The president’s relationship with Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has played a very public role in the country’s COVID-19 response, has gotten especially rocky. Fauci has expressed concerns about reopening and bluntly contradicted some of the president’s boasts about the U.S.’s performance; Trump has responded with derogatory comments; the administration has pulled Fauci off of some media appearances; the two reportedly have not spoken in weeks.
Now, the White House press shop has taken the unusual step of circulating anti-Fauci talking points to the media, alleging that the doctor has repeatedly made errors in his public comments. It would be nearly impossible to fire Fauci, for reasons both political and bureaucratic, and some in the administration have tried to knock him down a peg instead.
Needless to say, Fauci is not above scrutiny, is not always right, and does not have the final say over federal COVID-19 policy, nor should he. But this is a ridiculous gambit. The allegations in the circulated memo are largely out of context or overstated, and the doctor has never said anything as wildly unrealistic as Trump’s own repeated assurances that the virus is simply going to disappear.
In late February, the memo notes, Fauci said that “at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.” But that was defensible advice at the time, when it appeared most Americans faced little risk of coming into contact with an infected person, and in the same appearance Fauci cautioned that “when you start to see community spread, this could change and force you to become much more attentive to doing things that would protect you from spread.”
Similarly, on January 28, Fauci said that “even if there’s a rare asymptomatic person that might transmit, an epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.” But the memo leaves out the surrounding context: Fauci was talking about what we knew from previous outbreaks of respiratory illnesses, to explain why he was skeptical of China’s claim that there was asymptomatic spread. He also said he’d “like to see the data” from China, a healthy impulse even if China was right this time.
One of the memo’s more legitimate criticisms is that Fauci advised against wearing masks early in the pandemic. He thought that scarce protective equipment should be reserved for health-care workers, which makes sense, but he also pooh-poohed the effectiveness of masks for the public, which was ill-advised. (That the experts so flagrantly contradicted themselves on masks surely has played a role in the resistance to wearing them — although Trump’s reluctance to being seen wearing one hasn’t helped, either.)
All in all, the assault on Fauci is a sideshow that distracts from the very real question of how states should proceed as COVID-19 spreads in new places, as the economy continues to limp, and as the public tires of endless COVID-19 restrictions. Fauci himself has acknowledged that his role is to assess the public-health side of the equation, not to evaluate the many tradeoffs that lockdowns pose. As director of NIAID, he is best understood not as a cable-television personality but as the leader of the public research enterprise that is developing treatment and vaccine protocols to fight the virus. Assuming he has no intention of going anywhere, he should continue to do that to the best of his ability, whether it annoys the president or not.
As for Trump, one reason that his ratings are so low on the handling of COVID-19 is that he has been unwilling, with exceptions at times, to frankly acknowledge the seriousness of the virus. Warring with Anthony Fauci over the scientist’s sincere judgments about our policy failures and the continued threat of the virus is just another way of avoiding the matter at hand — namely the resurgence in cases that puts at risk the partial reopenings in much of the country.
In this regard, the president needs to heal himself, not his physician.