Dr. Anthony Fauci’s warning on Tuesday that reopening the country too soon could trigger “avoidable suffering and death” from the novel coronavirus drew a furious response from the Fox News hosts closest to President Donald Trump. The right-wing propagandists seem to be on a mission to force the top infectious disease expert’s removal from the administration amid an ongoing pandemic that has already killed more than 80,000 Americans, and they may have enough influence over the president to succeed.
Fauci, who as director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has advised five presidents on pandemic response, said during a Senate hearing that states that ignore federal guidelines and prematurely reopen businesses and roll back social distancing measures risk causing new outbreaks of the coronavirus. Those spikes, he said, would both lead to more deaths and harm the economy. Fauci also argued that the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is likely higher than the recorded figure and that the virus would likely return in the fall and winter.
Fauci’s testimony contradicted Trump’s own push to “liberate” the economy without taking the steps public health experts say are needed to do so safely and successfully. And so, the president’s loyal supporters in Fox prime time lashed out at Fauci to one degree or another on their Tuesday broadcasts.
Tucker Carlson’s ranting was the most vicious, among other things saying he “may be even more off-base than your average epidemiologist” and calling him “the chief buffoon.” “Is this the guy into whom you want to vest all of your trust? Is this the guy you want to chart the future of the country?” he asked
Sean Hannity was milder, emphasizing his respect for Fauci’s work but nonetheless telling viewers that he “seems to favor what the Democrats want and that is massive restrictions with no end in sight.”
And Laura Ingraham also linked Fauci to Democrats, arguing that Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden would “would farm out critical decision-making to others like Dr. Fauci and other unnamed scientists” and displaying an image of Fauci as she mockingly claimed that Democrats wanted America locked down until “until the experts set you free.”
The Fox hosts carefully avoided criticizing Trump for listening to Fauci, instead suggesting that Fauci himself has total power and is using it unwisely. This disparity was emphasized on Wednesday’s Fox & Friends. After Brian Kilmeade complained that Fauci isn’t “factoring in what damage he's doing” to the U.S. economy, his fellow co-host Ainsley Earhardt responded that it’s Fauci’s job to speak to the public health concerns but actually Trump’s responsibility to “factor in everything.”
Fox’s pro-Trump hosts -- notably Carlson -- have previously criticized Fauci and other public health officials as part of the network’s push for a swift end to social distancing measures. But last night’s full-fledged assault on the nation’s top epidemiologist represents a drastic escalation.
That’s a very bad sign for those of us who think it’s a good idea for an expert with decades of experience dealing with pandemics to play a role in advising the president on the one currently killing Americans.
Trump not only watches Fox prime-time shows religiously, but he also personally consults with their hosts. Carlson played a role in former national security adviser John Bolton’s departure from the White House, and his personal meeting with Trump and a monologue he gave in March have been credited with the president taking the virus more seriously. Hannity reportedly speaks to the president nightly and has so much influence he’s been described by White House officials as the “shadow” chief of staff. And Ingraham dropped by the White House twice last month to advise the president and other top officials on the coronavirus response. If the Fox Cabinet turns Fauci into a regular target, it puts his job in jeopardy.
In late February, as Trump channeled Fox attacks on journalists and Democrats for purportedly politicizing the coronavirus outbreak, I warned that the Fox-Trump feedback loop could have dire repercussions if the network’s propagandists started urging the president to purge supposedly disloyal public health experts. Less than three months later, that day seems to have arrived.
Video by John Kerr