Dr. Anthony Fauci is still talking. But is the president listening?

WASHINGTON — It was always going to be a tense relationship, the one between a Queens real estate developer to the manner born and the Brooklyn pharmacist’s son steeped in Catholicism. One golfs, the other runs. One is a self-proclaimed billionaire genius and television personality, the other a lifelong civil servant and scientist.

Improbably, Donald Trump (the golfer) and Dr. Anthony Fauci (the jogger) have managed to get along for months, brought together to fight the coronavirus. Maybe they were never going to spend weekends together at Mar-a-Lago, but when Trump invited “Tony” to speak at the daily coronavirus task force briefings throughout April and May, there was a sense that Fauci spoke for the administration and, what’s more, that when he spoke, the administration listened.

Dr. Anthony Fauci (R), director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing on April 22. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

That is no longer the case, with the rift between the two men now at Grand Canyon proportions, neither able to hide his disdain for the other. The latest salvo came on Thursday night, with Trump telling Sean Hannity of Fox News that Fauci had “made a lot of mistakes” in the coronavirus response.

Fauci, meanwhile, gave an interview to the Financial Times in which he made no bones about where the nation stood, describing the spread of new infections as “exponential.” He also revealed that he had not briefed the president directly since June 2. Last month, Fauci told Yahoo News that he had been communicating with Trump through Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force.

Supporters have been calling on Trump to “fire” Fauci for months; Trump once retweeted a message with the #FireFauci hashtag, though no action against the 79-year-old immunologist followed. Many of the people who have made such calls have also endorsed outlandish theories that Fauci is a “deep state” operative secretly working in concert with former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. In recent days, the rumor surfaced that he is married to the sister of Ghislaine Maxwell, who was arrested last week on charges related to sex trafficking for the late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Fauci is neither a Biden operative nor a Maxwell in-law, but Trump is known to entertain and stoke conspiracy theories. And while he cannot fire Fauci from his post as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health, he can remove him from the coronavirus task force. But he doesn’t even need to do that. By simply calling Fauci’s expertise into question, and by limiting what kind of media appearances he can participate in, Trump can effectively sideline the nation’s most trusted public health official.

Why would he want to do that? Because a president with a desire to rack up easy and prolific political victories has clearly lost interest in the long slog of a battle against the disease, which has killed more than 135,000 Americans. With the election looming less than four months away, and a vaccine probably not ready until early 2021, Trump is eager to jump-start the American economy. If he cannot minimize the virus itself, he can at least diminish doomsayers like Fauci.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, July 10, 2020. (Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Neither the White House nor Fauci’s office returned Yahoo News requests to discuss Fauci’s standing with the president.

A skilled navigator of the federal bureaucracy, Fauci is now serving his sixth president. He was among the very first officials to identify the danger posed by HIV/AIDS. That was in 1981. President Ronald Reagan would not publicly confront the killer disease until 1987. And yet Fauci survived, negotiating the prejudice against AIDS victims on one side and the urgency of AIDS activists on the other.

He still works in the same Maryland office complex, still jogs along the same routes in upper Northwest Washington where he has been running for four decades. But can he survive the daily maelstrom of working with Trump?

So far, the answer is in the affirmative, if only narrowly so. Trump’s criticisms of Fauci have sharpened; they are not new. In May, Trump charged that Fauci “wants to play all sides of the equation” when it comes to reopening schools in the fall. Last month, Fauci sounded a note of warning about the upcoming professional football season, only to have the president tweet that “Tony Fauci has nothing to do with NFL Football.”

Yet the two have never been as far apart as they have been in recent days, with Fauci’s warnings growing more dire and increasingly contrasting with Trump’s unfounded optimism and his claims that testing alone can explain the rise in infection rates. And without the once-commonplace sight of Trump and Fauci standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the White House briefing room, even the thinnest veneer of accord appears to be gone.

On June 30, Fauci warned that the nation could face 100,000 cases per day. “Clearly we are not in total control right now,” he bluntly informed a congressional committee.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Reuters)
Fauci testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on June 30. (Kevin Dietsch/Reuters)

Two days later, Trump offered what was clearly intended as a retort to those widely shared remarks. “There is a rise in Coronavirus cases because our testing is so massive and so good,” he wrote on Twitter, “far bigger and better than any other country. This is great news, but even better news is that death, and the death rate, is DOWN. Also, younger people, who get better much easier and faster!”

While it is true that the United States is testing more people than it was in April, and fewer people are dying, the message offered an unrealistically optimistic view of the crisis. Trump has said he sees “cheerleading” as part of his role. Fauci, who once entertained dreams of playing basketball, is the nervous coach pacing the sidelines, hectoring his team for missed layups and sloppy passes.

Earlier in the week, Fauci said the nation was “still knee deep in the first wave,” having never taken sufficient measures to slow the rate of new infections. Those infections could lead to a second, potentially more devastating wave with the arrival of cold weather.

Trump did not like that. “Well, I think we are in a good place. I disagree with him,” he said on July 7. The following morning, the United States set a grim record, with 60,000 new coronavirus cases.


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