WASHINGTON — The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, facing a veiled threat of firing from President Trump in the midst of a pandemic, sought to tamp down tensions with the president on Monday by offering reassurances that the president took his recommendations to battle the coronavirus seriously.
On Sunday, Fauci said in a CNN interview there was “pushback” to the idea of implementing social distancing earlier in the virus’s trajectory, which he said would have saved lives. But on Monday, under the watchful eye of Trump, Fauci told reporters in the White House briefing room that his comments included a “poor choice of words,” and clarified that Trump agreed to strong mitigation steps the first time Fauci “formally” recommended it.
The walkback followed a remarkable series of events. After Fauci’s CNN interview Sunday, Trump retweeted a tweet that sharply criticized the doctor, emblazoned with the hashtag #FireFauci.
The doctor’s comments Monday seemed to help matters. “I like him, I think he’s terrific," Trump said. But he added: “Not everybody’s happy with Anthony."
The episode underscored Fauci’s precarious standing in the mind of the president despite his decades of expertise, as Trump faces scathing coverage for his slow response to the virus. The retweeted threat in particular spooked both Democrats and outside health experts, who see Fauci as one of the few consistent voices of caution within the White House and a key player in a coronavirus task force they already believe includes too few scientists.
“Except for Tony Fauci, we’re not bringing the best of what we have to bear on this,” said Dr. James Curran, the dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and a former Centers for Disease Control official who complained that the agency’s experts in respiratory disease outbreaks have been sidelined.
“It’s a form of intimidation,” Curran said of Trump’s retweet.
Democrats are so worried about Fauci — a longtime civil servant who is not a political appointee serving at the president’s pleasure — that they are drafting legislation to protect him. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who calls Fauci a “national treasure,” is planning to introduce a bill that would shield him from Trump’s wrath by allowing for a director of a national research institute or national center of the National Institutes of Health to be fired only on the grounds of malfeasance, neglect of office, or incapacity.
“Every day that I’ve been watching Dr. Fauci stand next to Donald Trump, I have been concerned that the president’s political agenda is different than Tony Fauci’s scientific and medical agenda,” Markey said. “Donald Trump has an allergy to both science and the truth.”
The controversy comes as Trump weighs whether to lift federal social distancing guidelines by the end of the month. Experts like Fauci say the reopening of the nation’s economy must be a gradual process, backed by data from ramped-up coronavirus testing and contact tracing to prevent more outbreaks. But when asked by a reporter Friday what “metrics” he will use in making that decision, Trump pointed to his head. “The metrics right here,“ he said. “That’s my metrics.”
Since the coronavirus began its insidious spread in the United States, Trump has repeatedly displayed a casual or even dismissive attitude toward the scientists and experts charged with containing it, hawking potential cures with little scientific backing and declaring he wouldn’t personally follow new guidelines that urge Americans to don masks in public.
But those who worried about Trump’s seeming disregard for facts and expertise in the midst of a pandemic could always comfort themselves with the presence of Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who has become a household name while injecting Trump’s daily press conferences with sober, factual information about the virus — which is why they see any threat to his job security as cause for deep concern.
“Generally speaking, there aren’t too many scientists who have been involved from the get-go with these decisions,” said Dr. Ali Nouri, the president of the Federation of American Scientists. “To the extent that he has these people around him, he should keep them and he should listen to them.”
Fauci and Trump have tangled before, after Fauci gave several media interviews admitting that the president delivers inaccurate information during his daily press briefings. That blunt style made him something of a hero among liberals and a villain to many of the president’s allies, who have long urged his firing.
Fauci’s job may be protected in part by politics. Trump would likely face a fierce backlash if he were to fire Fauci, or even remove him from the White House coronavirus task force, according to Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid.
“Fauci is as close to untouchable as you can be inside the Trump administration unless you’re related to the president,” Conant said. “He is so well known and liked by the American people that firing him would really shake the public’s and the market’s confidence.”
A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 78 percent of people approved of Fauci’s handling of the pandemic, compared to just 46 percent who said the same of Trump. That may rankle the president, but it could also tie his hands.
The tense relations between the two men — already fraught after Fauci attempted to tamp down Trump’s enthusiasm for an unproven treatment for the virus — comes while the president is deciding what to do when social distancing guidelines that have helped shutter much of the economy end this month. A second task force that’s being created to advise the president on reopening the economy does not include any medical or scientific experts, according to an initial list reported by Fox News, furthering concerns that Trump may sideline Fauci and other scientists when he needs their advice more than ever.
It would not be the first time. Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has pushed scientific expertise to the side, particularly when it conflicts with his political interests, taking the United States out of agreements like the Paris Climate Accord and installing political appointees with industry ties instead of scientific ones to run agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
This pattern has been most pronounced when it comes to climate and environmental science — Columbia University has tracked more than 250 examples of his administration’s attempts to limit scientific research or the use of scientific information in some way.
“It’s been a war on science since he came in,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush. “What he’s doing to the EPA, what he’s done to the Department of the Interior — wherever scientists are, they’re being ignored.”
Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has frustrated public health experts who believe he ignored their warnings and downplayed the threat it posed to the country, costing the nation valuable time. Fauci has often faced the brunt of Trump’s wrath as he bristles at that criticism, and online attacks against the doctor were so intense that he was reportedly provided with personal security.
But in his 36 years as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci has found himself at the center of more than one political firestorm.
In 1990, 1,000 activists protested the government’s handling of the AIDS crisis on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health, setting off colored smoke bombs. Some dressed up as the grim reaper and hoisted signs urging Fauci to resign, but he earned the trust of AIDS activists in the ensuing years.
He has also testified hundreds of times before Congress — an experience that thickened his skin ahead of his current clash with Trump.
“You either get praised or you get killed,” he said once, according to Science Magazine. “You just got to know when to duck.”
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.