The Memo: Speculation grows about Fauci's future

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 A year into Biden's presidency, we're only burying more overdose victims Let's stop saying 'breakthrough cases' — it isn't helping MORE looks to be skating on thin ice with President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE, despite — or perhaps because of — a growing sense that he is the most trusted expert on the coronavirus crisis.

The White House moved on Monday to squash suggestions that Fauci could be ousted from the president’s task force on the crisis.

And Fauci himself sought to shore up his position during the White House press briefing, when he walked back remarks he had made at the weekend. 

ADVERTISEMENT

During a CNN interview on Sunday, Fauci had suggested that mitigation measures would have been more effective had they been put in place earlier but that there had been “pushback” against them.

After Trump invited Fauci to the lectern within minutes of beginning Monday’s press briefing, the doctor said that his reference to “pushback” was “the wrong choice of words.”

He also said that Trump “went to the mitigation” the first time he was asked to do so.

The remarks came after ominous signs for Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

On Sunday, Trump had retweeted a message that included the words “time to #FireFauci.”

Two Republican lawmakers wrote an op-ed for the Washington Examiner on Saturday asserting that Fauci was guilty of “a special degree of tone deafness” in the way he spoke about the economic toll of the lockdown that has affected the nation.

The lawmakers, Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckSununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority Matt Stoller: Amazon's Bezos likely lied under oath before Congress Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE (Colo.), also wrote that Fauci “can no longer be one of the primary voices in this crisis, especially not after his assertion that the economic effects and devastation from this shutdown are merely inconvenient.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Deepening the palace intrigue around their move, both Biggs and Buck are viewed as close to Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsHannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump Jan. 6 committee asks Ivanka Trump to sit for interview The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE, the former North Carolina congressman who has just taken over as White House chief of staff.

The op-ed intensified whispers of in-fighting within the administration between those who are pushing for a return to something like normalcy as soon as possible and those who favor a more cautious approach.

Trump has acknowledged that the decision of when to push for a reopening of the nation’s economy could be the biggest decision of his life. 

If he moves too hastily and the virus becomes resurgent, it could easily doom his chances of reelection. But the longer the shutdown continues, the more disastrous the economic effects will be. The nation’s economic health is already reeling, with about 16 million new unemployment claims in the past three weeks.

In public health circles meanwhile, the idea of a move against Fauci causes serious consternation.

Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown Law professor who specializes in public health and has known Fauci for 30 years, said, “I believe Tony is America’s doctor and I believe it would be catastrophic to fire the most trusted person in America right now.”

There is some data that backs up Gostin’s point on public trustworthiness.

A Business Insider-SurveyMonkey survey published Monday asked respondents to rank various public figures on a five-point scale in terms of how much they were trusted on the coronavirus.

Fauci scored the highest of the figures tested, with an average score of 3.96, and 44 percent of respondents giving him the maximum rating of five. Trump was one of the lowest figures tested, scoring an average 2.48.

But those are the kind of ratings that are likely to rankle Trump, who has a long record of moving against figures, including subordinates, whom he sees as rivals for public trust or the spotlight. 

Trump vigorously defended himself during the Monday White House press briefing, including showing a video that sought to make the case that he had acted promptly and assertively.

The video itself drew pushback. MSNBC cut away from its coverage of the briefing as it was being shown, with anchor Ari Melber calling it “video propaganda.”

Fauci has become a fixture of TV news and other interviews, some of which have included implicit criticism of Trump, since the crisis began.

In March, Fauci expressed exasperation in an interview with Science magazine with Trump’s propensity to make inaccurate or misleading statements during White House briefings. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down. OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time,” Fauci said.

Fauci is following in the footsteps of several people who have ultimately found themselves exiled from the Trump administration.

The president’s patience has worn thin for figures whom he perceived to be enjoying the limelight too much, or whom he thought were insufficiently loyal to him. Stephen Bannon, John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, Gary CohnGary David CohnHow Biden should sell his infrastructure bill On The Money: Wall Street zeros in on Georgia runoffs | Seven states sue regulator over 'true lender' rule on interest rates | 2021 deficit on track to reach .3 trillion Former Trump economic aide Gary Cohn joins IBM MORE, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe West must deter aggression from tyrants better than it did last century Hillicon Valley — Blinken unveils new cyber bureau at State Blinken formally announces new State Department cyber bureau MORE and Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciFormer Trump officials plotting effort to blunt his impact on elections: report Grisham says former Trump officials meeting next week 'to try and stop him' Yarmuth slams Massie for gun-filled family Christmas photo MORE’s departures can all be seen in that light.

“We know that Trump is intolerant of anyone who even takes a sliver of the spotlight away from him,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and one of the few experts who correctly predicted Trump’s 2016 election victory. “We know that Trump can’t bear to have any criticism within his administration.”

The White House, however, had already pushed back against suggestions that Fauci could be marginalized.

“The media chatter is ridiculous — President Trump is not firing Fauci,” White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley said in a statement Monday. 

Gidley was responding to coverage of Trump’s retweet that had included the #FireFauci hashtag. He said that Trump was actually responding to “media attempts to maliciously push a falsehood about his China decision [to block visitors from that country] in an attempt to rewrite history.”

ADVERTISEMENT

It is, in any event, complicated for Trump to directly fire Fauci from his position at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is not a political appointment. But he could marginalize him or remove him from the task force.

One way or another, concern about Fauci is fostered partly because he has personally been in the firing ling and partly because there has been persistent skepticism about the scientific projections of the coronavirus’s likely effects.

Most right-wing figures have shifted away from their earlier insistence that COVID-19 could be no more serious than the flu, or that it is somehow a Democrat-led hoax.

But suggestions that the scientists are still overstating the scale of the threat linger.

During an appearance on Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityMcEnany says Biden's press conference 'most delusional' she's ever seen The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE’s Fox News show last week, conservative radio host Mark LevinMark Reed LevinTucker Carlson extends influence on GOP  Glenn Beck says he has COVID-19 for second time Trump draws attention with admission he 'fired Comey' MORE cited a number of questions he wanted to be asked of Fauci and Deborah Birx, the leader of the coronavirus task force.

Noting that projections of the death toll from COVID-19 had been revised downward, Levin asserted that “there is something terribly wrong with the model, not just the data.”

Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamLaura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 Fox News tops ratings for coverage on Jan. 6 anniversary events Division reigns over Jan. 6 anniversary MORE of Fox News tweeted on Sunday: “Anthony Fauci should be deferring to the President when answering questions about timing of economic reopening.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

On Monday, she asserted: “It's now obvious that our press will oppose any strategy that doesn't lead to a complete lockdown for at least the remainder of the year.”

But Fauci allies, like Gostin, insist that even the questions and tensions around the scientist were themselves damaging, even if they stopped short of his firing.

“It is deeply harmful to the COVID response because it signals that the president doesn't want to be told the truth in a frank and plain way about the pandemic in the United States,” he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.