WASHINGTON – Democrats seized on a growing rift between the White House and Dr. Anthony Fauci on Monday as aides sought to explain why President Donald Trump was disparaging the nation's top infectious disease expert during the coronavirus pandemic.
As cases of the virus surged in large swaths of the country and the nation's most populous state reversed course on reopening indoor businesses, Trump said he had a "very good relationship" with Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, but quickly added that, "I don't always agree with him."
Trump's remarks followed reports over the weekend that administration officials distributed a statement asserting "several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things."
As some White House aides dismissed reports of internal tension, others aired their beef with Fauci publicly.
"Dr. Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on," said Peter Navarro, a trade adviser who is close to the president and who claimed Fauci had downplayed the risks of the virus, "flip-flopped" on masks, and "was telling the media not to worry" this year.
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"So when you ask me if I listen to Dr. Fauci's advice, my answer is only with caution," Navarro added.
Fauci's supporters said his comments were being taken out of context, and that he made many of them early this year when little was known about the virus. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the virus. Early on, he compared it to the flu, saying it might "miraculously" disappear. More recently, on a near-daily basis, Trump has incorrectly blamed the rise in COVID-19 cases solely on increased testing even as hard-hit states struggle with growing strains on hospitals and intensive care units.
Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media, posted a cartoon on Facebook portraying Fauci as a faucet, flushing the U.S. economy down the drain. "Sorry, Dr. Faucet!" he posted. "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."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pushed back on reports of a split, arguing Monday that the initial statement questioning Fauci's early insights into the virus came in response to specific questions from The Washington Post.
"And to the notion that there's opposition research and that there's Fauci versus the president, it couldn't be further from the truth," she said during her a White House briefing. "Dr. Fauci and the president have always had a very good working relationship."
Yet Trump himself has become increasingly confrontational in his remarks about Fauci as the infectious disease expert – who has served six presidents – warns of reopening businesses too soon. And the dispute is only the latest case of Trump casting doubt on public health officials charged with crafting Washington's response to the pandemic.
"Informed Dr. Fauci this morning that he has nothing to do with NFL Football," Trump tweeted last month after Fauci said a regular football season might be too risky.
In an interview last week on Fox News, Trump said Fauci had "made a lot of mistakes" but called him a "nice man."
In an interview last week in the Financial Times, Fauci revealed that he had not briefed Trump in at least two months and had not seen him in person since early June.
As he appeared to question Fauci's judgment on public health, Trump on Monday also retweeted a post from Chuck Woolery in which the former game show host claimed that "everyone is lying" about the virus, including "the CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors."
More than two thirds of Americans said they trust Fauci on the virus, according to a New York Times poll conducted by Siena College last month. That was vastly larger than the 26% who said they trusted Trump on that issue. Democrats – including Joe Biden, the party's presumptive presidential nominee – were quick to draw the distinction.
"Donald Trump needs to spend less time playing golf and more time listening to experts like Dr. Fauci," Biden posted on Twitter.
"The truth is, this country needs Dr. Anthony Fauci," tweeted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. "These attacks are unfair; we should be listening to health experts and following the science."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, flashed an image of Fauci during his briefing on Monday. "Now the president is attacking science," Cuomo said. "You don't defeat a virus with politics."
Muriel Bowser, the Democratic mayor of Washington, D.C. and a frequent critic of the president, also weighed in on the dispute.
"In Fauci we trust," she posted on Twitter. "Mask on, DC."
Total confirmed cases of coronavirus surpassed 3.3 million and more than 135,000 Americans have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Florida reported more than 12,000 new cases Monday, one day after its 15,000 new cases smashed the daily record for any state since the pandemic began. Florida's infection total now stands at 282,435 – more than all but eight countries.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday announced a list of industries that will be required to close as the number of cases continue to increase in that state. They included indoor operations at restaurants, wineries, tasting rooms, movie theaters, family entertainment centers, zoos, museums, card rooms and all bars.
"This continues to be a deadly disease," Newsom said. "This continues to be a disease that puts people in our ICUs, in our hospitals and is currently putting a strain on our hospital system."
Contributing: John Bacon, Nicholas Wu, Palm Springs Desert Sun