Fact-checking the White House statement against Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has earned the trust of millions of Americans for his straightforward comments on the coronavirus pandemic. But the nation’s top infectious disease expert has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump, whose false and misleading statements Fauci has repeatedly corrected.

There was a time when Fauci and the President appeared to have a good working relationship. But things soured as Trump continued to downplay the severity of the disease and push states to reopen, while Fauci repeatedly advocated for a more cautious approach.

The relationship hit a new low over the weekend, when the White House sent reporters an unsigned statement, on background, listing what it said were a “number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things” early in the crisis.

This was an extraordinary White House attack on a high-ranking health official. In addition, the list was itself misleading.

The White House removed critical context from Fauci’s remarks, making him seem rosier about the pandemic than he actually was. It also failed to mention that Trump himself made comments similar to Fauci’s, or far more optimistic than Fauci’s, long after Fauci’s words had become sharply less so.

Omitting context and caveats

The White House statement attacked Fauci over comments he made about the crisis in January and February. But it failed to note that Fauci emphasized on these occasions that the situation could well change.

The flu

For example, the White House statement cited comments Fauci made to the USA Today editorial board on February 17 in which he suggested the risk of getting coronavirus was lower than the danger of the flu.

But the statement didn’t mention that, also in the interview, Fauci emphasized that he was speaking only about the risk of getting infected at that moment and that things could get worse.

“As of today, on the 17th of February, the risk is really relatively low. But we, the public health officials, have to take this seriously enough to be prepared for it changing and there being a pandemic,” he said.

Changing behavior

Similarly, the White House officials cited Fauci as saying in a February 29 interview on NBC: “Right now at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.”

The statement left out Fauci’s very next words: “Right now the risk is still low, but this could change.” He added that “you’ve got to watch out because although the risk is low now,” that could change “when you start to see community spread.”

Asymptomatic spread

The White House quoted Fauci from January 28 as downplaying the risk that the virus could be transmitted by people without symptoms. The statement’s version of the quote was this: “Even if there’s a rare asymptomatic person that might transmit, an epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.”

It did not mention that Fauci specified that he was talking about what had happened “historically” with respiratory-borne viruses. Just before that comment, Fauci said that “we would really like to see the data” from China on what Chinese authorities said was evidence of asymptomatic transmission of this coronavirus.

It’s still not exactly clear the extent to which asymptomatic people are driving the transmission of the virus.

A non-contradiction on lockdowns

The statement also alleges that Fauci has flip-flopped on his position over lockdowns by contrasting two quotes from him — except there was no clear contradiction in the two quotes.

In an April 2 interview on NBC, Fauci said — when discussing stay-at-home orders — that “we just have to do it” despite the economic and personal toll. In a CNBC interview on May 22, Fauci said, “We can’t stay locked down for such a considerable period of time that you might do irreparable damage and have unintended consequences.”

Those two remarks are not opposed to each other. Even on April 2, Fauci was not advocating a never-ending lockdown. And his comments on both of these occasions were in lockstep with the message at the time from Trump and the White House.

Flip-flopping on masks

The White House statement cited a quote from a March 8 CBS “60 Minutes” interview where Fauci said, “Right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.” He added that masks don’t provide “perfect protection.”

During a Senate hearing on June 23, Fauci clarified that his initial stance against masks was based on the then-shortage of medical-grade supplies needed for frontline workers.

“At that time, there was a paucity of equipment that our health care providers needed who put themselves daily in harm’s way of taking care of people who are ill,” Fauci testified.

When he said it, Fauci’s comment was in line with the broader medical community. Even a month after Fauci made those comments about masks, the US Surgeon General was still not officially recommending the public wear masks because their effectiveness was still unknown. However, after research showed coronavirus could be spread by talking and possibly breathing, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines.

Since the CDC recommended face coverings in April, Fauci has publicly advocated for masks and has been seen with one, including at the Senate hearing.

By contrast, on the same day that the CDC announced their new guidelines, the President said, “It’s really going to be a voluntary thing,” adding, “I’m not choosing to do it.” On July 11, Trump was seen wearing a mask in public by the White House press corps for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Fauci’s words have gotten more cautious. Trump’s have not.

The White House statement uses Fauci’s words in January and February, when less was known about the virus, to suggest he did a poor job warning the public about the situation.

It’s possible to argue that Fauci’s early words, even with caveats, were overly sanguine. But what the White House failed to acknowledge is that Fauci started issuing clear warnings in early March even as Trump was still dismissing the danger of the virus.

The White House statement made no mention of Trump’s continued efforts to downplay the severity of the crisis — indeed, that he continues to do so — in the months after the Fauci comments in question.

In February, Trump predicted that US cases of the coronavirus would soon be down “close to zero.” He was still suggesting in March that the virus was less of a problem than the flu — without any of the caveats Fauci used in February — and kept telling Americans simply to stay “stay calm” because the virus would just “go away.” Into mid-March, Trump claimed the virus was under “control.” In June, he continued to assert that the virus was “dying out” and “fading away” — despite record increases in confirmed cases in several states.

Fauci certainly hasn’t been perfect in his public pronouncements. But compared to Trump, it is no contest.