Facing ‘a Lot of Blowback,’ Trump’s Surgeon General Steps Up

Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks to reporters outside the White House on March 20, 2020. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks to reporters outside the White House on March 20, 2020. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Dr. Jerome Adams faces two difficult challenges as President Donald Trump’s surgeon general: He’s an African American working for a man routinely accused of racism, and he is a scientist in an administration that has shown contempt for science.

He can live with that.

“If people feel that the president needs to have a different perspective on the African American community, the one thing I would say is, he’s not going to get it if there aren’t any African Americans in the administration,” Adams said in an interview, adding, “People are always saying we need more Black voices represented and more Black perspectives represented, but they’re always telling every Black person in the administration you should quit.”

“Those two things don’t fit together,” he said.

Now, as coronavirus cases surge and demands for racial justice roil the nation, Adams is stepping into more of a starring role. He will be the central figure in a public service campaign aimed at getting Americans to take the pandemic seriously and do what the president, with rare exceptions, does not do: follow public health guidance and wear a mask.

“I’m pleading with your viewers, I’m begging you: Please understand that we are not trying to take away your freedoms when we say wear a face covering,” Adams said Monday morning on his boss’ favorite news show, “Fox & Friends.”

That message must compete with relentless criticism that has come his way precisely because of his race and his stature. Critics have called him a “token Black guy” and “a clown.” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., accused him of spewing Trump’s “racist dog whistles.”

“His own community is not exactly a fan of this administration, and then they see Jerome up there representing the White House, and he gets a lot of blowback,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “At one point he did tell me he was having a pretty rough time.”

At meetings of Trump’s coronavirus task force, Adams is often a quiet presence, but he chimes in on his signature issue: racial disparities in health. He said in an interview last week that he had spoken to both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence about the issue. He was also straightforward about working for a president who has been accused of racism.

“I have a powerful opportunity to have an influence in this administration, and I feel like I need to be at the table,” Adams said, adding, “That’s how I deal with it.”

Politics and science have often collided in Washington, though perhaps never as much as under Trump, when even face coverings have turned political.

Adams has remained diplomatic on Trump’s near-constant refusal to wear face masks.

“It’s not my place to say what image the president of the United States should be projecting,” Adams said. “It’s my place to say, ‘Public, here’s what you need to do to stay safe.’”

Adams has brought on some of the criticism himself. In April, while urging people of color to practice social distancing and wear masks, he turned to colloquialisms, saying, “Do it for your Big Momma!” Critics including Waters, a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, assailed him, while Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert — more than three decades Adams’ senior — leapt to his defense.

“He’s an African American kid who grew up in an African American family, so he knows exactly what he’s talking about,” Fauci said in a recent interview. “I was almost offended by the fact that someone else was offended.”

Adams has also had difficulty living down a Feb. 29 tweet saying, “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” (He was concerned at that time that masks were not available to front-line health workers.)

Adams has remained circumspect. Interviewed for the “Today” show on NBC before the July 4 holiday, Adams hedged when asked if people should avoid large gatherings where masks were not required, saying it was not a “yes or no” question. Musician Axl Rose branded him “a coward.”

Public opinion research conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, however, concluded that Adams was a relatable figure, which is one reason he will be an anchor of new public service advertisements on radio, television, digital platforms and billboards.

The series, which will begin in urban markets, will feature him and other government scientists, including Fauci, talking with celebrities and sports figures about following public health guidance. In separate outreach efforts, Adams has recorded a video with celebrity chef José Andrés, an outspoken Trump critic, and even asked Rose for help.

A video Adams posted on Twitter this month of him dancing with his daughter and niece while wearing masks has gone viral.

The son of schoolteachers in rural southeastern Maryland, Adams said he grew up with Confederate flags and “the N word.” He first saw the Capitol while being airlifted to Children’s National Hospital in Washington after an asthma attack.

Asthma kept him “stuck inside,” he said, reading constantly and being branded a nerd, which helps him “empathize” with “folks who are vulnerable, who are outcasts or forgotten.”

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he studied biochemistry, hoped to become an engineer and met Black doctors — including Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who became Trump’s housing secretary — for the first time. Inspired, he went to Indiana University for medical school and trained in anesthesiology, which he still occasionally practices at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

He also received a degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley — a “highly unusual choice” for an anesthesiologist, said Dr. Art Reingold, one of Adams’ professors.

His pursuit of public health was deeply personal. Adams has one brother who is developmentally disabled and another who has a history of drug-related incarceration. In Indiana, where Adams settled to practice medicine, he worked in a public hospital, shunning a more lucrative career in private practice. Eventually, he caught the eye of Pence, then the governor, who made him health commissioner.

In Indiana, Adams had a pavement-pounding reputation, driving to heavily Black communities all over the state for panel discussions, town hall events and fundraisers, addressing issues like obesity, infant mortality rates and opioid addiction.

“Trying to improve minority health from the bottom up made him our natural ally,” said Carl Ellison, the president of the Indiana Minority Health Coalition.

The moment that defined Adams’ Indiana career came early in 2015, in a heavily white, rural part of the state near the Kentucky border, where HIV was spreading with ferocity among intravenous drug users. Indiana law made it illegal to possess a syringe without a prescription. An evangelical Christian, Pence was morally opposed to needle exchanges, believing they encouraged drug abuse.

One of the first things Adams saw in Scott County was a Ku Klux Klan flag hanging near a Little League field. He met with the sheriff, with clergy, with skeptical locals. By March, the governor issued an executive order allowing syringes to be distributed in the county.

Adams was “walking a similar tightrope” to the one in Washington, said state Rep. Ed Clere of Indiana, a Republican.

“He managed to carve out a space that allowed him to maintain credibility while also being an effective voice within the administration,” Clere said.

The surgeon general’s office is what the occupant makes it. It comes with a paltry budget and little power beyond the authority to issue reports and to speak up. Yet some who have served as “the nation’s doctor” have made a profound difference in American life.

In the 1960s, surgeon general Luther L. Terry took on the tobacco industry and warned of the perils of smoking. C. Everett Koop almost single-handedly pushed President Ronald Reagan to recognize AIDS. In the 1990s, David Satcher publicly contradicted his boss, President Bill Clinton, in backing needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users.

Satcher, the only other Black man to serve as surgeon general, said he had encouraged Adams to “hang in there.”

“I’m glad he has,” he added, “even though I’m sure it’s been difficult.”

Like Satcher, Adams has made ending racial disparities in health care, a problem that has become glaringly apparently during the coronavirus pandemic, his signature initiative. He said he knew from personal experience that racism — “institutionalized racism, structural racism and sometimes overt racism” — played a role.

As surgeon general, Adams said, he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He has a platform, and he intends to use it: “You’re not always going to get along with and agree with everything your boss says or does in any job, but you stay in that job if you feel like you could have an impact.”

Tony Gillespie, a longtime friend and another member of the Indiana Minority Health Coalition, said that Adams was “always in that place” where “if you do, you’re wrong; if you don’t, you’re wrong.”

Adams is in no mood to apologize to his critics.

“Nowhere in this S.G. job description does it say your job is to contradict the president,” he said, using the initials for his title. He has a message for Americans: “Take my health information as health information and not as a political statement.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company