Donald Trump and his Republican allies have spent the past few weeks trying to rewrite or distort the history of the pandemic, attempting with renewed vigor to villainize Anthony Fauci while lionizing the former president for what they portray as heroic foresight and underappreciated efforts to combat the deadly virus.
They have focused on the early moments of the coronavirus response and the origins of the virus, downplaying any role they may have played and casting others in the wrong, at times taking comments out of context and at others drawing conclusions that are unproved.
And at a time when the number of vaccinated people continues to rise and deaths are at one of their lowest levels, it has placed the coronavirus back at the center of the political debate. Trump is planning to make it a chief argument in a reputation rehabilitation effort. And Republicans are also making it a centerpiece of their midterm election campaigns, pledging to hold congressional investigations if they win back the House majority.
“Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus,” Trump said in a recent statement. “To me it was obvious from the beginning but I was badly criticized, as usual. Now they are all saying ‘He was right.’ Thank you!”
The central argument from him and his allies is that the possibility that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, which remains a possibility, or was manufactured there, a claim for which there is no public evidence, as opposed to spreading from an animal to a human, was unfairly dismissed or covered up by scientists and media organizations bent on destroying the former president.
But to believe some of the claims from Trump and Republicans one would have to imagine that President Barack Obama in 2014 helped seed money into bat research, which within several years would result in a global virus that escaped from a lab - either as a bioweapon or by accident - and spread around the globe.
One would have to come to the firm conclusion that not only was the virus developed in a lab - something experts have said is nearly impossible given the virus’s features - but that Americans helped cover that up, and that President Joe Biden is now aiding in the effort.
But more significantly, the focus on from where the virus came appears to be an attempt to distract from the chief failure of the Trump administration - its uneven and chaotic response to the outbreak once it began spreading within the United States.
Trump frequently told the public it was not a serious threat and would go away soon, including when the weather changed. He resisted public health policies that medical experts said could save lives and sent conflicting signals to the public about whether to wear masks. He said you should, but he would not. Trump also sought to take little responsibility for the pandemic response, often saying it was the job of state governments, not his administration, to take action.
Now close to 600,000 Americans have died from the virus - a statistic that is impervious to the debate over whether the virus leaked from a Chinese lab or was spread from an animal to a human.
The focus on the virus’s origin story also fits a pattern of Trump and his supporters trying to absolve the former president of blame by obfuscating his past actions or words and blaming others despite his role as the country’s leader. Many Republicans are now playing down the severity of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and Trump spent years trying to deny he equated the actions of white supremacists with racial justice demonstrators in the 2017 deadly clashes in Charlottesville.
Public health experts warn that the effort to rewrite or distort the history of the pandemic is more than a political issue and could impact the ability of public health officials to prevent or mitigate a future pandemic.
“It’s important that people memorialize what happened and are not creating a false propagandistic narrative that’s going to make it harder for scholars to extract the lessons of this pandemic,” Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The fact that there’s an alternative false narrative being constructed is going to erode more trust between the public and the public health and medical community.”
But as the Wuhan lab leak theory has gained credence, so has the Republican sense of vindication - and the insistence that Fauci has to explain himself. People close to Fauci have again begun to worry for his safety, given the vitriol and fixation on him that surpasses even what he was faced with last year.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has called for a criminal investigation into Fauci and featured graphics that flash, “Lord Fauci, Patron Saint of Wuhan.”
“They’re using Dr. Fauci as a way to direct attention from what actually was a massive government failure from the White House and individuals Donald Trump put in place to handle some of this pandemic,” Adalja said.
Trump has been relentlessly focused on placing blame on Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
At an event in North Carolina on Saturday night, Trump railed against Fauci with the crowd roaring with laughter when he said Fauci was a “radical masker” who might want people to wear three or four masks and goggles for years to come.
“He’s not a great doctor, but a hell of a promoter,” Trump told the crowd. “He likes television more than any politician in this room. He’s been wrong on almost every issue.”
Fauci now finds himself in a familiar position - as a focal point for criticism from Trump and his allies amid renewed questions about China’s role in the virus.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., on Friday called for Fauci’s resignation and for a “full congressional investigation” into the origins of covid. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a frequent Fauci critic, also renewed calls for his resignation while Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., declared, “In Florida, we choose freedom over Fauci-ism, and we’re much better off for doing that.”
