WASHINGTON — The White House in recent days has accelerated an effort that President Trump began months ago: openly discrediting the guidance of Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases researcher.

Trump accused Fauci of making “a lot of mistakes” since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in a recent interview, justifying his continued disagreements with the veteran scientist on issues as routine as the number of new coronavirus cases. He also said he disagreed with Fauci’s assessment that the U.S. was handling the crisis poorly compared to other nations — which, given the 60,000-plus Americans being diagnosed with the disease each day, is a simple reality. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported the White House had begun circulating a list of Fauci’s early predictions and guidance surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic that many, in hindsight, have labeled as overly optimistic, though several lacked context.

The latest broadsides have reignited fears that Trump could take far more drastic action to limit Fauci’s public health power and platform — or even remove him from his post, the way Trump has unceremoniously axed so many other federal officials.

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Fauci’s future role in the U.S. government’s pandemic response will follow one of three paths. Though Trump can’t easily fire him, administration officials could remove him from his post leading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and reassign him elsewhere in government. Trump could also attempt to formally bar Fauci from conducting public briefings or interviews, effectively silencing one of the administration’s most recognizable public health experts.

Or Trump could continue to quietly diminish Fauci’s role and subtly limit his public platform — as he has for months.

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Fauci’s role in public outreach has visibly diminished since spring, when he would regularly accompany Trump to daily White House coronavirus task force press briefings. His public role has since been reduced to sporadic appearances on podcasts, at scientific gatherings, or in print news stories. Fauci said recently he hasn’t briefed the president since June.

Even at the since-discontinued briefings, Trump would challenge Fauci, once admitting “we disagree a little bit” on lack of evidence surrounding hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug, in preventing Covid-19, allowing that his view was “just a feeling.”

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For now, however, the White House has insisted that Fauci remains in good standing and is not in jeopardy of losing his job. Trump even boasted of his “very good relationship” with Fauci on Monday.

Outside experts, however, feel that as long as Fauci continues to speak the truth on the realities of the pandemic, he’ll keep making enemies within the administration.

“If they do punish Fauci for telling the truth, then where are we?” said Elias Zerhouni, the former NIH director who famously testified to Congress that former president George W. Bush’s ban on scientific use of embryonic stem cells was stifling research. “You can ignore it, you can say I don’t take [your advice] into account, I changed my mind, I’m the policymaker. But don’t say you’re going to punish the messenger.”

Below, STAT walks through the possible futures for Fauci — and why some are likelier than others.

1. Trump moves to dismiss Fauci

The most dramatic — and least likely — move: Trump could try to fire Fauci.

But federal law prevents the president from firing most government employees without cause.

“Tony Fauci is not a presidential appointee,” Zerhouni said. “He’s a civil [servant] for 35, 40 years. So you can’t really fire him from the government — that’s not in the powers of the president.”

But if push came to shove, Trump could almost certainly order Fauci’s superiors — health secretary Alex Azar or NIH chief Francis Collins — to reassign him to a different role within the Department of Health and Human Services.

There’s precedent for such a move even during the Covid-19 pandemic. In late April, the Trump administration abruptly made a leadership change at BARDA, an agency explicitly tasked with keeping the nation prepared for a pandemic or bioterrorism.

The agency’s ousted leader, Rick Bright, was reassigned to a post at NIH focused on developing diagnostic tests. He soon claimed in a whistleblower lawsuit that his reassignment was retribution for his opposition to the president’s enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine.

Zerhouni stressed that he does not believe Trump would move to reassign Fauci. But if he did, he said, it would put Azar and Collins in a difficult position.

It would be “like the Saturday Night Massacre, to be honest with you,” Zerhouni said, referencing the infamous 1973 night when former president Richard Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire a special prosecutor investigating the White House, only for the attorney general and his deputy to resign in protest instead of carrying out his order.

“If they do that, a lot of other people would resign,” he said.

