Old and busted: Reading the future in tea leaves. New hotness: Reading the future in RTs! Reuters, the New York Times, and other national media outlets report that Donald Trump has fallen out with Anthony Fauci on the basis of this tweet from the president, in which he comment-quoted someone else’s use of the #TimetoFireFauci hashtag:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2020
First off, that’s not quite what Fauci said, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The point of Trump’s tweet is pretty clearly not to promote the idea of firing Fauci, nor to blame Fauci for his alleged analysis on February 29th. Trump never even includes a single word about Fauci. The only issue in his response is to defend himself against allegations of inaction by pointing out that he banned travel to and from China long before — which will also play into the later point.
In other words, it’s pretty much the standard defense Trump has offered against this standard criticism that he didn’t act fast enough. At least Reuters admits that their Fauci-on-the-way-out take is based on nothing much but tea-leaves speculation:
U.S. President Donald Trump retweeted a call to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci after the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases said lives could have been saved if the country had shut down sooner during the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Trump retweeted a message Sunday from a former Republican congressional candidate who cited Fauci’s comments during a television interview on Sunday and tweeted “time to #FireFauci.”
The Republican president in the past has repeated critical tweets of officials or enemies rather than make the criticism himself. The retweet fueled speculation Trump was running out of patience with the popular scientist and could fire him.
The NYT’s Peter Baker reports that the RT-with-comment was a signal of Trump’s frustration with Fauci, and then cited Fauci’s yesterday’s appearance on CNN’s State of the Union as its cause:
President Trump publicly signaled his frustration on Sunday with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, after the doctor said more lives could have been saved from the coronavirus if the country had been shut down earlier.
Mr. Trump reposted a Twitter message that said “Time to #FireFauci” as he rejected criticism of his slow initial response to the pandemic that has now killed more than 22,000 people in the United States. The president privately has been irritated at times with Dr. Fauci, but the Twitter post was the most explicit he has been in letting that show publicly. …
Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, said on Sunday that earlier imposition of such policies would have made a difference.
“I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” he said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated. But you’re right. Obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different. But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down.”
If Fauci said that to criticize Trump, then perhaps it might make sense that Trump got annoyed about it. However, in the context of Fauci’s interview with Jake Tapper, it’s clear that Fauci is defending Trump along the same line as Trump’s own defense. Tapper presses him twice to say that earlier action would have saved lives, and both times Fauci parries that line of questioning by reminding Tapper that it’s “very difficult” to say that. “You know it isn’t as simple as that, Jake,” Fauci says, “I’m sorry”:
TAPPER: South Korea and the U.S. announced their first confirmed coronavirus cases at virtually the same time in late January. If you take a look at where we are right now in the U.S., the U.S. now has 50 times more cases and almost 100 times more fatalities than South Korea. Meanwhile, while the U.S. makes up only about 4.25 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 30 percent of the world’s reported coronavirus cases and almost 20 percent of the reported coronavirus deaths. Sanjay Gupta said that’s — this is all because we got started too late in the U.S. Is that right? Do you agree?
FAUCI: You know, it isn’t as simple as that, Jake. I’m sorry. I mean, to just say this is all happening because we got started too late, obviously, if you look, could you have done something a little bit earlier, it would have had an impact, obviously. But where we are right now is the result of a number of factors, the size of the country, the heterogeneity of the country. It’s — I think it’s a little bit unfair to compare us to South Korea, where they had an outbreak in Daegu, and they had the capability of immediately, essentially, shutting it off completely in a way that we may not have been able to do in this country. So, obviously, it would have been nice if we had a better head start, but I don’t think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor. It’s very complicated, Jake.
TAPPER: “The New York Times” reported yesterday that you and other top officials wanted to recommend social and physical distancing guidelines to President Trump as far back as the third week of February, but the administration didn’t announce such guidelines to the American public until March 16, almost a month later. Why?
FAUCI: You know, Jake, as I have said many times, we look at it from a pure health standpoint. We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it’s not. But we — it is what it is. We are where we are right now.
TAPPER: Do you think lives could have been saved if social distancing, physical distancing, stay-at-home measures had started third week of February, instead of mid-March?
FAUCI: You know, Jake, again, it’s the what would have, what could have. It’s — it’s very difficult to go back and say that. I mean, obviously, you could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is — is complicated. But you’re right. I mean, obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different. But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.
There was a lot of pushback on the travel restrictions applied to China at the end of January, and then again when similar restrictions were applied to the EU. Both of those slowed the spread of the coronavirus in the US, but it didn’t stop it, unfortunately. The same is true of the social-distancing guidelines, but those weren’t ever going to “stop” the spread — they are designed to lower the amplitude of it. Far from advancing the narrative cited by Baker, Fauci is rebutting it in this interview and at least indirectly (if not directly) defending Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
The other part of this is that Trump didn’t have the authority to impose the measures that Tapper cites. He could have recommended them earlier, but the only authority to impose them belongs to governors. Trump could only restrict international and interstate travel, and did take steps on the former while suggesting at one point he might do the latter to contain the New York/New Jersey outbreaks. A handful of governors did take those steps ahead of the White House, but quite a few of them waited for days or weeks after the White House’s “flatten the curve” guidance came out on March 16. Trump can’t order the states to re-open or to stay closed longer either.
The media has spent the last few weeks trying to gin up a feud between Trump and Fauci, with little success. This is every bit as convincing as all their previous efforts. As Fauci himself pointed out, this is a really stupid point in time to rely on speculation and rumors about personality issues. Three weeks later, it doesn’t look any smarter. At all.