Commentary: Dr. Fauci is the medical expert Trump — and we — need

Fauci, while demonized by some on the right, is widely respected and is able to talk sense to Trump.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

He’s 79. He sleeps only four or five hours a night. His voice is hoarse from constantly delivering bad news.

That’s Anthony Fauci, who is not merely shouldering the burden of representing science in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. He is also skillfully managing a fractured and often vicious media sphere where there is little agreement on what matters most, and where some are out to get him.

He is simultaneously managing a facts-resistent president who throughout his tenure has shown little respect for scientific or governmental expertise. All of this with millions of lives on the line.

How’s it going? So far, so good.

The nation’s top infectious-diseases expert has hopped from White House briefings to CNN to such unconventional outlets as an Instagram Live where NBA star Stephen Curry quizzed him, to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and even to the Barstool Sports podcast “Pardon My Take.” And then there was Mark Zuckerberg’s interview of Fauci on Facebook Live.

It looks exhausting, and it hasn’t always been pretty.

As my Washington Post colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker reported last week, Fauci has come under criticism from all levels of the right-wing attack machine, big and small. Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Network slammed his caution on experimental drugs. Peter Barry Chowka, whose Twitter bio boasts that he has been retweeted by the president, recently referred to Fauci, who has advised multiple presidents of both parties, as a “Deep-State Hillary Clinton-loving stooge.” A meme is circulating: an image of Fauci with his arm around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the question, “Look trustworthy to you?”

Meanwhile, on the left and in the center — if there is such a thing anymore — quite different concerns have bubbled up.

“Where’s Dr. Fauci?” is the worried question, and also a hashtag, thrumming on Twitter when the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is absent from the White House briefings, as he was for the second day in a row on March 23. “Will the press in the @WhiteHouse briefing room commit malpractice for the second day in a row by not asking the only question that matters: WHERE IS DR. FAUCI ???” demanded Fernand R. Amandi, Miami-based host of the Strange Days podcast. And MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski worried, as she watched Trump in one briefing compare Covid-19’s threat to the flu and car accidents: “WOW. That lack of Fauci shows.”

Despite the right-wing attacks and the mainstream anxiety, Fauci may be the one figure capable of enduring the attacks, managing the president and getting his message across.

The formula that’s brought him this far is equal parts endless energy, stalwart diplomacy and the willingness to calmly repeat himself to anyone who will listen; including President Trump.

His prescription includes facts, tact and, when appropriate, a dose of humor.

On his interview Monday with late-night Showtime hosts Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, Fauci showed his trademark discretion, as the comedians tried to bait him into saying which of the six presidents he’s served was the coolest.

“There’s not a chance in the world I’m gonna answer that one,” Fauci parried with a smile.

If there was a low point in Fauci’s recent trajectory, it may have come in an interview with Science magazine where he showed his exasperation with Trump’s misstatements, whether on the availability of tests or on the likely efficacy of a virus treatment.

“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” Fauci said. His attitude: “OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.”

But so far, Trump keeps listening to the doctor he chummily (some feel disrespectfully) refers to as “Tony.”

This week, when Trump shed his fantasy of packing the church pews for a back-to-normal Easter deadline, the reversal seemed to be at least in part a result of Fauci’s presenting him with the hard numbers.

“He looked at the data, and he got it right away,” Fauci told CNN’s John Berman. “It was a pretty clear picture. Dr. Debbie Birx and I went in together in the Oval Office and leaned over the desk and said, ‘Here are the data. Take a look.’ He looked at them, he understood them, and he just shook his head and said, ‘I guess we got to do it.’ “

Even Fauci’s explanation of what happened behind the scenes at the White House is emblematic of his next-level media savvy; not to mention his knack for managing-up. His boss thrives on flattery and favorable media coverage, and Fauci’s sound bite casts Trump as a thoughtful president who makes tough decisions based on data.

Will Fauci continue to endure? Maybe, but not if the likes of pro-Trump podcast host Bill Mitchell have anything to say about it.

“Congress should subpoena Dr. Doom Fauci’s phone records,” Mitchell tweeted Monday, “and see how many times he has called Hillary in the past 60 days.”

If Fauci can keep his job, and his crucial influence on Trump, in the weeks ahead, he will have another item for his already gold-plated resume: Media Survivor.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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