Yet all this has really accomplished is to unleash intensified media scrutiny of the tortured relationship between Trump and Fauci. The result: a spate of fresh reporting on that relationship — reporting that only illustrates Trump’s pathologies with new depth and vividness.
Over the weekend, The Post reported that Fauci is now “directly in the president’s crosshairs.” The White House has “moved to sideline Fauci" and released a “lengthy list of the scientist’s comments from early in the outbreak." This was supposed to show that Fauci has been wrong and that his current urgency about spiking cases should be seen with skepticism.
Much of the discussion has been about how unusual it is that the White House would leak campaign-style oppo research about Trump’s own top health official. But less attention has focused on how deranged it is that Fauci has become the enemy — that is, the target for counter-punching — in the first place.
Fauci has become the enemy, of course, because he has prioritized his efforts to understand a pandemic that has killed nearly 135,000 Americans and sickened millions over the imperative of protecting Trump politically at all costs.
Fauci’s efforts may have been flawed at times, but by all appearances they were undertaken in good faith. And that’s the cardinal sin here: Since handling a public health emergency in good faith requires a sincere — if sometimes tactful — effort to inform the public about it, this has inevitably put him in Trump’s crosshairs, because it has reflected badly on Trump.
It is a form of poetic justice that all this is revealed with new clarity by none other than the intense scrutiny that this ham-handed attack on Fauci has itself produced.
Fauci dared to go on TV and contradict Trump
For instance, the New York Times offers a remarkable glimpse into what’s driving this new offensive:
Mr. Trump has long been dismissive of Dr. Fauci in private, according to White House officials, taking note of the amount of time he spent on television and of when the doctor contradicted him during press briefings.
The attentive reader will note that this expressly concedes that Fauci’s conduct is being evaluated mainly through the prism of how it reflects on Trump. Fauci is spending too much time on TV and contradicted Trump about the virus.
But Fauci did this to inform the public about the pandemic in a way that Trump himself would not. The very fact that this cannot be seen as an independent good itself underscores Trump’s megalomaniacal preoccupation with his own image — and with manipulating public perceptions — at a time when large numbers are again getting sickened and dying at alarming rates.
Meanwhile, the Times also reports that White House officials leaked the old Fauci quotes to undermine the idea that the administration should follow his advice, with one official claiming that Trump’s opponents have “given outsize value to Dr. Fauci’s voice.”
Yet again, the only discernible prism employed here is how Fauci’s conduct reflects on Trump. Yes, there is a vast gap in how Fauci and Trump have publicly treated the coronavirus: Fauci has seen it as a far more serious matter, and has relied far more heavily on science and empiricism in doing so.
But Fauci is Trump’s own top health official! That’s what he’s supposed to be doing! That’s exactly why his public statements continue to get attention!
In a universe where only Trump’s reelection matters, and where the decision has been made that only maximal minimization of the virus can facilitate this, attention to Fauci can’t possibly reflect a desire for actual expert information about this ongoing public health emergency. It can be seen only as either good or bad for Trump — in this case bad.
Attacks on Fauci backfire on Trump
Even the effort to cast doubt on the substantive accuracy and judgment behind Fauci’s statements boomerangs on Trump. For instance, the document circulated to reporters highlights a Feb. 29 statement from Fauci that “at this moment, there is no need to change anything you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.”
But the document left out Fauci’s subsequent comment in that interview that “this could change” if we “start to see community spread,” requiring far more action, and that the coronavirus could become “a major outbreak.” That’s exactly what did happen, and it’s precisely what Trump denied for so long.
It’s insane that the White House is editing claims from Trump’s own top health official to create the deceptive impression that he has not actually been far more correct about the coronavirus than Trump has.
More to the point, Fauci admits he made mistakes early on. As The Post report details, he underestimated the virus’s spreadability and at first counseled against mask-wearing to preserve masks for health workers.
But if Fauci is now conceding that he, like many others, made early mistakes, and is trying to learn from them, why isn’t that a positive, particularly given that the virus is again surging across the country?
In drawing attention to all this, Trump’s advisers have reminded us that all these things — communicating with the public in good faith about an urgent matter; learning from new information even if it sheds unflattering light on earlier conduct; prioritizing public health over Trump’s perceived short-term political interests — are precisely what Trump himself will not do.