Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said he and his family are getting death threats because people don’t like what he says about COVID-19.
“Getting death threats for me, and my family, and harassing my daughters, to the point where I have to get security is just — I mean, it’s amazing,” Fauci said during an interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta on Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that people who object to things that are pure public health principles, are so set against it and don’t like what you and I say, namely in the world of science, that they actually threaten you.”
He noted that crises like COVID-19 has brought out the best of people but also the worst of people.
Fauci’s notoriety has been elevated by COVID-19, as he is often on TV offering a blunt portrayal of the state of the pandemic in the U.S.
Fauci, 79, is one of the world’s most respected infectious disease experts, having advised six presidents on HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika and other health crises. He has earned a reputation for being blunt and willing to correct the president.
Fauci has had a security detail since at least April.
Fauci also reflected on what he says is a degree of “anti-science” sentiment in the U.S. that is making it difficult to get people to do things to slow the spread of COVID-19 like wearing masks.
“There is a degree of anti-science feeling in this country, and I think it is not just related to science. It’s almost related to authority and a mistrust in authority that spills over,” he told Gupta.
“Because in some respects, scientists, because they’re trying to present data, may be looked upon as being an authoritative figure, and the pushing back on authority, the pushing back on government is the same as pushing back on science.”
He said the scientific community should be more transparent and reach out to people to underscore the importance of science and evidence-based policy.
“I know when I say that if we follow these five or six principles, we can open up we don’t have to stay shut…There are some people that just don’t believe me or don’t pay attention to that. And that’s unfortunate because that is the way out of this,” he said.
President Trump has repeatedly undermined Fauci, questioning the White House coronavirus task force member on Twitter and in interviews with the media.
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted out a video of a portion of Fauci’s testimony explaining why the U.S. has recorded more cases than European cases and called it “wrong.” Trump has falsely claimed several times that the U.S. has more cases because it is doing more testing.
Trump has also retweeted multiple messages that question Fauci’s expertise, including one last week that said he had “misled the American public.”
But allies and opponents agree he has failed at the one task that could help him achieve all his goals — confronting the pandemic with a clear strategy and consistent leadership.
Trump’s shortcomings have perplexed even some of his most loyal allies, who increasingly have wondered why the president has not at least pantomimed a sense of command over the crisis or conveyed compassion for the millions of Americans hurt by it.
People close to Trump, many speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid discussions and impressions, say the president’s inability to wholly address the crisis is due to his almost pathological unwillingness to admit error; a positive feedback loop of overly rosy assessments and data from advisers and Fox News; and a penchant for magical thinking that prevented him from fully engaging with the pandemic.
In recent weeks, with more than 145,000 Americans now dead from the virus, the White House has attempted to overhaul — or at least rejigger — its approach. The administration has revived news briefings led by Trump and presented the president with projections showing how the virus is now decimating Republican states full of his voters. Officials have also set up a separate, smaller coronavirus working group led by Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, along with Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
For many, however, the question is why Trump did not adjust sooner, realizing that the path to nearly all his goals — from an economic recovery to an electoral victory in November — runs directly through a healthy nation in control of the virus.
“The irony is that if he’d just performed with minimal competence and just mouthed words about national unity, he actually could be in a pretty strong position right now, where the economy is reopening, where jobs are coming back,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to former president Barack Obama. “And he just could not do it.”
Many public health experts agree.
“The best thing that we can do to set our economy up for success and rebounding from the last few months is making sure our outbreak is in a good place,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “People are not going to feel comfortable returning to activities in the community — even if it’s allowed from a policy perspective — if they don’t feel the outbreak is under control.”
Some aides and outside advisers have tried to stress to Trump and others in his orbit that before he could move on to reopening the economy and getting the country back to work — and life — he needed to grapple with the reality of the virus.
But until recently, the president was largely unreceptive to that message, they said, not fully grasping the magnitude of the pandemic — and overly preoccupied with his own sense of grievance, beginning many conversations casting himself as the blameless victim of the crisis.
In the past couple of weeks, senior advisers began presenting Trump with maps and data showing spikes in coronavirus cases among “our people” in Republican states, a senior administration official said. They also shared projections predicting that virus surges could soon hit politically important states in the Midwest — including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the official said.
This new approach seemed to resonate, as he hewed closely to pre-scripted remarks in a trio of coronavirus briefings last week.
“This could have been stopped. It could have been stopped quickly and easily. But for some reason, it wasn’t, and we’ll figure out what that reason was,” Trump said Thursday, seeming to simultaneously acknowledge his predicament while trying to assign blame elsewhere.
