Last year, President Donald Trump slandered Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Trump repeatedly lied about Fauci’s advice and called him an idiot, a “disaster,” a self-promoter, and a bad pitcher. Now that Trump is out of office and Fauci is President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Fauci is exposing Trump’s lethal mismanagement of the coronavirus. But he’s not doing it by slinging insults, as Trump did. Fauci is doing the opposite: He’s describing Trump’s tenure as charitably as he can, and he’s letting the facts speak for themselves.
In the week since Biden’s inauguration, Fauci has given more than a dozen briefings and interviews. He has praised the speed of vaccine development under Trump, noted that “a lot of good things” were accomplished, defended people who served in Trump’s administration, and rejected suggestions that Trump’s team had no strategy or no good ideas. Fauci has also spoken generously of Trump as a person. “We kind of liked each other,” Fauci told the New York Times this weekend. In an interview with the Atlantic, he called the former president “charismatic and likable.” Speaking with Ted Koppel on CBS, Fauci said, “I got along very, very well with him.”
When pressed about specific allegations against Trump, Fauci tells the truth: that Trump said the virus would “disappear,” that he hyped “alternative-medicine” cures, and that he called up Fauci after the doctor’s TV interviews last year to urge him to be “more positive.” But Fauci largely steers around the former president, attributing anti-scientific political pressure in the Trump administration to other officials. The doctor confirms that he was blocked from doing interviews in the administration’s final months and that his pleas for more testing were overruled. But as to who did these things, he uses only a vague “they.”
Fauci says he doesn’t want to “rehash” the past. Instead, he conveys the Trump administration’s pathologies by describing how “new,” “different,” “refreshing,” and “liberating” it feels to be told by Biden that “we’re not going to hide anything,” “we’re going be totally transparent and honest,” and “everything is going to be based on science and evidence.” Last week, Fauci cracked up reporters at a White House briefing by telling them, “One of the new things in this administration is: If you don’t have the answer, don’t guess. Just say you don’t know the answer.”
Fauci doesn’t need to rag on Trump’s tenure. He gets the message across by praising the elementary steps Biden is taking to control the virus. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Fauci lauded the new president for restoring U.S. membership in the World Health Organization, since it “makes no sense … to exclude the rest of the world when you’re trying to respond to a global pandemic.” He told Koppel that under Biden, Americans would see “the federal government and the states start working together, as opposed to ‘You’re on your own.’ ” He promised that the virus situation would “get much better because President Biden has made it very clear this is his top priority.” The implication was obvious: It wasn’t a priority for Trump.
In every discussion, Fauci says he takes “no pleasure” in contradicting Trump. “I didn’t want to be at odds with the president,” Fauci told Maddow. In interviews with the Times and with NBC’s LX network, he said he had corrected Trump’s falsehoods only to “maintain my own integrity,” “maintain the scientific facts,” and avoid “giving a false message to the world.” That’s one reason why Fauci’s rebuttals hurt Trump more than Trump’s rebuttals hurt Fauci. Trump is just settling a personal score. Fauci is representing bigger principles and bigger stakes.
Another damning theme in Fauci’s interviews is his respect for “the office” of the presidency. He says that’s why he hated to contradict Trump: “I have a great deal of respect for the office.” The unspoken implication is that Fauci didn’t respect the man who held the office. “This is my seventh administration,” Fauci told Maddow. “I’ve been advising administrations and presidents on both sides … And even with differences in ideology, there never was this real affront on science.” He called the past year “an aberrancy that I haven’t seen in the almost 40 years that I’ve been doing this.”
Fauci refuses to blame Trump personally for America’s pandemic death toll. When the Times and the Atlantic invited him to do so, the doctor declined, saying it would be too harsh. But when Trump’s name is removed, Fauci answers the question bluntly. On Friday, CNN’s John Berman asked Fauci whether “the lack of candor … over the last year cost lives.” Fauci said “it very likely did.” And when Koppel suggested that “with more consistent leadership, we could have saved a lot of lives,” Fauci replied, “Yeah, I believe so.” He told Koppel that “if we had had the public health messages from the top,” the outcome “would have been different.”
Fauci’s interviews won’t be the last word. Trump has been “hate-watching” them “in a fit of grievance,” according to the Daily Beast, and the former president’s advisers are already hurling invective at Fauci. But if this escalates into a PR war, Trump is likely to lose it. He has lost his job, he has lost access to his Twitter account, and he had no credibility to begin with. But Trump’s bigger problem is that he’s the only one trying to win a PR war. Fauci is just telling the truth.