Fauci, Birx warned Trump against holding Tulsa rally

WASHINGTON — Leading members of the coronavirus task force warned White House officials about the health risks of holding large-scale indoor campaign rallies and advised against the mass gatherings, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and task force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx both vocalized concerns internally in the last week about the safety of holding a rally with as many as 19,000 of people in an enclosed arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday.

But President Donald Trump and his campaign advisers are proceeding with the event, which is expected to draw tens of thousands inside and outside the venue who will neither be socially distant nor required to wear face coverings. They claim attendees “assume a personal risk” and “that is part of life.”

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Tulsa, Oklahoma, prepares for Trump rally

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TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 19: A metal bust of U.S. President Donald Trump is on display outside the BOK Center as people line up to attend his campaign rally tomorrow June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 19: A metal bust of U.S. President Donald Trump is on display outside the BOK Center as people line up to attend his campaign rally tomorrow June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 19: Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump sleep in the early morning while lined up to attend the Trump’s campaign rally near the BOK Center, site of tomorrow’s rally, June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 19: Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump sleep in the early morning while lined up to attend the Trump’s campaign rally near the BOK Center, site of tomorrow’s rally, June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: A mural painted on the side of Mad Dog Liquors is shown June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre occurred in Tulsa in the year 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Children pose for photos in front of a mural painted on the side of Mad Dog Liquors June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre occurred in Tulsa in the year 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: A woman poses for photos in front of a mural marking Black Wall Street, also called the Greenwood District, June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: The Black Wall Street Massacre memorial is shown June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Tributes to George Floyd are laid at the base of a Black Wall Street mural, also called the Greenwood District, June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Children pose for a photo in front of a mural marking Black Wall Street, also called the Greenwood Distric, June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: The Black Wall Street Massacre memorial is shown June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: People visit the memorial to the Black Wall Street Massacre June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: The Black Wall Street Massacre memorial is shown June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Black Wall Street Massacre happened in 1921 and was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States where more than 35 square blocks of a predominantly black neighborhood were destroyed in two days of rioting leaving between 150-300 people dead. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Trump 2020 face masks and other merchandise are shown for sale outside the BOK Center June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Keegan Smith wears a Trump 2020 face mask while waiting in line outside the BOK Center June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Nicholas Winford (L) debates a group of Trump supporters on the racial policies of U.S. President Donald Trump outside the BOK Center June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Trump supporters pose for photos with a giant Trump flag outside BOK Center, site of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 18: Nicholas Winford (R) debates Trump supporter Randall Thom (L), on the racial policies of U.S. President Donald Trump outside the BOK Center June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is scheduled to hold his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Supporters of President Trump, including a man dressed as the border wall, line up outside outside an arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 18, 2020, where the president will hold his first campaign rally in months this weekend .Despite the heat, the ever-growing risk of coronavirus and a lukewarm reception from local officials, dozens of backers of Trump are already camped out outside the arena (AP photo/ Tom McCarthy)

FILE – In this Monday, June 15, 2020, file photo, a sign marks the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, the former home of Black Wall Street, in Tulsa, Okla. Black community leaders in Tulsa said they fear a large rally by President Donald Trump in the city this weekend could spark violence, and the state’s governor asked Trump not to visit the site of a race massacre where up to 300 black residents were killed by white mobs in 1921. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Shawn-Du Stackhouse, left, and Chelsea Guillory, right, pose for a photo at the Black Wall Street Memorial in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, June 15, 2020. For Stackhouse, a barber from the Washington, D.C. area and one of those visiting the Tulsa massacre memorials on this day, the proof that cell-phone videos provided of killings of African-Americans today somehow make the killings of the past, like Tulsa’s, more real as well. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Freeman Culver stands in front of a mural listing the names of businesses destroyed during the Tulsa race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, June 15, 2020, on the other side of what’s historically the city’s white-black dividing line from where President Donald Trump will rally Saturday. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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It has been nearly two months since the last coronavirus task force briefing and four weeks since Birx answered questions about the coronavirus pandemic from the White House briefing room.

Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the group, and his top aides have at times flouted their own administration’s guidance, opting not to wear face masks during multiple trips in recent weeks.

