Anthony Fauci came to the Senate, virtually, to issue a dire warning against reopening the country too soon amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic. But his message fell flat with some of his intended audience.
Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, are eager to revive the flailing economy. And resuming commerce at some level this spring and summer is central to the GOP’s message that it can turn around the economy before November. They’re also aiming to do so without adopting House Democrats’ plans for more multi-trillion-dollar stimulus bills.
But Fauci’s Tuesday testimony clashes with the GOP’s vision, and it’s fueling growing fatigue among Republicans with one of the government’s most trusted public health leaders at a critical moment.
“There’s a spectrum of everything. And I think he’s on the overly cautious end of the spectrum,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said after parrying with Fauci at the hearing. “I don’t think he’s doing it because he’s a bad person, but if we’re overly cautious and we wait until all infectious disease goes away… we’ll wait forever and the country is going to be destroyed.”
Sen. Mike Braun said Paul's view will be vindicated.
“When we get this in the rearview mirror and do the dispassionate debrief, Sen. Paul’s going to be closer to right than Fauci,” said the Indiana Republican, who also attended the hearing. “I never did like the idea that you treated the entirety of the country, and even counties within a state, the same way.”
The nation’s top infectious disease expert testified to the Republican-controlled Senate that there could be “serious” consequences if states open up too early, and he urged them to follow federal guidelines to prevent a second wave of outbreaks. Fauci also downplayed the prospects of a quick vaccine or treatment for the disease this fall.
Meanwhile, GOP senators and governors in both parties say that lifting stay-at-home orders can be done safely and have begun to crack open a diverse array of states before meeting federal benchmarks.
Fauci’s testimony comes as House Democrats are preparing to pass a $3 trillion relief bill later this week. But rather than plunge immediately into talks with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his members are banking on the idea that as states reopen, less money will need to come from Washington.
Asked whether Americans should be listening to Fauci’s caution or Trump’s economic-focused optimism, McConnell said they can do both.
“We can’t spend enough money to prop this economy up forever. People need to be able to begin to be productive again,” McConnell told reporters.
Fauci has served six presidents and knows how to offer advice in Washington without being thrown overboard. And aside from Paul, few senators took direct shots at him in interviews with a wide array of lawmakers on Tuesday afternoon.
The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been viewed by both parties as a plain-spoken, commonsense guide during the frightening coronavirus crisis even as Trump himself has oscillated between urging a quick reopening to adopting Fauci’s approach.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called Fauci “the gold standard” and said he will “continue to listen to him.” And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Fauci and other public experts have “spoken truth to power as best they can, obviously with some degree of diplomacy and qualification.”
Yet as Americans grow weary of isolation, with some states’ shutdowns entering their third month, Paul showed that sentiment is extending toward Fauci himself in some parts of the GOP.
At one point, Paul questioned Fauci’s methodology on coronavirus’ effects on children and said that he is not “the end all" of decison-making. Fauci responded that he has “never made myself out to be the end all and only voice on this.”
“He has a very valuable voice in this discussion. He’s got a field of expertise that’s important to hear from,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). “But it’s only one of many considerations we have to make as a society. Because we have to make trade-offs.”
The idea of spending trillions more in federal funds after already plunging nearly $3 trillion into the response also makes conservatives like Toomey queasy. Under the current Republican line of thinking, the best response is to carefully reopen economies.
It’s a clear contrast with Democrats who say swifter action is needed to avert Great Depression-like unemployment rates and that not enough is being done to heed Fauci’s warnings.
“Donald Trump’s paying attention to testing and to masks. Because they understand that can help prevent the spread of the virus. And yet for the rest of America: Just get out there and boost the economy,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who questioned Fauci on Tuesday.
In some ways, Republicans foresee businesses following the model set by the Senate, which is now operating with social distancing, masks and thousands of staffers working at home as D.C. deals with its peak of the outbreak.
And even though Fauci has been consistently more pessimistic than Trump, some senators were taken aback by his warnings. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said it was “unexpected.”
“It was classic Dr. Fauci, and that’s why he’s on the task force,” Cramer said. “But it’s also why he’s not the only member of the task force, and why the president has the responsibility of looking at the whole, not just one aspect of it.”
Cramer acknowledged that Fauci’s advice was “scientifically sound,” but said governors and individual employers should evaluate their own unique risks. Republicans say they’ve seen their home states reopen without the spike in cases that Fauci said could follow in states that don’t follow federal guidelines.
“We’re in a federalist government. It’s up to the governors of the state to make those decisions,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who said he has recently eaten out at restaurants twice in Georgia. “We’ve got to get this economy open again. We’re on the back side of the cycle.”
Trump himself has not directly criticized Fauci like some of his allies have. But his public posture on re-opening the economy has been in direct conflict to what Fauci has advocated. On Twitter and in his public statements, the president has warned that “the cure may be worse than the disease,” and he has voiced support for protests against governors’ stay-at-home orders. At one point, he demanded that individual states be “liberated.”
Several of the president’s conservative allies cheered Paul’s questioning of Fauci. Fox News host Laura Ingraham praised Paul for “the clearest, most concise, informed, practical response to the unaccountable COVID health experts & shutdowns.”
But whereas congressional Democrats have largely been in a cautious posture about reopening, there’s a diversity of opinion in the Republican Party about Fauci.
“I don’t think he’s alarmist,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va). “He’s talking like a scientist who knows the spread can happen.”