In recent days, Donald Trump’s closest conservative media allies have been pursuing an increasingly strident case against Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases , and a prominent part of the federal government’s Covid-19 response.
Critics close to the president have recently been alleging that Fauci is recklessly damaging the economy, preventing the use of supposed wonder treatments like hydroxychloroquine, and now, mid-pandemic, some of them appear to be calling for his job.
The most prominent and stinging attack on Fauci came last Friday, when the Fox News talkshow anchor Tucker Carlson devoted an entire segment to Fauci’s recommendation for a sustained lockdown, calling it a recipe for “national suicide”.
Carlson accused Fauci of “getting it wrong on the coronavirus”, and claimed that “Anthony Fauci told us not to worry about this epidemic. Now he’s demanding that the federal government quarantine the entire country.”
He criticized his reliance on models like those produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) which had, according to him, overestimated the scale of the crisis. As a result, the economy was shut down, and the resultant mass unemployment would be “a far bigger disaster than the virus itself”.
Carlson – who unlike some others in conservative media has taken the pandemic seriously for some time – had previously interviewed Fauci on his program, and until now had seemed well disposed towards him.
But his shifting attitude echoes the increasing criticism of Dr Fauci from other people who have been close to the president – including Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani.
Like Carlson, Steve Bannon took the virus seriously early on – he was warning of a looming catastrophe in special episodes of his War Room broadcast from late January, when most political media was still entirely focused on impeachment and the Democratic primary.
The former Breitbart supremo, Trump campaign director and White House staffer, still identifies his program as speaking for “the Trump movement”. His team has offered bipartisan praise of figures like Andrew Cuomo and Jay Inslee, governors of New York and Washington respectively.
On the other hand, he has offered very little criticism of President Trump, and from the beginning his broadcast has relentlessly worked to apportion blame for the outbreak to the Chinese Communist party.
In the last week, though, just as the Trump-led federal response has become mired in scandals about preferential PPE allocations, outbidding states on equipment purchases and sacking naval officers, Bannon has begun devoting entire episodes to criticism of Fauci.
Bannon and his co-hosts have insisted that Fauci release the federal government’s own data and modeling, provide a fixed time period for closures, and step back from involvement in health communication on the virus. (For his part, Fauci has continued to give advice at odds with the president – on subjects like the likely duration of lockdowns and the feasibility of untested treatments.)
And there’s another bone of contention: the supposed wonder-cure, hydroxychloroquine.
Last Thursday, the War Room co-host and former Trump campaign communications director, Jason Miller, criticized a pair of Fauci TV appearances, centering the complaint that he “threw cold water on the hydroxychloroquine test that everyone’s been raving about, or the study from 6,000 doctors from like 37 countries … this was like water on what we thought were very positive developments”.
Hydroxychloroquine is also the basis of the disagreement that the former New York mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has with Fauci. On social media and on his New York City radio broadcast (also a podcast), Giuliani has tirelessly promoted the idea that the chemical is an efficacious treatment for Covid-19.
He was briefly banned from Twitter after tweeting out a quotation of a remark that the Turning Point USA leader, Charlie Kirk, had made on his radio show, claiming that hydroxychloroquine has a “100% effective rate in treating Covid-19”. The social media platform counted this as disinformation.
Reportedly, Trump’s own, increasingly bullish enthusiasm for the drug is informed by Giuliani. He in turn picked the notion that it was cure-all up from a celebrity doctor, Mehmet Oz, who, like Trump, is a regular guest on Fox & Friends.
On Sunday, in a press conference, Trump once again pushed the chemical and claimed, inaccurately, that there were “strong, powerful signs” of the drug’s efficacy, and asked rhetorically, “What do you have to lose?” by taking it.
By Monday, lesser lights in conservative media were adding to what appears to be a growing momentum against the doctor.
On his podcast, Michael Savage called Fauci a “grandstander” and “a PR man, he’s a showman. He’s the P T Barnum of the Covid virus,” who should be pushed back “into a laboratory where he belongs”.
Political commentators have noted that similar pile-ons have preceded the departures of James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and John Kelly from the administration. But experts say that much more would be at stake in the removal of Fauci in the middle of a public health crisis.
Associate professor Ben Harris-Roxas, from the centre for primary health care and equity at the University of New South Wales, is an expert on public health. He thinks that firing public health leaders during a pandemic is a recipe for disaster.
“Public health experience is most important during epidemics. Each epidemic is different, but having experienced and respected public health experts in charge allows quicker action and more effective communication,” Harris-Roxas said.
“Firing public health managers during this pandemic would meaningfully impair the effectiveness of the response,” he added.
On hydroxychloroquine, Harris-Roxas said that “the promotion of untested treatments and cures has been a feature of almost every epidemic in history”.
He said that this led to three potential problems. Untested treatments could harm people, cause shortages of drugs for people who need them for proven treatments, and “contribute to the infodemic – the spread of misinformation”.
Should Fauci go, there will be little impediment to the misinformation which is already exerting a powerful influence on the US federal government’s health policy.