Democrats and Fauci himself are making too much of Trump’s alleged transgression here.
Or maybe I’m just so pleasantly surprised to see the president trying to appeal to swing voters for once instead of people who already have Trump flags in their front yard that I’m willing to cut him extra slack.
Here’s his new ad, wisely aimed at trying to mitigate his biggest electoral liability, his handling of the pandemic. I’m *highly* skeptical that an ad like this can work when the country recently had to endure an outbreak at the White House itself caused by recklessness in failing to basic COVID precautions, but the campaign’s gotta try.
The Fauci cameo is short but effective. Are you under the impression that Trump hasn’t done enough to try to contain the virus? Well, here’s America’s most trusted doctor to vouch that he did everything possible.
Now here’s the full context for those comments, which he made back in mid-March:
One objection to using that clip in Trump’s ad is that Fauci was speaking about the coronavirus task force specifically, not necessarily the whole administration, as the ad implies. (No one would have said in March that the CDC, for instance, couldn’t have done more to fight the virus after they royally farked up testing in February.) But that’s not very persuasive. Trump’s the one who put the task force together. Since when is it dirty pool for a president to take credit for the achievements of his deputies?
Another objection is that it’s outdated. At the time, in March, there was a stronger case that the White House and task force had done what they could to limit community spread. They scrambled to provide PPE. Trump banned travel from China and later Europe. Despite the him having spent weeks in February assuring people that the virus would go away by magic, he and his staff supported lockdowns initially. Seven months after Fauci made those comments in the clip, his assessment of Trump’s overall performance is doubtless more … complicated, especially given the president’s push to reopen early and his flouting of basic guidance like wearing a mask and encouraging social distancing at rallies.
But that’s politics, isn’t it? Trump’s using a figure whom the public trusts to vouch for the fact that he took the virus seriously at the start. The formation of the task force and its subsequent activities was cited by Fauci himself in March as evidence that the feds were on the case. It’d be like Trump citing Andrew Cuomo for praising his response on ventilators early in the pandemic. Cuomo loathes Trump and has clashed with him many times since then, but he *did* praise him for helping with PPE months ago. Would it be “misleading” for Trump to use that quote?
Even so, Fauci is annoyed:
“In my nearly five decades of public service, I have never publicly endorsed any political candidate,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a statement to CBS News. “The comments attributed to me without my permission in the GOP campaign ad were taken out of context from a broad statement I made months ago about the efforts of federal public health officials.”
I can understand him being peeved that the ad implies an endorsement of Trump the candidate rather than an endorsement of Trump’s coronavirus task force, especially since various members of the Trump White House — Dan Scavino, Peter Navarro, Mark Meadows — have criticized Fauci publicly. The populist impulse to deride experts who won’t support the president’s agenda in all particulars has led to trust in Fauci dropping to 48 percent among Republicans compared to 86 percent among Democrats. Trump’s inner circle and its hangers-on have spent months taking potshots at the guy, now they want to trade on his credibility in an ad aimed at Dems and independents to try to convince them that a president who just hosted an apparent superspreader event at the White House has been on top of things all along.
The Trump campaign is in a delicate spot now. They don’t want to give in to Fauci on the ad, but they also don’t want to antagonize him to the point where the ad suddenly becomes counterproductive:
Yesterday the campaign published a transcript of quotes from Fauci, some as recent as last month, describing how the White House tried to limit the spread of the virus. The political risk for Trump here isn’t that Fauci’s going to quit; surely, if he’s stuck it out this long, he’ll stick it out until America’s been vaccinated. (It would be especially silly to quit with the White House expected to change hands soon.) The risk is that by eliciting a disapproving quote from Fauci about the ad, the campaign has ensured a new “Trump vs. Fauci” news cycle in the home stretch towards Election Day, which isn’t a good storyline for POTUS given the difference in how much most of the public trusts each of them.
Trump can still win. But on the other hand, if you're deriving a model from history, it implicitly presumes some baseline level of competence from a presidental campaign that may not be compatible with, say, getting into a public spat with Dr. Fauci 3 weeks out from the election.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) October 11, 2020
What’s better for the president? Running the ad without Fauci’s approval, thus assuring that the dispute will suck up media oxygen with time scarce before Election Day? Or avoiding the controversy altogether by leaving the Fauci cameo out of the ad and replacing it with one of Scott Atlas, say?
I’ll leave you with these two tweets, one from Jon Karl of ABC, the other from White House comms director Alyssa Farah. I’m curious to see how much TV time Fauci is allowed during the final weeks of the race, especially now that reporters will be eager to ask him about the ad to try to get him to disclaim it. Maybe Fauci made his unhappiness about it known behind the scenes before yesterday’s scheduled ABC interview and that’s why he was suddenly forced to cancel.
The White House would not allow Dr. Fauci to speak this morning. In fact, the White House press office would not allow anyone on the President’s task force to be interviewed. Quite remarkable that they would muzzle the health experts in the middle of a pandemic https://t.co/dklZmbWvd7
— Jonathan Karl (@jonkarl) October 11, 2020
FALSE. 1) Dr Fauci has been doing media all week – appearing on PBS Newshour & NBC’s Andrea Mitchell
3 days ago. 2) not getting your desired guest does not = the WH trying to “muzzle” anyone. This narrative is tired. 3) @jonkarl didn’t request any other member of the task force. https://t.co/C6UZciVO26
— Alyssa Farah (@Alyssafarah) October 11, 2020