As Coronavirus Crisis Deepens, Trump and Fauci Form Complicated Bond

As Coronavirus Crisis Deepens, Trump and Fauci Form Complicated Bond

WASHINGTON—President Trump’s aspirational plan to restart the U.S. economy by mid-April ran into a major obstacle: Anthony Fauci.

After Mr. Trump envisioned packed churches on Easter, Dr. Fauci went to the Oval Office. He and Deborah Birx, members of the White House coronavirus task force, outlined data projecting a surge in cases without continued social distancing. The president agreed.

Aides say Mr. Trump’s decision Sunday to extend social distancing through April reflects the influence of some political advisers, public health experts, and Dr. Fauci, a 79-year-old scientist who has so far retained his leverage with Mr. Trump in an administration where critics of the president rarely last long.

His ability to continue swaying Mr. Trump is under scrutiny. Public health experts say Dr. Fauci provides a crucial voice of caution shaping policy decisions that might help combat the pandemic and reduce infections, and they worry what the administration might do without his guidance.

Democrats and many Republicans largely embrace Dr. Fauci as a truth teller and hero, even as some right-wing conspiracy theorists have attacked him online.



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“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down. OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time,” Dr. Fauci said in a March 22 interview with the journal Science, when asked about times Mr. Trump has said things that aren’t factual.

In a March 24 interview with Mornings on the Mall show, Dr. Fauci said the media shouldn’t pit him against the president because they are working in concert. “When I have made recommendations he has taken them,” he said.

But Dr. Fauci has also spoken about his frustrations with Mr. Trump in ways that no one else in the administration has, at times publicly disagreeing with the president.

Mr. Fauci has forged an unusual, and at times seemingly precarious, relationship with Mr. Trump. The president, who initially played down the threat of the virus, has at times felt frustrated with Dr. Fauci’s candor, aides say. Dr. Fauci pushed back against the president’s recent enthusiasm over a possible treatment, saying it hasn’t been proved effective in clinical trials.

But Mr. Trump has also come to respect Dr. Fauci as someone who is smart and direct, according to four people familiar with their working relationship.

“Dr. Fauci has excelled in part because he is able to work with different people, personalities and policy considerations to fashion solutions, to find cures,” said Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser.

The president has also praised Dr. Fauci, saying in a March 24 interview on Fox News that “Tony’s extraordinary” and that “we get along very well.”

Dr. Fauci’s clout has become polarizing in a politically divided country with right-wing conspiracy theorists attacking him online as part of a “deep state” plot to purposely undermine the president’s re-election. Some pro-Trump groups dismiss the virus as a hoax and say Dr. Fauci is hyping possible outcomes.

Democrats and many Republicans largely embrace Dr. Fauci as a truth teller and hero. Donuts decorated with his face are selling out at bakeries in New York and New Jersey. A restaurant in Long Island, N.Y., debuted a “Fauci Linguini.” The Brooklyn native has also garnered support among a wider and younger audience by appearing on social media outlets, including an Instagram interview with NBA star Stephen Curry.

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“If most Americans heard from Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci that it was not safe to go back to work, no matter what the president said, most would not go back to work,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said March 24 on Fox News.

Dr. Fauci has been an institution in Washington, serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. His office includes pictures of him with some of the six presidents he has worked for.

He is unusual for having largely bipartisan support in Congress. President George W. Bush in 2008 awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Dr. Fauci helped design Mr. Bush’s emergency plan for AIDS relief.

President Trump, who initially played down the threat posed by the coronavirus, has at times felt frustrated with Dr. Fauci’s candor, aides say.



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But his relationship with Mr. Trump has been tricky. A meme went viral of Dr. Fauci rubbing his forehead in apparent dismay when Mr. Trump called the State Department “the Deep State Department.” Mr. Trump later retweeted it himself.

In late March, the president was being urged by businesses to reopen the economy and pressure was also coming from some of his own advisers, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Domestic Policy Council director Joe Grogan, people familiar with the discussions said.

The president was also worried. He’d anchored his 2020 re-election platform on a strong economy, but the shutdown had erased nearly 30% of the value of the S&P 500 and left volatility in American stocks at historically high levels.

“You can destroy a country this way, by closing it down,” Mr. Trump said last week.

He set an ambitious reopening goal.

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“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said Tuesday at a Fox News town hall set in the White House Rose Garden. His advisers rushed to hammer out proposals for getting the economy going despite the continuing spread of the virus. One plan called for designating each county in the U.S. as high, medium, or low risk.

Then Dr. Fauci began speaking.

In various interviews, he gently walked back some of Mr. Trump’s words.

“He put [that date] out there because he wanted to give some hope to people, but he is not absolutely wed to that,” Dr. Fauci said in a Friday interview with NPR. On CNN, he said, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline…You can’t make an arbitrary decision until you see what you’re dealing with. You need the data.”

He and Dr. Birx sought to sway White House economic advisers and went to the president armed with data. One ominous study estimated that about two million people would die in the U.S. if nothing were done. The study was co-written by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in Britain. He now has the virus.

Contradicting Mr. Trump with epidemiological projections has its own risks. The president became irate in late February when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier told reporters she expected the virus to spread in U.S. communities. The stock market tumbled and Mr. Trump mused about firing her, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

“If it were up to the doctors they may say, ‘Let’s keep it shut down, let’s shut down the entire world,’” Mr. Trump said later in a March press conference.

Ultimately, Mr. Trump was convinced by the numbers and reports about refrigerator trucks being used to hold the bodies of people who have died of the virus at Elmhurst Hospital in New York City, according to aides. Mr. Trump was being cautioned by advisers as well, and recent polling showed many Americans rejecting the idea that stay-at-home guidelines should be lifted quickly.

“We made it very clear to him that if we pulled back on what we were doing and didn’t extend them, there would be more avoidable suffering and avoidable death,” Dr. Fauci said on CNN Monday. “It was a pretty clear decision on his part.”

—Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com and Alex Leary at alex.leary@wsj.com

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