During a campaign rally in Miami this morning, President Donald Trump suggested he might fire COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci after tomorrow's election. Trump was complaining about press coverage of the epidemic when shouts of "Fire Fauci!" erupted from the crowd. Trump's response: "Don't tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election. I appreciate the advice."
Trump has been openly critical of Fauci, who has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, for months. "People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong," Trump said during a phone call with campaign staff last month, calling Fauci a "disaster." At that point, Trump was reacting to a 60 Minutes interview in which Fauci contradicted the president's rosy outlook on the epidemic. Fauci's most recent sin was a Washington Post interview last week in which he did the same thing.
Fauci's comments are obviously inconvenient for a president who has repeatedly claimed that "we're rounding the corner" on COVID-19, which supposedly is "going away." But is there any substance to Trump's complaint that Fauci "got it wrong" when he advised the president and the public about how to deal with the threat posed by the disease?
Trump's spat with Fauci is not simply a matter of optimism vs. pessimism about the course of the epidemic. Last spring, Trump embraced an utterly implausible worst-case scenario that projected as many as 2.2 million deaths in the United States based on the counterfactual assumption of "no intervention." The White House continues to rely on that projection, claiming "President Trump's Coronavirus Response Has Saved Over 2 Million Lives."
Leaving aside the fact that the worst-case scenario was never realistic, the administration's math is puzzling. The current U.S. death toll is about 231,000, which does not leave "over 2 million lives" for the president to have saved, even if you assume no one else will die from COVID-19 and you implausibly ascribe the entire difference between reality and the fantastical projection to Trump's policies.
Nor is the current White House claim consistent with what Trump was saying last spring. "By very vigorously following these [social distancing] guidelines," Trump declared on March 30, "we could save more than 1 million American lives. Think of that: 1 million American lives." That estimate was also dubious, but it was less than half the number of deaths Trump is now claiming he prevented.
Even as the Trump administration was citing the worst-case scenario to urge dramatic changes in behavior last spring, Fauci was telling Americans not to put much stock in those numbers. During a March 29 interview on CNN, Jake Tapper asked Fauci how many COVID-19 cases the United States can expect to see. "To be honest with you, we don't really have any firm idea," Fauci said. "There are things called models. And when someone creates a model, they put in various assumptions. And the model is only as good and as accurate as your assumptions. And whenever the modelers come in, they give a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario. Generally, the reality is somewhere in the middle. I have never seen a model of the diseases that I have dealt [with] where the worst-case scenario actually came out. They always overshoot. So when you use numbers like a million, a million-and-a-half, 2 million [deaths], that almost certainly is off the chart. Now, it's not impossible, but very, very unlikely."
When it was politically convenient, Trump promoted a highly pessimistic scenario that Fauci deemed "very, very unlikely," and he continues to rely on that scenario to make his policies look good. If the question is who "got it wrong" when it came to predicting how many Americans COVID-19 might kill, Fauci's measured comments certainly look better than Trump's scaremongering.
Perhaps Trump means that Fauci "got it wrong" by favoring lockdowns as a response to the pandemic. But during his debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden last month, Trump strongly implied that lockdowns had helped reduce the death toll; he even tried to take credit for those sweeping restrictions, which were actually imposed at the state level. "As you know, 2.2 million people, modeled out, were expected to die," he said. "We closed up the greatest economy in the world in order to fight this horrible disease."
One way in which Trump explicitly says Fauci "got it wrong" concerns the utility of face masks in curtailing transmission of the coronavirus. During his first debate with Biden in September, Trump noted that Fauci had changed his position on that issue. "He said very strongly, 'Masks are not good,'" Trump observed. "Then he changed his mind. He said, 'Masks are good.'"
Although The New York Times and other anti-Trump news outlets frequently imply that Fauci's initial position was based purely on a desire to avoid shortages of face masks for health care workers, that is not true. Fauci did mention that concern in the early stages of the epidemic, but he was also skeptical that general mask wearing would do much good.
"There's no reason to be walking around with a mask," Fauci said during a March 8 interview with 60 Minutes. "When you're in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better, and it might even block a droplet. But it's not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And often, there are unintended consequences. People keep fiddling with the mask, and they keep touching their face….When you think 'masks,' you should think of health care providers needing them."
Fauci is singing a different tune these days, saying "there should be universal wearing of masks." He ascribes that change to accumulating scientific evidence concerning the effectiveness of masks and the importance of asymptomatic transmission. "As you get further information," he told CNN in September, "you have to be humble enough and flexible enough to make your statements and your policy and your recommendation based on the evidence that you now have, which may actually change some of the policy."
If Fauci initially "got it wrong" on face masks, of course, that implies his current position is right. But that is not what you would gather from Trump's persistently muddled messages about the value of this precaution. Although the weight of the evidence indicates that it's a good idea to wear a mask when you are indoors and in close proximity to strangers, the views Trump has expressed on the subject are agnostic at best, and his behavior suggests the same reflexive hostility toward masks that many of his supporters express. While Fauci says his opinion of masks changed based on evolving science, Trump has swung wildly between calling face coverings "patriotic" and dismissing them as a partisan affectation.
Which brings us to the current dispute between Trump and Fauci. Notwithstanding the recent spike in newly identified infections, which have reached record levels during the last few weeks, Trump insists we have "turned the corner." During his interview with the Post last Friday, Fauci strongly disagreed.
"We're in for a whole lot of hurt," Fauci said. "It's not a good situation. All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly."
That last part seems like hyperbole. The United States would be positioned more poorly, for instance, if the case fatality rate had not fallen dramatically since mid-May, partly because of changing patient demographics and partly because of improvements in treatment. But it is surely reasonable for Fauci to worry about the course of the epidemic as Americans spend more time indoors, and he is right that we are apt to see a further increase in daily deaths, although probably not nearly as big as the increase in cases, let alone as big as the huge surge that Biden has predicted.
Fauci not only contradicted Trump's excessive optimism. He made the mistake of contrasting the Biden campaign, which he said "is taking [COVID-19] seriously from a public health perspective," with the Trump administration, which he said is focused on "the economy and reopening the country."
The angry White House response to Fauci's comments noted the falling case fatality rate but was otherwise not exactly substantive. "It's unacceptable and breaking with all norms for Dr. Fauci, a senior member of the President's Coronavirus Task Force and someone who has praised President Trump's actions throughout this pandemic, to choose three days before an election to play politics," said White House spokesman Judd Deere. "As a member of the Task Force, Dr. Fauci has a duty to express concerns or push for a change in strategy, but he's not done that, instead choosing to criticize the President in the media and make his political leanings known by praising the President's opponent—exactly what the American people have come to expect from The Swamp."
In short, Deere is telling us that Fauci is a Swamp creature determined to prevent Trump's reelection, not a scientist giving his honest take on COVID-19 trends. If the White House thinks that take is wrong, it should be telling us why. Instead, the White House is telling Americans to accept the word of a desperate politician whose allegiance to the truth is tenuous even in the best of circumstances.