters of the bill contend that CRT is at the root of efforts by some teachers to indoctrinate students with what they contend is a liberal political ideology.” See an excellent and more in depth discussion of HBO 324 here.

Teaching history from multiple viewpoints should never be a political issue. We ought to trust and respect educators and know they can hold challenging conversations in their classrooms while respecting differences of opinion. We hope you will take the time to contact your legislators and share your views on this bill.

Katherine Stewart’s new book The Power Worshippers describes the hostility of evangelical Christians to public schools. I reviewed her book along with two others in the New York Review of Books. One of the most interesting insights in her book is that white evangelicals at first tried to mobilize public opinion to protect the tax-exempt status of segregated private schools and universities. When that didn’t work, they found another issue that did: abortion.

But they have never given up on their goal of public funding for religious schools that were free to discriminate and the elimination of public schools.

Last year, no one mentioned “critical race theory.” This year it has become an all-purpose cudgel with which to bash the public schools.

CRT has been used to accuse the public schools of “indoctrinating” students. Like “indoctrinating” them to believe in human equality, justice, and the dignity of all people? CRT has become a rallying cry for those who say that schools teach “socialism,” which is ridiculous unless you happen to think that programs like Social Security and Medicare are “socialism” (ask those who make this claim if they are willing to give up either of those benefits). If any schools “indoctrinate” their students, it is the religious schools seeking vouchers.

Here is the sort of stuff that is being used to organize and provoke outrage among white evangelicals.

Public schools are meant to unite us as a diverse people, to teach us to be good citizens, and to prepare our children for the future. Whatever is taught should be based on fact, in history and in science, not faith or theology.

Readers of this blog are accustomed to the rule “follow the money.” Thus, you should not be surprised that the national campaign to discredit teaching about racism (aka critical race theory) is an obscure rightwing foundation.

Judd Legum and Tesmin Zekeria wrote on a site called “Popular Information” about the activity of the Thomas W. Smith Foundation. In 2020, the authors correctly write, few people outside of law schools had ever heard about CRT. In 2021, CRT has suddenly become “an existential threat” to our nation, a subject of constant discussion at FOX News and other media outlets.

The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has no website and its namesake founder keeps a low public profile. Thomas W. Smith is based in Boca Raton, Florida, and founded a hedge fund called Prescott Investors in 1973. In 2008, the New York Times reported that The Thomas W. Smith Foundation was “dedicated to supporting free markets.”

More information about the foundation can be gleaned from its public tax filings, which are called 990-PFs. The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has more than $24 million in assets. The person who spends the most time working for the group is not Smith but James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. According to the foundation’s 2019 990-PF, Piereson was paid $283,333 to work for The Thomas W. Smith Foundation for 25 hours per week.

The article continues:

Piereson has made clear that he opposes efforts to increase racial or economic equality, even if these efforts are financed by private charities…

In a 2017 column, Piereson criticized liberal philanthropists for focusing on “climate change, income inequality, [and] immigrant rights,” describing these as “radical causes.” He stressed the need for “a counterbalance provided by right-leaning philanthropies.”

Piereson also opposes classes dedicated to the study of women, Black people, or the LGBTQ community in universities, saying these topics lack “academic rigor.”

In the 1960s, universities caved to the demands of radicals on campus by expanding academic departments to include women’s studies, black studies, and, more recently, “queer studies.” These programs are college mainstays, making up in ideological vigor what they lack in academic rigor.

How did CRT, a complex theory that explains how structural racism is embedded in the law, get redefined to represent corporate diversity trainings and high school classes on the history of slavery? The foundation funding much of the anti-CRT effort is run by a person who opposes all efforts to increase diversity at powerful institutions and laments the introduction of curriculum about the historical treatment of Black people.

It’s hard to generate excitement around tired arguments opposing diversity and racial equality. It’s easier to advocate against CRT, a term that sounds scary but no one really understands.

The article goes on to describe the 21 organizations that have been funded by the Thomas W. Smith Foundation to attack CRT. They include the Manhattan Institute, ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, Judicial Watch, and the American Enterprise Institute.

We live in an age when politicians, advertisers, and others develop and distribute fake news to sell their wares. It’s more important than ever for people to have the digital skills to check the accuracy of what they see online.

A recent study conducted by Stanford University researchers reached a sobering conclusion. Most students don’t know how to fact-check what they see online.

The University published the following survey of the results:

A new national study by Stanford researchers showing a woeful inability by high schoolers to detect fake news on the internet suggests an urgent need for schools to integrate new tools and curriculum into classrooms that boost students’ digital skills, the study’s authors say.

In the largest such study undertaken, researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Education devised a challenge for 3,446 American high school students who had been carefully selected to match the demographic makeup of the American population.

Rather than conduct a standard survey, in which students would self-report their media habits and skills, the research team came up with a series of live internet tasks. The results, published online this week in the journal Educational Researcher, highlight what the researchers say is an urgent need to better prepare students for the realities of a world filled with a continual flow of misleading information.

“This study is not an indictment of the students—they did what they’ve been taught to do—but the study should be troubling to anyone who cares about the future of democracy,” said Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group and the study’s lead author. “We have to train students to be better consumers of information.”

In one of the study’s tasks, students were shown an anonymously produced video that circulated on Facebook in 2016 claiming to show ballot stuffing during Democratic primary elections and asked to use Internet-enabled computers to determine whether it provided strong evidence of voter fraud.

Students tried, mostly in vain, to discover the truth. Despite access to the internet’s powerful search capabilities, just three of the study’s more than three thousand participants — less than one tenth of one percent – were able to divine the true source of the video, which actually featured footage of voter fraud in Russia.

In another task, students were asked to vet a website proclaiming to “disseminate factual reports” about climate change. Ninety-six percent failed to discover the publisher’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. Overall, the researchers found that students were too easily swayed by relatively weak indicators of credibility—a website’s appearance, the characteristics of its domain name, the site’s “About” page, or the sheer quantity of information available on a website, irrespective of the quality of that information.

“Regardless of the test, most students fared poorly, and some fared more poorly than others,” said Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford, who co-authored the paper. “It presents a concerning picture of American students’ ability to figure out who produced a given story, what their biases might have been, and whether the information is reliable. More troubling still is how easy it is for agents of disinformation to produce misleading—or even deliberately false stories—that carry the sheen of truth. Coupled with the instantaneous and global reach of today’s social media, it does not bode well for the future of information integrity.”

The researchers suggested potential remedies that might right the ship, including teaching students strategies based on what professional fact checkers do–strategies that have been shown in experiments to improve students’ digital savvy.

