Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, continues to “walk the fine balance” he talked about at the beginning of the month—the fine balance between going “to war with a president” and “making sure you continue to tell the truth.” Science magazine’s Jon Cohen pushed Fauci hard on some of the visible compromises he’s been making to stay on Donald Trump’s coronavirus response team, and the result is … illuminating.
Because Cohen did push Fauci, his responses show that tension between truth and challenging Trump too aggressively. Asked about the fact that the coronavirus task force’s press conferences involve a group of about 10 people standing close together in front of a group much larger than 10 people, for instance, Fauci responded “I know that. I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible.”
“What about the travel restrictions,” Cohen asked, noting that Trump’s claims on his February China travel ban and on China’s transparency about the new virus “just doesn’t comport with facts.”
Fauci’s frustration broke through again: “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?”
At other points in the interview, though, Fauci insisted that “to his [Trump’s] credit, even though we disagree on some things, he listens. He goes his own way. He has his own style. But on substantive issues, he does listen to what I say” and that, as for the things Trump says in press conferences, “Well, I don't disagree in the substance. It is expressed in a way that I would not express it, because it could lead to some misunderstanding about what the facts are about a given subject.” Except as “I know, but what do you want me to do” shows, Fauci does sometimes disagree in the substance, not just the expression.
Did Fauci get in trouble for putting his hands over his face at one point as Trump was spouting a conspiracy theory? “No comment.”
And the brutal ending, with Cohen asking “Right now, why do we have a travel ban on visitors from China when there are few cases in China other than imported cases? What's the logic?” and Fauci responding “I'm sorry. I was just looking at two text messages, one from a governor and one from the White House. I gotta get off.” Cohen and Science chose to include that obvious dodge.
Fauci has clearly decided that all the compromises—all the moments of standing by as Trump spouts misinformation or even politely disagreeing with Trump only to have Trump contradict him—are worth it to stay on the team making the decisions for public health. The way things are going, Fauci may soon have to make a tough choice about how long he keeps going along to get along.