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The White House’s campaign against Anthony Fauci is a symptom of a bigger problem

Trump and his officials have consistently ignored or tried to discredit scientists like Fauci.

Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci stand on either side of an American flag on the White House press room stage in April 2020.
Donald Trump’s administration has begun publicly attacking the credibility of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top government scientist on infectious diseases.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

The White House decided this week — the same week the US is seeing record Covid-19 cases nationwide, driven by the outbreaks in California, Florida, and Texas — was the right time to try to discredit the most widely respected scientist in the Trump administration, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

He was first targeted with a whisper campaign by administration sources to top White House reporters. A few days later, Trump’s top trade official dispensed with the whispering and said it loud and clear in a USA Today op-ed: Fauci should not be trusted.

The public, it appears, would disagree. Fauci continues to enjoy a much higher approval rating and much more public trust than the president of the United States. As an earthy but authoritative voice on the coronavirus pandemic, Fauci inadvertently broke the first rule of the Trump White House: Nobody gets to outshine the president. The disinformation campaign against him from Trump loyalists can likely be explained, at least in part, by those clashing personalities.

But the White House’s cold war against Fauci reveals a more fundamental problem with the Trump administration’s coronavirus response: an unwillingness to defer to science over politics, and to allow the advice of public health experts to dictate the pace of the recovery instead of proceeding at a rate that may help the president’s reelection prospects.

When I asked experts about the differences between Trump’s record and Joe Biden’s proposed response plan, they singled out the reliance on science and experts like Fauci. I heard the same when I asked about the differences between the US response and those of other countries that have more successfully suppressed the virus.

“Clearly, big differences are the emphasis on science and experts,” Jennifer Kates at the Kaiser Family Foundation told me. Biden would emphasize “putting science/public health leaders at the forefront and big focus on public health guidance.”

It’s tempting to view Trump versus Fauci as an interpersonal rivalry, two New Yorkers with big personalities and a talent for television finding themselves at odds during this high-profile crisis.

But the feud with Fauci is merely the symptom of a broader syndrome: Trump and many of his top aides have actively ignored or sought to discredit scientific experts on the best ways to handle the coronavirus response.

Anthony Fauci versus Peter Navarro and the Trump White House, explained

Fauci leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, part of the National Institutes of Health. It’s a position he’s held for more than 35 years, making him by default the top government scientist in a pandemic. And he has, from the start, been a key figure in the coronavirus response.

He has also, with more and more frequency over the spring and summer, found himself at odds with the president and his economic advisers on important issues. He’s contradicted Trump on hydroxychloroquine, on testing and travel bans, on restarting the NFL season, and on reopening schools in the fall. By April, Trump was approvingly quoting a tweet from one of his supporters with a #FireFauci hashtag.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert appears to have lost the president’s personal confidence months ago. Fauci told the Financial Times last week that he hadn’t personally briefed Trump in two months.

But the tension escalated with a new intensity over the weekend. Fauci’s sin seems to have been his downcast assessment of America’s coronavirus outbreak, as cases continue to pick up, hospitalizations and deaths surge, and testing backlogs hamper the country’s ability to nimbly respond to the crisis. Trump said in an interview last week he disagreed with Fauci’s assessment of the situation on the ground.

Then the White House sent a document to the Washington Post that read like the kind of opposition file usually deployed against a political rival in a campaign, not a top government scientist in the middle of a pandemic. As Post reporter Josh Dawsey described it in a Saturday 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 included 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.”

The White House press shop tried to wave away any claims of their malicious intent against Fauci, provoking virtual eye rolls from seasoned political reporters:

Some of Fauci’s early comments certainly do read differently now than they would have in January and February. He has reversed himself on the question of laypeople wearing masks, as most of the scientific community has. But the White House also appears to have willfully misconstrued some of his statements to make them look worse than they were. As the New York Times noted, the White House oppo file singled out a February 29 interview in which Fauci said there was no need for Americans to change their day-to-day routine — but left out his comment from the very same interview warning the coronavirus could eventually become a major outbreak.

An op-ed in USA Today by top Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro dispensed with any equivocation: “Dr. Anthony Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.” Navarro dinged Fauci for initially opposing Trump’s China travel ban, for allegedly downplaying the virus’s threat, for flip-flopping on masks, for doubting the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, and for minimizing the recent decline in US Covid-19 deaths.