2. Trump sidelines and bars Fauci from speaking

A slightly less severe, though no less noticeable, step: Trump could cut off Fauci from making any media appearances whatsoever.

Already in March, White House officials started requiring federal health experts to get their approval for any public speaking engagement. And Fauci’s seen his time limited as the pandemic has dragged on, especially after the administration’s Covid-19 task force stopped conducting daily briefings.

It’s not an out-of-the-ordinary arrangement; NIH leadership had to clear its media appearances with the White House in Zerhouni’s time too, the former NIH director said.

“You have to go by the rules of communication in the government,” he said. “It’s very typical.”

But Trump has, at least in one case, taken things much farther. In late February, Nancy Messonnier, a high-ranking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, delivered a stark warning in a press briefing: The agency expected the coronavirus would soon begin spreading through American communities, and the disruptions to daily life could be “severe.”

The remarks now seem prescient, even unreasonably calm. But when they were published, stock markets nosedived, and Trump was enraged, and reportedly advocated for firing Messonnier. The end result has been functionally similar, at least in terms of Messonnier’s public-facing role: She has not briefed reporters, or spoken publicly in any way, since.

That’s far more concerning, Zerhouni said.

“The fact that they don’t let you for a long time — that is something else. I never had that,” he said. “I always cleared it with the White House and HHS and it was usually OK, and I don’t recall an instance where I was censored to not talk.”

Even if the White House did bar Fauci from any future media appearances, he could still continue in arguably his most important function: helping to oversee the development of coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics. Messonnier, in fact, has presumably done much the same at CDC, returning to run an agency office focused on vaccines and respiratory diseases.

Attempting to silence Fauci from his role as a public health messenger, however, seems both difficult and unlikely: He is well-liked and trusted among Americans, effectively a household name.

3. Fauci stays in the background

Fauci, who has served six presidents and led the NIAID since 1984, isn’t necessarily the natural face of public health. His main job at NIAID is to oversee nearly $6 billion in grants and in-house research conducted into vaccines and medicines.

Fauci’s role, technically, is that of a researcher — not that of a public health adviser. It’s only after decades playing a leading role advising presidents like Ronald Reagan during the HIV epidemic and Barack Obama during the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa that the public has come to view him as a key part of any president’s public health apparatus — a role that could easily be filled by CDC or others within the federal health department.

But because Fauci’s role as a public spokesman is not a formal part of his job, it’s also easy for Trump and other federal officials to limit how much of that work falls to him.

Experts view this as the most likely scenario, in large part because it is the one that is currently happening. And despite the low-grade attacks, former NIH director Harold Varmus argued it’s a tolerable status quo — as long as decisions about what research the agency funds and conducts doesn’t become more politicized, too.

“So far, [criticism of Fauci] has not affected the way NIH conducts and supports scientific research, he said. “On the other hand, certainly, the government should have a representative who speaks the truth about what’s going on and no one is as well equipped as Tony Fauci to do that.”

  • Here’s a dose of logic direct from John Hopkins dashboard. As of July 2, 2020, at 7:25 pm the total number of “deaths’ in the US is: 128,651. According to the United States Census, the U.S. and World Population Clock, the US population is 329,887,448.

    Basic math confirms the death rate in the USA from Covid-19 is: .0003899845%

    If you under the duress of “Black Face” Governor Ralph Northam, according to the Coronavirus disease statistics from google as of July 2, 2020, at 7:55 pm, Virginia has suffered 1,816 deaths. According to the United States Census Bureau, the total population of Virginia in 2019 is 8,536,000.

