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During a press briefing on Sunday, a reporter asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the chief members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, where he stood on the controversy over the unproven cure hydroxychloroquine. Before Fauci could respond, Donald Trump interjected, asking, “Do you know how many times he’s answered that question? Maybe 15 times. Fifteen times! You don’t have to ask that question.” Fauci remained quiet and the press conference then moved on to the next reporter.
This awkward moment encapsulates Fauci’s precarious position as he leads the coronavirus fight. One of the world’s top immunologists and director since 1984 of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci has been a welcome presence in the crisis, a rare example of top scientific expertise in the Trump White House.
But it is precisely Fauci’s expertise that makes his position so insecure. Trump is one of the most anti-intellectual presidents in American history, famous for scorning expert consensus on matters like climate change or the efficacy of vaccination. During the pandemic, he’s indulged in the same anti-science claptrap, suggesting that the coronavirus crisis was so over-hyped by his political enemies that it amounted to a hoax.
Fauci currrently occupies the now-familiar position of the grown-up in the room, the adult expert who has to nudge Trump away from his erratic impulses towards something resembling normality. In the past, the press has cast figures like former secretary of defense James Mattis, onetime secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and erstwhile White House chief of staff James Kelly in this heroic role.
These men didn’t deserve the plaudits they often received in the media. They were rarely successful at containing Trump—and in many cases agreed with some of his worst policies. Mattis was an anti-Iran hawk, Tillerson an opponent of climate change action, and Kelly a supporter of a hard-line anti-immigrant policy. They rarely moderated Trump’s policies. Rather, they made them more palatable to elite opinion by dressing them in a cloak of respectability. When they did eventually clash with Trump on policy, they all ended up resigning or being fired.
Fauci plays the role of the adult in the room more credibly than any of his predecessors. He has won a genuine victory in getting Trump to move past his earlier dismissal of the pandemic as a minor problem.
Yet this victory hangs by a thread, as does Fauci’s own position in the White House. Fauci is running into opposition on two fronts from both Trump and the larger right-wing media and political culture that supports Trump: the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and the economic costs of a national lockdown.
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On hydroxychloroquine, Fauci maintains, quite correctly, that evidence that it can quell this coronavirus is, so far, purely anecdotal. The studies that support this claim did not do blind tests. Trump, by contrast, continues to talk up the potentials of the drug and is clearly eager for a medical miracle that can quickly end the pandemic. Fauci and Trump have worked out a modus vivendi whereby doctors are allowed to prescribe the drug for Covid-19 while it goes through further testing.
Axios is reporting that the hydroxychloroquine dispute caused a heated argument in a meeting of the task force on Sunday. During that meeting, White House adviser Peter Navarro touted recent studies that he claimed showed “clear therapeutic efficacy.” Fauci responded that these studies were “anecdotal.” Navarro continued to taunt Fauci, claiming that the medical expert was opposed to the China travel ban. (Fauci had, in fact, supported this policy.)
Navarro and Fauci are unevenly matched. Fauci is one of the the world’s top medical experts on epidemics. Navarro works in the White House only because Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, found his name while looking for a book on American-Chinese relations and discovered that Navarro is the author of Death by China. In his anti-China polemics, Navarro sometimes cites a fictional expert named Ron Vara (an anagram of Navarro).
Yet, as ridiculous as Navarro is, he has powerful allies who also want to take down Fauci. One of them is Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has become an outspoken advocate of hydroxychloroquine, promoting the drug in private phone calls with the president and in media appearances. According to The Washington Post, in his role as an amateur epidemiologist Giuliani has “solicited medical tips from a controversial Long Island family doctor with a following in the conservative media, as well as a former pharmacist who once pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort the actor Steven Seagal.”
About Fauci, Giuliani has said, “I’m sure he thinks I am an ignoramus.” For his part, Giuliani thinks experts like Fauci have “thrown cold water on it because they are academics” and too concerned with nailing down definitive knowledge to respond quickly to an emergency.
On Sunday, the hashtag #fireFauci started trending on twitter. Anti-Fauci sentiment is fueled not just by the hydroxychloroquine but also by the idea that his insistence on a national lockdown is bad for the economy.
On Friday, Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show said:
Our entire national shutdown is based on the fear that coronavirus patients would overwhelm hospitals. That mostly hasn’t happened. If the model had been accurate, would we have quarantined the country? Good question. But it’s too late now. More than 10 million Americans have already lost their jobs. Imagine another year of this. That would be national suicide. Anthony Fauci doesn’t want to hurt America. He seems like a decent person. But Fauci is not an economist—or for that matter, someone who fears being unemployed.
This swipe is notable, because Carlson has been one of the Fox News hosts who has taken the coronavirus most seriously. The fact that even Carlson is losing patience shows that Fauci has a target on his back. There are clearly right-wing forces that don’t like his advocacy of a strenuous mitigation policy, one that requires an extended shutdown.
Trump himself clearly accepts mitigation only as a temporary solution and is itchy to rev up the economy again.
During a Saturday briefing, Trump said, “Mitigation does work, but again we’re not going to destroy our country. We have to get back because, you know, at a certain point, you lose more people this way through all of the problems caused than you will with what we’re doing right now. We went this extra period of time, but I said it from the beginning—the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. At a certain point, some hard decisions are going to have to be made.”
Like all White House advisers, Fauci serves at the pleasure of the president. The campaign against Fauci from figures like Giuliani and Carlson is a sign that he is skating on thin ice. Fauci’s admirable efforts to align Trump with sound epidemiology can easily fall apart if Trump wakes up one day and decides that the shutdown has lasted too long and he should just tell the nation to take hydroxychloroquine and get back to work.