WASHINGTON — One after another, some of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives took to the stage at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to denounce Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Biden, and to air other pandemic-related grievances.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who was introducing a bill to reduce Fauci’s salary to $0 and have him account for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, led the attacks. The proposed legislation, called the Fire Fauci Act, stands no chance of passage in a House controlled by Democrats.
Nevertheless, the highly vituperative affair — replete with reminders that Fauci was an “unelected bureaucrat” — was indicative of how the bespectacled, Brooklyn-born immunologist continues to be at the center of every ongoing debate related to the coronavirus, including the economic costs of lockdowns (low, says a new study, though there are, of course, social and psychic costs to isolation) and the efficacy of wearing masks (exceptionally high, the discomfort of masking aside).
Bitter recriminations over the handling of the pandemic continue to fill the national discourse, even as that pandemic ends. Conservatives believe that restrictions were onerous and unnecessary, while liberals and progressives have criticized former President Donald Trump’s response. Trump frequently undermined and threatened Fauci, eventually making Dr. Scott Atlas, a controversial Stanford-affiliated physician, his top coronavirus adviser.
Even as the pandemic ebbs in the United States, the attacks against Fauci have intensified. Critics have used his emails, released recently under a Freedom of Information Act request, to buttress their claims. Those show that he was uncertain about the efficacy of masks in the early stages of the pandemic. So were many others at a time early on when how the virus spread was poorly understood. One email Fauci received in January 2020 did raise the possibility of a lab escape, but there is no evidence he concealed critical information about the origins of the virus. Such information has been exceptionally difficult to come by for investigators outside China.
“Please cover his emails,” Greene said. “Get the truth out.” The emails were extensively covered by the Washington Post and other outlets, but conservatives who have been suspicious of Fauci and the scientific establishment from the start insist that the messages merit more investigation.
Taylor and her co-sponsors on the anti-Fauci bill (Republican Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky; Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona; Mary Miller of Illinois; Buddy Carter of Georgia; Bob Good of Virginia; Matt Gaetz and Greg Steube of Florida; and Mo Brooks of Alabama) claim that Fauci knowingly funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that made the virus more lethal. Although that laboratory did receive National Institutes of Health funding through a New York-based organization called the EcoHealth Alliance, both Fauci and NIH Director Francis Collins have explicitly said that Chinese grant recipients were prevented from using U.S. funds for so-called gain-of-function research, which makes a pathogen either more transmissible or more potent to see how it might then behave.
Conservatives are unconvinced. Now that Fauci is associated with Biden, not Trump, their attacks are seemingly intended to imply that the new administration is incapable of holding China to account. Biden has, in fact, called for a more complete investigation of how the coronavirus originated.
“Were we all victims of a bioweapon?” wondered Greene, a onetime adherent of the QAnon conspiracy theory who has also mused about “Jewish space lasers” and more recently dismissed evolution. She demanded “reparations” from the Chinese government, which has sought to distance itself from any responsibility for the origins of the virus, going so far as to call for investigations of bioweapons at American facilities. Yet scientists have become increasingly emboldened in arguing that the lab escape theory needs a harder look, with greater cooperation from China. The notion that China unleashed a bioweapon on the world, however, is not considered a credible hypothesis.
Trump was sometimes irritated with Fauci’s media appearances, and by the high degree of trustworthiness he was afforded by the public. Those grievances plainly persist. “Dr. Fauci leveraged his position as a leading figure in the White House to become a celebrity,” charged Rep. Biggs.
Greene and others spoke standing beside a placard that said: “Fauci lied. People died.” The words were accompanied by a photo of a masked Fauci, who is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He has been in the federal government for 40 years and has served seven consecutive presidents, including Trump.
Firing him would be difficult, since Fauci is a senior public servant, not an appointed official. Nor are congressional Democrats, or the president, bound to take personnel advice from the most radical members of the opposition party, some of whom called into question Biden’s legitimate victory in last November’s election.
Among the participants in Tuesday’s anti-Fauci fusillade was Rep. Brooks, who last week was sued by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., for his alleged role in inciting pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6. In response to a question from Yahoo News, Brooks angrily denied that the anti-China rhetoric on display Tuesday could be fueling attacks against Asian Americans. He noted that Chinese Americans “are not necessarily members of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The purpose of Tuesday’s rally was largely symbolic, more significant in what it says about how conservatives plan to litigate the pandemic in the coming months, ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Even as life returns to normal in many parts of the country, there remain uncertainties about the upcoming school year, about how long white-collar workers will continue to work from home and just how much effort should go into investigating the origins of the coronavirus, not to mention how to prevent the next pandemic.
“Let’s not divide people with politics,” said Greene, who less than 24 hours earlier had called a press conference to apologize for having compared pandemic restrictions to the horrific treatment of Jews by Nazis during World War II. A skilled cultural warrior with little interest in seeking legislative solutions, Greene understands that the pandemic remains a motivating issue for both sides of the nation’s gaping political divide.
Fauci has been living under heightened security for months. That is likely to continue as long as he remains at the center of conservatives’ ire. Last month the National Review ran a cover story on what it deemed “the unforced errors of America’s political doctor,” mockingly depicting him as a would-be saint. And the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is set to release a book highly critical of Fauci in September. As of Monday evening, that book was among the bestselling on Amazon.
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