There’s no political fix to the COVID-19 pandemic, but politics are playing an outsized role in the government’s response. And it hasn’t been pretty.
To effectively combat any kind of disease outbreak, leaders must trust in and defer to their public health authorities. Instead of leaning more on these experts for their advice, however, the Trump administration has displayed a penchant for undermining them.
Exhibit A of said political machinations is the concerted effort to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is in his 36th year as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
These actions have intensified in recent weeks and include a hostile USA Today op-ed by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, since renounced by President Trump; a Facebook post by Trump aide Dan Scavino that caricatured the infectious-disease doctor as a “Dr. Faucet” who leaks his disagreements; and a bulleted list of the times he “has been wrong” that was supplied to media, and which some outlets described as “opposition research” on a political opponent.
Dr. Fauci was not invited to join the president during the recently reinstated White House pandemic briefings. There was also reporting that the administration had cut back on his TV interviews, but these have noticeably picked up again.
That’s good because this week, Dr. Fauci found himself, once again, defending his record against a fresh Twitter critique, posted by Trump Monday evening and since removed, in which the president accused him of misleading the country and promoted hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug Trump has touted before as a potential coronavirus treatment.
“I have not been misleading the American public under any circumstances,” he told Good Morning America. In a series of interviews with The Atlantic magazine recently, he called the government’s efforts to discredit him “bizarre” and said that he has no plans of resigning.
Nevertheless, this sustained effort to malign and marginalize the country’s undisputed heavyweight champion of sound public health advice (my words) threatens to impede the nation’s pandemic recovery.
For further insight, I asked Tony Jewell, who served as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in the George W. Bush administration, for his take on this unhealthy communications dynamic and its potential ill effects. In a piece for LinkedIn, Jewell, who later handled comms for AstraZeneca before starting his own healthcare PR consultancy, called Dr. Fauci “the smartest and most pragmatic” of all of the dozens of public health officials he worked with while at HHS from 2001 to 2005.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MM&M: Talk about your time in the Bush administration and your interactions with leading health officials within the department.
Jewell: That [period] was 9/11. That was Anthrax. That was SARS. That was flu vaccine shortage. Dr. Fauci was already Dr. Fauci by the time we got there, but for months on end repeatedly, we worked day in and day out with him communicating. My job was to manage media appearances among the HHS secretary; the heads of the CDC, NIH, FDA and other agencies, just coordinating to make sure CNN wasn’t trying to book one person while Fox was booking another.
MM&M: How did you come to be such a staunch defender of Dr. Fauci?
Jewell: When I see [White House staff criticizing] Dr. Fauci, it kind of amuses me, because my job was to help manage his bookings. And wow, he was by far the most effective communicator we had. He was always up to do it. He was credible. Media trusted him. The public trusted him. He gave sound advice. I’m not even talking epidemiologically – he gave sound communications advice, too. And so to see this going on is disappointing and frustrating for me and a lot of people I worked with.
MM&M: You saw his advice firsthand. What’s the danger in manipulating that advice for political gain?
Jewell: Dr. Fauci will give the best public health advice that he can give in the moment. Now, it’s an economic advisor’s job to give economic advice. It’s a political advisor’s job to give political advice. And it’s a communication person’s job to give communications advice. Then as a leader – whether you’re a president, a governor, a mayor, school board president, whatever you are – you take that advice and you come up with a coherent policy and path forward. The problem is nobody likes what is happening…And so you have an administration that won’t take responsibility and accountability for actions or lack of actions. And they allow good people giving the best advice they can give to become the scapegoats because they think that will win them an election.
MM&M: It’s as if they’re blaming the man who’s telling them what’s going to happen from a public health perspective. There is also a wider war on public health going on, as you’ve noted. The so-called Plandemic video, since widely debunked, hurled other unfounded attacks on Dr. Fauci. What’s your take on all of this?
Jewell: It’s very distressing to serious people who care about public health to see this happening to science and truth, but also to one of the finest public servants any of us has ever known. But we live in a time when anybody with a quarter-baked thought and an internet connection can end up being retweeted to tens of millions of people by the president, and then amplified by untold number of other people. It’s a tough time to be a scientist. It’s a tough time for public health in the United States right now. And it’s sad to watch.
