President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden are both looking to harness the credibility of America’s best-known infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as they make their case to American voters.
Trump is quoting him out of context, the doctor says.
Biden, for his part, is eagerly promising to seek Fauci's advice if elected.
Overall, it’s an uncomfortable season for Fauci, who’s been studiously apolitical over a five-decade career in public health. The doctor is calling out the Trump campaign for taking one of his quotes and popping it into a campaign ad to suggest Fauci is in the president’s corner.
Biden is taking every opportunity to associate himself with the doctor's positions.
Look no further than poll numbers on trustworthiness for the candidates — and Fauci — to understand the interest in lining up with the doctor.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in September showed 68% of Americans have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in Fauci to provide reliable information on the coronavirus. That compares with 52% of Americans who trusted Biden to do that and just 40% for Trump.
Trump’s reelection campaign began airing an ad last week that includes a snippet from a March interview in which Fauci says, “I can’t imagine that … anybody could be doing more” to contain the virus. It sounds as if the doctor is praising the president, but Fauci says he was speaking more generally of the federal government response.
Biden has treated Fauci’s opinion over the course of the pandemic as gospel, urging governors to “listen to Dr. Fauci” as they weigh loosening COVID-19 restrictions in their states. He also promises to ask Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to stay on as a coronavirus task force adviser if he wins next month’s election.
His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, at last week’s vice presidential debate said she would wait for guidance from Fauci before deciding whether it’s safe to take a vaccine once one becomes available.
“The fact that both candidates are grasping at Dr. Fauci is revealing,” said Steven Webster, an Indiana University political scientist. “It sort of serves as a microcosm of where we’re at in American politics: Americans at either side of the political divide can look at the same thing and come away with vastly different interpretations of it.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that “public health is not a political issue and I think Dr. Fauci and I both stay very much tethered to our very core values in bringing a message of public health and frankly a message of hope that we know what to do to control this virus. This has never been a political message. ”
The attempt by Trump to claim Fauci's approval has clearly rankled the doctor.
“In my nearly five decades of public service, I have never publicly endorsed any political candidate,” Fauci said in a statement on Sunday. “The comments attributed to me without my permission in the GOP campaign ad were taken out of context from a broad statement I made months ago about the efforts of federal public health officials.”
Fauci told CNN on Monday that the campaign should take down the ad, calling it “really unfortunate and really disappointing that they did that.”
He told CNBC that “obviously there are a lot of things that are going on that you would prefer did not happen, like the ad, which put me in a political context.”
He also bristled when asked in a July interview with The New York Times whether the Biden campaign had been in touch with him. “No,” Fauci replied. “I mean I think they know better. That I’m in a sensitive position.”
The Trump campaign refuses to take down its ad, stressing that the comments are Fauci’s “own words.”
“The words spoken are accurate, and directly from Dr. Fauci’s mouth,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine.
Biden, at a campaign event in Toledo, noted the irony that Trump was claiming praise from the epidemiologist just days after Fauci called out a Sept. 26 Rose Garden where Trump announced his choice for the Supreme Court. Several who attended the announcement, including Trump, later tested positive for coronavirus.
“Dr. Fauci referred to the president’s announcement to the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden as a super spreader event,” Biden said “And how is he responding? He’s running a national ad, quoting Dr. Fauci out of context.”
Trump's embrace of Fauci in the last lap of the campaign comes as the latest twist in an up-and-down relationship. Though Fauci often took pains to avoid appearing to criticize the president, his disapproval of the president’s handling of the pandemic has slipped through from time to time.
In April, Fauci set off Trump by saying that more lives could have been saved if the U.S. government had acted more quickly. “If we had right from the very beginning shut everything down, it may have been a little different,” he said. “But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”
Later that day, Trump retweeted a call to #FireFauci, raising questions about whether Fauci’s job was in jeopardy. The following day, Fauci took the podium at the briefing to say he had used the “wrong choice of words.”
In July, Fauci, in a podcast interview, contradicted Trump’s claim that the U.S. was doing a great job in stemming the virus. “As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great,” Fauci said. “I mean, we’re just not.”
Trump later said Fauci had “made a lot of mistakes.” White House aides even circulated anti-Fauci talking points to reporters, a list of moments when they said Fauci’s opinion had been off base.
Brian Ott, a Missouri State University communications professor and co-author of the book “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage,” said Trump’s attempt to claim Fauci’s adulation is misleading but hardly surprising.
“He is more than willing to make whatever argument or case he thinks will help him get reelected regardless of how it tracks with past behavior or statements,” Ott said.
Fauci did comment that he “absolutely” would be willing to stay on next year regardless of how the election turns out.
“I’m not gonna walk away from this outbreak no matter who’s the president,” he told CNBC.
Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut in Washington, Jonathan Lemire in New York and Michael Casey in Boston contributed to this report.