WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump retweeted a call to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci after the top U.S. expert on infectious diseases said lives could have been saved if the country had shut down sooner during the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The White House later denied Trump intended to fire Fauci.
Trump retweeted a message on Sunday from a former Republican congressional candidate who criticized Fauci’s comments during a television interview and tweeted “time to #FireFauci.”
The Republican president in the past has repeated critical tweets of officials or enemies rather than make the criticism himself. The retweet fueled speculation Trump was running out of patience with the popular scientist and could fire him.
“This media chatter is ridiculous – President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said. “Dr. Fauci has been and remains a trusted advisor to President Trump.”
Gidley said Trump’s retweet addressed what he considered a false report on his travel restriction involving China, where the novel coronavirus originated.
Fauci has assumed national prominence – and a degree of affection – as a leader in the fight against the coronavirus.
He has contradicted or corrected Trump on scientific matters during the public health crisis, including whether the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is effective against the virus.
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked on CNN about a New York Times report documenting early warnings issued to the White House about the novel coronavirus. The scientist acknowledged shutting the country down sooner could have saved lives, but cautioned that a number of factors were involved.
“Obviously, it would have been nice if we had a better head start, but I don’t think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor,” Fauci said. “It’s very complicated.”
Already a target of the far-right for his contradictions of Trump, Fauci drew more opprobrium after the interview.
Trump also denounced the Times story in tweets on Sunday, calling it “Fake.”
Last week during the daily White House coronavirus briefing, Trump stepped in and prevented Fauci from answering a question about hydroxychloroquine.
“He won’t fire Fauci today,” tweeted Joe Lockhart, press secretary to former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. “That’s not his style. He needs to humiliate him a while first.”
Fauci, 79, has led the federal infectious disease agency since 1984 under Republican and Democratic presidents. Republican George W. Bush honored him with the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.
Some polls during the public health crisis have shown Americans trust him more than Trump.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Steve Holland; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown