Doctor fronting US virus response subject of partisan warfare
Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who has become one of the most trusted faces of the US coronavirus response, has become the target of partisan warfare after President Donald Trump hinted he was considering sacking him.
The sudden focus on the public health expert, who is the longtime director of the non-partisan National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), came after Mr Trump retweeted a Republican former Congressional candidate who called for him to be fired.
“Fauci was telling people on February 29th that there was nothing to worry about and it posed no threat to the US public at large. Time to #FireFauci,” DeAnna Lorraine, a former Republican congressional candidate, wrote on Sunday night.
Mr Trump appeared to signal his approval, retweeting the message with the comment: “Sorry Fake News, it’s all on tape. I banned China long before people spoke up.”
A White House spokesperson on Monday insisted the president had no intention of removing Dr Fauci, saying in a statement: “Dr Fauci has been and remains a trusted adviser to President Trump,” adding that the “chatter” over his status on the White House task force was “ridiculous”.
The weekend Twitter salvo prompted several high-profile Democrats to come to Dr Fauci’s defence, including Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has emerged as something of a national spokesperson during the crisis.
Mr Cuomo praised Dr Fauci’s work to assist the US’s hardest-hit state and said he could not believe Mr Trump would remove him.
“I think Dr Fauci is great. He’s been very helpful to me,” Mr Cuomo said at his daily news conference on Monday. “As crazy as things get in this world, and in crazy Washington, I can’t imagine that would ever happen.”
The president’s tweet was the most public signal yet of his displeasure at Dr Fauci, who at the weekend appeared to confirm media reports that he and other government experts had warned the Trump administration about the threat posed by Covid-19 weeks before the White House took action.
Hogan Gidley, the White House spokesperson, said Mr Trump’s tweet on Sunday was aimed not at Dr Fauci but at weekend news exposés that detailed the administration’s slow response to the outbreak.
The National Institutes of Health, of which the NIAID is a part, would not comment on Dr Fauci’s position on Monday morning. But public health experts and senior Democrats warned of the damage that would be done to public confidence in the administration should the president sideline him.
Lawrence Gostin, professor of health law at Georgetown University, said: “[Dr Fauci] has more public support than the president by a long range. He has become America’s doctor, and you don’t fire a person’s doctor. There would be a public outrage if he were to do that, and President Trump knows that.”
While Mr Trump cannot fire Dr Fauci from his government position, he could remove him from the White House’s coronavirus task force, and thereby from the public eye. Many of Dr Fauci’s allies, however, believe even the combative Mr Trump is unlikely to take such a politically risky move.
“I don’t think there will be a problem,” said Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I anticipate that Fauci will continue in his role.”
Others however are less sure, especially given Dr Fauci has already angered many Trump supporters with what they see as unacceptable public criticism of the president. When Dr Fauci was asked by Science magazine last month to respond to false claims being made by the president for example, he responded: “I know, but what do you want me to do?”
Dr Fauci’s high profile certainly seems to have irritated the White House. He told a New Yorker journalist recently that he had been asked not to participate in any profile pieces.
At a recent press briefing, Mr Trump refused to let Mr Fauci answer a question about the medical benefits of hydroxychloroquine — a drug whose efficacy against the virus has been repeatedly touted by Mr Trump but questioned by the medical community more broadly.
Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host and staunch Trump ally, has also taken aim at Dr Fauci, suggesting on his radio programme last week that the physician was one of the “Hillary Clinton sympathisers” who wanted to “get rid” of the president. Dr Fauci has served in his position since 1994 under six presidents.
“Trump’s base is sending a lot of negative messages directly to Tony,” said Mr Gostin. “They sent them to me too. I get unspeakable profanity, just for being associated with him.”
“If the president fires Dr Fauci, he will be directly working to hide the truth from the American people. There is no question that more lives will be lost. We must protect Dr Fauci,” Ed Markey, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, wrote on Twitter.
David Cicilline, a Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, tweeted: “The President should not rush to end social distancing. He should not fire Dr Fauci. This should be really simple for him — listen to the experts and stay out of their way.”