“It would be great if all students knew how to take advantage of the full web and had complete command of advanced skills like Boolean operators, but that’s a lot to ask,” Wineburg said. “If you want to teach kids to drive a car, first you have to teach them to stop at red lights and not cross double lines, before learning how a catalytic converter works. As the study shows, a lot of these kids aren’t stopping at red yet.”

It is possible to develop students’ digital literacy skills, Wineburg said. Given the risk to our democracy, it will be critical for schools to integrate these skills into all subjects, from history to math, and at every grade level.

“The kids can do it,” Wineburg said. “We must help get them there.”

The study was funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The privatization movement is built on the ideology of “a backpack full of cash.” Give the money to the family and let them spend it where and how they want. The money is not actually in the child’s backpack, but handed out to families to spend as they wish. If they want their child to attend a religious school or a private school or a for-profit school or a virtual charter school or home school, here is a voucher worth $5,000.

This approach discounts the obligation of the community and society to provide certain basic goods and services that are available to everyone. We have public beaches, public parks, public transportation, police, firefighters, and other goods and services that are the responsibility of government. We pay taxes to maintain public schools, even if we don’t have children ourselves. We pay taxes to maintain public schools, even if our own children are grown and are no long in school. We pay taxes to maintain public schools, even if our own children attended private schools. That’s what a community does to make sure every child is educated. It is the job of the polity to assure that all public schools have equitable and adequate resources.

The “bait and switch” of the school choice is to individualize the social obligation and turn it into a consumer choice. This is a deceptive way of evading society’s obligation to ensure that every school, wherever it is located, has equitable and adequate resources. All schools should have the resources they need for the children they serve: well-tended buildings, a library with up-to-date technology, a full arts program, experienced teachers, small classes, a curriculum that includes history, science, civics, mathematics, literature and foreign languages.

But some very rich people don’t like paying taxes so poor kids can have what their children have, and they have persuaded many legislators to buy into the hoax of school choice. Persuasion takes the form of campaign contributions, and they are very generous with their efforts to evade taxes that serve the good of all.

This reader explains:

I just don’t get why it is so hard to get the message across that we are not purchasing our own child’s education, we are providing a public good that educates all children. We are not buying the right to use roads or police and fire services, we are participating in the funding of those common goods for the entire community.

This situation points out the importance of avoiding public/private partnerships or at least structuring them much differently (to avoid huge tax write-offs). If everyone pays their taxes, the needs of the community will be met through that common collection. When private sources get to direct what happens, that means the common good has been sabotaged. No private entity should be dictating what the common good will be.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to the North Texas School Boards Association by Zoom. Right now, Texas is ground zero for the charter industry. This is astonishing because the public schools in Texas far outperform the charter schools. The charter school lobby markets themselves as “saviors” of children, but they are far more likely to fail than public schools. This is a summary of what I told my friends in Texas:

I am a graduate of the Houston public schools. My father, who grew up in Savannah, never finished high school; my mother, who was born in Bessarabia, was very proud of her high school diploma from the Houston public schools.

I believe that all of us, whether or not we have children, whether or not we have children in public school, have a civic obligation to support public schools, just as we must support other public services, like police, firefighting, public roads, public parks, and public libraries. Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, and no investment is more precious than investing in the education of our children. They are our future. 

Texas, like every other state, guarantees a free public education to everyone. The clause in the state constitution says:

A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

As constitutional scholar Derek Black shows in his book Schoolhouse Burning, the founding fathers of this nation wanted every state to provide free public education. They didn’t have it in their own time, but they saw it as essential to the future of the nation. In the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, the Founders said that any territory that wanted to become a state had to set aside one lot in each town for a tax-supported public school. Not a private academy supported by tax funds, but a tax-supported public school.

The leadership of Texas doesn’t care about the state constitution. Every time the legislature is in session, someone offers a bill to send public funds to religious schools, which are not public schools. Thus far, a coalition of urban Democrats and rural Republicans and the dedicated leadership of Pastors for Texas Children has defeated vouchers.

The Republicans who control the state have substituted charters for vouchers in their eagerness to provide alternatives to the right guaranteed by the state constitution. And they have not given up on vouchers.

Texas now has more than 800 charter schools. These are schools under private management, paid for with tax dollars. Contrary to their marketing strategy, they are not public schools. Some of those charters are part of big corporations, like KIPP or IDEA. Some are nonprofit schools that are managed by for-profit corporations. The GOP leadership wants more of them, even though the existing public schools are underfunded and have not recovered from a devastating budget cut of more than $5 billion in 2011.

When the idea of charter schools first emerged in the early 1990s, I was enthusiastic about their promise. I was in Washington, DC, working as Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in the first Bush administration. We heard from their sponsors that charter schools would be more innovative, would cost less than public schools because of their lack of bureaucracy, would be more successful, and would be more accountable than public schools because they were free of most regulations. 

Three decades later, this is what have we learned: 

   a). Charter schools are not more innovative than public schools. The only innovation associated with charters is harsh disciplinary practices called “No excuses,” where children are punished for minor infractions of strict rules. The largest charter chain in Chicago, the Noble Network, recently announced that it was getting rid of “no excuses” because it is a racist policy, meant to force black children to adopt white middle-class values.  

    b) Charter schools are not more accountable than public schools. In most states, the charter associations fight any effort to impose accountability or transparency. They don’t want to be audited by independent auditors. The only time they are accountable is when they close their doors because of low enrollment or abject academic failure. 

    c) Charter schools do not cost less than public schools. They typically demand the same public funding as public schools, even though the public schools pick up some of their costs, like transportation, and even though they have fewer high-need students than public schools. In some states, like Texas, charter schools get more public money than public schools.

    d) Charter schools are less effective than public schools. Those that have high test scores choose their students and families carefully and push out those they don’t want. On average they don’t outperform public schools, and they spend more money on administration than public schools. In some states, like Ohio, the majority of charter schools are rated D or F. 

Charters are unstable. They open and close like day lilies. Sometimes in mid-semester, leaving their students stranded.

The worst charter schools are the virtual schools. 

The state pays the cybercharters full tuition to provide nothing more than a computer, a remote teacher, and some textbooks. They charge double or triple their actual costs.

Virtual charter schools have high attrition rates, low graduation rates, and low test scores.

There have been huge scandals associated with virtual charter schools.

In Ohio, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow collected close to a billion dollars over 18 years. It was started by a businessman, who made generous contributions to political leaders. It had one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation. In 2017, ECOT was audited by the state and found to have collected tuition for phantom students. Rather than pay the state $80 million, ECOT declared bankruptcy in 2018. No one was fined, no one went to prison, no one was held accountable.

