When Anthony Fauci returned my call the other day, he was standing outside the West Wing, on his way to a meeting of the coronavirus task force. He didn’t have much time to talk; he had 20 more phone calls to make, he told me. Getting a chair at the task-force meetings isn’t guaranteed. Even in the White House Situation Room, officials practice social distancing.
When Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the sessions, he checks to see whether people are squeezed too close together, putting one another at risk of infection. If they are, he “essentially kicks people out of the room, saying, ‘Hey, go to another room and tune in by teleconference,’” Fauci told me.
Many Americans seem to want Fauci to be in the room where decisions are being made. His candor has made him an instant icon. During White House press briefings, social-media users dissect his second-by-second facial expressions for clues as to what he’s thinking when President Donald Trump takes questions. Alarm spread among TV viewers when he missed a briefing the other day, giving rise to the hash tag #WheresFauci.
Whether he’s allowed to stay in the room, and for how long, is anyone’s guess. Trump doesn’t like to be upstaged. And speaking truths that clash with Trump’s message risks banishment and ridicule from the president. The 79-year-old Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has shown that he’s willing to do it anyway. As Trump touts an existing malaria drug as a potential treatment (“I’m probably more of a fan of that—maybe than anybody,” he said at a press briefing Friday), Fauci made plain that the drug’s effectiveness against the coronavirus is unproven.