Fauci’s star rises as relationship with Biden deepens

Few others cast as long a shadow as Fauci — who over the last year has given America a crash course in epidemiology — especially with top health posts vacant. Vivek Murthy, a favorite Biden adviser during the transition and nominee for surgeon general, is waiting for Senate confirmation, as is Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. The administration has not named a nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees drugs and vaccines.

In the meantime, Fauci’s ascension from his longtime post leading the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has left newer health officials such as Walensky playing catch up. While she and other senior health experts are included in conversations with the president about the state of the pandemic, Fauci often takes the lead — deferring to the CDC director for specifics on topics such as testing or the genetic sequencing of virus variants, according to the three people familiar with the meetings.

The White House declined to comment for this story. But Fauci insists that his regular talks with Biden are simply a product of being in Washington D.C., while other top advisers are dispersed throughout the country during the pandemic. The CDC is headquartered in Atlanta, and most advisers still tap into Zoom for the Oval briefings, Fauci said. “It’s not that there’s anything special about me.”

Being near the White House and in its hallways has its benefits. Fauci has had lengthy conversations with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris that few others have enjoyed in the early days of the administration. Before one vaccination event at the White House, Fauci spent an hour and a half with Biden and Harris, casually discussing vaccine priorities, concerning coronavirus strains and when Americans could go back to business as usual.

Biden also leaned on Fauci for advice on whom to nominate for top jobs and senior assignments at health agencies. In a recent interview with POLITICO, the scientist said he strongly advocated for Walensky to be tapped as director of the CDC.

The president’s go-to-Fauci attitude blossomed during the transition in November. The Biden team was trying still trying to figure out what kind of pandemic response it would inherit in January. Fauci was concerned that new infections, hospitalizations and deaths — already rising after Thanksgiving — would further surge after the December holidays, and that Americans would be hesitant to get vaccinated.

Biden’s team looked to Fauci for guidance, one individual who worked with the transition team and two current senior officials said. The NIAID director offered the incoming administration a reality check: Biden would likely enter office during a perfect storm. Cases and deaths associated with the holidays would likely peak mid-January and vaccine rollout would be sluggish.

It was during this time, sources said, that Biden made the decision that he wanted Fauci to take on a larger role in his administration — one that would give him access to the Oval and would allow him to guide the federal government’s response.

It’s “a totally different interaction” with the new administration, Fauci told POLITICO, describing daily meetings with the Covid-19 task force led by Jeff Zients and weekly formal briefings for Biden. “The contrast is quite dramatic in that the President is spending a considerable amount of his time on addressing this outbreak … He freely converses with us.”

Fauci, who in nearly 40 years as NIAID’s leader has guided the U.S. response to outbreaks ranging from HIV to Ebola, played a pivotal role in the Trump administration’s early Covid-19 response. But as the president’s term in office neared a close, the scientist was often sidelined by a White House eager to show progress against the pandemic and promise a return to normal.

The rift between the pair began when Fauci openly contradicted Trump during press briefings as Trump promised stellar results from unproven vaccines or predicted that vaccines were weeks away from authorization, ignoring the requirements his administration had set for clinical testing.

“I felt compelled to have to correct that,” Fauci said. “Now, the best way to correct it would be behind-the-scenes, to talk to him and talk to his staff. But when you’re standing there on the podium in front of an international audience at a press conference, sometimes you have to just step up and say, ‘No, I’m sorry, that’s not the case.’”

Despite the turmoil Fauci remained a familiar presence in the media and a trusted voice on the pandemic. Biden’s transition team turned to him in late 2020 to distill confusing vaccine distribution plans and reopening strategies drafted under Trump. The public, meanwhile, churned out Fauci memorabilia from bobbleheads to themed cocktails and apparel.

By that time, Fauci had not spoken directly with Trump in weeks.

Biden has yet to appear during one of the White House Covid-19 press briefings, which typically include a mix of Fauci, Zients, Walensky, White House Covid-19 senior adviser Andy Slavitt and equity task force manager Marcella Nunez-Smith. The president takes regular weekly briefings from the task force while members talk “multiple times per day” every day, and Zients is in “constant contact” with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, said Fauci.

For the most part, Fauci says the Biden White House gives him the ability to speak freely, often and without briefing White House officials first. But the president’s chief medical officer does work with the White House communications staff, for example, to prepare for weekend television interviews.

The longtime D.C. veteran’s ascension back to good graces of a president and frequent Oval Office visits is noticeable, particularly as Biden shapes his messaging on reopening America and vaccinating millions of people.

More recently, for instance, Fauci has been central to the administration’s rejection of growing calls for delaying Americans’ second vaccine doses, in favor of getting more people their initial shots faster.

Several lawmakers and health experts have urged the White House to allow delaying of second doses, amid evidence suggesting people are largely protected from Covid after a single shot of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccine. And at least two of Biden’s former Covid advisory board members — Zeke Emanuel, a bioethicist at University of Pennsylvania and former Obama aide, and epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota — have appealed directly to administration officials to seriously consider the idea.

But Fauci has steadfastly opposed the idea in public and private for weeks over concerns the data isn’t yet compelling enough, reinforcing worries more widely within the administration that changing the recommendations now would be a logistical and messaging nightmare.

“We’ve been talking for some time now about why we feel strongly that we need to go with the science,” Fauci said during Wednesday’s White House Covid-19 briefing, adding that a single shot “may be good enough to do a degree of protection, but we don’t know what the durability is.”

Fauci has also hinted in recent conversations that guidelines for vaccinated people — namely whether they need to wear masks — could change as more data come out, suggesting he will stay involved on the CDC guidance discussion.

“I don’t know that I agree with every judgment Tony makes, but if I had to pick a horse who’s had really good judgment and you said, ‘You’ve got to have someone driving this car, who do you want,’ he would be the person,” said Emanuel. “He’s seen HIV, he’s seen Zika, he’s seen Ebola. He’s got more experience. He’s a person who’s demonstrated he can learn and grow.”