Lou Dobbs turns on HHS Secretary Azar over coronavirus response

Dobbs and Azar

Watching Fox News is the closest most people will ever get to seeing presidential advisers jockey for the president’s attention in real time. People who go on the network know that President Donald Trump may be watching at any time, and they shape their commentary to influence his decisions. A few carefully calibrated segments can dictate everything from federal contracts to presidential pardons to top administration posts. And based on last night’s coverage, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar may want to start updating his resume.

Lou Dobbs, a Fox Business host, is one of Trump’s most loyal propagandists. His show is the closest thing the U.S. has to a North Korea-style state TV broadcast. Dobbs provides relentlessly over-the-top praise of the president’s supposed virtues and bitter denouncements of his enemies. Trump loves the program and has called the host and put him on speakerphone during Oval Office meetings. Administration officials who go on his program have come to expect a safe space to spout their talking points and walk away unscathed. 

Azar was surely anticipating that treatment when he joined Dobbs for an interview last night to discuss the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. That’s what had happened just a week ago, when the host told Azar that the administration was doing a “terrific job” handling the coronavirus and complimented him for “treating Americans like adults.” But this time, Dobbs relentlessly grilled Azar, calling his honesty and competency into question over 10 brutal minutes. 

Dobbs’ turn may be responding to the president’s sense that he needs to provide a scapegoat for his administration’s flawed response to the outbreak -- or he may be trying to drive Trump in that direction. 

The Trump administration’s response is rightfully drawing scrutiny, and Azar is emerging as a focal point of internal criticism. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at the White House are “increasingly pointing the finger” at” Azar, Politico reported Monday, “who they say failed to coordinate the response, as agency chiefs waited for instructions that came too late and other deputies were largely cut out of the process.” From the report:

Numerous problems with the Trump administration’s testing regimen have come to light: Coronavirus tests developed by CDC were flawed, possibly because the lab itself was contaminated. The resulting lack of test capacity forced U.S. officials to screen a limited number of patients in January and February, with the CDC testing fewer than 500 Americans at the same time that China was likely testing at least 1 million of its own residents. Meanwhile, public health officials had no fallback testing option until the Food and Drug Administration granted approval for hospitals and other labs to develop their own homegrown tests on Saturday — more than six weeks after the first U.S. case of coronavirus was identified.

Public health officials acknowledge that CDC and other parts of the government have repeatedly stumbled in the early days of the outbreak but say that the 52-year-old Azar, a former drug company executive who took over the department in 2018, did not reach out early or often enough to goad his subordinates into action.

Azar is responsible for running his agency and chairs the administration’s coronavirus task force. But a certain amount of this critique does seem like blame-shifting intended to keep Trump himself from being held responsible. 

Trump dismantled U.S. pandemic response capabilities in recent years. The president has seemed shockingly ignorant of basic aspects of his administration’s coronavirus response -- in keeping with his typical boredom with the nuts and bolts of his job. And while Trump, enveloped by a Fox bubble, has largely focused on lavishing praise on himself and his administration while lashing out at Democrats and the press for supposedly politicizing coronavirus, it may be time to offer up someone else to blame. With last night’s interview, Dobbs is pointing him toward Azar.

Dobbs is only one member of the Fox News Cabinet. And his apparent sense that Azar is doing a poor job is not universally held within that body. Later on Monday night, the secretary received a much less hostile response during an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Ingraham hewed much more closely to the administration’s talking points, including asking Azar about how “the media” is “using this to smear the administration.” (Azar replied that the coverage has been “colossal nonsense” and praised Trump.)

The dueling interviews reflect a divide between Trump’s television advisers, with one of the president’s official ones fighting for his job. If Azar is forced out, we should remember his Dobbs interview as a key turning point.