Joan E Greve in Washington- The Guardian
Dr Anthony Fauci testifies before a Senate committee in September. Fauci also told CBS the White House had been controlling his media appearances. Photograph: Getty Images
Donald Trump has once again attacked his top public health expert, using a call with campaign staff on Monday to deride Anthony Fauci as “a disaster” and to claim “people are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots” discuss ways to combat the coronavirus.
The president spoke one day after CBS’s 60 Minutes aired an interview with Fauci, in which the 79-year-old said he was “absolutely not” surprised Trump recently contracted the coronavirus himself, because he was holding crowded events with minimal social distancing and use of masks in the days before he developed symptoms.
Fauci also told CBS the White House had been controlling his media appearances.
“I certainly have not been allowed to go on many, many, many shows that have asked for me,” he said, adding that restrictions had been inconsistent.
On the campaign call, Trump said: “Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.”
The chances of Trump firing Fauci have been an ever-present part of US political life under the pandemic, the doctor’s straight answers to media questions often placing him at odds with a president who equally habitually makes misleading claims or lies outright.
Fauci has also become something of a media darling, beloved of the public, even appearing with his wife in a fashion shoot. Previous advisers to Trump whose profile rose to such heights – the campaign manager, White House strategist and now indicted fraudster Steve Bannon prominent among them – have not lasted long.
Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him
On Monday Trump acknowledged that reporters were listening in to the call. But he seemed unconcerned about his attacks on Fauci being made public.
“If there’s a reporter on, you can have it just the way I said it, I couldn’t care less,” he said.
The president also said Fauci was a “nice guy”, but said he had “been here for 500 years”. Fauci has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, serving six presidents.
More than 8m cases of Covid-19 have been recorded in the US and nearly 220,000 people have died. Case numbers have risen to their highest levels since July, as a majority of states struggle to contain the virus. Fauci has said the US is not experiencing a second wave, because it never managed to contain the first.
As Trump attacked him, the infectious disease expert was accepting an award for “exemplary leadership”. In his remarks accepting the award, Fauci warned the US was “going through a time that’s disturbingly anti-science in certain segments of our society”.
In his CBS interview, Fauci said he had received death threats since the start of the pandemic, and family members had been harassed. Footage accompanying the interview showed the doctor and his wife out power-walking, accompanied by a federal security detail.
“That’s sad,” Fauci said, “that a public health message to save lives triggers such venom and animosity to me that it results in real and credible threats to my life and my safety. But it bothers me less than the hassling of my wife and my children. I mean, gimme a break.”
Two weeks from election day, Trump trails Joe Biden in national and most battleground state polls and also in polls regarding public trust to handle the pandemic. He also trails Fauci: according to a New York Times/Siena College survey taken in June, 67% of American voters say they trust Fauci as a source of information on the pandemic while just 26% say the same of Trump.
On Monday, the president was in Arizona for two scheduled rallies. On the campaign call, he claimed without evidence that the death toll would have been as high as 800,000 if he had followed Fauci’s advice.
“Fauci is a disaster,” he insisted, adding: “People are tired of coronavirus. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”
Last week, the Trump campaign used comments from Fauci in an ad that praised Trump’s pandemic response. The doctor protested, saying the ad “clearly implies strongly that I’m endorsing a political candidate, and I have not given them my permission to do that”.
He added: “The quote that they took is completely out of context.”
News of Trump’s comments on the campaign call came as the Washington Post reported that White House coronavirus taskforce members led by Dr Deborah Birx had sought the firing of Dr Scott Atlas, a Stanford scientist and Fox News contributor who has gained the president’s ear.
Atlas opposes accepted anti-Covid measures. At the weekend, Twitter removed a message from Atlas that said masks did not work to combat the virus. Trump has made similar claims.