It’s not unusual that President Trump and his team should try to attack or undercut someone. Trump likes to call himself a counterpuncher, which is true only in the sense that he also gets to pick what counts as a punch. So we’ve seen a by-now uncountable number of beefs, disputes and conflicts between Trump and everyone from random Americans to former confidantes.
It’s also not entirely unusual that Trump would attack someone over whom he has authority within the government. There are enough former administration officials who have been the targets of abuse by Trump after leaving government service that they could former a small basketball league. But there are also a handful who were attacked even while still working in his administration: members of the FBI, his former attorney general.
What’s unusual about the White House’s efforts to undermine Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading voice on the coronavirus pandemic, is that the only way in which Fauci has undercut the president is by being honest about the moment.
Trump’s attack on former Attorney General Jeffrey B. Sessions, for example, was predicated on his (mandated) self-recusal from the Russia probe, an act that Trump framed as an unwarranted betrayal that made him the target of an unfair investigation. This wasn’t true, but at least there was some rhetorical latticework undergirding things, however shaky. What Fauci has done is … try to articulate the risks posed by the pandemic and the current best thinking on appropriate solutions.
What Fauci has done is make obvious both that the pandemic is as bad as it seems and that there are ways in which it can be addressed which at times conflict with what Trump would like to see. Trump’s vision for what happens with the virus’s spread is fairly straightforward: businesses reopen and kids go back to work and he gets reelected and then it just sort of becomes a non-issue somehow. Maybe he doesn’t get to that fourth step; it’s not clear. What Fauci and, more broadly, government and medical experts foresee is grimmer: with better containment and Americans taking more responsibility for stopping the spread of the virus, maybe we can keep the death toll down until there’s a vaccine.
The White House’s release of a series of wan talking points about ways in which Fauci has been “wrong” — a descriptor that’s bolstered heavily by being applied with the benefit of hindsight — is a fundamentally hollow act. Fauci’s approach to the pandemic has been guidance tempered by uncertainty. Trump’s has been certainty unhindered by guidance. White House officials now want to rein in Fauci by cherry-picking instances in which they can take Fauci out of context to use the uncertainties of the pandemic against him.
Why? Again, because Fauci is saying that things are not going well. This is obvious to anyone able to look at a graph or, more unluckily, living in one of the numerous places in the country where the virus poses a larger and larger risk. But Trump is so focused on moving past this, sweeping it aside as a sort of political rainy day that will resolve before November, that even an admission that we’re facing a monsoon is seen as an act of betrayal.
Notice, though, the form of the attack on Fauci. It’s a fundamentally Trumpian one, aimed not at proving Fauci incapable or of elevating some expert they see as more fit for the moment but, instead, at arguing that Fauci’s word can’t really be trusted. It’s not that Trump and his team think that Fauci’s messing up, really. It’s that they want people to be unsure just how good or bad things are. It’s more useful to Trump if there’s an official who Americans (and his all important base) feel uncertain about trusting.
It’s terrain where Trump feels comfortable politically, for understandable reasons. Over and over, including in the 2016 election, we’ve seen Trump try to seem less obviously deceptive by positioning his opponents as similarly unreliable. Fauci’s decades of experience and frank approach to his position are apparently insufficient impediments for Trump not to try the same approach to him.
If there were any doubt that this was the strategy, Trump on Monday morning retweeted a former game show host who was advocating the same approach, albeit apparently from a position of sincerity.
Woolery continued to focus more narrowly on reopening schools, a tweet that Trump also highlighted. But only after elevating the one above — a tweet that frames literally everyone as “lying” about the pandemic. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an organization over which Trump has control and from which we’ve seen guidance that Trump has at times embraced.
Again: Trump would rather have no one be trusted than that he stand out as unusually untrustworthy, even if the cost is confidence in his team and in experts trying to tamp down the pandemic.
Trump probably sincerely believes, at least on some level, that everyone approaches the truth in the same way that he does. He probably broadly shares the sentiment that’s so common in the United States that experts and elected officials and authority figures are universally just snake-oil salesmen — a sentiment bolstered by anecdotal examples and focused on letting people think they can therefore do whatever they want. But this, it hopefully goes without saying, is a thoroughly dangerous position for the president to hold.
We should highlight, too, that what the CDC and Fauci are saying about the pandemic isn’t even particularly exceptional. The CDC, for example, offers fairly nuanced guidelines for reopening schools safely. Trump just wants them open and is frustrated that any school district would use the guidelines to decide that it is perhaps not quite ready to do so. So why have guidelines?
After all, what could go wrong if Trump advocated for a more rapid scaling-back of containment measures than experts within the administration think is wise? It’s not like that would mean, say, the rapid reopening of bars and restaurants which power a widespread resurgence in the virus, right? It’s not as if there’s a recent example of how this could go wrong.
But Trump thinks he knows what to do and Fauci and other experts are saying something else so he’s kindly requesting that you believe that Fauci and the CDC are unreliable because that increases the odds that you’ll listen to him instead. And if you listen to him, he thinks, businesses will reopen and kids will be in schools and one day, the virus will simply go away, like magic.
The experts respectfully disagree.
The most important news stories of the day, curated by Post editors and delivered every morning.