While Pence and the president have tried to paint a rosier picture of the virus and project a return to normalcy, some members of the task force are eager to resume appearances from White House grounds and speak directly to the American people, per two people involved in the task force meetings.

There is no current plan to bring back the once-daily press conferences, according to a person close to Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, so he has found other outlets to offer his medical advice.

Fauci has consistently done media interviews with a range of outlets, which has annoyed the president, this person said. He has also repeatedly contradicted and undercut both Trump and Pence’s more optimistic messaging with science and data that suggests a second wave is indeed coming. Trump and Fauci have not spoken or met face to face in several weeks.

Earlier in the pandemic, the president praised Fauci and touted his expertise. But he has also publicly broken with him at times when he has felt challenged, tweeting Friday in response to safety comments Fauci made about resuming football.

“Tony Fauci has nothing to do with NFL Football. They are planning a very safe and controlled opening. However, if they don’t stand for our National Anthem and our Great American Flag, I won’t be watching!!!” Trump tweeted.

Asked whether the briefings will ever return, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Friday it was unlikely and that instead she will be the one to present new information after consulting with Birx.

The task force still meets weekly, behind closed doors, and is slated to gather on Friday.

When asked if he would personally attend the Tulsa rally, Fauci said “of course not” given his age and cautioned anyone going to wear a face mask, though the Trump campaign says that will not be required.

This comes despite the Trump administration’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention new guidance which classifies huge crowd setting as “highest risk,” especially when it’s not possible for people to be six feet apart.

The BOK Center has requested a more detailed safety plan from the Trump campaign, which as of 24 hours before the event, had not yet submitted one. Campaign officials have warned individuals with pre-existing conditions or other factors that would put them more at risk for contracting and battling the virus not to attend Saturday’s rally, where supporters had to sign a digital waiver releasing the campaign and president of any liability if they get sick.

“There have been regular conversations between senior administration officials and the campaign about steps and precautions that can be taken,” one White House official said. “Nobody’s taking this lightly.”

Oklahoma has also seen a significant rise in COVID-19 cases, with a 100 percent spike in Tulsa County just this week, the highest in the state. One of the main reasons the campaign decided to hold the rally in the Sooner State is that it is now in phase three.

A White House official said members of the task force have been consulted and have offered input on how to safely hold rallies and noted that the Tulsa gathering is following guidelines the task force helped write for a phase three reopening.

As the White House attempted to pivot to a message of economic revival and re-opening, there has been inherent tension for members of the task force who want to continue to encourage Americans to follow CDC guidelines while satisfying the president’s public desire to move beyond the virus.

This week, Pence penned an editorial saying “we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”

To drive home that message, the vice president spent time outside of Washington this week mingling with scores of people at events that were tailored to look and feel as much like pre-pandemic life as the places he visited allow.

Pence walked through a crowded restaurant where patrons weren’t wearing masks, including an elderly veteran the vice president posed side-by-side with for a photograph. Any signs of an ongoing pandemic were minimized.

The table where Pence ate lunch was socially distanced from the others in the restaurant, for instance. But to get there he had to walk essentially shoulder-to-shoulder with people who lined either side of a narrow part of the restaurant and members of the audience at his outdoor speech to workers at a manufacturing plant were seated six feet apart.

Almost no one in the audience wore a mask. Pence did interviews with local reporters who weren’t wearing masks. His staff and security detail didn’t wear masks. And the guides on his tour of a manufacturing plant weren’t socially distanced or wearing masks.

“Every single day, we’re one day closer to putting the coronavirus in the past,” Pence said in his speech.

White House officials maintain Pence and Trump can operate differently from others because they are tested daily. Aides who work closely with them are also tested regularly — a small group even daily — and reporters who travel with the vice president have coronavirus tests before each trip.

The president’s political aides are worried about the narrative that may emerge if there’s a significant spike in cases in Oklahoma following the rally, according to people close to the White House. That will also likely complicate the planning of future gatherings.

Next week, the president is headlining another large-scale event with thousands of students in a Phoenix megachurch. The state has seen a steady uptick in cases this week, with back-to-back records for single-day increases Thursday and Friday, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

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