After Dr. Anthony Fauci told Science magazine that he can only go so far to correct the president’s lies, since “I can't jump in front of the microphone and push him down,“ Trump shot back on Twitter that "we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”
When Trump declared that “We are going to save American workers, and we are going to save them quickly," Dr. Anthony Fauci was nowhere to be found. Monday's coronavirus briefing looked like a show trial that the good doctor had lost.
The verdict was apparent even before Trump spoke from who’d replaced Fauci on stage—Bill Barr, the pliant lieutenant who doesn’t know the difference between a phylogenetic cluster and a bad cold, and wouldn’t contradict the president if he did.
In Fauci’s absence, Trump was free to tell the story of a miraculous cure he got approved in record time, when in fact it’s early in a trial, allowed for “compassionate use” only, and far from proved to be a cure at all. Fauci had pushed back against that claim last week but now he was nowhere to be seen as Trump returned to his original belief that he must save the economy and the virus will take care of itself, miraculously.
Trump’s returned to the arms of his economic advisers who will go out and tell folks to buy on the dip to shore up the market, and spurned his health advisers, who want to take his candy away. Even to save lives, Trump doesn’t want to make the country eat spinach in an election year. Now, it’s all about the economy, stupid.
Without fear of contradiction, Trump’s declared Mission Accomplished. He spoke of the “15 days to slow the spread” we’re halfway through as though those were already in the rear-view mirror: “We don’t want to lose these companies. We don’t want to lose these workers. I think we’ll be doing something relatively quickly.”
Asked if Fauci agrees with re-opening the country, Trump said, without the doctor there to speak for himself, that "he doesn't NOT agree." When asked if Trump was mad at him for putting his hands over his face when Trump ridiculed the deep state last week, Fauci said, “No comment.”
This drama played out on the heels of a piece Monday morning in the New York Times reporting that Trump had become frustrated by Fauci’s blunt corrections. Without Fauci there, Trump talked, without challenge or contradiction, about how bad the flu can be, and how many people die in car accidents: “You look at automobile accidents which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving.”
Trump’s disillusionment with Fauci began several weeks ago when Fauci complained about too few tests and told Congress the situation was going to get much worse before it got better. This while Trump was still predicting a “miracle” in which that coronavirus cases would magically disappear.
It got worse last Thursday after Fauci corrected one of Trump’s more cockamamie and dangerous theories that drugs that work for one deadly disease can be quickly swapped in to treat this new one. Trump then returned to the podium and took another shot. “I’m a smart guy,” he began, correcting Fauci’s correction aimed at tamping down false hope and preventing a run on a drug because of Trump’s “feeling” about it. Maybe that’s why Fauci wasn’t there Monday, leaving the field clear for Trump to pat himself on the back for a cure that doesn’t exist yet.
Fauci’s in a class by himself, a hero to presidents both Republican and Democratic, when there’s only room on stage for one hero in this administration. Other aides before Fauci have said they were staying not because they didn’t want to let go of the heady power that comes from being close to the president but because if they were to leave, things would be much worse. In Fauci’s case that’s true and far from overplaying his hand; he dutifully played second banana to keep from being pushed out, or aside.
When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar spoke truth to power, he was replaced—on live TV—by Mike Pence, who has been inched aside by princeling Jared Kushner, finished bringing peace to the Middle East and now able to turn his attention to curing the virus by cajoling captains of industry into fixing the critical shortage of hospital beds, ventilators, gloves, and masks. It may be Kushner who filled his father-in-law’s head with the notion that desperate doctors and nurses, rather than complaining, should just “pour liquid that sanitizes” on surgical masks and reuse them until they disintegrate. Emergency workers have already died from a lack of equipment—a 39-year-old nurse in good health last week.
The best solution to the tortured briefings was to stop holding them and let Fauci tend to his knitting in his own office where he can easily take 20 minutes to update the country, instead of the two hours it takes from his work to go to the White House. Aides wince when Trump detours mid-briefing and asks why more people haven’t thanked him for forgoing his salary as president, but he won’t give them up. They’re the highlight of his day now that he’s had to forego his rallies.
I had a clarifying moment Monday morning when I heard Daniel Goldman, the House Judiciary lawyer infected with the virus, say that the situation was so dire at the Westchester hospital he’s in that the director of emergency medicine drove to Brooklyn and bought 1,000 masks at $6.50 each with his own money.
In my wildest imagination, I can’t envision Trump doing that or much of anything if it isn’t on camera, or spending money on other than himself. But I can picture Fauci in a Brooklyn minute pitching in wherever he can help. Trump’s always conned, grifted, lied, and wormed his way through to the next deal and now the next news cycle.
By contrast, Fauci kept working in the trenches while overseeing the Ebola epidemic, a 31-year veteran of public service who deepened his knowledge, worked for chump change, and is one of the experts thankfully spared when Trump decided to cut many of them because he could just rehire them if needed. When Fauci was offered to have his name in lights as head of the National Institutes of Health; he turned it down twice to stay where he thought he could do the most good.
But to Trump he’s just another denizen of the deep state. In fact, there’s a power in Fauci Trump will never know, and a trust that flows from it. Yet Trump blithely seemed happy to be rid of the doctor in the middle of Americans dying as he made clear Monday that he will not be keeping the “pause,” as Andrew Cuomo, a far more competent leader, has called it. “I think the cure has been very tough,” Trump repeated, with the 15 days to stop the spread only in effect until next Monday. Fauci’s work has been “somebody going to the doctor and saying we need an operation. And we’ve had an operation, and learned a lot.”
He didn’t say if the patient had survived. “Where’s Fauci?” lit up social media last time the doctor missed two briefings. We know where he is this time: benched, until he gives up any urge to grab a microphone, wipe off the contagions, and weigh in. Trump will learn he’s no Fauci, and that even with the doctor occasionally correcting him he had more credibility with Fauci than without him.