The publication of Fauci’s emails only further animated Trump’s animus.
“After seeing the emails, our Country is fortunate I didn’t do what Dr. Fauci wanted me to do. For instance, I closed our Borders to China very early despite his not wanting them closed. The Democrats and the Fake News Media even called me a ‘xenophobe,’” Trump said in a statement Thursday. “In the end, we saw this was a life-saving decision, and likewise with closing our borders to Europe, specifically to certain heavily infected countries. I was later given credit, even by ‘Tony,’ for saving hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Trump’s attack was not particularly pointed compared to the others that have come Fauci’s way in recent days.
An analysis from GMF Digital at the German Marshall Fund provided to POLITICO showed that the online attacks on Fauci have grown more personal and egregious, with claims that he is “corrupt, a war criminal, deserves to go to prison, or is responsible for child abuse circulating on social media.” GMF Digital found four “misleading” themes across social media including that Fauci lied about masks and other public health measures. The organization found that on Facebook, the top posts about Fauci emanated from Paul as well as a host of conservatives, including Ben Shapiro, Donald Trump Jr., Steven Crowder, Dan Bongino and Newsmax.
According to data from Bully Pulpit Interactive, Republicans or conservative interests over the last month have spent $300,000 on Facebook ads targeting Fauci.
Nearly seven years ago, during the heart of the Ebola crisis, the Obama administration’s internal motto for handling challenging stretches was “PTFOTV”: Put Tony Fauci on TV. No one had more credibility with the public or was a better spokesperson, said Ron Klain, who acted as Ebola czar under Obama and now serves as Biden’s chief of staff.
But in an ever-polarized nation, Fauci too has fallen victim to tribalism. His advocacy for mask wearing and social distancing — in the face of Trump’s opposition — was met by vocal detractors across the country, who launched anti-mask protests and demanded the economy reopen. His conservative predictions about the pace of vaccine development and the timeline for reopening the country led to criticism that his expertise had been dramatically overstated.
But the attacks on Fauci have increasingly veered into the conspiratorial, experts say. This week, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson questioned why one of the emails involving Fauci was redacted, then speculated that it could mean Fauci was under investigation.
“Republicans employed the same attempts to divide and distract the American people in 2020. We know that these strategies don't work,” said Aneesa McMillan, deputy executive director of Priorities USA, a top Democratic super PAC. “The American people are looking for a concrete policy agenda that speaks to their priorities and improves their communities. The GOP has none of that — so they turn to fear-mongering and misinformation.”
At the heart of the current broadside against Fauci is reporting around — and the investigation into — the Wuhan lab leak theory, which holds that the virus leaked, accidentally or intentionally, from a virology lab in the city where it was first found. Republicans and right-wing media outlets have circulated such theories since the beginning of the pandemic even as scientists, including Fauci, insisted that problematic coronaviruses, from the SARS and MERS epidemics to Covid-19, were becoming increasingly common.
The pressure to probe Wuhan lab leak theories continued to mount, leading Trump’s White House to demand in April 2020 that the National Institutes of Health abruptly cancel a multimillion-dollar grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit studying coronavirus origins that had worked with the Wuhan viral lab in the past. April emails between EcoHealth Alliance CEO Peter Daszak and Fauci, published as part of the recent FOIA, have become a new touchstone for conspiracy theorists, after Daszak thanked the NIAID director for dismissing lab leak theories early in the pandemic.
“I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Daszak wrote to Fauci on April 18, 2020.
“Many thanks for your kind note,” Fauci responded the next day, just over a week before POLITICO first reported that NIH canceled the EcoHealth grant. Daszak did not respond to a POLITICO request for comment.
Theories about a leak from the Wuhan virology lab became a consistent line of questioning for Republican lawmakers by last spring and soon turned into a mainstay of congressional hearings and increasingly contentious exchanges between Fauci and Paul, who sits on the Senate health committee. The longtime NIAID director and Kentucky doctor have exchanged barbs on television after Senate hearings where Paul accused Fauci of moving the goalposts on coronavirus science while the infectious disease scientist has told Paul that “with all due respect,” he was “entirely and completely incorrect.”
Paul was swift to accuse Fauci on Wednesday of knowledge of the Wuhan lab allegedly carrying out controversial “gain-of-function” studies, a field of research that alters viruses in a way that can make them more transmissible or help them hop to new hosts, such as humans.
A senior NIH official insisted to POLITICO that detractors such as Paul are taking Fauci’s emails “out of context.” But the prevailing posture, like that of the White House, was to downplay rather than engage.
“The FOIA articles are discussed like any other issues and then we move on,” the official said. “We're taking it seriously, of course, but it's not changing how we do business or our focus.”
Erin Banco contributed to this report.