It’s useful at the moment for Cawthorn to be in the news for something other than questions about his involvement in the events of Jan. 6. A vague report from Rolling Stone suggesting that Cawthorn or his staff were involved in planning rallies on that day (clearly true at least in that Cawthorn spoke at one) prompted the Raleigh News & Observer editorial board to summarize Cawthorn’s Hill career in unflattering terms. But Cawthorn’s blitzkrieg attack on Fauci was more about trying to leverage a strain of sentiment popular on the right, one that holds Fauci, not former president Donald Trump, as primarily responsible for the country’s failures on the pandemic.
Only a few weeks after the virus first emerged last year, the political battle lines were drawn. Trump stood alongside Fauci and his administration’s coronavirus coordinator, Deborah Birx, as the White House recommended that Americans curtail most social and economic activity to slow the virus’s spread in March 2020. But Trump quickly backed off that plan, worried that the economic slowdown would harm his reelection chances. As Fauci pressed forward with pessimistic (though ultimately validated) projections of what was to come, Trump and his allies tried to cast the doctor as unnecessarily critical. Fauci became Trump’s scapegoat and, once positioned as an opponent of the president, became a point of focus for a wide range of accusations meant to tear him down in any way possible.
Cawthorn’s speech summarized a few. The right, echoing Trump, has long shifted blame for the scale of the pandemic in the United States away from Trump by suggesting that it was China that was really to blame. At first, this was framed as a function of China’s failure to contain it. Quickly, though, it became an allegation that the virus leaked from a lab in the country — and that became intertwined with allegations that funding from the government agency Fauci runs was perhaps used to create the virus that then leaked. (Our fact-checkers have been over these claims.) In recent weeks, the idea that Fauci also funded research that involved abusing puppies has gained traction on the right, a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of medical research that’s being used not in opposition to animal testing but, instead, as an ad hominem attack on the doctor.
That’s largely the point. The more blame that can be heaped on Fauci in general, the more he becomes a reviled figure — and the more Trump shines in contrast. We’ve seen this over and over, with various critics of Trump’s being similarly layered with dubious, shaky or false allegations in order to protect the former president. In the case of Fauci, the goal is a bit broader. Blame Fauci for dishonesty and accuse him of being amoral and it recasts the Trump-versus-Fauci debate over the response to the pandemic. Given that Trump has an eye on 2024 and that his pandemic response was likely a significant contributing factor to his 2020 loss, this is not simply an academic exercise.
Avoiding blame has become trickier as former White House officials have spoken about the administration’s actions last year. The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond reported on Tuesday that Birx, in testimony before a congressional committee, saw Trump’s response to the pandemic as having significantly increased the pandemic’s death toll. Asked if Trump did everything he could to limit the damage caused by the pandemic, Birx replied flatly: “No.”
One good indicator of Trump’s failure was his decision in August 2020 to bring Scott Atlas, a radiologist, into the White House to work on the coronavirus response. He’d seen Atlas on Fox News, where the doctor promoted the idea that letting the virus spread widely while protecting those vulnerable would mean that economic restrictions would be unnecessary. Music to Trump’s ears, so Atlas came to Washington.
Birx was specifically critical of Atlas’s approach, according to Diamond’s reporting. So Fox News reached out to Atlas, allowing him to respond. He told Fox that Birx’s reported claim that “he advised Trump to ‘let the infection spread widely without mitigation to achieve herd immunity’ ” was false. Instead, he said, he “explicitly called for specific mitigations” and advocated for “heightened protection of those at risk, to allow a safe opening and end the public health destruction from lockdowns.”
You’ll notice the work that “without mitigation” is doing in his response. Atlas repeatedly argued that the virus should be allowed to spread with limited intervention among low-risk populations while high-risk populations were protected. In an interview conducted in October 2020, Atlas denied endorsing “herd immunity” even as he argued for encouraging “population immunity” by protecting those at most risk, preventing hospital overcrowding and reopening businesses and schools. The distinction between that tripartite approach and allowing the virus to spread without any control is subtle. The administration’s efforts to protect the vulnerable were also of limited effectiveness.
Birx’s testimony also made another charge: that Trump turned his attention away from the pandemic and toward his false claims of voter fraud after he lost the election — and as cases were surging. This mirrors documents obtained by congressional investigators last month that showed how staffers ostensibly assigned to combat the pandemic were instead tasked with election-related work.
It’s indisputable that Trump spent more energy on his futile election fight than the rampaging pandemic one. He himself made that obvious. What’s more nebulous is how his approach to the pandemic — downplaying it, shrugging at preventive measures, embracing Atlas’s approach, failing to robustly promote vaccination — might have had lingering effects on the country’s response.
He doesn’t want to talk about that, nor do his allies. Instead, they want to recenter the discussion elsewhere. Cawthorn vilifying Fauci; Atlas suggesting that Birx wanted to “blame others for the failure of her policies.” Part of this is about self-preservation. Most of it, though, is about defending their political team and its captain, Donald Trump.