Trump ramps up Fauci attacks on eve of election dominated by COVID-19
President Trump is ramping up his attacks on Anthony Fauci in the closing hours of the 2020 campaign, increasing tensions with the nation’s top infectious disease doctor as the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the country.
During a rally that lasted well past midnight into Monday morning, Trump suggested he might fire Fauci after Tuesday’s election.
The remark came after his supporters in Opa-Locka, Fla., broke out into loud chants of “fire Fauci.”
“Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election,” Trump responded to the crowd. “He’s a nice man, but he’s been wrong on a lot.”
More than 230,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, and cases are rising to historic levels in numerous states. Yet Trump’s message for months has been that his administration has everything under control, and that the U.S. is “turning the corner.”
Surveys consistently show that Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and his comments about Fauci less than 48 hours before Election Day are sure to keep the issue front and center as voters head to the polls.
Trump’s relationship with Fauci throughout the pandemic has been complicated, and his patience may be wearing thin with the high-profile health expert who’s a member of the White House coronavirus task force.
The president’s remarks came after The Washington Post published an interview in which Fauci seemed to show a preference for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s approach toward the pandemic.
Biden “is taking it seriously from a public health perspective,” while President Trump is “looking at it from a different perspective” by focusing on “the economy and reopening the country,” Fauci said.
Fauci has become more outspoken in recent months, especially since it’s become clear that Trump is not listening to his advice.
He said recently Trump has not been to a White House coronavirus task force meeting in months, and listens more to Scott Atlas than any public health expert.
Atlas has emerged as Trump’s most influential science adviser despite little to no background in public health or infectious diseases. As an adviser, he has come under fire from public health experts both inside and outside the administration who accuse him of feeding the president — and the public — misinformation, particularly concerning herd immunity.
Trump has expressed annoyance at Fauci before, but has shown a reluctance to dismiss him, recognizing how trusted Fauci is with the public.
“Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb. But there is a bigger bomb if you fire him,” Trump said on a recent call with campaign staffers.
Experts said Trump does not have the legal authority to fire Fauci outright, since Fauci is a civil service employee and not a political appointee.
Any attempt to get rid of Fauci would be a drawn-out legal and political battle.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said Trump could order Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, to fire Fauci.
But Gostin said Collins would likely refuse, and Trump would then have no recourse except to fire Collins and appoint a hand-picked “yes man,” who would then try to finish Fauci off.
Senior civil service employees can only be fired for cause, Gostin noted.
While the definition of “cause” is broad, Gostin said disagreeing with Trump and changing public health advice to match evolving science would not come close.
“There is no cause now, it’s just purely political,” Gostin said. “I think it would be unlawful and a political nightmare.”
One avenue available to Trump would be reassigning Fauci, removing him from his position as director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The Trump administration allegedly took a similar approach with Rick Bright, the whistleblower who was formerly director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
Both Collins and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar would have to sign off on such a move against Fauci.
But a controversial executive order issued late last month could strip Fauci of his civil service protections, and give Trump the ability to fire him without cause.
The executive order gives agencies broad discretion to re-classify policy-related career employees. Those employees could then be removed for performance reasons without the opportunity to contest the decision or rely on union representation.
Tim Stretton, a policy analyst at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said the order is deliberately vague enough that it could apply to Fauci.
Still, it would also require either Collins or Azar to make that determination after the election.
Fauci has drawn widespread public praise for his advice and recommendations regarding the coronavirus pandemic, and any attempt to oust him after the election would almost certainly prompt swift backlash.
Even now, Trump’s comments are adding fuel to Biden’s closing message that Trump has given up on fighting the pandemic.
“Last night Trump said he was going to fire Dr. Fauci. Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve got a better idea. Elect me and I’m going to hire Dr. Fauci. And we’re going to fire Donald Trump!” Biden said Monday during a rally in Cleveland.
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