For instance, Jeff Sessions tried to get President Trump to stop raging at him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation as attorney general by arguing that following the law had resulted in Trump’s exoneration in the probe (which is nonsense, but it was a good try). But this didn’t calm Trump’s sense of betrayal. Now Sessions’s disloyalty has cost him the Alabama Senate primary.
Anthony S. Fauci is now trying something similar.
The new comments from Fauci, Trump’s top infectious-disease expert, came in an interview with the Atlantic. Fauci was asked to respond to the news that White House aides leaked campaign-style opposition research to reporters that purported to show Fauci making claims early on that turned out to be wrong.
Fauci pushed back, saying that if you looked at those comments in context, they didn’t actually turn out to be wrong. And it’s true that the White House misrepresented Fauci to exaggerate that impression.
Fauci was also asked about a recent meeting he had at the White House to clear the air after the controversy unleashed by those leaks:
THE ATLANTIC: You met Monday with Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff. What did you tell him?FAUCI: I said that that was not particularly a good thing to do. Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that. When the staff lets out something like that and the entire scientific and press community push back on it, it ultimately hurts the president. And I don’t really want to hurt the president. But that’s what’s happening. I told him I thought it was a big mistake. That doesn’t serve any good purpose for what we’re trying to do.
Note how Fauci is framing this to the White House. He isn’t merely suggesting it’s bad for the country when the White House undermines its own health experts’ efforts to combat the virus. He’s also pointing out that when the scientific community and the media pushed back on those claims, it created a public story that reflected badly on the president himself.
It’s worth reiterating why it’s bad for the White House to undermine its own experts. It risks undercutting public confidence in what those experts are saying, making it less likely that people will follow directives.
Of course, that’s a feature, not a bug: The administration did this for the precise purpose of undercutting public confidence in what Fauci is saying now about coronavirus. That’s because he is admitting the truth about our response, by saying things like this: “As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not.”
Fauci also recently suggested the United States could get to as many as 100,000 new cases a day. Obviously those things are at odds with Trump’s message: Trump has been falsely claiming we have the lowest mortality rate in the world, falsely claiming that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless,” and falsely claiming the virus will “disappear.”
It’s also at odds with Trump’s message about the economy, which is that we’re already vaulting back to greatness and that everyone should rush back to work and school immediately. It’s hard to sustain that illusion, and hard to bulldoze people into doing those things, when your top health expert is saying pandemic conditions are going to get much worse.
Jonathan Bernstein has a smart piece arguing that, in failing to lead on coronavirus, Trump is squandering some of the most valuable institutional assets the office bestows on an incumbent. These include the ability to command media attention while governing, which allows voters to see you operating in the country’s interests, and the ability to draw on an extraordinary range of neutral expertise — such as that of Fauci — which aligns you with that expertise and shows you demonstrating leadership and being effective.
Those assets could help Trump politically if he knew how to use them. Indeed, there is a debate underway inside the White House on this very point: Politico reports that some advisers are prodding Trump “to focus on combating the virus itself given its widespread impact on most people’s lives.”
In that sense, Fauci is right: It would be in Trump’s interests if the White House did the right thing on behalf of the country amid this public health emergency.
And yet, given the amount of mendacity and bad faith we’ve seen, it’s almost touching to see Fauci trying to persuade the White House of this — that telling the truth is in Trump’s best interests. It would seem pretty hopeless.