Donald Trump has threatened to fire Anthony Fauci after Tuesday’s election, as his rift with the nation’s top infectious disease expert widens while the nation sees its most alarming outbreak of the coronavirus since the spring.
Speaking at a campaign rally in Opa-locka, Florida, the president expressed frustration that surging cases of the virus that has killed more than 231,000 people in the US this year remains prominent in the news. That sparked his supporters to begin chanting “Fire Fauci”.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden tweeted later in response: “We need a president who actually listens to experts like Dr. Fauci.”
Mr Biden has sought to keep the campaign focused on what he says is a disastrous federal response to the pandemic. Mr Trump is countering by using the race’s final hours to accuse his opponent of wanting to force the country back into a lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.
Mr Trump’s comments on Dr Fauci less than 48 hours before polls close will ensure the pandemic remains front and centre heading into election day.
It is the most direct the president has been in suggesting he was serious about trying to remove Dr Fauci from his position. He has previously said he was concerned about the political blowback of removing the popular and respected doctor before the election.
He cannot directly fire Dr Fauci, who is not a presidential appointee. Theoretically, Mr Trump could pressure Dr Fauci’s boss, Francis Collins, or health and human srvices secretary Alex Azar to do so.
Even discounting Dr Fauci’s scientific legacy, taking that step would be politically extraordinary considering a Republican president, George W Bush, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dr Fauci also has considerable bipartisan support in Congress.
Former president Barack Obama defended Dr Fauci while campaigning in Atlanta for Mr Biden. Mr Obama praised the scientist’s public service and remarked that Mr Trump’s “second-term plan is to fire that guy, the one person who could actually help them contain the pandemic”.
The latest flare-up follows Dr Fauci making his sharpest criticism yet of the White House’s response to the coronavirus and Mr Trump’s public claim that the nation is “rounding the turn”.
Dr Fauci has grown outspoken that the president has ignored his advice for containing the virus, saying he has not spoken with Mr Trump in more than a month. He has raised alarm that the nation is heading for a challenging winter if more is not done soon to slow the spread of the disease.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in September showed 68% of Americans had a great deal or a fair amount of trust in Dr Fauci to provide reliable information on coronavirus. That compares with 52% of Americans who trusted Mr Biden 40% for Mr Trump.