The U.S. surgeon general caught the eye of Donald Trump in a tried-and-true way: praising the 45th president on television.
At a recent briefing with his coronavirus task force standing behind him, Trump turned to Dr. Jerome Adams and declared the previously low-profile 20th surgeon general among the administration’s “stars” to emerge from this crisis.
“I watched him the other day. It was such a fantastic job you did, and I really appreciate it,” the president said.
Trump didn’t specify what media appearance he was referring to. But during the span of a few days, Adams had said that Trump sleeps less than he does but was in better health, echoed Trump’s argument that most Americans should be more worried about the seasonal flu than the virus, and defended the president’s claim that Democratic lawmakers’ politicization of the crisis was, in the president’s words, a “new hoax.”
At the same news conference in which Trump praised him, Adams scolded the media for “bickering” and “partisanship” in their coverage of the Trump administration’s missteps.
“No more criticism or finger-pointing,” Adams told the assembled journalists.
In the long history of U.S. surgeons general, rarely do they garner much attention. The most impactful announcement came in 1964 when Dr. Luther L. Terry told the nation that there was a link between lung cancer and smoking.
More recently, they have been in the public eye because their medical advice caused political problems for the president.
Dr. C. Everett Koop was at odds with the Reagan White House with his calls for AIDS education for elementary school students and support of condoms for disease prevention. Dr. Jocelyn Elders was fired by Bill Clinton after she affirmed at an AIDS conference that it may be appropriate to promote masturbation to help dissuade young people from engaging in risky sexual activity. Dr. Richard Carmona said after he left the office that the George W. Bush administration tried to “water down” his report on the dangers of secondhand smoke .
Adams, an anesthesiologist, however, has gained notice during the coronavirus crisis for his eager defense of the president.
At one point earlier this month — days after Vice President Mike Pence tapped him to join the task force — Adams during a radio interview appeared to stray far outside the scope of medicine to defend the president’s comment at a South Carolina rally that Democrats were pushing a “new hoax” by spotlighting the coronavirus.
“I will tell you when he said hoax, he was not referring to the coronavirus,” Adams said. “He said, and this is from his mouth to your ears, he was referring to the way he had been treated by the opposite party in terms of impeachment, in terms of criticizing the coronavirus response so far, in terms of taking every opportunity to bring him down.”
Adams also raised eyebrows this week for incorrectly referring to South Korea as an authoritarian country as he tried to make the point that as democracy the U.S. should tread carefully with how it goes about stemming the virus.
“We are not an authoritarian nation, so we have to be careful when we say, ‘Let’s do what China did. Let’s do what South Korea did,’” Adams said during an interview on “Fox & Friends,” equating South Korea’s democratic republic with communist China’s unelected government.
In recent days, Adams, 45, a married father of three children, has been at the center of the administration’s public push to underscore to the young and healthy — particularly Millennial and Generation Z Americans — to avoid gatherings of 10 or more and practice social distancing for the sake of older generations. The White House said Wednesday that Adams and other high-profile administration officials will appear in nationally broadcast public service announcements that highlight how Americans can protect themselves and those most at risk.
A spokeswoman for Adams said he was not available to comment.
It was his relationship with Pence that brought Adams to Washington. When he arrived on the job in 2017, he was well-regarded by public health experts and industry insiders on both sides of the aisle in Washington and his adopted state of Indiana, where he served as state health commissioner when Pence was governor.
Adams played a key role in persuading Pence to back a needle exchange after an HIV outbreak in a rural Indiana among intravenous drug users. And he’s also credited for his leadership in the state’s response in containing the spread of the MERS virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, after the first case surfaced at a hospital in northwest Indiana.
After Trump appointed Pence to take over the administration’s coronavirus response in late February, the vice president tapped Adams to join the task force.
“I have seen him communicate well and organize well and he brings around him a team of people that know things he doesn’t know — always the sign of a good leader,” said Beth Meyerson, a health policy expert at the University of Arizona who worked closely with Adams during the HIV outbreak in Indiana.
Others in the public health community say he’s strayed from the traditional role of the surgeon general as “the nation’s doctor” and administration’s chief medical adviser.
“Jerome Adams came in with a great reputation,” said Kavita Patel, a Johns Hopkins Medicine internist who served as a senior adviser in the Obama administration. “There was the comment he made about South Korea. At times, it feels like there is a little too much politics in how he’s been speaking about the administration’s coronavirus efforts. That’s where, unfortunately, he loses credibility. The office should not be political.”
Adams was a “bright and engaging” doctor while he was Indiana’s state health commissioner, said Charlie Brown, who was the top Democrat on the Indiana House public health committee at the time of the 2015 HIV outbreak in southern Indiana.
More than 180 HIV cases were tied to needle-sharing among intravenous drug users who were injecting a liquefied painkiller. Pence, citing law-and-order objections, had resisted calls to allow needle-exchange programs to stem the spread of diseases. Eventually —with the guidance of Adams — Pence came to reluctantly agree to the distribution of clean needles.
“He was right on point with those issues that were impacting health care in Indiana when he was here,” Brown added. “But now it is like a different world. It’s unreal. The Jerome Adams that I knew and the one that I see step before the microphone now just does not make any sense.”
Elders, the Clinton administration-era surgeon general, said she first came to know Adams during his time as Indiana’s state health commissioner and was quickly impressed. She described him as the type of medical professional who can provide Trump and Pence with sound advice in shaping policy.
“His heart’s in the right place, he’s a good physician and good scientist,” Elders said.
But Elders added that Adams’ wading into politics undermines the credibility of the surgeon general’s office.
“I don’t think it’s the surgeon general’s place to be scolding the media about politics,” Elders said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.