The Health and Human Services secretary, exactly one week after Trump sacked his acting director of national intelligence in an act of rage, openly defied the often vindictive president on international television with his boss standing about one foot away.
The president had just used his lengthy opening statement during a rare White House new conference in the seldom-used James Brady Briefing Room – which has become little more than a glorified storage and work space for the White House press corps – to downplay the threat coronavirus poses to Americans inside the United States. Azar heard every word. He was standing behind the president on the podium the entire time.
“We have through some very good early decisions – decisions that were actually ridiculed at the beginning – we closed up our borders to flights coming in from certain areas, areas that were hit by the coronavirus and hit pretty hard,” Trump told reporters.
“And we did it very early. A lot of people thought we shouldn't have done it that early, and we did, and it turned out to be a very good thing,” he said. “And the number one priority, from our standpoint, is the health and safety of the American people, and that is the way I viewed it when I made that decision.”
Then came the bottom line from the commander-in-chief, a notorious germophobe who is now trying to prevent the outbreak of a virus responsible for 2,462 associated deaths worldwide, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDCP is just one among a growing list of federal agencies Trump shows little anguish in contradicting, of course – even as he tries to settle nervous voters and stock markets, two things he cares greatly about.
“Because of all we have done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” the president declared.
In normal times, that would have been the same message from another president’s top health officials. Only, we exited so-called normal times about three years ago.
What say you, Alex Azar?
(Don’t forget, Mr Secretary, what you say could land you with a pink slip, a la Joseph Maguire, the career Navy officer who was fired from his post as acting DNI for informing US lawmakers – including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a top Trump enemy — that Russia is again up to its election-meddling shenanigans.)
“At the same time, what every one of our experts and leaders have been saying for more than a month now remains true,” Azar told reporters after declaring a mostly successful Trump administration strategy to contain the virus.
Then came those 22 words that make him the one Cabinet member to watch as the virus creeps onto to US soil, with the first possible “community” transaction being investigated after it was contradicted by an American who has not left the country.
“The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly, and we can expect to see more cases in the United States,” Azar said, defying the mercurial president seven days after he ousted Maguire.
(Well. That took guts. What you feel on your back, sir, are the laser beam-like eyes of Donald J. Trump.)
Trump had just placed perhaps the most loyal of all the Trump loyalists, Vice President Mike Pence, in charge of combating the coronavirus. Until that moment, it had been up to Azar.
Trump came to the White House briefing room for only the second time in three years a day after his top health officials had said the virus’s arrival on US soil was a matter of when, not if. Had he been satisfied with that message of warning, the president would not have addressed the country.
He also wasn’t happy with Maguire’s message to Schiff and other lawmakers about Russia. So he ran the Navy man off a few weeks before his time as acting DNI was set to, by law, expire. And he replaced him with Richard Grenell, a former Fox News talking head with a pure communications background and absolutely zero intelligence bona fides.
Democratic lawmakers raced past alarm and went right to disgust over the move – especially after Grenell dismissed his office’s deputy director, Andrew P Hallman, a career intelligence officer.
Grenell, as an acting agency head, is a temp. He cannot remain in the post forever. Many acting heads resist any pressure to make major personnel moves. Not the Trump loyalist. He removed Hallman, one of the government's premiere intel experts, even though Trump will have to nominate a permanent DNI candidate by March 11.
Many former national security officials howled with warnings of a president running amok, more emboldened after his impeachment and Senate acquittal than most in Washington had feared. The intelligence community – because of the high stakes involved with identifying, monitoring and engaging potential threats, as well as the crucial secrets in which it deals – was one aspect of the government even the most political of presidents sought to keep out of the partisan arena.
Not Trump. Not after he sent Maguire packing and his temporary replacement sent Hallman packing.
“The latest changes at the Office of the National Director of Intelligence confirm it: The tools of government are in the hands of authoritarian fascists. This is no longer hyperbole; they now hold the keys to the entire intelligence system of the government,” Gordon Adams, who worked on national security issues in the Clinton White House, wrote in an unsolicited email to your correspondent.
Adams, a professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service, sees “inmates … taking over the asylum, taking names, imposing gleichschaltung throughout the government.”
Adams also warned about the Donald Trump-Mitch McConnell makeover of the federal judiciary, with the Senate majority leader enthusiastically helping the president put conservative justices on federal courts from coast to coast.
Daniel Davis, a retired Army officer who proudly told me this week he “has seen the intelligence community from inside and outside for decades,” also has concerns about what happened with Maguire and Grenell.
He sees intelligence agencies and products increasingly being “used for political purposes,” with the conclusions of rank-and-file analysts and operations officers – read: spies – being “suppressed” and replaced by ones mid- and high-level managers know are “preferred” by senior officials.
Davis, no partisan bomb-thrower, offers a key qualifying statement — “This started before Trump was president” — contending he saw the politicization of intelligence when he served in Afghanistan under then-President George W Bush.
“It’s become part of our politics,” he says. “There’s a general push across the board to just highlight the ‘facts’ that support what the principal already is inclined to believe.”
That’s why Adams has a point.
Trump is not the cause of America’s hyper-partisan era, but no one exploits it quite like him. As his Senate acquittal has proven, if given an inch, Trump has concluded he can take a mile with absolutely zero recourse from official Washington. So Adams is correct in his warning about what is happening inside a government where loyalty to the president is more and more important – after all, Trump himself confirmed an effort to weed out those who fail to loudly express their loyalty.
“You know I do not write or talk this way lightly,” Adams told me. “I am, by and large, a left-of-center Democrat. But we are watching the demise and destruction of American democracy in my lifetime; it is frightening and tragic.”
This correspondent has covered Washington for nearly two decades. I’m not convinced things are quite as dire as Adams suggests. At least not yet. That’s why what happens to Azar and other health officials who have contradicted the president this week will provide telling clues about Trump’s vision for a possible – and increasingly likely – second term.
How much more might loyalty tests matter and deeper might the purges go once the president never has to face voters again? We don’t yet know. But history shows that without a true check on power, there is no real balance