WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are backing Anthony Fauci, saying they have full confidence in his expertise. But they’re largely staying silent on the attacks to his credibility from inside the White House, with some senators brushing off the smears as fair game.
BuzzFeed News asked a cross section of more than a dozen Republican senators about Fauci, ranging from party leaders to moderates to more hardline conservatives. He received unanimous support.
In recent days, White House staffers have drafted talking points attacking Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, and shared a cartoon mocking the doctor. Peter Navarro, an adviser to Trump, penned an op-ed in USA Today titled “Anthony Fauci Has Been Wrong About Everything I Have Interacted With Him On.”
Fauci has been shut out from White House press conferences. Trump took the podium by himself Tuesday; when asked why Fauci and Deborah Birx were not present, the president responded, “Well, Dr. Birx is right outside.”
Fauci has been less vocal, though he told the Atlantic the attacks against him were “bizarre.” He remains a heroic figure in many circles and will toss out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals season opener this week.
Fauci has consistently been more pessimistic on COVID-19 projections than the president, who has pushed for reopening and repeatedly argued the coronavirus will disappear. As a result, Trump versus Fauci has become part of the country’s political divide.
“I think Fauci has become emblematic of what tribe you’re in and what side you’re on in a political civil war,” said Sen. Ted Cruz.
He did not criticize Fauci’s credibility and in fact expressed support for him — but he did object to what he described as people placing an almost religious level of faith in the epidemiologist’s statements. “I have no problem with his being one of many voices in the discussion, but he’s treated almost like this talisman,” said Cruz.
Trump’s more fervent followers in the House of Representatives are taking up the fight over Fauci’s credibility. Republican Rep. Liz Cheney was blasted by members of the hard right Freedom Caucus for being too supportive of Fauci at a caucus meeting Tuesday, Politico reported.
But that political divide does not extend to the Senate, where Fauci still receives broad bipartisan praise.
“I have great confidence in his professionalism and integrity,” said John Barrasso, a member of Senate leadership.
Sen. Mitt Romney called Fauci “a treasure and an extraordinary voice on matters relating to his expertise.” Sen. Susan Collins said America is lucky to have him.
Some senators did temper their support by saying he is only one voice of many that should be heard, but even they praised his knowledge as an epidemiologist. “He should be at the table. His input is important,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.
Asked if it is appropriate for White House staffers to attack the credibility of the nation’s leading epidemiologist, Republicans responded cautiously.
“There are, I’m sure, differences of points of view within the administration,” said Sen. John Thune, the majority whip. “But I don’t think it’s probably advisable to publicly pick a fight with someone who has that kind of credibility.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a physician, expressed his support in Fauci, calling him “great.” Asked about the assaults on the public health expert’s reputation, Cassidy said he didn’t want to get involved.
“This is politics. This is big leagues, so people may attack him,” he said. “I’ll just reiterate my personal support for him.”
Some Republicans chalked up the anti-Fauci statements as the type of heated interpersonal debates that come with working in the highest levels of government. But Sen. John Cornyn did say of Navarro’s USA Today op-ed, “I think it’s completely unnecessary.”
Fauci doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Trump cannot fire him directly. Romney said he’s heard no talk of the president trying to pressure him to step down, adding that he would be shocked if that were the case.
Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, downplayed the issue while darting between meetings on Capitol Hill this week. He attributed the controversy to “some statements publicly that have been made” and the White House does not have any deep-seated opposition to Fauci.
Asked if he has faith in Fauci, Meadows responded, “As an epidemiologist? Sure.”