The Doctor Versus the Denier

Anthony Fauci’s at the pool, but Donald Trump’s in deep.

Never mind Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

You want to see a real can’t-look-away train wreck of a relationship? Look to the nation’s capital, where a messy falling out is chronicled everywhere from the tabloids to a glossy fashion magazine, replete with a photo shoot by a swimming pool.

The saga has enough betrayal, backstabbing, recrimination, indignation and ostracization to impress Edith Wharton.

The press breathlessly covers how much time has passed since the pair last spoke, whether they’re headed for splitsville, and if they can ever agree on what’s best for the children.

It was always bound to be tempestuous because they are the ultimate odd couple, the doctor and the president.

  • One is a champion of truth and facts. The other is a master of deceit and denial.
  • One is highly disciplined, working 18-hour days. The other can’t be bothered to do his homework and golfs instead.
  • One is driven by science and the public good. The other is a public menace, driven by greed and ego.
  • One is a Washington institution. The other was sent here to destroy Washington institutions.
  • One is incorruptible. The other corrupts.
  • One is apolitical. The other politicizes everything he touches — toilets, windows, beans and, most fatally, masks.

After a fractious week, when the former reality-show star in the White House retweeted a former game-show host saying that we shouldn’t trust doctors about Covid-19, Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci are gritting their teeth.

What’s so scary is that the bumpy course of their relationship has life-or-death consequences for Americans.

Who could even dream up a scenario where a president and a White House drop oppo research on the esteemed scientist charged with keeping us safe in a worsening pandemic?

The administration acted like Peter Navarro, Trump’s wacko-bird trade adviser, had gone rogue when he assailed Dr. Fauci for being Dr. Wrong, in a USA Today op-ed. But does anyone believe that? And if he did, would he still have his job?

No doubt it was a case of Trump murmuring: Will no one rid me of this meddlesome infectious disease specialist?

Republicans on Capitol Hill privately confessed they were baffled by the whole thing, saying they couldn’t understand why Trump would undermine Fauci, especially now with the virus resurgent. They think it’s not only hurting Trump’s re-election chances, but theirs, too.

As though it couldn’t get more absurd, Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Friday that she thinks it would help Trump’s poll numbers for him to start giving public briefings on the virus again — even though that exercise went off the rails when the president began suggesting people inject themselves with bleach.

How did we get to a situation in our country where the public health official most known for honesty and hard work is most vilified for it?” marvels Michael Specter, a science writer for The New Yorker who began covering Fauci during the AIDs crisis. “And as Team Trump trashes him, the numbers keep horrifyingly proving him right.”

When Dr. Fauci began treating AIDs patients, nearly every one of them died. “It was the darkest time of my life,” he told Specter. In an open letter, Larry Kramer called Fauci a “murderer.”

Then, as Specter writes, he started listening to activists and made a rare admission: His approach wasn’t working. He threw his caution to the winds and became a public-health activist. Through rigorous research and commitment to clinical studies, the death rate from AIDs has plummeted over the years.

Now Fauci struggles to drive the data bus as the White House throws nails under his tires. It seems emblematic of a deeper, existential problem: America has lost its can-do spirit. We were always Bugs Bunny, faster, smarter, more wily than everybody else. Now we’re Slugs Bunny.

Can our country be any more pathetic than this: The Georgia governor suing the Atlanta mayor and City Council to block their mandate for city residents to wear masks?

Trump promised the A team, but he has surrounded himself with losers and kiss-ups and second-raters. Just your basic Ayn Rand nightmare.

Certainly, Dr. Fauci has had to adjust some of his early positions as he learned about this confounding virus. (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” John Maynard Keynes wisely observed.)

Medicine is not an exact art,” Jerome Groopman, the best-selling author and professor at Harvard Medical School, put it. “There’s lots of uncertainty, always evolving information, much room for doubt. The most dangerous people are the ones who speak with total authority and no room for error.”

Sound like someone you know?

Medical schools,” Dr. Groopman continued, “have curricula now to teach students the imperative of admitting when something went wrong, taking responsibility, and committing to righting it.”

Some are saying the 79-year-old Dr. Fauci should say to hell with it and quit. But we need his voice of reason in this nuthouse of a White House.

Despite Dr. Fauci’s best efforts to stay apolitical, he has been sucked into the demented political kaleidoscope through which we view everything now. Consider the shoot by his pool, photographed by Frankie Alduino, for a digital cover story by Norah O’Donnell for InStyle magazine.

