Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said then-President Donald Trump used to scold him for not being “more positive” about COVID-19 as the pandemic spiraled out of control nationwide.
In a new interview with The New York Times, Fauci spoke somewhat candidly about his experience working for Trump and their publicly tumultuous relationship. Trump floated the idea of firing Fauci, then a member of his White House coronavirus task force, during one of his campaign rallies in November.
Fauci, who was sworn in as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser on Wednesday, frequently contradicted Trump’s baseless claims about COVID-19. In his interview with the Times, he recalled Trump’s repeated claims that the virus would simply “go away.”
“It isn’t like I took any pleasure in contradicting the president of the United States,” Fauci said. “I have a great deal of respect for the office. But I made a decision that I just had to. Otherwise I would be compromising my own integrity, and be giving a false message to the world. If I didn’t speak up, it would be almost tacit approval that what he was saying was OK.”
“That’s when I started to get into some trouble,” he continued. “The people around him, his inner circle, were quite upset that I would dare publicly contradict the president.”
Asked if Trump ever confronted him for contradicting him about the pandemic, Fauci said the then-president would express “disappointment.”
“There were a couple of times where I would make a statement that was a pessimistic viewpoint about what direction we were going,” Fauci said, “and the president would call me up and say, ‘Hey, why aren’t you more positive? You’ve got to take a positive attitude. Why are you so negativistic? Be more positive.’”
“He would get on the phone and express disappointment in me that I was not being more positive,” Fauci added. He said Trump didn’t explain why he was upset that Fauci didn’t have a more upbeat attitude about the deadly pandemic.
As of Sunday, the U.S. continued to lead the world in reported COVID-19 cases and deaths with more than 25 million infections and at least 418,000 fatalities.
In his interview with the Times, Fauci said he’s received numerous death threats in the last year stemming from “right-wing craziness.”
“It was the harassment of my wife, and particularly my children, that upset me more than anything else,” he said. “They knew where my kids work, where they live. The threats would come directly to my children’s phones, directly to my children’s homes. How the hell did whoever these assholes were get that information?”
In one alarming incident, Fauci said he opened a letter he had received and a “puff of powder” exploded onto his face and chest.
“That was very, very disturbing to me and my wife because it was in my office,” he said. “So I just looked at it all over me and said, ‘What do I do?’ The security detail was there, and they’re very experienced in that. They said, ‘Don’t move, stay in the room.’ And they got the hazmat people. So they came, they sprayed me down and all that.”
The powder was tested and the results showed it was “a benign nothing,” Fauci told the Times.
“But it was frightening,” he said. “My wife and my children were more disturbed than I was. I looked at it somewhat fatalistically. It had to be one of three things: A hoax. Or anthrax, which meant I’d have to go on Cipro for a month. Or if it was ricin, I was dead, so bye-bye.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, who was in charge of the Trump administration COVID-19 response, said she “always” considered resigning from her position amid backlash she received from both Trump supporters and anti-Trump activists. (Some accused Birx of failing to push back hard enough against Trump’s COVID-19 misinformation; others accused her of pushing back too hard on the president.)
“I had to ask myself every morning: Is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic?” Birx told CBS’s “Face the Nation” in an interview that aired Sunday. “And it’s something I asked myself every night.”
Fauci, on the other hand, told the Times that he “never” considered stepping down during Trump’s presidency.
“When people just see you standing up there, they sometimes think you’re being complicit in the distortions emanating from the stage,” he said. “But I felt that if I stepped down, that would leave a void. Someone’s got to not be afraid to speak out the truth.”