Trump targets Fauci instead of COVID-19 as infections and deaths rise
President Trump on Monday reignited his feud with the nation’s top infectious disease expert and said he was tired of hearing about the coronavirus as U.S. deaths from COVID-19 topped 220,000 and hospitalizations rose across the country, raising fears of a deadly third wave of infections as winter approaches.
In a conference call intended to rally his beleaguered campaign staff two weeks before election day, Trump slammed Dr. Anthony Fauci as a “disaster” and insisted that Americans “are tired of listening to Fauci and these idiots” who have urged a more aggressive response to the pandemic.
Trump’s broadside was a reminder of his distrust of science and his refusal to heed either public health warnings or his political advisors, who fear the president may be squandering any opportunity to salvage a reelection campaign that has sunk in the polls because of his handling of the worst disease outbreak in a century.
Begging one audience to “please like me” and slamming another as lazy, Trump is showing his frustration as his campaign struggles in the polls.
Even as he barnstorms around battleground states, Trump’s decision to target Fauci — which continued with a series of tweets mocking the doctor’s “worst first pitch in the history of baseball” at a Washington Nationals game — made little sense politically.
Although Trump’s right-wing supporters view Fauci with suspicion, polls show that Americans trust the scientist on the coronavirus far more than the president, who has sought to downplay the danger for months rather than deal with it.
“I can’t imagine what purpose is served by going after a man trusted by 68% of Americans on the most important issue facing the country,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, stayed off the campaign trail ahead of Thursday’s second and final debate. His campaign praised Fauci, adding that “Trump’s reckless and negligent leadership threatens to put more lives at risk.”
“Trump is his own worst enemy,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “He is basically helping Biden make his case about his response to the pandemic. Dr. Fauci is one of the most popular figures in America, even if Trump’s base doesn’t like him.”
Trump’s ire may have been sparked by Fauci’s interview Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” when the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said he was not surprised that the president had contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized for three nights early this month. Trump’s wife and son Barron also tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I was worried that he was going to get sick when I saw him in a completely precarious situation of crowded, no separation between people, and almost nobody wearing a mask,” Fauci said of the president.
In his call Monday, Trump insisted that Americans are no longer interested in wearing masks, socially distancing or taking other precautions, pointing to his recent campaign rallies as evidence. Mostly held at airports, the rallies tend to be far smaller than those held before the pandemic.
“People are tired of COVID,” said Trump, who was in Las Vegas. He added, “People are saying, ‘Whatever. Just leave us alone.’ They’re tired of it.”
In recent weeks, Trump has embraced fringe theories pushed by Dr. Scott Atlas, an increasingly influential member of his White House team who has no expertise on viruses.
Twitter deleted a tweet from Atlas over the weekend that falsely claimed that wearing masks doesn’t slow the spread of the virus. The social media company has sought to limit misinformation about the pandemic.
Atlas, a radiologist, has pushed for a herd immunity strategy that focuses on protecting only the most vulnerable and allowing others who face less risk of death or serious illness to become infected.
Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said Atlas’ proposed strategy is dangerous because so many Americans have health issues like obesity and diabetes that leave them susceptible to COVID-19.
“You’d be sentencing a lot of people to hospitalization and death,” he said. “They will die unnecessarily.”
Fauci, who has received death threats, travels with a security detail and has largely been sidelined from the White House. He did not publicly respond to the president’s latest denunciation.
Trump slammed Fauci the same day the physician was awarded a second citation from the National Academy of Medicine — the first person ever honored with two — for “outstanding service as a trusted advisor to six presidents” and “firm leadership” in the COVID-19 crisis.
“We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, and I can’t help thinking that we’re really going through a time that’s disturbingly anti-science in certain segments of our society,” Fauci said in a virtual ceremony.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, defended Fauci as “one of our country’s most distinguished public servants.”
“If more Americans paid attention to his advice, we’d have fewer cases of COVID-19, and it would be safer to go back to school and back to work and out to eat,” he said.
Trump’s closing argument in the race has been rhetorical buckshot, and his rally speeches often have focused on score-settling, personal resentments and conspiracy theories.
On Monday he repeated false accusations that Biden is tied to corruption in Ukraine, even though the allegations lack evidence and are rooted in what U.S. intelligence agencies describe as a Russian disinformation plot.
“Joe Biden is a criminal, and he’s been a criminal for a long time,” Trump told reporters traveling with him to a campaign stop in Prescott, Ariz. “And you’re a criminal in the media for not reporting it.”
President Trump’s supporters chant ‘Lock her up!’ about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, just over a week after the FBI said it foiled a plot to kidnap her.
Trump spends long stretches of his rally speeches litigating his grievances against various Democrats, the media, poor water pressure in modern showers, the long-completed special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and even Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated four years ago.
“Trump is running a campaign to appeal to a constituency of one: himself,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in Sacramento. “He has never in the past 3.5 years grown his political base. Now, it is shrinking, and he’s fixated on excuses and scapegoats, as he knows he’s likely to be the one who gets told, ‘You’re fired.’”
Republicans have become increasingly concerned that Trump’s rash behavior will cost the party its Senate majority.
“He tends to swamp the bigger, more important message, because he’s playing to the room,” said one strategist working on a key race.
Trump’s rally speeches, the strategist continued, are “like one shot of the economy and four shots of grievance. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t help down-ballot, because it’s too focused on him.”
Trump’s campaign brushed off the sagging poll numbers in a conference call with reporters Monday.
“We’re as confident as ever in our pathway to victory,” said Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, as he touted plans for a $55-million television advertising buy over the next two weeks.
“I’ve never seen energy like this. I’ve never seen momentum like this,” said Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee.
But the president’s insistence on holding crowded rallies, with many supporters refusing to wear masks, shows his disdain for public health warnings.
More than 36,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, and the daily number of new cases is approaching levels not seen since the second wave of infections over the summer.
Rather than expressing sympathy or offering support, Trump unleashed his frustration by blaming the media for its focus on the pandemic.
“You turn on CNN, that’s all they talk about,” he said in Prescott. “COVID, COVID, pandemic, COVID, COVID, COVID.”
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