Donald Trump says Dr Anthony Fauci is “a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes”. Fauci says he last saw Trump on 2 June and has not briefed him in two months.
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The president was speaking to the Fox News host Sean Hannity. The most senior non-political member of the White House coronavirus taskforce and America’s top public health expert was having lunch with the Financial Times.
Meanwhile, nearly 3.2 million coronavirus cases have been recorded in the US and almost 133,000 people have died. More than 60,000 new cases were confirmed on Thursday, the latest in a succession of unwelcome records.
States which reopened early, Arizona, Texas and Florida prominent among them, are facing steep rises in cases and crushing pressure on testing and hospital beds. Early hotspots, such as California, New York and New Jersey, are pausing or modifying reopening, or considering re-entering lockdown.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we have a serious ongoing problem, right now, as we speak,” Fauci said. “What worries me is the slope of the curve. It still looks like it’s exponential.”
He continued: “I think we have to realise that some states jumped ahead of themselves. Other states did it correctly. But the citizenry didn’t listen to the guidelines and they decided they were going to stay in bars and go to congregations of crowds and celebrations.”
Fauci put that down, in part, to a very American problem with authority. It is one the president seems to share.
“A lot of them said don’t wear a mask, don’t wear a mask,” Trump told Hannity about advisers including Fauci. “Now they are saying wear a mask. A lot of mistakes were made, a lot of mistakes.”
Many observers charge that Trump has made them, by refusing to wear a mask or consider a national mandate and by declining to “listen to my experts” in general. The president told Fox News he would probably wear a mask to visit Walter Reed hospital on Saturday. But he also mocked Joe Biden, his presumptive opponent in November, for wearing a “massive” mask in public.
Before bad weather intervened, Trump had been due to stage a rally in New Hampshire this weekend, although in the open air rather than in an indoor arena as in Tulsa, Oklahoma last month. Public health authorities said that event contributed to a surge in cases.
To Hannity, Trump said: “We have cases all over the place. Most of the cases immediately get better, they are people, young people, they have sniffles and two days later they are fine and they are not sick to start.”
That was an echo of his claim last week that 99% of Covid-19 cases are “totally harmless”.
Fauci told the FT: “I’m trying to figure out where the president got that number. What I think happened is that someone told him that the general mortality is about 1%. And he interpreted, therefore, that 99% is not a problem, when that’s obviously not the case.”
Trump is also pushing to reopen schools fully in the fall, a move resisted by mayors, teachers unions and parents, the president claiming that in “children – in many cases – the immune system is so powerful, so strong”.
Fauci, 79, and also director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under six presidents since 1984, told the FT he had “never seen a virus or any pathogen that has such a broad range of manifestations. Even if it doesn’t kill you, even if it doesn’t put you in the hospital, it can make you seriously ill.”
Fauci has reportedly been blocked from national TV interviews. He said: “I have a reputation … of speaking the truth at all times and not sugar-coating things. And that may be one of the reasons why I haven’t been on television very much lately.”
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But he has given devastating testimony to Congress. Last month, he told a Senate committee the US could soon see 100,000 cases a day and a “very disturbing” death toll. Fauci has also spoken to newspapers and podcasts and on Friday he spoke to the World Health Organization, from which Trump is withdrawing.
On Thursday, Fauci spoke to FiveThirtyEight.com. Asked how the US was doing compared with other countries, he said: “I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not.”
The FT asked why he thought his profile had risen to the point where he has been played by Brad Pitt on the TV show Saturday Night Live. For Fauci, under an infamously jealous president, such fame has proved dangerous. He has had death threats and his family has been harassed, he said.
But he added: “The country, in a very stressful time, needed a symbol of someone who tells the truth. Which I do.”