The knives are out for Anthony S. Fauci inside the White House. Not only has Fauci found himself frozen out by President Trump in recent weeks, as The Washington Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey and Laurie McGinley reported this weekend, but aides are circulating talking points attacking his past statements about the coronavirus pandemic.
The White House’s case against Fauci is most remarkable when you consider what it’s attacking him for: not being dire enough about the coronavirus — even as the president continues to play down the outbreak’s severity. At one point, Trump predicted a death toll less than half of what we’ve already seen; he played up a drug as a “game-changer” that has proved anything but; and over the weekend he reversed himself on masks after recently suggesting that they might actually be harmful. Trump said all of these things long after health officials were saying much the opposite. If aides are looking for people who got it wrong, they might want to start at the top.
It’s one thing to cast stones from a glass house, but that doesn’t mean others are necessarily without fault. So do the attacks on Fauci hold water?
Below, we look at the Fauci quotes highlighted in the White House document, comparing them to 1) what was known at the time, 2) what the White House omitted from his comments and 3) what Trump has said.
It’s important to emphasize that the White House has repeatedly declined to say who is responsible for these talking points, but White House economic adviser Peter Navarro this weekend echoed some of the points included.
The White House’s talking points below are in bold. Analysis and fact-checking from The Fix are in plain text.
NOT A MAJOR THREAT
- Newsmax in early January: “Bottom line, we don’t have to worry about this one, right?”
- Fauci: Well, you know, obviously we need to take it seriously and do the kinds of things that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the Department of Homeland Security are doing. But this is not a major threat for the people in the U.S., and this is not something that the citizens of the U.S. right now should be worried about.”
Even the quote as relayed in these talking points includes caveats. Although Fauci said people shouldn’t be worried, he also qualified that with “right now” and said “obviously we need to take it seriously."
Also note the nonspecific date. It says the interview occurred in early January. That’s not true, because the interview was conducted on Jan. 21 — a notable flub in a memo that purports to be concerned about accuracy. But even considering that later date, this was the date on which we first learned that the coronavirus had made its way to American shores.
Relatively little was known about the virus at that point, in large part because — as Trump will remind you — China wasn’t exactly forthcoming with information. Saying this was “not a major threat” to Americans was perhaps more understandable when we knew little about how the virus spreads.
Fauci was asked in a similar question in a Jan. 26 interview. When asked whether people should be scared, he said, “I don’t think so. The American people should not be worried or frightened by this. It’s a very, very low risk to the United States, but it’s something we, as public health officials, need to take very seriously."
Again, Fauci says this should be taken “seriously” — even “very seriously” — while indicating that people shouldn’t yet be overly concerned. You could say Fauci might have allowed for more potential danger. But it’s also worth noting that nearly two months after his Newsmax interview, Trump was still saying, “It’s going to go away” (March 12), “I doubt we’ll need anywhere near” 5 million tests (March 13) and that the virus was “something that we have tremendous control over” (March 15). That was decidedly not what officials like Fauci were saying at that point.
NO ASYMPTOMATIC SPREAD
- Fauci on Jan. 28: “Even if there’s a rare asymptomatic person that might transmit, an epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.”
This quote lops off a very important part of what Fauci said. Immediately before the above quote, he said: “But the one thing historically that people need to realize [is] that even if there [is] some asymptomatic transmission, in all the history of respiratory-borne viruses of any type, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks. The driver of outbreaks is always a symptomatic person."
In other words, Fauci was talking about what was known about previous outbreaks, not necessarily weighing in specifically on this novel coronavirus — which, again, we knew very little about because of China.
Even in those comments, Fauci prefaced this by saying “we would really like to see the data” from China, which had said there was asymptomatic transmission but wasn’t cooperating with American scientists.
Fauci offered similar comments to The Post’s Joel Achenbach around this time.
“We really need to know what is the scientific basis of saying the virus is spread by someone who doesn’t have any symptoms,” Fauci said. “That was a major potential game-changer that gets spoken to us in a press briefing. We should have seen the data.”
Even if you accept, again, that Fauci was not warning people strongly enough, there continues to be strong debate about whether a major driver is indeed asymptomatic transmission (people who never have symptoms passing it along) or pre-symptomatic transmission (people who haven’t yet had symptoms passing it along).
A World Health Organization official recently got in hot water for saying that asymptomatic transmission was “very rare," when in fact she seemed to be differentiating that from pre-symptomatic transmission. As The Post reported then:
While asymptomatic transmission does occur, no one knows for sure how frequently it happens. Studies and models have suggested many of those infected never show symptoms. And it remains an open question whether they are a large force driving transmission.
So even if Fauci was talking about this specific outbreak, it was still very early, we didn’t know much and we still don’t know how wrong he allegedly was, because it’s not totally clear how much of a driver asymptomatic transmission is.
