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President Trump Questions Dr. Fauci's Expertise, Retweets A Conspiracy Theory

Jul 13, 2020
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As coronavirus cases spike across the Sun Belt, President Trump has been openly critical of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert. And today the president retweeted a conspiracy theory that the CDC and the media are lying about the virus to hurt his re-election chances. So what is the White House strategy to take on the coronavirus? Well, to help us answer that question, we're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So - all right. Over the weekend The Washington Post ran a story where it described a White House official sending them a detailed list of times that Dr. Fauci has been wrong. How is the White House explaining why it did this?

KEITH: So today they are insisting - I had multiple conversations - that this wasn't an opposition research dump or a fire Fauci campaign but was instead, as one official put it to me, an overly thorough response to a question. The question had been about President Trump's recent statements that Fauci has been wrong about a lot of things. So it seems the White House sent a bulleted list of things that Fauci said early in the pandemic that have proven wrong as scientists learned more about the coronavirus. And Fauci himself has readily admitted that things like the initial mask guidance that has since changed may have been unproductive. But White House press secretary was asked about this, Kayleigh McEnany. This is what she said.

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KAYLEIGH MCENANY: We provided a direct response to a direct question, and that's about it. And to the notion that there's opposition research and that there's Fauci versus the president - couldn't be further from the truth. Dr. Fauci and the president have always had a very good working relationship.

KEITH: But it's not clear how much working together they're actually doing at this point. Fauci has said in recent interviews that it has been weeks since he last spoke to the president.

CHANG: That's interesting. Well, what does the president have to say about Fauci at this point?

KEITH: Well, he was asked about it. And he insists that he likes him and that they get along just fine.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I have a very good relationship with Dr. Fauci. I've had for a long time, right from the beginning. I find him to be a very nice person. I don't always agree with him.

KEITH: Yeah, the president has been quite clear about disagreeing with Fauci. At one point, Fauci raised concerns about how sports leagues might return, and Trump essentially tweeted that Fauci needs to stay in his lane. Trump, though, is also aware that Fauci's approval ratings are much higher than his. Polls consistently show a majority of Americans trust what Fauci says about the coronavirus, and the numbers for Trump on that are dismal. There's also frustration at the White House about how these two men are always being cast as adversaries.

CHANG: What do you mean by that?

KEITH: Well, officials I've spoken to say that reporters and interviewers try to pull out conflict when they interview Fauci to create a better storyline. He's complained about it himself and said that he doesn't want to take the bait. But then he says things like, I don't think that you can say we're doing great, which is what he said on a recent FiveThirtyEight podcast. And it sets off a storm for the White House. In this crisis where everything is polarized, Fauci has taken on this larger-than-life persona. I mean, he's on socks. He's on prayer candles. And there's frustration in the White House that he's held up as the be all and end all, and they wish that other scientists who maybe don't answer questions quite so frankly would be held up as well.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.