Aug 24, 2022

Dr. Fauci retires.

Dr. Fauci retires.

What will his legacy on Covid-19 be?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes:

Dr. Fauci retires, some changes to Tangle, and a recap of last night's midterm results.

Photo: Trump White House
Photo: Trump White House

Some changes.

In an effort to create the best newsletter possible, I have always pledged to incorporate reader feedback into adjustments that we make. Starting today, you'll notice two changes to Tangle that are the product of repeated reader requests:

1) I'm going to start using bold fonts more regularly, and bolded, bullet-point summaries of "my take." We first started the bullet point summaries of the right and left arguments a few months ago so people could skim the newsletter faster when they were short on time. But quite a few readers have said they wished they could get those summaries of "my take," too. While I want Tangle to be a longer-form, more in-depth and nuanced politics newsletter, I also know your time is precious. So we're going to start using bold fonts (like this) to highlight "must-read" sections of the newsletter so those short on time can get to the core of the issues if they need to.

2) The "Story that matters" section will now be dubbed "Under the radar." Quite a few people have suggested that a section named "Story that matters" implies other things in the newsletter are less important, which is a good point. Really, I want to have a section about a story I think should be getting more attention but isn't. Hence, the introduction of "Under the radar."


Quick hits.

  1. Today marks six months since the war in Ukraine began, and also 31 years of Ukraine’s Independence. Read our recent update on the war here.
  2. President Biden is expected to announce $10,000 of student loan cancellation for borrowers earning less than $125,000 per year. The highly anticipated move comes after months of deliberation by the White House on whether to pursue student loan cancellation. (The decision)
  3. A judge sentenced Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to five days in jail for a DUI. He will receive two days of credit for time served and two days for good conduct, and will serve his remaining one day through a court work program. (The sentence)
  4. Two men were convicted for conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in 2020. (The conviction)
  5. Life expectancy in the U.S. fell in all 50 states and Washington D.C. from 2019 to 2020. (The numbers)
  6. BONUS: We have a midterm recap in place of our reader question today.

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci. On Monday, Dr. Fauci announced that he will be stepping down in December. Fauci's plan to retire from government was initially reported in July, but the 81-year-old made it official this week. Fauci is currently serving as Biden's chief medical advisor and the government's top infectious disease official, and is best known for navigating the American Covid-19 response under two administrations. He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and is chief of NIAID’s Laboratory of Immunoregulation. He will be stepping down from all three positions.

Fauci's departure comes at a time when Covid-19 cases remain still high and the Biden administration attempts to pivot to meet the public's changing sentiments on how to handle the virus. As we covered on Monday, the CDC has relaxed Covid-19 guidelines while its director has called for re-evaluating the organization after its failed Covid-19 response. Fauci’s retirement follows the resignation of Jeffrey Zients, another top White House pandemic official who departed earlier this year.

“As he leaves his position in the U.S. government, I know the American people and the entire world will continue to benefit from Dr. Fauci’s expertise in whatever he does next. Whether you’ve met him personally or not, he has touched all Americans’ lives with his work,” President Biden said in a statement.

Fauci led the NIAID under seven different presidents over the course of nearly four decades. Before Covid-19, he was a highly regarded figure across the political spectrum and best known for his work on the HIV/AIDS crisis.

During the pandemic, however, Fauci became a very divisive figure. Democrats praised him for what they viewed as realistic outlooks on the virus, often undercutting a more rosy picture put out by the Trump White House. Republicans became deeply critical of him, however, saying he overstated the authority government agencies had to enforce mandates and social distancing measures and offered contradictory directions on mask-wearing. Over time, he was also criticized for not recognizing — as many other epidemiologists didn’t — that asymptomatic people were the primary spreaders of the virus early on.

In 2020, Fauci had to begin traveling with an armed security team after a series of death threats.

Today, we're going to hear some arguments from the left and right about Fauci's legacy and his retirement, and then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left praises Fauci's career, saying he leaves a strong legacy.
  • Some argue that his advice on Covid-19 was mostly on the mark, even if he got a few things wrong.
  • Others say Fauci managed to deftly navigate the politics of Washington D.C. while trying to keep the focus on public health.

