Has Dr. Anthony Fauci made Trump irrelevant to the coronavirus crisis?
Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has ignored, disputed, belittled or silenced experts. He rejected the conclusions of his intelligence agencies about Russian interference in American elections; mocked climate change scientists by calling for “good old-fashioned Global Warming” during a freezing snowstorm; and overrode the hurricane forecasts of the National Weather Service.
“The experts are terrible,” Trump once said. “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.”
But in the coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has shown that without experts we would all be in a mess.
When it comes to explaining the coronavirus to the American public, Dr. Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, is everything that Trump is not. He explains medical issues in an understandable way, but without sacrificing scientific precision; he neither exaggerates the effectiveness of the administration’s response nor understates the threat coronavirus poses; and by being calm, focused, and competent, Dr. Fauci re-assures people that we will get through this.
Most of what Trump has said about the coronavirus ranged from incoherent to exaggerated, if not false, to plain silly. He insisted two weeks ago that the coronavirus was “very much under control in the USA” and that the cases “were going very substantially down, not up.” None of it was true, and in fact coronavirus cases have increased almost fifteen fold since then.
Trump appeared to suggest that people with coronavirus should go to work. He expressed a preference for keeping Americans with the coronavirus at sea on a cruise ship in order to keep the coronavirus numbers in the United States down, which might in his mind help him politically but certainly wouldn’t do those Americans any good. His idea of re-assuring the public is to tell them “there’s a very good chance you’re not going to die.” In case anyone doubts his medical competence, Trump claims that he has “natural” scientific ability due to a “great, super-genius uncle.”
In the face of this craziness, Dr. Fauci has accomplished two remarkable feats for a government expert. First, he has rendered Trump largely irrelevant to the public’s understanding of the crisis. It may be one measure of Dr. Fauci’s credibility with the American people that, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, while 53 percent of the public have confidence in the federal government’s ability to handle the coronavirus crisis, only 43 percent approve of Trump’s response. Dr. Fauci may have turned Trump’s bizarre commentary on the coronavirus into background noise.
Second, Dr. Fauci has called out Donald Trump on his misleading statements. When Trump predicted that we are “very close” to a vaccine, Dr. Fauci firmly insisted that it would take between 12 and 18 months. ,When Trump expressed optimism that the coronavirus would miraculously disappear, Fauci soberly warned that “Given the spread we’ve seen anything is possible and that’s why we’ve got to be prepared to take whatever action is appropriate to contain and mitigate the outbreak.”
Most administration officials who cross Trump don’t last long, yet Dr. Fauci is still there because he is indispensable to managing the crisis, which Trump probably recognizes at some level. Indeed, some Republican senators recently told Trump that Dr. Fauci should be the face of the government’s response to the coronavirus. For many, he already is.
Trump, the self-proclaimed “counterpuncher,” discovered that fighting a deadly virus isn’t the same as attacking Gold Star mothers, former prisoners of war and just about any American who criticizes him. It doesn’t do any good to belittle the size, appearance or foreign origin of the coronavirus. It can’t be spun, and salesmanship is useless. The coronavirus just keeps coming.
As terrible as it is, the coronavirus accomplished what climate change couldn’t do. The coronavirus made Trump acknowledge that, yes, he needs experts.
Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.