Fauci is sidelined by the White House as he steps up blunt talk on pandemic
In recent days, the 79-year-old scientist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has found himself directly in the president’s crosshairs. During a Fox News interview Thursday with Sean Hannity, Trump said Fauci “is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.” And when Greta Van Susteren asked him last week about Fauci’s assessment that the country was not in a good place, Trump said flatly: “I disagree with him.”
Fauci no longer briefs Trump and is “never in the Oval [Office] anymore,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Fauci last spoke to the president during the first week of June, according to a person with knowledge of Trump’s calendar.
For some administration officials, such developments have been an early sign their job was on the line. But Trump cannot directly fire Fauci, a career civil servant with more than 50 years in government service who enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress. In any case, the president has no plans to get rid of him, said the official.
As for Fauci himself, although he is frustrated by the turmoil and the state of the outbreak, friends say he has no plans to abandon his post, which includes a critical role in the development of a coronavirus vaccine and treatments.
Fauci has found other ways to get his message out, from online Facebook chats to podcasts and print media interviews. And in recent days, with coronavirus cases slamming hospitals in the South and West, he has been frankly critical of the U.S. response — and implicitly, of the president.
Fauci did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
A White House official released a statement saying that “several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things,” and attaching a lengthy list of the scientist’s comments from early in the outbreak. Those included his early doubt that people with no symptoms could play a significant role in spreading the virus — a notion based on earlier outbreaks that the novel coronavirus would turn on its head. They also point to public reassurances Fauci made in late February, around the time of the first U.S. case of community transmission, that “at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.”
Fauci’s supporters acknowledge those early mistakes, attributing them to the challenges posed by a new, largely unknown pathogen. They agree he downplayed the possibility of the virus spreading from person to person in January and early February even as it quietly seeded itself in communities on the East and West coasts. And, like several other public health officials, he initially said the public shouldn’t wear masks, but now strongly recommends it, especially when individuals can’t maintain distances of at least six feet from other people.
Fauci has said he was worried early in the outbreak about a shortage of masks and wanted to reserve them for health care workers. And he has said from the start that scientists’ knowledge of a brand new virus would evolve and recommendations could change based on new information.
White House communications officials, who must approve television appearances related to the coronavirus, responded by allowing Fauci spots this week on PBS NewsHour, a CNN town hall with Sanjay Gupta and NBC’s “Meet the Press” during the prime Sunday morning slot, according to one person familiar with the situation.
Then Fauci joined a Facebook Live event on Tuesday with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), disputing Trump’s assertions that a lower death rate showed the country’s progress against the pandemic. Fauci called it “a false narrative” and warned, “Don’t get yourself into false complacency.”
Fauci did not end up making any of the scheduled appearances. The White House canceled them after his Tuesday remarks, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate behind-the-scenes conversations.
The episode underscores the deteriorating relationship between a scientist and a president who once bonded over their shared New York City roots and love of sports, but whose rapport has long since disintegrated over their differences on face mask policy, state reopening strategies and the use of antimalarial drugs to treat covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal deliberations, said the White House has asked Fauci to do certain media appearances but is not approving all of his requests.
“Our bigger issue with Fauci is stop critiquing the task force . . . and try to fix it,” the official said.
Fauci has argued that parts of the country experiencing surges should shut down, “but there is no buy-in for that,” said an official with direct knowledge of the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Four months ahead of Election Day, Trump wants to “reopen and move on,” said another senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal deliberations. Those who disagree with that approach are out of favor, the official said.
Fauci has also expressed concern about the administration’s plan to reopen schools, but White House officials see keeping children home as having even more deleterious effects. Fauci has also called on state and local officials to mandate that people wear masks in public.
Even though his suggestions have been largely ignored, Fauci has not complained that he does not get in to see the president, according to one of the officials.
Trump is also galled by Fauci’s approval ratings. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed that 67 percent of voters trusted Fauci for information on the coronavirus, compared with 26 percent who trusted Trump.
The internal turmoil and troubled national response have taken a toll on Fauci, those close to him say. He is exasperated that states and individuals are not following the recommendations of experts, such as social distancing and wearing face coverings, said David Barr, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist who has known Fauci for 30 years.
Three or four weeks ago, Barr said, he and Fauci spoke about the troubling signs they were seeing as cases began to tick upward.
“You could just feel from Tony . . . how unsettled it made him,” Barr said. “He didn’t know what to do to change that, to stop it, but if the leadership isn’t there, and it’s clearly not there, then it’s really difficult to set the tone for the country.”
“What he cares most about is not his influence, but what’s happening — that things are going so badly and it’s going to cause so much disease and death,” Barr added.
People who are close to Fauci say the public undermining of scientists and public health experts has frustrated and saddened him because it adds to the chaos the country is already experiencing from the pandemic.