In MarketWatch, Paul Brandus said Fauci's advice was always on the mark.

"During the pandemic—which, by the way, is still linked to nearly 500 U.S. deaths a day and shows signs of picking up steam again with the so-called BA.5 subvariant— Fauci came under fierce criticism from armchair Twitter critics and politicians who considered themselves more knowledgeable and experienced on matters of infectious diseases than he was," Brandus said. "For his efforts to help save lives, this dedicated public servant and his family were harassed and targeted with vile and vicious death threats. What a sad commentary on our increasingly sick society—and I don’t mean sick as in the sniffles—that an experienced doctor trying to save lives had to be assigned security guards. All because he gave people the same common sense advice he gave me so many years ago: practice preventive care.

"Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Social distancing. His critics, often viewing all this through the lens not of medicine but political loyalty, said he was an idiot," Brandus wrote. "I’m sure you can recall reading stories about people who said it was all a hoax—right up to the moment they were intubated. He never backed down. 'You gotta f—ing suck it up,' he told the Washington Post in June. At age 81, he could have retired decades ago. He could have cashed out and made millions in the private sector. But his commitment to keep on trying to make a difference is such that even today, he works 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. This energizer bunny of a man simply has never slowed down... And yet there are those among us who have bought into the fake news claptrap that government workers are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings."

In CNBC, Dawn Kopecki celebrated Fauci's legacy.

"Fauci has become a household fixture during the Covid-19 pandemic, battling back misinformation — sometimes from the highest levels of government," she wrote. "His steadfast commitment to science, challenging former President Donald Trump on everything from the use of hydroxychloroquine to mask mandates, made him a quasi-celebrity in the process. The 81-year-old has advised seven U.S. presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, West Nile virus, the 2001 anthrax attacks, pandemic influenza, various bird influenza threats, Ebola, Zika and, most recently, Covid and monkeypox.

"He first joined the National Institutes of Health in 1968 at age 27 where he quickly rose through the ranks and eventually took over as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. Former President George W. Bush awarded Fauci the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008... During his tenure, Fauci never shied away from conflict. His Senate hearings were often peppered with terse exchanges with members of Congress, particularly with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who he once accused of inciting death threats against him and his family," she wrote. "At the height of the pandemic, Fauci was fielding more than 2,000 emails a day and working 24/7 on just three to four hours of sleep a night, he told friends and old colleagues in a trove of emails obtained through public records’ requests by several media outlets."

In CNN, Kent Sepkowitz wrote about what made Fauci a great leader.

"After more than 50 years in public service, I imagine Fauci was tired of all the current Covid-19 noise and death threats as well as the tedious discussions that characterize all bureaucratic jobs, much less the ludicrous accusations that he was cashing in on the pandemic and therefore sought to prolong it," Sepkowitz said. "Though fit as a fiddle, he probably -- as he admitted to The Washington Post recently -- is starting to feel his age. (He'll be 82 in December.) But I doubt strongly he gave up because he was frightened or intimidated. After all, Fauci has spent decades in the public eye and has previously been the recipient of seemingly endless criticism, but nevertheless he has always persisted.

"Fauci's crime, according to a critical piece of the public, appeared to be that he tried to guess what was coming next from a never-seen-before pandemic," Sepkowitz wrote. "When he was wrong, he was accused of misleading the public. Many, it seems, expected Fauci to be a fortuneteller and failed to recognize that all medical experts are tasked with making their best judgment calls when faced with uncertainty. Some of those calls will inevitably turn out to be incorrect. And now, with the pandemic -- maybe -- starting to recede, he has decided to move on. When Covid-19 goes down in the history books, what likely will stick out about Fauci's leadership will be not his intelligence, doggedness and humbling work ethic but rather this: He is a true believer in the importance of improving the public's health, even at personal cost."


What the right is saying.

  • The right is critical of Fauci, saying he misled the public and got a lot of things wrong.
  • Many call for investigations into his time leading the Covid-19 pandemic response.
  • Others hope he simply fades away quietly.

In The Federalist, David Harsanyi said "perhaps no person in American history has done more to harm trust in public health than Anthony Fauci."

