Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
President Donald Trump has spent his time in the Oval Office praising those who support him and going scorched-earth against his perceived foes.
But with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US's top infectious-disease expert, Trump may have picked a fight he can't win.
The White House recently circulated a list of talking points attacking Fauci, a member of Trump's own coronavirus task force.
But the coronavirus outbreak is a different beast from the myriad controversies Trump has weathered throughout his presidency, hampering the president's efforts to message his way through the crisis.
Trump's attacks against Fauci are also complicated by a string of media reports documenting how the White House botched its early response to the pandemic, as well as recent polling indicating that Fauci's reputation is soaring among Americans, while Trump's is cratering.
President Donald Trump's modus operandi throughout his time in the Oval Office has been simple: Praise those who support him and go scorched-earth against his perceived foes.
But with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president may have picked a fight he can't win.
Fauci is the US's top infectious-disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force. Though things between him and Trump have been frosty for months — they are thought to have spoken most recently in early June — their cold war went into overdrive last weekend, when The Washington Post reported that a White House official was circulating talking points criticizing Fauci for his handling of the virus.
But the coronavirus outbreak is a different beast from the myriad controversies Trump has weathered throughout his presidency, complicating the president's efforts to message his way through the crisis.
Events like the Russia investigation and impeachment were politically seismic, but their threat was contained largely to Trump and those around him. That's not the case with a pandemic that, as of Tuesday, had infected more than 3.3 million Americans and killed more than 135,000 of them, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Then there's the fact that much of the disease's rapid spread across the US can be attributed to Trump's own failures to address it early rather than external factors.
A string of media reports over the past several months have painted a damning picture of Trump hampering the US's recovery by ignoring more than a dozen warnings about the pandemic from intelligence officials, cutting funding to public-health agencies, demonizing medical experts, and spreading misinformation about the severity of the outbreak.
Further complicating matters for Trump is the American public's substantial approval of Fauci and distrust of the president when it comes to the pandemic.
Indeed, The Post reported on Monday that Trump was rattled by Fauci's soaring reputation compared with his own, particularly in the months leading up to November's election.
For example, in a series of Insider polls conducted with SurveyMonkey in mid-March, mid-April, and late April, respondents gave Fauci and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York the highest ratings for their handling of the pandemic, while Trump and his senior adviser Jared Kushner were near the bottom.
The White House official's talking points mentioned by The Post, which some have described as opposition research, accused Fauci of not taking the outbreak seriously enough early on. They also skewered Fauci for putting out inaccurate information about asymptomatic transmission and for his shifting stances on the implementation of lockdown measures.
The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, denied this week that the talking points were opposition research and insisted that Trump and Fauci had "a good working relationship."
But she and other Trump aides, like the White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, have largely echoed those points and criticized Fauci for giving the public what they characterized as conflicting advice.
As The Post and multiple public-health experts pointed out, however, the White House's talking points left out critical portions of Fauci's early comments in which he specified that he was making assessments based on the best available information at the time and that the outlook could dramatically shift given the many unknowns about the novel virus.
"Taking quotes from Dr. Fauci out of context to discredit his scientific knowledge and judgment will do tremendous harm to our nation's efforts to get the virus under control, restore our economy, and return us to a more normal way of life," the Association of American Medical Colleges said in a statement on Monday.
The AMA added that it was "extremely concerned and alarmed" by the attacks against Fauci.
Others argued Fauci wasn't the problem.
Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw the Obama administration's response to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, said the president was the biggest threat to a strong recovery based on his lukewarm response to the coronavirus and ignorance of repeated warnings from medical experts.
"So look, @WhiteHouse, I think it's great that you care about retroactive accountability for officials' prior mistakes on Coronavirus. And all I'm saying is, Fauci's maybe not the main guy you should be worried about on that score," Konyndyk tweeted on Monday.
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is one of Trump's biggest allies on Capitol Hill, rallied to Fauci's defense on Tuesday.
"We don't have a Dr. Fauci problem," Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters. "We need to be focusing on doing things that get us to where we need to go. So, I have all the respect in the world for Dr. Fauci. I think any effort to undermine him is not going to be productive, frankly."
Oma Seddiq and Grace Panetta contributed reporting.
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