President Donald Trump’s election endgame argument, far from bristling with new solutions to a pandemic that has killed 220,000 Americans, on Monday devolved into a campaign of insults against Dr. Anthony Fauci — for telling the truth about the disease.
Trump ridiculed Fauci as a “disaster” and an “idiot” who has been around for “500 years” — trashing one of the nation’s best hopes of easing the pandemic along with his recommendations to quell an alarming Covid-19 surge.
His personal warfare against Fauci on a frenzied day on the campaign trail, while indecent and questionable from a strategic political perspective, revealed how the US government effort to beat the pandemic has been suppressed in the service of Trump’s reelection.
“Tony Fauci has been the most clear, consistent proponent of the measures the United States needs to protect itself from a deadly disease,” William Haseltine, a renowned public health expert and former professor at Harvard Medical School, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday.
“What Donald Trump is doing is attacking the fire department when the house in burning down. This is a very serious time.”
Trump’s conduct is typical of an approach to the disease that has rejected science when it doesn’t provide answers that are politically palpable and has threatened to cause the sickness and death of tens of thousands more Americans.
And the President’s repudiation of the US government’s medical brain trust raises the prospect of a completely politicized and anti-scientific approach to Covid-19 if he wins reelection and until vaccines and new generation therapies become available to everyone. By implication, that may embrace herd immunity theories reportedly advocated by his new favorite expert, Dr. Scott Atlas, that other epidemiologists warn could lead to even more US deaths.
Trump’s attack on Fauci comes despite the fact that Covid-19 is now rampaging across many of the swing states he must win in 14 days to secure a second term, and where he holds rallies with few masks and no social distancing likely to further spread the disease.
It also unleashed his pent-up fury about the doctor, who polls show is more trusted and popular than the President is, and again featured his fixation with the public servant’s invitation to throw an opening pitch for the Washington Nationals earlier this season.
Trump’s capacity to shock is tempered by the uproar of his nearly four years in office. But it is still mind boggling for a President to smear and lie about an infectious disease expert who is revered across the world, was an instrumental figure in beating back HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Zika, and is focused on the worst public health crisis in 100 years.
While targeting Fauci, Trump is arguing that Americans are fed up with the virus and don’t want to be told to listen to scientists counseling social distancing and other precautionary methods — as if just ignoring experts will make the crisis disappear.
“People are saying whatever. Just leave us alone. They’re tired of it. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots,” Trump said on a campaign call with staffers that launched a day of personal attacks.
Given that Trump’s entire campaign is based on triggering a massive mobilization of his political base that accepts his downplaying of the virus, there may be a limited rationale for Trump’s actions — even if they appear in direct contravention of his duty to keep all Americans safe. Yet they raise the question of whether he is further denting his appeal among the majority of voters who say that he has done a poor job in responding to the pandemic.
It is also appears to be offering an opening for Democratic nominee Joe Biden to anchor his closing case on the President’s mishandling of the pandemic — a reality that is playing out in the lives of voters as they consider their choice and at a time when more than 27 million ballots have already been cast.
“Mr. President, you’re right about one thing: the American people are tired,” Biden said in a statement Monday as he prepared for the final presidential debate on Thursday. “They’re tired of your lies about this virus. They’re tired of watching more Americans die and more people lose their jobs because you refuse to take this pandemic seriously.”
One Trump adviser told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Monday that the President’s attack on Fauci two weeks before the election was “not smart” and added that “time is running out” and “time is our enemy” and noted Biden’s fundraising advantage in the final days of the race.
Trump’s fury may reflect increasing concern about an election that is threatening to get away from him and the horrible reality that a deadly pandemic that he has mismanaged is back with a vengeance at the most inconvenient political moment.
It was also clear Trump is fuming that Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, is viewed as a credible figure and gets TV time — as on CBS “60 Minutes” on Sunday night. Trump’s entire presidency has been an exercise in trashing credible sources of institutional information, from the courts, to scientists and experts across the government and the media. But Fauci’s reputation — in a rare occurrence in this administration — has survived intact and appears to be secure.
“When you have a million deaths … globally, you cannot say, we are on a road to essentially getting out of this,” Fauci said on “60 Minutes” in a direct repudiation of Trump’s argument that America “is rounding the corner” on the pandemic. The doctor also wondered aloud in the interview why the President appeared to see mask wearing as a sign of weakness.
Ironically, while Trump spent Monday hammering Fauci, his campaign has used the doctor’s image to falsely laud Trump’s actions during the pandemic — a step that infuriated the veteran doctor who has served six presidents and always strove to avoid the taint of partisanship.
Trump’s rejection of Fauci, while embracing Atlas, a neuroradiologist and former Fox News fixture, also reflects the administration’s habit of finding evidence that supports its political positions. The Washington Post reported on Monday that Dr. Deborah Birx, a senior member of the White House coronavirus task force, had asked Vice President Mike Pence to remove Atlas from the panel as he was not giving Trump sound advice. During the weekend, Twitter removed a tweet from Atlas that undermined proven facts that wearing masks can slow the spread of Covid-19 in the community.
Fauci was not the only target of the President on Monday as he held two campaign rallies in a prolonged outburst of dishonesty that saw him make 66 separate false or misleading claims from Friday through Sunday alone, according to CNN’s Daniel Dale. Trump indirectly criticized Attorney General William Barr for being too “fair” and failing to open criminal proceedings against his opponent. He took new shots against NBC anchor Kristen Welker, who will chair the presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee.
And he angrily rounded on a member of the White House press pool under the wing of Air Force One for not reporting that Biden is a “criminal.” There is no evidence of criminal activity by the former vice president, who Trump falsely accuses of spying on his 2016 campaign.
But his venting against Fauci dominated one of the last days of a campaign in which Trump is trying to win over moderate and swing state voters.
Fauci, 79, has been America’s top infectious disease specialist since the year Ronald Reagan won reelection. He enjoys talismanic status within the medical community in the US and abroad. He was for example a key player in the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) initiated by President George W. Bush that is credited with saving millions of lives in Africa.
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor at George Washington University Medical Center, said on CNN Monday that in response to Trump’s attacks, Fauci should consider himself excused from any White House restrictions on his media appearances.
“I think Dr. Fauci should disregard any kind of media clearance from the White House and do whatever media he wants to do whenever he wants to do it,” Reiner said. “That would be his public service. I don’t think the White House can fire Anthony Fauci two weeks before the election because he comes out to speak the truth.”