    Basic math confirms the death rate in Virginia from Covid-19 is: .000212746%

  • I am appalled at the President of the United States and his attitude towards a very respected scientist and physician. If we didn’t have people like Dr. Fauci who tells the truth, we would all believe everything any politician tells us. President Trumps ignorance towards this pandemic, his unwillingness to adhere to experts in the field of diseases, and his self-promoting importance, has been disgraceful. We need a united country that follows guidelines by the experts and not someone who is nothing more than a hotel owner. We need to hear more about what Dr. Fauci has to say about this pandemic, not less. All who follow Trumps belief about this pandemic, is like your local grocer telling you about your health over your own doctor? I’m ashamed to see how many Americans believe this pandemic is “not that bad” (like the President) and would rather ignore the safety measures to ensure that America has less and less people dying. However, as stated many times, stupid people that ignore this disease and go on like nothing is wrong, will most likely become one of the statistics for the dead.

    • As of July 2, 2020 at 7:25 pm the total number of deaths in the US:

      128,651 According to the United States Census, the U.S. and World Population Clock, the US population is 329,887,448

      Basic math confirms the death rate in the USA from Covid-19 is:

      .0003899845%

    • Americans have been misguided or deluded into believing Dr. Fauci has the complete 411 package of knowledge regarding an appropriate protocol of masks, social distancing, fear, panic, not to mention, his numerous contradictions regarding COVID-19 recommendations that haven’t inspired confidence in his ability to serve as a trusted health advisor despite his present NIAID directorship! Wake up America, why have we scared so easily?! Common sense dictates handwashing is essential, and Stay At Home If You Are Sick!! We co-exist with numerous types of virus on a daily basis and our God given immunity, if allowed to function properly, will respond to the challenge accordingly and completely. Trust your innate immune system, not the populist mask and social distancing protocol Americans are being guilt tripped and mandated to follow out of extreme fear and panic they will contract this novel COVID-19 viral disease and succumb to a tragic end if these mandate protocols are not followed?! No, I’m afraid this isn’t that and thankfully so. Exercise good common sense, as this undoubtedly works every time. Live sensibly as your life truly does depend on that premise!!

  • Fauci SHOULD RESIGN, because he is a puppet for the NWO and Trump ( and many others know this ) should sit him down and tell him, you have been exposed…not to the virus, but to the world. We can only be fooled some of the time as the world is slowly awakening to this guy, with vaccine patents etc.

    • Dr. Fauci is a scientist. You may wish to indulge in Alex Jone/QANON fantasies, but he is not part of any conspiracy except against viruses. His life’s work has been to contain or kill viruses, and he has been very successful at it. Unless you are a Russian Troll, I cannot imagine why somebody with such obvious ignorance of medical research would be reading STAT in the first place.

  • Director Fauci is age 79, one year older than Joe Biden.

    The future of the USA is *only* reliant on Director Fauci? Ever heard of “diversification?”

    Who is his back-up? How old is s/he? Who reviews his work?

    No one is above review and oversight, this isn’t Stalin’s USSR. That includes Director Fauci.

    • To reassure you; Dr. Fauci has ample “back-up.” The entire staff of his institute and the entire NIH, and all the NIH-funded university labs and research centers around the US supported by NIH grants, and the WHO, and the European Research Council, and the EU university medical research community – oh yes, the researchers at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (Ft. Detrick). That is roughly 12,000 scientists. Of course, Trump will continue to ignore them all and encourage you to gargle with Lysol.

    • Mr. Hilton, congrats — not one name, not one written plan, zero, nothing. Just blah-blah-blah.

      Versus all the Communist records about bribes to the Bidens. And all the serious questions about FAKE DATA.

      No one is above public review. No one. You don’t like it, move to Communist China.

  • If I was Dr. Fauci (smartest guy I ever met), I would publically announce my retirement as motivated by working under a president who thinks he’s an expert on viruses because he had an uncle in the medical field at MIT and recently passed a screening test for dementia that most 10-year-olds could pass.

    • Fauci SHOULD RESIGN, because he is a puppet for the NWO and Trump ( and many others know this ) should sit him down and tell him, you have been exposed…not to the virus, but to the world. We can only be fooled some of the time as the world is slowly awakening to this guy, with vaccine patents etc.

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