Here's how it all played out

By Sean Neumann
July 15, 2020 02:51 PM
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President Donald Trump looks on as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading expert on infectious diseases, addresses the media during a coronavirus task force briefing on April 10.
Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

Despite protestations to the contrary, it was unclear this week exactly where Dr. Anthony Fauci stood with President Donald Trump and his administration amid the ongoing response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Over the weekend, the White House took the highly unusual step of undercutting Fauci, the country's top infectious disease expert, by circulating anti-Fauci talking points to reporters.

Then the administration seemingly backed off Monday and welcomed Fauci back into the fold ... and then a top Trump aide attacked Fauci in a newspaper column, from which Trump distanced himself.

The days-long back-and-forth played out as coronavirus cases and deaths rise in some parts of the country, highlighting the discrepancy between Fauci's public health messaging and the president's insistence that the priority should be Americans returning to normal.

"We're all on the same team, including Dr. Fauci," Trump told reporters Wednesday — a shift from previous days.

Meanwhile Fauci told The Atlantic in an article published Wednesday: "I just want to do my job. I’m really good at it. I think I can contribute. And I’m going to keep doing it."

Here's how it all played out.

Trump slams Fauci on Fox News

Fauci, one of the longest-serving federal health officials in the country, has been a key member of the White House coronavirus task force since the beginning. Polls shows he has been broadly trusted by the public on coronavirus issues, though Republicans were more likely to place stock in Trump.

At the same time, there has long been speculation that Fauci's style may eventually put him at odds with the president, who has regularly shifted his tone and approach to the coronavirus and not been shy about differing from doctors.

The unusual push from the Trump administration to undermine Fauci, 79, appeared to first escalate on Thursday with the president himself leading the way.

During a phone interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, Trump took aim at Fauci's track record throughout the pandemic.

Trump argued he knew better than Fauci and pointed to what he called a life-saving move to stop most travel from China at the end of January. (Other experts have been more mixed on the success of the Chinese travel ban; and Trump himself has been criticized for downplaying the virus compared to the flu and repeatedly claiming it would "go away.")

"Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he's made a lot of mistakes," the president told Hannity. "You don't have to ban them coming in from very infected China. I did it anyway, and we saved hundreds of thousands of lives."

White House officials express "concern" about Fauci's judgements

The president has voiced his displeasure with Fauci at other times — in April retweeting a call to fire him that the White House downplayed — but aides have insisted the two have a functional working relationship.

And then came the weekend.

And aide told The Washington Post in a Saturday article that "several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things."

The paper reported that the unidentified staffer delivered to them a list of about a dozen past comments Fauci has made that the official claimed were incorrect.

Some of the Fauci examples were from early in the pandemic, when information was rapidly evolving. Other top health officials who have acknowledged changing their assessment as time went on, such as the surgeon general, have not been similarly attacked by the White House.

"I stand by everything I said. Contextually, at the time I said it, it was absolutely true," Fauci told The Atlantic.

On Monday, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany pushed back on the idea the move from the White House was akin to "opposition research" and claimed Fauci and Trump "have always had a very good working relationship."

According to the Post's Saturday article, Fauci had not spoken to the president since early June but has continued to make media appearances to discuss coronavirus strategy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci (second from left) meets with Donald Trump (right) and other officials at the White House on April 29.
Doug Mills/The New York Times/Pool/Getty

Trump shares 'lying' tweet about health experts

Elsewhere Sunday, Trump retweeted former Wheel of Fortune host Chuck Woolery, who claimed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many doctors and the media were "lying" about the coronavirus. (Fauci wasn't specifically named.)

Top White House posts anti-Fauci cartoon

Also on Sunday, Dan Scavino — the White House's director of social media who was promoted in April to deputy chief of staff for communications — shared a political cartoon on his Facebook page that criticized Fauci's support of shutdowns and social distancing in order to slow the virus.

The cartoon blamed such decisions for the economic downturn and other problems.

"Sorry, Dr. Faucet! At least you know if I’m going to disagree with a colleague, such as yourself, it’s done publicly — and not cowardly, behind journalists with leaks," Scavino wrote along with the post. "See you tomorrow!"

Fauci returns to the White House for meeting

Fauci has not spoken with President Trump in more than five weeks, The New York Times reported on Monday.

However, he reportedly returned to the White House that same day to meet with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. One official told the Times they had a good conversation and that there continues to be a positive relationship between them.

Fauci told The Atlantic that when he met with Meadows, he said the document circulated by the White House aides over the weekend "was not particularly a good thing to do."

"Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that," Fauci said to The Atlantic. "When the staff lets out something like that and the entire scientific and press community push back on it, it ultimately hurts the president. And I don’t really want to hurt the president. But that’s what’s happening. I told him I thought it was a big mistake. That doesn’t serve any good purpose for what we’re trying to do."

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks to reporters at the White House on April 13.
MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

Fauci, who has served under six presidents since he became the director of NIAID in 1984, has helped the federal government manage a number of crisis over his nearly four decades at his post, advising both Democrats and Republicans on the AIDS/HIV epidemic, SARS, Ebola and more.

On Tuesday, though, there was another swipe: Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro attacked Fauci's credibility in a USA Today op-ed. ("I can’t explain Peter Navarro. He’s in a world by himself,” Fauci told The Atlantic.)

"He made a statement representing himself. He shouldn't be doing that," Trump told reporters the next day of Navarro. "I have a very good relationship with Anthony."

Back in March, Fauci told Science magazine: “Even though we disagree on some things, he [Trump] listens. He goes his own way. He has his own style."

This week Fauci told The Atlantic: "My input to the president goes through the vice president. But clearly, the vice president [who heads the coronavirus task force] — literally every day — is listening to what we have to say, there’s no doubt about that."

Speaking with NBC News this week as well, Fauci said that the public should rely on its "respected medical authorities who have a track record of telling the truth ... based on scientific evidence and good data."

"That's the safest bet to do: to listen to the recommendations from that category of people," Fauci said. "But it's entirely understandable how the public can get mixed messages and then get a bit confused about what they should do."