Why Is Donald Trump So Mad at Anthony Fauci?
During a campaign rally in Miami this morning, President Donald Trump suggested he might fire COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci after tomorrow’s election. Trump was complaining about press coverage of the epidemic when shouts of “Fire Fauci!” erupted from the crowd. Trump’s response: “Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election. I appreciate the advice.”
Trump has been openly critical of Fauci, who has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, for months. “People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong,” Trump said during a phone call with campaign staff last month, calling Fauci a “disaster.” At that point, Trump was reacting to a 60 Minutes interview in which Fauci contradicted the president’s rosy outlook on the epidemic. Fauci’s most recent sin was a Washington Post interview last week in which he did the same thing.
Fauci’s comments are obviously inconvenient for a president who has repeatedly claimed that “we’re rounding the corner” on COVID-19, which supposedly is “going away.” But is there any substance to Trump’s complaint that Fauci “got it wrong” when he advised the president and the public about how to deal with the threat posed by the disease?
Trump’s spat with Fauci is not simply a matter of optimism vs. pessimism about the course of the epidemic. Last spring, Trump embraced an utterly implausible worst-case scenario that projected as many as 2.2 million deaths in the United States based on the counterfactual assumption of “no intervention.” The White House continues to rely on that projection, claiming “President Trump’s Coronavirus Response Has Saved Over 2 Million Lives.”
Leaving aside the fact that the worst-case scenario was never realistic, the administration’s math is puzzling. The current U.S. death toll is about 231,000, which does not leave “over 2 million lives” for the president to have saved, even if you assume no one else will die from COVID-19 and you implausibly ascribe the entire difference between reality and the fantastical projection to Trump’s policies.
Nor is the current White House claim consistent with what Trump was saying last spring. “By very vigorously following these [social distancing] guidelines,” President Donald Trump declared on March 30, “we could save more than 1 million American lives. Think of that: 1 million American lives.” That estimate was also dubious, but it was less than half the number of deaths Trump is now claiming he prevented.
Even as the Trump administration was citing the worst-case scenario to urge dramatic changes in behavior last spring, Fauci was telling Americans not to put much stock in those numbers. During a March 29 interview on CNN, Jake Tapper asked Fauci how many COVID-19 cases the United States can expect to see. “To be honest with you, we don’t really have any firm idea,” Fauci said. “There are things called models. And when someone creates a model, they put in various assumptions. And the model is only as good and as accurate as your assumptions. And whenever the modelers come in, they give a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario. Generally, the reality is somewhere in the middle. I have never seen a model of the diseases that I have dealt [with] where the worst-case scenario actually came out. They always overshoot. So when you use numbers like a million, a million-and-a-half, 2 million [deaths], that almost certainly is off the chart. Now, it’s not impossible, but very, very unlikely
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