This article was updated on April 13, 2020, at 6:59pm.
Anthony Fauci has been different from any other prominent official Donald Trump has dealt with in his time as president. The difference is that Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is not afraid. To put it in terms Trump might recognize: What the hell does he have to lose?
This reality does not make it possible to predict what Trump will do with Fauci—fire him, ignore him, give him buddylike Hey, we see things differently respect, or something else. Nothing about Trump is predictable, except his reduction of all discourse to the two themes of his own greatness and the unfairness of his critics.
But it may explain why the familiar dynamics of Trump’s unhappiness with underlings—first the retweets of criticism, then the “Behind you 1,000 percent!” show of public support, then the dismissal, then the anger and insults from Trump—could take a different course this time.
In the nearly five years since Donald Trump came down the escalator to declare his candidacy, a set of iron laws has applied to those who enter his orbit.
Rick Wilson, the former GOP strategist who is now a Trump nemesis, summed up the pattern in the title of his best-selling book from last year: Everything Trump Touches Dies. The details vary, but being tempted by Trump has turned into the modern version of the Faust saga. In exchange for benefits that seem glittery and attractive, people around Trump give away much more than they could have reckoned.
- Some are in prison, or on their way there. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, his adviser Roger Stone, and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, among others, would probably be at large today were it not for their part in Trump’s campaign and administration. Perhaps also his early campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
- Some have avoided legal jeopardy but been exposed in ways they would rather have avoided. Trump’s first secretary of health and human services, Tom Price; his first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke; his first White House physician, Ronny Jackson; his first labor secretary, Alex Acosta; his first White House staff secretary, Rob Porter; his acting Navy secretary until last week, Thomas Modly; and others are out of those jobs and damaged in reputation because of financial, personal, or characterological issues their prominence brought to light.
- Some have been placed in roles for which they are preposterously mismatched and that have exposed their limitations: Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who now is expected to run urban policy; Ivanka Trump, favored child and now proxy for the president in international gatherings; Jared Kushner … let us move on.
- Many who had previous records of public or corporate service have left as diminished people. Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, had previously been seen as a competent Republican political staffer. The same was true of Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, had been known as a successful CEO of one of the world’s largest companies. Gary Cohn, Trump’s first economic adviser, had been president of Goldman Sachs. Before his service as Trump’s second national security adviser, H. R. McMaster was an Army general renowned for his independence—renown originating with a fearless book, Dereliction of Duty, on the way Vietnam-era generals had not spoken truth to power about that war. During his service in the White House (while still on active duty as an Army officer), McMaster reportedly resisted Trump’s impulses on numerous fronts, occasionally delivered the Trump company line in public—and ultimately Trump forced him out anyway. In his role as Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr is ending his career with a reputation as the most relentlessly partisan wielder of judicial power in modern history. (Harsh? Here is a starter on the evidence, and a federal judge’s conclusion about Barr’s distortion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.) Although Barr had been an important partisan figure during the elder George Bush’s administration, before serving Trump, he was seen as “steeped in the traditions and culture of the Justice Department” and had a “formidable mind and deep experience of precisely the right type.” That was an assessment in this very space by Benjamin Wittes, who after observing Barr in office for only a few months judged his performance as “catastrophic.” (“I was willing to give Bill Barr a chance,” Wittes wrote. “Consider me burned.”)
- Many proud and successful officials have had to swallow their dignity, and worse. In his first full Cabinet meeting, which bizarrely didn’t happen until nearly five months into his term, Trump initiated the humiliating ritual of having each Cabinet secretary give a statement of personal praise for Trump—about his goodness, his wisdom, his strength. Trump called on his vice president, Mike Pence, to lead off and set an example for the others, and Pence of course complied. “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,” he began. This ritual obeisance has become so standard a feature of the Trump circle—repeated, for instance, nearly every day by Pence and others at the Trump rallies disguised as virus briefings—that it’s hard to remember how outside the norm of governance it really is. But it is new: All presidents have limitless egos, but previous incumbents have understood the cheesiness of making people praise them in public. The one Cabinet official who did not play ball that first day—Trump’s first secretary of defense, the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis—praised his troops, not his boss. But even Mattis has been extremely careful not to criticize Trump since his own departure.
- And virtually all elected Republicans have faced a choice. On the one hand, principles they had long claimed to support: fear of federal deficits, belief in free trade, congressional limits on the executive, standards of personal probity. On the other hand, loyalty to Donald Trump himself. Virtually all of them have chosen Trump. “Virtually” because of Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party rather than accept the violence done to his past principles; and Mitt Romney, who stayed with the party but as a new senator from Utah cast the only GOP impeachment vote against Trump.
Romney was, of course, the GOP’s presidential nominee before Trump—and before him was John McCain. Neither man now represents the party. Even the Republicans who are “concerned” by Trump—those running for another term in office, like Susan Collins or Cory Gardner or Ben Sasse; those who have decided to step down, like Lamar Alexander; those who have already stepped down, like Bob Corker or Jeff Flake—are guarded in their criticism. Lindsey Graham, a loyal sidekick to McCain during his years in office but now an even more loyal mascot for Trump, is the Mr. Republican of this age.
The common theme that connects these people is that, one way or another, they have seemed afraid of Donald Trump. I am sure they would deny that if asked directly. But their actions are consistent with their being fearful of what would happen if they don’t do what Trump wants, or tell him what he so desperately wants to hear.
