WASHINGTON — After several days spent weathering attacks from White House officials, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci hit back Wednesday, calling recent efforts to discredit him “bizarre” and a hindrance to the government’s ability to communicate information about the coronavirus pandemic.
“I cannot figure out in my wildest dreams why they would want to do that,” Fauci said in an interview with The Atlantic published Wednesday, speaking of recent attempts by President Donald Trump’s aides to undermine him. “I think they realize now that that was not a prudent thing to do, because it’s only reflecting negatively on them.”
It was the latest salvo in a war that has broken out in the middle of a pandemic between Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, and a White House that has never evolved beyond the bare-knuckle tactics of the 2016 campaign.
On Wednesday, Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser, published a brazen op-ed article in USA Today describing Fauci as “wrong about everything.” Over the weekend, another of Trump’s top advisers shared a mocking cartoon that portrayed Fauci as a leaky faucet. Other White House officials have targeted Fauci by distributing opposition research-style documents to reporters that detail what they say are his mistakes.
All the while, White House officials — including the president and the press secretary — assert in the face of the evidence that there is no concerted effort to attack Fauci.
“We’re all on the same team, including Dr. Fauci,” Trump told reporters Wednesday as he left the White House for Atlanta. When he was asked about Navarro’s choice to go around White House channels to publish the op-ed article in USA Today, the president added that Navarro “shouldn’t be doing that.”
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One that he had not read the piece, but criticized Navarro’s decision to publish it without allowing other officials to vet the content.
“Peter Navarro’s statement or op-ed or whatever you want to classify it as was an independent action that was a violation of well-established protocols that was not supported overtly or covertly by anybody in the West Wing,” Meadows said. “I think Peter Navarro spoke for himself.”
And during a coronavirus task force meeting Wednesday, Fauci sat next to Vice President Mike Pence. As the group discussed reopening schools, possible vaccines and therapy treatments, Pence’s office made sure to send out a picture of the men sitting together.
“He’s a valued member of our team,” Pence told the TV host Greta Van Susteren in an interview, adding that administration officials “have great respect for him.”
Fauci, 79, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a post he has held since 1984, is no stranger to criticism. He oversaw much of the government’s response to the AIDS epidemic, weathering criticism from activists like Larry Kramer, who called him a “murderer” and an “incompetent idiot.”
Trump’s administration presents a different challenge. Because Fauci is a career civil servant, his job is not in jeopardy, and it is unlikely that Trump can completely exile him, given his emergence as the government’s most credible voice on the pandemic. He has not briefed Trump in weeks, preferring to work with Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who helps coordinate the administration’s coronavirus response, or to send his messages through Pence.
Without directly criticizing the president — both men have emphasized their personal fondness for each other — Fauci has begun fighting back.
On Monday, he met with Meadows to discuss his ability to speak about the virus on television — his broadcast appearances have been sharply curbed in recent weeks by Meadows and members of the communications staff. And in The Atlantic interview, Fauci complained that the administration’s actions had made it difficult for health officials to communicate accurate information.
“It distracts from what I hope would be the common effort of getting this thing under control, rather than this back-and-forth distraction, which just doesn’t make any sense,” Fauci said. “We’ve got to almost reset this and say, ‘OK, let’s stop this nonsense.’ We’ve got to figure out, how can we get our control over this now, and, looking forward, how can we make sure that next month, we don’t have another example of California, Texas, Florida and Arizona?”
He added, “So rather than these games people are playing, let’s focus on that.”
In the interview, Fauci discussed the op-ed article by Navarro, which had the stark headline, “Anthony Fauci Has Been Wrong About Everything I Have Interacted With Him On.” In the piece, Navarro presented what White House officials have been saying privately about Fauci and what Trump has said publicly: They like Fauci personally, but he has made mistakes.
Fauci responded with bewilderment. “I can’t explain Peter Navarro,” he said. “He’s in a world by himself.”
The White House sought to distance itself from the attack by Navarro, but so far has not attacked the substance of his piece. And White House officials declined to comment when one of the president’s closest advisers, Dan Scavino, posted a mocking cartoon of Fauci to social media.
Tension between Navarro and Fauci has been brewing since the early days of the pandemic this year. In a coronavirus task force meeting that Navarro asked to attend, the two argued over the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that Trump has promoted as a cure for the virus.
Navarro, an economist by training, has since defended his credentials when it comes to sparring with Fauci over possible medical treatments.
“Doctors disagree about things all the time. My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist,” Navarro told CNN’s John Berman in April. “I have a Ph.D. And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it’s in medicine, the law, economics or whatever.”
Navarro is known to go around official channels to make sure his opinions are aired. In his op-ed article, he wrote that “I confronted him with scientific studies providing evidence of safety and efficacy,” and he promoted a new study that he said showed a 50% reduction in the mortality rate when the medicine was used. Medical experts have criticized that study, published by the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, as incomplete.
Navarro also wrote that he had warned officials in late January of the threat posed by the coronavirus, while Fauci had “fought against the president’s courageous decision” to close U.S. borders to travelers from China.
It is true that a memo that Navarro wrote outlining the threat of the virus was the earliest high-level alert known to have circulated inside the West Wing during the early days of the administration’s response. It is also true that Fauci was initially skeptical of closing the country’s borders, over concerns such an action could limit the movements of doctors and other health professionals trying to contain the disease. But by the end of January, Fauci and other public health experts were on board with the decision.
Despite the continuing attacks by administration advisers and the attempts to limit his television appearances, Fauci has not stopped other public appearances. On Tuesday, he urged Georgetown University students to trust public health experts over politicians, without criticizing the administration he works for directly.
“You can trust respected medical authorities. I believe I’m one of them. So, I think you can trust me,” Fauci said. “I would stick with respected medical authorities who have a track record of telling the truth, who have a track record of giving information and policy and recommendations based on scientific evidence and good data.”
He added, “Don’t get involved in any of the political nonsense,” calling it a “waste of time.”