How long can Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci keep this up? We’ve been watching their faces, and we know as surely as we know ourselves that they are in agony working for an administration ruled by chaos and led by an irresponsible enemy of science who gets his facts wrong, contradicts himself and steps clumsily on their life-or-death message.
The two eminent doctors have obviously made the calculation that they’re more valuable on the inside than the outside, and that they’ll make compromises and put up with a measure of indignity to remain in the inner circle of power.
But surely late at night, they must have moments of moral doubt, looking hard into the mirror and asking themselves whether they’ve made the right decision to stick by President Trump’s side.
It’s an old dilemma — whether to work from within to change policy and fend off bad decisions or to storm out and resign on principle. In modern history, there have been plenty of dramatic examples of government officials who have decided that enough is enough. Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, stepped down rather than obey President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Morton Halperin resigned from Henry Kissinger’s staff to protest the invasion of Cambodia. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance quit over President Carter’s decision to attempt a military rescue of the American hostages being held in Tehran in 1980.
“You have to remind yourself there are lines over which you will not step,” said Ruckelshaus about his decision to quit in 1973.
But drawing those lines is not always simple.
If you’re Dr. Birx and the president has just suggested that people might want to inject disinfectants to fight off COVID-19, do you walk out the door in disgusted protest or do you struggle to keep your face a steady neutral?
If you’re Dr. Fauci and you’ve just been informed that you will not be permitted to testify before a House subcommittee — do you say, that’s it, I’m out of here? Sometimes the morally courageous choice is to walk away; other times, it is to stay and fight behind the scenes.
Of course Fauci and Birx would prefer to remain at the table to argue for social distancing and to explain the science of viruses and offer counterarguments to the economists who would like to reopen beaches and restaurants tomorrow. At news conferences, the doctors have an audience of millions; if they quit, their platform would be gone.
Plus, when dissenters leave, it empowers those who remain. Do we really want Stephen Miller, Peter Navarro and Jared Kushner making decisions with Trump about the pandemic with no credible scientists around to object? And if Fauci and Birx were to be replaced, is there any reason to think their successors would have the standing, or the courage, to contradict the president?
But sometimes remaining in the job is morally unacceptable. Sometimes it makes you complicit in wrongdoing.
Mary Jo Bane, who was an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, had to decide in 1996 whether to quit or stay when it was going to fall to her to enforce the administration’s new welfare-to-work law, about which she was “deeply concerned.”
“There were two opposite lines of thinking going on in my head as I considered it,” Bane told me recently by email. “... Could I do more good by staying or leaving?”
Ultimately, she and two colleagues resigned.
Professor J. Patrick Dobel, an emeritus professor of public affairs at the University of Washington who has written on the “ethics of resigning,” told me in an interview that one factor public officials should weigh is whether they are really still helping move policy in a positive direction.
Dobel cited the case of George Ball, who stayed on for several years as undersecretary of State in the Lyndon Johnson administration despite his opposition to the growing war in Vietnam. Ball finally quit in 1966. “I found it practically impossible to interest the distracted president in any major new initiative,” Ball said in his memoir. “My job had lost its savor, and, as our involvement in the Vietnam nightmare had passed the point where I could significantly influence policy, it was time to resign.”
Fauci apparently doesn’t feel that way. He has said about his relationship with Trump: “He has his own style. But on substantive issues he does listen to what I say.”
Another core question for Fauci and Birx is whether they’re free to speak the truth publicly or whether they’re too often required to keep quiet in the name of loyalty. Although Fauci, to his credit, has been willing to contradict the president on a number of occasions, Birx was criticized recently when she praised Trump for being “so attentive to the scientific data” and again when she refused to speak out forcefully against injecting disinfectants.
Drs. Fauci and Birx are walking a very fine line, and they’re mostly doing it well. They need to stay zealously focused on fighting for truth and batting down bad ideas. They need to speak out forcefully to combat misinformation. If they find they can’t do that anymore — if they’re no longer being listened to or aren’t allowed to speak or if their integrity is endangered — then it will be time to go, and to wage their battles from elsewhere.
But for now someone needs to be fighting for science in the White House. If not Fauci and Birx, then who?