Donald Trump is trying to turn the government’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, into a scapegoat for the nation’s struggle with the coronavirus, just weeks before the Nov. 3 election that hinges on the president’s handling of the pandemic.
Trump repeatedly assailed Fauci during campaign events on Monday, claiming at one point — with no substantiation or explanation — that had he followed the advice of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hundreds of thousands more Americans would have died.
The attacks followed an interview with Fauci on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, during which he said he wasn’t surprised that the president had contracted COVID-19 himself.
Yet Trump’s effort to disparage the scientist — whom polls show is the most trusted figure on the coronavirus in the government — invites even more scrutiny of the president’s handling of the U.S. outbreak, already rated poorly by voters. The criticism, however, may resonate with Trump supporters who pack his rallies by the thousands with few face masks in sight.
In a nod to Fauci’s widespread appeal, the president’s cash-strapped campaign just last week bought television ads featuring him — over the doctor’s objections — to add credibility to the administration’s efforts to fight the pandemic. But now, Trump is painting the esteemed doctor as a Democrat whose advice shouldn’t be followed.
“You know, Biden wants to lock it down. He wants to listen to Dr. Fauci,” Trump said Monday at a Prescott, Arizona, rally, referring to his Democratic opponent Joe Biden.
Those comments came hours after the president complained to his campaign staff about Fauci. He said he couldn’t fire the doctor because of public perception.
“People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong,” Trump said Monday in a call intended to bolster morale among his staff. Trump’s campaign invited reporters to listen in.
“He’s been here for 500 years,” Trump said. “He’s like this wonderful sage, telling us how — Fauci, if we listened to him, we’d have 700,000, 800,000 deaths. Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.”
After disparaging Fauci, Trump remarked that he didn’t care whether reporters were on the call. Fauci’s office didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
Trump’s attacks on Fauci may fuel the notion that he has ignored the recommendations of doctors and scientists to combat the pandemic, which has killed almost 220,000 people in the U.S., crushed the economy and fundamentally altered Americans’ everyday lives.
Trump sought to dismiss concerns about COVID-19, however, saying people are getting “tired of the pandemic” and cable news coverage of it.
“People are pandemic’d out. You know that? They’re pandemic’d out,” the president said Monday night during a rally in Tucson, Arizona.
Once a regular at White House briefings on the outbreak, Fauci has been sidelined as Trump elevated Scott Atlas as his closest medical adviser. Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no epidemiology expertise, is affiliated with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
He has publicly belittled social distancing and masks as precautions against the coronavirus, and before joining the White House advocated for pursuing natural “herd immunity” against the virus by exposing healthy Americans to infection — a strategy public health experts say would result in tens or hundreds of thousands of excess deaths. Atlas says he has not recommended the approach to Trump.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Atlas has repeatedly sparred with Fauci and Deborah Birx, an epidemiologist who is the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, and that Birx has sought his removal.
Fauci remains the most trusted source of information about the virus among the American public, polls show. But a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released last month showed that trust has eroded, and become more polarized, over the past few months as the president bucked his advice.
The share of adults who said they trust Fauci shrank by 10 percentage points since April, according to the poll. While more than eight in 10 Democrats said they trust Fauci, just 48% of Republicans said the same — down from 77% in April.
Trump said in July he had accepted Fauci’s recommendations while fighting the pandemic. But Fauci has become a strong proponent of public use of face masks, a precaution the president hasn’t followed himself and has discouraged among his staff.
Fauci said on “60 Minutes” that Trump had put himself at risk of infection before announcing Oct. 2 he had contracted COVID-19. “I was worried that he was going to get sick when I saw him in a completely precarious situation of crowded, no separation between people, and almost nobody wearing a mask,” Fauci said.
Fauci, who has been a regular presence on television, said his media interviews had been limited by the White House. He said he wasn’t allowed to go on “many, many, many shows that have asked for me.”
Trump tweeted on Monday that Fauci “seems to get more airtime than anybody since the late, great, Bob Hope. All I ask of Tony is that he make better decisions.”
Trump also said Fauci “threw out perhaps the worst first pitch in the history of Baseball!” — a reference to Fauci throwing the ceremonial first pitch of the 2020 Major League Baseball season.
At the Prescott rally, the president performed a mocking pantomime of Fauci’s pitch, prompting some of his supporters to laugh and cheer. Trump has never thrown a first pitch as president.
”A lot of our people don’t like him. I like him. You have to understand him, he’s a promoter,” Trump said.
Biden slammed Trump over his criticism of Fauci.
Trump also drew at least one rebuke from his own party. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said Monday that Fauci “is one of our country’s most distinguished public servants.”
“If more Americans paid attention to his advice, we’d have fewer cases of COVID-19, and it would be safer to go back to school and back to work and out to eat,” Alexander said in a statement following Trump’s comments.
The president’s campaign has broadcast television ads that take remarks by Fauci out of context to suggest he’s complimented Trump’s response to the pandemic. Fauci has publicly objected, saying he’s always been publicly non-partisan, and he’s urged Trump’s campaign to pull the ad.
He called the ad “harassment” in a Daily Beast interview last week and speculated that it might repel voters.
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