Dr. Anthony Fauci knows how to handle President Trump. He understands perfectly well that to keep Trump’s ear, he must speak softly enough to avoid bruising Trump’s ego but loudly enough to preserve Trump’s attention and respect. And thus far, he’s found a way to do just that, as demonstrated by Trump’s willingness to continue following the good doctor’s recommendations despite mounting pressure from disgruntled Republican voters who believe the time has come to end the ongoing economic lockdown.
It helps that Trump doesn’t feel threatened by Fauci. He doesn’t have to worry about Fauci hogging up the spotlight or taking all the credit for the policies that have spared the nation from the much more dismal fate it likely would have faced in the absence of those policies. He can continue to pat himself on the back without looking over his shoulder, knowing as he does that Fauci’s motivations are entirely apolitical.
Dr. Fauci has just one objective in mind, and that is to snuff out this pandemic as quickly and efficiently as possible. Trump shares that objective, but he’s motivated in part by political considerations that Fauci doesn’t have to worry about. We are now less than seven months away from the 2020 election, and the president is well aware that his handling of this crisis could make or break his campaign for a second term. Fauci understands that too, and has positioned himself as a useful ally to Trump, an ally whose expertise could help save Trump’s political career by helping to save the nation from the coronavirus pandemic. Without browning his nose or stepping on any toes, Fauci has helped steer Trump onto a path towards victory over this virus and kept him on that path for the last several weeks. That’s no small feat when you consider Trump’s notorious propensity for impulsive action.
I can only guess that Fauci’s impressive political savvy is a skill he acquired after years of working side by side with other strong political personalities while serving as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Add to that a calm, confident, and disarming demeanor that has helped him win the trust of the masses, and what you’ve got is the ideal figure to serve as the face of this crisis—a grandfatherly actor capable of dispensing unpleasant truths to the public without either dimming the light at the end of the tunnel or alienating the man in charge of guiding us to that light.
However, despite his invaluable contributions as both an adviser to President Trump and an unofficial ambassador for the president’s COVID-19 task force, there are a few dissenting voices on the right calling for Dr. Fauci’s dismissal.
In a recent op-ed for the Washington Examiner, Republican Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ken Buck of Colorado shamelessly seized on a single word from a single quote and used it as an excuse to launch an all-out assault on Fauci’s character. They implied that Fauci’s use of the word “inconvenient” to describe the economic impact of the government’s response to the pandemic reveals him to be a cold-hearted monster who cares little about the financial hardships that are sure to have a lasting negative impact on millions of Americans. Of course, neither representative ever dares to acknowledge the very real possibility that if the administration were to reverse course and reopen the country too early, an even worse economic downturn could ensue.
The day after the Examiner op-ed, a few media outlets amplified the drama after Fauci appeared on CNN for an interview with Jake Tapper. In the interview, Tapper asked Fauci about a New York Times report that detailed Trump’s alleged failure to heed the advice of public health experts who determined back in February that the government should start implementing social distancing guidelines right away. “We look at it from a pure health standpoint,” Fauci responded. “We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it’s not. But we — it is what it is. We are where we are right now.”
Tapper then asked Fauci if more lives could have been saved if the government had acted sooner, the answer to which was self-evident. “Again, it’s the ‘what would have, what could have’,” he replied. “It’s very difficult to go back and say that. I mean, obviously, you could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated.”
Throughout the interview, Fauci makes it crystal clear that he isn’t second-guessing the president’s decisions or criticizing the administration for not having handled the situation differently. He emphasizes the complex nature of pandemics and the difficulty of properly responding to circumstances that are constantly changing.
When Tapper pressed Fauci on why the United States hadn’t handled the pandemic nearly as well as South Korea even though both nations reported their first confirmed infections on the same exact date, Fauci disputed the notion that it was because the U.S. took too long to act.
“But where we are right now is the result of a number of factors, the size of the country, the heterogeneity of the country,” Fauci began. “It's -- I think it's a little bit unfair to compare us to South Korea, where they had an outbreak in Daegu, and they had the capability of immediately, essentially, shutting it off completely in a way that we may not have been able to do in this country. So, obviously, it would have been nice if we had a better head start, but I don't think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor. It's very complicated, Jake.”
The story Dr. Fauci was trying to tell was not the story that made the rounds on social media. The BBC, NBC, CNN, and countless other outlets ran stories with headlines focusing on Fauci’s admission that more lives could have been saved if Trump had acted more quickly. But when you listen to the interview in its entirety, it’s apparent that Fauci wasn’t charging Trump or his administration with failing to act when they should have; he was just acknowledging the truism that the earlier you jump on any problem, the better off you’ll be.
That didn’t stop President Trump from overreacting to the situation. Shortly after the interview aired, he retweeted a tweet from former Republican congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine that included the hashtag #FireFauci. But during a news conference the next day, he made it clear, much to my relief, that Dr. Fauci wasn’t going anywhere.
At that same news conference, Fauci clarified the comments he made on CNN, saying that he had used a “poor choice of words” while adding that "hypothetical questions sometimes can get you into some difficulty.” This prompted CBS White House correspondent Paula Reid to openly question Fauci’s integrity, asking him whether he was clarifying his comments “voluntarily.” And for the first time I can ever remember, Fauci became visibly irritated. “No, I am doing it--everything I do is voluntarily,” he answered with understandable annoyance. “Please don't even imply that.”
I’m not entirely sure why Representatives Andy Biggs and Ken Buck set their sights on Dr. Fauci specifically, but I suspect they were just trying to appeal to cynical right-wing voters who believe that this pandemic has been deliberately blown out of proportion for the purpose of transforming the nation into a progressive welfare state. And I’m guessing that DeAnna Lorraine had a similar goal in mind when she insisted it was time to fire Fauci.
I’m also not entirely sure why some in the media are trying to play Dr. Fauci against the president, though I suspect it’s to preemptively lampoon any future attempt Trump might make to establish himself as the great savior who squashed the coronavirus pandemic in its tracks before it could destroy the country.
One thing I am sure of, though, is that if any of Dr. Fauci’s or President Trump’s critics manage to drive an immovable wedge between the two men, absolutely nothing good will come from it. Fauci has over fifty years of experience in medicine, including more than thirty years as director of the NIAID. He has served as an adviser to each and every one of the last six presidents, including President Trump. Public servants like him do not grow on trees. It would be beyond foolish for Trump to even entertain the idea of trying to slide someone else into Fauci’s role, though he will not hesitate to do that if he thinks it’s necessary. And if he ever does take that step, there’s a very good chance that Fauci’s replacement will be some underqualified toady whose top priority isn’t to act in the interest of public safety, but rather to do whatever makes the president happy. That story would not end well for anyone—not for Dr. Fauci, not for his replacement, not for President Trump, and certainly not for the American people.
For all our sakes, I sincerely hope it never comes to that.