Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases expert in the US, spoke on Thursday of a "liberating feeling" of being able to speak scientific truth about the coronavirus without fear of "repercussions" from Donald Trump.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, endured a tortuous relationship with the former president and was increasingly sidelined from public briefings.
But the 80-year-old returned to the White House podium on Thursday after Joe Biden released a national Covid-19 strategy and signed 10 executive orders to combat a pandemic that has now claimed more than 400,000 lives in the US.
"One of the things that we're going to do is to be completely transparent, open and honest," Fauci told reporters. "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 literally a conversation I had 15 minutes ago with the president and he has said that multiple times."
Asked if he would like to amend or clarify anything he said during the Trump presidency, Fauci insisted he had always been candid, noting wryly. "That's why I got in trouble sometimes."
Fauci and other public health advisers were forced to walk a delicate line as the president used coronavirus taskforce briefings to downplay the virus, push miracle cures and score political points. On one occasion Trump mused about injecting patients with disinfectant but the response coordinator Deborah Birx remained silent.
Fauci's frankness did not go unnoticed. During the election race in October, Trump reportedly told campaign staff: "Fauci is a disaster. If I listened to him, we'd have 500,000 deaths." At a rally in early November, as crowds chanted "Fire Fauci! Fire Fauci!", the president suggested he might do just that.
At Thursday's briefing, Fauci was asked how it feels to no longer have Trump looming over him. "Obviously, I don't want to be going back over history but it's very clear that there were things that were said - be it regarding things like hydroxychloroquine [pushed as a treatment by Trump] and things like that - that really was uncomfortable because they were not based on scientific fact.
"I can tell you, I take no pleasure at all in being in a situation of contradicting the president, so it was really something that you didn't feel that you could actually say something and there wouldn't be any repercussions about it. The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is and know that's it, let the science speak, it is something of a liberating feeling."
Although Biden had just condemned vaccine distribution under the Trump administration as a "dismal failure so far", Fauci said the new team is "not starting from scratch" as it tries to get shots in arms more quickly. "I believe the goal that was set by the president, of getting 100 million people vaccinated in 100 days, is quite a reasonable goal."
He added: "If we get 70% to 85% of the country vaccinated, let's say by the end of the summer, middle of the summer, I believe, by the time we get to the fall, we will be approaching a degree of normality."
Possible US plateau
Fauci told the briefing that, based on seven-day averages, the coronavirus may be plateauing in this US but warned that there can always be lags in data reporting. "One of the new things about this new administration: if you don't know the answer, don't guess," he said.
After Fauci's return to the west wing, Nicole Wallace, a former White House communications director, told viewers of the MSNBC network: "It seems like this briefing will forever be remembered as the one where Tony Fauci got his groove back."
The executive orders signed by Biden establish a Covid-19 testing board to increase testing, address supply shortfalls, establish protocols for international travelers and direct resources to hard-hit minority communities. They also require mask-wearing in airports and on certain public transport, including many trains, planes and intercity buses.
Fauci was followed at the restored daily White House briefing by the press secretary, Jen Psaki. She confirmed that the new administration would seek a five-year extension of the New Start treaty with Russia that limits the arsenals of both countries to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each.
The 2010 treaty, the last remaining arms control treaty in the wake of the Trump administration, is due to expire on 5 February, but an extension would be feasible if Russia agrees, even in the remaining two weeks. Vladimir Putin has signaled he is open to an extension.
"The president has long been clear that the New Start treaty is in the national security interests of the United States, and this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time," Psaki said. "New Start is the only remaining treaty constraining Russian nuclear forces, and is an anchor of strategic stability between our two countries."
But she added that the administration would "hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions" and that US intelligence would assess the Solar Winds cyber-attack last year, the attempted murder of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and reported Russian bounties for the killing of US soldiers by extremist groups in Afghanistan.