"And it’s not merely his aggressive inaccuracy about the Covid pandemic or even his championing of authoritarian policies that created untold damage to American life,” Harsanyi said. “All of that is bad enough. But as Fauci transformed into a political operative, he regularly lied to the American people and led the political suppression of debate. In October of 2020, three scientists — Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford — released the 'Great Barrington Declaration,' a document that rejected the 'damaging physical and mental health impacts' of Faucian lockdowns for a more focused protection of high-risk populations. In December of 2021, the American Institute for Economic Research obtained emails between Fauci and Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health. In them, we learned that duo had conspired to smear those dissenting scientists.

“And this wasn’t the first time Fauci had conspired with Collins to shut down debate. Another batch of emails revealed that the duo colluded to quash any talk of Covid being man-made and possibly leaked from a Wuhan lab. Anyone who brought up the notion would soon be discredited as a racist and nut — a spreader of disinformation,” he wrote. “In the early days of the pandemic, Fauci kept citing the estimate of 60–70 percent vaccination level for reaching herd immunity. Later, he claimed it would be '70, 75 percent.' And finally, '75, 80, 85 percent.' Fauci later admitted lying about that, as well, because 'polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine.' But don’t worry, none of it ever came to fruition."

In National Review, the editors said "good riddance."

"No doubt, Fauci attracted more than his share of unhinged criticism. But the national media loved to focus on the unhinged conspiracy theorists and garden-variety nutjobs and death threats against Fauci, because it helped discredit the much fairer, much more legitimate questioning of Fauci’s advice and decision-making," the editors said. "One of Fauci’s first pieces of advice during the pandemic was to discourage Americans from wearing masks, declaring in a March 8 interview with 60 Minutes, 'There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better, and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And, often, there are unintended consequences — people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.'

"The problem isn’t that Fauci changed his mind as masks became more widely available; it’s that he never really addressed his previous declarations that they were ineffective — declarations that apparently he didn’t believe," they wrote. "Fauci didn’t create the anti-masking sentiment in American life, but his quick reversal fed the suspicion that wearing masks was more about public perceptions than empirical evidence. Those who were paying close attention noticed that Fauci kept shifting his assessment of the percentage needed to reach herd immunity from the virus... Fauci’s emails suggested he had a symbiotic relationship with adoring reporters. He offered evasive answers about U.S. taxpayer money financing gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He offered a full-throated defense of gain-of-function research, which looks a little different in the aftermath of a global pandemic that killed millions."

In The Washington Examiner, Tim Carney said he hopes Fauci will just fade away.

"I’m probably less anti-Fauci than the average conservative. In fact, early on, I publicly defended the guy. I believe celebrity damaged him. I also believe that his constant public proclamations — tainted by politics and calibrated for an infectious-disease specialist rather than for a policymaker or spokesman — harmed the credibility of and respect for the public-health establishment," Carney wrote. "Fauci, if he wants the people’s trust in public health to rebound, should gracefully disappear from the public spotlight. The first thing he should not do is to cash out to industry. I’m sure Pfizer or 3M or GE Healthcare would love to hire Fauci or add him to their board. I’m sure some consulting firm could rake in lucrative clientele if it hired him.

"But going to work for profit-seeking health interests will have three harmful effects," Carney said. "Fauci will cast increased suspicion on his past actions if he takes a high-paying gig from any medical company that profited from his past actions and recommendations. The vaccine or mask manufacturers are the obvious examples here. Fauci will send a message to his successors that there are industry jobs waiting on the other side, which would (at least subconsciously) influence the actions of his successors. Fauci will cast massive suspicion on the actions of his successors, for the two reasons stated above. It’s a free country, and Fauci is free to take whatever job he likes. There’s nothing wrong in itself with getting rich. But, in this case, pursuing his maximum profit is harming the cause to which he has dedicated his career."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • Fauci leaves behind a storied career with some remarkable achievements.
  • He got a lot of things wrong during the pandemic, and his job is to be right.
  • His public comments on several important issues have been misleading or outright lies, which demands accountability.

In the interest of fairness, let me start with the positive.