From the left, the picture represented an unflappable hero, exhausted and desperately in need of some R & R, chilling poolside, not letting the White House’s slime campaign get him down or silence him. And on the right, some saw a liberal media darling, high on his own supply in the midst of a deadly pandemic. “While America burns, Fauci does fashion mag photo shoots,” tweeted Sean Davis, co-founder of the right-wing website The Federalist.

It’s no coincidence that the QAnon-adjacent cultists on the right began circulating a new conspiracy theory in the fever swamps of Facebook that Dr. Fauci’s wife of three and a half decades, a bioethicist, is Ghislane Maxwell’s sister. (Do I need to tell you she isn’t?)

Worryingly, new polls show that the smear from Trumpworld may be starting to stick; fewer Republicans trust the doctor now than in the spring.

Forget Mueller, Sessions, Comey, Canada, his niece, Mika Brzezinski. Of the many quarrels, scrapes and scraps Trump has instigated in his time in office, surely this will be remembered not only as the most needless and perverse, but as the most dangerous.

As Dr. Fauci told The Atlantic, it’s “a bit bizarre.”

More than a bit, actually.

How McKinsey Makes Its Own Rules

The consulting company chases after government contracts, but it has a habit of evading the oversight that comes with them.

This article is copublished with ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom.

It’s not easy being McKinsey & Company these days.

For most of its 90-odd-year existence, the prestigious management consultancy prided itself on remaining above the fray. McKinsey consultants plied the executive suites of Fortune 500 companies, counseling chief executives with discretion and quietly building a business that, with $10 billion in annual revenues, is now bigger than many of the entities it serves. The substance of the company’s work, and even the identities of its clients, lie concealed under an institutional code of silence. That reticence, enforced by a nondisclosure agreement, bedeviled Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign until last Monday, when McKinsey granted him a rare dispensation to reveal the names of his former clients.

On the occasions when McKinsey’s work has been scrutinized of late, it hasn’t reflected well on the firm. Reporting by The New York Times, ProPublica and others over the past 18 months has raised serious questions about how it does business at home and abroad: corruption allegations against companies McKinsey partnered with in South Africa and Mongolia; a federal criminal investigation into the firm’s bankruptcy practice in the United States; attempts to deny that it helped put into effect controversial Trump administration immigration policies; and evidence that McKinsey cherry-picked nonviolent inmates for a pilot project and made it seem that an attempt to curb violence at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex was working (it wasn’t). McKinsey has denied wrongdoing in each of these instances.

These and other examples of McKinsey’s recent conduct reveal a common dynamic. An examination of these episodes, including thousands of pages of documents and interviews with dozens of current and former McKinsey consultants and clients from multiple projects, suggests McKinsey behaves as if it believes the rules should bend to its way of doing things, not the other way around.

McKinsey’s self-regard has long been uncommonly high. In the firm’s 2010 internal history, a copy of which ProPublica obtained, partners compare the firm to the Marine Corps, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jesuits: “analytically rigorous, deeply principled seekers of knowledge and truth,” the history’s authors write. One McKinsey partner went a step further, declaring without a hint of irony that the firm’s trait of shared values is more than “even the Catholic Church can promise.”

This attitude works for the firm in corporate consulting, an unregulated field where McKinsey’s reputation leaves it largely free to do things its own way and where its insistence on not being publicly credited has also shielded it from blame for its failures. But as McKinsey has expanded its consulting empire in recent years, it has taken on a growing book of work for government entities, as well as for corporate clients in areas subject to government oversight, such as advising bankrupt companies on restructuring.

In that field, consulting firms confront a web of contracting, disclosure and ethics rules that are designed to dictate and limit their behavior. These rules exist to prevent governments from wasting taxpayer money on underqualified or overpriced contractors and to protect government integrity and avoid conflicts of interests. In recent years, as McKinsey has burrowed deeper into this world, interviews and records show, it has developed a habit of disregarding inconvenient rules and norms to secure, retain and profit from government work.

Consider McKinsey’s imbroglios in South Africa and Mongolia. The firm did not follow the due diligence protocols commonly deployed to avoid running afoul of anti-corruption laws. The result: Its consultants found themselves working alongside dubious local companies that got them entangled in corruption investigations. Only after McKinsey became embroiled in the South Africa corruption scandal did the firm decide it needed to put more stringent safeguards in place.

