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Former President Donald Trump constantly targeted top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci while he was actively serving in his government. Now, Republicans are using a new trove of emails to run a Hilary Clinton-style campaign against him in a series of relentless public attacks.
Thousands of Fauci’s emails were released last week after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by BuzzFeed News, the Washington Post, and others. The emails, although mostly reaffirming what was already known about the level of confusion around the coronavirus at the beginning of the pandemic, have driven a renewed surge of calls on the right for Fauci’s resignation, and investigations into his handling of the pandemic. In short, Republicans have finally found something that’s so far proven elusive during the Biden administration: a villain.
Fauci is the longtime director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and currently serves as President Biden’s chief medical advisor. And although he was one of the main faces of the federal government’s troubled COVID-19 response under Trump, he’s maintained high approval ratings until recently.
Fauci went to great lengths to avoid conflict with Trump over the course of 2020, even as Trump retweeted calls to fire him and bashed his abilities as both an epidemiologist and a onetime-baseball pitcher. But his position as a top public health official kept him in Republican crosshairs, and since Trump’s loss in November, Fauci has increasingly come under fire from conservatives.
The release of the emails has turned up the heat to a level that harkens back to Republican attacks on Hilary Clinton, who was dogged by a scandal concerning her State Department emails and a private server in New York for years. The hashtag “#FauciLeaks” was spread by major right-wing accounts on Twitter, implying some nefarious wrongdoing on Fauci’s part even though the emails were released as part of a FOIA request.
The far-right blog Gateway Pundit posted a story Sunday blaming Fauci for “millions of deaths,” due to his recommendation against hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus. (The FDA wrote in June of 2020 that hydroxychloroquine had “no benefit for decreasing the likelihood of death or speeding recovery.) Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right freshman congresswoman from Georgia, wrote a (much-mocked) letter last week to President Biden calling on him to fire Fauci. Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn compared Fauci to Nazi doctors at Auschwitz during a radio appearance Monday.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee posted a nearly minute-long video to Twitter Tuesday highlighting an email exchange between Fauci and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in which she claimed the two “were cherry-picking information so you would only know what they wanted you to know.”
And on Sunday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy gave an exclusive interview to Breitbart—which has a “Fauci emails” trending topic on its website—calling on Fauci to resign or be fired.
“I know the American people don’t have trust in Dr. Fauci,” McCarthy told Breitbart. “Let’s find a person we can trust. Take politics aside. I mean, we’re talking about American lives here.”
On Sunday, Fauci responded to the attacks against him from the right in an interview on MSNBC. “It’s really an attack on science,” he said. “It is what it is. I’m a public figure, I’m going to take the arrows and the slings, but they’re fabricated, and that’s just what it is.”
For the first six months of the Biden administration, the GOP has failed to whip up the kind of antagonism it provoked against recent Democratic leaders such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi. The attacks on Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, fell flat during the campaign, and Biden’s approval rating has consistently stayed at or above 50 percent since he took office. In contrast, Trump had a majority disapproval for much of his presidency.
“Biden is not a good bad guy,” Republican strategist Ed Rogers told Politico last month. “The Uncle Joe life story that he has—the tragedy, the losses, the obvious empathy the man has, I think that’s all legit. So, it’s hard to demonize him.”
Fauci has also been one of the most trusted officials in America throughout the pandemic, but his approval rating has taken a hit in recent months as he’s become a more prominent part of the White House response to the pandemic in his new role as Biden’s chief medical adviser.
An Economist/YouGov poll last month found that while 45 percent of Americans trusted Fauci on the pandemic as opposed to 32 percent who didn’t, the numbers were heavily skewed along partisan lines. Nearly 75 percent of Democrats said they trusted Fauci, while less than a quarter of Republicans said the same.
Some of the criticism is not without some merit. Fauci has been dogged by a crucial mistake he made early on in the pandemic: explicitly saying that Americans didn't need to wear face masks in order to protect themselves against COVID.
“The masks are important for someone who’s infected to prevent them from infecting someone else,” Fauci told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in March 2020, after the first coronavirus cases had been confirmed in the U.S. but before the pandemic spread widely.
“Right now in the United States, people should not be walking around wearing masks.”
In the trove of emails released last week, Fauci also gave this advice to high-profile colleagues in private. “Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection,” he wrote to former Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in early February 2020. “I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a vey [sic] low-risk location.”
But Fauci’s early and wrong guidance has been warped by right-wing media into a question of whether masks were ever needed. In reality, as more information about the nature of the virus became available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies and officials began recommending mask-wearing to stop the spread of the virus.
The NIAID and the White House did not respond to VICE News’ requests to interview Fauci. But on Friday Biden said he was “very confident” in Fauci, and when asked at a White House press briefing later that day if she could “imagine any circumstance” where Biden would fire Fauci, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded with a simple “No.”
But there doesn’t appear to be any indication that the GOP’s war on Fauci is ending anytime soon. And Trump himself continues to fan the flames Fauci’s way.
“He’s not a great doctor, but a hell of a promoter,” Trump said in a speech at the North Carolina GOP convention in Greenville on Saturday. “He likes television more than any politician in this room. He’s been wrong on almost every issue.”