Fauci's career is storied. By any objective measure, working until you're 81 years old and ending your career at "the top" is something to be admired. In the interest of clear-headed thinking, if you remove Covid from the picture, Fauci has undoubtedly had a gargantuan and positive impact on the U.S. and the planet. He was on the front lines of the public health responses to AIDS, anthrax, Zika, and Ebola, and the research and treatments he's led have benefited millions not just in the U.S. but abroad. He managed this under seven different administrations with a huge variety of political views, pressures and environments.

I also don't envy his position. Being the public-facing medical advisor to America is clearly not an easy job. We are, bless our hearts, a rowdy, independent-minded, disobedient bunch. It's in our spirit. Americans don't like being told what to do and never have, doubly so when the instructions create minor or major inconveniences in our lives. Fauci had the unenviable task of delivering those instructions regularly, to hundreds of millions of people who all had the power of the internet at their hands to inquire about his evidence and motives. I would have no interest in a job like that.

Unfortunately for Fauci, great figures are always measured by what they do in their biggest moments. And removing Covid from his legacy is not an option. His failures during the pandemic — along with the relationship between his career and the potential origins of the virus — will also rightly be a lasting part of his legacy.

The obvious mistakes are highlighted above: Fauci misled the public early on about masks because he was concerned that public hoarding of masks would hurt health care workers. Like other experts in his field, he was also slow to realize that the virus was spreading among asymptomatic people, a fact that helped unleash the worst of the pandemic in the first few months. He was wrong about Remdesivir, which he once predicted would be the "standard of care" but is now recommended against by the World Health Organization. He was wrong about it being a "pandemic of the unvaccinated." He was wrong that people who were vaccinated "can feel safe they're not going to get infected." Yes, the scientific consensus changed, but — as Fauci himself somewhat arrogantly noted — Fauci represents science. He is the one who we rely on to get this stuff right.

And, in reflecting on the things he got wrong, his view is that we should have had "much, much more stringent restrictions." Given the incredible toll lockdowns and vaccine mandates had on children's health, mental health, addicts, and the economy, and all for uncertain gains in containing the virus, that kind of self-reflection is a hard pill to swallow. With hindsight, a much more compelling argument could be made that what we should have done was focus almost entirely on isolating and protecting the elderly and immunocompromised, who were (and still are) exponentially more at risk from Covid than any other group of Americans.

His reputation as a "straight shooter" has also been repeatedly undermined by his own public comments. He conceded himself that he intentionally misled Americans about the levels of herd immunity America would need to reach in order to drop pandemic restrictions (his numbers changed repeatedly). As The Times put it, "he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. He is doing so, he said, partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.” This would have been a bigger deal had Fauci not had such a chummy relationship with reporters in the mainstream press, who openly traded kid glove reporting for access.

In front of Congress, he was evasive and misleading about gain-of-function research in Wuhan, which he has supported and driven funding to. Fauci has repeatedly denied that this research, which makes viruses more pathogenic or transmissible in order to study them, was happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While there is still no link between that research and the Covid-19 outbreak, he either doesn't know what is happening at organizations he leads or was lying under oath about the research taking place. There really is no other option. The Intercept, who produced documents proving this research took place, had to sue to get those documents.

Of course, it's not just what Fauci did, but also what he didn't do. He didn't spend nearly enough time reassuring parents that their kids were incredibly unlikely to get seriously ill. He didn't push for schools to open sooner when it became increasingly clear that doing so would be safe and manageable. He didn't combat absurd restrictions on outdoor life even though outdoor transmission almost never happens (a year into the pandemic, I got a ticket for walking by myself down a beach in Los Angeles without a mask). He didn’t treat people who had had the virus similarly to those who had been vaccinated, despite well-established evidence that their immunity levels were similar.

I'm no epidemiologist, but the sum total of the pandemic — the response to which Fauci led — seems like we basically got the worst of both worlds: economic collapse and a deadly pandemic. Widespread restrictions, massive death tolls, economic damage, a far more divided country, and untold collateral damage from those restrictions. It's impossible to say how much of this was truly avoidable or even what a best-case scenario could have been, but I think it's fair to say Fauci's failings were numerous, his public-facing comments were not always forthcoming, and the outcomes were abysmal. None of that is one person’s fault, but Fauci’s role in guiding us through the pandemic was critically important, and it has been a rough ride.



