‘The Skunk at the Picnic’: Dr. Anthony Fauci on Working for TrumpThe Daily
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- 26 Jan 2021
This episode contains strong language.In many instances while advising the Trump administration on the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci was faced with a “difficult” situation. Yet he said he had never considered quitting.What was it like working under President Donald J. Trump? We listen in on a candid conversation between Dr. Fauci and Donald G. McNeil Jr., the Times science and health reporter.Guest: Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter for The New York Times. For an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. You can read the latest edition here.Background reading: From denialism to death threats, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci described to Donald G. McNeil Jr. a fraught year as an adviser to President Donald J. Trump on the pandemic.For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily
From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro, this is The Daily. Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us today. We are pleased to have Dr. Fauci here with us as part of the president's commitment to have public health experts lead our communication with the American people about the pandemic just one day into the Biden administration.
With that, I will turn it over to Dr. Fauci. Thank you very much. And I'm going to just spend a couple of minutes just summarizing the status of where we are.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, returned to the White House briefing room.
First of all, obviously, we are still in a very serious situation. I mean, to have over 400000 deaths is something that, you know, is unfortunately historic in the very in the very bad sense to discuss the pandemic.
After months of respectful but public disagreement between Fauci and the Trump administration. Americans were eager to hear how he was feeling about this new era for so many times.
You stood up behind the podium with Donald Trump standing behind you. That was a different feeling, I'm sure, than it is today. Can you talk a little bit about how you feel released from what you had been doing for the last year? Falchi was blunt.
The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is, and no, that's it. Let the science speak. It is somewhat of a liberating feeling.
Basically, today, he opens up to my colleague Donald McNeil Jr. about what working for Trump was really like.
You feel like you're back? I think so. It's Tuesday, January 26th. OK, I think I've done this right. All right, I'm not I'm not good at this. I normally just take notes, you know, and I'm pretty good. I'm pretty good at getting quotes from you. Right. I think. But since they want to do it and I think I'd better do it formal way. Sounds good to me. So look, what I really want to talk about is what has this last year been like for you?
I mean, you've had everything from the president threatening to fire you to death threats for having had security. Tell me about it. When did you first realize things were going wrong? You know, it's tough to say, Donald, because this has been such an extraordinary year that I've almost had. Kind of a what's the right word? I remember reading about it one time, a time warp dissociation phenomenon where it things was so intense and so extraordinary that when somebody is like, when was it you think it was a month ago.
It was actually six months ago. You think it was three days ago. And it was actually 20 days ago. I think very early on as we started to go down to the White House and the president got involved in the sense of briefing him after a. Task force meeting in The Situation Room, the vice president and Mark Short and others would pick out three or four of the medical people in sometimes some of the others from the coronavirus task force and go up and brief the president.
Well, in answer to your specific question, I started to realize that there was an issue here when you would say something and try and express the gravity of the situation and the response of the president was always leaning towards, well, it is not that bad. Right? And I would say, yes, it is. It is that bad. And it's really can turn out to be a real problem. So it was always almost a reflex response when you would explain something, trying to coaxing you to minimize it and not saying I want you to minimize it was always, oh, really?
Is it that bad or. Well, you know, what was it like, that kind of thing? And then the other thing that made me really concerned was when it was clear that he was getting input from people who would be calling him up, saying, hey, I heard about this drug, isn't it great? And he would take almost as seriously their opinion based on no data, but anecdotes that something might really be important. And it wasn't just hydroxy hydroxy chloroquine.
It was a variety of other things that I've actually forgot what they are done, but they were things that were alternative medicine type approaches. So that were they were these people you mentioned on the show last night. But it was like it was an organization behind him pushing him to do the things we went through. And I don't know who they were, but it seemed to be that there were people that he knew that had access to him by phone.
And I understand that a lot of people did. Some people that he knew form a business, people, whoever they are, I don't know who would be making suggestions that something looked like it worked because it is like I took it and he felt so much better. And that's when my anxiety started to escalate, that there was this mode there that was not what you would call the scientific approach to the evaluation of any kind of medical interventions. It was by anecdote and that the game, did they have anything to gain from it?
