This Time, the White House Disavows a Fauci Critic

WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday tried to distance itself from an attack on Dr. Anthony S. Fauci by President Trump’s top trade adviser, the latest criticism of the government’s leading infectious disease expert by a prominent administration official.

A short op-ed by Peter Navarro in USA Today on Tuesday, with the stark headline “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on,” was not cleared by communications officials before it was published, according to a White House spokeswoman.

“The Peter Navarro op-ed didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes and is the opinion of Peter alone,” Alyssa Farah, the White House director for strategic communications, wrote on Twitter. “@realdonaldtrump values the expertise of the medical professionals advising his Administration.”

But when he called reporters into the Oval Office hours later, Mr. Trump did not criticize the piece.

“That’s Peter Navarro,” Mr. Trump said, “but I have a very good relationship with Dr. Fauci.”

The exchange was emblematic of an administration that has been taking an uneven approach to efforts by some in the administration to undermine Dr. Fauci, whose stark analysis of the coronavirus has clashed with a rosier picture put forth by Mr. Trump and his other advisers since the early days of the pandemic. Mr. Trump has not criticized his aides for publicly attacking Dr. Fauci, nor has he called them off.

Earlier this week, officials declined to comment when Dan Scavino, one of the president’s closest advisers, posted a mocking cartoon of Dr. Fauci to social media.

And over the weekend, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers anonymously fed news outlets with remarks that Dr. Fauci had made about the virus earlier this year that they suggested raised questions about his judgment.

Tension between Mr. Navarro, an economist by training, and Dr. Fauci has been brewing for months. In a coronavirus task force meeting that Mr. Navarro asked to attend earlier this year, the two argued over the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, a drug Mr. Trump has touted as a cure for the virus.

Mr. Navarro’s op-ed broadly lays out what White House officials have been saying privately about Dr. Fauci, and what Mr. Trump has said publicly — that they like Dr. Fauci personally but that he has “made some mistakes.” But Mr. Trump has stopped short of addressing public criticism from his aides.

In the op-ed, Mr. Navarro wrote that “I confronted him with scientific studies providing evidence of safety and efficacy,” and highlighted a new study that he said showed a 50 percent reduction in the mortality rate when the medicine is used. Medical experts have criticized that study, published by the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, as incomplete.

Mr. Navarro also wrote that he had warned officials in late January of the threat posed by the coronavirus, while Dr. Fauci had “fought against the president’s courageous decision” to close American borders to travelers from China.

It is true that a memo Mr. Navarro wrote outlining the threat of the virus was the earliest high-level alert known to have circulated inside the West Wing during the early days of the administration’s response. It is also true that Dr. Fauci was initially skeptical of closing the country’s borders, over concerns such an action could limit the movements of doctors and other health professionals trying to contain the disease. But by the end of January, Dr. Fauci and other public health experts were on board with the decision.

Despite the continuing attacks by administration advisers and the attempts to limit his television appearances, Dr. Fauci hasn’t stopped his public appearances. On Tuesday, at a virtual event at Georgetown University, he urged students to trust public health experts over politicians, without criticizing the administration he works for directly.

“You can trust respected medical authorities. I believe I’m one of them. So, I think you can trust me,” Dr. Fauci said. “I would stick with respected medical authorities who have a track record of telling the truth, who have a track record of giving information and policy and recommendations based on scientific evidence and good data.”

He added: “Don’t get involved in any of the political nonsense,” calling it a “waste of time.”