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Fauci draws GOP ire but Kennedy may be making him a problem for Trump

The public lashing Dr. Anthony Fauci faced on Capitol Hill Monday was illustrative of his enduring unpopularity with the GOP’s conservative base. Yet even as Republicans seek to capitalize on that dislike of the infectious disease expert, former President Donald Trump’s past elevation of Fauci is a potential vulnerability as he fights off an insurgent independent campaign from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Increasingly, Kennedy’s third-party White House bid is gaining traction by attacking Trump’s Covid-19 policies. He has, for example, accused Trump of “inventing lockdowns” and has questioned the safety of the Covid vaccine his administration helped develop.

Kennedy has also jabbed Trump over his reliance on Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who served on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He recently launched a line of merchandise tying Trump and Fauci together.

“Vote for Trump/Fauci 2024,” the new campaign shirts say, along with a tongue-in-cheek slogan: “Give us another shot!”

Trump has attempted to downplay Fauci’s role in his administration. In an interview last month with Tim Pool, a podcaster favored by the far right, Trump claimed Fauci “wasn’t a big player in my administration like he was after I left when Biden made him the king of everything.”

At Monday’s House subcommittee hearing about the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Republicans didn’t mention Trump in their grilling of Fauci — his first public testimony on the Hill since retiring. But Trump’s party increasingly has made Fauci an avatar of the retribution they are seeking if the Republican returns to office. At the macro-level, his supporters have proposed ideas that would make it easier to fire federal workers, like Fauci. Trump has repeatedly suggested he couldn’t fire Fauci during his term because of laws that protect career civil servants.

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At one point during Monday’s hearing, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia asserted that Fauci “belongs in prison” over his time leading the country’s pandemic response, a sentiment that has been echoed by other members of Congress and online by other Trump supporters.

After the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, thanked Fauci for his years of service Monday, Laura Loomer, a conservative provocateur who operates on the edges of Trump’s political operation, posted on social media: “Dr. Fauci is a criminal and needs to be treated like one. Not be thanked by the REPUBLICAN CHAIR of the Select subcommittee on coronavirus.”

Kennedy has given quarter to these views. In a recent interview, when conservative commentator Glenn Beck asked him, “Why isn’t (Fauci) in jail?” Kennedy responded, “He’s not in jail because Joe Biden is president.”

Kennedy isn’t the first to use Fauci in an attempt to drive a wedge between Trump and his base. During the GOP primary, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis regularly invoked the longtime public health expert to attack Trump from the right, noting the former president gave Fauci a commendation on his last day in office.

Trumped claimed he didn’t know who gave Fauci the commendation, leading DeSantis to joke: “Is this the immaculate commendation or something like that? Did this just happen out of thin air?”

But DeSantis’ efforts ultimately failed to make a dent in Trump’s support with the GOP base. While Kennedy faces an uphill climb to get on the ballot in every state, polling suggests he has nevertheless become a problem for Trump as he centers his campaign around vaccines and the coronavirus response.

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One recent poll from Monmouth University showed support for Kennedy among Republicans grew slightly once they learned of his views on vaccines and Covid. It’s just one datapoint, though it explains the urgency of Trump’s recent attacks on Kennedy.

David Robertson, a 50-year-old San Antonio real estate developer, voted for Trump in 2020, but told CNN he switched to Kennedy after hearing the independent candidate talk about Covid on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

“I just felt like we were misled, you know, and a lot of ways and a lot of stuff that we were told that wasn’t true, we’ve now found out that it is true,” Robertson said. “Towards the end with Covid, the way he handled it, with the lockdowns and everything else, I felt like he just kind of bowed down to what he was told to do.”

In the face of this rising threat, Trump has lately stepped up his attacks on Kennedy, labeling him an “extreme liberal” and “fake anti-vaxxer” in a video posted to social media last month. Kennedy is a leading purveyor of anti-vaccine misinformation and has long espoused unfounded views of inoculations that doctors and medical authorities have easily debunked.

“RFK’s views on vaccines are fake, as is everything else about his candidacy,” the former president said in the video.

Trump has long had a fraught relationship with the Covid vaccine, one of the most consequential achievements of his four years in office. As it became less popular among Republicans, Trump stopped mentioning the vaccine. Amid DeSantis’ criticism and Kennedy’s rise, he started telling crowds he would not give “one penny” to a school that requires students to get a Covid vaccine or wear a mask.

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In a recent interview with Time, Trump both touted the development of the Covid vaccine through Operation Warp Speed while also declining to say if he would push vaccines so aggressively if given the chance again.

“I’ve been given a lot of credit for Operation Warp Speed. But most of that credit has come from Democrats,” Trump said. “And I think a big portion of Republicans agree with it, too. But a lot of them don’t want to say it. They don’t want to talk about it.”

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