The rest of his testimony reinforced that Fauci isn’t exactly toeing anybody’s line. Over and over again, he differed with President Trump’s talking points that play down the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, and he even differed with decisions Trump has made.
Fauci didn’t come out and say “The president is wrong,” but he repeatedly offered a very different emphasis. In one particular instance, he roundly criticized a comparison Trump has trotted out repeatedly.
While Trump has throughout the coronavirus outbreak sought to minimize it by comparing it to the seasonal flu, Fauci noted the novel coronavirus is significantly more lethal.
“I mean, people always say, well, the flu does this, the flu does that,” Fauci said. “The flu has a mortality of 0.1 percent. This has a mortality rate of 10 times that. That’s the reason I want to emphasize we have to stay ahead of the game in preventing this."
Among the people who always compare the novel coronavirus to the influenza virus, Trump is first and foremost. From the very start, he has emphasized the flu is also deadly and suggested maybe coronavirus isn’t so bad by comparison. At one point, he even said incorrectly that the mortality rate for the flu is “much higher than” for coronavirus. Trump said two weeks ago, “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” He said the novel coronavirus was in some way “easier” to deal with than the flu. He even tweeted this week that we don’t shut things down over the flu and seemed to suggest that maybe we shouldn’t do so for this.
Fauci returned to the comparison at another point, noting that even when mortality rates are factored in, the problem with the novel coronavirus is in the number of people who could be afflicted. He again noted that the novel coronavirus “is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
At another point, he was asked whether the worst was yet to come. He said directly, “Yes, yes it is.” Trump has suggested the virus could suddenly miraculously disappear.
When just 15 cases had been recorded in the United States, Trump said the number could soon fall to zero and perhaps the virus wouldn’t spread. Fauci said, “If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up and be involved in many, many millions.”
Fauci was asked specifically about Trump’s hopeful statements that a vaccine could be ready in a matter of months. Though Fauci has repeatedly corrected the president by saying the real timetable is a year to 18 months, he was more direct Wednesday. “No,” he said when asked about whether Trump’s ideal timetable was feasible. “I made myself very clear in my opening statement.”
Another member asked him about Trump’s decision in 2018 to disband the White House’s global health security team and put its duties under the control of the national security adviser.
“I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a mistake,” Fauci said diplomatically. But then he added, “I would say we worked very well with that office. It would be nice if the office was still there."
One of the most significant tonal departures from Trump for Fauci, though, came on the question of whether the United States should be canceling large gatherings. As events nationwide have been canceled, Trump said he would press forward with holding rallies and said having people assemble in large crowds “doesn’t bother me at all, and it doesn’t bother them at all.” As noted in the tweet above, he also suggested on Monday that perhaps the economy needs us to pursue something amounting to business as usual.
Fauci, though, suggested events such as NBA games should not take place in packed arenas.
“We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” Fauci said. “If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it. But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds is something that would [cause] a risk to spread.”
Trump has been unhappy with Fauci’s public pronouncements before, as The Washington Post has reported. It’s unlikely he’ll be happy with what transpired Wednesday. But what Fauci said puts Trump in a box. Now when he trots out assertions such as the flu comparison, Fauci’s comments will be right there as a counterpoint from a true health expert. As Trump considers how much to press forward with rallies and to continue playing down coronavirus concerns, Fauci’s comments will loom over all of it.