The only problem, as a separate USA Today fact-check made clear, is most of Navarro’s claims were false or misleading. It’s not at all clear the China ban had a significant effect on spread as many US infections may have been imported from Europe instead. Fauci was always warning that the coronavirus can develop into a more serious problem, while Trump and the White House consistently minimized the threat. Fauci has for months been urging people to wear masks, ever since the scientific consensus shifted. Most medical studies have affirmed Fauci’s doubts about hydroxychloroquine. And Covid-19 deaths have begun rising again, as experts predicted they would once cases started increasing again.

The White House communications office once again tried to put some distance between the administration officials bashing Fauci and the president, saying the Navarro op-ed didn’t go through proper internal channels before it was published. (USA Today revealed after the op-ed was published that the newspaper had actually approached Navarro about writing his perspective on Fauci.)

But reporting from the Los Angeles Times quickly complicated that characterization; an administration official told the newspaper that Trump had “authorized” and “encouraged” the op-ed.

Fauci, for his part, took all the drama in relative stride and suggested that the ploys against him were doomed to backfire.

“When the staff lets out something like that and the entire scientific and press community push back on it, it ultimately hurts the president,” he told the Atlantic on Wednesday. And as for Navarro, his new public rival: “I can’t explain Peter Navarro. He’s in a world by himself.”

Spoken with the confidence of a man who, according to a new Quinnipiac University survey, 65 percent of Americans say they trust to tell the truth about the coronavirus. Just 30 percent of the public says the same about Trump.

“He may be out of the loop and in disfavor with the White House, but it’s clear from the numbers, voters would like Dr. Fauci back on call,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy said.

Fauci was back at a White House task force meeting on Wednesday, the day after Navarro’s op-ed went up, a fact subtly revealed in a tweet from Vice President Mike Pence. But the Trump administration’s general attitude toward scientists like Fauci doesn’t bode well for this newfound warmth lasting for very long.

The Trump administration has sought to discredit all kinds of public health experts and advice

Fauci can, at times, sound as if he is fact-checking Trump in real time. Last Tuesday, the president was touting “a tenfold decrease in mortality” and “the lowest mortality rate in the world.” The same day, at an event with Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, Fauci said “that it’s a false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death” given the other complications of the disease and the possibility that deaths will start to rise again (as they have).

This has been happening for months and it often draws a rebuke from the White House or from the president himself. In June, Fauci sounded skeptical that the NFL would be able to safely start its regular season in the fall. Trump, who is betting his reelection fortunes on a swift return to normalcy, didn’t appreciate the comment.

But this kind of disparagement against scientific authorities isn’t limited to Fauci as an individual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as an institution, has been consistently undermined by the White House. The agency went months without holding press briefings on Covid-19.

The discord has been on display again in the last few weeks as Trump seizes on reopening schools as the next big political issue for him. The CDC has laid out its guidelines for schools hoping to bring students back to their buildings in the fall. Trump and other top administration officials have been dismissive of those standards.

“To be very clear, we don’t want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don’t reopen their schools,” Vice President Mike Pence said this week.

This has been happening for months. In April, the White House formally convened a task force to consider the best strategies for reopening the economy — and a few days later, the president was tweeting support for protesters agitating to “LIBERATE” states from their stay-at-home orders. In May, the CDC released a watered-down version of its recommendations for states’ reopening after the White House judged the original guidance “too prescriptive.”

Now the administration has ordered hospitals to stop reporting their Covid-19 data to the CDC and start providing that information to the main health department instead. Experts worry the change could lead to the Trump administration burying data that doesn’t fit its preferred narrative of the pandemic — much as Fauci has been cut out and called out for dissenting from the party line.

These paragons of public health have been sidelined and bowled over by a Trump White House weathering a global pandemic in the middle of an election year. Rather than take the hard steps necessary to contain the outbreak, the White House has tried without success to wish it out of existence.

Months ago, Fauci was telling the public and presumably the president that the best way to safely reopen the economy was to improve testing and contact tracing. Today, as Fauci finds himself on the wrong side of the White House’s whims again, a testing backlog is debilitating the country’s ability to surveil the disease, contact tracing has been largely ignored by the federal government, and hasty reopening appears to have led to the spike in cases and deaths that experts warned it would without the necessary precautions.

Six months into the pandemic, with no signs that it will soon abate, the Trump administration is still not heeding the advice of its best-known public health expert. Instead, the president and his allies sound intent on blaming the messenger.

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