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Dr. Fauci emails, reaction show how much he’s become a ‘really polarizing figure’

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, arrives for a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss the ongoing federal response to COVID-19 on May 11, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

Washington Post reporter Yasmeen Abutaleb obtained 866 pages of emails from Dr. Anthony Fauci from April and March 2020, the months at the beginning of the pandemic. Why those two months?

“That was really the point where the pandemic was starting to pick up in the United States. That’s when the national shutdown first went into effect in mid-March. And then in April, of course, is when you saw this Trump versus Fauci dynamic really emerge,” Abutaleb explained on Seattle’s Morning News.

“They were standing together at a lot of these daily White House press briefings, Dr. Fauci rose to worldwide fame in that time period because he was willing to contradict the president on whether hydroxychloroquine worked — the drug that the president was pushing at the time — whether the virus was going to disappear like the president wanted, whether it was safe to reopen or not,” she said.

Dr. Fauci was the person who was most openly contradicting former President Trump at that time, she says, and those two months were really when Fauci was rising in prominence.

“The tensions with the president were starting to become much more pronounced and exacerbated, so we wanted to see if the emails offered any new insight into that,” she said.

So what did the emails show?

“Well, I think Dr. Fauci has been a government employee for a long time, so he knows better than to put anything too revealing or private in email. You can tell he’s very careful in these emails,” she said. “Probably well aware that people like us and others might request them. But you do see how much he’s getting flooded with requests from everyone — from strangers, from other government employees, either within NIH or at other agencies, from old colleagues and associates.”

“And I think it really illustrates the level of confusion there was in the country at that time because everyone is writing him asking, can I get on a flight? Is this actually safe?” Abutaleb shared.

There are also emails encouraging Dr. Fauci to keep standing up to the president and sharing the truth. Abutaleb says there are even emails with cartoon drawings of Fauci as a superhero.

“You don’t see him directly criticize the president or anyone in the White House in these emails — you actually see him still exchanging notes with them, they’re still working together,” she said. “But I think it’s remarkable to see just how much so much of the country was relying on one single person. And then in the same vein, I think we see now with the release of the emails, he’s a hero to some people and the person that they felt they could rely on, and he’s a complete villain and antichrist to another group of people. He’s become this really, really polarizing figure.”

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Some people have since expressed that they think the emails prove Dr. Fauci was up to no good, but Abutaleb doesn’t think that’s reflected in the emails.

“Buzzfeed News obtained even more emails and put them all online on the same day that we did. They obtained about 3,600 pages of his emails. And what happened is people, I think, are often seeing these emails and jumping to conclusions without understanding the context around them,” she said.

“So there was one email in the pages of emails that Buzzfeed published, where there’s a discussion about gain of function research, and it’s Dr. Fauci exchanging emails with a respected infectious disease researcher about whether the virus has any attributes of gain of function research,” she explained. “It turns out, a couple of days after that email exchange, the researcher comes to the conclusion that, no, there’s no way this virus could have been engineered. This doesn’t look to be indicative of gain of function, but I think a lot of people are seizing on that and saying, ‘see, he knew and he hid it from us,’ when that’s not the case.”

It was a question they were exploring, she says, and wanted to know the answer.

“But the widespread theory and the notion that most scientists had last year about the origins of the virus was that it jumped from an animal to human,” Abutaleb said. “They always held out the possibility that it could be a lab leak, but they thought it was unlikely. But I think because of that, a lot of people are saying Fauci hid information from the public, whereas I don’t think that’s what that email shows.”

To her, personally, one of the most interesting parts of the email exchanges in the pages she read were when Dr. Fauci and George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, continued to check in on one another. The two have known each other for a long time and, as Abutaleb says, were trying to maintain these delicate ties while a war of words was escalating between former President Trump and President Xi Jinping of China.

“Trump was calling it the ‘China virus’ and was really switching tack to blaming China for all of this and trying to distract from his administration’s handling of it,” she said.

“[Fauci and Gao], independent of the political brawl, [were] just checking in on each other. George Gao says to him, ‘I heard that there are some threats against you, I hope this is fake, and I hope that you’re OK.’ He’s trying to clear the air after an interview where he said the U.S. was making a mistake by not having people wear masks,” Abutaleb said. “I thought that was really interesting.”

“And I thought just the degree to which Dr. Fauci actually tried to respond to emails from people all over the world and strangers, answering their questions despite everything he was dealing with, was kind of compelling too,” she added.

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