The public battle between President Donald Trump’s economic and medical advisers stretched into another day after Peter Navarro, the senior White House trade official, apparently broke protocol by publishing an opinion article trashing Dr. Anthony Fauci late Tuesday.
Fauci, in his most forceful pushback to date against White House attempts to discredit him, warned his fellow administration officials a day later that they were harming the President’s credibility. Speaking to The Atlantic, Fauci called White House attacks on him “bizarre” and said they ultimately damaged Trump.
“I cannot figure out in my wildest dreams why they would want to do that,” he said. “I think they realize now that that was not a prudent thing to do, because it’s only reflecting negatively on them.”
He was speaking as the White House worked to distance itself from Navarro’s opinion piece, which contained viewpoints similar to opinions voiced by Trump himself and distributed by the White House over the weekend.
The White House communications office insisted Navarro did not clear his article through them before it was published in USA Today. Trump himself called the piece a mistake.
But the sentiment Navarro expressed – that Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, had been wrong on multiple occasions during the pandemic – was the same one White House officials espoused over the weekend when they questioned his record to reporters.
Trump on Wednesday brushed off the episode in the Oval Office before taking a more forceful stance as he departed the White House for Atlanta.
“He made a statement representing himself,” Trump said when questioned about the article. “He shouldn’t be doing that. I have a very good relationship with Anthony.”
“We’re all on the same team,” Trump said, “including Dr. Fauci.”
Still, Trump stopped short of refuting or condemning the content of the article or detailing any recriminations for his top trade aide.
The confusing and fraught dynamic between obviously warring factions of the administration seemed to epitomize the culture of infighting that Trump has accepted and, at times, actively cultivated during his tenure in office. That it is occurring in the middle of a global pandemic has only amplified the questions of competency surrounding the administration’s response to the crisis.
Fauci acknowledged the difficult balance that comes with his role in an interview with CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell published Wednesday on InStyle.com.
“It’s pretty tough walking a tightrope while trying to get your message out and people are trying to pit you against the President,” he said.
In his column, Navarro wrote: “Dr. Anthony Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.” He said he only listens to Fauci “with skepticism and caution.”
Contacted by CNN on Wednesday, Fauci declined to respond directly to Navarro, saying he would rather direct his energies toward what matters, such as the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
Asked in his interview with The Atlantic about Navarro, Fauci demurred.
“I can’t explain Peter Navarro,” he said. “He’s in a world by himself.”
Navarro did not respond to a request for comment about the steps he took before submitting his op-ed for publication.
Earlier Wednesday, White House officials said Navarro circumvented their usual protocols for writing and submitting an opinion article.
“The Peter Navarro op-ed didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes and is the opinion of Peter alone. @realDonaldTrump values the expertise of the medical professionals advising his Administration,” White House director of strategic communications Alyssa Farah tweeted.
Other White House officials described Navarro as going “rogue” and skirting what are clear rules for publishing articles.
Yet no officials said whether Navarro would face official recriminations for his actions. A hawkish voice on trade and other matters, Navarro is a favorite of Trump’s and has retained his standing with the President even as he grates on other senior officials.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows was said by aides to be particularly irked by Navarro’s op-ed since he had actively worked to deescalate the growing tensions between West Wing aides – including Navarro – and Fauci earlier in the week. He and Fauci sat for a lengthy meeting in Meadows’ office on Monday designed, in part, to lower the temperature.
A White House official said Meadows “is fully engaged” in responding to Navarro and believes the article was “unacceptable.”
Trump has said publicly he appreciates having advisers with divergent viewpoints, and former officials say he often pits opposing aides against one another. Navarro openly sparred with other members of the team negotiating a trade deal with China and some feared his presence at talks could scuttle the agreement. Yet Trump continued to insist he be involved, appreciating his pugnacious approach.
A source close to the task force said Navarro’s attacks on Fauci date back to a disagreement the two men had earlier this year when the trade adviser accused the infectious diseases expert of being wrong on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial that Trump touted as a potential cure for coronavirus despite a lack of evidence.
During that altercation at a task force meeting, Navarro threw down a stack of articles he claimed proved the drug’s effectiveness against the virus. Fauci stood his ground and told Navarro he was putting too much stock in an unproven treatment.
“What are you talking about?” Fauci said to Navarro at the time.
Navarro’s attitude toward Fauci hasn’t changed since that day, the source said, describing the trade adviser’s op-ed as further evidence of a grudge against the doctor.
Other senior White House officials have piled on. Dan Scavino, one of Trump’s longest-serving aides who now acts as a deputy chief of staff, posted a meme on Facebook depicting Fauci as a faucet drowning the economy with lockdowns and school closures.
“Sorry, Dr. Faucet! At least you know if I’m going to disagree with a colleague, such as yourself, it’s done publicly – and not cowardly, behind journalists with leaks. See you tomorrow!” Scavino wrote.
Other outside allies of the President’s, including conservative economist Stephen Moore, say they are preparing a longer list of examples where Fauci has been wrong.
The White House on Monday insisted it was not compiling opposition research on Fauci, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, despite sending a compilation of times they claimed he was “wrong” to reporters over the weekend.
Trump told reporters he enjoyed a “good” relationship with the doctor but that they sometimes disagreed.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.