He explained how, in Trump’s mind, medical expertise was no more valid than what he might have picked up in a random late-night phone call with a pal. He laid out how, oddly enough, he came to sort of like Trump. (“If I say that I liked him, my wife would have a heart attack,” Fauci told me.) He also offered an unsparing critique of the “strange people” Trump surrounded himself with; a candid appraisal of former Vice President Mike Pence, who headed the coronavirus task force; and a sympathetic defense of Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s pandemic response, who has faced criticism for upbeat progress reports on a pandemic that grew ever more deadly. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Peter Nicholas: You’d worked under five different presidents, Republican and Democratic, before Donald Trump came along. How did Trump compare?
Anthony Fauci: It’s interesting. I got so intensively involved with him over the past year, but from the beginning of his administration through September of 2019, I had never even met him. That was paradoxical, because with every other president, I was involved with them from the very first year.
With every other president, whether they were conservative, moderate, or liberal, the guidepost for everything was a deep respect for science. That was always the case. When I got involved with Trump, it went into a different world, the likes of which I had not experienced. I was used to being in the White House because of my work in previous administrations, but the White House became a different place in the Trump administration.
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Nicholas: In what way? More political? More a reflection of the president’s personality?
Fauci: It was the lack of rigor. The president would get a phone call from a buddy he knew from somewhere. Or he would bring in some questionable person who would whisper in his ear, “I think this works” or “I think we should do that.” Trump would put anecdote on the same level as scientific data. To him, if a good friend said that hydroxychloroquine or oregano worked [as treatments for COVID-19], that would be as good as Tony Fauci saying it doesn’t work.
It was a surrealistic experience!
Nicholas: Was Trump fixated on hydroxychloroquine for so long because he was simply unwilling to admit that he was wrong in recommending it to coronavirus patients?
Fauci: No. I don’t want to psychoanalyze him, but I spent enough time with him in the White House, and with the people around him, to know that he actually thought that his instinct that it worked was as good as anything I’d put in front of him showing that it doesn’t work: “I gotta tell ya, Tony. I really think this works.”
The other thing that he did that I never, ever saw—not even close—with any of the other presidents is that he surrounded himself with strange people. Like Peter Navarro [the Trump trade adviser], who walks into the Situation Room with a big stack of reports saying, “Here, I have proof that hydroxychloroquine works.” And it’s complete garbage. Complete nonsense. And you’re sitting there, and you’re saying to yourself, Boy, there’s a lot of unusual things going on in here.