The biggest scandal in charter history was the A3 virtual charter chain. It had a massive scheme to enroll fake students. Eleven people were indicted. Eventualy, the leaders of A3 agreed to repay the state $215 million.

The largest of the virtual charters is K12 Inc; it is registered on NY Stock Exchange. Its results are familiar: high attrition, low test scores, low graduation rates. Their top executives are paid millions of dollars each. K12 is are operating in dozens of states.

Poor academic performance is not punished; financial fraud is not punished. There is no accountability. 

IDEA in Texas is in a class of its own when it comes to luxuries. They get hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars, but they decided they needed to lease a private jet for their executives. When the story got into the newspapers, they dropped that idea. The media also reported that IDEA bought season tickets for special seating at San Antonio Spurs games. When the CEO decided to retire, he received a $1 million golden parachute. How many school superintendents do you know who got such a generous going-away present?

Charter schools claim that they “save poor kids from failing schools.” 

That’s not true. There are currently some 356,000 students in charter schools in Texas. Three-quarters of them are enrolled in charter schools in A or B school districts. The charter school students are being drawn away from successful schools in successful districts.

The charter lobby claims that there are long waiting lists. Don’t believe it. The so-called wait lists are manufactured. They are never audited. In Los Angeles, at least 80% of the existing charters have empty seats, yet still the lobbyists talk about wait lists. In New York City, charters buy advertising on city buses. When you have a waiting list, you don’t buy advertising.

The charter industry in Texas has a number of charter expansions already approved and expects to grow by 50,000 students every year. Unless the legislature plans to increase spending on education, charter growth will mean budget cuts for public schools. Charters in Texas currently divert $3 billion a year from public schools. Since they started, they have diverted more than $20 billion that should have gone to the state’s public schools. 

Charter schools in Texas are not more successful than public schools. Texas researcher William Gumbert reported that 86% of public school districts are rated either A or B by the state, compared to 58.6% of charter schools. Only 2.6% of public school districts were rated D or F, compared to 17.7% of charter schools.  

Texas Public Radio reported that graduation rates at charter schools were 30 points lower than the rates at public high schools. 

Two economists—Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer—studied the outcomes of charter schools in Texas. They concluded that charter schools have “no impact on test scores and a negative impact on earnings.”

William Gumbert, an independent analyst in Texas, has calculated that graduates of charter schools enter college less well prepared and are less likely to perform well in college, compared to students who went to public schools. He reported that the 2019 state ratings showed nearly 40% of charters approved by the state have been closed. 

The charters claim that they can close historic achievement gaps between children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. This is not true. According to careful research by analyst Gumbert, public schools do a better job of narrowing the achievement gaps between black and white students and between Hispanic and white students than charters in the same districts. 

Again, using state records, Gumbert found that graduates of public schools were more successful in college than graduates of charter schools. Public school graduates were more likely to have a higher grade-point average in freshman year than charter school graduates. First-year grade-point average has been shown to predict college graduation. 

Now the charter industry is lobbying for a vast expansion in Texas. They don’t want to have to deal with elected school boards or other elected officials. Democracy is a nuisance, an obstacle. So they are promoting SB 28, which would remove any elected school boards or elected municipal officials from the charter approval process. The state board of education could veto a charter application only with a supermajority. Only one appointed state official—the State Commissioner, appointed by the Governor– would decide whether charters may invade your district, recruit the students they want and locate the charter school wherever they want. That is a major blow to local control of schools. 

Why are state officials in Texas, why is the Legislature, opposed to local control of schools?

After three decades of experience, we have learned about the policies and practices of charter corporations.

First, many charter schools are run by non-educators. They see a business opportunity and they compete for market share. 

Second, they market charter schools by making extravagant claims. They promise that their students will be successful in school and will go to college even before they open their doors. As we have seen, this is usually false.

Third, the few that get high test scores do so by cherry-picking their students or by setting the standards so high that only high-scoring students choose to enroll. BASIS is an example of that. Students have to pass a certain number of AP exams to graduate, so average students need not apply. In Arizona, where most of the state’s students are Hispanic or Native American, the BASIS schools enroll mostly white and Asian students.

Fourth, some charter schools raise test scores by pushing out students who get low scores. That means excluding students with disabilities and students who don’t speak or read English. It also means counseling out or finding creative ways to discourage the kids who are discipline problems or the kids who perform poorly on tests. The most successful charter chain in NYC accepts kids by lottery in kindergarten. Then they begin weeding out those they don’t want, and after third grade, no new students are accepted. By senior year, most of the students who started in K or first grade have disappeared

Fifth, charter schools typically hire young and inexperienced teachers who cost less than older experienced teachers. The turnover is high—sometimes as much as half the staff leaves every year and is replaced by newcomers to teaching. 

Sixth, the true secret of charter expansion is the money behind them. They are supported by a long list of billionaires who want to eliminate public schools. They mock our community schools as “government schools,” but they might as well mock our community police officers as “government security agents.” Our community public schools belong to “we, the people.” We pay for them with our taxes. They reflect our community history. They have the trophies that our parents, our cousins, our aunts and uncles won at football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, chess, and debate tournaments. They are audited and overseen by our neighbors. We elect the school board, and if we don’t agree with their decisions, we elect another one. 

Don’t give your public dollars to entrepreneurs and corporations to educate your children. 

Don’t replace your public schools with a free market where schools compete for customers. Markets produce winners and losers, not equality of educational opportunity. Use your tax dollars to make your public schools the best they can be for all the children.

Whatever your political views are, these schools belong to you, not to Wall Street or libertarian billionaires or opportunists. Tell your legislators to support your public schools. 

School choice means that the schools choose.

Public schools must take everyone. 

School choice is a hoax.

Don’t fund failure.

At a time when there are so many divisions in our society, we need our public schools to teach appreciation for our common heritage as Americans and as Texans.

I especially appeal to those with conservative values: Conservative conserve. Conservatives don’t blow up traditional institutions. People who want to blow up community institutions are anarchists, not conservatives.

Preserve and improve your community public schools for future generations. 

On Wednesday February 10, I will host a Zoom discussion with Raynard Sanders about his new book, The Coup D’état of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System.

Sanders was the principal of a public school in New Orleans before the takeover of the district in 2005.

As you might guess from the title of his book, he considers the takeover to be illegal. It’s “results,” he contends are disastrous for the children of the district.

Listen in to hear the other side of the story.

Open the link and register to join the Zoom.

As of this writing, at least 340,000 people have died of COVID.

