The White House denied Monday that President Donald Trump is considering firing the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, after Trump retweeted a message Sunday night that included the hashtag “FireFauci” amid a flurry of Twitter activity responding to criticism of the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“This media chatter is ridiculous – President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “Dr. Fauci has been and remains a trusted advisor to President Trump.”

At Monday’s coronavirus task force briefing, Fauci appeared to walk back his comments to CNN that had prompted a sharp response from Trump, explaining that he had been responding to a “hypothetical question” and was not intending to criticize the president.

“I can only tell you what I know and what my recommendations were,” Fauci told reporters. Asked about his claim that there had been “a lot of pushback” to his call for earlier mitigation efforts, Fauci replied, “That was the wrong choice of words.”

He also disputed the notion that he had been forced by Trump to clarify his remarks. “Everything I do is voluntarily,” Fauci said. “Please. Don’t even imply that.”

Trump’s Sunday night retweet – which prompted widespread consternation about his relationship with the highly visible member of the White House coronavirus task force – highlighted the views of a former Republican congressional candidate, DeAnna Lorraine. She amassed 1.8% of the vote in an open primary challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this year.

Lorraine’s tweet came after an interview with Fauci, chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Fauci said in the Sunday morning interview that a stronger early response to the outbreak by the administration “could have saved lives,” but he also characterized the decision to implement social distancing guidelines as “complicated.”

“Obviously, it would have been nice if we had a better head start, but I don’t think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor,” Fauci said Sunday on CNN. “It’s very complicated.”

Fauci also confirmed a New York Times story saying that he and other experts had wanted to begin social and physical distancing measures as early as February.

Trump has often in the past shown his anger with critics within his own administration by retweeting the negative or taunting comments of others – sometimes marginal figures such as Lorraine – rather than saying anything himself. It allows him to cry “fake news” when the media interprets the retweeted material as reflecting his views.

While he may or may not actually want to fire Fauci, he has used Twitter to discredit the views of officials with whom he disagrees, retweeting stories and commentary from his favorite news outlets, notably Fox News and more recently OANN, the One America News Network.

In his statement blaming the media for the confusion over Fauci’s status, Gidley said Trump’s intent was to expose the media’s “attempt to rewrite history” about his decision to impose a ban on travel from China in response to the origins of the coronavirus outbreak there.

In Trump’s retweet of Lorraine’s message, he added in his own words an assertion that he “banned China long before people spoke up.” But the underlying tweet from Lorraine complained that “Fauci is now saying that had Trump listened to the medical experts earlier he could’ve saved more lives.”

“Time to #FireFauci,” she added.

Fauci, known for his candor but also his diplomacy, has implicitly and explicitly taken issue with Trump on several occasions. Trump demonstrated his apparently increasing irritation last week when he stepped in to stop Fauci from answering a question about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven drug that the president has been touting for treatment of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Fauci has also been skeptical of Trump’s rush to set a date for easing mitigation efforts to get the economy moving as the 2020 election approaches.

Fauci has become a major figure in America because of his prominent role in the White House’s coronavirus task force. He has appeared on television almost daily, standing beside Trump during coronavirus briefings and landing interviews on news programs and even late-night comedy shows. He has become so well-known, that people have designed doughnuts, T-shirts and “fan clubs” to celebrate him.

Recent polls have shown that Americans trust Fauci much more than they trust Trump, which could rankle the president.

But any effort to force out Fauci could also further erode public confidence in the president’s handling of the deadly pandemic.

Fauci is a career government scientist who has never been a partisan figure. First appointed to his position in 1984, Fauci has led the agency, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, under six presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush said he has “absolute confidence” in Fauci and the other experts leading the way on the coronavirus outbreak. Bush awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And Fauci developed a reputation as a skilled public health expert while combating the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Lorraine, the Pelosi challenger who got Trump going, opined in another tweet that she has “seriously heard enough of the experts’ for now” on how to stem the novel coronavirus.

Sunday’s measured comments by Fauci, which did not mention Trump or explicitly criticize the administration and were elicited under questioning by CNN’s Jake Tapper, prompted a flurry of right-wing commentators to rebuke him. Some reports have indicated that the president has been calling advisers seeking their opinions on Fauci’s performance in recent days.

Some right-leaning commentators and Trump’s online base have rallied behind the president, taking shots at Fauci as their relationship has grown increasingly strained. Even as the president repeatedly slammed the mainstream media Sunday, he praised OANN.

On Monday, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said in an interview with conservative radio host James Harris that Fauci had “emasculated the economy.” “I think it’s time . . . for Dr. Fauci to move along. I mean, he shouldn’t have a seat at the table,” Biggs said, adding that negative sentiment toward Fauci “is growing on the Hill.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., meanwhile, pushed back against the notion of firing Fauci, asking, “For what?”

In a tweet, Rubio pointed the finger at China and also noted that the U.S. government reacted slowly to the coronavirus threat because officials “didn’t want to harm [the] economy or be alarmists.”

“Can’t change [the] past but can avoid repeating it,” Rubio said.

Stuck inside the White House because of social distancing limitations, Trump spent his Easter Sunday railing against the “Fake News,” slamming publications including the New York Times and even Fox News, after criticism of the federal government’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic ramped up over the weekend.

The president attacked the journalists after a New York Times report that the Trump administration had information that could have led to social distancing precautions much earlier. It blamed the president’s slow response for the scale of the virus’s spread and rising death toll.

Similar criticisms were echoed in many news reports Sunday, sparking heated retorts from Trump, even aimed at Fox News.

In an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, also said the United States would “be in a much better position” if the Trump administration had acted more quickly. That interview inspired Trump to blast the right-leaning news network and Wallace personally, calling him a “Mike Wallace wannabe,” a reference to Chris Wallace’s father, the legendary investigative broadcaster who died in 2012.

“What the hell is happening to @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “It’s a whole new ballgame over there!”

The personal attack on Wallace drew a rebuke from Jedediah Bila, a weekend co-host of one of the president’s favorite shows, “Fox & Friends.”

“Enough with the 3rd grade name-calling,” she said. “Chris is doing his job.”

Here are relevant excerpts from Sunday’s Fauci interview with CNN’s Tapper:

TAPPER: The New York Times reported yesterday that you and other top officials wanted to recommend social and physical distancing guidelines to President Trump as far back as the third week of February, but the administration didn’t announce such guidelines to the American public until March 16, almost a month later. Why?

FAUCI: You know, Jake, as I have said many times, we look at it from a pure health standpoint. We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it’s not. But we – it is what it is. We are where we are right now.

TAPPER: Do you think lives could have been saved if social distancing, physical distancing, stay-at-home measures had started third week of February, instead of mid-March?

FAUCI: You know, Jake, again, it’s the what would have, what could have. It’s – it’s very difficult to go back and say that. I mean, obviously, you could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that.

But what goes into those kinds of decisions is – is complicated. But you’re right. I mean, obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different.

(Anika Varty / The Seattle Times)

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