Fauci's GOP critics pressuring Trump to keep him from advising on reopening economy

Despite retweeting a #FireFauci hashtag, Trump said he's not firing him.

April 13, 2020, 7:59 PM

The White House on Monday pushed back at new speculation that key coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci's fate was at risk, trying to tamp down questions raised by President Donald Trump himself, when he retweeted a tweet that included the hashtag “#FireFauci.”

The latest controversy comes amid growing pressure from conservatives and other Trump supporters that Fauci has overplayed the crisis and should not play a key role in advising Trump on reopening the U.S. economy --- even as a Quinnipiac poll last week showed 78% of Americans approved of Fauci's work on the pandemic, while 46 percent approved of Trump's.

"This media chatter is ridiculous -- President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci," White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. "The President’s tweet clearly exposed media attempts to maliciously push a falsehood about his China decision in an attempt to rewrite history.

"It was Democrats and the media who ignored Coronavirus choosing to focus on impeachment instead, and when they finally did comment on the virus it was to attack President Trump for taking the bold decisive action to save American lives by cutting off travel from China and from Europe. Dr. Fauci has been and remains a trusted advisor to President Trump," Gidley said.

Trump's tweet followed statements Fauci made in an interview Sunday, when he said that the Trump administration "could have saved lives" had firm social distancing guidelines been enforced earlier, but there was "pushback about shutting things down."

"We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it's not," Fauci told CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, calling it a complicated decision. "It is what it is. We are where we are right now."

At the White House briefing on Monday evening, Fauci took the podium immediately after the briefing began and expounded on his comments from Sunday.

"I was asked a hypothetical question, and hypothetical questions sometimes can get you into some difficulty because it’s 'would have or could have,'" Fauci said. "The nature of the hypothetical question was if, in fact, we had mitigated earlier, could lives have been saved? And the answer to my question was, as I always do, and I am doing right now, perfectly honestly saying, yes. I mean, obviously."

But, Fauci sought to clarify, each time he has made recommendations to Trump -- first to implement strong mitigation guidelines and then to extend them another 15 days -- the president has followed the suggestions.

“The first and only time that I went in and said we should do mitigation strongly the response was yes we’ll do it," Fauci said.

Asked if he was issuing the clarification voluntarily, Fauci pushed back on the implication that his clarification had been requested by the president.

“Everything I do is voluntarily. Don't even imply that,” he said.

Trump then retweeted a former Republican congressional candidate's attack on Fauci, including the hashtag "#FireFauci," amid a flurry of tweets Sunday night, sparking questions around Fauci's fate on the task force as the president continues to reject any criticism of his response to the pandemic that has now killed more than 22,000 Americans.

The tweet, originally sent by DeAnna Lorraine, who challenged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2020 and garnered less than 2% of the votes, claimed that Fauci told the American people on Feb. 29 that “there was nothing to worry about and it posed no threat to the US public at large.” However, that is a mischaracterization of what the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in the White House coronavirus task force briefing.

While Fauci did say that the risk to the American people remained low at that point in time, he emphasized that this is an “evolving situation” and that the country should “prepare for further challenges.”

“With regard to the particular area that’s involved now in Washington, the country as a whole — because we get asked that all the time — still remains at low risk,” Fauci said. “But when we say that, we want to underscore that this is an evolving situation.”

He added, “we need to prepare for further challenges. And we will have them.”

Republicans backing Trump have also begun to publicly criticize Fauci, urging the president to focus on the economy instead of listening to the public health experts, Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, both doctors with decades of research working for the government to combat infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS.

Over the weekend, Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs and Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, both Republicans, blasted Fauci for describing the economic impacts of coronavirus as "inconveniences." Both are members of the House Freedom Caucus -- the conservative group founded by current White House chief of staff Mark Meadows while he was in Congress. Biggs replaced Meadows as the group's chair last year.

"Fauci and his team of experts deserve some credit for mitigating the spread of this virus. But they should no longer be the primary voices at the table. Fauci and Birx have indicated pretty strongly that they do not consider the greater needs of the country," the Republican legislators argued.

Fauci's original comment was from late March, when he implored Americans to have hope and get through the crisis in an interview on CNN.

“We do believe it’s working. It’s hard. It’s not an easy thing to do,” Fauci said of the social distancing guidelines implemented by the White House. “There’s suffering and there’s death and there’s massive inconvenience economically and otherwise. But we’re really a strong nation. We’ve been through some amazing things in our history.”

It's not the first time the science guiding Fauci has led him to directly and publicly counter with the president — a leader who has fired or forced out dozens of administration officials who have contradicted him or seemed to steal his spotlight. But Trump has repeatedly publicly denied that there is any tension between the two men, as he did on Monday.

Asked on Monday why Trump had then retweeted someone who used a #FireFauci hashtag, he said, “I retweet somebody. I don’t know. Someone said they thought I was going to fire him. I am not going to fire him."

“If I put somebody's opinion up, you know, I do not mind controversy. I think controversy is a good thing, not a bad thing. But I want it to be honest controversy,” he said.

In insisting he doesn’t have any plans to fire the nation’s top infectious disease expert – despite his retweet of a tweet that called for just that -- Trump said they are on the same page and that he likes Fauci.

But the president qualified that his professed admiration for Fauci is not shared by all.

“Not everybody is happy with Anthony, not everybody is happy with everybody. I will tell you we have done a job the likes of which nobody has done. The mobilization, getting of equipment. Nobody has ever done a job like this,” Trump said.

ABC News' Allison Pecorin, Elizabeth Thomas, Jordyn Phelps, Benjamin Siegel and Libby Cathey contributed to this report.

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