Washington Post reporters wrote a comprehensive account of how Donald Trump bungled the federal government’s response to the pandemic and made the number of infections and deaths far worse than they should have been if we had had competent leadership. The story was published on December 19. We know that Trump encouraged people not to pay attention to science. We know that he called on his base to “liberate” states that were trying to get control of the coronavirus. We know he refused to wear a mask, the simplest measure to slow the spread of the virus. When you read this story, you will realize that Trump’s decision to politicize mask-wearing was intentional. When Trump realized that he could not “beat” the virus, he lost interest in stopping or slowing it. He thought it was a “loser” issue. He lost interest. Many lost their lives.

Yasmeen AbutalebAshley ParkerJosh Dawsey and Philip Rucker wrote the following story:

As the number of coronavirus cases ticked upward in mid-November — worse than the frightening days of spring and ahead of an expected surge after families congregated for Thanksgiving — four doctors on President Trump’s task force decided to stage an intervention.

After their warnings had gone largely unheeded for months in the dormant West Wing, Deborah Birx, Anthony S. Fauci, Stephen Hahn and Robert Redfield together sounded new alarms, cautioning of a dark winter to come without dramatic action to slow community spread.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, among the many Trump aides who were infected with the virus this fall, was taken aback, according to three senior administration officials with knowledge of the discussions. He told the doctors he did not believe their troubling data assessment. And he accused them of outlining problems without prescribing solutions.

The doctors explained that the solutions were simple and had long been clear — among them, to leverage the power of the presidential bully pulpit to persuade all Americans to wear masks, especially the legions of Trump supporters refusing to do so, and to dramatically expand testing.

“It was something that we were almost repetitively saying whenever we would get into the Situation Room,” said Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Whenever we got the opportunity to say, ‘This is really going to be a problem because the baseline of infections was really quite high to begin with, so you had a lot of community spread.’ ”

On Nov. 19, hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against Thanksgiving travel, Vice President Pence, who chairs the coronavirus task force, agreed to hold a full news conference with some of the doctors — something they had not done since the summer. But much to the doctors’ dismay, Pence did not forcefully implore people to wear masks, nor did the administration take meaningful action on testing.

As for the president, he did not appear at all.

Trump went days without mentioning the pandemic other than to celebrate progress on vaccines. The president by then had abdicated his responsibility to manage the public health crisis and instead used his megaphone almost exclusively to spread misinformation in a failed attempt to overturn the results of the election he lost to President-elect Joe Biden.

“I think he’s just done with covid,” said one of Trump’s closest advisers who, like many others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal deliberations and operations. “I think he put it on a timetable and he’s done with covid. . . . It just exceeded the amount of time he gave it.”

Now, a month later, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States is reaching records daily. The nation’s death count is rising steadily as well, this past week surpassing 300,000 — a total that had seemed unfathomable earlier this year. The dark winter is here, hospitalizations risk breaching capacities, and health professionals predict it will get worse before it gets better.

The miraculous arrival of a coronavirus vaccine this past week marks the first glimmer of hope amid a pandemic that for 10 months has ravaged the country, decimated its economy and fundamentally altered social interactions.

Yet that triumph of scientific ingenuity and bureaucratic efficiency does not conceal the difficult truth, that the virus has caused proportionately more infections and deaths in the United States than in most other developed nations — a result, experts say, of a dysfunctional federal response led by a president perpetually in denial.

“We were always going to have spread in the fall and the winter, but it didn’t have to be nearly this bad,” said Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner in the Trump administration. “We could have done better galvanizing collective action, getting more adherence to masks. The idea that we had this national debate on the question of whether masks infringed on your liberty was deeply unfortunate. It put us in a bad position.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, one of the few Republican elected officials who have criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic, said many in the administration are working hard to control the alarming November-to-December surge, but not the man at the top.

“My concern was, in the worst part of the battle, the general was missing in action,” Hogan said of the recent surge.

The story of how America arrived at this final season of devastation, with the reported death toll some days surpassing 3,000 people — a new 9/11 day after day — is based on interviews over the past month with 48 senior administration officials, government health professionals, outside presidential advisers and other people briefed on the inner workings of the federal response.

The catastrophe began with Trump’s initial refusal to take seriously the threat of a once-in-a-century pandemic. But, as officials detailed, it has been compounded over time by a host of damaging presidential traits — his skepticism of science, impatience with health restrictions, prioritization of personal politics over public safety, undisciplined communications, chaotic management style, indulgence of conspiracies, proclivity toward magical thinking, allowance of turf wars and flagrant disregard for the well-being of those around him.

“There isn’t a single light-switch moment where the government has screwed up and we’re going down the wrong path,” said Kyle McGowan, who resigned in August as chief of staff at the CDC under Redfield, the center’s director. “It was a series of multiple decisions that showed a lack of desire to listen to the actual scientists and also a lack of leadership in general, and that put us on this progression of where we’re at today.”

‘Words matter’

Trump’s defenders say the president and his administration deserve credit not only for Operation Warp Speed — the public-private initiative to develop, test and now distribute vaccines — but also for their work early on to address a shortage of ventilators, ease supply-chain delays for personal protective equipment and set guidelines for businesses and other gathering places to reopen after the March and April shutdowns.

They also point to Trump’s decision in late January to restrict travel from China, where the virus originated. And they say they’re not sure what Trump should have done differently.

“President Trump has led a historic, whole-of-America coronavirus response — resulting in 100,000 ventilators procured, an abundance of critical PPE sourced for our frontline heroes, the largest testing regime in the world, groundbreaking treatments, and a safe and effective vaccine in record time with another to be approved in the coming days,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said in a statement. She went on to attribute the success of vaccines to Trump’s “bold and innovative leadership.”

Still, the administration’s overall response is likely to be scrutinized for years to come as a case study in crisis mismanagement. At the heart of the problem, experts say, have been Trump’s scrambled and faulty communications.

“Words matter a lot, and what we have here is a failure to communicate — and worse than that, the effective communication of policies, of myths, of confusion about masks, about hydroxychloroquine, about vaccines, about closures, about testing,” said Tom Frieden, a former CDC director in the Obama administration. “It’s stunning.”

Trump’s repeated downplaying of the virus, coupled with his equivocations about masks, created an opening for reckless behavior that contributed to a significant increase in infections and deaths, experts said.

“The central and most important thing we needed was national leadership from the president to be able to really lead with empathy,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It seemed much more focused on the administration as the lead character, rather than communities in need.”

