WASHINGTON — Congress may want to hear from Dr. Anthony Fauci, but the head of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been put in an isolation box — a little purple one — on the White House coronavirus task force.
Fauci and other administration experts who testified Tuesday before a House committee are part of the task force's Physicians Advisory Group, but no one else who works on the team reports to them, according to an internal task force organizational chart obtained by NBC News.
That Washington version of a power scorecard shows four leadership boards directly under the White House: the doctors in purple, a "Unified Coordinating Group" in blue, a "Domestic Manufacturing" team in red and "Operation Warp Speed" in orange. The doctors group is the only one of the leadership boards that doesn't have teams under its control, rendering it powerless to make key decisions and execute on them.
Trump has shown frustration over Fauci being applauded by the public while his own handling of the response gets low marks. Trump said Tuesday that, despite much evidence to the contrary, there's no daylight between them.
"Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is with us in all ways, a very high 72% Approval Rating," Trump wrote in a tweet. "So, if he is in charge along with V.P. etc., and with us doing all of these really good things, why doesn’t the Lamestream Media treat us as they should? Answer: Because they are Fake News!"
But Fauci isn't in charge. His role has been diminished as he has demonstrated more willingness than many other administration officials to disagree publicly with Trump's decisions. The difference between his approval ratings and Trump's may well owe to the fact that he has been vocal in warning about the dangers of COVID-19 while Trump has played them down.
Indeed, Fauci and other doctors who are members of the advisory group, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, have less power than their public profiles suggest.
Fauci has repeatedly issued warnings about the possibility of a devastating resurgence of the disease amid Trump's push to re-open commerce. While much of the task force's work is being moved from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to HHS, Fauci's institute and the agencies led by Redfield and Hahn — all of which fall under HHS — are playing supporting roles.
Fauci said Tuesday that he hasn't spoken to Trump in about two-and-a-half weeks but believes that he has access through Vice President Mike Pence, who sits above the physicians advisory group and the three other leadership teams as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
"I speak with the vice president very frequently, with the meetings," Fauci told reporters. "So my messages get to the president through the vice president. The vice president is very accessible.”
The other doctors said they hadn't spoken to Trump in weeks, either.
Fauci, Redfield and Hahn all have direct reports at their respective agencies, some of whom are involved in aspects of the coronavirus response. But none of them are in decision-making roles within the task force, which is responsible for developing White House policy for response to the pandemic, acquiring and distributing supplies and crafting public messaging.
Giroir said Tuesday that he will remain the point person for testing, but the organizational chart shows that he will have decision-makers above him. And he acknowledged that he is reducing his focus on COVID-19 as he resumes work on other items in his portfolio at the U.S. Public Health Service.
Operation Warp Speed, the administration's effort to acquire and distribute tests, therapies and eventually a possible COVID-19 vaccine, is led by White House senior adviser and presidential son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Dr. Deborah Birx, who has served as the White House's coronavirus response coordinator; Defense Secretary Mark Esper; HHS Secretary Alex Azar; and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services official Adam Boehler.
Birx and Azar also serve on the Unified Coordinating Group leadership board, which has the most extensive structure after months of working on health data and supply chain issues, along with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor. And the Domestic Manufacturing group is led by Trump assistant Peter Navarro, Boehler and Defense Department official Stacy Cummings.
In other words, the action is happening far away from Fauci and the physicians advisory group. That limits the doctor group's influence to its ability to persuade Trump through Pence. And the difficulty there is easy to see.
Pence wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week with the tautological conclusion that "panic is overblown" when it comes to a "second wave" of the pandemic. Pence said the U.S. is "winning the fight" against COVID-19.
But with infection and hospitalization spikes around the country, Fauci told Congress Tuesday that the first wave hasn't passed.
"We are still in the middle of a serious outbreak," he said. "No doubt about that."
If the White House is listening, it's also dismissing Fauci. And that's easier to do with him in a little purple box placed on the periphery of the response effort.