You couldn’t have blamed Anthony Fauci if at any point over the past year he’d told Donald Trump he’d had enough, thank you, and quit. Everyone has a breaking point. There was the time the former president called him “a disaster” on a call with Trump-campaign staff. Or the day a White House official gave reporters an oppo-research-style memo claiming that Fauci had been “wrong on things” related to COVID-19. And Trump’s retweet of “Time to #FireFauci” would have been one humiliation too many for most.
But in the end, Trump got fired, and Fauci got promoted—he’s now the chief medical adviser to the Biden White House. “The thing that got me through it was, I did not let that bother me,” Fauci told me in an interview this week. “People cannot believe that. But it’s true. The problem is so enormous. People’s lives are at stake. I’m a physician. I’m a scientist. I’m a public-health expert. I know what I need to do. All that other stuff is just a distraction. Quite frankly, it’s bullshit.”
For all the glowing press coverage he’s received over the past year, Fauci isn’t a seer, nor is his judgment flawless. But in conversations we’ve had since the pandemic took hold, he’s always seemed forthcoming—never more so than when I interviewed him the other night, less than a week after Trump had left office.
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.
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.
Then he brings in Scott Atlas [as a pandemic adviser], who was a complete foil to poor Debbie Birx. I felt so bad for her, because he completely undermined her. He didn’t undermine me, because I didn’t give a shit about him. I didn’t really care what he said, because my home base was [the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where he has been the director since 1984]. But Deb’s home base was the White House.
Nicholas: She gave an interview recently in which she criticized aspects of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. Should she have spoken out more forcefully at the time?
Fauci: She’s a close friend of mine. It’s a tough situation. I will defend her. Unlike the situation that the FDA commissioner [Stephen Hahn] and the CDC director [Robert Redfield] and I were in, she had to live in the White House. She had to be there every minute of the day with these people. You’ve got to take that into consideration when you judge how much she did or did not push back. She told me multiple times, “Tony, this is the worst, most painful 11 months of my entire life.”
Nicholas: What did you make of Vice President Mike Pence? Was he in thrall to Trump? Did he understand the gravity of this crisis?
Fauci: Fundamentally, he really is a good human being. There are people who would differ. He put himself in such a difficult position because he was fiercely loyal to the president. Deep down, he’s a very smart guy. People make these caricatures of him of just sitting in the background with that stare on his face. That’s not him at all. He’s a very smart guy, and a really nice guy, to be honest.
Nicholas: Were you worried at any point that Trump would try to fire you? I’ve looked into this: It would have been very difficult under the civil-service system for him to have fired you even if he’d wanted to.
Fauci: I did not. I just felt that the magnitude of the job that I had to do, and the magnitude of the problem we were faced with, was such that I was going to do what I needed to do, regardless.
I don’t take any great pleasure in contradicting the president of the United States. I have a great deal of respect for the office. But I had to do it as a symbol to the rest of the world that science is not going to flinch in the face of somebody who’s spouting nonsense. That’s why I had to step up to the podium a couple of times.
He is a very charismatic character. And there was something about our commonality of being New Yorkers that we developed this strange relationship, where we really liked each other. If I say that I liked him, my wife would have a heart attack. But there was something about him that was charismatic and likable on a personal basis—not on a policy basis.
What I did know is the people around him were furious with the fact that I was contradicting him publicly, and contradicting him from the podium in the White House, and even sometimes in the Oval Office. He’d be saying, “I think A, B, and C.” And I would say, “No, I disagree with you. I think it’s D, E, and F.” He would not get upset at all. But you knew there were five or six people standing behind me, who were his people, and they would be furious with me for doing that.
What was really the topper was when the White House sent out that list to everybody of the things that Dr. Fauci was wrong on, which was complete crap, because I wasn’t wrong on any of them! [Laughs.]
Nicholas: Nothing like that would have happened unless Trump was okay with it, though, right?
Fauci: Of course! I know that. That’s the point. That’s the reason why saying it was an unusual experience is the understatement of the year. But the thing that got me through it was, I did not let that bother me. People cannot believe that. But it’s true. The problem is so enormous. People’s lives are at stake. I’m a physician. I’m a scientist. I’m a public-health expert. I know what I need to do. All that other stuff is just a distraction. Quite frankly, it’s bullshit.
So I didn’t think he was going to fire me, because I thought he liked me enough that he wouldn’t want to fire me, and you’re right, it would have been technically almost impossible for him to fire me. All the other stuff that was going on, I felt I’d have to ignore that: It’s nonsense—focus on the job of saving people’s lives.
Nicholas: There was a moment last year when the Trump campaign released an ad that implied you were praising his handling of the pandemic. This seemed strange to me, given that others in the Trump orbit were trying to discredit you.
Fauci: I didn’t like it. [In the first Bush administration,] someone once said they wanted me to go out and make a statement that would be supporting some political stance that George H. W. Bush was taking. And he said, “Absolutely not! I don’t want you to soil Dr. Fauci by getting him involved in any political battles.” What an amazing gentleman he was. And here, what these people were doing is, without even consulting me, they were throwing me in the middle of a very contentious political battle, which I found to be really very infuriating.
Nicholas: Did you tell Trump or his people to back off?
Fauci: I didn’t tell them to back off. That wasn’t my style. My style was to say—to get a little Brooklyn-ite—“What is this bullshit that you people are doing?” I just made it very clear that I didn’t like it.
Nicholas: Why wouldn’t Trump routinely wear a mask? It seems so basic.
Fauci: It’s really tough to get into his head, but I think what was going on with him is he was not interested in the outbreak. The outbreak to him was an inconvenient truth that he didn’t accept as a truth. It’s something that got in the way of what he really wanted to do.
He’s a pretty macho guy. It’s almost like it diminishes one’s manhood to wear a mask. To him, a mask was a sign of weakness. The unfortunate aspect of this is that a lot of people in the country took that on as a mantra. That’s the problem.
Nicholas: Did people die as a result of the example Trump set?
Fauci: I don’t want to say that. The reason I don’t is that someone will take it out of context and say, “Fauci said that the president killed people.” I don’t want to go there.
Nicholas: How different is it working for Joe Biden?
Fauci: We went from an alternative world into a real world. It isn’t anecdote; it’s facts. The president makes that known not only publicly, but privately when he speaks to us. Fifteen minutes before I got up on the podium the other day for the first press conference, he told me that science will rule and that what we want are facts, evidence. If something goes wrong, we don’t blame people; we fix it. That’s the way we’re going to do it. And to have the leader, the boss, the president of the United States, tell you that What I want is science to rule what we do and what we say—[that] was diametrically opposed to the anecdotally dominated White House.