Tensions between the White House and Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, are spilling into the open as officials openly attack the doctor for his public health advice during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fauci’s advice has often run contrary to President Trump’s views, and the attacks on Fauci have begun to look like a traditional negative political campaign against an opponent. Yet this time, the opponent is a public health expert and career civil servant working within the administration.
Dan Scavino, deputy chief of staff for communications, shared a cartoon on his Facebook page late Sunday that depicted Fauci as a faucet flushing the U.S. economy down the drain with overzealous health guidance to slow the spread of the pandemic.
The cartoon, which shows Fauci declaring schools should remain closed and calling for “indefinite lockdowns,” did not accurately portray what Fauci has advised in public.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the administration’s testing czar, downplayed any riff within the White House coronavirus task force before offering some criticism of Fauci.
“I respect Dr. Fauci a lot, but Dr. Fauci is not 100 percent right and he also doesn’t necessarily, and he admits that, have the whole national interest in mind,” Giroir told “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “He looks at it from a very narrow public health point of view.”
There have been tensions between Trump and Fauci throughout the pandemic. The president has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus, broken with the advice of his own public health experts and painted rosy but at times misleading pictures of the U.S. response. Fauci, who has served four decades in his current post, has offered blunt talk on the dangers of the pandemic that has directly contradicted the president from time to time.
But the latest criticisms mark a shift as the White House has begun publicly undermining one of the leading public health voices in the administration at a time when multiple states are struggling to get new outbreaks under control.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, whom the president tapped to manage the use of the Defense Production Act, said he personally proceeds with caution before heeding Fauci’s advice.
Trump said last week that Fauci is a nice man but that he’s “made a lot of mistakes.”
A White House official this weekend sent media outlets a lengthy list of “mistakes” Fauci has made since the pandemic began, like his comment in March that there is no need for people to wear masks.
That comment came before scientists knew people could spread the virus without showing symptoms, and Fauci, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other experts now urge people to use face coverings in public.
Public health experts have leaped to Fauci’s defense on Twitter, noting that Fauci is one of the most respected health experts in the world, having worked for six presidents and researched HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika and a variety of other infectious diseases.
“When studies show that, opposite from SARS & MERS, COVID19 is most infectious soon after infection & less infectious later, we recognize asymptomatic transmission and importance of masks,” tweeted Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC.
“That’s called science, not a mistake. The real, deadly mistake is not listening to science.”
Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, tweeted, “His track record isn’t perfect. It’s just better than anyone else I know. Sidelining Dr. Fauci makes the federal response worse. And it’s the American people who suffer.”
Polls still show the public trusts Fauci more than Trump for accurate information on the virus, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to believe the infectious diseases expert.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany during a “Fox & Friends” interview Monday insisted Fauci’s recommendations were reaching Trump, while saying he represented only “one viewpoint” among many considered by the president.
“The point of the task force is to be a whole of government look at what is best for this country,” McEnany said when asked about the status of the relationship between Trump and Fauci. “Dr. Fauci is one member of a team, but rest assured, his viewpoint is represented and the information gets to the president through the task force.”
Still, Fauci’s public appearances became few and far between as his dire warnings about the state of the pandemic in the U.S. increasingly clashed from more hopeful messages coming from the White House.
Fauci also told the Financial Times last week that he hadn’t briefed Trump in two months, in which time a growing number of states have experienced significant surges in cases.
Fauci was not present at the White House coronavirus task force media briefing last week, events that have become rarer even as the COVID crisis grows worse.
And while he was a regular on cable news in the early days of the pandemic, his appearances have dwindled, a fact he said last week could be because of his “honesty.”
While Fauci has warned that the U.S. could hit 100,000 new COVID-19 cases per day if steps aren’t taken to alter the trajectory of the outbreaks, Trump has tied the rise in cases to increased testing.
While Fauci attributed outbreaks in some states to reopening too quickly after the spring lockdowns, Trump and his top allies have mostly stood by their decision to push governors to jump over checkpoints set by the White House.
Fauci has refuted the president’s claims that the rise in cases is solely tied to increased testing and that 99 percent of cases are “totally harmless.”
And as Trump touted a falling COVID-19 death rate, which is actually now increasing, Fauci has said the U.S. shouldn’t take comfort in the “false narrative,” noting the disease can cause other severe health outcomes.
Fauci’s warnings grew more urgent last week when he warned that the U.S. is “facing a serious problem” and the pandemic has become politicized.
“And you know from experience historically that when you don’t have unanimity in an approach to something, you’re not as effective in how you handle it,” Fauci said in an interview with FiveThirtyEight. “So I think you’d have to make the assumption that if there wasn’t such divisiveness, that we would have a more coordinated approach.”