The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fauci’s refusal to quit shouldn’t surprise anyone

Anthony Fauci on Sept. 23 in Washington. (Pool/Reuters)
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Forget asking why Anthony S. Fauci hasn’t been fired. Why hasn’t he quit?

President Trump has called his top infectious-disease expert a “disaster,” just sentences after implying he is also an “idiot.” He has trashed the doctor’s decisions on a campaign call, not long after twisting Fauci’s words into praise in an advertisement. And on top of all that, he has smeared the man responsible for shepherding the country toward a vaccine with this supposedly grievous insult: “Tony threw out perhaps the worst first pitch in the history of Baseball!”

Meanwhile, the coronavirus task force is buckling under the crush of junk medicine. The White House has lost what scant interest it ever had in listening to the experts — and for whatever reason, the experts are staying in the room anyway.

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Yet Fauci’s stubborn refusal to turn in his stethoscope and resign his post on the force shouldn’t surprise anyone. Giving up would surrender the point he has spent the past half-century trying to prove.

Maybe Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, minded when Trump tagged him for counseling against widespread mask-wearing back in the spring. Maybe he squirmed when Trump aide Peter Navarro penned a nasty op-ed in USA Today. Mostly, though, he did his duty. When Fauci took to television to correct the record, he was stern and gentle at the same time — with the air of a tired parent who won’t allow a small child to tempt him into acting anything less than his age.

What did rattle the doctor was his inclusion in that reelection advertisement. The spot twists a months-old compliment to himself and his medical colleagues into a paean to the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and it does so by taking Fauci’s words, as he put it, “completely out of context.” This irked Fauci enough that he asked the Trump campaign take the ad down, which it hasn’t. And it led him to tell “60 Minutes” that smoke was indeed, “quite frankly,” coming out of his ears: “I got really ticked off.”

The problem? Fauci has not endorsed a candidate in his 52-year career, and he is not endorsing a candidate now. “And here I am,” he said, sounding shocked, “they’re sticking me right in the middle of a campaign ad.” Any assault on his reputation as a good scientist pales in comparison to assaults on his reputation as apolitical. That’s because Fauci believes the two go hand in hand.

Cultivating an image as the least partisan person in Washington has long been a Fauci obsession. It’s also the secret to his success — the treatment that has endeared him to leader after leader over so many administrations. The way to protect science from its nearly inevitable entanglement with politics is to insist the two aren’t tangled up at all, so nobody can accuse you ever of fighting for anything but the facts. You become more credible, and the officials who affiliate themselves with you become more credible, too, which gives them an incentive to keep you around. And those who don’t keep you around become less credible in turn.

This trick has made Fauci bulletproof. But in Trump’s telling, it’s the guy in the white coat who’s dangerous. “Every time he goes on television there’s always a bomb,” the president complained early this week. “But there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.” Try as Trump might to reduce the value of independent science to rubble, he’s afraid of becoming a casualty.

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So why would Fauci quit, when quitting would do Trump’s work for him?

Fauci doesn’t need to stick around on the White House task force to continue his real work and calling: developing a vaccine. He can do that as long as he stays on as director of NIAID, a role from which Trump can’t easily remove him. He doesn’t need to stick around on the task force to add a measure of sense to what has turned into a cesspool of debunkable theories and hokum about herd immunity. No one is paying attention.

He needs to stick around because by walking away he would admit defeat.

Fauci has been saying for more than five decades that science is science no matter the year, no matter the crisis and no matter the party next to the president’s name on the ballot. And he has also been saying that it is possible for a scientist to insulate himself from having ever to think about parties in the first place. Retreating today in response to political attacks would concede that science is politics after all — or worse, that politics can prevail over science in the end.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Of course we’re tired of the coronavirus, Mr. President. Wishful thinking won’t make it go away.

Tom Frieden: A half-million more people could die if America pursues a ‘herd immunity’ plan

Eugene Robinson: Trump isn’t even trying to slow the virus’s spread

Leana Wen: I thought Trump couldn’t handle the virus any worse than he already had. I was wrong.

Lindsey J. Leininger and Harold Pollack: We’re public health experts. We need to do a better job of talking to conservatives.