The president vs. the doctor: Messages and tone conflict in a long-distance COVID-19 debate

The president vs. the doctor: Messages and tone conflict in a long-distance COVID-19 debate

It was the President versus the doctor, the commander-in-chief in the Rose Garden on Monday and the nation's most trusted doctor in a Senate hearing room on Tuesday.

Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, works for President Donald Trump, of course. But with a measured tone in a gravely voice and a distinctive Brooklyn accent, Fauci effectively undercut the message that his boss had championed the day before about how to respond to COVID-19. Trump was impatient, quick to claim success and eager to have the country to begin reopening. Fauci counseled patience, saying the medical realities mean the nation isn't ready to reopen and that doing it too early would carry a deadly cost.

That is unlikely to endear him to Trump, who already had sidelined Fauci from recent briefings at the White House.

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Senators listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks remotely during a virtual hearing of the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Fauci's comments before the Senate Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) weren't political or partisan, a fact that made them more powerful. He stuck to the science, to the data points, to the clinical process – and to the consequences of reopening the nation too soon.

"If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control," he said, warning that could not only cost lives but also set back an economic recovery.

In contrast, Trump had struck a victorious note.

"We have met the moment, and we have prevailed," he declared Monday. (In response to a reporter's question, he said he was referring to the effort to ramp up the availability of testing, not to the overall battle against the novel coronavirus.) He has encouraged governors to reopen stores and businesses and even cheered people who took to the streets to defy shutdown orders.

The president had picked the Senate hearing as a friendlier forum than the oversight committee in the Democratic-controlled House that also sought Fauci's testimony.

“The House is a setup," Trump told reporters last week. "The House is a bunch of Trump haters. They put every Trump hater on the committee." Instead, he said, Fauci “will be testifying in front of the Senate, and he looks forward to doing that.”

Takeaways from Senate hearing:Fauci says vaccine 'likely,' but not in time for school

But the less combative tone in the Republican-controlled Senate may have made the criticism of the administration's claims more convincing. The senators rarely interrupted or bickered. By the standards of the day, the session could even be described as bipartisan. It had the somber air of officials seriously considering a national crisis.

Democratic senators did blast the administration's record and plans, or lack of plans. Trump "has been more focused on fighting against the truth than fighting the virus," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State, the panel's top-ranking Democrat. "Americans have sadly paid the price."

But several Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, also raised questions about the administration's record and its recommendations on reopening stores and offices.

State social distancing rules:Here's how America is reopening amid coronavirus pandemic.

Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., speaks remotely via a teleconference during the May 12, 2020 Senate HELP Committee hearing on 'getting back to work and school.'

"I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever," said Romney, Trump's most persistent critic among congressional Republicans. He asked Fauci about Trump's accusation that former president Barack Obama was responsible for the lack of a vaccine for the coronavirus. Had Obama – or Trump, for that matter – done something that made creating a vaccine less likely?

"No, no, senator," Fauci replied. "Not at all."

Fauci also disputed a theory that deaths were being over-counted, which some partisans have suggested was an effort to make Trump look bad. The official death toll has now topped 80,000. "Almost certainly it's higher," he said, because of those who died at home, not in a hospital.

At the White House briefing Tuesday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump's push to reopen the country. "There are consequences that run the other way when we stay closed down as a country," she told reporters, citing reports of an increase in substance abuse and a decline in cancer health screenings. "We've got to encourage this country to safely reopen."

Still, even the setting for the Senate hearing underscored just how difficult that whole process is going to be.

Alexander ran the hearing from the den in his Tennessee home – his dog Rufus could be seen in the corner and occasionally heard barking the background – because he was self-quarantining after a staff member tested positive for the virus. Murray joined remotely from her home in Washington State. A half-dozen senators gathered in the hearing room, but they were seated six feet apart; some wore protective masks.

Books, dogs, rustic living rooms:What we saw when the Senate held a remote coronavirus hearing

The four officials testified from remote locations, too. Three of them were self-isolating because they had been exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was at his home office. Adm. Brett Giroir, Trump's coronavirus testing czar, seemed to be at the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters, across Capitol Hill. Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug commissioner, also testified via video.

Fauci was in his home office, books stacked on the floor and a leather easy chair behind him. "I have never made myself out to be the end-all-and-only voice in this," he said in response to a derisive question from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. "I'm a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice on the best scientific evidence."

Which was precisely the point.

Testing for COVID-19:White House staff to be tested daily after military aide to Trump tests positive


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