In addition to Birx and Kushner, the new coronavirus group guiding Trump includes Kushner advisers Adam Boehler and Brad Smith, according to two administration officials. Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Pence, also attends, along with Alyssa Farah, the White House director of strategic communications, and Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser.
The working group’s goal is to meet every day, for no more than 30 minutes. It views its mission as half focused on the government’s response to the pandemic and half focused on the White House’s public message, the officials said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews defended the president’s handling of the crisis, saying he acted “early and decisively.”
“The president has also led an historic, whole-of-America coronavirus response — resulting in 100,000 ventilators procured, sourcing critical PPE for our front-line heroes, and a robust testing regime resulting in more than double the number of tests than any other country in the world,” Matthews said in an email statement. “His message has been consistent and his strong leadership will continue as we safely reopen the economy, expedite vaccine and therapeutics developments, and continue to see an encouraging decline in the U.S. mortality rate.”
For some, however, the additional effort is too little and far too late.
“This is a situation where if Trump did his job and put in the work to combat the health crisis, it would solve the economic crisis, and it’s an instance where the correct governing move is also the correct political move, and Trump is doing the opposite,” said Josh Schwerin, a senior strategist for Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Other anti-Trump operatives agree, saying he could make up lost ground and make his race with Biden far more competitive with a simple course correction.
“He’s staring in the mirror at night: That’s who can fix his political problem,” said John Weaver, one of the Republican strategists leading the Lincoln Project, a group known for its anti-Trump ads.
One of Trump’s biggest obstacles is his refusal to take responsibility and admit error.
In mid-March, as many of the nation’s businesses were shuttering early in the pandemic, Trump proclaimed in the Rose Garden, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Those six words have neatly summed up Trump’s approach not only to the pandemic, but also to many of the other crises he has faced during his presidency.
“His operating style is to double- and triple-down on positions and to never, ever admit he’s wrong about anything,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a longtime Trump associate who briefly served as White House communications director and is now a critic of the president. “His 50-year track record is to bulldog through whatever he’s doing, whether it’s Atlantic City, which was a failure, or the Plaza Hotel, which was a failure, or Eastern Airlines, which was a failure. He can never just say, ‘I got it wrong and let’s try over again.’ ”
Another self-imposed hurdle for Trump has been his reliance on a positive feedback loop. Rather than sit for briefings by infectious-disease director Anthony S. Fauci and other medical experts, the president consumes much of his information about the virus from Fox News and other conservative media sources, where his on-air boosters put a positive spin on developments.
Consider one example from last week. About 6:15 a.m. that Tuesday on “Fox & Friends,” co-host Steve Doocy told viewers, “There is a lot of good news out there regarding the development of vaccines and therapeutics.” The president appears to have been watching because, 16 minutes later, he tweeted from his iPhone, “Tremendous progress being made on Vaccines and Therapeutics!!!”
It is not just pro-Trump media figures feeding Trump positive information. White House staffers have long made upbeat assessments and projections in an effort to satisfy the president. This, in turn, makes Trump further distrustful of the presentations of scientists and reports in the mainstream news media, according to his advisers and other people familiar with the president’s approach.
This dynamic was on display during an in-depth interview with “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace that aired July 19. After the president claimed the United States had one of the lowest coronavirus mortality rates in the world, Wallace interjected to fact-check him: “It’s not true, sir.”
Agitated by Wallace’s persistence, Trump turned off-camera to call for White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. “Can you please get me the mortality rates?” he asked. Turning to Wallace, he said, “Kayleigh’s right here. I heard we have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.”
Trump, relying on cherry-picked White House data, insisted that the United States was “number one low mortality fatality rates.”
Fox then interrupted the taped interview to air a voice-over from Wallace explaining that the White House chart showed Italy and Spain doing worse than the United States but countries like Brazil and South Korea doing better — and other countries that are doing better, including Russia, were not included on the White House chart. By contrast, worldwide data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows the U.S. mortality rate is far from the lowest.
Trump is also predisposed to magical thinking — an unerring belief, at an almost elemental level, that he can will his goals into existence, through sheer force of personality, according to outside advisers and former White House officials.
