Scott Gottlieb has seen his national profile grow amid the coronavirus outbreak as the former FDA commissioner becomes a leading voice from outside the administration on how to tackle the worst health epidemic the country may ever have faced.
Gottlieb, a 47-year-old physician, has become a regular presence on cable news shows and his Twitter account is widely followed by journalists, health policy experts and politicians.
He’s maintained a line to the White House throughout the pandemic, and although his early warnings went unheeded, he hasn’t bludgeoned the administration with criticism but has offered sharp words for officials and states when he has disagreed with their policies.
It’s all helped him become a trusted figure amid the crisis by people on both sides of the aisle.
He’s been informally advising the White House coronavirus task force, supplying Trump with a recent “roadmap” that he and other experts penned to shape how the federal government and states can start to return safely to normal life.
Gottlieb served as FDA commissioner under Trump for about two years before resigning in March 2019, citing a desire to spend more time with his family in Connecticut and parting ways with Trump on amicable terms. He had been one of Trump’s most popular appointments and appeared to be widely liked within Congress by both Democrats and Republicans.
Gottlieb, who did not return an interview request for this story, has been sounding the alarm on the federal government’s need to prepare for a pandemic since late January. Those who know him say he’s been able to make inroads at the White House because of his expertise and his desire to be frank about the challenge at hand.
“He’s not going to shade his views and say something that people want to hear or that might make a headline. He’s just trying to be straight up about the critical things that need to be done to respond to the pandemic,” said Mark McClellan, a former FDA commissioner who hired Gottlieb under the George W. Bush administration.
“It’s not about making a name for himself or saying something that is controversial or critical just for the sake of it. It’s really with this kind of constructive goal in mind. I’ve seen that the entire time we’ve worked together.”
McClellan, who along with Gottlieb and colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) penned the “roadmap to reopening” released a week ago, said they’ve received substantial interest from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Trump administration officials and states about their recommendations.
“That was really the goal. We all need to work together,” McClellan said. “There are a complex set of issues that need to be addressed together to move forward.”
Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceReligious groups battle orders to close services Watch live: Coronavirus task force holds press briefing Decentralized leadership raises questions about Trump coronavirus response MORE, who is leading the coronavirus task force, told CNBC in an interview last week that he had “great respect” for Gottlieb and noted that he’d been advising the task force when asked about the former FDA chief’s warning about potential emerging coronavirus hot spots in places like New Orleans, Miami and Chicago.
Trump told reporters Monday that he had received a copy of Gottlieb’s “roadmap” and that the task force would review recommendations for Americans to wear nonmedical face masks to prevent asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus and for the use of GPS tracking to enforce home isolation. A few days later, in a reversal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encouraged Americans wear face coverings in public.
“He was with me for a long time,” Trump told reporters on Monday when asked about the recommendations. “He did a great job at FDA.”
Gottlieb, a physician and cancer survivor, penned an op-ed on Jan. 27 calling on the U.S. to prepare for a domestic outbreak of the novel coronavirus and sounding the alarm on the need for widespread screening and point-of-care tests.
“Global spread appears inevitable. So too are the emergence of outbreaks in the U.S., even if a widespread American epidemic can still be averted. When pockets of the outbreak arrive on our shores, we shouldn’t have undue panic. But we need to be ready,” Gottlieb wrote in CNBC. Days later, Gottlieb warned COVID-19 was likely to be a pandemic, about a month before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it such.
He has been vocal since, on Twitter and in news interviews, on occasion capturing the attention of Trump, who retweeted Gottlieb on March 12 warning of “two hard months” ahead and advocating for physical distancing in communities. Trump also shared tweets from Gottlieb on Sunday saying cases appeared to be slowing in some places due to social distancing but pointing to areas of concern, including Miami and other parts of Florida, which Gottlieb said were becoming a “major epicenter” of COVID-19.
In early March, Gottlieb attended a weekly meeting of Republicans at the invitation of Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneySelf-quarantined New York lawmaker: ‘We should be in total lockdown’ On The Money: Trump hopes to reopen economy by Easter | GOP senators expect stimulus vote on Wednesday | Democratic leaders forecast at least two more relief bills Trump triggers congressional debate with comments on reopening economy MORE (Wyo.), the third-ranking House GOP leader, according to Paul Kane of The Washington Post.
At the meeting, Kane wrote that Gottlieb delivered a blunt warning to the room that was dismissed as “alarmist” by some who attended. Those Republicans took issue with the recommendations he made for social distancing and compared the virus to the seasonal flu, provoking a forceful response from Gottlieb, who warned they had a moral duty to save lives.
Last week, Gottlieb said in an appearance on CNBC that the success of the White House’s social distancing measures in keeping the death toll down would depend on the decisions of “populist” states like Texas and Florida that hadn’t yet taken aggressive enough action.
“If they don’t get more aggressive, we could be on the cusp of some of those bad outcomes,” Gottlieb said. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisReligious groups battle orders to close services Florida lawmakers call for resignation of exec in charge of state’s unemployment system Florida candidates allowed to collect petition signatures online MORE has since issued a stay-at-home order, after previously resisting doing so.
Gottlieb is among a handful of former Trump administration officials who have sounded the alarm over the coronavirus outbreak.
Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser who also served in government during the Bush era, warned for weeks about the potential impact of COVID-19, voicing recommendations and weighing in on the administration’s decisions on Twitter and media interviews.
Kevin Hassett, Trump’s one-time chief economist, also said last month in an interview with CNN that the outbreak could spark another Great Depression. Hassett has since returned to the White House late last month in an informal role advising Trump amid the pandemic.
Nathaniel Weixel contributed.