WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Dr. Anthony Fauci sparred once more during a congressional hearing on the coronavirus pandemic, with Fauci bluntly accusing Paul of fomenting attacks against him that are dangerous, falsehood-laden and politically motivated.
Paul is a trained ophthalmologist whose libertarian outlook has made him a natural opponent to many pandemic restrictions; he and Fauci have argued at several previous hearings, with acrimony between the two only deepening with time.
An especially tense point of contention has been the origins of the coronavirus, with Paul and others having charged Fauci with obfuscation on the matter.
This time around, Paul took issue with an email, made public late last year, that some have pointed to as evidence that Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, the now former head of the National Institutes of Health, tried to stifle debate about how to properly handle the coronavirus. The email in question was critical of the Great Barrington Declaration, a controversial document that called for loosening of COVID-19 restrictions.
“There you go again,” Fauci said as Paul became increasingly animated. “You just do the same thing every hearing.”
Fauci had little interest in engaging on the Great Barrington manifesto, or with Paul’s broader attacks on his credibility. Instead, he sought to address more generally the acrimony that has been directed against him, not only by Paul but by other conservatives, especially those aligned with former President Donald Trump.
“This happens all the time,” Fauci said at one point, referencing the several heated exchanges between the two men, which are in some ways symbolic of the sharply divided views on the pandemic and the measures used to mitigate its medical and social consequences. Trump once touted Fauci’s advice, only to grow weary of the avuncular immunologist and his celebrity.
Fauci has been the target of intense misinformation campaigns, including one that incorrectly accused him of funding research that harmed beagles. More substantively, Paul and others have said that he and the biomedical establishment he represents colluded to hide the origins of the coronavirus, which these critics maintain came from a Chinese laboratory.
Though some respected scientists do endorse the so-called lab leak hypothesis, and President Biden has instructed U.S. intelligence agencies to look into the matter, few within the mainstream hold Fauci himself directly responsible for Chinese experiments with bat-borne viruses in which he had no role. And most epidemiologists still believe that the virus originated in a wildlife market.
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, and the 81-year-old Fauci, who has battled every major outbreak in the United States from HIV to Ebola, is no exception. He has recently pushed back more forcefully against his critics, calling for Jesse Watters of Fox News to be fired after the host used violent imagery to describe how he thought Fauci should be interviewed.
Fauci took a similar approach during Tuesday’s hearing, which included Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, along with other officials. He lamented that by impugning his integrity, Paul “kindles the crazies out there, and I have threats upon my life, harassment of my family and my children, with obscene phone calls — because people are lying about me.” He noted that on Dec. 21 of last year, a California man was arrested in Iowa as he attempted to drive to Washington, D.C., where he was allegedly planning to kill Fauci and others. An AR-15 assault rifle was found in his car.
Public health officials across the country have reported experiencing similar threats in the last two years, with misinformation, heated political rhetoric and frustration with the ongoing pandemic combining in what could be a perilous mix. Many of these officials have quit as a result, citing fears for their safety. In Missouri, one official left her post last month after enduring what she described as “daily verbal assaults, threats of violence and even death threats directed at the department.”
During their exchange on Tuesday, Fauci suggested that Paul’s attacks were motivated by something other than scientific disagreement over masks or vaccines. “He’s doing this for political reasons,” Fauci said, holding up a printed page from Paul’s website that showed the senator fundraising with appeals to “fire Fauci,” something that would be difficult to do given the immunologist’s status in the federal bureaucracy.
Similar calls have been made by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has falsely accused Fauci of helping the Chinese government manufacture the coronavirus as a bioweapon. Fauci is also a near-nightly target of the most popular prime time hosts on Fox News, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson in particular. Meanwhile, in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been selling anti-Fauci merchandise, even as critics say he has left his state dangerously unprepared for a new coronavirus wave.
It seems a given that the acrimony between Fauci and Paul will continue as long as the pandemic, if not longer. Should the Republicans win control of the Senate in 2022, they will almost certainly hold hearings on how the Biden administration has handled the pandemic.
Fauci is unlikely to yield ground, regardless of which party is in charge. “You keep distorting the truth,” he told Paul on Tuesday.
The exchange between Paul and Fauci likely could have gone on for hours, but there was a hearing to attend to. Sen. Patty Murray, the hearing’s chair, gave Fauci some extra time to rebut Paul’s broadsides, then indicated that it was time to move on.
But bitter feelings lingered, as they tend to in Washington. Later in the hearing, Paul did address Fauci’s comments, charging him with “ignorant personal attacks.”