Why now? As Fox News reported late yesterday, Dr. Scott Atlas’ official days at the White House as a COVID-19 adviser to Donald Trump were numbered anyway — more numbered than Trump’s. Atlas resigned days ahead of the end of his assignment, providing a slightly earlier end to a controversial and contentious tenure on Trump’s policy squad:
Dr. Scott Atlas, President Trump’s special adviser on the coronavirus pandemic, formally resigned from his post on Monday, Fox News has learned.
Atlas, who spoke with the president on Monday, joined the administration in August, and was considered a Special Government Employee (SGE), serving a 130-day detail. Atlas’ role is set to expire this week.
Fox News exclusively obtained Atlas’s resignation letter Monday, which was dated Dec. 1. In it, Atlas touted the Trump administration’s work on the coronavirus pandemic, while wishing “all the best” to the incoming Biden administration.
— Scott W. Atlas (@ScottWAtlas) December 1, 2020
The Washington Post notes that the deadline wasn’t exactly hard and fast, either. Trump could have extended it for another 130 days if he so chose. Given that he has fewer than 60 days left in office anyway, the move should raise some eyebrows:
Although Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no infectious-disease or public health background, fell out of favor with senior White House advisers in recent weeks, he was the only medical adviser the president met with regularly for several months, according to several senior administration officials. Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner brought in Atlas, who was officially made a special government employee this summer with a 130-day detail, which expires this week. Aides noted, however, that the president could have extended Atlas’s tenure if he had desired to do so.
Neither the New York Times nor the WaPo offers any direct explanation for the early exit. Both detail Atlas’ controversial career as Trump’s key advisor in some detail, and both report that Atlas was not popular within the White House for his counterintuitive — and some would argue counter-scientific — advice to Trump about COVID-19. Atlas eclipsed, and also publicly feuded with, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, both of whom had built up considerable credibility in the crisis, and whose participation lent that credibility to Trump. When Atlas pushed the pair out of Trump’s orbit and became the administration’s public medical face of the response, he broke those credibility links as well.
That might have been the reason for his early exit now. One hint of what might have propelled Atlas out of the Trump orbit can be found in the Post’s report:
He fought fiercely with Birx and to a lesser extent with Fauci, as well as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, former White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway and several other aides, according to another senior administration official.
“He was the worst thing to happen to Trump in 2020 from a personnel perspective,” said a former senior administration official who regularly sparred with Atlas, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss a former colleague.
Did Atlas cost Trump the election? He may have been one factor among several, but being part of the chaos didn’t help matters, at least. Atlas certainly makes for a high-profile scapegoat for a Trump loss, especially for Trump himself, who seems unable to process his defeat at the polls. Perhaps this is an early step toward doing just that.
Of course, this might be no more than a personnel move to ease the transition to Joe Biden’s COVID-19 team over the next eight weeks. Even that, though, would be a recognition that Trump’s time is drawing to a close. It would also serve as a tacit admission that Atlas is far more trouble than he is worth even for the short period still left for Trump to manage this crisis. Too bad Trump didn’t stick with Fauci and Birx in the first place.