A week and a half earlier, a conservative radio host asked Fauci a leading question about the media allegedly trying to drive a wedge between him and Trump. Fauci responded, “I would wish that would stop because we have a much bigger problem here than trying to point out differences. They’re really fundamentally ... not differences.”
Over the weekend, any illusions about a lack of tension between Trump and Fauci were put to rest.
In a Sunday morning interview on CNN, Fauci seemed to confirm reporting that he and his fellow health officials had recommended social-distancing guidelines a month before Trump announced the guidance. “We make a recommendation,” Fauci said. “Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it’s not.”
Then, on Sunday night, Trump lodged his most direct criticism of Fauci to date, retweeting a call to “#FireFauci” that wrongly accused the globally renowned epidemiologist of saying in late February that there was nothing to worry about from the coronavirus.
As is often noted, retweets aren’t necessarily endorsements, and Trump seemed to be more interested in knocking down the New York Times report about health officials’ unheeded recommendations than in suggesting Fauci should actually be fired. And that’s what the White House emphasized Monday afternoon, saying, “This media chatter is ridiculous; President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci. The president’s tweet clearly exposed media attempts to maliciously push a falsehood about his China decision in an attempt to rewrite history,”
But the decision to share a tweet with such an anti-Fauci spin wasn’t something conjured from thin air by the media, and it can’t just be dismissed, either.
The point is, however explicit the tensions are, they have clearly been there for weeks — despite efforts to downplay them by the two men and allegations of media overhype. This was a clash bound to happen sooner or later, and now it seems to be spilling out into the open.
Fauci’s first big contradictions of Trump came during congressional testimony on March 11. At the time, Trump was still fond of comparing the virus to the seasonal flu, but Fauci rejected that comparison. He repeated his disagreement with Trump’s more optimistic timeline for a vaccine. And he said of a White House office devoted to pandemic response that Trump had disbanded: “It would be nice if the office was still there.”
In an interview with the New York Times published on March 21, Fauci admitted to columnist Maureen Dowd that he has had to contradict Trump on certain things to do his job.
“I’ve been telling the president things he doesn’t want to hear. I have publicly had to say something different with what he states,” Fauci said. “It’s a risky business. But that’s my style. ... I say it the way it is, and if he’s gonna get p---ed off, he’s gonna get p---ed off. Thankfully, he is not. Interestingly.”
The next day, Fauci spoke to Science magazine’s Jon Cohen and joked, “To my knowledge, I haven’t been fired.” He then proceeded to note that Trump’s commentary on the virus could lead to a “misunderstanding about what the facts are about a given subject.” Fauci added that he had advised against holding in-person briefings even as they had continued and said, “I cannot do the impossible.” He was also asked about Trump saying untrue things in those briefings and said, “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real: What do you want me to do?”
Then came a CNN interview on April 2. Trump had in the days before declined to ask all states to issue stay-at-home orders, suggesting they may not be necessary in less hard-hit areas, but Fauci offered different advice. Asked about putting in place a nationwide stay-at-home policy, he said, “I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that. We really should be.” He added, “I don’t understand why that’s not happening.”
Once Fauci returned to the briefings, he again sought to downplay his differences with Trump. He said that while certain states hadn’t issued full stay-at-home orders, the policies they had implemented were similar in practice.
But despite the cleanup effort, as has often been the case, his advice and what Trump was saying were unmistakably contradictory. Fauci is a government official who has served in six administrations. He knows that coming out full-throatedly against the boss is a recipe for losing your seat at the table. What you do in those instances is continue to say things you think are important for course corrections while trying to mitigate any narratives about a rift.
Trump, too, has had to navigate the politics of an uneasy relationship. Despite the efforts of some in the conservative media to undercut Fauci, his fellow health officials and he remain the voices of credibility in this situation. Having him onstage implicitly vouching for Trump and saying approving things about the president’s China travel ban, for instance, is politically advantageous for Trump. Actually firing Fauci or losing him as a character witness would carry all sorts of peril for Trump, which he has to know.
All of that said, we’ve seen over and over again walking these fine lines with Trump is difficult to sustain. Perhaps we’re reaching a moment in which Fauci can’t continue to put a good face on what has been happening at the highest level of the federal government — or at least as good a face as the notoriously ego-driven Trump would like.
It’s also important to note that this could be part of The Trump Show. Trump likes to do stuff like this to keep the people around him on their toes — to keep them in line in the belief that their job or their influence over him depends on them reining it in. Even if that’s the case, it shows there is a real tension here.
Noting that tension isn’t just palace intrigue or needless gossip. When health officials say things that indicate our elected leaders aren’t heeding their advice or aren’t discharging their duties appropriately, it would be a disservice to pretend there’s no tension because we’re in the midst of a pandemic. In those situations, people need to make decisions about who has credibility to handle the situation.
When it comes to that credibility, it’s worth noting that Trump’s retweeted allegation about Fauci is bogus. In fact, on Feb. 29, Fauci didn’t say we had nothing to worry about from the coronavirus. He said people didn’t yet need to change their lifestyle, but even that day, he was warning about a spread of the virus like we were seeing at the time in countries such as Italy and South Korea. He could be criticized for saying people didn’t need to change what they were doing, but that was the company line at the time — no matter how much he disagreed with it privately.
That Trump would tweet an incorrect allegation isn’t surprising, but it does say something about where we are — and perhaps about who is deserving of credibility right now.
This post has been updated with the White House’s comment.