“Look, Dr. Fauci said, ‘Don’t wear a mask.’ ”
— President Trump, in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, July 19, 2020
Over and over, the president has the same three complaints about Anthony S. Fauci, the renowned director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The three items of dispute all appeared in the Chris Wallace interview, but they have popped up in various interviews since April.
As one would expect, Trump’s memory is faulty. Here’s a guide to his gripes.
‘Dr. Fauci at the beginning said, “This will pass.” ’
Trump often projects his insecurities, and one of his biggest political problems now is that many Americans believe he did not take the emergence of the coronavirus seriously. For weeks in January, February and half of March, Trump played down the threat of the new virus, insisting it would disappear on its own.
Fauci never said anything like “This will pass.” He spoke as a scientist, evaluating the data in front of him. From the start, he warned of the need to be vigilant.
On Jan. 20, Fauci told CNN: “It really is an evolving situation, and we have to be prepared for the worst. I mean, I don’t think there is cause for panic on anyone’s part, but we certainly need to be following it and watching this very carefully.” A month later, on Feb. 22, he also told CNN, “If this evolves into a pandemic, there’s no way we in the United States are going to escape having more infections in this country.”
On Feb. 29, on the “Today” show, Fauci was asked whether daily routines should be changed. “Right now, at this moment, there’s no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis. Right now the risk is still low, but this could change,” he responded. “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.”
He added: “I mean, this could be a major outbreak. I hope not. Or it could be something that’s reasonably well controlled.”
Later that same day at a news conference, Fauci noted: “When you have cases throughout the world, the way we’re seeing now — South Korea, Italy, Iran and places like that — the United States cannot be completely immune to that. The challenge is how we deal with it.”
In May, as Trump pressed states to reopen faster, Fauci warned of “needless suffering and death” if states failed to stick to federal guidelines. “If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines … then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country,” Fauci said. “This will not only result in needless suffering and death but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”
In other words, Fauci never said “Don’t worry about it.” That was Trump himself:
- Feb. 10: “Now, the virus that we're talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April.”
- Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
- July 1: “I think we are going to be very good with the coronavirus. I think that, at some point, that’s going to sort of just disappear.”
‘Dr. Fauci told me not to ban China’
Here, Trump takes a little factoid and spins it into a mistruth. We’re not sure exactly what Fauci might have said to Trump, but he did initially express public skepticism about the effectiveness of travel restrictions. “That would create a lot of disruption economically and otherwise and it wouldn’t necessarily have a positive effect,” Fauci told S&P Global Market Intelligence in a report published Jan. 24.
On Jan. 31, Trump announced that, effective Feb. 2, non-U.S. citizens were barred from traveling from China, but there were 11 exceptions. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens and permanent residents could still travel from China but were subject to screening and a possible 14-day quarantine. Trump’s action did not take place in a vacuum. Many airlines were canceling flights, and by our count, at least 38 countries took similar action before or at the same time the U.S. restrictions were put in place.
But by the time of the announcement, Fauci was a supporter of the idea. “These were the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS,” Health Secretary Alex Azar said shortly after the announcement. (The National Institutes of Health is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.)
The New York Times reported that officials at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security initially pressed for travel restrictions. Once the public health officials, including Fauci, agreed to the idea on Jan. 30, the plan was brought to Trump in an Oval Office meeting: “Trump was skeptical, though he would later claim that everyone around him had been against the idea. The two countries were in delicate trade negotiations. Was this the time to provoke China? he asked. And what about the consequences on the economy?”
Fauci publicly supported the travel restrictions — and similar action against many countries in Europe — though contrary to Trump’s claim, he offered no calculation on how many lives were saved.
In any case, it may have been too late.
The New York Times calculated that at least 430,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China since Jan. 1, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after Trump imposed restrictions. Screening was haphazard and inconsistent, according to the Associated Press: “When U.S. residents flying from mainland China arrived at U.S. airports, the system meant to flag and monitor them for the development of symptoms lost track of at least 1,600 people in just the first few days the ban went into effect, according to an internal state government email obtained by the AP.”
Meanwhile, a Washington Post examination found that Trump’s abrupt decision to announce European travel restrictions led to one final viral infusion before the United States was forced to shut down, as thousands of Americans rushed to come home and were stuck for hours in crowded airport terminals.
‘Dr. Fauci said, “Don’t wear a mask.” ’
Fauci did say this, as did other health experts in the U.S. government. He says he was motivated by early fears that N95 masks needed by hospital workers would quickly run out of stock. Once science indicated that the virus was spread by people who were asymptomatic, the guidance was updated, because even fabric masks can help halt the spread if everyone wears them.
“I don’t regret anything I said then because in the context of the time in which I said it, it was correct. We were told in our task force meetings that we have a serious problem with the lack of PPEs [personal protective equipment] and masks for the health providers who are putting themselves in harm’s way every day to take care of sick people,” he said in an interview with InStyle magazine.
“When it became clear that the infection could be spread by asymptomatic carriers who don’t know they’re infected, that made it very clear that we had to strongly recommend masks,” he said. “In the context of when we were not strongly recommending it, it was the correct thing. But our knowledge changed and our realization of the state of the outbreak changed.”
Here again, Trump appears to be projecting.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance on wearing masks on April 3. At the time of the announcement, Trump announced he would not be wearing a mask, stressing that the guidance was voluntary. For weeks, Trump suggested that people who wore masks were making a political statement against him. The Trump campaign even ran Facebook ads mocking former vice president Joe Biden for wearing a mask, complete with an image of a Chinese flag behind him. Trump at one point dismissed a reporter as being “politically correct” for wearing a mask.
Only on July 20, more than three months after the announcement, did Trump suggest that wearing a mask could be seen as patriotic.
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