Navarro-Fauci battle intensifies, to detriment of Trump
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro’s battle with Anthony Fauci intensified on Wednesday, putting the White House in a difficult position as it struggles to downplay evidence of a rift between President Trump and one of the nation’s most trusted health experts.
In an extraordinary move, Navarro wrote an op-ed in USA Today, the country’s largest newspaper, cataloging his disagreements with Fauci and questioning his credibility, saying the top U.S. infectious disease official’s advice should be taken with “skepticism and caution.”
The Trump White House has since its infancy been characterized by infighting, and Trump has welcomed disagreements among his aides. But Navarro’s effort to take his fight against Fauci public is unusual.
The White House communications team on Wednesday sought to distance itself from the op-ed, saying that the piece did not go through normal clearance processes and represents the opinion of Navarro alone.
Trump told reporters Wednesday that he has a “very good relationship” with Fauci and said Navarro shouldn’t be making statements “representing himself,” referring to the op-ed.
“We’re all on the same team, including Dr. Fauci,” Trump told reporters before departing for a trip to Atlanta.
“[Navarro] made a statement representing himself. He shouldn’t be doing that. I have a very good relationship with Anthony,” he later added when asked if Navarro had “gone rogue.”
It is strikingly unusual for a White House adviser to publish an op-ed that would not first be reviewed by others within the White House, including on the communications team.
Those skeptical of the White House claims had only to look at a recent Facebook post from deputy chief of staff and social media director Dan Scavino, who posted a cartoon mocking Fauci late Sunday.
A White House official also sent media outlets over the weekend a lengthy list of “mistakes” Fauci has made since the pandemic began, prompting health experts and lawmakers to leap to Fauci’s defense.
Officials familiar with Navarro’s standing in the White House did not expect Navarro to be fired but said he may be temporarily reined in from doing so many media appearances. They noted he has in the past gone beyond administration talking points, requiring other aides to do clean up.
Polls have shown Fauci, who has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for more than three decades, to be among the most trusted voices on the coronavirus among the American public.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Wednesday he had “total” confidence in Fauci.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch Trump ally, said Tuesday “any effort to undermine [Fauci] is not going to be productive, quite frankly.”
Navarro has been particularly angered by Fauci’s opinions on the use of an anti-malaria drug to treat coronavirus patients and has publicly criticized Fauci before. Navarro said in an April interview on CNN that there needed to be a “second opinion” on the drug, hydroxychloroquine, after Fauci said the evidence of its efficacy was limited at best. Navarro said he was qualified to weigh in on the issue because he is a “social scientist” and has experience reading statistical studies.
The op-ed also criticized Fauci’s past comments in the early days of the outbreak in which he dismissed the need to wear masks or for Americans to alter their daily lives. Fauci’s guidance on masks and for how Americans should behave in public has shifted as he and other experts learned more about the virus and the level of asymptomatic transmission.
Fauci in an interview with The Atlantic published Wednesday said he couldn’t “explain” Navarro and said the list of his alleged mistakes circulated by the White House would only reflect negatively on them and harm Trump.
“I can’t explain Peter Navarro. He’s in a world by himself. So I don’t even want to go there,” Fauci said.
Navarro, who leads the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, has solidified a reputation for being among the most brash and outspoken advisers in the White House, with his public remarks at times sparking pushback from others in the administration.
Trump in March tapped Navarro as policy coordinator for the Defense Production Act to oversee certain manufacturing efforts amid the coronavirus outbreak. He is viewed by some in the administration as an opportunist who has seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to further his views on China.
One former White House official was deeply critical of Navarro’s decision to speak out against Fauci in the op-ed, describing him as having “no respect for the chain of command” and as “one of the worst leakers in the administration.” The person also said Navarro believes “he is always the smartest person in the room even on issues far removed from his expertise such as medicine and infectious disease.”
“This is the sort of thing that would get you fired in any other White House. And the White House and people in the president’s orbit should be training their fire on one thing and one thing only: Joe Biden. It’s asinine,” the former official said.
Despite his lack of medical expertise, Navarro has made regular television appearances to speak about the pandemic in recent weeks and has been unafraid to criticize public health officials.
Navarro in May said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had “let the country down” with its early struggles developing and distributing a COVID-19 test. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called the comments “inaccurate and inappropriate.”
Navarro set off a scramble in the White House last month when he said the phase one trade deal with China was “over” as he criticized Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus. Trump issued a tweet a short time later clarifying the agreement remained intact.
The Trump White House has been notorious for internal fighting and its leaks that target one faction or another. Former national security adviser John Bolton’s book was stocked with examples of administration officials bad-mouthing one another behind their backs, and former communications staffer Cliff Sims described Trump’s staff as a “team of vipers” frequently at odds.
Former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who left the White House in the summer of 2017, was criticized by the president and other conservatives over his disparaging comments about Donald Trump Jr. to author Michael Wolff for the book “Fire and Fury.”
But Navarro’s broadside against Fauci contributes to a narrative that the White House is seeking to undermine one of its own top public health officials at a time when numerous states are seeing coronavirus infections climb.
“We’re just at this point where this is a distraction that’s unneeded,” said a former administration official who felt the critical views of Fauci were not widely shared in government. “It’s not helpful, but it’s right out of the typical White House playbook.”
While Trump has claimed he has a good relationship with the top health official, he has broken with Fauci on various occasions, including last week when he said he disagreed with Fauci’s assessment that the United States is “knee deep in the first wave” of the novel coronavirus. Trump has regularly downplayed the recent spikes, attributing them to an increase in testing capabilities, while pushing for schools to reopen in the fall.
Meanwhile, states across the country are experiencing significant surges in cases, with Florida, California and Arizona setting records in recent days for daily infections.
Trump’s comments about the virus at a Tuesday press conference were largely in line with the views Navarro has espoused, blaming China for the outbreak.
“Make no mistake: We hold China fully responsible for concealing the virus and unleashing it upon the world,” Trump said.
This article was updated and clarified at 4:35 p.m.