President Trump and his advisers are a crackerjack bunch, so they’ve quickly figured out that it’s bad politics to be seen overtly undermining the nation’s top infectious-disease expert amid a pandemic that’s surging in part due to Trump’s own disastrous incompetence.

So they are working to create the impression in multiple ways that Trump and Anthony Fauci are in the process of patching things up, and are totally on the same team. Some news organizations are taking the bait, claiming that the White House is now approaching Fauci with a “change in tone.”

Don’t get snowed by this new scam.

What’s really going on here is a kind of two-step, a double game. Trump and his advisers want him to reap the political benefits of appearing to harbor general respect for Fauci’s expertise, while simultaneously continuing to undermine Fauci’s actual claims about the threat the novel coronavirus will continue to pose — because those claims badly undermine Trump’s reelection message.

The White House is frantically scrambling to undo the political damage Trump continues to sustain after unnamed aides leaked campaign-style opposition research designed to undermine public confidence in Fauci.

Making this worse, one of Trump’s most trusted advisers had posted a cartoon mocking Fauci on Facebook. And trade adviser Peter Navarro published a USA Today op-ed that blasted Fauci as “wrong about everything I have interacted with him on," a claim based on multiple distortions.

So the White House is now backtracking furiously. Vice President Pence’s office sent out a picture of him with Fauci, and Pence declared that Fauci is a “valued member of our team.” A White House spinner insists Trump “values the expertise” of his “medical professionals.”

And Trump himself is now chastising Navarro, claiming he “made a statement representing himself. He shouldn’t be doing that,” and asserting that "we’re all on the same team.”

But something fundamental is getting lost: the reason the White House is undermining Fauci in the first place.

Why they are attacking Fauci

Much of the coverage casts this story as a reflection of White House message indiscipline. In this telling, the problem is that good-faith internal disagreements are bursting into public view, so the White House is now working to contain external signs of those disagreements, to remind the public that everyone is working toward the same goal.

But they aren’t working toward the same goal. And that’s the truly pernicious rub of the matter here.

What’s really happening is that White House advisers — and Trump himself — are working to undermine public confidence in Fauci not because of anything he supposedly got wrong in the past, but because Fauci is painting an unvarnished picture of how bad the coronavirus will get in coming weeks and months.

And that undermines Trump’s reelection message, which is premised on some convoluted version of the idea that our only problem right now is a lack of will.

Despite spiking cases in many states, the coronavirus is on its way out, Trump suggests, 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 notable how Trump’s propagandists have picked up on this idea of a failure of will on America’s part:

All we have to fear is fear itself, you see.

In Trump’s telling, we’re already roaring back to greatness, and the only thing keeping this from happening a tiny bit faster is that people aren’t going back to work quite as quickly as they should and that people aren’t quite willing enough to shove their kids back into classrooms.

That is the storyline that Fauci is dramatically undermining. Fauci admits that “when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great.” He suggests the United States could soon climb to as many as 100,000 new cases per day.

And Fauci concedes that “we are in the middle of a setback,” that “states that are in trouble right now” must hit “pause,” and that we need a “reset.”

Undermining Fauci is really about undermining public confidence in these claims. This will continue; all that is changing is that Trump advisers see danger in making his utter indifference to what his experts are saying too obvious.

Getting real about the Trump-Fauci disagreement

The crux of the difference between Fauci and Trump isn’t a substantive disagreement about whether Fauci is actually right in making those predictions. In such a dispute, Trump would disagree in good faith with Fauci on what the data show about what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen in the future.

But there’s zero reason to think Trump actually believes what he’s saying when he makes various versions of the claim that the coronavirus is in the process of vanishing under the withering heat of his stupendous leadership.

Instead, Trump is lying, both about the data and about what he truly believes. The actual Trump position, though he can’t say it this way, is that we should reopen on the schedule he is insisting upon in spite of the fact that the coronavirus remains a dire threat — that is, in spite of the fact that many more people will get sick and even die if we do it his way.

This is why you will see this double game continue. Trump and his advisers will keep working to create the general impression that he respects the expertise of his health officials, while continuing to cast doubt on what those experts are actually saying about what the future holds, and how terribly dark it now looks.

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (The Washington Post)

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