As coronavirus cases surge in almost every state, President Donald Trump hinted that he might fire Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert whose science-based response to the pandemic has made him a target of the president and his allies.
At a rally that stretched past midnight into Monday in Opa-locka, Florida, the crowd began to chant "Fire Fauci! Fire Fauci!"
Trump stopped speaking, allowing the chants to grow louder, for a few moments before continuing.
"Don't tell anybody, but let me wait till a little bit after the election," Trump replied, prompting raucous cheers from those in the crowd, many of whom were not wearing masks.
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"I appreciate the advice," Trump continued. "He's been wrong a lot. He's a nice man though. He's been wrong on a lot."
While firing Fauci would typically involve a lengthy bureaucratic process due to his status as a federal employee not appointed by the president, an executive order Trump signed this month may make it significantly easier.
For most of the pandemic, Trump and his allies have repeatedly tried to smear and discredit Fauci, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
On an October campaign call, Trump called Fauci "a disaster" and suggested he might fire him if it didn't get him negative publicity. At another rally, Trump claimed Fauci was "a Democrat," despite the fact that the health official has worked for presidents of both parties and does not voice his political views.
The attacks have been petty, personal, and often wholly divorced from policy. On Twitter last month, Trump complained that Fauci gets "more airtime than anybody" on television. "Also, bad arm!" Trump wrote, mocking Fauci's pitch at the opening of the baseball season.
In a Washington Post interview on Saturday, Fauci pushed back against the president's repeated downplaying of the pandemic and claims that it will soon end. He also predicted deaths would rise again in the coming weeks.
“We’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation,” Fauci said. “All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”
Fauci also criticized Trump's preferred COVID-19 adviser Scott Atlas, who has pushed for a herd immunity plan that would kill even more people than have already died from the virus.
“I have real problems with that guy,” Fauci said about Atlas. “He’s a smart guy who’s talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in. He keeps talking about things that when you dissect it out and parse it out, it doesn’t make any sense.”
A spokesperson for the White House rebuked Fauci following the interview, saying, “It’s unacceptable and breaking with all norms for Dr. Fauci, a senior member of the President’s Coronavirus Taskforce and someone who has praised President Trump’s actions throughout this pandemic, to choose three days before an election to play politics.”
In July, more than 1,000 health officials spoke in defense of Fauci after Peter Navarro, an assistant to the president and a director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, wrote an op-ed in USA Today criticizing him.
"The people speaking out against Tony Fauci have absolutely no medical credibility, no public health credibility, and frankly, no policy credibility when it comes to any kind of disaster or situation involving human health,” Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told BuzzFeed News.
As of Monday, more than 230,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, including 28 in Florida alone on the day leading up to Trump's rally. Across the country, rates of the virus are spiking and hospitalizations are rising, straining some rural hospitals already near full capacity.
Trump's attacks on Fauci come just days after, at another rally, he spread the baseless conspiracy theory that doctors are inflating COVID-19 death rates in order to gain profit.