As novel coronavirus cases surge out of control coast to coast, the open rancor between the scientific community and a White House determined above all to resuscitate the economy and secure a second term for Trump threatens to further undermine the U.S. response, which already lags behind those of many other developed nations.
A chorus of voices — including Fauci; Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and even Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff during the start of the pandemic — has been speaking out publicly and with increasing urgency about the crisis in ways that contradict or undermine Trump. Some of them have sharply criticized testing capacities and efficiencies, suggested that everyone wear masks and warned of the virus spread worsening.
Though Trump does not automatically distrust the expertise of public health officials, he is averse to any information or assessment that he considers “bad news,” that compromises his economic cheerleading message or that jeopardizes his reelection, according to several administration officials and other people with knowledge of the dynamic.
In addition to Fauci, the White House has repeatedly undermined and sidelined the CDC over the last several months, which prompted four former CDC directors to pen an op-ed in The Washington Post this week that argued no president had politicized the CDC to the extent that Trump has.
The result has been open warfare from some hard-line Trump loyalists seeking to discredit Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is shown by polls to be regarded as a truth-teller by a majority of Americans.
Two of the White House officials with the closest and longest-standing ties to Trump, deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino and trade adviser Peter Navarro, attacked Fauci this past week. Navarro penned an op-ed in USA Today in which he stated that Fauci was “wrong about everything,” while Scavino shared a cartoon on social media mocking Fauci as “Dr. Faucet,” drowning Uncle Sam with a deluge of “extra cold” water.
Their critiques were echoed by one of Trump’s outside economic advisers, Stephen Moore, and come after the White House anonymously shared last week with The Post a lengthy, researched list of comments Fauci has made intended to support Trump’s earlier claim that “he’s made a lot of mistakes.” The list was reminiscent of research that campaign operatives distribute to reporters about their political opponents.
Trump sought to distance himself from those efforts and insisted he has a good relationship with Fauci, despite the fact that Fauci no longer briefs the president on the pandemic and is rarely if ever in the Oval Office anymore. Trump told advisers to tamp down their criticism of Fauci because he believed it was politically harmful to him, aides said, and in a show of solidarity Vice President Pence tweeted a photograph of him meeting with Fauci in the Situation Room.
Fauci said the push to discredit him was “bizarre,” telling the Atlantic, “If you talk to reasonable people in the White House, they realize that was a major mistake on their part, because it doesn’t do anything but reflect poorly on them.”
The interpersonal strife and the deliberate push by some inside the White House to protect Trump by sowing distrust of scientists is hampering the nation’s efforts to combat the virus, according to public health experts.
“It seems that some are more intent on fighting imagined enemies than the real enemy here, which is the virus,” said Thomas R. Frieden, a former CDC director and president of Resolve to Save Lives.
“The virus doesn’t read talking points,” Frieden said. “The virus doesn’t watch news shows. The virus just waits for us to make mistakes. And when we make mistakes, as Texas and Florida and South Carolina and Arizona did, the virus wins. When we ignore science, the virus wins.”
Trump in recent weeks has been committing less of his time and energy to managing the pandemic, according to advisers, and has only occasionally spoken in detail about the topic in his public appearances. One of these advisers said the president is “not really working this anymore. He doesn’t want to be distracted by it. He’s not calling and asking about data. He’s not worried about cases.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews countered in a statement: “President Trump has always acted on the recommendations of his top public health experts throughout this crisis as evidenced by the many bold, data-driven decisions he has made to save millions of lives. Any suggestion that the President is not working around the clock to protect the health and safety of all Americans, lead the whole-of-government response to this pandemic, including expediting vaccine development and rebuilding our economy is utterly false.”
At federal health agencies, the barrage against Fauci has taken a significant toll, seen by many as a broadside against their community at large. The acrimony has angered career scientists at the National Institutes of Health, where Fauci is hailed as a hero, and at the Food and Drug Administration, where officials work closely with Fauci and his team, according to current and former government officials.