The trait is one he shares with his late father and family patriarch, Fred Trump. In her best-selling memoir, “Too Much and Never Enough,” the president’s niece, Mary L. Trump, writes that Fred Trump was instantly taken by the “shallow message of self-sufficiency” he encountered in Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 bestseller, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”
Some close to the president say that when Trump claims, as he did twice last week, that the virus will simply “disappear,” there is a part of him that actually believes the assessment, making him more reluctant to take the practical steps required to combat the pandemic.
Until recently, Trump also refused to fully engage with the magnitude of the crisis. After appointing Pence head of the coronavirus task force, the president gradually stopped attending task force briefings and was lulled into a false sense of assurance that the group had the virus under control, according to one person familiar with the dynamic.
Trump also maintained such a sense of grievance — about how the virus was personally hurting him, his presidency and his reelection prospects — that aides recount spending valuable time listening to his gripes, rather than focusing on crafting a national strategy to fight the pandemic.
Nonetheless, some White House aides insist the president has always been focused on aggressively responding to the virus. And some advisers are still optimistic that if Trump — who trails Biden in national polls — can sustain at least a modicum of self-discipline and demonstrate real focus on the pandemic, he can still prevail on Election Day.
Others are less certain, including critics who say Trump squandered an obvious solution — good governance and leadership — as the simplest means of achieving his other goals.
“There is quite a high likelihood where people look back and think between February and April was when Trump burned down his own presidency, and he can’t recover from it,” Rhodes said. “The decisions he made then ensured he’d be in his endless cycle of covid spikes and economic disruption because he couldn’t exhibit any medium- or long-term thinking.”
But for rash, foolish irresponsibility, I’d nominate the opposition research paper recently circulated by the White House in an attempt to discredit the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Anthony S. Fauci. As reported by The Post, the document recounted a number of instances — on community transmission, asymptomatic transmission and mask wearing in particular — where Fauci’s views have shifted over time. As far as I know, this official record is unique: A White House attack on the government’s leading infectious-disease specialist during a raging pandemic. It indicates an administration so far gone in rage, bitterness and paranoia that it can no longer be trusted to preserve American lives.
From a purely political standpoint, it is understandable that the administration would want to divert attention from its covid-19 record. Trump’s policy of reopening at any cost is exacting a mounting cost. Five months into the greatest health crisis of modern U.S. history, there are still serious problems with supply chains for protective equipment. There are still long wait times for testing results in many places. The contact tracing process in many communities remains (as one health expert described it to me) “a joke.” More than 132,000 Americans have died.
Rather than addressing these failures, Trump has chosen to sabotage a public official who admits their existence. Rather than confronting these problems, Trump wants to ensure his whole administration lies about them in unison. The president has surveyed America’s massive spike in new infections and thinks the most urgent matter is . . . message discipline.
It is true that a number of Fauci’s views on the novel coronavirus have evolved (though some of the administration’s charges against him are distorted). But attacking a scientist for making such shifts is to willfully misunderstand the role of science in the fight against disease. We do not trust public health officials during an emerging pandemic because they have fully formed scientific views from the beginning. We trust them because 1) they are making judgments based on the best available information and 2) they have no other motive than the health of the public. If, say, health officials were initially mistaken about the possibility of asymptomatic transmission, it is not failure when they change their views according to better data. It is the nature of the scientific method and the definition of their duty.
In the inch-deep world of politics, amending your view based on new information is a flip-flop. In epidemiology, it is known as, well, epidemiology.
Meanwhile, the president is failing according to both requirements of public trust. Trump is not making judgments based on the best available information. And he clearly has political goals that compete with (and often override) his commitment to public health. The president is hoping against hope that the public will forget about the virus until November, or at least about the federal role in fighting it. To apply a veneer of normalcy, he is holding public events that endanger his staff and his audience and is planning a Republican convention that will double as a petri dish.
It now seems likely that the most decisive moment of the American pandemic took place in mid-April when new cases began to stabilize around 25,000 a day. Even four or six more weeks of firm presidential leadership — urging the tough, sacrificial application of stay-at-home orders — might have reduced the burden of disease to more sustainable levels, as happened in Western Europe. And this would have relieved stress on systems of testing, tracing and treatment.
But Trump’s nerve failed him. Instead of holding firm, he began siding with populist demands for immediate opening, pressuring governors to take precipitous steps and encouraging skepticism about basic public health information and measures. This may well have been the defining moment of the Trump presidency. And he was weak, weak, weak.
It is typical for Trump to shift blame. But in this case, the president has selected his fall guy poorly. Fauci has been an example of conscience and courage in an administration that values neither. When Trump encourages a contrast to his own selfishness and cravenness, he only damages himself.