After Fauci said he's not surprised Trump got COVID-19, president calls top disease expert a 'disaster'

William Cummings and David Jackson, USA TODAY

President Donald Trump blasted Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, as a "disaster" on Monday, a day after Fauci said in an interview that it came as no shock to him when the president tested positive for COVID-19 because Trump regularly eschewed the use of masks "as a statement of strength."

During a conference call with his campaign staff on Monday, Trump said Fauci drops a "bomb" every time he goes on television, but it would be "a bigger bomb if you fire him. This guy's a disaster."

Trump added that people don't want to hear about the pandemic and are saying "just leave us alone" to public health experts like Fauci, who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.

"People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots," Trump said.

Later Monday, the president also posted a tweet criticizing Fauci.

A day earlier, Fauci had been asked in a CBS News "60 Minutes" interview if he was surprised the president contracted the coronavirus.

"Absolutely not," Fauci replied.

"I was worried that he was going to get sick when I saw him in a completely precarious situation of crowded – no separation between people, and almost nobody wearing a mask," he said, referring to the White House Rose Garden event where Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. "When I saw that on TV, I said, 'Oh my goodness. Nothing good can come outta that, that's gotta be a problem.' And then, sure enough, it turned out to be a superspreader event."

Of the people who attended the Sept. 26 White House ceremony, nearly a dozen tested positive for the coronavirus including Trump, first lady Melania Trump, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis.

'The data speak for themselves': Dr. Anthony Fauci says White House held a 'superspreader event' for coronavirus

The "60 Minutes" interview was not the first time Fauci had expressed concern about the president's lack of social distancing since the outbreak began. It also was not the first time Trump had criticized the renowned immunologist, whose dire predictions have often contradicted the presidents' more rosy assessments about how the U.S. was managing the pandemic.

One area where they have not always seen eye to eye is the importance of mask wearing to combat the spread of the virus.

Fauci told "60 Minutes" he believes Trump – who rarely wears a mask in public, particularly before he became infected – avoids masks because he sees it as "a statement of strength, like, 'We're strong, we don't need a mask,' that kind of thing."

"He sometimes equates wearing a mask with weakness," added Fauci, who said that view made no sense to him.

But he did not believe the president's reluctance to wear a mask was rooted in general opposition to science.

"I think deep down, he believes in science," Fauci said, "If he didn't, he would not have entrusted his health to the very competent physicians at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center."

Trump has publicly questioned the efficacy of masks and frequently points to Fauci's initial advice to avoid them during the early days of the pandemic to support his claim that there is wide debate about their effectiveness. But Fauci said Sunday there was "no doubt" that "masks really do work in preventing infection."

Fauci, who said he wished to "put this to rest once and for all," explained that his early statements telling people not to rush out and buy masks were rooted in a concern about hospitals experiencing a shortage of surgical or N95 masks. Since then, studies have shown that masks are more effective than he thought, and that cloth coverings work, reducing the strain on the supply of masks like those used in hospitals.

"When you find out you're wrong, it's a manifestation of your honesty to say, 'Hey, I was wrong. I did subsequent experiments and now it's this way,'" Fauci said.

In another instance where the president misrepresented his position, Fauci said it was "stunning" the Trump campaign had taken one of his statements out of context in an ad to imply he was praising Trump's handling of the pandemic.

"I do not, and nor will I ever, publicly endorse any political candidate. And here I am, they're sticking me right in the middle of a campaign ad. Which I thought was outrageous. I was referring to something entirely different," Fauci said. "I was referring to the grueling work of the task force that, 'God, we were knocking ourselves out seven days a week. I don’t think we could have possibly have done any more than that.'"

When asked if the ad made him angry, Fauci said, "It did, quite frankly."

"I got really ticked off."

Trump defended his comments about Fauci while speaking to reporters before a rally in Prescott, Arizona. He called Fauci a "very nice man" who "loves being on television."

"Sometimes he says things that are a little bit off, and they get built up, unfortunately," Trump said. "But he’s a nice guy. I like him. But he’s called a lot of bad calls."

When asked why he didn't fire Fauci, Trump told reporters, "I don’t want to. I don’t want to hurt him. He’s been there for about 350 years."

During the rally, Trump criticized his Democratic opponent Joe Biden for wanting "to listen to Dr. Fauci."

" ... yes," Biden tweeted in response to what CNN reporter Daniel Dale called Trump's "new attack line."

Biden also responded to Trump's attacks on Fauci in a statement.

"Coronavirus infections are spiking across the country, but President Trump decided to attack Dr. Fauci again today as a 'disaster' and call public health experts 'idiots' instead of laying out a plan to beat this virus or heeding their advice about how we can save lives and get our economy moving again," Biden said.

Biden was not the only Democrat to seize on Trump's criticism of Fauci as an opportunity to lambaste the president for his handling of the coronavirus.

"220,000 Americans are dead and infection rates are climbing in 43 states. After deceptively using Dr. Fauci’s words in a TV ad last week, now Trump is attacking him as a 'disaster.' For what? For telling the truth," tweeted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. "We all know who the disaster is here, Mr. President. You."

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee also came to Fauci's defense amid the president's criticism.

"Dr. Fauci is one of our country’s most distinguished public servants. He has served six presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan. If more Americans paid attention to his advice, we’d have fewer cases of COVID-19, and it would be safer to go back to school and back to work and out to eat," Alexander said in a statement.

Trump's criticism of Fauci on Monday came the same day the National Academy of Medicine awarded the disease expert with its first-ever Presidential Citation for Exemplary Leadership.

Presenting the award, academy president Victor J. Dzau praised Fauci's "firm and steady leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic" and lauded him for "offering an unwavering, trusted voice to the nation and world on behalf of science-based policy and public health."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dr. Fauci called "disaster" by Trump in latest attack on the medical expert