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Fauci and Birx signal deference to Trump on reopening the economy

President Trump on March 23 said the U.S. could both protect public health and not hurt the economy when asked when he would ending CDC coronavirus guidelines. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Trump over the past 36 hours has indicated he wants to begin reopening portions of the American economy, in hopes of mitigating the financial impact of the coronavirus, even as it continues to pose a potential health catastrophe. This has created tensions with health officials and governors who believe that stricter measures should remain in place to try to squelch the disease, as The Washington Post and others have reported.

Given that tension, critics have turned to Anthony S. Fauci as something of a beacon of hope. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has at times been strikingly honest about Trump’s handling of the matter and has made differences with Trump clear. If anyone on the White House coronavirus task force has reserves of credibility across partisan lines right now, it’s him.

Anthony S. Fauci is one of the leading experts of the coronavirus task force. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Fauci’s latest comments indicate he doesn’t see it as his job to convince Trump about how to balance the health crisis with the economic impacts. And the same goes for Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the coronavirus task force, if you take her comments at Monday’s task force briefing at face value.

Fauci, who didn’t appear Monday, spoke with a Washington-based radio program Tuesday morning. He acknowledged repeatedly that the internal discussions were “intense,” but he also made a point to say that it’s not his job to weigh the health risks against the financial impact.

“What the president is trying to do is to balance the public health issues with the fact that this is having an enormous impact on the economy of the country, which may actually indirectly even cause a considerable amount of harm and difficulty — even health-wise,” Fauci said. “So it’s a delicate balancing act which the president is trying to get right. And we’re under very intense discussions right now about what the most appropriate timeline is and, if we do modify it, how to modify it.”

Fauci was then asked if he was responsible for weighing both sides of the scale, and he was direct.

“No, I don’t consider the balancing act,” he said. “That is a very good question. The president has the awesome responsibility of considering every aspect of this. I just give public health advice completely clean, unconnected with anything else. He has to factor in other things. And that’s the way he operates. He takes advice from a number of people, from a number of different vantage points, and then he makes his decision.”

Birx offered similar comments Monday. When pressed about whether she agreed with Trump’s plan to reopen portions of the economy, she didn’t directly answer the question.

“What the president has asked us to do is to assemble all the data and get us — give him our best medical recommendation based on all the data. That’s what he’s asked us to do,” she said, adding: “So this is consistent with our mandate to really use every piece of information that we can in order to give the president our opinion that’s backed up by data — not our perception but our opinion that’s backed up by data.”

At another point, Birx suggested that certain areas of the country and certain age groups could indeed be treated differently than others as we move forward and get better data.

“I think right now we put everything into mitigation, yet if we geographically get specific data by Zip codes and counties, we’ll be able to approach this in a very laser-focused way, making sure that what we’re doing in each of those areas is absolutely appropriate for where they are in their own little bell-shaped curve,” Birx said.

To some extent, Birx and Fauci are saying what we would expect them to say. They are health officials whose expertise is in that arena — not the economy. And government officials generally recognize it’s their job to provide advice on the things they are tasked with rather than to stand in the way of the people who were elected to make such decisions. Nor can they come out and just say that what the president is proposing is wrong, even if that is what they truly believe. That’s a recipe for losing your seat at the table.

It’s this ethic of government officials that Trump critics regularly misunderstand — or they simply think should be shelved in times of crisis or great moral questions. They have regularly been disappointed on the latter count, though, investing plenty of wishful thinking in those around Trump who don’t wind up taking their drastic wished-for measures. Perhaps chief among them was special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose recommendations disappointed those who had proudly posted “Mueller Time” memes and who had convinced themselves that he was about to take down a president.

The public deference from Fauci and Birx may mask what is truly happening behind closed doors, and Fauci’s acknowledgment of the “intense” discussions seems to affirm reporting that there is real discord right now. In addition, the life-or-death stakes here are such that officials might logically go further than usual to try to stop Trump from following through on something their expertise tells them is truly dangerous. But it shouldn’t be entirely discounted, either.