A hallmark of the response has been the secrecy of some in the White House, including Meadows, whom other officials described as outright hostile in his denial of the virus and punitive toward colleagues who sought to follow public health guidelines or be transparent.

As the virus spread wildly among White House staff this fall, Meadows sought to conceal some cases from becoming public — including, at first, his own — and instructed at least one fellow adviser who sought to disclose an infection not to.

In addition, Meadows threatened to fire White House Medical Unit doctors, who fall below the chief of staff in the chain of command, if they helped release information about new infections, according to one official. Ben Williamson, an aide to Meadows, said it was “false” that the chief of staff ever threatened to terminate doctors.

Meadows argued internally, according to this official, that the White House was “under no obligation to tell the press or the public that Joe Schmo who works in the White House has tested positive.”

Despite shunning recommended protocols internally, Trump aides speak with pride about the actions they took on the pandemic and are incredulous that their work has been so widely panned.

One senior administration official involved in the response said what was accomplished in less than a year — from producing and distributing protective gear to creating vaccines — is nothing short of remarkable. But, this official acknowledged, “The way it was messaged, unfortunately, was flawed.”

A second senior administration official said, “I’m not clear on what Trump should have done different, but put me in the camp of, well, something, because it has not been a success.”

Olivia Troye, a former Pence adviser and task force aide who resigned in the summer and campaigned against Trump’s reelection, said the nation’s trauma is a result of the president’s mismanagement of the crisis early on, and is being prolonged by his disinterest in it now.

‘It was whack-a-mole’

Tucker Carlson arrived at Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club the first Saturday in March, before cities started shutting down, on an urgent mission: to convey to the president the seriousness of the coronavirus threat.

Carlson’s message was simple but pointed. He warned the president that the virus was real, that people he knew were going to get it, that the country might have already missed the point at which they could control it and, as he later told Vanity Fair, that “this could be really bad.”

But Carlson and the president ultimately talked past one another, said a person familiar with the conversation. Carlson told Trump he could lose the election because of the virus, and Trump argued that the virus was less deadly than people were claiming.

The scene at Mar-a-Lago that weekend underscored the concerns. Far from taking any precautions, Trump that Saturday dined with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his delegation — several of whom later tested positive for the virus — while Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, threw herself a lavish 51st birthday party at the club. The next day, Trump hosted a fundraising brunch with about 900 attendees.

“I would love to say that I’m shocked, but I’m not,” Troye said. “This is in keeping with everything he has been.” She added: “People are still dying every day. There’s thousands of cases every day and yet he won’t do the right thing. . . . To see a sitting president directly refuse to help during a crisis is just flabbergasting to me.”

Paul A. Offit, who is director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory council, said of Trump: “He’s a salesman, but this is something he can’t sell. So he just gave up. He gave up on trying to sell people something that was unsellable.”

On Friday morning, in a tableau orchestrated to provide hope to a beleaguered nation, Pence and second lady Karen Pence received the Pfizer vaccine — a needle in his left shoulder as they sat beneath a sign that read, “SAFE and EFFECTIVE,” broadcast live on national television.

Trump was nowhere to be seen.

As the country began to shut down in March, Trump and his administration found themselves in the early throes of denial and dysfunction. Despite the warnings of Carlson and others, Trump continued to downplay the severity of the virus, and turf wars and unclear chains of command roiled the administration’s fledgling response.

Public health advisers and other administration officials were left scrambling — scattershot, and with little clear direction — to recoup time squandered.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who had spent the early days of 2020 focused on other challenges in his overly large portfolio — including a Middle East peace plan and overseeing Trump’s reelection campaign — turned his attention to the virus.

Kushner’s allies and even some of his critics say he was effective in helping cut through bureaucracy — ensuring, for instance, that states eventually had as many ventilators as they needed. A text or call to Kushner could yield a clear response or directive in just minutes, said one senior administration official, and shortly after Pence was appointed head of the coronavirus task force his chief of staff, Marc Short, enlisted Kushner’s help to streamline resources and speed up response times.

But the help Kushner provided was often ad hoc rather than part of a long-term strategy, according to people familiar with his role.

“It was entirely tactical troubleshooting and, to be fair, it was pretty successful, with the ventilators and this and that, but it was whack-a-mole,” said an outside Republican in frequent touch with the White House.

Part of Kushner’s coronavirus management approach was an ambitious effort to bring in a cadre of young consultants from the private sector as volunteers. The group was dismissively referred to as the “Slim Suit” crowd.

“[Kushner] is like, ‘I’m going to bring in my data and we’re going to MBA this to death and make it work,’ ” one senior administration official said.

But problems quickly emerged with Kushner’s team of volunteers. The group was not issued government laptops or emails, forcing them to use their personal Gmail addresses — a practice that often hindered their efforts to procure personal protective equipment from companies that were understandably skeptical of inquiries coming from nongovernment email accounts. The volunteers in charge of PPE procurement also did not know the Food and Drug Administration requirements for importing the protective equipment, and found themselves spending unnecessary time Googling basic questions and calling the FDA for guidance.

Max Kennedy Jr., a senior associate at a private growth equity firm when he joined Kushner’s effort as a volunteer, was so alarmed by what he witnessed that he initially filed an anonymous whistleblower report.

Among his complaints was a culture that prioritized tips and leads from VIPs, which consumed an inordinate amount of the volunteers’ time and energy. Kennedy wrote in his report that Jeanine Pirro, a Trump booster who hosts a Fox News show, “repeatedly called and emailed until 100,000 masks were sent to a particular hospital she favored. No checks were completed to ensure that the hospital was in particular need of PPE.”

Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat and a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, later revealed his identity and, in an interview with The Washington Post, described a group of smart and earnest volunteers who were, at best, out of their depth and, at worst, asked to do things they felt uncomfortable doing.

Kennedy said that Brad Smith, the director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation and a friend of Kushner, asked him and another volunteer to make a coronavirus model for 2020 that specifically projected a low casualty count. When Kennedy noted that he had no training in epidemiology and had never modeled a virus before, he recalled, Smith told him that it was just like making a financial model. The other models made by the health experts, Smith explained, were “too catastrophic.”

“‘They think 250,000 people could die and I want this model to show that fewer than 100,000 people will die in the worst-case scenario,’ ” Kennedy said Smith told him. “He gave us the numbers he wanted it to say.”

Kennedy and the other volunteer refused to make the model. But he said the incident left him discomfited.

“[Smith] said, ‘Look around. Does it look like 250,000 people are going to die? I don’t think so,’ ” Kennedy recounted. “And I remember thinking it was a weird thing to say because we were surrounded by military officers in the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] basement and it did look like a lot of people might die.”

