Apart from the conspiracy-crazed Trump hardcore eager to burn him at the stake, Dr. Anthony Fauci generally basks in the admiration of a frightened public desperate for truthful leadership. For liberals, in particular, he personifies science in shining armor battling the mad dragon in the White House. But his real role during the first six months of the pandemic has been more ambiguous and far less heroic.
If he has been fact-checker to Trump’s ignorance and lies, he has paid for his place at the microphone by repeatedly acting as an apologist for the criminally negligent chaos that constitutes the administration’s response to Covid-19. Perhaps it’s tongue-in-cheek, but he also continues to insist that he enjoys genuine a rapport with Trump.
In late March, when rumors circulated that he was about to be fired, he scolded the press: “I have no trouble with the president. When I talk to him, he listens.” When Maureen Dowd interviewed him around the same time, he complimented Trump for his openness to criticism. “He’s a smart guy. He’s not a dummy. So he doesn’t take it—certainly up to now—he doesn’t take in a way that I’m confronting him in any way. He takes it in a good way.”
Fauci, who was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases by Ronald Reagan, has vast experience in Washington politics. In April, he explained his modus operandi to The New Yorker’s Michael Specter: “You have a job to do. Even when somebody’s acting ridiculous, you can’t chide them for it. You’ve got to deal with them. Because if you don’t deal with them, then you’re out of the picture.”
Having carefully crafted a persona as an apolitical disease expert, Fauci has managed to stay in the picture for 36 years. Outspoken but deferential at the same time, he built successful relationships with both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama that ensured their support for expanded AIDS research as well as investments in fast-tracked vaccine technology to meet the challenge of emergent diseases.
His greatest achievement was turning George W. Bush into an impassioned AIDS fighter. With the president’s full support, Fauci designed a multibillion-dollar program called PEPFAR that made lifesaving antiretrovirals available to poor people in Africa and elsewhere. It is credited with saving hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives.
Despite the fact that Trump roared into office determined to destroy Obamacare and gut public health projects sponsored by his predecessor, Fauci exuded confidence that he could educate yet another White House about the pandemic threat. If Trump was Atilla, he would be Pope Leo and save Rome.
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For the first three years of the new order, Fauci, who has always had many Republican admirers, sought allies and avenues of persuasion within the administration, but could find little traction in the mire. Although he hammered away in public about the imminence of a new pandemic, he kept a low profile when John Bolton purged the NSC’s directorate for global health security, an Obama-appointed “dream team” that monitored catastrophic biological threats.
Likewise he made no protest when Trump, just three months before the outbreak, cut off funding for the Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT program—a much praised early warning system that had identified hundreds of dangerous Asian pathogens, mostly coronaviruses, poised to jump from animals to humans.
Up to this point, Fauci might have argued that he was simply a civil servant and that speaking out on administration policies would imperil his small but critically important agency and its vital research agenda. But the pandemic has transformed the balance of power and given Fauci exceptional public influence and credibility. If he were fired tomorrow, he would remain center-stage, probably with enhanced authority and prestige.
But instead of grasping the opportunity to openly speak truth to power, the good doctor remains a team player, lending his credibility to the failed and impotent task force of sycophants headed by Vice President Mike Pence (whom he has several times defended).
Despite his famous halo of truthfulness, Fauci has deliberately misled the public on several occasions during the crisis. At the beginning of the outbreak, he and CDC Director Robert Redfield defied medical common sense and lied about the efficacy of face mask usage. While news programs were showing entire Asian societies safely masked, we were told that face coverings were unnecessary, useless, and possibly dangerous.
Asked in February about what advice he would give to ordinary Americans, Fauci remained in lockstep with the White House. “So the question is, should we do anything different from what we’re already doing? No. Should we all be wearing a mask? Absolutely not.”
Six weeks later he explained that this was a necessary ploy to stop panic-buying and conserve existing supplies for hospitals. But it sowed epic confusion, which still festers, about the utility of masks and ratified the perception that the public had been deceived.
Disinformation was hardly the only alternative. Washington, following the example of other countries, could have immediately nationalized existing supplies of PPE, while urging the public to improvise surgical masks until N95 stockpiles were replenished. This would have slowed the spread during crucial weeks in March and ultimately saved thousands of lives.
Fauci also routinely speaks in two voices. In a January 23 discussion with JAMA editor Howard Bauchner, for instance, he emphasized the imminent danger of a global conflagration, but a week later assured reporters that the “risk to the American public is low”—a message he repeated until March.
Moreover, his scientific ethics have recently been questioned. The BMJ skewered him for hyping Gilead’s antiviral remdesivir in April as a coronavirus wonder drug. “[Fauci] unexpectedly announced preliminary findings from a publicly funded trial being run in the US. Adding to Trump’s previous promotion of remdesivir as a potential ‘game-changer,’ Fauci told the world the trial’s results suggested the drug could become the ‘standard of care’ for covid-19.”
But, as the British medical journal revealed, “one of the trial investigators was a Gilead employee, and six other authors declared financial ties to Gilead. Finally, an additional note disclosed that employees of Gilead ‘participated in discussion about protocol development and in weekly protocol team calls,’ a level of engagement suggesting this drug trial could not be regarded as independent from the manufacturer.” Thanks to Fauci’s and his boss’s enthusiasm, the company’s stocks immediately soared by 14 percent.
But Fauci’s real sin has been his abrogation of advocacy. Gamely willing to debunk Trump’s enthusiasms for chloroquine and disinfectants, as well as to defend the WHO, he has been stunningly silent about the unique chain of disasters that has led us to the edge of catastrophe. A short and incomplete list of occasions when the country urgently needed expert dissent includes:
- the refusal of the CDC to purchase reliable WHO test kits after its own proved contaminated and useless
- the failure to authorize a federal medical task force to stop the viral massacre in nursing homes and prisons
- Trump’s abdication of centralized federal leadership and the resulting Darwinian competition between states for PPE and ventilators
- the cowardice in the HHS that delayed the issuing of social distancing regulations
- the refusal of the Labor Department to process the complaints of essential workers or issue enforceable guidelines about workplace safety
- the rushed reopening of businesses without job or income protections for workers and family members with preexisting conditions
The White House basically threw away all the strategic planning and tactical guidelines for dealing with an outbreak that Fauci and hundreds of others had laboriously developed over the previous 20 years. The result is an uncontrollable viral firestorm that may burn for years.
But “America’s Doctor” remains inexplicably calm. He has accomplished great things in the past, but his hubris now makes him an accomplice of a dangerous and criminal regime. In a time of falling statuary, we should be cautious about whom we put on a pedestal.