In the final two weeks of his re-election campaign, President Donald Trump has turned much of his attention to venting his anger and insecurities at one of his administration’s top public-health officials and coronavirus task force members, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In recent months, Trump has routinely gossiped with close associates and advisers that Fauci is behaving like a member of anti-MAGA “resistance” commentators. In the past few weeks, the president has told multiple people that he believes Fauci is angling to earn the media’s adulation and that it at times appears to him that the famous infectious disease expert is “audition[ing]” or “trying to get a job at CNN,” according to two sources with knowledge of his private comments.
The result has been increasingly open bitterness from the president towards Fauci even as the pandemic has worsened across the country. President Trump has not indicated that he plans to fire Fauci, multiple individuals who’ve spoken to Trump about the doctor said, in large part because of the political and media backlash that would invariably ensue. And Fauci recently told The Daily Beast that he has no plans to quit, no matter how uncomfortable or disorderly the COVID task force gets.
However, Trump has said to some close to him that as long as Fauci occupies his role in government, and as long as the president occupies the White House, he will continue to give Fauci a hard time in public in order to—in the characterization of one of these sources—“keep Fauci in his place.”
On Monday, Trump called into a campaign conference call from his hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, declaring, “People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.” The president also blasted Fauci as “a disaster,” noting that “every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.” On the same day, the president took to Twitter to rail against the doctor’s judgment and decision-making, and to continue trolling him over throwing “out perhaps the worst first pitch in the history of Baseball!” In Arizona on Monday afternoon, Trump kept at it, saying that Fauci is a “very nice man” who “sometimes…says things that are a little bit off.”
“He’s been there for about 350 years, I don’t want to hurt him,” Trump added, while alleging that the White House’s COVID task force figure has made “bad calls.”
The president’s ongoing efforts to habitually humiliate Dr. Fauci comes at a time when Democratic nominee Joe Biden is leading in various state and national surveys in the campaign’s final days. Throughout much of the past year, Trump has pushed aggressively for the “re-opening” of the U.S. economy at a speed that many public-health experts, including Fauci, have deemed unwise at best, and reckless in all likelihood.
“You just have this continued defiance of not only public health guidelines but now we have a president advocating cures that don’t exist. We have various senators appearing in closed meetings without masks … they are modeling the worst possible behavior,” said Kathleen Sebelius, former director for the Department of Health and Human Services. “What we’re looking at is a president who has intentionally undermined what has always been a non partisan voice of science. Since the middle of March when the president began defying the guidelines and urging states to open when they were not ready … hundred of thousands of people have died.”
White House spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment on this story on Tuesday.
For months, Trump has sidelined Fauci and other voices in the government whose proposals and data do not line up with his vision on restarting the economy and downplaying aspects of the virus. The latter has largely involved ignoring his own administration’s health guidelines, a decision that not only led to a massive COVID outbreak in the White House that infected the president himself, but also made it harder for his task force to effectively combat the virus.
This has corresponded with the ascension of Scott Atlas, who was described by one White House official as the “anti-Fauci.” A neuroradiologist and fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution who joined the White House in August as a top Trump adviser, Atlas got the job in large part because the president saw him on Fox News and was drawn to his optimistic take about the trajectory of the pandemic. However, Atlas’s views and policy prescriptions are considered by his critics and by many scientists to be so scientifically unsound that even some Fox shows don’t want to book him anymore. And his presence at the White House has brought an added layer of internal feuding and drama to the task force.
Not one to hold back, Fauci has been open about his disagreements with Atlas. In a recent interview with AIDS and LGBT rights activist Peter Staley, he said: “There is another science person—Dr. Atlas—who is much more with the president than any of the other task force members, particularly Debbie Birx, who used to be in that position. This is a unique situation.”
Fauci has also been increasingly outspoken about the president’s lack of knowledge about COVID-19, his reliance on Atlas, and his sidelining from the coronavirus task force.
During a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, he said that he was not surprised Trump got infected with the coronavirus while calling the nomination ceremony of Amy Coney Barrett a “superspreader” event. Fauci also openly slammed the Trump campaign for including him in a political ad that he did not sign off on.
“By doing this against my will they are, in effect, harassing me,” Fauci told The Daily Beast. “Since campaign ads are about getting votes, their harassment of me might have the opposite effect of turning some voters off.”
The friction between the two men may be getting more pronounced as the election nears, but it has been there for some time too.
Almost immediately after Dr. Fauci started gaining greater national prominence during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump began questioning his loyalty and his expertise.
“What do you think of Fauci?” Trump quizzed confidants over Easter weekend this past April, while also complaining that he’d made Fauci a “star” by permitting the task force member to be on television so often. In the months since, various aides and allies of the president have jumped on the bandwagon, lashing out at Fauci’s record, accusing him of being an anti-Trump leaker to the press, and trash-talking him behind his back to Trump and his family.
This summer, the White House even circulated to the media a list of Fauci’s past comments and COVID-19 predictions that Trump and his team deemed faulty. The list overstated flaws in Fauci’s actual record, since many of his early statements were qualified with concessions that little was known about the novel coronavirus.
At around the same time, Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who informally advises Trump on coronavirus and economic policies, began circulating to the White House and elsewhere a different memo he’d compiled on Fauci, simply titled, “Dr. Wrong.”
“Fauci’s been ‘Dr. Doom,’” Moore told The Daily Beast in July. “I don’t have a problem with him being ‘Dr. Doom,’ but I have a problem with him being wrong, wrong, wrong…He’s been a detriment to getting the economy reopened, with a lot of his false predictions.”