President Donald Trump is smearing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Trump wants businesses and schools to reopen sooner than Fauci thinks is safe. So the president has fabricated a story about Fauci giving bad advice. Trump’s goal is to make the public think that Trump, not Fauci, knows best what to do about the novel coronavirus. But his fabrication shows the opposite: While Fauci tells the truth, Trump tells lies.
Trump is irked because he keeps being asked about Fauci’s acknowledgments of inconvenient facts. Last week, in an ABC News interview, Trump was questioned about Fauci’s concession that the federal government failed to provide sufficient testing early in the pandemic. He was also pressed about Fauci’s observation that returning to pre-virus behavior would entail more deaths. On Wednesday, Trump was asked to comment on Fauci’s congressional testimony about the risks of reopening schools and businesses.
Fauci has bent over backward to avoid criticizing Trump. But now Trump is sniping at Fauci by name. Last month, the president retweeted a message that ended with the hashtag “#FireFauci.” In a Fox Business interview recorded on Wednesday, Trump said of Fauci, “I totally disagree with him on schools.” Later that day, Trump groused that Fauci “wants to play all sides of the equation.” He said Fauci’s testimony on the risks of reopening too quickly was “not an acceptable answer.”
Trump’s problem, politically, is that Fauci is far more trusted than the president is. In a CBS News poll taken from Monday to Wednesday, 62 percent of Americans said they trusted Fauci to give accurate information on the virus and what to do about it. Only 38 percent trusted Trump. So Trump is trying to undermine confidence in Fauci by peddling a false story in which Fauci gave bad advice and Trump rejected it.
On May 3, in a Fox News town hall, Trump said that on Jan. 31, he had restricted travel from China to the United States. He claimed that he had made this wise decision against all advice. “Even Tony Fauci was saying, ‘It’s [the virus] going to pass, not going to be a big deal,’ ” Trump asserted. Two days later, Trump told ABC that he had made the China decision “against many people, including Anthony Fauci … the doctors, and many other people. They said, ‘Don’t ban China, it’s going to blow over.’ And they said this at the end of February.” In the Fox Business interview, Trump elaborated on this tale. “I was criticized by everybody, including Dr. Fauci,” said Trump. “When I closed the border to China, he disagreed with that.”
It’s true that Fauci and other medical advisers initially opposed the travel restrictions. But they endorsed the restrictions before Trump did. The president reluctantly agreed to the move only after Fauci and others prodded him to do so.
At a press briefing on Feb. 7, Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, explained what happened. “The travel restrictions,” he said, “were the uniform recommendation of the career public health officials here at HHS.” Azar specifically named Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This was their considered recommendation, which I and the president adopted,” said Azar.
Azar’s statement matches reports in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A Times account, which quotes Redfield, says that on Jan. 30, Redfield, Fauci, and Azar endorsed the proposed restrictions. Azar then pitched the idea to Trump, but the president was “skeptical,” fearing economic repercussions. The Journal’s report concurs that Trump was “reluctant to sign off” on the proposal, “concerned about the signal it would send to markets and his relationship with President Xi Jinping, aides said.” But Trump “eventually agreed to it on the advice of Mr. Azar.”
Trump is also lying when he claims that Fauci said the virus was going to “blow over.” Video recordings show what Fauci actually said. On Jan. 27, he warned that “things are going to get worse before they get better.” On Jan. 30, he said the outbreak “could turn into a global pandemic.” On. Feb. 4, he predicted, “Almost certainly, we’ll have more infections in the United States.” On Feb. 16, he cautioned against Trump’s theory that the virus would “disappear with the warm weather.” On Feb. 25, he concluded that based on the spread in other countries, “It’s inevitable that this will come to the United States.”
But Fauci, unlike Trump, never whitewashed his own history. In a podcast interview that aired Feb. 20, he volunteered that he had reversed his prior opposition to travel restrictions. “For years, before this outbreak, I had been saying travel restrictions really don’t help when you’re in a pandemic,” he recalled. But “since this outbreak was concentrated so intensely in a single country,” blocking travel “seems to have worked.” That success, he reflected, “humbled me.”
The success, he warned, would only be temporary. He noted that the virus was spreading around the world and that the United States, having bought time, had to prepare. But Trump didn’t listen. On Feb. 26, he assured the public that there was no need to test more people or produce more masks because “our borders are very controlled.”
The truth is just the opposite of what Trump says. Fauci endorsed the travel restrictions on China before Trump did, because Fauci was open to new facts. Trump dragged his feet, and he used the restrictions as an excuse to relax, ignoring Fauci’s warnings that America had to prepare for the crisis ahead. Now Trump is doing what he does best. Having failed to prepare for the future, he’s lying about the past.
For more of Slate’s coverage of COVID-19, listen to What Next: TBD.