Five months into the global Covid-19 pandemic, and faced with a new spike in cases and deaths in states whose Republican governors heeded his demands to open their economies regardless of the risk to the public, the Trump White House is now taking aim at Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s foremost infectious disease expert.
Fauci is a singular figure in his field who began his rise to prominence during the Reagan administration, and who has since served under multiple presidents from both political parties.
While he has been a prominent spokesperson for the government’s public health efforts since the emergence of HIV in the 1980s, Fauci has risen to an unprecedented measure of celebrity during Trump’s presidency, in part because he, too, is perceived as a non-partisan truth-teller with unshakable efforts.
According to a White House official, Fauci’s newfound celebrity has long irked Trump, who prefers to be the center of attention. Further infuriating the president, the official said, is Fauci’s status as a career civil servant. Trump has long viewed career government employees with suspicion and has frequently promoted baseless conspiracy theories suggesting there is a “deep state” made up of career officials who have been working to bring down his presidency since the beginning.
In many ways, Fauci can be compared to another long-time public servant and affable septuagenarian who provoked Trump’s ire: Robert Mueller, the man tasked with conducting that infamous report about Russian involvement in the 2016 election. But unlike Mueller, who did not speak publicly during the course of his investigation, Fauci has made and continues to make frequent media appearances, though the White House has blocked him from honoring requests to appear on prominent cable news and broadcast programs.
Several sources close to the president say Fauci has inflamed Trump’s anger by contradicting his claims about the alleged success the US has had in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic under his leadership.
And by the end of last week, it all boiled over. Over the weekend, White House officials began circulating a bullet-pointed list to reporters, detailing prior statements Fauci has made about the pandemic which had been proven incorrect by subsequent developments. Fauci had once doubted the need for wearing face masks during the pandemic, for instance — although the list failed to mention that he then publicly revised his strategy when more information about the virus came to light.
The list, which was nearly identical to the opposition research talking points that are frequently circulated by political campaigns, marked a break between the White House and the federal government’s most celebrated scientist.
And one of Trump’s closest confidantes, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Daniel Scavino, went even further. On Sunday, Scavino posted to his Facebook account a cartoon by alt-right cartoonist Ben Garrison, depicting the veteran physician as an anthropomorphic “Dr Faucet,” through whom cold water is poured onto a drowning economy.
Another prominent Italian-American who has found himself on the receiving end of White House opposition research, ex-White House Communications Director-turned-Trump critic Anthony Scaramucci, said the use of such methods against Fauci was a “completely Orwellian” tactic that was most likely born out of White House aides’ need to please their boss.
“Trump has willing sycophants who will kowtow to him… but there’s no way to please him,” he said.
Scaramucci said the White House’s attempt to target Fauci is “the exact same playbook” that was used against Mueller, but warned that it would fail because while the former FBI director’s role was one that existed on the playing field of rough-and-tumble Washington politics, Fauci is “not a politician in any way or form”.
“Going after Anthony Fauci… a truth-teller in the scientific community, is like punching people in the stands,” he said.
But Tim Miller, who served as Jeb(!) Bush’s communications director during the 2016 election, expressed doubts that the Trump administration’s push to discredit Fauci was deployed as part of a coherent plan, regardless of any similarities to Trumpworld’s anti-Mueller campaign.
“I think it’s more likely that they [White House press aides] are trying to keep the boss happy,” he explained.
“Trump is a child who is jealous that Fauci is more popular than him, so rather than trying to be an adult and try to figure out how to work together to get to the best result of the country, he's going to only playbook that he knows, which is attack him and try to muddy the waters to make him look bad,” Miller continued.
“But this is not about persuading any new supporters. It's not like there's this anti-Fauci sentiment out there that Trump is trying to tap into. He's embarrassed that he handled this so poorly, he's embarrassed that he's getting bad reviews for us, and he's embarrassed that Fauci is being praised, so he wants to bring Fauci down a peg,” he said.
Another ex-GOP communications consultant, Lincoln Project senior adviser Kurt Bardella, posited that the life-or-death stakes of the global coronavirus crisis make it a waste of time for the White House to target Fauci if the goal is to help the president’s public image.
“You could call the Mueller investigation fake news… and all the things that we heard Trump and his ilk repeat. You can't say that about the coronavirus when everyday people are seeing it in their own communities, their families, their social circles, and their emergency rooms,” said Bardella, a former spokesperson for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee.
“Fauci is first and foremost a doctor and a medical professional, and that is how the American people view him,” he continued. “But they’re applying the Mueller playbook to Fauci because this White House and Trump don't have any other tools in their toolbox. They are literally a one hit wonder, they just go back and play the same thing over and over again, and we're seeing — not just with the coronavirus but in other areas — that it's just not working. People aren't buying what he's selling anymore.”
The similarities between Trumpian tactics being used against Fauci and Mueller run deep.
To say that Mueller had a sterling reputation prior to his appointment would be a massive understatement — and the same could easily be said about Fauci. Mueller was also the longest-serving FBI director since the infamous J Edgar Hoover, thanks to the Senate unanimously approving a request by then-President Barack Obama to extend by two years the ten-year term to which he’d been confirmed just over a month before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Fauci, in turn, served under multiple presidents and both parties and has been treated with respect and reverence by each one until this political moment.
Mueller and his ongoing investigation occupied a permanent spot in the public consciousness, kept there by a steady string of indictments, non-stop news coverage, and the hopes and dreams of the so-called “resistance” to Trump’s presidency. The taciturn Vietnam veteran, whose office did not leak and who did not speak to the media, nevertheless became somewhat of a pop culture figure. There were Mueller action figures, t-shirts, and even a bizarre children’s book which depicted him as a well-muscled, shirtless figure akin to a Chippendale dancer. Easy comparisons can be drawn with the “Fauc on the Couch” merchandise around today.
Unable to stop the negative headlines or the media speculation about what was happening behind Mueller’s leak-proof doors, the White House and many of Trump’s outside allies instead began hitting back against the investigation in 2018 with a concerted campaign to personally discredit the man who had come to his position with almost universal acclaim. Trumpian Republicans made a huge effort to turn the tight-lipped, respectful Mueller into a partisan figure in the public’s eyes.
And thanks to the former Special Counsel’s self-imposed silence during the entirety of his investigation, Trumpworld had the playing field all to itself. Aided by leaks about his personnel from House Republicans, and a steady stream of often-unhinged television appearances by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, it was an effort that was at least somewhat successful.
According to Morning Consult polling, only 27 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable impression of Mueller in July 2017, two months after his appointment as Special Counsel. Eleven months after that in June 2018, over half of Republicans — 53 percent — viewed him unfavorably.
Two years later, Donald Trump is faced with another crisis, and with another veteran public servant whose presence in the popular consciousness underscores the threat it poses to his presidency. The White House’s reaction has been the same. And anyone who works alongside Trump in the Oval Office is now terrified enough of that strategy that they’ll do the president’s bidding, whether or not it makes any sense.