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Transcript: Andy Slavitt on

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The following is a transcript of an interview with Andy Slavitt, former White House senior COVID-19 adviser, that aired Sunday, June 13, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”


JOHN DICKERSON: We go now to Andy Slavitt, who most recently served as President Biden’s senior adviser for COVID response. He joins us from Minneapolis to discuss his new book, Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics and Selfishness Doomed the US Coronavirus Response. Good morning.

FORMER WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 SENIOR ADVISER ANDY SLAVITT: Good Morning, JOHN.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let’s start with the biggest preventable mistake, what was it?

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SLAVITT: Well, JOHN, I think it’s easy to see some of the technical mistakes we made as a country, and you’re not- not- this is with the CDC not having enough tests and not enough face masks and so forth. But we also have to acknowledge the fact that we made some political mistakes. And while this isn’t primarily a political book, a culture of denying science, denying the very virus and sowing divisions wasn’t helpful. But I would argue that perhaps the thing we have to be most concerned about and most focused on are the- are what role we all played. You know, this was an incredibly difficult period of time. But when we look at one another, the question is, did we do enough? Did we sacrifice even a little bit for the health and for the business and for- for others? You know we are- we are a generation that is not sacrificed in a long, long time in this country. And I think, you know, we all have to acknowledge that despite everything else, the technical and the political, we all played a role in this, too.

JOHN DICKERSON: Do you think that the shifting nature, which is the nature of public health information, you don’t have perfect information that that contributed to what you’re talking about in terms of the public response, which is the public heard certain advice at the beginning, let’s say, about masks and then that changed. Experts will say, well, that’s the very nature of information. It changes. What many in the public heard was, well, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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SLAVITT: Well, there’s a question of why was our tolerance for that so low? I mean, the problem is you- you have to believe in science when there are things that are going on you can’t see with your naked eye. And this virus had a lot of properties spreading asymptomatically. So you didn’t know you were carrying it or spreading it, spreading exponentially. So you didn’t know- you couldn’t picture how fast it was growing. That really required you to- to listen to scientists and understand the scientific process. We as a country, I think, had a tough time with this. I think certain- certain people were embracing it and following it along. But other people just, I think, kind of cynically exploited the divisions so that if- if a scientist changed their mind, it was an opportunity to say, see, they don’t know what they’re talking about, but I do or they don’t know what they’re talking about, so we don’t need to listen to them. And I think that may have been a unique experience in our country where that was exploited a little bit more than- than just the sort of the natural confusion that occurs in the kind of fog of war.

JOHN DICKERSON: So the fog of war is the perfect expression to use. So we need to have the habits of mind for the next one of these that we face, as we surely will, the habits of mind to allow for the fog of war, which is people who are working hard but just make natural mistakes, but then also still have enough confidence to listen to what they’re saying so that we do the right thing.

SLAVITT: Oh, there’s no question about it, and there’s other decisions, you know, that we made that I don’t even know we were conscious of making. We classified roughly half the population as essential workers, now essential workers that are- that are taking care of us when we get sick. You know, we can understand that. But we had gobs and gobs of people who were- we were exposing to illness. There’s a chapter in the book called- called “The Room Service Pandemic” where there, quite frankly, a number of people who did quite well during the pandemic were quite comfortable and were at home getting deliveries. And I count myself among them. But there were other people who were growing food, growing our crops, who were delivering those crops, who were- who were working in meatpacking plants, working in grocery stores every day, had to go to work. And we- and we knowingly and willingly exposed a lot of people while a lot of other people were comfortable. These are some deep, more deep embedded things about us and about our society. And the book tries to tell the story of how that- how those decisions made without thinking about a pandemic really came back to haunt us.

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JOHN DICKERSON: We’ve talked a lot about American culture, the roles that experts play, Americans play. But let’s now talk about the Trump administration. Give me your assessment of what’s the most important thing to recognize about the Trump administration’s handling of this.

SLAVITT: So we would have had- we would have had a pandemic without the Trump administration. But there were three I think- I think deadly sins that the Trump administration made that played out. The first was his power that he believed to deny the very existence of the virus or the potency of it, and to get his followers to go along with it. You know, if he- if he simply hadn’t done that and simply said, hey, we’ve got a problem, we would have been in a very different situation. The second was his- his quashing of dissent. As I- as I laid out in the book that comes out, early in this pandemic in February, they sent out orders to the Department of Health and Human Services for 45 days they were not even allowed to talk to the press simply because Alex Azar wanted to say the expression that things were going fine but could change rapidly. They- they really and that whether it was that or Nancy Messonnier or Tony Fauci, anybody that disagreed with the narrative the president wanted was squashed. And then the third was, I think, really almost extra credit was taking the divisions in the country and playing- playing into them. And I think that sort of the populist nature- being a populist during a pandemic is really not a great combination because you’re going to have to make some tough decisions. You’re going to have to make people unhappy. And I think Trump saw in his base a stirring of anti-mask characterizations and other things, and he played into those things because I think it felt like a different route. And I think those three things were things that were, you know, cost us a lot of lives

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JOHN DICKERSON: In the last 20 seconds here, the Wuhan lab leak, if the United States had- had just assumed it had come out of a lab, would there have been any way in which the response would have been different to the actual virus?

SLAVITT: You know, I’m not sure about that. I don’t think that- I don’t think so. Look, I think we should, first of all, nobody knows what’s happened, yet. We need this investigated. We need to- we need China to be forthcoming and we need to be very forceful about it. But to this point, nobody really knows what happened. There are cases to be made on both sides. I agree with Dr. Gottlieb, in his perspective that you’ve got you’ve got characterizations that can go either way. An interesting anecdote in the book where this was all explained to President Trump through a bedtime story, so that may be a part of the book that would- would kind of reflect how he was thinking about this.

JOHN DICKERSON: And we’re going to have to leave it there. And he said that. Thanks so much for being with us. The book is Preventable. And we’ll be right back.

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