President Donald Trump insisted he didn’t know anything about whistleblowing vaccine expert Dr. Rick Bright, but then berated CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang for asking about Bright’s “gifts” in his field of expertise.
On Wednesday, Dr. Bright released a blockbuster statement in which he said he’d been demoted from his position leading the agency tasked with vaccine development because he had pushed back against funding unproven coronavirus treatments that Trump has relentlessly promoted — and suggested that political connections and cronyism were behind Trump’s promotion of them.
Despite the implications of Bright’s accusations, it wasn’t until nearly an hour into the briefing that a reporter asked about it.
“Mr. President, I wanted to ask you about Rick Bright,” ABC News’ Jonathan Karl said. “He’s the head of the federal agency in charge of getting a vaccine out to — to Americans once it’s ready. He says he has been pushed out of his job because he raised questions about hydroxychloroquine and some of your directives on that. Was he pushed out of that job?”
“I’ve never heard of him. You just mentioned the name. I never heard of him,” Trump claimed, then asked “When did this happen?”
“This happened today,” Karl said, to which Trump said “Well, I’ve never heard of him. If the guy says he was pushed out of a job, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. I — you’d have to hear the other side. I don’t know who he is.”
Karl tried to ask a follow-up, but Trump brushed him off to call on another reporter.
Despite the fact that Trump simultaneously claimed not to know the head of the agency tasked with finding a vaccine during a global pandemic and casually acknowledged the man may well have been pushed out of his job, only one other reporter asked about Dr. Bright for the remainder of the briefing.
“Mr. President, yes, I just had a follow — a question for Dr. Fauci, if you don’t mind,” Weijia Jiang said, adding “And I’m happy to ask you one after.”
She never got the chance to question Trump, but Jiang asked Dr. Fauci “So this concern or an accusation he’s raised that he was removed from his job because he protested widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, are you familiar with the situation? And do you feel like public health experts feel they are able to speak publicly or to speak out in opposition to the things?”
Fauci shook his head and said “Here I am,” indicating that he is an example of an expert speaking publicly. Dr. Fauci has urged caution about the drugs Trump has promoted, but has not spoken in opposition the way Dr. Bright did.
“So you don’t feel like there’s any concern among people at the NIH right now or in the public health community?” Jiang asked.
“At the NIH, absolutely not,” Fauci replied.
“Dr. Fauci, knowing Dr. Bright and knowing what his gifts are as one of the country’s leading experts on vaccines, are those gifts best suited at NIH rather than BARDA? What’s he going to be doing with you?” Jiang asked, and added “are his gifts best suited to work with you rather than BARDA?”
“I don’t really think I can comment on somebody’s relative gifts,” Fauci said, then described Dr. Bright’s new duties.
“I mean, he’s — he’s going to be at the NIH, and he’s going to be responsible, from what I hear — again, this is what I’ve heard — that he’s going to be responsible for the development of diagnostics, which is very, very important,” Fauci said.
As Fauci wrapped up his answer, Jiang began to ask “Are you concerned at all that he –”
But Trump stepped up to the podium and interrupted by saying “And why did you say that he has great gifts or gifts? What, do you know him?”
“Well, that’s his expertise. I mean, I’m just looking at his résumé,” Jiang said. Dr. Bright is an award-winning vaccine expert.
Trump interrupted “No, no, but have you reviewed him? Have you — have you studied him? Have you reported on him? You said, ‘his gifts.’ His gifts. I mean…”
“He’s worked his entire career developing vaccines, including the –” Jiang said, as Trump interrupted again.
“Well, that doesn’t mean you have gifts. I know a lot of people, they play baseball, but they can’t hit 150 in the Major Leagues,” Trump said.
“Well, he helped develop the flu vaccine last year,” Jiang said.
“No, no, but you talk about his great gifts,” Trump said, then rolled on to the next reporter.
Neither Jiang nor Karl had the chance to ask Trump about the substance of Dr. Bright’s accusations, and not a single other reporter bothered to try.