Anthony Fauci, Lightning Rod
The nation’s top infectious-disease expert is hardly infallible. But Trump allies may be criticizing him because they can’t target the president.
Anthony Fauci considers himself a no-nonsense fact-finder, a servant of science rather than politics or ideology. “No matter what happens to me, I’m going to keep” telling the truth, Fauci told us recently.
He’s so allergic to telling the president what he wants to hear (as opposed to what he needs to know) that he has cited, as a “dictum to live by,” the advice he once received from a Nixon-administration official: Be prepared for each visit to the White House to be your last.
It’s a professional credo that helps explain how the 79-year-old doctor has managed to stick around as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through six American presidents of both parties, beginning with Ronald Reagan, whom he alerted to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But the traits upon which Fauci built his reputation during past administrations could be his undoing in this one, as he guides Donald Trump through the worst pandemic in a century.
Fauci seems to have emerged as a convenient proxy for those who are upset about the rolling tragedy but are loath to blame Trump. Fauci is a safer target: a career public-health official. Trump allies who want to see him win in November but are also uneasy about spiraling infections and dwindling stock prices; the fiasco over COVID-19 testing; and the failure to track, trace, and limit the virus’s spread can redirect their anger toward Fauci.
Which is how it came to be that when Fauci strode into the White House yesterday for yet another briefing by the coronavirus task force, everyone was asking the question he may often ask himself: Would this be his last time there?
The scientist had committed what in Trumpworld is a potentially unforgivable sin: suggesting that the president had erred. In a CNN interview on Sunday, Fauci said he’d faced “a lot of pushback” internally when he called for imposing tougher measures to stop the virus’s spread.
Fauci’s message clashed with Trump’s repeated claim that his handling of the outbreak has been flawless. Stoking a running drama about Fauci’s status—one that took off after Fauci face-palmed as Trump was talking at a press briefing last month—the president retweeted a former Republican congressional candidate’s hashtag: #FireFauci. Privately, Fauci asked the task-force team if he could make a statement at Trump’s daily news conference about the CNN spot. He tried to disabuse Americans of the notion that there was tension inside the White House: “Pushback,” Fauci told the press yesterday, was the wrong word to describe the normal give-and-take among government aides. He bristled when a reporter asked if someone had compelled him to clarify his position. “Please. Don’t even imply that,” he said, shooting a brief and uncharacteristic glare at the reporter.
The pandemic has plunked Fauci into a White House that has long been a cauldron of rivalrous aides with competing agendas. It’s an odd fit. Fauci is mixed in with ideologues who are suspicious of “deep state” bureaucrats; free-marketeers who want to quickly reopen the country and minimize the economic wreckage; and Trump loyalists who owe their jobs to one man.
Inside the building, some aides are sympathetic to his predicament, others suspicious of his advice. Outside it, partisans on the right scour his statements for any hint of disloyalty to Trump, while the left looks for clues that he might get fed up with the president and bolt.
One White House official voiced impatience with anyone who might want Fauci to depart. “I guess I don’t understand why people want Dr. Fauci to quit or be fired,” the official told us. “Do you want more body bags? Do you want more disruption in the task force’s work? We’re all working overtime. Everyone else is home sitting on their asses telecommuting. I’m sure they’re working too, but we’re here every day, seven days a week.”
An occasional, prominent adversary inside the White House is Peter Navarro, the Trump trade adviser and China hawk who has been wrangling medical supplies needed in the crisis. Navarro gave an interview to The New York Times in which he criticized unnamed “medical experts and pundits” who weren’t attentive to the full societal damage that would spring from “an extended economic shutdown.”
In at least two private White House meetings, Navarro has clashed with Fauci. In the Situation Room on January 28, Fauci argued that there was no evidence that travel restrictions work, said a person familiar with the matter, who, like others we talked with, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share their views more candidly. Navarro balked at Fauci’s position. (According to the Times, Fauci and other top public-health officials changed their minds on the wisdom of restrictions within days.) Earlier this month, Fauci and Navarro sparred again in the Situation Room about the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has touted as a potential “game-changer.” When Fauci reiterated a point he had made publicly, that accounts of the drug’s effectiveness were merely anecdotal, his comment sparked a rebuke from Navarro, according to a report in Axios.
