Trump v. Fauci? Unfortunate, But Easy

To whom would you go if you get sick?
May 17, 2020
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WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: Dr. Anthony Fauci (R), director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, looks on as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," the Trump administration is announcing plans for an all-out effort to produce and distribute a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It was inevitable. President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci are now on opposite sides of the question of how our country should address the most deadly pandemic we and the world have ever faced in our lifetimes.

That they have collided on the issue of when to lift restrictions and begin a return to “normal” (whatever that is) is not surprising. Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci are fundamentally different men, with different experiences, different approaches to life, and different motivations. Oil and water. Trump has spent his entire life in the business world seeking money and fame. Fauci has spent his entire career as a government employee seeking cures for diseases. 

By publicly calling Dr. Fauci’s comments on when schools should re-open  “unacceptable,” President Trump has shown breathtaking arrogance. Such decisions are not subject to his “acceptance.” 

In saying that, President Trump has made his agenda clear. Simply put, Trump is done with COVID-19 and wants to re-open the country now. It’s not hard to figure out why. Trump, a politician, knows his popularity is suffering as long as COVID-19 remains an issue and the economy continues to implode. He’s had enough bad headlines and wants to put it behind us. Fauci, on the other hand, wants to proceed carefully and slowly. A scientist and doctor, Fauci cares little about headlines or polls, and while he fervently shares the president’s desire to defeat COVID-19, he knows we cannot simply wish it away and there is a significant risk in rushing to presume we are “on the other side” of things. 

As uncomfortable as it may be for us to have the president of the United States being be so out of sync with one of the country’s top scientists, it speaks well of our democracy that a relatively unknown government physician, who usually spends most of his time hunched over a microscope in an obscure laboratory in Maryland, has emerged as the public face of the country’s effort to deal with our most serious health challenge.

For a while, there was an uneasy, though necessary, detente between Trump and Fauci. Remember those insufferably long “briefings” Trump conducted? Aware and undoubtedly jealous of Fauci’s unimpeachable integrity, credibility, and popularity, Trump–in a flimsy attempt to convey a positive relationship with Fauci–sucked it up and pretended to respect “Anthony,” whose name he often over-enunciated. Fauci, ever the loyal civil servant, did his best to share critical information with the American people, while engaging in verbal gymnastics to avoid contradicting a president who was clearly in over his head.

Until now, that worked. Sort of. Perhaps egged-on by the incredibly ignorant and irresponsible rhetoric of Senator Rand Paul, who said Fauci was not the “end all,” and their sycophants on Fox News, Trump decided to abandon any pretense of mutual respect and positioned himself squarely against Dr. Fauci.

Yikes! There is no modern precedent for a president suggesting he knows more than a doctor on a medical issue. 

In asking people to choose whether to follow his recommendations, rather than those of a man who has dedicated his career to fighting infectious diseases, President  Trump has embarked on a very dangerous–and potentially fatal–path for America. Forget for a moment the increasing evidence that Trump’s initial mishandling of COVID-19’s threat led to many unnecessary deaths. The decision before us now is how to safely re-open the country and our economy.

No one knows for sure what the best way forward is. It is a genuinely perplexing question of whether to believe a president who says we are ready to re-open, or the country’s most experienced and knowledgeable expert in the field of infectious diseases who urges patience and caution. 

Maybe the best way to think about this is to ask what each man seeks. Let’s start with the president. What does President Trump think about when he wakes up every morning? Besides bashing political opponents, and seeking credit for doing what he is supposed to do, it is clear he is laser-focused on his re-election. He knows a collapsing economy poses a grave threat to that, which explains why he is so anxious to open things up. 

The question is at what cost? Is the risk of a deadly rebound of COVID-19 in the fall worth the short term gratification of getting tattoos, haircuts, and going to the beach now?

Anthony Fauci, on the other hand, probably does not think about politics, short-term conveniences, or economics, but instead about how to save lives. In other words, he follows his Hippocratic Oath.

That does not mean Fauci is a better person than Trump. Protecting physical health and protecting economic health are equally important. 

There is no way to know for sure who is “right” because everyone’s situation is different. It’s understandable that somebody who is out of work might think re-opening the economy ASAP is vital, while somebody who is at severely at risk might disagree. Let’s not lose sight of what we are fighting. COVID-19 is a medical problem. Medical problems require medical solutions. Anthony Fauci is a doctor. Donald Trump is a politician. To whom would you go if you get sick?

Mark Weinberg

Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant, served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in Ronald Reagan’s White House and as director of public affairs in former President Reagan’s office, is the author of Movie Nights with the Reagans.