DON’T CHANGE YOUR LIFE
- NBC’s Peter Alexander: “It’s Saturday morning in America, people are waking up right now with real concerns about this; they want to go to malls, and movies, maybe the gym, as well. Should we be changing our habits, and if so, how?
- Fauci on Feb. 29: No. Right now at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.
Yet again, the White House is lopping off a vital portion of Fauci’s comments. In the very next sentence, he went on, “Right now the risk is still low, but this could change. ... You’ve got to watch out because although the risk is low now, you don’t need to change anything you’re doing, when you start to see community spread, this could change and force you to become much more attentive to doing things that would protect you from spread.”
Fauci was stating what was then the administration-wide line at that point, with huge caveats. The administration wouldn’t announce strict measures until March 16.
We’ve since learned that, even just before these comments from Fauci, health officials privately decided that tougher countermeasures were needed, and they prepared to bring them to Trump. But then Trump blew up after a CDC official, Nancy Messonnier, said publicly on Feb. 25 that the spread of the virus was “inevitable" and that people would see “significant disruption in our lives." After that, the officials reportedly backed off on bringing him the recommendations.
It’s not clear precisely what Fauci was saying privately at that point, but it’s also evident that the president wasn’t terribly interested in people like Fauci echoing Messonnier’s message. And Fauci was saying something that pretty much everyone else was.
MINUSCULE COMPARED TO FLU
- USA Today on Feb. 17: “Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is “just minuscule.” But he does want them to take precautions against the “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”
- Q. “Is the seasonal flu a bigger concern?”
- Fauci: “So right now, at the same time people are worrying about going to a Chinese restaurant, the threat is that what we have in this country, we’re having a pretty bad influenza season, particularly dangerous for our children.”
Again, Fauci couches this with “right now.” On Feb. 17, we had seen only about a dozen confirmed coronavirus cases total, compared to what was indeed a bad flu season. And in the weeks to follow, as the outbreak gradually grew, Fauci would be out front in shunning flu comparisons.
At a March 11 congressional hearing, he said, “I mean, people always say, ‘Well, the flu does this, the flu does that.’ 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 those who made the kind of flu comparisons Fauci was rebuking? Trump. Many people around the time of Fauci’s initial comments were saying the flu was a bigger problem, because exponentially more people had the flu. Health officials gradually changed their tune as the outbreak grew, but Trump held out significantly longer. Even as late as late March — two weeks after Fauci’s testimony rebuking the flu comparisons — Trump was still comparing the coronavirus to the flu.
- Fauci on CBS, March 8: Right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks. … When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And, often, there are unintended consequences — people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.
The masks issue is one on which there has been plenty of criticism of health officials, and understandably so. They discouraged their use early, and now they’re just about unanimously saying how vital they are. Even Fauci has recently admitted that a significant reason they were discouraged was because there was concern that we wouldn’t have enough for the people who needed them most: medical professionals.
Fauci has maintained that, despite that, people weren’t deliberately misled. “Actually, the circumstances have changed,” he said. “That’s the reason why.”
Indeed, when Fauci made these comments, the World Health Organization’s guidance was that only people caring for those who had contracted the virus needed to wear masks.
Should health officials have recognized the efficacy of masks earlier? Perhaps. But Fauci wasn’t out on a limb here. And in fact, if you look at his comments, he was merely saying they didn’t provide “perfect protection.” If he had told people that masks work but that they should leave them for health officials, would people have listened? Or would they have bought up the masks and created an even bigger problem?
One thing that’s also relevant here: The White House is criticizing Fauci for a quote in which he warned that masks might lead people to be “fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.” But long after health officials concluded almost unanimously that masks were a good idea, someone was still trotting out that argument: Trump.
“Masks are a double-edged sword,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in late June. “People touch them. And they grab them and I see it all the time. They come in, they take the mask. Now they’re holding it now in their fingers. And they drop it on the desk and then they touch their eye and they touch their nose. No, I think a mask is a — it’s a double-edged sword.”
So if this kind of comment is so bad, why was Trump still saying it just a few weeks ago?
FLIP-FLOPPED ON CURE CAN’T BE WORSE THAN DISEASE
- Fauci in April: I know it’s difficult. We’re having a lot of suffering and a lot of death. This is inconvenient from an economic and a personal standpoint, but we just have to do it.
- Fauci in May: “We can’t stay locked down for such a considerable period of time that you might do irreparable damage and have unintended consequences, including consequences for health. And it’s for that reason why the guidelines are being put forth so that the states and the cities can start to reenter and reopen.”
It’s not clear where the implied contradiction is here. Fauci has conceded repeatedly that economic and other impacts need to be measured against the threat of the virus — and that his job is merely to provide health advice.
Even before his comment in April, here’s what he said in late March: “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."
He added: “No, I don’t consider the balancing act. … 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.”
Saying “we have to do it” doesn’t equal “we have to shut everything down and leave it shut down indefinitely.” And indeed, Fauci has been pretty consistent about that.
Achenbach and McGinley contributed to this report.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.
Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
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