“The Elephant in the Room”: Fauci Cites “A Building Distrust” Surrounding Pandemic

In Remarks to Embattled Watchdogs, Fauci Pleads for “Leadership,” “Truth,” and “Transparency”
(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

In previously unreported remarks, Dr. Anthony Fauci recently delivered a sharp, at times almost plaintive critique of President Donald Trump’s approach to what Fauci called the worsening pandemic crisis to an audience of federal inspectors general. Fauci spoke to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, a group of government watchdogs, without once mentioning Trump’s name as he took on the subjects of presidential leadership and “a building distrust now” that afflicts Americans’ understanding of the pandemic. Fauci repeatedly made clear that the current situation requires him to speak truth to power “consistently,” because “at least you maintained your integrity” even if “somebody does want to shoot the messenger.”

Fauci’s remarks were part of a keynote address delivered last week at an inspectors general awards ceremony and were made public after queries by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). They come amid an increasingly tense public standoff in which Trump called America’s leading infectious disease expert and other scientists “idiots” the public “is tired of hearing” from. In response, Fauci has down-played White House attacks, calling them a “distraction” and emphasizing that he just wants to do his job. “‘Nothing personal, strictly business,’ as far as I’m concerned,” Fauci said, quoting the movie, The Godfather.

In audio recordings from early February, Trump told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that he was well aware of the coronavirus’s deadly threat. Trump explained that he had concealed that from the public and soft-peddled the news at the beginning of the pandemic for fear of setting off a “panic.” In Fauci’s remarks to the watchdogs, he decried as “totally nonsense” attempts to shield the American people from the truth about the pandemic. Recounting his own experiences going back to Ronald Reagan, the first president he directly worked with almost 40 years ago, and other moments in America’s past such as the two world wars, Fauci stated, “We’re a pretty strong country, we can handle the truth.”

Fauci’s characteristically understated, if tart, remarks carry added weight because Trump has recently said that, while Fauci’s remarks create negative press for him, it would be a “bigger bomb if you fire him,” further fueling fears that Trump wants to fire Fauci. Fauci’s chosen venue was also significant, as he addressed federal watchdogs across the government who have been forced to endure firings and repeated attacks from Trump themselves. In April, Trump fired the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, after he transmitted a whistleblower disclosure to Congress as required by law, alleging the president had misused the power of his office to urge Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden. Those allegations sparked impeachment proceedings.

In May, Trump fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was investigating the personal conduct of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the U.K (and personal friend of Trump) Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV.

Days later, after the Pentagon’s top watchdog, Glenn Fine, who had previously served as inspector general at the Department of Justice, was named head of the inspector general-staffed Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, Trump removed him as well.

Fauci’s remarks to the inspectors general council were well-received from his audience of thousands of inspector general leadership and staff, some of whom texted messages of agreement and support to Fauci, according to one official who attended the virtual proceedings.

We’re a strong country, we can handle the truth.

Fauci’s 20 minute presentation on October 13 was dubbed a “fireside chat” by a spokesman for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which the doctor has headed for decades. Fauci’s office told POGO it had no video or transcript of his remarks, which were delivered as part of a question and answer session with Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, who noted more than once that Fauci’s responses seemed to resonate with his audience in the inspectors general community.

Grimm herself faced an attack by Trump during an April press conference after her office released survey findings that said hospitals were largely unprepared for the pandemic. The findings did not criticize Trump, yet he suggested she or her office had political motives. “Could politics be entered into that?” Trump said.

After POGO inquired about Fauci's remarks, CIGIE told POGO that it was already working to post the video as soon as possible, which occurred on late Tuesday.

Fauci was also asked to address the issue of leadership. His response, without mentioning Trump, seemed aimed at least partly at the president.

“If you’re going to make scientific-based public health recommendations everything has got to be transparent, otherwise once you lose the confidence of people, that they don’t believe what you’re saying, or they believe you’re holding things back, or they believe there’s a political motivation to things,” Fauci declared.

“And we’ve got to admit it—those of us in government, all of us, you and I and all of the people that work for me and all the people that work for you—that there is a building mistrust now in the transparency of what we do. It’s the elephant in the room.”

“The thing that gets people spooked is when they don’t know what’s going on, not when you tell them what’s going on,” Fauci said.

“If you go back over outbreaks in the past, the one thing that has always prevailed as the things that make things work is when people are open and honest and don’t hold information back,” he said.

“You’ve got to make sure that everybody understands where we’re going, what is the goal, and how we’re going to get there. And then you lead by example,” he said. “Consistency is also very important. You can’t, you know, flip-flop on things. Sometimes you change because the evidence changes but you can’t flip-flop on things.”

The thing that gets people spooked is when they don’t know what’s going on, not when you tell them what’s going on.

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Among the topics he broached during the interview was the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority groups due to “social determinants of health” rather than a “racial genetic issue,” the wearing of masks, precautions to take during Halloween, and the continuing threat of coronavirus. “Most people who get infected do reasonably well and it isn’t a big deal, but there’s a subset of the elderly and those who have underlying conditions that are at a pretty high risk of getting into trouble,” Fauci said. “Hence the 210,000 deaths in the United States.”

Recounting the first days in his current position more than three decades ago, Fauci spoke of advice given to him by a former aide to President Richard Nixon before Fauci first briefed Reagan on an issue.

Fauci said that the former Nixon staffer told him that “whenever you walk into the White House, always say to yourself that this may be the last time that I ever walk in here because I might have to tell people in power something that they don’t want to hear, and sometimes when you tell someone something they don’t want to hear then they don’t want to hear from you again.”

“So don’t get caught up in the aura and the majesty of saying ‘wow, isn’t this cool, I want to come back here,’” Fauci said. Instead, he admonished, “always tell the truth.”