Donald Trump has a long list of enemies. In the course of his presidency, he has attacked the press, the FBI, the CIA, the military, Canada, NATO, the U.S. Park Police, governors, mayors, Fox News, and his own appointees. With every new fight, he forces his sympathizers to choose between trusting him and trusting anyone else. Now in his latest act of self-destruction, he has declared war on Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci is the country’s most revered authority on the coronavirus pandemic. In polls, more than two-thirds of Americans trust him, while nearly 60 percent express little or no faith in Trump. A sane president would embrace Fauci and try to absorb some of his credibility. But Trump spurns Fauci’s advice to wear masks, to keep social distance, and to avoid large gatherings.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, Fauci said that masks, because of their effectiveness and limited supply, should be reserved for health care workers who had to interact with infected people. Trump later misrepresented this hesitation to suggest that Fauci doubted masks were effective. Reporters reminded Trump that since March, Fauci and other health officials had agreed on the value of masks. But Trump continued to insinuate, falsely, that the science was uncertain. “Dr. Fauci said, ‘Don’t wear a mask,’ ” the president recalled in a TV interview last month. “You get all these different messages.” At a White House briefing on Sept. 16, Trump alleged that early on, Fauci “didn’t like the concept of masks.” On Sept. 29, in a debate with Joe Biden, Trump claimed that Fauci had “said very strongly, ‘Masks are not good.’ ” Fauci never said any such thing. He always supported masks in concept.
When reporters asked about their disagreements, Trump said Fauci was wrong and unreliable. This undercut the president’s simultaneous boasts that Fauci agreed with him on some questions. In an ABC News town hall on Sept. 15, Trump bragged: “Dr. Fauci said that we we’ve done a really good job, and we didn’t mislead anybody. He came out with that statement, which I appreciate. But whether it’s Dr. Fauci or anybody else, a lot of people got it wrong.” Trump didn’t seem to notice or care that his third sentence gutted his first.
Nor did Trump bother to get his story straight. In a July interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, he discounted Fauci as “an alarmist.” Seconds later, he accused Fauci of having failed to take the virus seriously. “Dr. Fauci at the beginning said, ‘This will pass. Don’t worry about it,’ ” the president lied.
Trump peddled obvious fabrications. Administration officials have reported, for instance, that he reluctantly banned travel from China in late January only after Fauci and other advisers recommended it. Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, has confirmed this on video. But Trump keeps insisting that he imposed the ban “long before Dr. Fauci and everybody else asked me to do it.” On Monday, at a rally in Arizona, Trump claimed that Fauci had told him, “No, no, don’t close it to China,” and that Trump had replied, “I’m sorry, doctor … I’m closing it.” On Tuesday, Trump spiced up the story, telling Fox News viewers that Fauci had said, “Let the people from China that are heavily infected, let them come in.” All of this is fiction. It’s not even plausible dialogue.
Fauci bent over backward not to quarrel with the president. He corrected Trump’s falsehoods only when he was asked, and he avoided criticizing the president by name. But a week and a half ago, Trump forced his hand. In a TV ad, Trump’s campaign took a statement Fauci had made about public health officials—“I can’t imagine … that anybody could be doing more”—and misrepresented it as statement about Trump. When Fauci cried foul at this misrepresentation and demanded that he be removed from the ad, Trump, instead of complying, stood by the ad. “They are indeed Dr. Fauci’s own words,” the president tweeted.
Having pitted his credibility against Fauci’s, Trump then made things worse. On Friday, at a rally in Georgia, the president complained that Biden “said the other day, he’ll follow science. So that means if Fauci says, ‘Close it up,’ he’s going to close up the country.” On Monday, at his rally in Arizona, Trump sneered that Biden “wants to listen to Dr. Fauci.” A week that began with Trump’s campaign faking an endorsement by Fauci ended with Trump implying that Fauci was on Biden’s team.
In the last two days, Trump has made it personal. He has called Fauci an idiot, a “disaster,” a Democrat, an incompetent relic (“He’s made bad moves, but he’s been there a long time”), and a self-promoter who “loves being on television.” Trump has hurled wild allegations—“Fauci, if we listened to him, we’d have 700,000, 800,000 deaths”—and mused openly about firing the doctor. In tweets, rallies, and interviews, the president has launched a bizarre campaign to disparage Fauci’s athletic prowess. “Tony threw out perhaps the worst first pitch in the history of Baseball!” the president tweeted on Monday.
Trump has gone after other scientists, too. In his debate with Biden, the president quarreled with Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Moncef Slaoui, the administration’s director of coronavirus vaccine development. At a rally in Nevada on Sunday, Trump accused Biden of saying “he’ll listen to the scientists. If I listened totally to the scientists, we would right now have a country that would be in a massive depression.”
In Trump’s mind, the experts are fools. “People are tired of COVID,” he raged in a phone call with campaign aides on Monday. “I have the biggest rallies I’ve ever had … People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong.” But the only person who got it wrong from the beginning was the president who thought he was smarter than everyone else. And the only thing more idiotic than getting it wrong is fighting, in the last days of the election, with the doctor who got it right.