President Donald Trump’s top trade adviser came under fire Wednesday for assailing Dr. Anthony Fauci in a new op-ed, with even the White House distancing itself from the diatribe after waging its own smear campaign against the nation’s top infectious disease expert over the weekend.
Alyssa Farah, White House director of strategic communications, insisted in a tweet Wednesday morning that the West Wing’s press shop had not approved the explosive column by Peter Navarro, director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, that appeared Tuesday evening on USA Today’s website.
“The Peter Navarro op-ed didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes and is the opinion of Peter alone,” Farah wrote online. “@realDonaldTrump values the expertise of the medical professionals advising his Administration.”
Navarro’s op-ed, titled “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on,” represented his most brazen effort yet to dress down the widely respected immunologist and veteran director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci and Navarro engaged in another high-profile clash in April over the efficacy of the controversial antimalarial medication hydroxychloroquine as a potential coronavirus treatment. Navarro had promoted the drug despite Fauci’s concerns regarding its safety, dragging their disagreement onto cable news.
Prior to the publication of his op-ed Wednesday, Navarro issued nearly identical criticism of Fauci to The Washington Post in a story Saturday that documented the White House’s own covert bid to discredit the doctor — with officials dispensing to several media outlets a list of statements he made in the outbreak’s earlier stages that could appear damaging in retrospect.
The feud between Navarro and the White House comes after a week of war by the president against his administration’s public health experts. Last Wednesday, Trump disavowed the CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools as “very tough & expensive,” and he retweeted a message Monday claiming the agency and the federal government’s doctors are “lying.”
Trump told CBS News on Tuesday he was only “making a comment” by sharing the tweet, and said “a lot of people feel” the sentiment it articulated. “I’m just putting somebody’s voice out there. There are many voices. There are many people that think we shouldn’t do this kind of testing because … it’s a trap,” he said.
The president, apparently frustrated with Fauci’s dire warnings about the coronavirus’ resurgent threat, has also consistently conveyed his disagreement with him on matters related to the outbreak, declaring on Fox News last Thursday that the NIAID director had “made a lot of mistakes.”
But Trump rebuked Navarro’s op-ed, telling reporters at the White House that the piece was “statement representing himself. He shouldn’t be doing that.”
Vice President Mike Pence appeared to implicitly offer some support for Fauci as well, tweeting out a picture Pence listening intently to Fauci during Wednesday’s “productive” coronavirus task force meeting.
Pence later offered a more full-throated endorsement of Fauci on a call with reporters.
“Dr. Tony Fauci is a valued member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force,” he said. “We just completed our latest meeting today, and we couldn’t be more grateful for his steady counsel as we continue to meet this moment with a whole of government approach, a whole of America approach.”
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Wednesday that the op-ed was a “violation of well-established protocols that was not supported overtly or covertly by anybody in the West Wing.”
When asked whether the op-ed was a fireable offense, Meadows said he wouldn’t comment on personnel matters, according to a press pool report.
On Wednesday, Fauci broke his silence on the White House’s various attacks, deeming them to be “bizarre” in an interview with The Atlantic. He also revealed that he met Monday with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to discuss the circulation of his past statements among members of the media.
“I said that that was not particularly a good thing to do. Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that,” Fauci said, adding that the White House document “is totally wrong. It’s nonsense. It’s completely wrong. The whole thing is wrong. The whole thing is incorrect.”
As for Navarro’s op-ed, Fauci remarked: “I can’t explain Peter Navarro. He’s in a world by himself. So I don’t even want to go there.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany maintained Monday that “there is no opposition research being dumped” about Fauci.
Still, major medical organizations, federal health officials and senior congressional Republicans have expressed unease with the president’s recent broadsides.
Thomas File, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said Tuesday that if the United States has “any hope of ending this crisis, all of America must support public health experts, including Dr. Fauci, and stand with science.”
Leaders of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the HIV Medicine Association and the Journal of the American Medical Association all produced similar statements in support of Fauci.
The Lincoln Project, a PAC founded by Republicans opposed to Trump’s reelection, published an ad Wednesday defending Fauci as a competent and experienced foil to Trump and his administration. The ad praised Fauci as a “natural leader” and emphasized his lengthy experience serving the White House going back to President Ronald Reagan.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the administration’s coronavirus testing czar, defended the integrity of the White House task force dedicated to combating the outbreak, acknowledging Tuesday that while “we may occasionally make mistakes” because of incomplete information, “none of us lie.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday that he had “all the respect in the world for Dr. Fauci,” and concluded that “any effort to undermine him is not going to be productive, quite frankly.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed those opinions Wednesday when asked about his degree of faith in the doctor. “Total,” he said.
Caitlin Oprysko and Matthew Choi contributed to this report.