The Memo: Speculation grows about Fauci’s future

Anthony Fauci looks to be skating on thin ice with President Trump, 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. 

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 Buck (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.”

Deepening the palace intrigue around their move, both Biggs and Buck are viewed as close to Mark Meadows, 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. 

“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 Kelly, Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson and Anthony Scaramucci’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.”

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 Hannity’s Fox News show last week, conservative radio host Mark Levin 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 Ingraham of Fox News tweeted on Sunday: “Anthony Fauci should be deferring to the President when answering questions about timing of economic reopening.” 

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.

Tags Anthony Fauci Anthony Scaramucci Coronavirus Donald Trump Gary Cohn John Kelly Ken Buck Laura Ingraham Mark Levin Mark Meadows Rex Tillerson Sean Hannity Steve Bannon

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