I mean, nobody seems to make money from my classical work. You know, I don't know, Donald. I have to tell it, to be honest. I'm trying to be careful of what I say to you because I know I don't want it to get taken out of context. I don't know ust me the question of when I started to think that things were a little bit different and it was different because it seemed to be and anecdotally driven approach to medicine and almost I wouldn't say a complete disregard, but almost kind of like the standard way is as good as the anecdotal way it wasn't appeared to be either.
I mean, I was going to just say now there didn't appear to be a respect for the standard scientific approach, but I don't think it was a lack of respect. It was almost like a lack of appreciation that this is a valid way you evaluate things. And I mean, there was no other check on the total stuff from not from Jared, not from Mike Pence, not from anybody around him saying, hey, maybe we ought to pay attention to the science and maybe it doesn't work.
To my knowledge, Donald, there was not there could have been behind closed doors, but to my knowledge not, you know, I remember and I don't know the exact circumstances, but there was one time when we were in the Oval Office sort of sitting around with the chairs around the Resolute Desk and he said something. And I remember exactly what it was. And he went and he looked at me, know we had this interesting relationship, kind of a somewhat of a New York City comaraderie thing where, you know, where where we kind of liked each other in the sense of, hey, with two guys from New York type of thing.
And he would often when there were a bunch of people there, he would turn to me first and say, well, Tony, what do you think? And there was one time when he was holding forth something that clearly was not based on any data or evidence. And then he turned to me and said, well, Tony, what do you think? And I said, you know, I think that's not true at all because I don't see any evidence to make you think that that's the case.
And he said, oh, and then went on to something else. And then I heard indirectly that there was several people in the White House group that's there in the Oval Office who got really surprised, if not offended, that I would dare contradict what the president said in front of everybody. You know, it was like, well, yes, in my opinion, we want you to say right. But there was no consultation, no, there was no, no, he was fine, he was fine, he just you know, to his credit, he didn't get upset at all.
To the. First of all, did you ever have any any problems with him in the first three years of his presidency? Did you go to the White House? No, no, I barely knew who I was. In fact, I think the first time I. You know, I met him was. Hold on. One second. First time I met him was in September of twenty nineteen when he signed an executive order for influenza and they asked me to come down to the White House, bring my white coat with me and stand there as he signed an executive order regarding something about influenza.
And that was the first time that I ever met him. So there was very little interaction that I had with him. So that was September the nineteen twenty nineteen. And, you know, and then starting in January, February of twenty twenty, it was an intense involvement going down and to the White House very, very frequently know. I remember calling you. I think it was like January 30th. I called you. I was trying to do that article saying, is this going to be a pandemic?
And doing the math in my head on the subway the night before, I said to myself, holy shit, we've gone from 50 cases with no dead to 500 cases with 12 dead to 10000 cases, the 200 that this is 1918. I mean, this is a rapidly spreading epidemic with two percent mortality as a group. And I came into the office saying to my bosses, this is the big one. And my bosses look at me like I was crazy and said, you have to call at least 12 scientists to and talk to them about it.
So I did. And one of them was you. And you were literally on your way into the White House at that point to talk about it. But put me out there with a task force which basically run by Alex Azar and Wright seemed to be giving good advice for a while and then changed everything and put it under put it under pencil and then started doing all the speaking himself. Right. Did you have a sense of what made that turnaround happen?
You know, I don't know, I really want to be coldly honest with you, I don't know what happened. We were having taskforce meetings that were run by Alex Azar, and it was sort of the standard way that I've experienced over the years when a secretary or someone representing the secretary of HHS would run a meeting. It was, you know, the standard kind of scientifically based public health based meeting. You know, getting back to what you asked about when I when I started to feel that that I was getting anxious that this was going in the right direction, I had mentioned, you know, the anecdotally driven situation, the minimization, the surrounding himself, or at least hearing from people who I did not know who they were, who were saying things that didn't make any scientific sense.
