Coronavirus

Trump signals unity with Fauci amid talk of tension

The president seemed eager to reaffirm the career public health official’s standing within the administration after speculation that he had been sidelined by the White House.

Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci

President Donald Trump on Tuesday sought to signal that he and Dr. Anthony Fauci are on the same page when it comes to combating the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the United States — insisting that his relationship with the nation’s top infectious disease expert has “been very good” throughout the administration’s response to the global pandemic.

The president’s latest stabs at a show of unity with Fauci come after a series of interviews, news reports and conspicuous absences have hinted at heightened frustration with the career public health official. Fauci, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 3½ decades, has become one of the most widely recognized and respected faces of the federal government’s management of the novel coronavirus.

On Tuesday morning, Trump seemed eager to reaffirm Fauci’s standing within the administration amid the latest bout of palace intrigue, thanking him for recent complimentary remarks and making light of a perceived slight by the NIAID chief. Trump first retweeted a short clip of Fauci’s appearance on conservative media personality Mark Levin’s Fox News talk show, during which Fauci described the president as an incessantly inquisitive leader who heeds scientific counsel. “Thank you Tony!” Trump wrote in an accompanying message.

Less than a half-hour later, Trump even made reference on social media to Fauci’s meme-worthy “facepalm” at a White House coronavirus task force briefing on Friday, sharing a post by a Twitter user who declared, “Dr. Fauci is all of us.” The viral moment, which saw Fauci stifle a chuckle and apparently react dismissively to Trump’s branding of the State Department as the “Deep State Department,” was among the inciting incidents that have sparked new speculation regarding his status with the president.

In that same White House briefing last week and another news conference on Saturday, the two men offered conflicting assessments of possible pharmaceutical treatments for the coronavirus, with Trump striking an optimistic tone and Fauci emphasizing the need for further clinical trials. Then, in an interview with Science magazine published on Sunday, Fauci acknowledged the difficulties of fact-checking the commander in chief in real time, saying, “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”

On Monday, The New York Times reported that Trump and some White House advisers’ patience with Fauci had “started to wear thin,” but noted that the president has afforded the doctor “more leeway to contradict him than he has other officials” given Fauci’s credibility among journalists and the broader public. But when Trump arrived hours later at the White House daily news briefing, Fauci — normally a regular presence at the televised sessions with reporters — was not by the president’s side.

Although Trump and Vice President Mike Pence explained that Fauci was attending a meeting of the coronavirus task force, to many observers, his exclusion from the briefing represented yet another indication of the White House’s displeasure.

As concerns continued to mount over the president’s opinion of Fauci and other government health experts, the White House opted to forgo its traditional task force briefing on Tuesday, with Trump instead partaking in a virtual coronavirus town hall on Fox News. Pence, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and Surgeon General Jerome Adams all participated, but Fauci did not appear “because he has other things to do,” Trump said.

The president reported that he and Fauci “get along very well,” and said he holds both Fauci and Birx in high regard. “I respect all of these people. These are great people. And Deborah is extraordinary, and Tony is extraordinary. I get along with all of them,” he said.

Despite that praise, Trump has demonstrated a greater willingness to break with the advice of public health experts by suggesting he might try to restart the American economy by Easter — April 12 — after the administration’s recommended 15-day period of social distancing. Asked on Monday whether Fauci, who has championed preventative measures throughout the federal response, sides with the president, Trump answered, in part, “He doesn’t not agree.”

Fauci also attempted to deescalate tensions in an interview on Tuesday with a local Washington radio station, arguing that Trump is working to perform a “delicate balancing act” taking into account the dual threats to Americans’ safety and the nation’s financial welfare. “We’re under very intense discussions right now about what the most appropriate timeline is, and if we do modify it, how do we modify it,” he said.

Fauci went on to criticize members of the media who he accused of seeking to drive a wedge between himself and the president by posing probing questions intended to expose their diverging views on matters of public health. He asserted that “fundamentally, at the core,” no such discrepancies exist, and called those lines of inquiry “really unfortunate.”

“The idea of just pitting one against the other is just not helpful,” Fauci said. “I wish that would stop and we’d look ahead at the challenge we have to pull together to get over this thing.”

Whispers aside, both Trump and Fauci appeared to be in good spirits when the doctor made his first appearance in the White House briefing room in days during a Tuesday evening news conference with members of the coronavirus task force.