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Why Dr. Fauci is Donald Trump's worst nightmare

In the 1980 presidential election, Republican Ronald Reagan ran against the incumbent, Democrat Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterCan Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' French radio station mistakenly publishes obituaries of celebrities MORE. Reagan famously hit a home run in their one debate by asking Americans, at a time when the economy was staggering, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It was a close race going into the debate, but a week later Reagan won the election decisively. No one remembers Carter’s response. 

It’s the last question that President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE wants anyone to ask him to such devastating effect a week before the election in November, which is why Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciKamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Overnight Health Care: Biden team to begin getting COVID briefings | Fauci says he would 'absolutely' serve on Biden's COVID task force | Major glove factories close after thousands test positive for COVID-19 Fauci says he would 'absolutely' serve on a Biden coronavirus task force MORE is a presidential nightmare. Americans are horribly worse off than they were four years ago, and they know it. Less than four months before the election, Trump is down by 15 percentage points against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll

The president’s reelection strategy is to revive the economy by pushing Americans back to work and children back to school without being honest about the risks from the coronavirus pandemic, which he airily waves away. Despite coronavirus case surges throughout the country, Trump claims that the pandemic is under control and that 99 percent of cases are “totally harmless.”

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Dr. Fauci gets in the way of that strategy by telling Americans the truth about the pandemic. He regularly reminds them that the pandemic is far from over, urges caution in reopening the economy and the schools, and unhesitatingly contradicts the president’s wildly off-base, feel-good statements. Fauci bluntly insisted that it’s “obviously not” the case that 99 percent of the cases are harmless. 

In a mid-June New York Times-Siena poll,76 percent of respondents stated that they trusted Fauci for “accurate information” about the pandemic. Only 26 percent said the same of Trump, who must have felt the way the Evil Queen did when the Magic Mirror said that Snow White was the fairest of them all. 

Indeed, there are reports that the poll accounts for the botched attempt by the White House to kneecap Dr. Fauci with snide presidential remarks (“nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes”), unflattering cartoons, an opposition-research style memorandum critical of Fauci and even an op-ed by that well known medical giant, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, contending that Fauci’s advice should be taken with “skepticism and caution.” 

Dr. Fauci pushed back hard, which probably stunned a president used to bending, if not breaking, any member of his administration who crosses him, and not used to having someone out-tough him. Fauci called the White House attacks “bizarre”; asserted that the public “can trust me”; dismissed Navarro as “in a world by himself”; and said  "let’s stop this nonsense” and focus on the virus.

What happened next was extremely gratifying to anyone who likes to see bullies get their comeuppance. Numerous public health experts rallied to Fauci’s defense, and even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE (R-Ky.) said he had “total” confidence in Fauci.  Trump backed down, which he probably hates to do even more than wearing a mask in public. Trump rebuked Navarro for the op-ed and, sounding like a supplicant, insisted that he “gets along very well” with Dr. Fauci.  

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Generations from now, when historians examine the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020-21, they will likely be baffled as to why the president of the United States refused to listen to, and even tried to discredit, the nation’s leading virologist when so many Americans were falling ill and dying from a virus. They may also have a hard time understanding how, after so many centuries of scientific progress, the American people could confer their highest office on a man who, when his personal political needs and science conflicted, rejected science and scientific expertise. 

Fortunately, Dr. Fauci emerged unscathed, and perhaps even stronger, from the White House’s attempted mauling. In the absence of presidential leadership, his expertise and advice is much-needed as the coronavirus plunges its talons ever deeper into the American people. When Fauci looks at a map of the United States showing coronavirus cases, his focus is on the ugly, spreading red blotches of a pandemic that is killing Americans. When Donald Trump looks at a map like that, he sees only himself.

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm:  Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started the Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.