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Fauci gets frank about Trump: ‘I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down’

Anthony S. Fauci is one of the leading experts of the coronavirus task force. (Video: The Washington Post)

Amid the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been charged with a herculean task: trying to keep President Trump’s public statements about the novel virus rooted in fact.

Now it appears that Fauci’s frustration is showing.

When asked Sunday by Science magazine’s Jon Cohen about having to stand in front of the nation as “the representative of truth and facts” when “things are being said that aren’t true and aren’t factual,” the 79-year-old said there is only so much he can do.

“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” Fauci said, referring to Trump. “Okay, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.”

The frank comment was just one part of a remarkable Q&A published Sunday night in which Fauci shed light on his relationship with Trump, how the pair handles their differences and what happens before each coronavirus task force news conference.

On more than one occasion, Fauci, described by The Washington Post’s Ellen McCarthy and Ben Terris as “the grandfatherly captain of the corona­virus crisis,” has found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly contradict the president — a risky action that could conceivably jeopardize the scientist’s job.

Fauci acknowledged as much on Sunday.

“To my knowledge, I haven’t been fired,” he told Cohen, laughing.

Most recently, Fauci has sought to temper Trump’s comments touting an old anti-malarial drug as a potential treatment for covid-19. At a news conference Friday, one day after Trump called the medicine a possible “game-changer,” Fauci said the only evidence of the drug’s promise has been “anecdotal,” adding, “So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”

In an appearance on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Fauci played down the disagreement, telling CBS’s Margaret Brennan that “there isn’t, fundamentally, a difference” between his view and Trump’s on fighting the virus.

“I was taking a purely medical, scientific standpoint and the president was trying to bring hope to the people,” he said.

Fauci attempted to strike the same diplomatic approach in his interview with Science magazine, saying that although he and Trump sometimes disagree, the president does listen to him “on substantive issues.”

But Fauci acknowledged that the two stray when it comes to Trump’s delivery of critical messages.

“It is expressed in a way that I would not express it, because it could lead to some misunderstanding about what the facts are about a given subject,” he said.

Read Fauci's full interview here

Never, for example, has Fauci used “China virus” or " Chinese virus” to refer to covid-19, despite Trump’s repeated usage and defense of such labels. Critics have slammed the language as racist and diversionary, warning that it could lead to an uptick of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.

“And you never will, will you?” Cohen asked.

“No,” Fauci answered.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Asia Pacific American Caucus, said President Trump's covid-19 rhetoric is used to distract the public. (Video: The Washington Post)

Cohen also pressed Fauci on Trump making statements that don’t “comport with facts,” calling attention to the president’s recent misleading suggestion that China could have revealed details of the outbreak “three or four months” earlier.

“I know, but what do you want me to do?,” Fauci responded. “I mean, seriously, Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?”

After Trump made the remark about China at Saturday’s briefing, Fauci said he informed “the appropriate people” about the inaccuracy.

“The next time they sit down with him and talk about what he’s going to say, they will say, by the way, Mr. President, be careful about this and don’t say that,” he said.

Trump has no qualms about calling the coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus.’ That’s a dangerous attitude, experts say.

Fauci later provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the task force advises Trump ahead of his daily news conferences.

“We sit down for an hour and a half, go over all the issues on the agenda,” Fauci said, adding that the group also discusses what it wants to emphasize to the public that day before meeting with Trump.

“Then we go in to see the president, we present [our consensus] to him and somebody writes a speech,” he said. “Then he gets up and ad-libs on his speech. And then we’re up there to try and answer questions.”

Fauci appeared to make his qualms with Trump’s ad-libs known at Friday’s news conference when he was seen covering his face and struggling to maintain his composure after the president mentioned the “Deep State Department.”

Asked if he was criticized for the gesture, Fauci said, “No comment.”

President Trump joked March 20 that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the head of the "Deep State Department." (Video: The Washington Post)

The scientist also took issue with Trump’s decision to continue shaking hands at public events and the lack of physical separation at the daily briefings.

Although Fauci credited Vice President Pence with keeping people apart during task force meetings, the situation onstage in the media briefing room, where officials are often standing in close quarters, “is a bit more problematic.”

“I keep saying, ‘Is there any way we can get a virtual news conference?’ ” he said. “Thus far, no. But when you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens. So I’m going to keep pushing.”

By early Monday, Fauci’s comments were circulating widely on social media with many remarking on his candor.

The Q&A with Science magazine came on the heels of two other illuminating interviews Fauci did that came out over the weekend, prompting some to worry that he might be endangering his position.

“Fauci’s going to get fired,” journalist Joe Nocera tweeted. “He’s been way too honest in interviews this weekend.”

But, in a recent interview with the Atlantic published Sunday, Fauci said he didn’t anticipate losing his position.

“I don’t think they’re going to try to silence me. I think that would be foolish on their part,” he said. “I think, in some respects, they welcome my voice out there telling the truth. I’m going to keep doing it. And no matter what happens to me, I’m going to keep doing it.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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