At President Trump’s campaign infomercial Fox News town hall Sunday night, in which he declared his superiority to all predecessors, Trump explained why he didn’t act sooner against the coronavirus.

“Everybody, even Tony Fauci, was saying, ‘It’s going to pass, not going to be a big deal,’” Trump said, naming the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases along with Democrats to his list of those to blame for his own delayed response.

And how does Dr. Fauci defend himself? Let’s ask him.

“Mmmph. Mmmph! MMMPH!!!”

Ah, of course. I had forgotten. Fauci, who in February said he’s never been “muzzled,” has been muzzled.

The 79-year-old Fauci, the U.S. government’s top epidemiologist since the Reagan administration, won’t be allowed to testify before a House subcommittee hearing this week, the White House announced Friday. But if he’s a good boy, the Trump administration will let him appear the following week before the Senate, where there aren’t so many Democrats.

Fauci has enjoyed 80 percent approval in the polls and the Brad Pitt treatment on “Saturday Night Live.” But what happens if, as now seems the case, Trump tries to make him a fall guy for the woeful response to the virus?

Trump’s Sunday night remark wasn’t an aberration: Last week in the Oval Office, Trump said: “You go back and you take a look at — even professionals, like Anthony, were saying, ‘this is no problem.’ This is late in February: ‘This is no problem. This is going to blow — this is going to blow over.’”

That’s patently false. Fauci correctly said in January and February that the risk to Americans “right now” and “at this moment” was low, and he warned that could change. But when has Trump ever been deterred from saying something because it’s false?

Fauci prefers to do what he can to improve the administration’s response rather than to quit in protest. That’s admirable, because Trump would surely replace him with a factotum. But, almost without exception, it has ended badly for those who made similar calculations. Rex Tillerson; Gens. Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster; Gary Cohn; Reince Priebus; Jeff Sessions; and many others have seen their reputations and credibility damaged by their attempts to work with Trump before he discards them. Those who took him on — James Comey, Alexander Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch — became victims of Trump’s character assassination, while sycophants such as Sean Spicer and Ronny Jackson became punchlines and others (Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen) fared even worse. White House task force chief Deborah Birx has recently damaged her credibility by excusing various Trump actions, including his suggestion that ingesting bleach could cure the coronavirus.

Trump has publicly contradicted Fauci on testing (Fauci told the House in March that the system was “failing”), and the president retweeted a “#FireFauci” message in mid-April when Fauci said lives could have been saved if the administration acted sooner on his social distancing requests, which faced “a lot of pushback.” Fauci partially retracted the remark.

Since then, Trump has moved steadily to freeze out Fauci. He no longer has his usual place on the podium at White House briefings. Administration officials said they wanted him to give advice “privately.”

Worse, Trump allies are spreading a conspiracy theory that Fauci is in cahoots with the Chinese because Fauci’s NIAID indirectly contributed coronavirus research funding that went to labs including the Wuhan facility that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo now blames for the coronavirus pandemic. “Fauci gave $3.7 million to the Wuhan laboratory,” Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani alleged in comments widely reported by right-wing media. “We paid for the damn virus that’s killing us.”

Meanwhile, after the good doctor said on CNN last week that states such as Georgia are “making a really significant risk” by “leapfrogging over the first checkpoint” to relax restrictions, Trump called Georgia’s overall reopening effort “wonderful.” Fauci, after much resistance, also moved toward Trump’s timeline last week by saying mass vaccination is “doable” by January.

And now the once-freewheeling Fauci wears a muzzle. The White House blocked his House testimony because there wasn’t “clarity” about the “subject matter.” Apparently the hearing’s title — “COVID-19 Response” — left too much ambiguity.

Fauci has said there’s a “fine balance” between telling the truth and going “to war with a president.” He thinks he can succeed where many before him failed. But as Trump tries to blame the doctor for the administration’s failures, the terms of this Faucian Bargain become clear: Cajoling Trump to do the right thing is ephemeral. But he will damn you for eternity.

By trying to reassign seats in the White House briefing room, the Trump administration is attempting to stifle real journalism, says media critic Erik Wemple. (The Washington Post)

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