Many FDA career scientists and doctors see the White House criticism of Fauci as an effort to bully him — to make it clear that no one should consider crossing the president in the months leading up to the election, according to people familiar with the scientists’ thinking.
“To see an NIH scientist and a doctor attacked like that, the feeling is, ‘Oh, my God, that could just as easily be me,’ ” said a former FDA official, who like some others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid without risking retribution.
Some agency professionals worry the episode is a sign the FDA might come under political pressure to approve a vaccine or treatment for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, before it has been fully vetted for safety and efficacy.
Furthermore, they say the character attacks further undermine America’s historic standing as a worldwide leader in public health, which is already tarnished by the nation’s beleaguered response to the coronavirus and inability to contain it.
Another former senior administration official called the Fauci attacks a global embarrassment. “It’s one thing to question science,” this official said. “It’s another thing to attack science.”
Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents state and local labs, said, “The whole public health community has been demoralized by this.”
Indeed, almost 90 organizations — including the American Society for Microbiology, the Infectious Diseases Society of America and several AIDS groups, as well as the public-labs association — sent a letter to Pence, who chairs the White House’s coronavirus task force, condemning the recent moves.
“We object to any attempt to cast doubt on science and sow mistrust for public health expertise, and to spread misinformation during this challenging time for all Americans,” the letter read. “Such efforts not only put the health of our population in greater peril, but also undermine the work underway to move our country beyond the pandemic and return to normalcy.”
The substance of Trump allies’ criticism of Fauci centers on his statements early in the pandemic that wearing masks would not necessarily stop the spread of the virus. But as Fauci and other scientists learned more about the virus, their assessments evolved with that knowledge.
“That’s really the nature of science,” Fauci said Thursday in a live-stream conversation with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “You look at the data and the information you have at any given time, and you make a decision with regard to policy based on that information. As the information changes, then you have to be flexible enough and humble enough to be able to change how you think about things.”
Moore, a conservative economist who is on leave from the Heritage Foundation to run a group called Save Our Country focused on reopening the economy, said the fact that Fauci is heralded in the media and trusted by the public is a problem for efforts to convince schools and businesses to reopen.
“I’ve seldom seen someone who has been more wrong more consistently over his whole career than Dr. Fauci that continues to be listened to and held up as some kind of expert,” Moore said.
He went on to express dismay that Fauci does not act like “a team player” by parroting to the public Trump’s talking points.
Navarro has led a fierce campaign inside the White House against Fauci, telling colleagues that the infectious-disease expert “has no clue what he’s talking about,” according to a person who heard his comments.
Others in Trump’s orbit have privately shared frustrations about Fauci, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Pence chief of staff Marc Short. Still, Meadows reacted angrily about Navarro’s op-ed, and Short told others he thought it was a mistake, White House officials said.
In recent weeks, there was what one adviser described as a “widespread effort” by White House officials, lawmakers and outside advisers to convince Trump to wear a mask in public — something he did for the first time last weekend when he visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In the coming weeks, health officials plan to more forcefully urge people to not only wear masks but to wear them consistently and correctly and to emphasize that masks are a supplement — not a substitute — for social distancing, one federal official said.
“You have to acknowledge the obvious, that this thing is going to be with us for a long time,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “You have to be realistic. People are willing to do difficult things if you give them a pathway of how do we get to the end of it.”
This week, Redfield said that Trump ought to “set an example” by wearing a mask and that the epidemic could be brought under control in four to eight weeks if everyone wore one.
On June 30, Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner and an informal Trump adviser, had a call with House Republicans, organized by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), on which he laid out a grim prediction of rising case numbers and encouraged people to wear masks.
“At some point, we’re going to have a confluent epidemic in the U.S.,” Gottlieb said in an interview. “At some point, we’re going to have so much infection that it’s going to be hard to prevent a simultaneous national epidemic. It’s going to be very difficult for us when this starts to run into flu season.”