‘You don’t want to go to war with a president’

And the truth about coronavirus? “I don’t think that we are going to get out of this completely unscathed,” he said. “I think that this is going to be one of those things we look back on and say boy, that was bad.”

The plainspoken scientist with a heavy Brooklyn accent has navigated outbreaks from HIV to Ebola, Zika and the anthrax scare with an ability to talk frankly yet reassuringly about threats, to explain science, public health and risk to the public in a way few can match.

But in this outbreak, he’s not always the comforting public face amid crisis.

As the Trump administration scrambles to contain the fast-spreading infection and consolidate control under Vice President Mike Pence, Fauci’s visibility has been subject to the vagaries of a president who wants to declare the outbreak under control. Over the weekend, Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, not government doctors or scientists.

Fauci sat down with POLITICO in his office Friday, amid dozens of photos of himself with presidents, politicians and celebrities from Magic Johnson to Barbra Streisand. It was just hours after reports that the White House had ordered Fauci off the airwaves sparked a firestorm of protest from senators, former government officials and public health experts.

Fauci denied being muzzled. He did say that Pence’s office wanted him to run interviews past it for re-clearance once Pence was named the White House’s point person on the virus.

But public health experts and Democrats have slammed President Donald Trump’s repeated reassurances about the disease, which has raced across six continents, created economic disruption — and taken 3,000 lives and counting.

Republicans have countered that the left is overstating the risk, spreading panic and trying to take Trump down.

Fauci has openly tempered expectations for a quick coronavirus vaccine — and an end to the epidemic — on the press conference stage with Trump, even as the president promised everything was under control and a vaccine would be ready soon.

Now even some Republicans are concerned that the president is underselling what some health officials have said is an inevitable worsening U.S. outbreak. And Fauci is who they want to hear from.

“If I’m buying real estate in New York, I’ll listen to the president of the United States. If I’m asking about infectious diseases, I’m going to listen to Tony Fauci,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said recently.

Giving a president advice can be a heady experience. Fauci has done it dozens of times, for four Republicans and two Democrats. “There’s a temptation that you have to fight to tell the president what you think he wants to hear. I’ve seen really good people do that,” says Fauci, who took over the agency in 1984, just a few years after switching his professional focus to a fast-emerging and then-mysterious new illness, HIV/AIDS.

Grappling with the AIDS epidemic and the Reagan administration’s initial slow-go approach that divided Washington, Fauci became the public face of the response at a time when Ronald Reagan did not even broach the issue until his second term. Fauci often brings that up as a White House failure.

But these days are different. Trump fires off tweets about coronavirus, promising a vaccine will arrive “soon” (Fauci says in a best-case scenario it will be a year — and that might be optimistic), or says in press conferences that “we are totally prepared” (Fauci and other health officials warn the risk could change in a moment’s notice). The president also referred to a coronavirus “hoax” in a campaign rally — the night before the first death from the virus was reported in the U.S.

And then there is Congress. Fauci likes to say that he has testified before Congress more than anyone in the nation’s history. Over more than three decades he has been called to the Hill a dozen times a year to explain the threat of Ebola, Zika, anthrax or a pandemic flu.

He remembers the days of lawmakers hurling barbs across party lines about the AIDS response. But today, “the degree of divisiveness is one of almost an emotional dislike of the other person,” he said.

Republicans reportedly stormed out of a recent closed-door briefing on the infection after Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) ripped into the administration’s coronavirus response. Democrats have called for the White House to replace Pence as point person on the virus, arguing he has no public health experience.

The truth, Fauci says, is that Democrats and Republicans alike may not appreciate the range of what could happen now.

“It could be really, really bad. I don’t think it’s gonna be, because I think we’d be able to do the kind of mitigation. It could be mild. I don’t think it’s going to be that mild either. It’s really going to depend on how we mobilize.”

Critics say the administration has already stumbled with a slow rollout of diagnostic tests and narrow guidelines for who uses them, meaning that some patients waited days to find out if they are infected and the virus began spreading. Fauci said that restricted guidance — specifically the idea that someone would not get tested if they had not been in known contact with infected people — was unwise. He predicted more cases would emerge in the coming days — and they have.

There have already been scapegoats for the response. CDC Director Robert Redfield took the blame Saturday when Trump misidentified the gender of the first U.S. death. Sources also pointed to CDC on Sunday over concerns about the cleanliness of labs making diagnostic tests, even as some current and former administration officials blamed Azar for the bungled response. CDC’s respiratory disease lead Nancy Messonnier also took heat from administration officials a week earlier after her statement that a U.S. outbreak was inevitable helped send the stock market tumbling.

“It’s really, really tough because you have to be honest with the American public and you don’t want to scare the hell out of them,” Fauci said. “And then other times, in attempts to calm people down, [leaders] have had people be complacent about it. This is particularly problematic in a ‘gotcha” town like Washington.”

And yet, Fauci has not only survived the town for decades but managed to make his priorities those of the presidents, above all HIV. Along with Redfield and HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, Fauci helped engineer getting the president include a pledge to ending HIV transmission in his State of the Union address last year.

But many challenges are still ahead, including sometimes contradicting the president he doesn’t want to “go to war” with. Fauci says it will be OK: he knows that “even if it’s uncomfortable” his years of truth-telling have earned him a backlog of respect.

The 79-year-old also has no plans of retiring anytime soon — not least because one of his top goals, developing an HIV vaccine, remains elusive.

“I feel like I’m 45. And I act like I’m 35,” Fauci said. “When I start to feel like I don’t have the energy to do the job, whatever my age, I’ll walk away and write my book.”