At a time that Americans needed a smart and stable government, Donald Trump's COVID-19 Task Force was overwhelmed with petty squabbles.
According to the new book by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, I, Alone Can Fix It, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was preoccupied with the salaries of the people on the task force.
Dr Stephen Hahn, who joined as the FDA commissioner in Dec. 2019, had a morning call with the purpose of "navigating task-force personalities and political land mines." The last thing anyone wanted was for the typical Trump White House drama to interfere with protecting the country from the impending pandemic.
Dr. Robert R. Redfield, a virologist who served as the director of the Center for Disease Control, for example, triggered Sec. Azar by making a particularly large salary.
According to the book, Redfield gave up a medical professorship to serve in the government. He was making $700,000 a year and agreed to take the position under a program called Title 42, which gives high-earning private-sector scientists with unique skills higher-than-normal salaries to work in the government. So, Redfield was paid $375,000 -- and Azar was furious.
"After news reports later revealed Redfield's salary, emphasizing that he was making nearly double what his predecessor at the CDC had earned, and more than Azar's pay of $199,000, Azar confronted Redfield," the book recalls.
"How did you negotiate a salary like that?" Azar asked. Redfield explained the "Title 42s." He thought that Azar had actually approved it.
"If I had known that you were going to have to be paid this much, I would have probably asked to look for somebody else," Azar snapped, according to the book. They noted that "his voice loud and his tone sharp."
"Mr. Secretary, let's just be real clear here," Redfield said. "I came in to do this job for the mission, not the money, so if you feel a need to change my salary, change my salary."
That's what Azar did, cutting Dr. Redfield's pay to $185,000, under his own salary.
At each opportunity, Azar sought to throw Redfield under the bus, particularly with the CDC tests for the virus.
In March, after Azar had left office, Politico reported that other health experts from the COVID battle built a kind of "club" to counter the false claims Azar had been spouting in wake of the administration. They call it Alex Azar Anonymous. Redfield is part of that group.
Last month, it was revealed that Azar would work on an Aspen Institute initiative called the Health, Medicine & Society program.
I, Alone Can Fix It is available to purchase today.