In an emailed statement, Smith denied asking Kennedy and a fellow volunteer to create a low fatality model.

“The only model I asked the team to build in the three weeks Max volunteered was a model to project PPE needs through July 2020,” Smith said. “To calculate PPE needs, the model used hospitalizations and deaths as inputs. The mean version of the model assumed 169,000 deaths by July 2020 and the worst case version of the model assumed 312,000 deaths by July 2020. According to the CDC, there were approximately 160,000 deaths as of July 30, so the model’s assumptions proved to be very accurate.”

There were other problems too. Kushner’s initiative to stand up drive-through testing sites nationwide at retail stores such as CVS, Target and Walgreens, for instance, may have been a good idea in theory but almost instantly raised concerns. Government officials asked Kushner and his team whether they had fully considered the logistical and supply issues behind setting up the sites — including swabs and reagents for tests, and protective equipment for the clinicians administering them.

Kushner’s team responded that they had it covered, but it quickly became clear they did not. At a time when health-care workers were using garbage bags as gowns and reusing N95 masks because of severe shortages, roughly 30 percent of “key supplies,” including masks, in the national stockpile of emergency medical equipment went toward Kushner’s testing effort, according to an internal March planning document obtained by The Post and confirmed by one current and one former administration official.

Though Kushner had initially promised thousands of testing sites, only 78 materialized, the document said, and the national stockpile was used to supply more than half of those.

“The knock against Jared has always been that he’s a dilettante who will dabble in this and dabble in that without doing the homework or really engaging in a long-term, sustained, committed way, but will be there to claim credit if things go well and disappear if things go poorly,” a former senior administration official said. “And this is another example of that.”

By the summer, Trump had grown angry with Kushner over problems with testing, said current and former administration officials — a rare conflict between the president and his son-in-law.

Matthews defended Kushner’s testing initiative, saying there are now more than 6,000 retail testing sites and that the federal government has established more than 500 temporary surge testing sites in 17 states over the past 10 months.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the United States failed to deploy a coronavirus diagnostic test across the country so state and local officials could quickly detect and trace confirmed cases. And while the administration eventually scaled up testing considerably — more than 1.5 million tests a day are now being conducted — it still has not developed a national testing strategy. Even as more tests have become available, experts said, there have rarely been enough for the scale of the pandemic.

“Compared to other countries, the biggest mistake we made was in testing,” said Katrina Armstrong, a physician and chief of Massachusetts General Hospital who has been treating coronavirus patients. “It’s not even a hard test, and we whiffed it. There should be central leadership bringing everything together. For the clinical side, not having access to testing early on and through the summer was the biggest tragedy of what got us here.”

The best chance to control an outbreak is at the very beginning. But U.S. officials squandered that opportunity in February for two key reasons. The first was the CDC’s failure to deploy a working coronavirus test, and the second was the task force’s almost singular focus on repatriating Americans from China and cruise ships, rather than on preparing the United States for an inevitable outbreak.

A review of task force agendas from that time demonstrates a disproportionate focus on cruise ships, masks and other bureaucratic and logistical issues, rather than on more practical public health steps such as testing, contact tracing and targeted efforts to prevent the virus’s spread. That allowed the virus to spread undetected for all of February, several officials and experts said, as it seeded itself in New York, Washington state, California, New Orleans and other populous areas. And from then on, the country was perpetually behind the virus.

Kennedy said his experience volunteering in the White House left him disillusioned.

“I don’t think this has to be a politicized crisis,” Kennedy said. “This pandemic is incredibly tragic and, as someone who was in the room, it was very clear it wasn’t taken seriously. It was well understood what measures could be taken to save lives, to reduce the severity of the pandemic, and the administration and Jared Kushner made an active choice not to pursue those actions.”

‘A loser message’

As the virus began to rage across the United States, some of the nation’s health officials had a novel idea. Face coverings were emerging as one of the simplest tools available to control the contagion’s spread. So Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, called Jerry Cook, an executive at the cotton clothing giant Hanes, on March 13 to discuss producing enough masks to send to every American household, according to two senior administration officials.

Cook pulled together a number of underwear makers, including Fruit of the Loom, SanMar, Beverly Knits and Delta Apparel, to figure out how to redirect their manufacturing operations to manufacture 650 million three-ply cotton masks — enough to send a packet of five to each household. The masks would bear an HHS logo, contain a microbiocide that would kill the virus, and say: “Do your part, help stop the spread.”

A command group at FEMA unanimously approved the plan, and the task force doctors did as well. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, saw the white prototypes and asked if they could be made in a neutral tone.

But when Kadlec’s boss, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, began to pitch it at a White House task force meeting in March, there was sharp dissent. Several on the task force generally did not have much confidence in Kadlec, and a senior administration official said his plan was half-baked and that he was unable to answer basic questions, like how much the effort would cost or how they would deliver all the masks.

Short abruptly stopped the conversation and told Pence the idea wasn’t ready and was being pulled off the agenda. Other officials complained that the masks looked like underwear, according to three current and former senior administration officials. Peter T. Gaynor, the FEMA administrator, compared them to jockstraps.

Then there was the issue of logistics. For months leading up to the pandemic, Trump had been attacking the U.S. Postal Service and airing grievances over its business relationship with Amazon. Some aides surmised that, for Trump, a private-public partnership involving the Postal Service as the distributor would be a nonstarter.

The mail-a-mask plan was killed. The Office of Management and Budget tried to cancel the contracts with the underwear makers, but the masks still were produced and distributed to health clinics, religious groups and states that requested them. Hanes did not respond to a request for comment.

Kadlec was so frustrated that he decided his time as preparedness and response chief was no longer best spent on preparing and responding, so he focused instead on vaccines and therapeutics.

Skepticism of masks became a hallmark of the Trump administration’s pandemic response. On April 3, when the CDC recommended that all Americans wear masks, Trump announced that he would not do so because he could not envision himself sitting behind the Resolute Desk with his face covered as he greeted visiting dignitaries. The president stressed that mask-wearing was “voluntary,” effectively permitting his legions of followers to disregard the CDC’s recommendation.

In the months that followed, Trump was only seen wearing a mask on rare occasions, instead following the advice of Stephen Miller, Johnny McEntee, Derek Lyons and other trusted aides to think of masks as a cultural wedge issue.

Pence covered his face with somewhat more regularity than the president, but after forgoing a mask during an April 28 visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he drew a public rebuke from the hospital’s leaders. Short then yelled at a hospital official over it, a person with knowledge of the visit said.

