Administration officials moved to treat the nation's top infectious disease expert as if he were a warring political rival, releasing a list of what they said were questionable statements he had made.
President Donald Trump's advisers undercut the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, over the weekend, anonymously providing details to various news outlets about statements he had made early in the coronavirus outbreak that they said were inaccurate.
The move to treat Fauci, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for decades, as if he were a warring political rival came as he has grown increasingly vocal in his concerns about the national surge in coronavirus cases, as well as his lack of access to Trump over the past several weeks. It has been accompanied by more measured public criticism from administration officials, including the president.
And it came just days after the White House called school reopening guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overly restrictive, part of a pattern of the administration trying to sideline recommendations that could slow the reopening of the economy, which Trump views as vital to his flailing reelection effort.
Aides to Trump first released to The Washington Post what the paper called a "lengthy list" of remarks that Fauci had made about the virus when it was in its early stages. That list featured several comments from Fauci that White House aides had privately complained about for months, including one in February in which he minimised the chance of asymptomatic spread and said people did not need to make big changes to their lives.
An official told The Post that several other officials were concerned about how often Fauci had been wrong.
For example, White House officials pointed to a statement by Fauci in a February 29 interview that "at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you're doing on a day-by-day basis." But they omitted a warning he delivered right after.
"Right now the risk is still low, but this could change," he said in the interview, conducted by NBC News. "When you start to see community spread, this could change and force you to become much more attentive to doing things that would protect you from spread."
In the same interview, Fauci also warned that the coronavirus could become "a major outbreak."
The list of statements, laid out in the style of a campaign's opposition research document, was later released to several news outlets. It was an extraordinary move for the White House to provide news organizations with such a document about a health official who works for the administration and retains a high level of public trust.
Fauci declined to comment. A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity insisted that the administration was not trying to discredit Fauci, who it acknowledged is an expert, but rather remind members of the public of his record and that it should be listening to a range of doctors.
A poll conducted for The New York Times by Siena College last month showed that 67 per cent of Americans trusted Fauci when it came to the virus; only 26 per cent trusted the president.
With the United States leading the world by a large margin in both cases and deaths, Fauci has grown more outspoken recently in interviews with his concerns about the virus, even as Trump has tried to push for states to reopen faster and has threatened to withhold federal money from school districts if they do not reopen in the fall.
In an interview on a podcast with FiveThirtyEight.com last week, Fauci said that a few states had the virus under control but that "as a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don't think you can say we're doing great. I mean, we're just not."
By contrast, Trump has tried to play down the threat almost without interruption while making false claims about how quickly and effectively his administration has responded to it.
White House officials would not speak for the record. But a senior administration official said the document provided to The Post was intended to push back on any belief that the administration was negligent if it did not always adhere to Fauci's words. The official argued that people who disliked Trump outside the administration had given outsize value to Fauci's voice.
And in a White House where almost everything is treated in terms of how it relates to Trump, staff frustrations with Fauci have run high for months.
Last week, Trump told Fox News that Fauci had been wrong about many aspects of the pandemic. Fauci "is a nice man, but he's made a lot of mistakes," the president said.
Despite claims early on in the fight against the virus that they enjoyed each other's company, Trump has long been dismissive of Fauci in private, according to White House officials, taking note of the amount of time he spent on television and of when the doctor contradicted him during press briefings. Trump began growing frustrated with Fauci when he expressed concerns about the efficacy of using hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, to treat people who had the coronavirus. Trump has continued to evangelise in support of the drug, even after the Food and Drug Administration withdrew an emergency authorization allowing it to be used in coronavirus cases.
The president's advisers have echoed, and sometimes amplified, Trump's frustrations.
"Dr. Fauci is not 100 per cent right, and he also doesn't necessarily — and he admits that — have the whole national interest in mind," Adm. Brett P. Giroir, an assistant health and human services secretary, said in an interview aired Sunday on the NBC program "Meet the Press." "He looks at it from a very narrow public health point of view."
Written by: Maggie Haberman
Photographs by: Doug Mills
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES