Dr Anthony Fauci was the “skunk at the picnic” in Donald Trump’s White House coronavirus taskforce, the top US public health expert told the New York Times in a candid interview on Sunday.
More than 25m cases of Covid-19 have been recorded in the US and close to 420,000 people have died. The economy has cratered and the rollout of vaccines has not been smooth. On Sunday senior officials in the new Biden administration added to criticism of Trump’s response.
Fauci said some people had assumed that he was “complicit in the distortions emanating from the stage” at White House Covid briefings early in the pandemic, at which Trump held forth. He clashed with the president often but he said he never considered resigning.
“I felt that if I stepped down,” he said, “that would leave a void. Someone’s got to not be afraid to speak out the truth. [White House staff] would try to play down real problems and have a little happy talk about how things are OK. And I would always say, ‘Wait a minute, hold it, folks, this is serious business.’ So there was a joke – a friendly joke, you know – that I was the skunk at the picnic.”
Trump criticised Fauci and flirted with firing him but never moved against the vastly experienced and widely loved head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has served every president since 1984.
Fauci, 80, has previously discussed getting death threats due to his differences with Trump on subjects including basic social mitigation measures and unproven treatments including bleach, ultraviolet light and the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, all pushed by Trump as the death toll mounted.
Fauci is married to Christine Grady, the top bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health. She, he told the Times, “brought up that I might want to consider” leaving.
“And after a conversation, she ultimately agreed with me. I always felt that if I did walk away, the skunk at the picnic would no longer be at the picnic. Even if I wasn’t very effective in changing everybody’s minds, the idea that they knew that nonsense could not be spouted without my pushing back on it, I felt was important.
“I felt it would be better for the country and better for the cause for me to stay, as opposed to walk away.”
Dr Deborah Birx, an army physician known for her Aids work who was Trump’s taskforce coordinator, also spoke this weekend about why she did not quit a White House containing “people who definitely believed [Covid] was a hoax”.
Birx will soon retire. Fauci has agreed to be chief scientific adviser to Joe Biden, a role he said produced a “liberating feeling”. He told the Times he did not know how long he would serve the new president, who is only two years his junior.
“You know,” he said, “my whole life professionally has been fighting pandemics … This is what I do.
“I think what I bring to the table is something that’s very much value-added. I want to keep doing it until I see us crushing this outbreak, so that people can get back to normality. And even after then, there’s still HIV, to which I’ve devoted the overwhelming proportion of my professional life.”
Finally, Fauci was asked if he thought Trump “cost the country tens or hundreds of thousands of lives”.
“I can’t comment on that,” he said. “People always ask that and … making the direct connection that way, it becomes very damning. I just want to stay away from that. Sorry.”