MM&M: How did this compare to when you were serving?
Jewell: I was a political appointee. My boss was a political appointee. We worked for the president, [so] we served at the will of the president. But I knew day to day, minute to minute, hour to hour, what the White House would care about. And I knew what I had to notify them of. I knew how they would react to news, or had a really good idea. So there was a predictability that made the job doable, even through 9/11, Anthrax, flu vaccine shortage, SARS. Those were horrible times. Those were difficult times professionally, but we were able to do our jobs because the White House under [former assistant to the president] Dan Bartlett and [former White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer – and the president and vice president, the chiefs of staff – they were predictable. They were consistent.
MM&M: And the communicator’s job is more difficult when the White House is anything but predictable. What effect do you think that’s having?
Jewell: [In the Bush administration, we] made decisions, rational decisions based on, you know, rational information. I don’t know how I could possibly do the job now, knowing that no matter what happens, the reaction can be 180 degrees different from what you expect. I don’t see how any communicator in the administration, especially public health communicators, can effectively communicate because what’s true one day is not true the next.
MM&M: You dealt with a litany of public health threats. It sounds like your ability to do that would have been hampered by a lack of clear communication.
Jewell: We made mistakes from a communication standpoint, but we learned from those mistakes and we got better. You learn who you can rely on, who’s going to be there. And Dr. Fauci – a hundred times out of a hundred – is one of those people. I never once saw him get flustered. There were heated conversations in those days, especially around Anthrax. And he was a voice of reason. He was cool. He was calm and collected. He had the secretary’s ear.
He knew a whole lot more about communications than I did about epidemiology, but he worked with me. And because he understood that [sometimes, notwithstanding] what you want to say from a public health standpoint, there are communications, political or economic considerations that the White House is concerned about. And he would say, ‘“What if we said this,” and could almost always find some mutually agreed upon way of communicating.
MM&M: Is there anyone else from your days in the Bush administration who’s still there today?
Jewell: I worked with Alex Azar, who was [HHS] head of policy when I was there, then deputy in the second half. [Others who have since moved on included] Scott Gottlieb at FDA and Mark McClellan at CMS.
MM&M: You mentioned the Anthrax incident. Can you share one other memorable anecdote about working with Dr. Fauci?
Jewell: He was somebody we relied upon to do TV and to get on the phone with the reporter and say, “No, you’re way off base on this,” or “Yeah, you got this right,” because [the media] trusted him and respected him. It’s one thing to hear me say [to a reporter], “Nah, you’re wrong about this.” They figure it’s just political spin. But I was like, “Would it help if I put Dr. Fauci on the phone [to] say you’re wrong?”
MM&M: What’s your advice for communicators currently working in the Trump administration?
Jewell: I felt like everybody that came out of the Bush administration, with whom I worked, was employable. They knew we were professionals. We [had our battles]. Sometimes it’s hard to be a Republican communicator, but everybody came out with reputations intact. And so my advice would be, whether the administration ends in six months or four years and six months, it’s gonna end and you have to work with other people in other settings that isn’t [like] the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day combat.
MM&M: You’re saying that maintaining their current posture could impact them down the road and so they would do well to focus on making allies?
Jewell: You have to have relationships – with journalists, with people of both political parties. We always had good relationships with people like [HHS secretary under President Bill Clinton] Donna Shalala’s administration. They knew what we were going through during 9/11 and Anthrax. And so they were nice and helpful. I hear that’s all lost. I’ve gotten [consulting] business in my career from people from other [political] parties, because we weren’t bomb throwers. It was not all a zero-sum game.
Maybe this is advice from a different era, but I’d like to think that this environment will settle down a little bit. And as people come out of it, they’re going to have to be employable, unless you’re just going to look for Hill jobs where you do this all day, every day. Republicans now are different from 20 years ago, when I was entering HHS. It’s hard enough as a Republican communicator. You’ve got to treat people with respect, otherwise you’re going to make things a lot harder on yourselves down the road in a professional capacity.