And also it was very, very clear that he would be saying things after we. We talked to him about. This is an outbreak, this is infectious diseases tend to run their own course unless one does something to intervene with them and things like that, and then he would get up after that and start talking about it's going to go away. It's going to be magical that it's going to disappear, you know, and that's when it became clear to me that I would have to when I'm not going to proactively go out and volunteer my contradiction of what the president said.
But we're in a position in which someone would ask me and I disagreed. I would just have to honestly say, yes, I do disagree or under the circumstances that became very well known because it was on TV seen throughout the world when I was up on the stage with him. And he would say something that clearly was not correct. And then a reporter would say, well, let's hear from Dr. Foushee. I would have to get up and say, no, I'm sorry.
I do not think that that is the case. It isn't like I took any pleasure in getting up publicly and contradicting the president of the United States. I mean, because I have a great deal of respect for the office of the presidency. So I don't like to have to do that. But I made a decision that I just have to do that. Otherwise I would compromise my own integrity. And I would also be giving a false message to the rest of the world, because if I didn't speak up.
Against it, that would be almost a tacit approval that what he was saying was OK, and that's when we started getting into the things that I felt were really unfortunate and somewhat nefarious, namely allowing Peter Navarro to write an editorial in USA Today saying, I'm wrong on most of the things I say to having the press office. In the White House, send out a detailed list to almost every single White House reporter, every network, every cable of the list of the things that I said that turned out to be not true, all of which were nonsense because they were all true.
But I mean, to me, that was like, oh, my goodness, this is a really difficult situation. Not only do I have to be in the uncomfortable situation of having to contradict the president, but I'm having the people close to the president writing editorials saying, I don't know what I'm talking about and having the very press office that make the decisions as to whether or not I'm going to go out on any of the shows or whether I can talk to Donald McNeil or whether, you know, I can do this.
They're allowing a detailed summary of what they considered the times that I was wrong. Then, you know, in answer to a question, that's when I realize we're in some difficult situation here. Did you ever get taken to the woodshed? I mean, just stop disagreeing with the president in public. Did anybody say that to your face? What would be what would happen? Is that. I'm trying to figure out to be perfectly accurate about it. I'm going to say what I know, to be sure, there were times and I would either say something on a television interview or was a quote from me that was either in a major paper like The New York Times or The Washington Post, in which it was clear that I was directly or implying that something that the president had said, such as it's going to all go away or we're turning the corner.
And I would say something to the contrary, that I would get a phone call from a senior person in the White House. The one I remember the most clear was Mark Meadows getting on the phone and expressing concerns that I was going out of my way to contact the president. OK, was it only Mark Meadows or were there were others? That's the only one that I could remember. I mean, there may have been others that I just blew off, but since he was the chief of staff, I remember that, OK, since Trump himself never yell at you or ever say, what are you doing contradicting me?
There were a couple of times when he would call me up when something of. Let me see, let me get this right. There was an occasion or two where I would make a statement that got into the press that was much more of a pessimistic viewpoint about what direction we were going. With regard to the outbreak. And the president would call me up. You know, why aren't you more positive? You've got to take a positive attitude, why are you so negative to be more positive?
Did he say why? No, the only thing I can tell you is what he said I didn't get into the whys of anything is that he would get on the phone and express disappointment in me with not being more positive. Huh.
And he never said this is killing the stock market or killing my chances for re-election or. No, no, no. My friends, no, he didn't commit to that kind of specificity.
He would just expressed disappointment with. We'll be right back. If you're a business owner, you don't need us to tell you that running a business is tough. Don't make quick books and spreadsheets slow you down anymore. Now is the time to upgrade to NetSuite by Oracle, the world's number one cloud business system. NetSuite gives you visibility and control over your financials, H.R. inventory, e-commerce and more. Join me. Over 24000 companies using NetSuite right now. Schedule your free product to her right now at NetSuite.
Dotcom slash and white NetSuite dot com slash and mighty. When did the when did the death threat, something like that, start? Wow. Many, many months ago. You know, I really don't remember. Probably sometime in the spring. OK, sir. I will. You run of them? No, no, no, I just wondered if I can just bear with me. Sure, sure. George, when did the details first start, when he says, when I came to your house and that's when it was OK, got it.