They may be afraid that he will attack them in a tweetstorm. Afraid that he will support a primary opponent. Afraid that they will be cut off from the social connectedness and the economic benefits of being a long-term part of the Republican team. Afraid … of something. Donald Trump is very obviously not a well-informed person (“A lot of people don’t know this, but Abraham Lincoln was a Republican”). And he would fail most tests of evidence-based logical reasoning. But he has a natural talent for sizing up people, in a Who is the alpha dog? sense. Just as he clearly feels that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the alpha dog, to Trump’s own beta, Trump can sense the submission from everyone around him in GOP politics. They may “privately” have contempt for his judgment and principles. They may call him a “moron” behind his back. But he knows that, if he’s in a snarling match with one of them, the other will be the one to back down.
Anyone behaves differently in the presence of any president. People who say that is not true have not had the experience. But Anthony Fauci has dealt with a lot of presidents before Trump. And as Michael Specter pointed out in a New Yorker profile of him this week:
“Some wise person who used to be in the White House, in the Nixon Administration, told me a very interesting dictum to live by,” he told me in 2016, during a public conversation we had at the fifty-year reunion of his medical-school class. “He said, ‘When you go into the White House, you should be prepared that that is the last time you will ever go in. Because if you go in saying, I’m going to tell somebody something they want to hear, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot.’ Now everybody knows I’m going to tell them exactly what’s the truth.”
When writing about the senators, representatives, and others in the Vichy Republican caucus—those who are already rich, who are from safe electoral districts, who are old enough that they don’t need to worry about their next career step—I have often wondered, What are they saving up for? What’s keeping them from taking a stand? Anthony Fauci is a test case of answering that question in what I consider the “logical” way. Although he looks fit and vital, he is 79 years old. He has held his current job for nearly four decades; he is not looking for another. He has already received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom—from George W. Bush. The only reputational risk he faces at this stage is doing something out of character with the reputation he has built.
Fauci is a sophisticated bureaucratic operator, and he knows how to “tell them exactly what’s the truth” as tactfully as he can. In his repeated press-briefing “corrections” of Trump’s fantasies and misstatements, Fauci has made it sound as if he is saying, “Yes, and …” rather than “No, that’s nuts.” His occasional face-palm moments while Trump is riffing are little glimpses of indiscipline while not at the microphone. Onstage he is honest and polite.
But politeness was not enough to shield his predecessors. And Fauci has clearly crossed a number of lines, any one of which was grounds for retaliation by Trump in other cases:
- He has disagreed with Trump, gently but unmistakably—and in public.
- He has been sparing in the ritual obeisance-praise that has come from all others in the briefings, most notably Pence (of course) plus Jerome Adams, the surgeon general; Alex Azar, the HHS secretary; and even Fauci’s scientific colleague Deborah Birx.
- Most of all, and the ultimate sin from Trump’s perspective, he is better box office than Trump. His popularity rating is vastly higher. He is the actual star of the briefings. Given the choice between another hour of Trump talking, and another hour of Fauci, all TV networks and most viewers would choose Fauci.
In all previous cases, even part of this list would be enough for Trump to act: First the tweets, then the comments, then he’d lower the boom.
Can it happen with Fauci? As a technical matter, Fauci holds different bureaucratic status than a mere White House staffer or a regular political appointee. As Trump likes to put it, a president has an “absolute right” to dismiss one of his own Cabinet appointees or White House staffers. For a career director of an NIH institute, it’s a more complicated matter.
Even if Trump would have trouble removing Fauci from his day job, he could still deny him his daily airtime, or his place on the advisory panels. Obviously, doing so would be a huge disservice to the public. It would also seem pointless in practical terms—Fauci would be even freer to go on TV or radio whenever he wanted—and politically ruinous for Trump, given Fauci’s high standing with viewers of all parties and even with interviewers on Fox (where over the years he has often been a guest). Any president starts to resent assistants who are seen as “indispensable”—thus Richard Nixon’s love/hate relationship with Henry Kissinger during the Watergate decline—but most are canny enough to swallow that irritation, know that acting on it would only hurt them.
And so we have an unusually clear test of which dominates for Trump: impulse or self-interest. His self-interest lies in working with Fauci. His impulses may lead him to dismiss Fauci. Brain versus gut? Reason versus resentment? We’ll see which prevails.
But in the interim, Fauci is offering an unusually clear lesson to all others who have submitted to Trump: This is how it looks when you’re not afraid.
Update: An hour-plus after I finished writing this, Fauci gave an introduction at the daily press briefing at which he seemed to walk back his “speaking truth to power” comments this weekend, about lives lost because mitigation efforts were delayed.
Is this the moment when he, too, has decided to “preserve his influence” by curbing his tongue? A decision to do what it takes to remain one of the “adults in the room,” similar to choices James Mattis made during his time? Was it the price he had to pay, to keep the president’s ear? I’ll watch it again closely, and the aftermath, to see. As I mentioned, Fauci is at a point in his career when the only personal risk he faces is to his reputation—and the difference he may believe he can make within Trump’s circle rather than outside. This “preserving influence” / “adults in the room” calculation has turned out very badly for most who have worked with Trump, as explained above. Will this go from a counter-example to another instance?
As I wrote when this piece went up, Fauci has been unique within Trump’s circle in never seeming afraid. We’ll see what this evening portends.