Americas

US coronavirus expert Fauci returns to White House briefings after contradicting Trump

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – Dr Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert who is the most credible United States spokesman on the coronavirus outbreak, returned to the White House podium on Tuesday (March 24) following a two-day absence after contradicting US President Donald Trump.

Dr Fauci said it is important to obtain more data about the virus through testing to determine the next steps in the federal government’s response efforts.

“We have to act, policy-wise, on data,” he said.

Mr Trump said he would be “looking again at very large portions of our country” before deciding whether to loosen anti-virus guidelines, and said he would be “guided very much by Dr Fauci” and another doctor who advises Mr Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence, State Department official Deborah Birx.

Dr Fauci’s brief disappearance from public view came after he participated in a White House news conference last Friday, where TV cameras caught him putting his face in his hands after Mr Trump disparaged the State Department as the “deep State Department”.

After he attended a Saturday news conference, Dr Fauci gave an interview to Science magazine published on Sunday in which he agreed that Mr Trump makes false statements about the outbreak and said his response is to “try and get it corrected for the next time”.

Dr Fauci didn’t appear at White House news conferences on Sunday or Monday or at a “virtual town hall” that Fox News broadcast from the White House on Tuesday. Ms Birx fielded technical questions about the outbreak at the events Monday and Tuesday.

Dr Fauci was also expected to make an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News programme on Monday night, but he did not go on air.

But, in an interview Tuesday with WMAL, Dr Fauci disputed the idea that he’s had a falling out with Mr Trump.

“The President has listened to what I have said and what the other people on the task force have said,” he said. “When I’ve made recommendations, he has taken them. He has never countered or overridden me. The idea of just pitting one against the other is not helpful. I wish that would stop and we’d look ahead at the challenge we have to pull together to get over this thing.”

Reassuring voice

Since the beginning of the outbreak, Dr Fauci has been praised as a reassuring voice for Americans who have seen their lives upended by “social distancing” measures intended to stop the virus’s spread. His recent absence has generated speculation Mr Trump had sidelined the outspoken doctor.

The President on Tuesday re-tweeted a photo of Dr Fauci covering his face at last Friday’s news conference. The tweet was later deleted.

The New York Times reported on Monday that Mr Trump and some of his advisers have grown impatient with Dr Fauci, who has notably disagreed with Mr Trump’s promotion of a malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a treatment for coronavirus. The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved the drug to treat the virus and Dr Fauci has said there is only “anecdotal” evidence it might be effective.

Dr Fauci is also among a group of top government health experts who have argued that in the absence of both effective treatments for the virus and widespread testing for infection, only lengthy, economically painful restrictions on daily life can slow the outbreak. Mr Trump has shown impatience with those measures in recent days, saying Tuesday he wants the US economy re-opened by Easter.

Speaking on Tuesday evening, Dr Fauci said the date for returning people to work was “really very flexible”. “We just had a conversation with the President in the Oval Office, talking about, you know, you can look at a date but you’ve got to be very flexible,” he said. “And on a literally day-by-day and week-by-week basis, you need to evaluate the feasibility of what you’re trying to do.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday that she would be concerned if Dr Fauci’s advice was being ignored.

“Dr Fauci is a truth-teller,” Ms Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said on MSNBC.

Mr Trump on Tuesday downplayed the notion that Dr Fauci’s absence signals he is angry with the doctor, saying at a Fox News town hall that Dr Fauci “has other things to do”. Mr Trump was accompanied at the Rose Garden event by Mr Pence, Ms Birx and Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

“We get along very well,” Mr Trump said when asked about his relationship with Dr Fauci, whom he called “extraordinary”.

“I think it is very good, you would have heard about it if it wasn’t.”

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