On Sunday, goaded by his supporters and chants of "Fire Fauci," President Donald Trump indicated that he would try to sack Dr. Anthony Fauci after the election. The tension between the White House and many members of its coronavirus task force, particularly Fauci, has become obvious to most Americans over the course of the pandemic. And yet, despite the president's chastisements — not to mention death threats — Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has managed to remain an effective voice for applying an evidence-based approach in the government's pandemic response.
No matter who wins the 2020 presidential election — and it remains far too close to call right now — Fauci will be remembered as one of the pandemic's heroes. In a very polarized nation, he has managed to keep the respect of the majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle.
If Trump does succeed in silencing Fauci somehow, it would come at a particularly precarious time. With the onset of winter, America heads into what will likely be some of the worst months of the pandemic thus far. We urgently need clarity about how to navigate rising numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, with a potential vaccine a number of months from widespread public distribution.
Fauci has spent the past few months speaking up about the stark realities of the pandemic — honesty that is out of step with the White House's messaging and which seems to have resulted in his being sidelined. But Fauci's true courage and wisdom are most evident in how he has managed to strike a difficult balance: avoiding overt political attacks while still speaking truth to power. By walking this very tricky line, Fauci has probably avoided getting kicked off the coronavirus task force, ensuring that he could continue working from within the administration. This couldn't have been easy.
Fauci has spent the past few months speaking up about the stark realities of the pandemic — honesty that is out of step with the White House's messaging.
After the release of Bob Woodward's recordings of Trump downplaying Covid-19, it seems clear that Trump lied to the public about the severity of the pandemic. But that isn't all the president did. The Trump administration also actively silenced government scientists and discredited (and continues to discredit) public health and medical experts who don't go along with the president's (false) narratives. Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't held a public briefing in months (outside of congressional hearings).
When the guiding voices of our government's scientists having disappeared from the airwaves, the vacuum was filled by not only well-meaning civilian and academic public health experts, but also malicious actors peddling disinformation. It made a confusing and fast-evolving situation even more devastating. Fauci must have recognized the importance of maintaining some level of centrality in our national public health messaging. He must also have recognized that if he pushed too hard or simply quit, inexperienced and dangerous voices like those of another Trump adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas would have even more influence both internally and publicly. Most important, Fauci's leaving the government completely would affect the continuity of work at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — the premier government agency working on the science to get us out of this mess.
The administration is certainly not making scientists' work any easier. It has tampered with the CDC's scientific guidelines (such as those for reopening schools and testing for asymptomatic contacts of coronavirus patients) for political expediency. The data on cases and hospitalizations have become harder to access. There has been an active effort by the president and many of his surrogates to promote disinformation and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. The president himself has continued to sow doubt about basic and widely accepted public health mitigation measures like masks. And if that it wasn't enough, the administration has actively fueled the rise in cases during the pandemic by holding super-spreader events.
Meanwhile, the more disconnected from reality the Trump administration's pandemic strategy has become, the harder it is for public health leaders to get the truth out. When Fauci has spoken out against the Trump narrative that the pandemic is just going to go away, he has done so knowing that it will result in a backlash. Pandemic denialism is closely linked to hyperpartisanship — and both present huge barriers to an effective pandemic response.
Fauci isn't a political appointee, so legally, he can't be fired via presidential tweet. That doesn't mean Trump won't try to undermine or muffle him some other way after the election. But repercussions for Fauci would sever the last semblance of scientific legitimacy for this administration. The public will look elsewhere for guidance. On the other hand, it is likely that a Biden administration would swiftly undo this change.
If Fauci leaves, I hope it pushes the remaining public health experts on the coronavirus task force — Drs. Stephen Hahn, Brett Giroir, Jerome Adams, Deborah Birx and Robert Redfield — to pick up the mantle and be much louder and more public voices of sanity.
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I don't think the Trump administration realizes how much this unassuming and kind man embodies scientific excellence. But he's also got backup. There is a legion of citizen scientists, public health experts and medical workers who aren't giving up. Silencing one man, even a giant in the field of infectious diseases, won't silence those in our field. For months, efforts like the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, the COVID Tracking Project and others have been providing the kinds of critical intelligence that should have been coming directly from the CDC. Over the last few months, our professional societies have started to become vocal advocates for evidence-based action, calling out this administration's deceptive and false claims. Long-standing and revered scientific publications have come out against Trump for his lack of leadership and respect for science.
The central fallacy of the Trump administration's approach to the pandemic is that you may be able to gaslight the American people for a short period of time, but you can't gaslight a virus. I know Fauci will remain an infectious disease leader for years to come. But no matter what happens between Fauci and Trump, the doctor's legacy is already assured. Trump hoped America's focus, like this virus, would just go away. But we are all paying attention.