By LIBBY CATHEY, ABC NEWS
(WASHINGTON) — As President Donald Trump threatens to cut funding to schools that don’t reopen in the fall and continues to host mega-rallies as cases of coronavirus increase, there appears to be a growing rift between the Trump White House and its top health advisers.
The president has taken his criticism of the government’s top expert on infectious diseases and of leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into the public forum in his massive push to reopen the country.
Despite coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx asking Americans in hot spot zones to avoid indoor gatherings and reduce them to 10 people or fewer, Trump on Friday delivered remarks and attended a home fundraiser in Florida as cases there rise — one day after the state saw a record death toll.
The trip came as Trump seeks to downplay the danger in states like Florida, Arizona, Texas and California struggling to control outbreaks — which he calls “embers” — and openly disputes coronavirus task force officials.
In a series of interviews this week, Trump questioned the expertise of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health for more than three decades and a prominent member of the White House coronavirus task force, who continually polls higher in favorability than the president.
“Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity Thursday night, insisting Fauci was against his travel ban on China and wrong on face masks.
“A lot of them said don’t wear a mask, don’t wear a mask,” added Trump, who has yet to don one himself in public. “Now they are saying wear a mask. A lot of mistakes were made, a lot of mistakes.”
Trump used the same criticisms in an interview Tuesday, when directly asked about Fauci’s assessment one day earlier that the country is “knee deep in the first wave” of the virus.
“Well, I think we are in a good place,” Trump told “Full Court Press” with Greta Van Susteren in response. “I disagree with him.”
Notably, when Fauci testified before House lawmakers in March as the pandemic took off, he said he supported Trump’s travel bans on China and Europe, calling the case for them “pretty compelling.” The decision to advise against wearing masks, until an official CDC recommendation in April, was due largely to a nationwide shortage, officials said.
Fauci is not the only expert under fire from Trump.
Throughout the week, Trump has also criticized guidelines from the CDC on reopening schools — calling them “very tough & expensive” — and has characterized the decision to reopen schools as a political one, even as coronavirus cases surge across the country.
“It is politics,” Trump said, at an event unrelated to the pandemic in the Rose Garden Thursday. “They don’t want to open because they think it will help them on November 3rd. I think it’s going to hurt them November 3rd.”
After Vice President Mike Pence, backing the president, said the guidelines on reopening schools would be changed, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield wouldn’t say if that was a direct result of the president’s demand but instead stressed that the guidelines are “intentionally non-prescriptive.”
While Birx and Redfield are more controlled in their press appearances, careful not to clash with Trump’s positive outlook, Fauci this week characterized the entire country as “living in the perfect storm.”
In an interview with the Financial Times out Friday, the infectious disease expert revealed the last time he saw the president in person at the White House was on June 2 and that he has not briefed him for at least two months.
“I have a reputation, as you probably have figured out, of speaking the truth at all times and not sugar-coating things,” Fauci said. “And that may be one of the reasons why I haven’t been on television very much lately.”
Back in March, Trump praised the doctor as a “major television star for all the right reasons” — a key metric for Trump — but as the pandemic worsened it appears their relationship did, too.
Trump, the ever-optimist, and Fauci, who calls himself “cautiously optimistic” soon diverged on their messaging — whether on the promise of potential treatments such as hydroxychloroquine or the speed at which Americans should return to normal life.
In April, after Fauci told CNN the administration “could have saved lives” had firm social distancing guidelines been enforced earlier and added that there was “pushback about shutting things down,” Trump retweeted a former Republican congressional candidate’s attack on Fauci, including the hashtag of #FireFauci, sparking concern over his future on the task force.
And in May, after Fauci urged caution when it comes to reopening schools, Trump told reporters, “He wants to play all sides of the equation.”
Both parties seem to agree that politics are at play.
Fauci on Thursday, asked by FiveThirtyEight’s Anna Rothschild if the country’s hyper-partisan environment has made it more difficult to suppress the virus, said, “I think you’d have to admit that that’s the case.”
“You have to be having blindfolders on and covering your ears to think that we don’t live in a very divisive society now, from a political standpoint,” Fauci said. “You’d have to make the assumption that if there wasn’t such divisiveness, that we would have a more coordinated approach.”
While Fauci has done several podcast, print and social media interviews in the last month, his presence on TV and as a leading face at the once-daily task force briefings has diminished — though coronavirus cases have resurged prompting several state and local officials to halt or reverse their reopening efforts.
At an afternoon White House briefing Wednesday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wouldn’t say when directly asked whether Trump still has confidence in the government’s top expert on infectious diseases.
“The president has confidence — confidence in the conclusions of our medical experts, but it’s up to him to determine what to do with that information and to take what we hear from Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx and others and take what he values in their opinion and come to the ultimate consensus that’s best for this country,” she said.
Fauci, notably absent from Wednesday’s task force briefing, was reportedly asked to go to the White House at the same time it was being held at the Department of Eduction, which meant he could not answer questions from reporters on schools reopening.
“Look, that’s a decision for the task force as to who appears at the briefing, but you’ve heard from a lot of our doctors today,” McEnany said to justify his absence.
She noted that Fauci has appeared on six TV programs since June 1, he spoke during a task force briefing on June 26 and participated in Pence’s briefing on June 29.
But while the Trump White House this week said the world is looking to the U.S. as the leader in the ongoing pandemic, Fauci has asserted the opposite.
“As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great,” Fauci said. “I mean, we’re just not.”
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.