For over a month now, the president has been ignoring one of his top public-health officials: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has not met with President Trump since the first week of June, despite the eruption of new cases over the last six weeks. But over the weekend, two opposing developments in their relationship unfolded: Trump finally accepted public-health experts’ advice by wearing a mask in a public setting, and the White House transitioned from ignoring Fauci to an active effort to undermine him.
As the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin notes, the Trump administration began sending what equates to opposition research to two news outlets — NBC News and the Washington Post — providing a list of close to a dozen quotes from the NIAID head from the early days of the pandemic that turned out to be wrong. The accounting includes Fauci’s statement in January that COVID-19 was “not a significant threat” and his claim in February that there was “no need to change” Americans’ daily routines.
The reason for the attempted kneecapping appears clear: As Trump reportedly wants to “reopen and move on,” Fauci remains committed to approaching the realities of the pandemic and sharing his message publicly. “As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not,” Fauci told FiveThirtyEight last week. Late last month, Fauci also predicted that the U.S. could see 100,000 new cases a day “if this does not turn around,” a prediction that is inching toward fulfillment, as the country has gone from a daily high of over 53,000 new coronavirus cases on July 1 to nearly 70,000 on July 10.
In a time of dismal presidential polling, Fauci’s popularity is probably not sitting well with Trump either. With Trump’s approval rating at its lowest since the 2019 government shutdown, he is trailing Joe Biden by five points in Texas, according to a poll from the Dallas Morning News and UT Tyler. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that just 26 percent of voters trusted the president for information on the coronavirus, while 67 percent trusted Fauci — perhaps, in part, because the NIAID head has been willing to admit that managing a virus new to the planet has been a work in progress.
As the White House reportedly hopes that Americans will “grow numb” to the coronavirus, Fauci’s efforts to broadcast sound public-health advice continue to make him a target for a presidency defined by its commitment to removing dissent. But as a federal official, Fauci is immune to a direct firing from the president, meaning that the White House will most likely continue to bad-mouth its most popular and most public expert as the pandemic surges.