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With Trump gone, Dr. Fauci is feeling liberated to speak truth on pandemic

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, at a White House briefing Thursday. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

Unmuzzled and loving it

Dr. Anthony Fauci has led the nation's fight against infectious diseases under seven presidents. On his second day reporting to President Joe Biden — after a year of carrying the torch for fighting the coronavirus with science versus a president who calculated political angles and was given to fanciful thinking — Fauci told Politico he finds the new administration "a refreshing experience."

With the turbulent and tragic year trying to contain the coronavirus pandemic under Donald Trump behind him, Fauci let his relief show. His new marching orders from Biden, he said, is to be "completely transparent, open and honest. If things go wrong, not point fingers but to correct them. And to make everything we do be based on science and evidence."

That was enough for the 80-year-old scientist to practically bubble with enthusiasm as he held forth Thursday in the White House briefing room. "The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is — let the science speak," said Biden's chief medical adviser. "It is somewhat of a liberating feeling."

While not outright trash-talking Trump, Fauci got explicit about experiences with the former president that made him squirm, such as Trump's promotion of quack cures. "There were things that were said, be it regarding things like hydroxychloroquine and other things like that — that really was an uncomfortable thing because they were not based on scientific fact," Fauci said. "I can tell you, I take no pleasure at all being in a situation with contradicting the president." When he did, he often found himself banished from White House briefings and barred from media appearances. Trump, openly jealous of Fauci's popularity, took to belittling the esteemed immunologist.

As his handling of the pandemic became the defining issue in the 2020 election campaign, Trump insisted on portraying the virus's worst ravages as a thing of the past. He reveled in "Fire Fauci!" chants at some of his rallies.

The Biden administration promises that Fauci will be its preeminent voice on the science of the pandemic, and Fauci spoke with his hallmark frankness. "We are still in a very serious situation," Fauci said Thursday as he began his remarks, calling the recently passed U.S. death toll of 400,000 "historic in a very bad sense."

Still, Fauci saw tentative signs of a plateau in the winter wave, though he cautioned against overconfidence. "One of the things new with this administration is if you don't know the answer, don't guess," he said. "Just say you don't know the answer." Here's a video of Fauci's briefing.

Ramping up

Biden, describing the federal response to the coronavirus as a "wartime undertaking," launched his administration’s plan Thursday to ramp up vaccine distribution and contain the virus, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

"We’re in a national emergency and it’s time we treated it like one," Biden said in an address from the White House East Room before signing executive orders. He warned somberly that "things are going to continue to get worse before they get better," saying federal health officials expect the COVID-19 death toll will exceed 500,000 by the end of the month.

The Thursday orders mandate the use of masks at airports and on most trains, planes, ships and public buses and establish a coronavirus Federal Testing Board aimed at increasing testing. Other executive orders task FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with expanding access to inoculation by establishing 100 federal vaccination centers over the next month while also making vaccines available to local pharmacies starting next month. The administration has set a goal to reopen most K-8 schools for in-person instruction in Biden's first 100 days.

Biden administration officials said the president will use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of medical supplies needed for vaccine distribution and for overall COVID-19 treatment.

The president bristled when a reporter asked about criticisms raised by congressional Republicans and some public health experts that his first-100-days goal of 100 million vaccine shots is not ambitious enough. "When I announced it [in December], you all said it’s not possible. Come on, give me a break, man," Biden said. Watch Biden's remarks here.

Survivor: FBI's Wray will stay

The Biden administration said FBI Director Christopher Wray, who weathered Trump's firing threats after refusing to become the ex-president's political tool, will remain in his job.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki had no answer about Wray's future when asked at her first briefing Wednesday, but she tweeted Thursday: "I caused an unintentional ripple yesterday so wanted to state very clearly President Biden intends to keep FBI Director Wray on in his role and he has confidence in the job he is doing." FBI directors normally serve 10-year terms and Wray has about six years left.

Wray in 2017 replaced James Comey, who was fired by Trump over the Russia investigation. The current FBI director drew Trump's wrath for resisting demands to help him go after his enemies. Biden's son Hunter is under federal financial investigations, but Wray and former Attorney General William Barr avoided preelection leaks.

Wray also refused last year to go along with Trump and Republicans who sought to portray left-wing groups as the biggest threat to domestic security, saying publicly that right-wing extremists were the most dangerous. While Wray kept a low public profile after the election and in the days after the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, the FBI has aggressively pursued the rioters.

Janison: Trump gone, a smell lingers

The closing days of Trump's administration saw lobbyists and lawyers with significant swamp connections peddle efforts to secure criminal pardons and commutations, getting dozens of white-collar offenders off the hook, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Big-time investor Robert Zangrillo, charged with fraud in a college admissions scandal, joined the lucky club of clemency recipients. How he did so is a murky mystery, according to The New York Times. The White House listed as Zangrillo supporters billionaire Trump friend Tom Barrack and Napster co-founder Sean Parker — yet both deny involvement. The facts may warrant investigation by Congress. Other scandal-laced dramas surrounding Trump are brewing — for one, the lethal Capitol riot that prompted Trump's second impeachment.

