Fauci's balancing act: Navigating Trump and the pandemic

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What’s happening

President Trump’s criticisms of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, have become increasingly hostile in the final days of his reelection campaign, as Trump pushes an optimistic view of the coronavirus pandemic despite spiking case numbers across the country.

“People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots,” Trump said in a recent campaign call. On Sunday, the White House issued a scathing rebuke of Fauci, accusing him of “play[ing] politics” by praising Joe Biden’s perspective on the virus in an interview with the Washington Post. Trump also suggested during a rally Sunday that he may fire Fauci after the election.

Fauci, for his part, has made a pointed effort to avoid political statements, as he has throughout his many decades advising presidents on public health. His comments about Biden were far from an endorsement. In the many instances in which he has disagreed with Trump’s false statements about the coronavirus — on topics like masks, business closures, the severity of the virus and therapeutic treatments — Fauci has been careful not to directly criticize the president while pushing back on the substance of the claims.

Despite taking a diplomatic approach, Fauci has become the target of intense criticism from the president and has faced threats of violence from some Trump supporters. While Fauci still ranks as Americans’ most-trusted source for information about the pandemic, his standing among Republicans has dropped dramatically since April. His role in the administration’s pandemic response has also been diminished. In October, he said he hadn’t attended a meeting of the White House coronavirus task force in “several months.”

Fauci and Trump are now presenting strikingly divergent pictures of the next few months. Trump has made the idea that the U.S. is “rounding the turn” on the coronavirus pandemic a central campaign message, even as case numbers surge. Fauci, on the other hand, recently warned of “a whole lot of hurt” for the nation during the fall and winter months.

Why there’s debate

“You don’t want to go to war with a president,” Fauci told Politico in the early days of the pandemic. “But you got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.” This is the correct strategy for someone in Fauci’s position, many argue. His role as the calm, scientifically sound counterpoint to Trump’s often baseless health messaging has been crucial in helping the public combat the virus, they say. If Fauci had pushed back too aggressively, Trump might have fired him months ago, which would have made the administration’s pandemic response even less effective.

Others say Fauci has been too deferential to the president. In their eyes, Fauci has a duty to give his complete and unvarnished opinion, as voters decide who will lead the country through the next phase of the pandemic. At this point, with Fauci essentially sidelined from the coronavirus task force and his advice ignored by many Trump supporters, there’s little reason for him to stay in his position if it means withholding his views from the public, they argue.

Some counter that Fauci should be even more careful to avoid conflict with Trump. In addition to his roles as White House adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he is also a key figure in the vaccine research and development of treatments for COVID-19. Since the pandemic can’t truly come to an end until a vaccine is ready and widely available, it may be wise for Fauci to take a less public role in the short term to stay out of Trump’s crosshairs and remain in the position to oversee that critical development process, some argue.

What’s next

It’s unclear whether Trump’s suggestion that he may fire Fauci after the election was serious or not. If he was being sincere, the president technically can’t simply decide to dismiss Fauci, who is not a political appointee. Trump recently signed an executive order that would make it easier to fire career officials, but it’s unclear whether that could apply to Fauci. Biden has said that if he becomes president, he will rely heavily on Fauci’s expertise.


Fauci should maintain the balancing act that’s served him throughout the pandemic

“The only valid response to this pandemic is reliance on sober science. Fauci must continue providing the clear-eyed expertise that has made him one of the most trusted people in America.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Americans deserve to hear Fauci’s true opinion of Trump

“The only way to clear the air is for Fauci to speak his mind. We don’t need to know how he will vote, but we do need to hear his honest opinion on Trump’s performance during the pandemic.” — Tom Moran, Newark Star-Ledger

Fauci should quit

“If he stays on Trump’s fake task force, Fauci risks becoming the Robert Mueller of microbes, a great man playing by rules that no longer apply. … The only way Fauci can bring his talent to bear on ending the pandemic is to get far, far away from the man who boasts that he’s doing a ‘phenomenal job’ by presiding over only 200,000 deaths — so far.” — Margaret Carlson, Daily Beast

Fauci should take a less public role to reduce conflict with Trump

“Even under a thick-skinned president, though, there would be a conflict between Fauci’s first and second roles: between, that is, being a trusted internal adviser to an administration and an impartial external commentator on it. … It would have been better if Trump, Fauci and the press alike had recognized the conflict and realized that Fauci’s public-facing role is his least important one.” — Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg

It’s important to keep science and politics as separate as possible

“The way to protect science from its nearly inevitable entanglement with politics is to insist the two aren’t tangled up at all, so nobody can accuse you ever of fighting for anything but the facts.” — Molly Roberts, Washington Post

The public needs Fauci’s steady leadership

“Some are saying the 79-year-old Dr. Fauci should say to hell with it and quit. But we need his voice of reason in this nuthouse of a White House.” — Maureen Dowd, New York Times

Fauci needs to do what it takes to stay in the position to oversee the vaccine

“Even if the White House did bar Fauci from any future media appearances, he could still continue in arguably his most important function: helping to oversee the development of coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics.” — Lev Facher, STAT

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images