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Dr. Fauci speaks out, says what working for Trump was really like: 'I was the skunk at the picnic'

Dr. Fauci opened up about some of the difficulties, challenges, and death threats he faced while working for President Donald J. Trump amid a historic pandemic.

Dr. Fauci speaks out, says what working for Trump was really like: 'I was the skunk at the picnic'
Cover Image Source: Dr. Anthony Fauci and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 22, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci has served as an adviser to seven presidents over the course of his nearly four decades-long career. From Ronald Reagan to, now, Joe Biden, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has guided us through every health crisis that loomed over the nation, proving himself to be an invaluable asset to not just the U.S., but the entire world. However, he's never before found himself in a position as stressful or anxiety-inducing as the past year under the now-former Trump administration. While millions of Americans took solace in Dr. Fauci's calm counsel and commitment to hard facts, the very administration he served painted him a villain before Trump supporters who—like their president—favored conspiracy theories and anecdotes to actual scientific data. 

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Now, days into the Biden administration, Dr. Fauci has shared the reality of what it was like to work for President Donald J. Trump amid a historic pandemic. In an hourlong conversation with The New York Times over the weekend, the 80-year-old got candid about some of the difficulties, challenges, and death threats he faced in the past year. Speaking of the moment when he first realized that he and Trump were on completely different pages when it came to the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Fauci revealed that it "coincided very much with the rapid escalation of cases in the northeastern part of the country, particularly the New York metropolitan area."

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"I would try to express the gravity of the situation, and the response of the president was always leaning toward, 'Well, it's not that bad, right?' And I would say, 'Yes, it is that bad.' It was almost a reflex response, trying to coax you to minimize it. Not saying, 'I want you to minimize it,' but, 'Oh, really, was it that bad?'" the immunologist recounted. "And the other thing that made me really concerned was, it was clear that he was getting input from people who were calling him up, I don't know who, people he knew from business, saying, 'Hey, I heard about this drug, isn't it great?' or, 'Boy, this convalescent plasma is really phenomenal.' And I would try to, you know, calmly explain that you find out if something works by doing an appropriate clinical trial; you get the information, you give it a peer review. And he'd say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, this stuff really works.'"

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"He would take just as seriously their opinion — based on no data, just anecdote — that something might really be important. It wasn't just hydroxychloroquine, it was a variety of alternative-medicine-type approaches. It was always, 'A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.' That's when my anxiety started to escalate," Dr. Fauci revealed. "We were having, you know, the standard kind of scientifically based, public-health-based meetings. Then I started getting anxious that this was not going in the right direction — the anecdotally driven situations, the minimization, the president surrounding himself with people saying things that didn't make any scientific sense."

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"We would say things like: 'This is an outbreak. Infectious diseases run their own course unless one does something to intervene.' And then he would get up and start talking about, 'It's going to go away, it's magical, it's going to disappear,'" Dr. Fauci recounted. He also revealed that he got into trouble with Trump's inner circle for contradicting the president on his factually incorrect statements and dangerous claims while speaking to the press. "After a TV interview or a story in a major newspaper, someone senior, like Mark Meadows, would call me up expressing concern that I was going out of my way to contradict the president," he said.

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As for how Trump himself reacted to being contradicted before the press, Dr. Fauci said the former president would merely express disappointment at his "negative" attitude. "There were a couple of times where I would make a statement that was a pessimistic viewpoint about what direction we were going, and the president would call me up and say, 'Hey, why aren't you more positive? You've got to take a positive attitude. Why are you so negativistic? Be more positive,'" Fauci said. Even as he faced severe pushback from the Trump administration, Dr. Fauci and his family were being bombarded with harassment and death threats from right-wing extremists.

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"It was the harassment of my wife, and particularly my children, that upset me more than anything else. They knew where my kids work, where they live. The threats would come directly to my children's phones, directly to my children's homes. How the hell did whoever these assholes were get that information? And there was chatter on the internet, people talking to each other, threatening, saying, 'Hey, we got to get rid of this guy. What are we going to do about him? He's hurting the president's chances.' You know, that kind of right-wing craziness," Dr. Fauci said. "One day I got a letter in the mail, I opened it up and a puff of powder came all over my face and my chest. That was very, very disturbing to me and my wife because it was in my office."

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"So I just looked at it all over me and said, 'What do I do?” The security detail was there, and they're very experienced in that. They said, 'Don't move, stay in the room.' And they got the hazmat people. So they came, they sprayed me down and all that," he revealed. "It was a benign nothing. But it was frightening. My wife and my children were more disturbed than I was. I looked at it somewhat fatalistically. It had to be one of three things: A hoax. Or anthrax, which meant I'd have to go on Cipro for a month. Or if it was ricin, I was dead, so bye-bye."

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Despite it all, Dr. Fauci said that he never contemplated walking away from it all. "When people just see you standing up there, they sometimes think you're being complicit in the distortions emanating from the stage. But I felt that if I stepped down, that would leave a void. Someone's got to not be afraid to speak out the truth," he said. "Even if I wasn't very effective in changing everybody's minds, the idea that they knew that nonsense could not be spouted without my pushing back on it, I felt was important. I think in the big picture, I felt it would be better for the country and better for the cause for me to stay, as opposed to walk away."

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As for what's next for him, the beloved immunologist said: "We are living through a historic pandemic, the likes of which we haven't seen in 102 years. I think what I bring to the table is something that's very much value-added. I want to keep doing it until I see us crushing this outbreak so that people can get back to normality. And even after then, I've left some unfinished business. There's still H.I.V., to which I've devoted the overwhelming proportion of my professional life. I want to continue the work that we're doing on influenza, H.I.V., malaria, and tuberculosis. This is what I do."

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