In the United States, a damning but largely overlooked report issued in July by the Office of Inspector General for the General Services Administration, the hub for federal contracting, depicted McKinsey as ignoring rules and refusing to take no for an answer. The report examined McKinsey’s attempts to renew a major long-running contract in 2016. The firm was asked to provide additional pricing information to satisfy federal contracting rules. Rather than comply, McKinsey went over the contracting officer’s head, lodging complaints with top G.S.A. officials, who refused to exempt the firm from the rules.

Eventually, the firm found a friendly G.S.A. manager who was willing to not only award the contract, but also manipulated the G.S.A.’s pricing tools to increase the value of the contract by tens of millions of dollars. The report concluded the manager “violated requirements governing ethical conduct.”

The pattern repeated itself when McKinsey failed in multiple attempts to win a separate contract around the same time. Stymied, according to the report, McKinsey browbeat the contracting officer, threatening to resubmit the proposal until it got its way. The G.S.A. manager again intervened — for reasons left unexplained by the report — and McKinsey got its contract.

The report’s assessment of McKinsey’s behavior was withering, and it revealed that the firm subsequently used the same friendly manager to help secure contracts at three other federal agencies in 2017 and 2018. “Multiple contracting officers,” the inspector general wrote, told investigators that McKinsey’s requests were “inappropriate” and “a conflict of interest.”

The report recommended that the G.S.A. cancel the contracts, which as of earlier this year had earned McKinsey nearly $1 billion over a 13-year span. In a response to the report, the G.S.A. stated that it would ask McKinsey to renegotiate the contracts to lower the price. “If McKinsey declines” or “renegotiations do not yield a result in the government’s best interest,” the agency wrote, it would cancel them. Neither has happened to date, according to federal contracting records. A McKinsey spokesman said: “We have reviewed the report and the relevant facts, and have found no evidence of any improper conduct by our firm. We are in negotiations with G.S.A. and look forward to completing them soon.” A G.S.A. spokesperson said it is negotiating for “better pricing” and will not award McKinsey any further work under the contracts until those negotiations are concluded.

McKinsey has also taken steps to evade public accountability. As ProPublica reported, a senior partner leading McKinsey’s work at Rikers asked top corrections officials and members of the consulting team to restrict their communications to Wickr, an encrypted messaging app that deletes messages automatically after a few hours or days. That insulated some of McKinsey’s work from government oversight and public records requests. (“Our policies require colleagues to adhere to all relevant laws and regulations,” a McKinsey spokesman said. He neither confirmed nor denied the use of Wickr.)

Speaking more broadly, the McKinsey spokesman said: “We hear the calls for change. We are working hard to address the issues that have been raised.”

McKinsey has so far escaped serious repercussions for its reluctance to follow inconvenient rules. That could change next year.

Consultancies such as McKinsey, which advise companies restructuring under bankruptcy protection, are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest. For the past few years, McKinsey has been locked in a complicated set of court disputes with Jay Alix, the founder of a competing advisory firm, and with the Justice Department’s bankruptcy watchdog over whether McKinsey failed to follow bankruptcy disclosure rules, a subject The Times has covered in depth.

McKinsey has, since then, disclosed a number of new potential conflicts in old bankruptcy cases and paid $32.5 million to creditors and the United States trustee to settle claims over insufficient disclosures. The trustee has said that “McKinsey failed to satisfy its obligations under bankruptcy law and demonstrated a lack of candor.” The firm denies wrongdoing and says it settled “in order to move forward and focus on serving its clients.”

Subsequently, McKinsey has moved, in effect, to rewrite the rules. It drafted a protocol ostensibly meant to clarify what advisers like itself need to disclose. Critics pointed out that McKinsey’s protocol allows such firms to avoid disclosing relationships they deem indirect or “de minimis.”

There remains more to come. Apart from the criminal investigation, a judge in Houston has scheduled a trial in February to decide the merits of Mr. Alix’s allegations. The judge, David R. Jones, has described the trial in apocalyptic tones. It will be, Judge Jones has said, “the ultimate career ender for somebody.” For McKinsey, a trial would mean being called on to defend its work in public — with real accountability and real consequences for its actions. The firm might even benefit in the long run from the sunlight.

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