Ex-Trump FDA chief criticizes White House over coronavirus precautions to protect Trump and staff

  • "Quite frankly, I don't think they took enough steps to protect the president," Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC.
  • The former FDA chief under President Trump said the White House cannot rely only on coronavirus testing to prevent infections. 
  • Trump "thought he was being protected based the testing that was in place around him," Gottlieb said.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Monday urged the White House to develop stronger health protocols after the Covid-19 infection of President Donald Trump. 

Trump, who announced his diagnosis early Friday, is now being treated for Covid-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

"I hope the whole White House takes a different approach. I don't think there were good precautions taken at the White House. They weren't modeling good precautions, but equally important, they weren't taking good precautions to protect the president, in my view," Gottlieb said on "Squawk Box." "They both need to model better precautions for the nation so that people see a better example being set by our leaders." 

Gottlieb, earlier on "Squawk Box," took issue with most of the prevention strategy relying on testing for the coronavirus. Many public health experts during the pandemic have emphasized that coronavirus testing is one component of a larger mitigation strategy. They have said other protocols such as wearing face coverings, maintaining social distance and good hygiene are critical to preventing transmission, too. 

Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under Trump, said that even the testing system in place at the White House had its shortcomings. The Trump administration had relied on a rapid turnaround test to screen staff and visitors. 

"If they were relying on testing alone to keep the virus out of the West Wing and out of the White House compound, they needed a zero-fail testing regime. They didn't have it," said Gottlieb, who led the FDA from May 2017 to April 2019. 

"It was told to people in the White House that there was problems with the way they were using testing as a tool to try and prevent virus from getting in the White House compound, and in and around the president, and they didn't really step that up," he added. 

Trump's handling of the pandemic has come under criticism for months. He rarely wears a face mask in public and has held campaign rallies with attendees, many maskless, crowded together. 

In August, Trump held his keynote Republican National Convention speech on the South Lawn of the White House, with more than 1,000 invited guests and without universal masking. The president also recently nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court at a White House event; several people who were there have since tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Gottlieb said the White House needs to rethink its precautions as the pandemic persists. The physician has previously warned the nation may be entering its "most dangerous season" for Covid-19. 

"The president didn't need to get infected. I'm pretty certain the president didn't want to get infected. He was not taking reckless risks, not withstanding the things he said when he was out and not withstanding some people's perceptions," Gottlieb contended. "The president didn't want to get Covid, from everything I can glean, and thought he was being protected based the testing that was in place around him." 

The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on Gottlieb's remarks. However, in a statement to CNBC on Friday, spokesman Judd Deere said the White House's public health strategy is built on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. 

"In addition to encouraging social distancing, readily available hand sanitizer, regular deep cleaning of all work spaces, and recommended facial coverings, those in close proximity to the president continue to be tested for COVID-19 to ensure exposure is limited to the greatest extent possible," Deere said in a statement.

Mick Mulvaney, who had been the president's acting chief of staff from December 2018 until late March, said he believes Trump will not significantly alter his approach to campaigning or governing despite his illness. 

"You're never going to keep this president locked in his basement. That was never going to happen. Yes, you could have put him inside a bubble in the West Wing. Yes, you could have restricted him to where no one would actually come into contact with him," Mulvaney said on "Squawk Box." "He likes interacting with people, so I think what the staff was trying to do is balance the demands of health and the demands of the president's personality."

— CNBC's Will Feuer contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings′ and Royal Caribbean's "Healthy Sail Panel." 

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