2020 Time Capsule #2: The Exceptional Dr. Fauci

Leah Millis / Reuters

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As of today, March 13, 2020—three-plus years into the current administration, three months into public awareness of the coronavirus spread, seven-plus months until before the next election—Anthony Fauci is playing a role in which no previous Trump-era figure has survived.

One other person has been in the spot Fauci now occupies. That is, of course, James Mattis, the retired four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense for Trump. Former is the key word here, and the question is whether the change in circumstances between Mattis’s time and Fauci’s—the public nature of this emergency, the greater proximity of upcoming elections, the apparent verdict from financial markets and both international and domestic leaders that Donald Trump is in deep over his head—will give Fauci the greater leverage he needs, not just to stay at work but also to steer policy away from the abyss.

Why is Anthony Fauci now, even more than James Mattis before him, in a different position from any other publicly visible associate of Trump’s?

  1. Pre-Trump credibility, connections, and respect. Fauci has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984. (How can he have held the post so long? Although nothing in his look or bearing would suggest it, Fauci is older than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. He recently turned 79.)

    Through his long tenure at NIH, which spanned the early days of the HIV/AIDS devastation and later experience with the SARS and H1N1 epidemics, Fauci has become a very familiar “public face of science,” explaining at congressional hearings and in TV and radio interviews how Americans should think about the latest threat. He has managed to stay apart from any era’s partisan-political death struggles. He has received a raft of scientific and civic honors, from the Lasker Award for health leadership, to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by George W. Bush.

    Thus, in contrast to virtually all the other figures with whom Trump has surrounded himself, Fauci is by any objective standard the best person for the job — and is universally seen as such. This distinguishes him from people Trump has favored in his own coterie, from longtime consigliere Michael Cohen to longtime ally Roger Stone to longtime personal physician Harold Bornstein; and from past and present members of his White House staff, like the departed Michael Flynn and the returned Hope Hicks and the sempiternal Jared Kushner; and fish-out-of-water Cabinet appointees, like (to pick one) the neurosurgeon Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

    Put another way: Very plainly, Trump needs Fauci more than Fauci needs Trump. This is not a position Donald Trump has ever felt comfortable in— witness the denouement with Mattis.
  2. The ability not to abase himself before Trump. The first Cabinet meeting Donald Trump held, nearly three years ago, was unlike any other conducted in U.S. history, and very much like subsequent public appearance of Trump in company with his appointees.

    In that meeting, on June 12, 2017, as TV cameras were rolling, Trump went around the table and one-by-one had his appointees gush about how kind, wise, and far-sighted he was—failing only to compliment him on his humility. (Tina Nguyen described the meeting at the time in Vanity Fair.) After praising himself, Trump called on others to praise him, starting with the reliable Mike Pence. “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president to a president who is keeping his word to the American people,” Pence began. All the others followed his example—with the prominent exception of Mattis. He spent his “praise” time instead complimenting the men and women in uniform he led.

    No public event like that Cabinet meeting had happened before in the United States, simply because no other president has been as needy for in-public adulation as Trump is. Of course most politicians and all presidents are needy; you could not run for the presidency if you had a normal temperament. (Background reading on this point, while you’re “socially isolating”: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.) Every political leader eats up the praise in private—“Wonderful job today, Mr. President—you were really connecting!”, not to mention Veep—but all the rest of them have been savvy enough to know how tacky this looks in public. The modern exception-illustrating-the-rule might have been Lyndon Johnson, with enough of the Sun King in his makeup to enjoy having people humble themselves before him. But holding a public adulation-fest? If George W. Bush had heard, say, Karl Rove start in that way, he would likely have said, “OK, Turd Blossom, what are you angling for?” Barack Obama—or John F. Kennedy, or Jimmy Carter— would have arched an eyebrow as if to ask, “Hey, did you think you were still playing in the minors?”

    But what we saw in that Cabinet meeting, we have seen again and again from those around Trump. The most humiliating recent examples come from the people in charge of the coronavirus response: Pence again; Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services; Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control; and Seema Verma, in charge of Medicare and Medicaid. The beginnings and endings of their public statements, and the answers to many questions, are larded with praise for Trump and his “decisive and visionary action.” (For the latest example, see Verma under questioning from Martha MacCallum of Fox News. Verma repeatedly dodges MacCallum’s direct question about whether hospitals have enough ventilators and other supplies (as Fred Barbash laid out in the Washington Post. MacCallum makes one last try—and Verma seeks refuge in saying, “And that’s why the president has taken such a bold and decisive action.” That claim made no logical sense to MacCallum or the listeners, but it reflected the inescapable logic of what is expected from members of the Court of Trump.)

    There is one exception: Anthony Fauci. He has occasionally said that he agrees with aspects of the administration’s or the president’s policies, but he has avoided the ritual self-abnegation. Of course Fauci held his job long before Trump came to town, and is not part of the normal round of high-level appointments each new administration makes. (To the best of my knowledge, though, directors of NIH institutes, like Fauci, serve “at the pleasure of the president” and so could be removed. If I’m wrong on that, will update. Update: Several NIH veterans have written in to say that Fauci’s position is officially different from that of the NIH director, and is not directly a presidential-political appointment. Recent history teaches that a vindictive president can make things difficult even for career civil servants. But I am grateful for the clarification. )

    But Fauci’s polite but consistent reluctance to grovel cannot have gone unnoticed by the audience-of-one for all the other appointees: Trump himself.
  3. Daring to contradict Trump, in public. This is a step beyond anything Mattis attempted. Through the first two years of the administration, background-sourced stories and reports based on “those in a position to know the Secretary’s thinking” laid out the increasing distance between Mattis’s view of American interests and what Trump was saying and doing.

    But there is no precedent, from Mattis or anyone else, for what we have seen these past few weeks from Fauci at the podium. Is the coronavirus problem just going to go away (as Trump had claimed)? No, from Fauci. It is serious, and it is going to get worse. Is the testing system “perfect” (as Trump had claimed)? No, it is not working as it should. Is the U.S. once again the greatest of all nations in its response to the threat? No, it is behind in crucial aspects, and has much to learn from others.

    Fauci is saying all these things politely and respectfully. As an experienced Washington operator he knows that there is no reason to begin an answer with, “The president is wrong.” You just skip to the next sentence, “The reality is...” But his meaning—“the president is wrong”—is unmistakable.

    Anthony Fauci has earned the presumption-of-credibility for his comments. Donald Trump has earned the presumption that he is lying or confused. A year ago that standoff—the realities, versus Trump-world obeisance—worked out against James Mattis. Will the balance of forces be different for Fauci? As of this writing, no one can know.