Top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has described criticism by a White House adviser as “nonsense” and “a bit bizarre”.
Donald Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro wrote an op-ed in USA Today condemning Dr Fauci, writing that the doctor “has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on… So when you ask me whether I listen to Dr Fauci’s advice, my answer is: only with scepticism and caution.”
In an interview with The Atlantic, Dr Fauci responded: “I can’t explain Peter Navarro. He’s in a world by himself. So I don’t even want to go there.”
And Mr Trump, who has complained about Dr Fauci privately for months — and publicly in recent days — stepped in to referee.
Mr Navarro “made a state statement representing himself. He shouldn’t be doing that,” Mr Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for Atlanta.
The president insisted he had a “very good relationship with Dr Fauci” and said his staffers were working together.
The back-and-forth is the latest episode of infighting in a White House that has been riven by rivalries since its earliest days.
It comes as the White House’s handling of the pandemic has come under deeper scrutiny at a time when cases are surging and the president is pressing to restart economic activity, in part to bolster his re-election chances.
Mr Trump has been known to encourage disputes between aides, believing differing viewpoints serve him better.
Others in the White House have waged an open campaign to discredit Dr Fauci, who has been increasingly vocal in his disagreements with the president’s enthusiasm for reopening high-risk venues like schools and sporting arenas.
“We’re all on the same team,” Mr Trump said. “We want to get rid of this mess that China sent us. So everybody’s working on the same line and we’re doing very well.”
Still, a person familiar with the matter said Mr Trump himself was amused by the spat, believing Mr Navarro highlighted errors by Dr Fauci and helped reduce his public stature, which has grated on some in the West Wing for months.
One White House official said Mr Navarro had been warned by the White House communications team in recent days to de-escalate his dispute with Dr Fauci, but went ahead with the op-ed nonetheless.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows did not approve the article and is “fully engaged”, according to the official.
“The Peter Navarro op-ed didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes and is the opinion of Peter alone,” White House communications director Alyssa Farah tweeted. “@realDonaldTrump values the expertise of the medical professionals advising his Administration.”
Mr Navarro, an economist and China hardliner without public health credentials, did not respond to a request for comment.
The episode was frustrating for some in the White House because it diverted attention from positive developments, like progress on a vaccine, another official said.
Dr Fauci discussed his predicament in a series of interviews with The Atlantic this week.
Asked about the attacks lodged against him by anonymous White House officials, Dr Fauci said he “cannot figure out in my wildest dreams why they would want to do that. I think they realise now that that was not a prudent thing to do, because it’s only reflecting negatively on them.”