“What the Trump administration has managed to do is they accomplished — remarkably — a very high-tech solution, which is developing a vaccine, but they completely failed at the low-tech solution, which is masking and social distancing, and they put people at risk,” Offit said.

Trump did not imagine the coronavirus would consume the fourth year of his presidency. When he established a task force in January, he assumed it would not last long and that the crisis would subside relatively quickly, according to two officials with knowledge of the situation. These officials said the president selected Pence, the favorite of then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, for chair of the task force over Gottlieb and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

In retrospect, according to a senior administration official, Trump’s biggest political miscalculation was basing the task force in the White House. “Once you put it in the Situation Room, the president owns every failure, leak, whatever, whereas this could have been an Azar, Redfield, Hahn problem,” this official said.

In the early weeks, Pence was the frontman at daily coronavirus news conferences. He provided top-line updates, including case and death counts, before turning it over to Fauci, Birx and other health professionals. Short advised the vice president against detailing such dire statistics, but Pence insisted, believing he was obligated to share such facts with the public, according to another official with knowledge of these discussions.

Over time, however, Trump decided he wanted to be the face of the government’s response, so he took over Pence’s role at the briefings. A number of Republican senators privately counseled the president to let the doctors be out front, according to a senior Republican congressional official, but “Trump just couldn’t let someone else get all that attention.”

Trump’s performances were riddled with misinformation, contradictions and indecorous boasts, while also predicting miracles and promoting cure-all therapeutics. Trump often said he was trying to be a “cheerleader” for the country, and a senior administration official explained that the president has said he drew lessons from Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

“What he’s saying there is, ‘I’m going to will the economy to success through mass psychology. We’re going to tell the country things are going great and it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ ” this official said of Trump.

But there were consequences for Trump’s often too-rosy takes. Hogan — who as chairman of the National Governors Association helped lead regular meetings among governors and task force members, sometimes including Trump — said there was “a huge disconnect” between what was agreed to by Pence and members of the task force and what the president told the public.

“We would have a great meeting that might have lasted an hour or two with all the top folks focused on the virus, and then the president would have one of those rambling press conferences that went on maybe an hour too long and he said the opposite of what others in the administration told us that day,” Hogan recalled.

The Maryland governor, one of the rare Republicans who seemed unafraid to challenge Trump, said he directly confronted the president in some of these sessions about what was not working.

“I pushed back very hard when there was no testing program and there was no availability of basic supplies, like swabs and tubes and testing agents and ventilators,” Hogan said. “There were a few times the president bristled when I wasn’t saying everything was great. . . . One time the president said on a call, ‘You’re not being very nice to me.’ I said, ‘No, Mr. President, I’m always nice. I’m just telling you what the governors see.’ ”

The White House also made governors’ jobs more difficult by interfering at the CDC, which was forced to water down reopening guidelines for businesses, schools, restaurants and other facilities after a cadre of White House and administration officials weighed in with suggestions that were not based on science.

By late spring — after he infamously suggested people ingest bleach to cure themselves of the virus — Trump stopped appearing at coronavirus briefings. Meadows is among those credited with pulling the plug.

“He felt it was a loser message,” said one senior administration official with knowledge of Meadows’s thinking. “So why message on covid?”

‘A MAGA perspective’

Scott Atlas found himself in Trump’s orbit the way so many do: through the television screen.

A neuroradiologist with no infectious-disease or public health background, Atlas joined the coronavirus response team in August as a special government employee, after a few senior Trump advisers — Kushner, McEntee and Hope Hicks — were impressed by his appearances on cable news.

Atlas began working out of Kushner’s office suite, and quickly scored a blue badge — the most coveted level of White House access — and a spot on the coronavirus task force. Though many were skeptical of him, the vice president’s team felt that if Atlas was going to be part of the virus response, then he needed to be a full-fledged member of the effort, said two people familiar with the decision.

Atlas pushed a controversial “herd immunity” strategy — of letting the virus spread freely among the young and healthy — and clashed with others on the task force, many of whom described him as combative and condescending. He lorded his seemingly unfettered access to the president over the group and, as one senior adviser said, “The science just got totally perverted with Scott in the room.”

Atlas, who resigned Nov. 30, defended his advice to Trump as “based on the best available science and data at the time” and said he sought to reduce both the virus spread and what he called “structural harms.” In a lengthy emailed statement, Atlas denied much of The Post’s reporting about his work in the administration, including that he had described those with the coronavirus in derisive or demeaning terms.

“I am very disappointed to see more totally false statements and patently absurd lies about me,” Atlas said. “Although I don’t intend to weigh-in on every false and defamatory story or allow myself to be endlessly used as a political piñata, I firmly deny the false accusations that, as a special advisor to the President, I advocated for ‘herd immunity’ via letting the infection spread as a scientific approach to the pandemic. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Even those inclined to be sympathetic to Atlas’s coronavirus theory — that the virus mainly affected the most vulnerable, who were the only ones who truly needed protection — found his personal manner off-putting, said one senior administration official. And privately, Atlas often argued his case more crudely, bluntly saying coronavirus was a disease that only affected the overweight, the diabetic and the elderly, the other adviser said.

But Trump liked Atlas — and the shoddy science he was peddling seemingly bolstered the president’s optimism. Atlas’s appeal to Trump, this adviser explained, was that he “had a doctor title but a MAGA perspective,” referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Atlas’s presence, however, frustrated much of the rest of the group, especially the public health experts who feared he was undermining their hard-fought efforts to keep the public safe.

“If you ever wanted to spread confusion and give license to the people in the cities and states who did not want to abide by any of the public health measures, you gave them license to do it,” Fauci said. “They could say, ‘Look, this guy who’s a well-respected Stanford person who the president seems to like is saying this thing; why should we listen to Fauci?’ I think he was disruptive to what Birx and I were trying to do.”

The addition of Atlas to the coronavirus task force was just the latest iteration of the infighting that had plagued the virus response all along. He clashed with the other doctors, but especially with Birx.

One early dispute was over testing. At the time, the president was pushing to move away from the widespread testing recommended by health experts and toward more narrow surveillance testing in vulnerable communities. Atlas and Birx fought over the issue in the Oval Office, with Birx — who was backed up by Redfield — advising that widespread testing was the best way to catch new cases, a senior administration official said.

In August, the CDC put out revised testing guidelines that were more in line with Atlas’s view than Birx’s, only to walk them back after a public outcry.

During another task force meeting, Atlas argued that it would be reasonable to consider substantially fewer mitigation efforts, allowing people to become infected. Instead, Atlas said, officials should focus their efforts on protecting those in nursing homes. Birx retorted that the vulnerable were not only in nursing homes, prompting agreement by other doctors in the group.