Midterm recap.

Midterm elections took place in Florida, New York and Oklahoma yesterday.

As Axios put it, the story of the night appears to be the success of mainstream candidates on both sides. Both the progressive and Trump-esque candidates running in House races failed in near total fashion.

In New York, Republican Rep. Andrew Garbarino (who voted with Democrats on infrastructure, gay marriage and the Jan. 6 committee) held off a challenge from the right. Nick Langworthy, the state GOP chair, defeated Carl Paladino. In Florida, Republican Rep. Daniel Webster beat Laura Loomer, while Cory Mills defeated Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who had called for arresting FBI agents. None of the four victors had endorsements from Trump.

On the Democratic side, DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney easily beat his progressive challenger Alessandra Biaggi. Dan Goldman, who became well-known for his role in Trump's impeachment, prevailed over a field of progressive challengers, including Rep. Mondaire Jones.

Rep. Max Rose beat progressive activist Brittany Debarros. Finally, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) defeated longtime friend and colleague Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) after the two were drawn into the same district. Maloney was in Congress for 29 years.

One exception: Maxwell Frost, a Bernie Sanders-endorsed 25-year-old, won the primary in Florida's 10th district and looks primed to become the first member of Congress from Gen Z.

Other notes: In a highly watched Hudson Valley swing district special election, Democrat Pat Ryan upset his Republican opponent Marc Molinaro, sparking more commentary about Democrats’ midterm momentum.

Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), a former police chief, won her Democratic nomination and will face Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) for his Senate seat. Former Republican-governor-now-Democrat Charlie Crist (D-FL) won his primary to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R) won Tuesday's GOP primary runoff, making him the likely replacement of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) who is retiring after 30 years in office. Mullin, who was endorsed by Trump, will serve the remaining four years of Inhofe's term if he defeats former Democratic congresswoman Kendra Horn.

Madison Horn, who is not related to Kendra, won the Democratic primary for Oklahoma's other Senate seat, and will face sitting Sen. James Lankford (R) in November. Republican Josh Breecheen defeated state Rep. Avery Frix to win the Republican nomination for Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District.


Under the radar.

Laid off workers in today's job market are running into a unique dynamic: The ease with which many are finding new jobs. Companies across major sectors have been announcing mass layoffs due to inflation, cooling demand and rising interest rates, but the employees they are firing appear to be getting rehired pretty quickly — keeping jobless numbers very low. Labor demand is historically high, with two job openings for every one unemployed person seeking work. The data reflects this trend: While jobless claims are ticking up, continuing claims — which measures people claiming ongoing job benefits — are rising at a much slower rate. The Wall Street Journal has the story.


Numbers.

  • 3.8%. The margin of victory for Democrat Pat Ryan in the special election in New York's 19th district, widely considered a bellwether for the 2022 midterms.
  • 1.5%. President Biden's margin of victory in New York's 19th district in 2020.
  • 12%. The percentage by which women have outpaced men in new voting registration in Pennsylvania since Roe v. Wade fell.
  • 46%. The percentage of voters who strongly or somewhat support extending student payment suspensions, according to Morning Consult.
  • 41%. The percentage of voters who strongly or somewhat oppose extending student payment suspensions, according to Morning Consult.
  • 13%. The percentage of voters who don't know or have no opinion, according to Morning Consult.
  • 59%. The percentage of Americans who are worried canceling student loan debt will make inflation worse, according to CNBC.

Have a nice day.

Pennsylvania woman Peggy Koller is 99 years old. That may sound like a lot, but her number of years on this planet is actually one fewer than the number of great-grandchildren she now has. Koller, an only child, recently made headlines for meeting her 100th great-grandchild. Koller got married and had 11 children. Then came 56 grandchildren. And now, the 99-year-old has 100 great-grandkids. She said being an only child was lonely so she always wanted a big family, and it's tough to argue she didn't accomplish that. Lucky 100's name? Koller William Balster, after her now legendary great-grandmother. ABC7 has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.