On Tuesday, there was a new escalation. Obviously expecting Paul to challenge him, Fauci came prepared with an argument he hadn’t made previously: Paul was attacking him and putting his personal safety at risk for Paul’s own political benefit.
Fauci pointed out that a man had been arrested while on his way to Washington to attack a number of public officials, including himself.
“I ask myself, why would senator want to do this,” he continued, obviously flustered. “So, go to Rand Paul website, and you see ‘Fire Dr. Fauci,’ with a little box that says ‘Contribute here’ — you can do $5, $10, $20, $100 — so you are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain.”
Paul is a politician, so it is almost definitionally the case that even his most sincerely rooted actions have some political calculus involved. But it did make me wonder: Have Paul’s relentless feuds with Fauci born political benefits?
There are a few ways to look at this. One is by considering approval polling. Unfortunately, polling is expensive and state-level looks at senator approval infrequent. So let’s set that idea to the side.
Another is in search interest. Google has a tool that shows how often people seek out information on a person or subject, something that’s particularly useful in an industry (politics) where attention is often the coin of the realm. This allows us to see how much interest in Paul increased — or didn’t — during those weeks when he sparred with Fauci.
Below, a chart showing the answer to that question. Google’s Trends data are offered relative to the peak in search interest, which, in Paul’s case, came when he was one of the first people in the United States to contract covid-19. In the eight occasions I tracked during which he confronted Fauci in a hearing (indicated by a shaded column), there has been a spike in search interest about half the time.
I isolated the hearing in which Paul first introduced the idea that Fauci had approved “gain of function” research at a lab in Wuhan, China. This was an escalation of the feud — though it didn’t yield a surge in search interest for Paul.
Another metric we can consider is cable news chatter. The Internet Archive has a tool that collects closed-captioning information on the major networks. A search of that database shows that Paul’s feuds with Fauci do often translate into more discussion on TV. In the 10 weeks where Paul was mentioned the most on CNN or Fox News, five were when he was involved in a hearing where he fought with Fauci. (The biggest spikes for both CNN and MSNBC correspond to Paul’s push for a vote undercutting the post-Jan. 6 effort to impeach President Donald Trump.)
Then there’s the metric to which Fauci pointed. Weekly tallies of fundraising for three political committees affiliated with Paul show that his most lucrative week was the week of Feb. 21, 2021. Then, he was involved in a controversy centered on another doctor: Rachel Levine, a transgender woman who was being considered for a high-ranking position with the Department of Health and Human Services. (She was later confirmed.) Paul’s questions to Levine were criticized for being transphobic.
From that point on, Paul was seeing higher weekly totals than he had been. From early May on, though, the level of fundraising was consistently at or above $100,000 a week, with only one exception. That pattern began when he got into the “gain of function” fight with Fauci.
This is circumstantial. It’s clear that Paul is trying to generate contributions and attention from his fights with Fauci (the website to which Fauci referred is online, for example), but it’s not clear that this is central to Paul’s political efforts. Nor should one assume Paul’s confrontations are solely offered in bad faith. While Fauci has repeatedly pushed back on his line of questioning, it’s a line of questioning that our fact-checkers consider to be in a gray area.
To Fauci, it’s understandable why these consistent attacks from a U.S. senator would be a particularly important component of his personal experience. To Paul, it’s politics.