The attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CDC come as health officials sound dire warnings from health officials about the perils of reopening schools and ignoring rising caseloads across the country.
As the coronavirus pandemic spirals out of control in much of the United States, President Donald Trump has relegated his public health officials to the sidelines, and in some cases, even appears to have arranged public smear campaigns against them.
On Sunday, several Trump advisers leaked attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, in an attempt to discredit the widely respected expert.
“Several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things,” an anonymous aide told the Washington Post. The official included a long list of Fauci’s comments from the early days of the outbreak, including his initial skepticism that asymptomatic people played a key role in spreading COVID-19. Studies have since shown that asymptomatic spread is a major factor in the spread of the virus.
Fauci and his supporters have acknowledged his initial mistakes—something Trump has never done—and experts have pointed out that the entire medical community’s consensus on how to respond to COVID-19 has evolved over time.
“When you learn more, you change those recommendations,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told CBS News on Sunday. “Our recommendations have changed.”
Other experts also mounted defenses of Fauci, citing his experience and commitment to trying to save lives.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden also got in the mix, criticizing Trump’s efforts to disparage Fauci.
“It’s hard to believe this has to be said, but unlike this president, I’ll actually listen to the experts and heed their advice. Not silence them,” Biden wrote in a tweet.
The White House on Monday attempted to backtrack, denying that aides were trying to discredit Fauci. “There is no opposition research being dumped to reporters,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters. McEnany also said that Trump and Fauci got along well. “The notion that there’s Dr. Fauci vs. the president couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.
Is the Nation’s Top Infectious Disease Expert on the Outskirts?
Despite McEnany’s efforts to spin Sunday’s leaks, they represent just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to ice Fauci out. Fauci said last week that he hadn’t seen Trump since June 2, and hadn’t briefed him in person in at least two months.
The political attack on Fauci comes as he has become increasingly blunt about where the nation stands in its fight against COVID-19. “As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not,” Fauci said during a podcast with FiveThirtyEight.com last week.
He has also said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. adds 100,000 new cases a day in the near future, given the rising numbers in most states. Fauci has argued that states and localities experiencing surges should shut down and repeatedly encouraged people to wear masks. Both recommendations have hurt his standing with the president, who wants to “reopen and move on” from the pandemic, according to one senior administration official who spoke to the Post anonymously.
Trump himself also criticized Fauci last week during a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity. Trump said Fauci “is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.” He also told Gray Television’s Greta Van Susteren that he disagreed with Fauci over his assessment that the U.S. was not in a good place in its fight against the virus.
Trump is also reportedly annoyed that Fauci’s approval ratings are so much higher than his own. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that 67% of voters trusted Fauci for information on the coronavirus, compared with only 26% who trusted Trump.
Fauci has also raised concerns about the Trump administration’s pressure campaign to reopen schools, which has been widely criticized. Many teachers, public health experts, and local government officials have said that the federal government has failed to provide comprehensive guidance and funding necessary to safely reopen schools.
But Trump and his allies have pushed forward, even sidelining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the process.
Trump Attacks the Agency Charged With Protecting America’s Public Health
The president last week blasted the CDC’s May reopening guidelines for schools, calling them “impractical” and “very tough and expensive,” prompting the agency to say it would issue new guidance on school openings. The CDC website, however, still states that a full reopening represents the “highest risk” and that online-only classes represent the “lowest risk.”
The Trump administration has also ignored a 69-page document, obtained by The New York Times and marked “For Internal Use Only,” stating that fully reopening schools and colleges remained the “highest risk” for spreading COVID-19. The document, obtained last week, includes those initial CDC guidelines as well as proposed state, school district, and university reopening plans.
In a section titled “talking points,” the packet highlights “noticeable” gaps in each of the K-12 proposals reviewed for the document.
“While many jurisdictions and districts mention symptom screening, very few include information as to the response or course of action they would take if student/faculty/staff are found to have symptoms, nor have they clearly identified which symptoms they will include in their screening,” the talking points say. “In addition, few plans include information regarding school closure in the event of positive tests in the school community.”
The document also explicitly states the federal government should not make decisions for local school districts, contradicting Trump’s own effort to force schools to reopen.
“These C.D.C. considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any federal, state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations” the packet says. “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, and acceptable and be tailored to the needs of each community.”
The document also makes suggestions for reducing the risk of reopening schools, which include widespread testing for students and staff and a contact tracing infrastructure to find and isolate anyone exposed to infected students or teachers. But such efforts would be expensive, with estimates for the cost of safely reopening schools ranging from between $116 billion and $244.6 billion.
Education advocates praised the document as the sort of guidance they’d been asking for for months. “What it tells us is left to its own devices, the C.D.C. can do a pretty good job in compiling a comprehensive document that shows the complexity of what institutions are facing,” Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told the Times.
Rather than embrace scientists and public health experts, Trump has once once again ignored them and doubled down on his own instincts. On Monday, Trump made clear where he stood, retweeting a conspiracy theory from former game show host Chuck Woolery that the CDC and doctors were trying to prevent the economy from getting better in order to hurt Trump’s re-election prospects.
“Is this what you want for your President???,” Trump wrote. “With no ratings, media will go down along with our great USA!”
He did not acknowledge that more than 135,000 Americans have died of COVID-19.