Fauci successfully walks tightrope with Trump

Dr. Anthony Fauci has become one of the most important public figures in Washington amid a coronavirus pandemic that is quickly changing American life.

Fauci has been at the helm of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for nearly four decades, but the global virus shutting down much of the U.S. economy has thrust him to the forefront of the federal government’s effort to address the crisis.

At briefing after briefing, Fauci takes a factual, no-nonsense approach — one that at times has created a dissonance with President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE, who in the past has clashed with officials who have publicly contradicted him.

ADVERTISEMENT

There appears to be little if any friction, however, between Trump and Fauci, who has avoided direct criticism of the president and earned plaudits from members of both parties for conveying a sense of control in a crisis.

He’s seemed to win over Trump, too.

Trump, who views media coverage as a critical barometer, declared that the 79-year-old Fauci had “become a major television star.” Fauci appeared on every major Sunday show over the weekend to discuss the administration’s response efforts. 

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Trump looked to be listening intently as Fauci spoke about specific data and efforts to “flatten the curve” and stave off the worst of the pandemic. When Fauci at one point stepped away from the podium, Trump urged him to keep taking questions.

Trump has also adopted a new tone this week in discussing the coronavirus, taking heed of calls from public health experts to recommend that Americans drastically limit their contact with others to prevent the spread of the virus. 

People who know Fauci, who has served several presidents as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, describe him as a dedicated public servant.

ADVERTISEMENT

“No matter what the president’s ideology is, he’s there to serve the president and he’s always done that," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who has known Fauci for several years.

“The way he is dealing with this balance is he is not openly criticizing the president or the White House,” Gostin said. “But he is being honest even when it contradicts.” 

In some ways, Fauci has eclipsed Vice President Pence as the public face of the administration’s response efforts. He’s been more publicly visible than leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Republican senators earlier this month encouraged Trump to make Fauci the face of the federal government’s response efforts. The White House appears to have listened, and Trump himself may be listening more closely to Fauci’s guidance.

“It’s taken a little while, but the president and Dr. Fauci and the rest of the team have gelled together quite nicely,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump adviser who now co-hosts a radio show about the pandemic and the president’s response.

“There seems to be a very strong camaraderie and respect between the president and Dr. Fauci, and it’s clear that the president is listening to Dr. Fauci’s advice. But it’s also clear that Dr. Fauci is taking President Trump’s direction,” Miller added, citing mutual support for travel restrictions.

A veteran HIV/AIDS researcher, Fauci is the recipient of many honors for his work in the fields of science and medicine. President George W. Bush awarded Fauci the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008. 

Fauci has also turned down the role of National Institutes of Health (NIH) director multiple times, according to Gostin, because it’s a political appointment and he wanted to serve in the agency for the long term. 

“He is sort of one of a kind — his experience, his fund of knowledge, his ability to both see the big picture as well as understand the fine details,” said Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center who served as a deputy assistant secretary for health from 2008 to 2015. 

“Having been on the front lines of everything from HIV all the way through SARS to bird flu to H1N1 allows him to have that scope, which is critical for any administration,” continued Parekh.

Members of the White House coronavirus task force have been quick to publicly praise Trump. Pence regularly defers credit to the president for his leadership, even when Trump has repeatedly downplayed or misstated facts about the virus.

Fauci has similarly credited Trump with approving travel restrictions that he argued were critical to tamping down the initial spread of the virus in the U.S. and on Tuesday said during a radio interview Trump was not to blame for testing delays that have welcomed scrutiny. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But he has been unafraid to chime in with a dose of reality even when it cuts against what Trump himself has offered to the public. 

The president for weeks told the public to “relax,” insisted the government had the virus “under control” and suggested it would go away “like a miracle.” Fauci on Sunday, speaking moments after Trump left the briefing room, cautioned that “the worst was yet ahead.”

During a meeting with pharmaceutical executives this month to discuss a possible vaccine, Fauci played the role of educator for Trump, who appeared to misunderstand the timeline of when a coronavirus cure might be viable.

“So he's asking the question, ‘When is it going to be deployable?’” Fauci said. “And that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.”

People in the health community say Fauci’s role has been important and note that the White House has not pushed back on or silenced the top health official after he has contradicted the president. 

“When there are misconceptions or misperceptions ... he is right then and there interjecting, which we should all be very thankful for because if it wasn’t him, we don’t know who would be that person,” said Parekh. “As much as it matters to hear from government leaders, it’s really the scientists that need to have the voice here.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Fauci has taken a leading role in communicating about the virus at a time when the country, gripped with uncertainty, is looking for specific facts about what the federal government is doing to protect their health and what they can do to guard against the virus. 

Only 37 percent of Americans have a good or great deal of trust in what they’re hearing from Trump on the coronavirus, while 84 percent say they have such trust in what they’re hearing from public health experts, according to an NPR-Marist poll released Tuesday. 

Those who know Fauci describe him as having a one-of-a-kind ability to convey complex medical information in a way that the general public understands, something that is invaluable during a time of crisis. 

“There’s nobody in America who is more trusted about health information than Tony Fauci,” said Gostin.