But for rash, foolish irresponsibility, I’d nominate the opposition research paper recently circulated by the White House in an attempt to discredit the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Anthony S. Fauci. As reported by The Post, the document recounted a number of instances — on community transmission, asymptomatic transmission and mask wearing in particular — where Fauci’s views have shifted over time. As far as I know, this official record is unique: A White House attack on the government’s leading infectious-disease specialist during a raging pandemic. It indicates an administration so far gone in rage, bitterness and paranoia that it can no longer be trusted to preserve American lives.
From a purely political standpoint, it is understandable that the administration would want to divert attention from its covid-19 record. Trump’s policy of reopening at any cost is exacting a mounting cost. Five months into the greatest health crisis of modern U.S. history, there are still serious problems with supply chains for protective equipment. There are still long wait times for testing results in many places. The contact tracing process in many communities remains (as one health expert described it to me) “a joke.” More than 132,000 Americans have died.
Rather than addressing these failures, Trump has chosen to sabotage a public official who admits their existence. Rather than confronting these problems, Trump wants to ensure his whole administration lies about them in unison. The president has surveyed America’s massive spike in new infections and thinks the most urgent matter is . . . message discipline.
It is true that a number of Fauci’s views on the novel coronavirus have evolved (though some of the administration’s charges against him are distorted). But attacking a scientist for making such shifts is to willfully misunderstand the role of science in the fight against disease. We do not trust public health officials during an emerging pandemic because they have fully formed scientific views from the beginning. We trust them because 1) they are making judgments based on the best available information and 2) they have no other motive than the health of the public. If, say, health officials were initially mistaken about the possibility of asymptomatic transmission, it is not failure when they change their views according to better data. It is the nature of the scientific method and the definition of their duty.
In the inch-deep world of politics, amending your view based on new information is a flip-flop. In epidemiology, it is known as, well, epidemiology.
Meanwhile, the president is failing according to both requirements of public trust. Trump is not making judgments based on the best available information. And he clearly has political goals that compete with (and often override) his commitment to public health. The president is hoping against hope that the public will forget about the virus until November, or at least about the federal role in fighting it. To apply a veneer of normalcy, he is holding public events that endanger his staff and his audience and is planning a Republican convention that will double as a petri dish.
It now seems likely that the most decisive moment of the American pandemic took place in mid-April when new cases began to stabilize around 25,000 a day. Even four or six more weeks of firm presidential leadership — urging the tough, sacrificial application of stay-at-home orders — might have reduced the burden of disease to more sustainable levels, as happened in Western Europe. And this would have relieved stress on systems of testing, tracing and treatment.
But Trump’s nerve failed him. Instead of holding firm, he began siding with populist demands for immediate opening, pressuring governors to take precipitous steps and encouraging skepticism about basic public health information and measures. This may well have been the defining moment of the Trump presidency. And he was weak, weak, weak.
It is typical for Trump to shift blame. But in this case, the president has selected his fall guy poorly. Fauci has been an example of conscience and courage in an administration that values neither. When Trump encourages a contrast to his own selfishness and cravenness, he only damages himself.