The District of Columbia's attorney general cited the possibility that Trump could be charged with a misdemeanor for encouraging violence.

Without the powerful shield of the presidency, Trump may have to answer to other local and state criminal charges. The district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, has expressed interest in Trump's phone call to state election officials in which he suggested they change ballot results in his favor. Probes in New York involving Trump's business practices and taxes continue as expected.

Impeach trial pushed to February?

It's not his call the second time around, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is proposing a delay in Trump's impeachment trial until mid-February to allow the former president's legal team to prepare his defense on the charge of inciting the Capitol insurrection.

House Democrats who voted to impeach Trump last week for inciting the riot have signaled they want a quick trial, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not yet sent over the article of impeachment. New York's Chuck Schumer is now majority leader and in charge of the Senate.

Schumer told reporters Thursday that he was still negotiating with McConnell on how to conduct the trial, "but make no mistake about it. There will be a trial, there will be a vote, up or down, on whether to convict the president." Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and close Biden ally, told CNN he’s open to delaying the trial for two weeks if the GOP agrees to move swiftly on approving Biden's Cabinet nominees.

Trump has hired South Carolina-based lawyer Butch Bowers to represent him at the recommendation of Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from that state, according to several reports. Bowers represented two past South Carolina governors in ethics jams.

Meanwhile, dozens of prominent lawyers have signed a formal complaint seeking the suspension of Rudy Giuliani’s New York law license — the latest and loudest in a series of calls to censure him for his actions as Trump’s personal and election attorney, The New York Times reported. On his radio show Thursday afternoon, Giuliani called the complainants "idiots," "malicious left-wingers" and "irresponsible political hacks."

A purging binge

The Biden administration has launched a housecleaning to get rid of Trump loyalists the former president installed in various posts in the waning months of his term with the intent of keeping them in place in a Biden presidency.

The Biden administration on Wednesday put Michael Ellis, who was sworn in on Tuesday as the top lawyer for the National Security Agency, on administrative leave, The New York Times reported. Ellis was a former staff member for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who carried Trump's water against the Russia investigation. While at the White House, Ellis countermanded a career official's decision clearing former national security adviser John Bolton's critical book for publication after a routine review for classified information.

Michael Pack, a past Steve Bannon associate installed last June, was forced out as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and other outlets aimed at worldwide audience. Also escorted out were two officials Pack installed at VOA who sought to suppress independent news voices at the traditionally nonpartisan agency.

Longer-serving Trump appointees who didn't leave on their own volition also got the ax. Biden fired the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel and his deputy, both denounced by Democrats and labor unions as biased toward management.

Even the White House chief usher, Timothy Harleth, got shown the door. Before Trump, the ushers — who oversee management of the building and residence staff — were traditionally hired with military background or promoted from career staff, but Melania Trump in 2017 plucked Harleth from his job as rooms manager at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments by Newsday's Bart Jones and Lisa L. Colangelo. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The Defense Department will pause construction of the Mexican border wall as it reviews Biden's executive order from Wednesday calling for a halt to construction. The majority of the roughly 455 miles constructed during Trump's presidency replaced existing, dilapidated barriers with a new enhanced wall system.
  • The House and Senate on Thursday approved a special waiver to allow Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired four-star Army general, to serve as secretary of defense less than seven years after leaving the military. That clears the way for a Senate confirmation vote Friday morning.
  • The United States will resume funding for the World Health Organization, cut off by Trump, and join its consortium aimed at sharing COVID-19 vaccines fairly around the globe, Fauci announced. Referring to a WHO-led probe looking for the origins of the coronavirus, Fauci said: "The international investigation should be robust and clear, and we look forward to evaluating it."
  • Leftist and anarchist protesters denouncing Biden and police vandalized buildings in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle on Wednesday night. About a dozen people were arrested. Police in Portland said federal law enforcement used crowd-control munitions when federal property was targeted.
  • With Trump's presidency at an end, his ambassador in London, Woody Johnson, is coming to home to return to his past duties as the New York Jets’ CEO and chairman, reports Newsday's Bob Glauber. The NFL does not plan to further scrutinize allegations that surfaced last year about Johnson making racist and sexist remarks to Embassy staff members. His brother Christopher, the Jets' CEO for the past four years, said he will become vice chairman.
  • Military officials plan to send home over the next 10 days some 15,000 of the 25,600 National Guard troops summoned to the nation's capital for Biden's inauguration. Politico reported Thursday that thousands of Guardsmen were forced to vacate congressional grounds on Thursday and were taking their rest breaks outside and in nearby parking garages. Five thousand were put in a garage with one electrical outlet, one bathroom with two stalls and no internet reception. "We feel incredibly betrayed," one Guardsman said. After the story set off an outcry, the Guardsmen were let back into the Capitol.
  • No surprises from Trump's first full day at Mar-a-Lago as ex-president: He played golf at one of his clubs, The Washington Examiner reported. His company, meanwhile, faces a deepening crisis, with key properties bleeding revenue and its bankers, lawyers and customers fleeing the company, The Washington Post reported.

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