Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious diseases expert, has pushed back at a concerted campaign by Donald Trump and his allies to discredit his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials and advisers have publicly sought to undermine Fauci in at least five separate instances over the past four days, even as the coronavirus surges across the US, with the death toll now above 135,000.
“I believe for the most part you can trust respected medical authorities,” Fauci told a virtual forum at Georgetown University in Washington on Tuesday, responding to a question that referenced the White House providing reporters with a list of what it described as his past mistakes.
“I believe I’m one of them, so I think you can trust me. But I would stick with respected medical authorities who have a track record of telling the truth, who have a track record of giving information and policy and recommendations based on scientific evidence and good data.”
As Trump downplays the pandemic, pushing to reopen schools and restart the economy, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, offers bluntly pragmatic assessments that undercut the sunny message. Fauci has said the two New Yorkers have not met since 2 June and the administration has severely curtailed his TV appearances.
Last week Trump told Fox News that Fauci made “a lot of mistakes” and on Monday he retweeted a post by Chuck Woolery, a former game show host, asserting without evidence: “Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust. I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I’m sick of it.”
Taking their cue, the president’s lieutenants have worked to amplify their master’s voice on different platforms. For an article published on Saturday, the White House provided the Washington Post with a list of Fauci’s past comments and predictions on the virus that it said were erroneous. It also made the list available to other media outlets, prompting comparisons with the kind of “oppo research” normally reserved for election campaigns.
On Sunday, Adm Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, told NBC’s Meet the Press programme: “I respect Dr Fauci a lot, but Dr Fauci is not 100% right and he also doesn’t necessarily, and he admits that, have the whole national interest in mind. He looks at it from a very narrow public health point of view.”
That evening, Dan Scavino, the White House social media director and deputy chief of staff for communications, posted on Facebook a cartoon lampooning Fauci with public health warnings such as “Indefinite lockdown!”, “Schools stay closed this fall!” and “Shut up and obey!” It was drawn by Ben Garrison, an artist whose work has been condemned for its antisemitic imagery.
A day later, with momentum gathering, Stephen Moore, an economist and Trump adviser, told the Daily Beast website: “We are working on a memo that shows how many times Dr Fauci’s been wrong during not just [this pandemic], but during his entire career.” The memo, he added, is currently entitled “Dr Wrong”.
Then, on Tuesday, the White House trade adviser Peter Navarro wrote a scathing op-ed in the USA Today newspaper that said: “Dr Anthony Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on. So when you ask me whether I listen to Dr Fauci’s advice, my answer is: only with skepticism and caution.”
The rush to disown Fauci, a leading member of the White House coronavirus taskforce, and earn brownie points with Trump comes as little surprise to seasoned observers.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “Everybody who wants to keep their job is going to play the game the way Trump wants them to play it.
“And the people who the president turns to to push out this narrative will do so, as they have in the past. So all of a sudden now everybody in the White House has a problem with Fauci. Why? Because the president has a problem with Fauci! You take them outside the White House, they love the guy and think: ‘Yeah, listen to Dr Fauci.’”
Trump has a long history of resenting staff or spokespeople who come to rival him for media attention. In the early days of the pandemic, the president was reportedly disturbed by the coverage that Fauci was receiving. The White House has drastically reduced his media exposure beyond lower-key webcasts and podcasts.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, said: “Anyone could have seen that this was a relationship was destined to fail as Dr Fauci took a pre-eminent role internationally in getting massive amounts of media.
“He was also not someone who would necessarily be controlled by the administration. Fauci was put on such a pedestal that any of his incorrect projections in the beginning were glossed over and the media went to him as the alternative to President Trump. So it doesn’t surprise me that the president and the White House are less inclined to have Fauci in such a public role.”
Analysts draw parallels with the all-out assault that Trump and allies launched on Robert Mueller, the widely respected special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Kurt Bardella, a senior adviser at the Lincoln Project, a political action committee founded by Republicans working to defeat Trump in the 2020 election, said:
“When he was appointed, Mueller had a very high approval rating and people across the partisan spectrum thought that was the right guy for the job. Then, over time, you saw a concerted campaign by the White House led by Trump to undermine him and discredit whatever his report was going to ultimately produce. What we’re seeing with Dr Fauci right now, and the president and his minions’ efforts to do that, seems very similar tactically to what we saw happen to Mueller.”
The relentless attacks on Mueller led to periodic speculation that he would be fired, but Trump never proved willing to pull the trigger and face a political firestorm. Fauci – who returned to the White House on Monday to meet the chief of staff, Mark Meadows – may be similarly insulated. Even some of the president’s closest allies believe he is a distraction from the real crisis.
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina and Trump ally, told reporters on Tuesday: “Has he been right all the time? No. We don’t have a Dr Fauci problem, we need to be focusing on doing things that get us where we need to go. So I have all the respect in the world for Dr Fauci. I think any effort to undermine him is not going to be productive, quite frankly.”
A New York Times/Siena College opinion poll last month showed that two in three Americans trust Fauci as an accurate source of information about the virus, whereas only one in four trust Trump. Many regard the 79-year-old doctor as a bulwark of sense and science at a deeply uncertain time and hope he can last the course.
Evan McMullin, executive director of the democracy advocacy group Stand Up Republic and a former CIA officer, said: “Trump’s approval ratings are in the dumps and Fauci’s are very high. But this is part of Trump’s playbook, to bully someone and to demean them, and most people will ultimately succumb to that because no one appreciates that kind of abuse and no one can take it indefinitely.
“Others in that situation might withdraw a bit and I’m glad Fauci hasn’t done that. The country needs him to be speaking truth right now. People’s lives literally are depending upon someone like Fauci telling the American people what’s at stake and what they need to do to protect their lives and the lives of other Americans. They’re not getting that from the president.”