Trump sidelines and undermines Dr. Fauci. But the top doc won't quit

One of the most complicated relationships in America right now is between President Trump and Doctor Anthony Fauci. They’re at the center of the nation’s pandemic response. They haven’t spoken to each other in more than a month, according to the Washington Post.

On a podcast last week, Fauci characterized the U.S. response to COVID-19: “As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. We’re just not.” 

After that appearance, the White House cancelled his other interviews and began criticizing Fauci’s job performance. 

Yasmeen Abutaleb, who covers health policy for The Washington Post, says the White House’s argument is that Dr. Fauci is wrong on a number of points. 

“A lot of the statements and arguments they made lacked context or were based on the best available science at the time. That's not to say that Dr. Fauci has been perfect. But some of the claims and some of the accusations are a bit misleading.” 

The White House has pointed out statements that Dr. Fauci made during the early phases of the outbreak. 

“One [of Fauci’s statements] was saying that asymptomatic transmission doesn't drive outbreaks. But ... this was at the end of January and the Chinese had stated in a press conference that there was asymptomatic transmission. And he [Fauci] said, ‘You can't just announce that without having the data. … And so if it was true, that was a huge game changer. But based on previous outbreaks, asymptomatic transmission is typically not a driver of epidemics,’” Abutaleb explains.

President Trump has also targeted Dr. Fauci telling people in March that they didn’t need masks. Now Dr. Fauci strongly recommends wearing masks. 

“He [Fauci] said that was because they were worried about shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers, and they wanted to make sure masks were preserved for people who were treating patients,” Abutaleb says. 

The tension between Dr. Fauci and President Trump has been growing over time, and the administration has been particularly frustrated with Dr. Fauci’s recent interviews, Abutaleb says. 

“Dr. Fauci basically doesn't toe the line or the message that the White House wants to send. He has always sort of spoken about infectious disease outbreaks and public health issues this way. But right now that's putting him at odds with the President.” 

Can Trump fire Dr. Fauci?

No. Abutaleb explains that Dr. Fauci is a career civil servant and not a political appointee. He’s been in government for 50 years. He’s been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 36 years.

However, Trump could get Dr. Fauci’s boss to fire him. His boss is Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

“I think it's highly unlikely that his boss would fire him, but that is how it would have to unfold,” says Abutaleb.

Why does Dr. Fauci stay on the job?

Dr. Fauci does feel like he can affect change, says Abutaleb. 

“I'm not sure that it's because he feels he can convince President Trump at this point to take his advice or to listen to the science. But I think the important thing to note is that Dr. Fauci ... plays a huge role in finding and bringing to market a coronavirus vaccine and treatment.”

Communicating with the public is important to him too. He speaks with television news programs, print outlets, podcasts, online forums, and even a high school newspaper. “He’s used all of that as a huge part of his job to communicate plainly and honestly with the public,” says Abutaleb. 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nihar Patel