The presidential election is in less than four months. It is a race between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. But that contest will have to wait.
For the moment, Trump and his White House are trying to create a matchup with a different opponent: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old scientist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
On Thursday, Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News that Fauci “is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.”
And this weekend, the White House attacked Fauci, whom polls have found is broadly trusted, with anonymous officials saying that not everything he says is correct.
The politics of this particular strategy might be among the worst political decisions the Trump administration has ever made.
For one, with Biden so far ahead in polling at this late date, Trump should be focusing on attacking the presumptive Democratic nominee. Also: Say Trump succeeds in diminishing Fauci’s standing with the American people, it is unclear how that helps get him reelected.
Any moment Trump is hitting Fauci, he isn’t either talking himself up or hitting Biden. Trump might feel more alpha in tearing down someone else, but he just wasted another moment to improve his standing against Biden.
But let’s back up for a second and review what exactly the White House has done in recent days.
Trump and Fauci, the nation’s leading scientist on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, have not seen eye-to-eye on how to address the disease both figuratively and literally. The pair have not met in more than a month, according to The Washington Post. And while Fauci has called for states to be more in lockdown to contain surging cases numbers, Trump has suggested life should return to normal.
The Trump administration has the right to approve or cancel Fauci’s media appearances and recently that has basically kept him off the television.
Because when he does do media appearances he has been saying lines like this one to the FiveThirtyEight podcast last week: ”As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not.”
That is hardly the message from Trump and his administration right now. They are pushing governors to reopen their states and for schools this fall to admit children even as America set at least seven different records for coronavirus cases in the last two weeks.
Fauci admits that he was wrong in initially saying that people shouldn’t wear masks when they cannot practice social distancing. He said he was unsure just how much it could spread among asymptomatic people infected with the virus and the masks, which were needed for front-line workers, were in short supply.
On Monday, during a news briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was pressed on whether they were essentially doing opposition research on a government employee.
“Couldn’t be further from the truth,” said McEnany, who went on to say the White House was just providing further background information for reporters who requested it.
It’s unclear if Trump will continue to try to attack Fauci, who in a recent Siena College/New York Times poll had a national approval rating of 67 percent for his handling of coronavirus compared to just 26 percent for Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
But for the context of the presidential election, if Trump is trying to create a foil out of Fauci, it is only good news for Trump’s actual political opponent: Biden.
Yes, Biden has proven to be an elusive opponent for Trump in the past three months. Team Trump has yet to find a theme that works against Biden. Biden also doesn’t have a lot of incentive to engage with Trump either, given that while Biden has been basically relegated to his house during the pandemic, his poll numbers have improved.
In other words, the more Trump focuses on Fauci, the more likely that Biden wins in November.