WASHINGTON – The tension had been building for months. It was a secret to no one that the relationship between the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, and President Donald Trump had turned sour as they clashed over the White House’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that has by now taken the lives of more than 230,000 Americans.

Then came Sunday’s campaign rally in South Florida where the frantic crowd chanted: “Fire Fauci! Fire Fauci!” prompting a striking response from the president that suggested he might just do that.

“Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election,” Trump told his supporters. “I appreciate the advice.”

The not-so-subtle threat has prompted questions and concerns over the plausibility of Trump firing the country’s popular health expert, and whether the president has the legal authority to do so.

In short, he does not.

Technically the president of the United States cannot directly fire Fauci, say by a tweet, mainly because he is not a political appointee. As a career federal employee and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, Fauci is protected by federal civil service regulations that shield him from being fired or demoted for political reasons.

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Fauci could be removed, but it would involve a complicated process layered with civil service protections that requires the government agency to provide evidence that there is a just cause for dismissal, including failure to follow orders or misconduct.

The process to remove him would need to be initiated by someone in Fauci’s chain of command, such as the director of the National Institutes of Health or the Health and Human Services secretary, which is highly unlikely because he is an esteemed figure in the scientific and medical communities.

However, should that be the case, Fauci would need to be notified about what the allegation was and would then have the opportunity to respond and present evidence to the Merit Systems Protection Board that such action was not warranted. He could also appeal the board’s decision in court.

While these rules are still in place, a controversial executive order issued by Trump two weeks ago could remove these long-held service protections from tens of thousands of civil servants, making it easier to dismiss them with little cause or recourse.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., whose district includes more than 80,000 federal workers, said the order is intended to “send a clear message that conscientious dissent will not be tolerated,” and could target people such as Fauci.

“Trump clearly sees one of his top priority if he is reelected as a settling of scores with civil servants like Dr. Fauci whom he regards as insufficiently loyal,” Beyer told The Washington Post.

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Trump’s suggestion of firing Fauci came after the expert gave grim warnings of what is possible in the upcoming months, including rising coronavirus case counts that could surpass 100,000 a day.

“We’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation,” Fauci told The Washington Post on Friday.

“All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home, indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”

Fauci also took aim at the government’s response and said the only way to reverse the current surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, was for the nation to make an “abrupt change” in public health practices and behaviors.

In a statement to The Post, White House spokesman Judd Deere criticized Fauci’s statements.

“It’s unacceptable and breaking with all norms for Dr. Fauci, a senior member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force and someone who has praised President Trump’s actions throughout this pandemic, to choose three days before an election to play politics,” Deere told The Post on Saturday.

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As the pandemic surged in the spring, and the public was eager for answers and guidance, Fauci – who has vast experience in prevention and treatment of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Zika, and has advised six presidents – quickly became a highly visible member of the White House coronavirus task force.

In October, Fauci was named Federal Employee of the Year, during the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, better known as the Sammies, a high distinction for outstanding government workers.

His popularity rocketed after Brad Pitt impersonated him on “Saturday Night Live.”

But as covid-19 continued to spread, Fauci’s blunt and critical remarks were often at odds or diverged from those of the president on a wide range of issues, from the severity and duration of the outbreak to advice on experimental treatment and statewide shutdowns.

As tensions grew, the White House sidelined Fauci, leaving him out of the Oval Office for weeks at a time and with almost no direct contact with the president, a departure from earlier in the year when Fauci used to brief the president on a daily basis.

The fate of Fauci has become a talking point in both campaigns’ agendas, as well as a reflection of the candidates’ strikingly different approaches to the pandemic.

On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden riffed on Trump’s threats:

“I’ve got a better idea,” Biden said during his campaign rally in Cleveland. “Elect me and I’m going to hire Dr. Fauci! And we’re going to fire Donald Trump!”