Some Republican lawmakers, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Paul, have sought to draw a nefarious connection between Fauci and the Wuhan Institute of Virology because of a $3.7 million grant the National Institutes of Health awarded a New York-based research nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was awarded a $600,000 subgrant under that contract, which Republican lawmakers and right-wing commentators have suggested means Fauci was involved in some sort of coverup or that NIH funded the creation of the virus, even though the idea that it was bioengineered has been largely disproved.
Those lawmakers and commentators have focused on a specific type of research called gain-of-function, in which researchers make a pathogen more infectious, often to develop more effective treatments and vaccines. NIH Director Francis Collins has said the Wuhan Institute of Virology was not approved for such research under the terms of the grant.
There is also no evidence that the lab created the virus.
“Are you really saying that we are implicated because we gave a multibillion-dollar institution $120,000 a year for bat surveillance?” Fauci said in a recent interview with the Financial Times.
Most scientists last year coalesced around the theory that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans. Experts in viral genome evolution determined that it almost certainly was not engineered as a bioweapon because it has several naturally occurring features and is closely related to a 2014 coronavirus that came from a bat in a cave in China. But they also said they could not rule out that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the world’s preeminent institution studying coronaviruses.
Initially, much of the scientific community said the lab leak theory, while possible, was unlikely. Trump and his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, also distorted the national discussion of a potential lab leak by conflating the question of whether the virus may have accidentally escaped from a lab with brazen accusations that China deliberately engineered the virus and then unleashed it with no supporting evidence.
That was a marked change from Trump’s posture in the early months of 2020, even as U.S. and international investigators were not allowed in to China to investigate and understand the outbreak underway. Trump in fact praised President Xi Jinping despite advisers pushing for him to take a tougher stance.
“He’s developed some incredible theories, and all that information is coming over here. It’s - a lot of it’s already come, the data. We call it data. And we’re going to learn a lot from what the Chinese went through,” Trump told reporters on March 27, 2020, recounting a recent phone call with Xi. “Our relationship with China is very good.”
China prohibited U.S. and international investigators from entering the country in January 2020 and for much of February to study the virus and begin to answer questions about where it may have originated. When investigators were finally allowed to come to the country in late February, they were not given appropriate access to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation, experts said. China has also silenced scientists and guarded raw data and biological samples from international experts.
But the question of how and where the virus originated has become a political focal point. Biden recently ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to determine the origins of the coronavirus, and issue a report by late August.
Still, there has been no new evidence on the lab leak theory and the existing evidence is entirely circumstantial, meaning no one can actually answer the question of whether there was a lab leak or whether the virus occurred naturally. But many Republicans have rushed to claim anyway that they were right all along.
And critics have seized on recently released emails from Fauci’s account to suggest he wasn’t giving enough credence to the possibility that the virus could have been the result of work in a lab.
When a question was asked in the White House briefing room in mid-April 2020, Fauci said that science at the time suggested that the virus was “totally consistent with a jump of a species from animal to human.” But it was Trump who had yielded the microphone to Fauci. And as Trump stood behind Fauci’s left shoulder, he looked forward, raised no objections, and made no suggestions that he disagreed with Fauci on the point.
It is that claim, though, that has come under scrutiny from Republicans, particularly following the release of Fauci’s emails. Some have claimed that he was too close with other scientists to have an objective perspective.
In one of Fauci’s emails, Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit that helped fund research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, thanked Fauci for that comment in the briefing room.
“I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Daszak wrote to Fauci.
“Many thanks for your kind note,” Fauci responded.
Fauci has defended the email exchange - and he still maintains that the most likely origin for the coronavirus is that it was transferred from an animal to a human.
“You can misconstrue it however you want - that email was from a person to me saying ‘thank you’ for whatever it is he thought I said, and I said that I think the most likely origin is a jumping of species,” Fauci told CNN on Thursday. “I still do think it is, at the same time as I’m keeping an open mind that it might be a lab leak.”
He also finds it implausible that China would have developed the virus, and was aghast at critics who are pointing to redacted material in his emails to raise suspicions.
“They only took about 10,000 emails from me, of course I remember. I remember all 10,000 of them. Give me a break,” he said. “I don’t remember what’s in that redacted, but the idea I think is quite far-fetched that the Chinese deliberately engineered something so that they could kill themselves as well as other people. I think that’s a bit far out.”
On Friday afternoon, Biden initially left the room after addressing reporters as a question about his confidence in Fauci was shouted out. Biden suddenly peeked his head around the corner to be sure to answer.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m very confident in Dr. Fauci.”
- - -
The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.