It appears President Donald Trump has met his match in Dr. Anthony Fauci.
He has long thrived on a rivalry-based, no-holds-barred approach to politics. But as the White House now attempts to walk back from the very attacks they perpetrated against Fauci, it stands as a tacit acknowledgement that they overplayed their hand in going after a highly-respected scientist polls show Americans trust far more than the president.
President Trump and Fauci spoke by phone Wednesday, a White House official confirmed, in what was the latest sign that the White House is looking to move beyond the narrative pitting the president against the nation's top infectious disease expert. It would appear to be the first time the two men have spoken in many weeks. Fauci said recently that it had been more than two months since he'd briefed the president.
An administration official told ABC: "The President characterized the call as very good and friendly as the President and Dr. Fauci are working toward the same goal."
Months into a battle against the novel coronavirus, Trump has struggled to find his political footing in externalizing blame for the global pandemic, which he often refers to as “the invisible enemy.”
Though the president consistently lays the blame at China’s feet, and has angrily vented that -- in his view -- the country could have prevented the virus from spreading, frustrations have also bubbled for months against the outspoken Fauci.
Fauci, the nation's foremost infectious disease expert and a member of Trump's coronavirus task force, has demonstrated he’s unafraid to break from the White House’s official narrative, offering blunt and non-sugarcoated assessments about the state of play against the virus that regularly contradict the White House’s rosier messages.
But even though Fauci has a tendency to challenge the administration’s narrative, he told “InStyle” this week that it was "very stressful" and that he didn't like "the conflict."
"I’m an apolitical person," Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. "I don’t like to be pitted against the president. It’s pretty tough walking a tightrope while trying to get your message out and people are trying to pit you against the president."
Trump himself has sought to drive a wedge between himself and Fauci. After the doctor said last week the state of the pandemic in the United States was "really not good," Trump said in an interview with Gray Television that “I disagree with him" and, in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, dismissed Fauci’s latest warnings by saying the doctor had “made a lot of mistakes.”
The comment boiled over this weekend into a concerted effort to discredit Fauci, with a White House official sharing with several media outlets -- on condition of anonymity -- a misleading list of comments Fauci had made.
Meanwhile, a longtime adviser to the president, White House deputy chief of staff for communications Dan Scavino, on Sunday made no effort to hide his disdain for Fauci, posting a cartoon on Facebook depicting the scientist as a running faucet washing the U.S. economy down the drain.
Another top Trump aide, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, authored a remarkable op-ed published Tuesday by USA TODAY attacking Fauci as "wrong about everything I have interacted with him on." It contained a series of out-of-context, misleading statements.
But backlash to the smear campaign mounted, with a plethora of top public health experts, former officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle voicing support for Fauci, Trump on Wednesday signaled he was backing down.
"I have a very good relationship with Dr. Fauci," Trump told reporters in response to an unrelated question about COVID-19. "And we’re all on the same team."
Trump also distanced himself from Navarro's op-ed, although he did not disavow its contents.
"He made a statement representing himself," Trump said. "He shouldn’t be doing that."
Earlier in the day, the White House had said Navarro's piece "didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes" and was "the opinion of Peter alone." In a conversation with reporters on Air Force One Wednesday afternoon, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said it "was an independent action" and "a violation of well established protocols that was not supported overtly or covertly by anyone in the West Wing.”
The about-face, from Trump's picking a fight with Fauci to the White House embracing him, however tepidly, reflected Trump's losing battle with science. For months, the president has ignored warnings from public health experts as he pushes for an economic recovery -- key, he believes, to his re-election in November.
Fauci said in an interview with The Atlantic that he met with Meadows on Monday and told Meadows he thought the White House's attempt to undermine him "was not particularly a good thing to do."
"Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that," Fauci said. "When the staff lets out something like that and the entire scientific and press community push back on it, it ultimately hurts the president. And I don’t really want to hurt the president. But that’s what’s happening. I told him I thought it was a big mistake. That doesn’t serve any good purpose for what we’re trying to do."
Fauci said Meadows did not apologize to him.
Fauci told the Financial Times last week he had not briefed the president in over two months and had last seen him in person over a month earlier.
While Fauci this week declined to comment to The Atlantic on whether the Trump administration had tried to limit his television interviews, he has lately made near daily appearances on a series of podcasts and live streams, parts of which end up in national newscasts -- and likely before the eyes of the president, an avid TV viewer.
Polling confirms why Dr. Fauci proves to be a formidable force in the face of the White House’s attacks.
Sixty-five percent of registered voters say they trust information coming from Dr. Fauci is about the coronavirus, compared to just 30% who say they trust information coming from President Trump, according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University.
Like the coronavirus itself, which Trump has struggled to beat through his typical tactics of angry tweets and name-calling, Fauci has proven himself able to withstand the personal, negative brand of politics long embraced by the president.