The rise and fall of White House COVID-19 advisor Dr. Scott Atlas, a lockdown skeptic who had Trump's ear and fought with experts like Fauci

By Ashley Collman

Dr. Scott Atlas, President Donald Trump's anti-lockdown coronavirus advisor, resigned on Monday, after months of stirring up controversy. 

Atlas was bought onto the White House coronavirus task force in August, as a special government employee, meaning his role in the task force was temporary and would not exceed 130 days. Fox News reported that his tenure was set to expire next week. 

The White House confirmed Atlas' resignation but declined to comment further.

In a resignation letter cited by Fox News, Atlas said his "advice was always focused on minimizing all the harms from both the pandemic and the structural policies themselves, especially to the working class and the poor."

But many people in the scientific community were skeptical of Atlas' intentions during his time working for the president, with reports saying he was pushing a "herd immunity" strategy that experts believe would have led to an unnecessary loss of lives. 

Spotted on Fox News

Atlas was brought onto Trump's coronavirus task force in August, after appearing on Fox News for several months, where he often echoed the president's views — including an opposition to lockdowns.

He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University. Unlike some other experts on the task force, he did not have a specialty in either infectious diseases or public health. Instead, he focuses on healthcare policy and has a background in neuroradiology, which is the reading of X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs.

Nonetheless, Atlas became a favorite of the president. National Institutes of Health director and White House task force member Dr. Francis Collins told NPR on October 20 that Trump had not attended task force meetings "for quite some time," and is only hearing from Atlas and Vice President Mike Pence instead.

In October, The Washington Post also reported that the Trump administration was "sitting" on $9 billion earmarked for COVID-19 testing because Atlas was opposed to expanding the testing regime.

The medical community's red flags

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CDC Director Robert Redfield testifying before the Senate on September 23, 2020.
ALEX EDELMAN/POOL/AFP via Getty

Since joining the White House task force, Atlas has been widely criticized by scientists:

  • In September, more than 100 of Atlas' former colleagues at Stanford Medical School signed a letter warning that many of his "opinions and statements run counter to established science."
  • Bill Gates also suggested that Atlas was hired only because he "agrees" with what Gates called the White House's "crackpot COVID theories."
  • Later that month, fellow task force member and top US infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN he was concerned that Atlas was feeding information "really taken either out of context or actually incorrect" to the president.
  • Around the same time, CDC Director Robert Redfield was overheard by a reporter criticizing Atlas in a phone call, saying "everything he says is false."
  • In October, former CDC Director William Foege wrote to Redfield saying the Trump administration had turned the CDC's reputation "from gold to tarnished brass." Foege said Atlas' joining the task force was what prompted him to speak out.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci testifying before the Senate on September 23, 2020.
GRAEME JENNINGS/POOL/AFP via Getty

In response to Redfield and Fauci's criticism, Atlas told Business Insider in late September: "All of my policy recommendations to the president are directly backed by the current science, and they are in line with what many of the world's top medical scientists advise ... Career government public health officials do not have a monopoly on knowledge."

In another interview with Business Insider in early October, Atlas accused his critics of being "either politically motivated or are interested in maintaining their own stature in the public eye."

He added that he is working at the White House "because the country's off the rails," not for any political reason.

Pro-lockdown, pro-reopening

Since the beginning of the US coronavirus outbreak, Atlas has spoken out against imposing lockdown measures, saying they were costing the lives of people too afraid to seek emergency medical treatment for other issues.

"In the absence of immunization, society needs circulation of the virus, assuming high-risk people can be isolated," he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill in April. "It is very possible that whole-population isolation prevented natural herd immunity from developing."

The Washington Post reported in August that Atlas had been pushing for the US to embrace herd immunity, though he has vehemently denied it.

Experts have spoken out against herd immunity — a scenario where enough people in a population become immune to a virus to stop it from spreading — warning that it would cost even more lives.

"I have never advocated a herd-immunity strategy. That was a lie from the get-go," Atlas told Business Insider in early October, adding: "But to deny herd immunity exists is to deny gravity. That is what I would call today's flat-earth movement."

Most recently, in mid-November, Atlas tweeted that the citizens of Michigan should "rise up" against new coronavirus restrictions that had been rolled out to tackle a rise in cases in the state. After facing criticism for the tweet, he later clarified that he would "NEVER .... endorse or incite violence." 

Atlas was also forced to apologize in early November after he gave an interview to Russian propaganda network RT about how lockdown policies were "killing people." Atlas said he was "unaware" RT is a "registered foreign agent" and that he regretted the decision to speak with them. 

In mid-October, Twitter removed a tweet by Atlas, which said: "Masks work? NO," alongside a link to an article that argued against the success of face coverings in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Atlas later told Newsweek that he has appealed the platform's decision.

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Atlas addressing the media at the White House on September 28, 2020.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty

'Any way I can help, I will do so'

Since May, Atlas has regularly appeared on Fox News to speak on the US coronavirus crisis, and shared opinions often at odds with many public-health experts' warnings.

For example, Atlas had argued for schools to reopen for in-person classes and for the college football season to start without any issues — ideas that some experts warned against, but which lined up with the president's own views.

In an interview with Fox News after his hiring, Atlas said of his new role: "Any way I can help, I will do so."

When he hired Atlas in August, Trump called him a "very famous man who's also very highly respected," according to a pool report.

"He has many great ideas," Trump added. "He thinks what we've done is really good, and now we'll take it to a new level."

But Trump's enthusiasm for Atlas has not saved him from a high-profile slight from the president, who forgot his name in an NBC News presidential town hall event in October. 

Trump called Atlas "Scott Adkins" and "Dr. Scott" before calling him a "great guy" and "one of the experts of the world," according to The Washington Post's transcript.

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Teachers who oppose schools reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic in Tampa, Florida, on August 6, 2020.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Atlas' rise at the White House coincided with the Trump administration's sidelining of Fauci, who has contradicted and corrected Trump's statements about the coronavirus throughout the pandemic.

Fauci has remained one of the most trusted sources for health information, while Trump has received unfavorable ratings for his coronavirus response.