With sagging poll numbers, US president Donald Trump’s latest move could spell his electoral demise, critics say.
In lieu of a federal plan to contain the virus, the White House has begun to wage war on the country’s top infectious disease expert, with the president also seeming to suggest the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been lying about the pandemic.
On Monday Mr Trump retweeted a post from Hollywood TV Host Chuck Woolery claiming that “everyone is lying” about COVID-19.
Mr Woolery’s tweet attacked the media, Democrats, the CDC and most doctors “that we are told to trust”.
“I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election,” he said.
At the same time, the president and top White House aides are ramping up attacks against Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert.
Dr Fauci has been increasingly sidelined by the White House as he sounds the alarm about the virus, a most unwelcome message at a time when Trump is focused on pushing an economic rebound and urging schools to reopen.
Attacks on top doctor ‘scurrilous, vile and desperate’
Reports that the White House have been briefing journalists against Dr Fauci by issuing a list of all his mistakes has sparked a swift backlash.
Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and Assistant Professor at Yale University, said White House officials were “treading on dangerous ground” by going after scientists.
“I've known Dr Fauci for 30 years, I've protested him, criticised him when he's been wrong. But no one knows more about infectious diseases in the US, has done more to protect Americans from pandemics past and present,” he tweeted.
“The attacks on him are scurrilous, vile and desperate.”
On Tuesday, he criticised Trump aides including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany for prosecuting the subtle warfare.
“They are apologists for the inexcusable (and) now setting their sights on scientists in the midst of a pandemic.”
Coronavirus is shaping up to be the biggest election issue in November, and Mr Trump’s combative moves don’t bode well for his prospects, according to US political journalist and voting activist Jon Favreau.
“The White House orchestrating a hit job on one of the country’s most respected public health officials in the middle of a pandemic isn’t just dangerous and repugnant - it’s one of the politically stupider moves they’ve made in a long time,” he said Monday.
“I’ve seen multiple focus groups now where swing voters will specifically mention Trump’s tendency to put his own ego over the advice of public health experts as a reason they’re not voting for him this time.”
His suggestion that the president’s attacks on Dr Fauci were “turning voters away” came amid a chorus of criticism from medical professionals and other highly respected figures on social media.
Coronavirus is bigger news than presidential race
Last week, Dr Fauci contradicted Mr Trump about the severity of the virus during a popular podcast. While the president repeatedly says he has done a great job against the pandemic, Dr Fauci clearly doesn’t agree.
“As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not,” he lamented.
Dr Fauci, who has not appeared at recent White House task force briefings and has been largely absent from television appearances, told the Financial Times last week that he last saw Mr Trump in person at the White House on June 2 and hadn’t briefed him in at least two months.
He blamed the fact that he has refused to toe the administration’s line for its refusal to approve many of his media requests.
Dr Fauci’s public contradictions have been viewed by the president as a personal affront and have caused some in the West Wing to sour on the doctor, the Associated Press reported.
Amid the backlash this week, Mr Trump struck a more conciliatory tone. “I have a very good relationship with Dr Fauci,” he told reporters Monday, local time, calling him “a very nice person”.
But the president added: “I don’t always agree with him”.
According to AP, Trump aides continue to quietly criticise the infectious disease expert to reporters.
By Tuesday AEST, the United States had recorded more than 3.3 million official cases of COVID-19 and more than 135,600 deaths.
An ABC News/Ipsos Poll conducted last week showed 67 per cent of Americans disapproved of Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic – the highest disapproval rating since the survey began in March.
The result echoes a finding from an April poll by the well respected Pew Research Center which found 65 per cent of people thought Mr Trump was too slow to take major steps to address the threat. The group also found people are following news about the pandemic at more than twice the rate of news about presidential candidates.
With the election scheduled for November 3 in the US, Democrat candidate Joe Biden leads Mr Trump by a commanding nine percentage points in an average of national polls, and crucially leads in a handful of swing states.
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