OK, from the head of the Secret Service detail much, much to me, because when I started to get a protective detail, which means that some time prior to March is when when the death threats started and the harassment of my wife, Christine, and particularly my children, was the thing that upset me more than anything else was the accessibility that people have to phone numbers and addresses and where people work. It's amazing the information that's out there. Yeah, and there was no people talking to each other threatening, saying, hey, we got to get rid of this guy.
What are we going to do about him? You know, he's hurting the president's chances, you know, that kind of right wing craziness. Did anything happen? Did you ever get. Shot at or confronted by somebody with a gun or no, but there were things like one day I got a letter in the mail, I opened it up and a puff of powder came all over my face in my chest. Yeah. And we thought it was either ricin, anthrax or just a scare tactic.
But that was very, very disturbing to me and my wife because it was in my office. So I just looked at it all over me and I said, what do I do? And the security detail was there. And they're very experienced in that. They said, don't move, stay in the room and get the hazmat people. So they came down, they sprayed me down and all that crap that I had to do. So, yeah, they did.
They took the powder. It was nothing. It was a benign nothing. It was it was a hoax, you know, but it was very frightening, a simple reason. My my wife and my children were more disturbed than I was, but I looked at it it's somewhat fatalistically. So it was one of three things. It was either a hoax, it was anthrax, which if it was then I'd have to go on Cipro or is ricin.
And if it was ricin I was dead, you know. So, so yeah, it was one of three choices, either a hoax, a month of Cipro or by by actually to me, I didn't. Does anybody talk about this? I mean, you know, death threats. You need a Secret Service detail. Probably get sent to you that anybody from. I have no idea, to be honest with you. Did you tell anybody? Around Trump, hey, you're going to get me killed.
No, no. Did you ever think about quitting? Never. Never. No. You know, that was that was a difficult situation where I mean. Sometimes when people just see you standing up there, they think that you're being complicit in the distortions. That seems to be emanating from the stage. But I felt that if I stepped down. From the White House coronavirus taskforce that that would leave a void for someone who's not afraid to just speak up and speak out the truth, because, you know, there was a joke among a friendly joke, you know, calling me the skunk at the picnic because every time they would try to, you know.
Play down real problems and maybe have a little happy talk about things are OK. I would always say, oh, wait a minute, hold it. Folks, this is this is serious business. So it was that little joke that I'm the skunk at the picnic. That was your job? Yeah. Did your wife or me suggest you quit? She brought up that I might want to consider it and I had you. She's an incredibly wise person, knows me better than anybody else in the world, obviously.
And she said, you know, you want to have a conversation to balance the pros and the cons of what it would accomplish one way or the other if you did quit. And after a conversation, she ultimately agrees with me because I always felt that if I did walk away, there would be, you know, the skunk in the picnic would no longer be at the picnic, you know, and that and then I would not be good, I thought, even though.
You know, I wasn't necessarily very effective in changing anybody's mind. I was not afraid to speak up publicly on the stage or to people like you and other senior reporters of what I felt was the truth and what we should be doing. So anybody who knew me knew that I wasn't going to be complicit in this, but there was some people who would turn the TV on, see me standing there and say, oh, what the hell is he doing there with all that nonsense being spouted?
Well, that's one of the liabilities of being part of the coronaviruses task force. But I think in the big picture, people understood that I stood for what was correct and scientifically sound. So when I put all of those ingredients together, I felt on the balance it would be better for the country, you know, and better for the cause for me to stay as opposed to walk away from it. Did it ever did anyone close to Trump ever say.
Jesus, we were wrong. You were right. No. Even after he got sick, even after he got sick enough so he had to be flown to Walter Reed Hospital. Yeah, no, I mean, there was never saying, no, you were right, we were wrong that I never heard that. You never heard that. Did he ever ask you for medical advice? In some respects, yes, when he was in Walter Reed and he was feeling, you know, he was sick and he was getting monoclonal antibodies.