Outside the White House, one notable outpost of Fauci criticism is a daily podcast and radio/TV show co-hosted by Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, who, like Navarro, was part of the White House’s economic-nationalist wing. Bannon has faulted Fauci on his show for delivering briefings that he says are too vague and imprecise, while generally praising Trump’s management of the disaster. “We want accuracy and accountability when it comes to Dr. Fauci,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump-campaign adviser and Bannon’s co-host. “No one is saying that this response is his fault, and no one is saying that something is ‘on him.’ It’s How do we go forward?”
The unsettling truth is that pandemics are navigated by imperfect leaders relying on imperfect information. That includes Miller’s and Navarro’s champion, Trump—and the widely admired Fauci.
In the case of the novel coronavirus, Fauci was notably sanguine at first about how the outbreak was likely to play out in the United States, even though he describes his approach to his work as assuming the worst-case scenario and aiming to avert it. In his many interviews and public statements, Fauci has given critics occasional fodder to argue that he’s been inconsistent in his characterizations of the coronavirus threat and the White House’s response to the outbreak.
In another interview Fauci gave on Sunday, for example, he said it “became clear” to him by “the middle to end of January” that “we were in real trouble,” as evidence emerged that the virus was spreading undetected from one person to another within communities.
Critics point out, however, that at least in his public remarks, Fauci argued through January and much of February that the coronavirus didn’t pose a major threat to the United States. Consider comments Fauci made in mid-February, when he described the threat of the coronavirus as “minuscule” relative to that of the seasonal flu. For weeks by that point, Chinese authorities had been restricting the movements of millions of people; COVID-19 had been circulating under the radar in the United States; and some public-health experts, both inside and outside government, had been warning that the country was dangerously unprepared for a coming outbreak.
Fauci has said that his views evolved as he and the government’s other top experts learned more about the spread of the disease within the United States, and news reports suggest that he issued darker warnings in private as February progressed. All of his remarks, moreover, were couched in the trademark carefulness of a public-health official. He repeatedly emphasized early on that while the virus didn’t present significant risks to Americans at that very moment, that didn’t mean it wasn’t a serious global health hazard and couldn’t endanger the United States in the future.
Public-health officials strive to not get ahead of the scientific evidence they’ve collected and to avoid warning of nightmare scenarios that might not materialize, which would undermine their credibility during the next crisis, John Auerbach, who was a senior official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2011 to 2017, told us. (Auerbach is married to the Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer.)
“Was there a period of time when … [Fauci was] saying things that may not have been accurate if more information [had been] gathered? I’m sure that was true,” he said. “But I think the goal in a situation like this is to gather as much information as you can” and make decisions based on the available data. That, he argued, is what Fauci did.
As for whether Fauci is being sensitive enough to the economic fallout of social distancing, Auerbach maintained that that’s not the role of public-health officials. They’re focused on “what will save the most lives,” he noted; they’re “not experts in deciding what’s good for the economy.” It falls to the president and vice president to hear from both health and economic experts and make the difficult trade-offs.
Ultimately, many Americans, buoyed by the idea that there’s a steady, expert hand at the rudder of the U.S. government at this tumultuous time, may be expecting too much of Fauci alone. Auerbach, who now leads the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, noted that Fauci’s employer, the National Institutes of Health, is not the federal agency tasked with responding to public-health crises. That’s typically the CDC’s role. Fauci is “a researcher, and an incredibly smart and skilled one on infectious disease, but it’s not the same as having the thousands” of emergency responders that the CDC has at its disposal, he said.
No one working for Trump, aside from his family members, is untouchable. The president has a history of purging and humiliating high-ranking appointees he perceives as disloyal. Fauci could meet a similar fate. But amid a pandemic, that would go down as perhaps Trump’s most self-defeating move to date. Fauci’s credibility is a precious asset. A Quinnipiac poll earlier this month showed that 78 percent of Americans approved of Fauci’s handling of the outbreak, a higher rating than New York’s Andrew Cuomo and other governors in cities with large outbreaks received. Only 46 percent approved of Trump’s response.
Another White House official told us that Fauci deserves some latitude, given the demands on his time. “We’ve asked the guy to go out and do a lot of interviews,” the official said. “Somewhere along the line, there’s going to be mixed messaging, or, in today’s reality, a reporter who tries to play gotcha. I think he’s in good standing.”
We recently spoke with Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and confidant of Trump, about the difficult choices ahead in reopening the country and sending people back to work. Even as others in his party want the economy rebooted swiftly, Graham had a piece of advice for the president: Make sure Fauci is on board.
If Trump’s decision is ultimately “backed up by Fauci” and Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, Graham told us, “then his political exposure will be very limited.”