Despite the repeated pushback from Trump and the White House, however, Fauci has told those close to him that has no plans to do anything differently.
“For somebody like Tony, who tries to deal with people honestly and in a very open and generous way — that’s how he’s tried to approach his personal interactions with the president — it’s immensely frustrating and depressing. And there’s not much he can do about it,” said Peter Staley, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist who has known Fauci for more than 30 years.
“He’s going to continue being himself, which is always talking honestly about a public health crisis and a new infectious disease,” Staley added. “If things are looking more in conflict, it’s because this administration is going further and further adrift from a pro-science approach.”
White House communications officials say they have told government scientists and doctors that their job is to educate the public by talking about best practices to contain the virus and what the administration is doing to help the states.
Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump ally, approves Fauci’s television appearances, with input from the White House, said one of the senior administration officials. Several White House aides view Fauci’s interviews as unhelpful and say they’re frustrated he has expressed interest in appearing on programs such as MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” which are hostile to the administration. That one was rejected.
“The speculation game doesn’t serve the public in any particular way,” the same official said. “When it gets to handicapping and what’s going to happen next, get a cable news gig. We’ve conveyed that down to all the doctors.”
White House officials generally favor White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, one of the senior administration officials said. Both Birx and Fauci have expressed frustration that their concerns have not gotten to the president, although Birx is working with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Jared Kushner, a White House senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, to ensure better communication, the official said.
The administration also plans to have Brett Giroir, an assistant HHS secretary, and FEMA Administrator Peter T. Gaynor do more appearances related to coronavirus.
Among those crusading against Fauci internally is Peter Navarro, the president’s trade adviser, who has clashed with Fauci over his opposition to adopting the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, to treat covid-19 before its effectiveness had been proved.
When Trump and Navarro repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for coronavirus, Fauci pushed back both internally and at task force briefings, arguing there was only anecdotal evidence about the drug’s efficacy. The Food and Drug Administration eventually revoked its temporary authorization after evidence showed it was not effective against covid-19 and could be dangerous for some patients.
“Dr. Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public but he has been wrong about everything I have ever interacted with him on,” Navarro said. “Now Fauci is saying that a falling mortality rate doesn’t matter when it is the single most important statistic to help guide the pace of our economic reopening. So when you ask me if I listen to Dr. Fauci’s advice, my answer is only with caution.”
Friends and allies say Fauci doesn’t quit because he loves his job and also feels a great sense of responsibility about helping to develop coronavirus vaccines and treatments — the biggest challenge of his career and the only way the country can truly begin to move past the pandemic. He has long said he does not want to retire before there is an AIDS vaccine.
“He recognizes if he doesn’t intercede, things could fall apart very quickly — even more so than they have already,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “He does it because he cares about the country and realizes he is uniquely positioned to help in this.”
Although his message is regularly at odds with the president, Fauci is naturally conflict-averse and has sought to establish a personal relationship with the six presidents he has served over his career.
“He’ll try to be accommodating except for principles that are truly not something he can compromise on,” said one former senior administration official who has worked closely with Fauci for years. “He will try to really accommodate and fulfill your reality, but he’s bound by the laws of science.”
In the previous five presidential administrations, Fauci has almost always played a key role in public health emergencies and infectious-disease responses by advising the president and serving as a chief spokesman for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
In many ways, he was shaped by the HIV/AIDS crisis that emerged during his first years as NIAID director when the Reagan administration remained largely silent about a disease afflicting mostly gay men.
Amid fear of the virus and the stigma associated with having the infection, Fauci learned the importance of communicating with the public about new diseases that were little understood. He found out it was critical to speak honestly about the risks, and help people differentiate between valid concerns and unfounded fears, according to several people who have worked with him.
As the face of the HIV/AIDS response, Fauci also developed a thick skin, experiencing the ire of activists who felt an uncaring federal government was not doing enough to make treatments available for dying patients. But over the years, he forged friendships with some of those who had begun as adversaries, activists said.
The lessons learned from the HIV/AIDS outbreak have had an impact on how he has handled almost every public health crisis since. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the Obama administration made Fauci its chief spokesperson to explain to people the actual risk of the virus.
Fauci briefed Obama about three times a week and had unlimited access to him if something came up, said Ron Klain, the Obama administration’s Ebola czar and now an adviser to the Biden campaign.
But in the coronavirus pandemic, Klain said Fauci is facing a new challenge: He’s the only member of the administration willing or able to speak plainly about the threat of the virus, in Klain’s view.
Fauci “respects the public,” Klain said. “He has this view that the public can handle the truth, whether it’s good news or bad news and the most important thing is to give people the best information he has at the time. Tony is left being the one person having to carry the weight of speaking honestly about all this stuff.”