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WASHINGTON — Dr. Scott Atlas, the controversial White House coronavirus adviser, left federal employ much the same way he entered it: with an appearance on Fox News.
It was the Stanford neuroradiologist’s interviews on President Trump’s former favorite source of information that led to his August appointment to a position for which he seemed to have little experience. And it was that same network that broke the story, on Monday evening, that Atlas was leaving Washington after what appears to have been an acutely unproductive and contentious tenure, even by the standards of the last four years.
After resigning, Atlas spoke to Fox News primetime host Tucker Carlson, casting himself as a victim of conventional wisdom. “We see that objective journalism is nearly dead, and I think we now saw that science has been politicized, and it’s very, very dangerous,” Atlas said without any evident trace of self-awareness.
“I think we should all be concerned about it,” he added.
In his resignation letter (which Fox News was first to obtain and publish), Atlas said his goal at the White House had been to provide Trump with “the best information to serve the greater public good.” He will now presumably return to Stanford, whose faculty recently denounced him for an approach to the coronavirus that “contradicts basic science.”
Nearly 90,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since Atlas began his tenure at the White House, where he supplanted Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx as the medical professional with seemingly the greatest access to the president’s ear. But as a devastating autumn wave of the virus began cresting, Trump wasn’t showing much concern for the pandemic. With his reelection prospects fading, he pushed for society to reopen as quickly as possible, believing that an economic revival would rescue his doomed bid for a second term.
Atlas served largely to amplify that message, while undermining longtime public health experts both in and out of the federal government. He went on Russian state television, then apologized. He threatened the governor of Michigan, then apologized. He maligned face masks. He cited incorrect numbers and pushed dangerous concepts, foremost among them the notion that allowing the virus to circulate freely would lead to a collective inoculation called “herd immunity.”
But before the United States could reach anything approaching herd immunity — which would occur when an estimated 70 percent of the population had contracted and fought off COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — the virus would have to burn through society, killing hundreds of thousands of people, according to most epidemiologists. This part, Atlas tended to leave out.
His departure from his post on Monday was accordingly greeted with a measure of relief, as yet another sign that Trump was on the way out while President-elect Joe Biden was busy building out a more capable coronavirus team.
“His time was marred by [a] barrage of misinformation, from promoting anti-mask quackery to falsehoods about testing,” tweeted Dr. Ashish Jha, an epidemiologist who heads the school of public health at Brown.
Atlas may have been unconventional as far as ordinary public officials go, but in his unremitting desire to contradict and irritate the establishment — to “own the libs,” as the Twitter meme goes — he was the perfect Trump appointee. In that sense, Atlas was no different from other bygone officials who refused to play by the rules, or to play well with others. That attitude has found countless administration officials — from chief strategist Steve Bannon to onetime Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — attracting negative headlines and forcing the White House into an increasingly defensive posture that is difficult to maintain over time.
In the end, Atlas apparently learned that even an administration that thrives on chaos has its limits. It was an expensive lesson, as he occupied a position of immense prominence, one that could have been used by a qualified doctor to make science-based recommendations. Instead, Atlas used his bully pulpit to incorrectly claim that masks don’t work, leading to one of his messages being deleted by Twitter.
That deletion may have endeared him to conservatives ever on alert for social media bias, but not to many exhausted Americans who simply want the pandemic over and done with, not to mention his peers on the coronavirus task force.
“Everything he says is false,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was overheard saying on an airplane in late September. And yet that did not stop Atlas from saying it, even as the death count from the coronavirus topped a quarter-million Americans and states braced for a new round of lockdowns.
Atlas seemed almost to relish in undermining any advice that he didn’t already agree with. After the governor of Michigan issued new restrictions, Atlas urged people to “rise up” against her. If he paid attention to the news, Atlas would have known that right-wing militias had threatened to kidnap the governor; if he so vehemently disagreed with lockdowns, he could have easily convened a discussion with doctors, governors, nurses and teachers on the proper way to handle a spike in cases.
He also tried to pick a fight with Fauci, whose warnings had come to irritate the president. But the Brooklyn-born immunologist deflected the attacks without taking the bait. “I have real problems with that guy,” Fauci said, brushing him off as if Atlas were little more than a schoolhouse bully.
Trump mused that he might fire Fauci after the election. Instead, Atlas is now gone, while Fauci — a senior civil servant — will likely be advising the Biden administration come Jan. 20.
An eager culture warrior, Atlas was lionized in his departure by ardently pro-Trump outlets like the Federalist, which parroted his claim that he had been the victim of cancel culture for speaking difficult truths.
In fact, most health experts agreed that they were hardly truths at all. Atlas and his supporters have long touted Sweden for its lax approach to the pandemic, arguing that herd immunity would save both the nation’s economy and its citizens, as long as vulnerable populations kept to themselves while everyone else cavorted, maskless and unencumbered, in beer gardens and restaurants.
The main argument against this approach is Sweden itself, which has failed to achieve the herd immunity Atlas has promised. “We see no signs of immunity in the population,” the Swedish state epidemiologist said last week, confirming what many had feared about the Swedish experiment.
In his departure, Atlas cast himself as an iconoclast who had been sidelined for original thinking. On the day that he resigned, there were 168,000 new coronavirus infections across the United States.
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