President Donald Trump’s repudiation of Dr. Anthony Fauci has long been probable. Once the trusted doctor warned of the human cost of Trump’s push to quickly reopen the country, it became inevitable.
Trump broke with Fauci, who has served under six presidents, on Wednesday over the infectious disease expert’s warnings that getting businesses and schools back open too quickly would lead to unnecessary suffering and death.
“I was surprised by his answer, actually,” Trump said. “It’s just – to me it’s not an acceptable answer, especially when it comes to schools.”
The delicate dynamic between Fauci and Trump has been watched for months. Its latest fraying marks the most pronounced clash yet in the tussle between science and politics that has long plagued the administration’s fight against the coronavirus.
Fauci’s transgression is to base his evaluations – after decades of public service and expertise fighting HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika and anthrax – on facts and logic that conflict with Trump’s chosen version of reality. Fauci has long said that only the virus can decide when normal life – things such as NFL games and schools reopening, for instance – will be safe again.
Trump has always been battling the pandemic he wants to fight, rather than the one that actually exists, with a strategy shaped mostly by his political requirements as he seeks a second term. The pandemic arrived in the US despite his insistence that it would not be a problem. Now, with 84,000 Americans dead and 1.3 million infected, Trump argues that the country has prevailed over the virus and it’s time to get back to work.
He has yet to initiate a serious national conversation about the vital need to get the economy firing again balanced against the level of death and illness that is acceptable to the country given that the pandemic could worsen if states open up too quickly.
Ironically, another of Trump’s failings, one in which Fauci may be in some ways complicit as a member of the coronavirus task force – to stand up a comprehensive national testing and tracking system – may frustrate the President’s effort to get the country up and running quickly with no vaccine in sight.
Trump’s swipe at Fauci comes as CNN reported that the White House is questioning whether the Covid-19 death toll is being exaggerated in official statistics. In fact, Fauci said Tuesday that the murderous impact of the virus was likely being undercounted. It would not be the first time that a President with a historic disrespect for facts is ready to twist data so that it fits his political needs. Science was long ago rejected as a basis for the administration’s environmental and energy policy.
The gulf between Trump’s approach and scientific rationality is expected to be further underscored Thursday with House testimony from Dr. Rick Bright, who says he was ousted from his job developing a coronavirus vaccine because he questioned Trump’s enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment for Covid-19. Bright will warn, according to his prepared testimony, that the US could face “unprecedented illness” and the “darkest winter in modern history” if it doesn’t do a better job of preparing for a second wave of the pandemic.
Fauci on thin ice
Trump’s use of the world “acceptable” in relation to Fauci’s comments is instructive about how he sees subordinates in his administration. The history of his three years in power shows that officials who do not provide the justification and the pretext for his actions or who prefer to act on their own perceptions of the national interest are eventually ousted. This band includes former FBI Director James Comey, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Defense Secretary James Mattis. Trump has an acute sense of personal loyalty that includes fealty to his disruptive gut-driven decisions.
The ferocity of the pandemic and the reverence for Fauci, who prefers to fight epidemiological foes rather than political ones, protected the doctor until now. But the political ground has been shifting beneath his feet – and given the huge economic toll of the crisis it’s only right that medical reasoning is not the only criterion for assessing how quickly the country can reopen.
But it is not just the agony of more than 30 million Americans who have lost their jobs that is weighing on the White House. The worst economic crisis in 80 years is clouding the President’s prospects for reelection in November.
In recent weeks, Trump has shifted from an approach rooted in benchmarks for phased state openings based on a waning of the virus to one based on opening the economy whatever the cost.
The result is that most of the time, the federal government has given up mounting a public health offensive against the worst public health crisis in more than 100 years. Subtly at first – with a retweet of a supporter critical of Fauci – then more aggressively, Trump has given support to rebellions among conservative campaigners against Democratic governors who imposed shutdowns to fight the virus.
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As the horrendous unemployment figures rolled in, Trump went all in, encouraged by his strong supporters on Fox News and other conservative media outlets who downplay the damage wreaked by the coronavirus and brand shutdowns an unacceptable assault on US freedoms.
On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the state’s stay-at-home order in a high-profile win for Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature. Its leaders had filed a lawsuit last month, arguing that the extension of the order by the Democratic governor’s administration would cost jobs and hurt companies, and that if it were left in place, “our State will be in shambles.”
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a sometime Trump golf buddy, paved the way for the President when he confronted Fauci in a hearing on Tuesday and told him he was not the “end-all” in decision making on when the country should be opened up again.
It may not be a coincidence that Trump’s rebuke took place after Tucker Carlson, one of the President’s favorite Fox hosts, laid into Fauci on Tuesday night – following earlier assaults by colleagues such as Laura Ingraham.
Carlson, who is willing to give Trump a pass for his earlier denial about the pandemic and his praise for China’s handling of it, called Fauci the “chief buffoon of the professional class.”
Again, the language is important, as Carlson set Fauci up as the kind of expert and evidence-based public servant who Trump sees as a Washington “deep state” threat to his presidency and who many of his supporters disdain as an unelected establishment expert.
Another Fox host, Sean Hannity, sought to paint Fauci, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, as a partisan who “seems to favor what the Democrats want and that is massive restrictions with no end in sight.”
In an interview with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo that aired Thursday morning, Trump said he “totally” disagreed with Fauci when it came to reopening schools but said the doctor was a “very good person.”
Republicans turn against Fauci
Rising attacks on Fauci have taken their toll on his standing with the President’s supporters, even though he is warmly regarded by the rest of the country. In a new CNN/SSRS poll, 84% of Republicans say they trust Trump to give them information on the virus. Only 61% of the same slice of the electorate say they trust Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
During the virtual Senate hearing in which he clashed with Paul, Fauci strongly defended himself and said he had never set himself up as the only authority on the virus.
“I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence,” he said. “I don’t give advice about economic things.”
Fauci also warned colleges and universities that a vaccine will not be available in time for classes to start in the fall. He was stating a fact, one that several college systems appear to have already taken into account by announcing classes in the first semester of 2020-21 will be online only.
Trump on Wednesday exemplified the gulf between Fauci’s science-based thinking and his own – arguing that schools could go back because children are not easily susceptible to Covid-19.
“This is a disease that attacks age. And it attacks health. And if you have a heart problem, if you have diabetes, if you’re a certain age, it’s certainly much more dangerous. But with the young children, I mean, and students, it’s really, it’s, just take a look at the statistics; it’s pretty amazing,” Trump said.
Experts such as Fauci argue that children are often asymptomatic carriers of the virus and can infect parents and other elderly relatives who are at risk of complications. Putting hundreds of children together in separate schools and allowing tens of thousands to converge on college campuses would pose a huge risk to creating new coronavirus hot spots and waves of the disease.
Trump did allow that older teachers might want to stay away from schools for a few weeks. But he has so far shown no appreciation for the huge investment needed to prepare school systems for an age of social distancing, staggered classes and other disrupted forms of learning.
The President’s rising suspicion of Fauci has not been shared by all Republicans. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, speaking before Trump’s rebuke of Fauci on Wednesday, said the doctor was a “national treasure” but cautioned that the crisis was economic as well as medical in nature.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming tweeted that Fauci is “one of the finest public servants we have ever had.”
While Trump may have turned against Fauci, he is unlikely to go away. The 79-year-old is fighting the battle of his professional life against the pandemic and has political savvy to spare after decades in Washington. But the President – who is making a huge gamble by backing state openings that experts like Fauci say risk causing many deaths – has had about as much as he can take of the doctor’s truth telling.