The Trump administration is increasingly at war with Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top public health expert, over the handling of the coronavirus crisis, as the US continues to report about 60,000 new cases a day.
On Monday Donald Trump once again sought to downplay the outbreak and erroneously blame extra testing for high numbers of cases, adding that the US was doing a “great job”, while Fauci, in an online talk with a Stanford University expert, said: “We have let the local public health infrastructure in our country really go into tatters.”
Fauci also warned that some states, in rushing to reopen before coronavirus was under control and on the decline, went “from shutdown to completely throwing caution to the wind” and were part of the surge in numbers.
In what had appeared to be a concerted effort to discredit the infectious diseases expert, Trump aides told news outlets over the weekend Fauci, who has become the public face of the government’s response, had made a series of “mistakes” in his predictions.
Fauci’s unvarnished manner and willingness to be blunt in a way that may question or contradict statements by the president have fed reports he has been barred from major media appearances, though he has testified in Congress and continued to speak to the press. Fauci said last week he had not briefed Trump in months.
The US contributed heavily to 230,000 new cases of Covid-19 being reported to the World Health Organization on Sunday. Trump has formally started the process of withdrawing the US from the WHO. Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent for the presidency in November, has said he will reverse that decision, which will take effect in July 2021.
States in the American south in particular appear to be suffering from lifting lockdowns too early. The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned on Monday that those witnessing resurgences of the virus were not following proven methods to reduce risk.
“Let me blunt,” he said. “Too many countries are headed in the wrong direction. The virus remains public enemy number one, but the actions of many governments and people do not reflect this.”
The Trump administration’s unseemly effort against Fauci came as doctors warned that hospitals in several large cities across the US south are close to being overrun.
Florida reported 12,264 new cases on Monday, its second-highest total after 15,299 on Sunday. Just over four months after the first coronavirus death in the US, and as many countries have seemingly managed a decline in cases, the US is still in the grip of the virus. As of Monday morning, Johns Hopkins University reported more than 3.3m cases and 135,219 deaths.
Donald Trump wore a mask in public for the first time over the weekend, a long-delayed concession to the importance of face coverings in preventing the spread of Covid-19. But the government’s predominant focus appeared to be on discrediting the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a 79-year-old public figure who has served under six presidents.
“Several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr Fauci has been wrong on things,” an anonymous Trump aide said in a statement released to news outlets.
CNN reported being given bullet points listing statements made by Fauci early in the pandemic, a list which it said “resembled opposition research on a political opponent”.
On Monday Trump himself picked up the offensive, retweeting a post from a former TV dating show host which criticized the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Everyone is lying,” said the post from Chuck Woolery, who hosted the show Love Connection in the 1980s and 90s. “The CDC, media, Democrats, our doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust.”
Adam Schiff, an influential Democratic congressman, described the president’s behaviour as “atrocious”, telling CNN it was “so characteristic of Donald Trump. He can’t stand the fact that the American people trust Dr Fauci and they don’t trust Donald Trump – and so he has to tear him down.”
Fauci on Monday warned of the longer-term outlook for the pandemic in the US.
“We have not even begun to see the end of it,” he said.
He also talked about the rush to reopen for business.
“All you needed to do was look at the films on TV of people in some states who went from shutdown to complete throwing caution to the wind – bars that were crowded, people without masks,” Fauci said during a Stanford University event.
Fauci said he was confident can control the virus “if we step back. You don’t necessarily need to shut down again, but pull back a bit, and then proceed in a very prudent way of observing the guidelines, of going from step to step.”
During a so-called “virtual fireside chat” with Lloyd Minor, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, Fauci added: “We have let the local public health infrastructure in our country really go into tatters.”
On Monday, Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, denied the White House was sending out opposition research on Fauci.
Meanwhile Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s ex-acting chief of staff and archconservative, wrote in a CNBC op-ed: “We still have a testing problem in this country. My son was tested recently; we had to wait five to seven days for results. My daughter wanted to get tested before visiting her grandparents, but was told she didn’t qualify. That is simply inexcusable at this point in the pandemic.”
Despite the US recording more daily cases than earlier in the pandemic, deaths are yet to hit the highs of April, when Covid-19 ravaged north-eastern areas, especially New York City.
Experts nonetheless say deaths are likely to rise in the coming weeks. Florida alone has now recorded 269,811 coronavirus cases, and fatalities there have more than doubled in the last three weeks.
Texas has also set records for cases in recent daysamid warnings that hospitals were struggling to cope.
Reuters contributed reporting