Rand Paul is a doctor who became a politician. That should have made the senator from Kentucky a valuable voice during a pandemic. Instead, the ophthalmologist has abandoned any pretense of upholding the physician’s pledge to “lead my life, and practice my art, in uprightness and honor.” While Paul still claims to respect the Hippocratic oath, the Republican has failed at every turn to demonstrate his commitment to “hold myself aloof from wrong and from corruption.”
Finally, after almost two years of spreading outrageous lies about the virus and the scientists who are fighting it, Paul has been called out by the primary target of his dangerously irresponsible assault on public health initiatives that are designed to combat Covid-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci has accused the senator, who is running for a new term in 2022, of exploiting a “catastrophic epidemic” for “political gain.”
Indeed, suggests the immunologist who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since former President Ronald Reagan’s first term, Paul is attacking Fauci and spreading misinformation in order to raise money for his reelection bid.
That’s blunt talk of a sort few ever expected to hear from Fauci, the usually mild-mannered physician who has seen the country through decades of health scares. But Fauci has come to recognize, as have a lot of people, that Paul needs to be put in his place.
The damage the Kentuckian has done since the beginning of the pandemic has been incalculable. If Paul is not exposed and held to account now, he will continue to undermine the health and safety of a country that the senator is supposed to serve.
Paul, who famously announced during a lecture to students at the University of Louisville School of Medicine that “misinformation works,” has been a steady source of deceptions, bum steers, and red herrings since the pandemic began. He has amplified and expanded upon false premises advanced by Donald Trump—the charlatan he once opposed but eventually embraced.
As one of the few conservatives with the professional background and political stature to stand up to Trump’s deliberately dishonest and steadily wrongheaded approach to the most serious public health crisis of our time, Paul was in a unique position in 2020 and ’21 to convince vulnerable Americans to follow mask mandates and get vaccines. Instead, he promoted skepticism about vaccines and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he has repeatedly mounted hysterical attacks on Fauci, a specialist on infectious diseases who has sought to communicate a coherent vision for fighting Covid-19.
As a key adviser to both Trump and now President Joe Biden, Fauci has done his best to follow the science, while acknowledging that his own understanding of the particular challenges posed by the virus and the proper steps for addressing them has evolved over the past two years. This willingness to adapt his messaging has drawn vicious attacks from Paul, who regularly accuses the immunologist of manipulating data, giving bad advice, and engaging in deliberate fearmongering. The senator has gone so far as to suggest that “Dr. Fauci should be voluntarily removed from TV because what he says is such a disservice.”
Last Tuesday, when the nation’s most prominent infectious disease expert appeared before the Senate Health Committee to argue for masking and vaccines in the face of the Omicron variant surge, Paul ripped into the immunologist.
“Senator,” Fauci responded, “we are here at a committee to look at a virus now that has killed almost 900,000 people [in the United States]…. And you keep coming back to personal attacks on me that have absolutely no relevance to reality.”
Paul interrupted him, at one point screeching, “You have advocated that your infallible opinion be dictated by law.”
Fauci had had enough and requested time to speak uninterrupted, delivering a stinging rebuke to the defeated Republican presidential contender’s war on science.
“What happens when he gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue is that all of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there, and I have threats upon my life, harassment of my family and my children with obscene phone calls, because people are lying about me,” said Fauci. “Just about three or four weeks ago, on December 21, a person was arrested who was on their way from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., at a speed stop in Iowa. And the police asked him where he was going, and he was going to Washington, D.C., to kill Dr. Fauci. And they found in his car an AR-15 and multiple magazines of ammunition, because he thinks that maybe I’m killing people.”
Then Fauci got to the heart of the matter. Addressing the question of why a physician-senator who is in a position to debunk Trump’s big lies instead advances them, Fauci displayed a screenshot from Paul’s campaign website that proposed to “Fire Dr. Fauci” and then invited people to donate to the senator’s reelection bid.
“You can do $5, $10, $20, $100,” noted Fauci—who then told Paul, “You are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain.”
Fauci’s willingness to call Paul out has resonated with congressional allies and the scientific community.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) praised the physician for refusing to let Paul’s attacks go unanswered. “Thank you,” said Murphy, “for calling out this agenda for what it is: an attempt to score political points, to build a political power base around the denial of science and around personal attacks on you and your family.”
Almost 300 scientists and public health and medical professionals signed a letter deploring attacks on Fauci that were described as “inaccurate, unscientific, ill-founded in the facts and, increasingly, motivated by partisan politics,” And newspaper editorial pages weighed in, with the historically conservative Houston Chronicle summing things up by succinctly declaring, “Clowns like Sen. Rand Paul should stop trolling the adults determined to get us through the pandemic.”
Absurd as his strategy may seem, Rand Paul has made it clear that he plans to run against the science and the scientists in 2022. Democrats, including Paul’s able challenger Charles Booker, should recognize that they can’t let the senator’s smears go unchallenged. They need to object to Paul’s cynical politics with every bit as much clarity—and fury—as did Dr. Fauci.
John Nichols’s new book, Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis, will be published January 25 by Verso.