In times of crises past, worried Americans have turned to their president for comfort. The commander-in-chief has, on occasion, served as a point of key information, unity and calm.
But today, an unfortunate confluence of a deadly pandemic and an anti-science White House has meant that job has fallen to another man.
The unassuming immunologist has been a constant presence at press briefings about the virus alongside Donald Trump, a man with whom he shares virtually no attributes. The 79-year-old’s calm, accessible and evidence-based explanations of the science behind the pandemic have stood in stark contrast to Mr Trump’s scattered approach.
He can often be seen looming behind the president with a stony face during nationally televised briefings to the nation, barely concealing his discomfort when Mr Trump veers off-script. He has on more than one occasion stepped in to correct the president’s remarks. For his efforts, he has earned the nickname of “explainer-in-chief.”
“He doesn’t get rattled because he’s standing next to the president. I don’t know anyone else who would be able to do that so comfortably,” says Dr John Gallin, a close friend of Dr Fauci’s for more than 40 years.
“He just looks at things very objectively and says in a very calm way: ‘No, this is what you need to do.’”
Dr Gallin, a leading researcher at the National Institutes for Health, first met Dr Fauci in 1972 when they were colleagues at Cornell Medical School. He says his friend has a unique set of qualities that make him uniquely qualified to steer the country through the current crisis.
“He’s the kind of person you would want to have as your doctor. He would always remain calm, even in the most incredibly complex and some would say scary clinical situations. He knew a lot and knew how to use his knowledge to deliver outstanding care. And I think that’s what he’s broadcasting today to the American public,” he adds.
That calmness under pressure is not the only thing that has caught the public’s attention. Monitoring the doctor’s reactions to Mr Trump’s briefings on the coronavirus has become something of a national sport, in lieu of the regular pastimes. Last week presented a literal facepalm moment, when Dr Fauci covered his eyes as the president joked about the deep state during a coronavirus briefing.
As the number of confirmed cases of the virus continues to rise across the US, there are signs that the contrast between the two men’s styles may be causing tension. Dr Fauci has been absent from press conferences for the past two days, following a number of awkward on-stage moments with the notoriously prideful president.
In an interview released by Science magazine on Sunday, Dr Fauci hinted for the first time publicly about the difficulties he has faced in coordinating the White House’s response to the coronavirus.
“I can't jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” he said, referring to Mr Trump’s suggestion that China was delayed in informing the world of the coronavirus.
“OK, he said it. Let's try and get it corrected for the next time.”
He also said he disagreed with the president’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to describe Covid-19, and responded with a coy “no comment” when asked about his televised facepalm.
In another interview with the New York Times, also published Sunday, he was even more blunt.
“I’ve been telling the president things he doesn’t want to hear,” he said. “I have publicly had to say something different with what he states... It’s a risky business. But that’s my style."
Dr Fauci’s comments reveal the unique challenge he faces: To save lives, he has to present clear and useful information to the American public; meanwhile, his boss — the president of the United States — repeatedly undermines that same effort.
Thankfully, this is not Dr Fauci’s first rodeo. The New York native’s career spans six presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. He has been in the same job since 1984, and has overseen federal responses to numerous health crises and epidemics — including SARS, the 2009 swine flu pandemic, MERS and Ebola.
For decades, he has been at the forefront of the fight against AIDS and was a leading architect of George W Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, one of the biggest global health initiatives in history.
He got his first job in the medical field when he was just a boy, delivering prescriptions on his bicycle to customers of the pharmacy owned by his parents in Brooklyn, New York.
He went on to become a brilliant student, graduating top of his class at Cornell Medical College. During the Vietnam War he was called up in the “doctor draft”, and served at the National Institutes of Health.
He specialised in immunodeficiencies, and today is regarded as “the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases”.
But while his experience and credentials have placed him well to deal with a global pandemic, dealing with the current occupant of the White House is another thing entirely.
Mr Trump has overseen one of the most anti-science administrations since scientists began tracking that sort of thing. He has personally questioned the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccines, and has in recent days promoted an untested drug for the treatment of the coronavirus.
"HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine," Mr Trump said in a series of tweets on Saturday. "Hopefully they will BOTH be put in use IMMEDIATELY. PEOPLE ARE DYING, MOVE FAST," he continued.
When asked about whether the drug would be effective in treating the coronavirus in a follow-up briefing, Dr Fauci responded bluntly: "The answer is no, and the evidence that you're talking about ... is anecdotal evidence.
That did not deter Mr Trump, however, who followed Dr Fauci’s advice by promoting the drug again.
The question that presents itself now, as the coronavirus crisis deepens in the US, is how long Dr Fauci can walk the line of being effective in his job and challenging the president. His success in doing so could have profound implications in the coming months.
Mr Trump has in recent days signaled that the shutdown currently in place across the US to slow the spread of the coronavirus may end sooner than experts recommend. The president has repeatedly tied his reelection prospects to the fate of the US economy, which is being severely damaged by the shutdown.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Sunday. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Dr Fauci has said repeatedly that it will be several weeks to a few months before life can return to normal. The risk of ignoring that advice is that the virus continues to spread uncontrollably, is the loss of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives.
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