It was rather than. Asked me for advice, he was saying, Tony, you really just really made a big difference, I feel much, much better. This is really good stuff, these monoclonal antibodies. So I explained to him I didn't want to burst his bubble, but I said, well, you know, this is an N equals one. So be careful. You may as you may have been starting to feel better anyway. And he said, oh, no, no, no, absolutely not.
This was this. This stuff is really good. It just completely turned me around. So I figured the better part of valor would be not to argue with him. So. But then later, he's talking he's joking with crowds about firing you, and you made that joke about the right way, way, way to my second term, right? I mean, how did that make you feel? You know what you think? Well, I think he wasn't going to do it.
People say, oh, weren't you horrified that the next day you were going to get a cold? I didn't think at all that he was going to fire me. I think it was just, you know, Donald Trump being Donald Trump. But he ultimately brought in Scott Atlus and clearly made him, in effect, your replacement. Well, you know, I would think. Donald, that Scott Atlas was less a replacement for me than more of a pushing out Debbie Burke's.
Because I think what people don't understand is the dynamics. I you know, my name, your identity and my, quote, day job is the director of NIAID. I'm a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, or I was a member of the coronavirus task force. And I would intermittently go to the White House sometimes during the intense period I was there every day, but I was not considered a White House person. This is a subtlety that people need to understand.
Debbie Burk's is a White House person. When they brought in Scott Atlus, they brought him in as a White House person who almost everything he said was in diametrical opposition to what Debbie was trying to do. So he was much, much more. Of an intense frustration for Debbie that he was to me and I think people didn't fully understand that. I mean, I tried to approach him and say, you know, let's sit down and talk because we obviously have some differences.
And his attitude was that he reviews the literature. He intensively studies that, you know, we may have differences, but he thinks he's correct. You know, when I said, OK, fine, you know, I'm not going to really invest a lot of time trying to convert this person. And I just went my own way. However, Debbie Burg's had to live with this person in the White House every day. So it was much more of a painful situation for her than it was for me.
You think Trump cost tens of thousands of lives in this country? No, I you know, I can't comment on that, because that's so that people always ask that and it's something that you really the making of the direct connection that way, it becomes very damning from the person. And I, I have to, with due respect, not get into that. I don't want to be associated with how she said blah, blah, blah. I just want to stay away from that.
Sorry. What are you going to do now for more four more years, Abidin, or. I don't know. I'm certainly right now I'm not thinking about how many more years. I'm just thinking that the challenge is extraordinary. We are living through a historic pandemic, the likes of which we haven't seen in one hundred and two years. I think that what I bring to the table is something that's very much value added and I want to keep doing it, you know, until we get this thing under control.
And then even after then I still you know, I've left some unfinished business. Donald, you know, there's still HIV to which I've devoted the overwhelming proportion of my professional life. So I would like to see us crushing this outbreak so that people can get back to normality, you know, when you use that word, some form of normality, but at the same time continue in this era of extraordinarily advanced biomedical research technology to continue the work that we're doing on influenza, on HIV, on malaria and tuberculosis.
You know, as I said, this is what I do. So I don't know when you're going to get tired of it. I'm amazed that your energy. All right. Well, OK. All right. Thanks, Don. Thank you. Thank you. Bye bye.
Bye bye. Tomorrow on The Daily Show, a conversation with Donald about the state of the pandemic.
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Here's what else you need to know today. I'm doing. They were not qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform.
On Monday, President Biden signed an executive order reversing the Trump administration's efforts to ban transgender troops from serving in the military. The order restores protections put in place by President Obama in 2016 that had opened the military to transgender people. And the Justice Department has opened an internal investigation into whether any current or former officials sought to use the department's power to undo the results of the presidential election. The investigation follows the revelation by the times of a plan devised by a senior Justice Department official, Jeffrey Clark and President Trump, in the final days of Trump's presidency.
The plan involved ousting the acting attorney general, replacing him with Clark and using the Justice Department to pressure lawmakers in Georgia to overturn the state's election results.
Today's episode was produced by Jessica Chung and Stella Tannen, it was edited by Lisa Tobin and Mike Benowa and engineered by Chris Wood.
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