“Dr. Scott Atlas has caused people to lose their lives because he stood at the White House podium and told people masks may not work and he told people we should get over it and build up herd immunity,” said McGowan, the former CDC chief of staff. “He’s telling the world lies from a bully pulpit, from a position of power, and I believe people died because of that.”

Some of Trump’s advisers tried to convey to the president how much his reelection might hinge on the pandemic. Being seen as a responsible, empathetic leader in a moment of crisis, they explained, would buoy his chances of victory.

For instance, internal campaign data from pollster Tony Fabrizio found that in July, just 40 percent of voters approved of Trump’s handling of the virus and 58 percent disapproved, a deficit of 18 percentage points. Among independents, the gap grew to 30 percentage points, according to a senior campaign adviser.

According to an internal polling memo obtained by The Post, more than 70 percent of voters in target states supported “mandatory masks at least indoors when in public, and even a majority of Republicans support this.”

Though Republicans were not keen on the idea of an executive order for mask-wearing, they were less opposed to an order that applied only indoors, the internal polling found. And, as one of the slides reviewed by The Post read, “Voters favor mask-wearing while keeping the economy open,” and also favor Trump “issuing an executive order mandating the use of masks in public places.”

Given those findings, Fabrizio, Kushner, then-campaign manager Brad Parscale and others urged Trump to model good behavior by wearing a mask, and to encourage his supporters to do so as well, several Trump advisers said. But the president was unreceptive, as was Meadows.

“He was of the opinion that it would hurt his base,” the senior campaign adviser said. “He listened and it just didn’t move him. The argument just didn’t move him.”

The president and some on his team were also increasingly frustrated with Fauci, who frequently appeared in the media offering what they viewed as an overly alarmist public health message. “Fauci was probably Joe Biden’s most effective campaign surrogate on the trail in 2020,” said Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser.

Trump aides added that there also was little pushback to the idea of Trump resuming large rallies — without social distancing or mask requirements. The few advisers who did counsel caution were largely ignored, with allies arguing that rallies were key to the president’s brand and that the raucous events also helped improve his mood.

“My attitude was, how are voters going to take us seriously that we’re taking this seriously if we’re doing things where the perception is we’re putting people at risk?” the senior adviser said. “It surely undermines.”

‘We’re in trouble’

As summer turned to fall, Birx — whose calming guidance and elegant scarves had inspired online memes — found herself silenced and increasingly minimized in the coronavirus response.

Atlas succeeded in sidelining her from Trump’s immediate orbit. Her national television appearances all but vanished. She traveled to dozens of states and had unfiltered conversations with governors and local officials, but was denied the time she wanted with the president to keep him abreast of the facts. And her warnings fell on deaf ears inside the West Wing.

“She would circulate her daily report, and more often than not, there would be no responses from anyone on the email,” a senior administration official recalled. “I remember there were times where she would flag something massive, like, we are within weeks of a massive remdesivir shortage, and no one would reply.”

Birx met either in person or virtually with Fauci and other doctors on the task force at least once a week to discuss the science and support each other as they were being ignored at the White House. They plotted alternative ways to get their messages to the public, including through Birx’s travels to states.

But Birx was undermined there, too. After she advised Florida’s political leaders in August to close bars and restrict indoor dining, Atlas visited the state and contradicted her. Atlas told Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other local leaders to focus less on widespread testing and instead to direct their efforts to opening the economy back up and opening schools, according to two senior administration officials.

As it became clear the pandemic was worsening and the country was headed for a disastrous winter, Atlas dismissed Birx’s projections in task force meetings and in private discussions with Trump and Pence. This pushed Birx to be more outspoken, especially in the reports she and her small team put together, some of which took on a grim tone, officials said.

“It was almost like she wanted to make sure she had a paper trail saying, ‘I, too, think we’re in trouble,’ ” another senior administration official said. “It was a combination of events that pushed her to change her tune and be much more realistic about the seriousness of what was going on.”

The rise in cases and deaths in November coincided with a drop in visibility from Trump and Pence. Following the Nov. 3 election, the two went many days without public appearances. Whenever the president did speak or weigh in on Twitter, it was usually about his desire to overturn the election results, not about the worsening pandemic.

As for Pence, one consistent criticism was his reluctance to deliver tough news and dire coronavirus statistics to the president. As one former senior administration official put it, “He knows, like everybody else knows, that covid is the last thing Trump wants to hear about or see anybody making news about. If not touting Operation Warp Speed, it’s the topic that shall not be spoken of.” A senior administration official and Pence ally, however, said Pence always shared the daily reality with Trump but, as a perpetual optimist, often did so with a positive spin.

The president and vice president did make a couple of appearances to tout vaccine breakthroughs. But much to the frustration of health officials, they did little to leverage their influence with the 74 million Americans who had just voted for them to persuade people to make sacrifices to stop the spread.

“There are tens of millions of people who fundamentally don’t have the same perception of reality when it comes to the virus,” Frieden said. “There are always going to be people who are suspicious and paranoid and believe in UFOs or whatever, but because we’re not on the same page on covid, it’s very hard to get people to act together.”

The week before Thanksgiving, health officials fanned out to plead with Americans not to travel over the holiday. Fauci practically begged people in an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to stay home and not interact with people outside their immediate household.

But even America’s most famous doctor, one with an approval rating well north of Trump’s, was unconvincing to many. More than 3 million people were screened at U.S. airports in a three-day period just before Thanksgiving, according to the Transportation Security Administration. AAA projected that an additional 48 million people would travel by car around the holiday.

That nonchalance about spreading the virus carried this month into the White House, where Trump and first lady Melania Trump hosted a traditional series of elaborate holiday parties.

Night after night, the Trumps had party guests congregate inside the White House residence to mix, mingle and hear the president speak — each clinking of champagne flutes a potential superspreader moment.

“Here, you have Fauci and Birx saying: wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid congregate settings and indoor crowds, particularly indoors,” a senior administration official said. “And then you have these events at the White House where nobody is wearing a mask, they’re having an event inside and then coming outside, if there ever was a complete confusion of messages.”

Pence and second lady Karen Pence also hosted holiday parties at the Naval Observatory, where pictures from one such event earlier this month showed hundreds of guests mingling mostly maskless underneath an enclosed tent. Even Pence himself, the head of the coronavirus task force, did not wear a mask.

Members of military bands, servers and others were forced to work and exposed for hours to guests who were not wearing masks, officials said.

At least one worker who got infected never heard from anyone in the White House about the illness. They were replaced for the next party.