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“It Was All About the Election”: The Ex-White House Aide Olivia Troye on Trump’s Narcissistic Mishandling of COVID-19

When I spoke with Olivia Troye on Thursday afternoon, she sounded more than a little scared. She was about to go public with a scorching video, in which she would denounce President Donald Trump and his stewardship of the country during the coronavirus pandemic. Troye, who served as Vice-President Mike Pence’s adviser for homeland security until late July, has witnessed the Administration’s response to the crisis, as Pence’s top aide on the White House coronavirus task force. She had seen Trump rant in private about Fox News coverage as his public-health advisers desperately tried to get him to focus on a disease that has now killed some two hundred thousand Americans. She had decided that Trump was lying to the American public about the disease, and that “words matter, especially when you’re the President of the United States,” and that it was time to speak out. She was nervous and scared and worried for her family and her career. But she plunged ahead anyway.

I asked about her firsthand observation of the President during the crisis. She said that Trump was “disruptive.” That he could not “focus.” That he was consumed by himself and his prospects in November. “For him, it was all about the election,” Troye told me. “He just can’t seem to care about anyone else besides himself.”

Troye joined the coronavirus task force when it was first established, in late January, before any Americans had died from COVID-19. Her experience on it, Troye told me, convinced her that Trump’s handling of the situation—the conscious spreading of disinformation, the disregard for the task force’s work—had made the crisis far worse for Americans. She warned about the President’s push for a vaccine before the November election and said that she did not trust him to do the right thing for the country’s health and safety. “What I’m really concerned about is if they rush this vaccine and pressure people and get something out because they want to save the election,” she said.

Troye is the first White House staff member who has worked on the coronavirus response to speak out publicly against Trump, but the President and the Administration she described were drearily consistent with portraits that have emerged in countless other tell-all interviews and books: a White House riven by backstabbing and suspicion, where trouble flowed from the top and good governance was subordinate to Presidential whim and partisan calculation. She told me she believed that most other staffers on the coronavirus task force were genuinely motivated to help Americans weather the pandemic but that Trump blocked them from implementing the right policies. “Everything that you’re putting in place is derailed not just by a random person—it’s derailed by a No. 1. It’s derailed by the person at the very top,” she said.

Troye described herself to me as a lifelong Republican, whose first job out of college was at the Republican National Committee. On 9/11, she fled her office on foot, walking home past the smoldering fire of the Pentagon, a moment that convinced her, like many others in her generation, to pursue a career in national security. She went on to serve as a George W. Bush Administration appointee in the Pentagon. For the first year and a half of the Trump Administration, she worked at the Department of Homeland Security, as a career intelligence official, before being detailed to Pence’s staff. Civil servants like herself were reviled as “deep staters” by Trump’s political appointees, she said. They were viewed with even more suspicion after Trump’s impeachment in the House, in December, was aided by testimony from mid-level White House staffers, including Jennifer Williams, Pence’s national-security aide, who worked in the office next to Troye’s. “I actually find that term very offensive,” she told me, “because not once while I was there did I do anything that I believe would lead anyone to think that I was a ‘deep stater,’ constantly undermining his agenda. . . . At the end of the day, I’m a career officer and my job was to serve, no matter who was in office.”

Soon after our conversation, a coalition called Republican Voters Against Trump released Troye’s video, the third such testimonial of a former Administration official speaking out against the President that the group has produced in recent weeks. In the video, Troye speaks directly to the camera. As pictures of her sitting alongside Vice-President Pence flash onscreen, she says that, by mid-February, the task force knew that the coronavirus was a lethal threat to the U.S. “But the President didn’t want to hear that, because his biggest concern was that we were in an election year.” Troye adds, “It was shocking to see the President saying that the virus was a hoax, saying that everything was O.K. when it was not,” despite what he had been very clearly told in private. Troye ends the video by calling herself a “John McCain Republican” and endorsing Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden.

In the video, Troye recounts when Trump, a noted germaphobe, met with the coronavirus task force, early on in the crisis, and told its members that perhaps the pandemic was a good thing because he would no longer have to shake hands with all the “disgusting people” at his rallies and other public events. During our interview, I asked Troye if she could remember other particularly memorable times when Trump spoke privately to the group. She recalled how Trump refused several times to consider urgent business that the task force presented to him, deciding “to talk about himself and a preferred news network and how upset he was with them, instead of focussing on the agenda at hand.” Fox News coverage, in other words, preoccupied the President more than saving American lives. I asked Troye if that shocked her. “No,” she said. She remembered what she thought at the time: “This is exactly what you would expect.”

Sadly, the surprise here is not that Trump acted so callously in the midst of a pandemic but that so many senior government officials know that this is happening and are doing nothing to stop it. Troye’s testimony, like that of so many others, is from inside the room—in this case, from inside the very room that is supposed to be dealing with the single biggest crisis currently afflicting the United States.

Every Presidency has its dissenters, people who leave and tell tales after they do so. But there has never been anything like the stories that have emerged from the Trump White House, from so many who worked with the President and observed him up close. People like his former national-security adviser John Bolton, who called Trump “unfit” for office. And people like the former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the former White House chief of staff John Kelly, and the former director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, all of whom have relayed grave concerns about Trump that have made their way to Bob Woodward and other journalists.

In the end, this is what struck me most during my conversation with Troye: she is young, only forty-three years old, with a long career ahead of her, and she was willing to put it all on the line publicly, whereas people like Mattis and Kelly were not. That contrast could not have been more stark as I read a Coats Op-Ed in the Times that published the same day as Troye’s video. Coats, clearly referring to Trump’s recent undermining of faith in the upcoming election, said that a national commission should be established by Congress to insure confidence in this fall’s voting. Coats never once referenced Trump by name, and he has never publicly come forward to share with Americans his misgivings about the President. Why not? He is a veteran U.S. senator and a former U.S. ambassador who closed out his career as the head of the massive U.S. intelligence bureaucracy. What does he have to risk?

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