The White House on Sunday issued a scorching rebuke of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s foremost infectious disease expert, accusing him of “play[ing] politics” in a recent interview about the ongoing dangers of the coronavirus.

Fauci told the Washington Post on Friday that the U.S. was in for “a whole lot of hurt” and contradicted President Trump’s rosy assessment of the virus that has killed 230,000 Americans and infected millions more.

“All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly,” Fauci said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci during a Senate committee hearing in September. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)

Fauci, who has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has scrupulously avoided taking a stand on electoral politics throughout his career, and in his interview he did not endorse either candidate, although he said that Democrat Joe Biden’s campaign was being more careful about taking precautions to avoid spreading the coronavirus at speeches and rallies.

Trump has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. is “rounding the corner” with the coronavirus, downplaying surges and attacking local governments’ efforts to curtail the spread. He has even suggested that it should be illegal for the media to aggressively cover the virus so close to the Nov. 3 election, and that “on Nov. 4 you won’t hear about it anymore.”

Coronavirus cases are surging in a number of states, which Trump has dismissed as the result of increased testing. But serious hospitalizations are straining local health systems, and Trump himself spent several days in the hospital in October after testing positive. 

[See also: Fauci: Early COVID-19 vaccines will only prevent symptoms, not block the virus]

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, called Fauci’s Washington Post interview “unacceptable” in the Sunday statement.

“It’s unacceptable and breaking with all norms for Dr. Fauci, a senior member of the President’s Coronavirus Taskforce and someone who has praised President Trump’s actions throughout the pandemic, to choose three days before an election to play politics,” Deere said.

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“As a member of the Task Force, Dr. Fauci has a duty to express concerns or push for a change in strategy, but he’s not done that, instead choosing to criticize the President in the media and make his political leanings known by praising the President’s opponent — exactly what the American people have come to expect from The Swamp.”

What Trump called “a very good relationship” with Fauci in July has deteriorated in recent weeks. Fauci, the popular public face of the U.S.’s disease-control efforts, tends to avoid directly taking on the president, preferring to speak in broad terms when, for example, asked about the president flouting coronavirus guidelines with his large campaign rallies. 

“When you have congregate settings where people are crowded together and virtually no one is wearing a mask, that is the perfect setup to have an outbreak,” Fauci told Yahoo News in October when asked about Trump’s rallies. 

President Trump during a Saturday rally in Pennsylvania. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Speculation about Fauci’s future in a second Trump term has begun to circulate in the media. He is a career civil servant and has benefited from legal protections against dismissal. But an executive order Trump signed in October was meant to strip job security from senior civil servants like Fauci. The impact of that move on Fauci’s future is unclear.

In his new interview with the Washington Post, Fauci said Biden’s campaign “is taking it seriously from a public health perspective,” while Trump is “looking at it from a different perspective” by relentlessly focusing on opening up the economy.

Trump has been less subtle in his own criticisms of Fauci, whom he called a “disaster” on a recent call with campaign staff. Trump has also railed against Fauci for a poor first pitch at a Washington Nationals game earlier this year. “All I ask of Tony is that he make better decisions,” Trump tweeted in October. “Also, Bad arm!”

Dr. Scott Atlas, a close Trump ally on the coronavirus task force, echoed that criticism Saturday in his own Fauci broadside, including Trump’s mocking of the 79-year-old physician for missing the plate in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the baseball season.

“#Insecurity #EmbarrassingHimself #Exposed #CantThrowABall #NoTimeForPolitics,” Atlas wrote.

For his part, Fauci is also no fan of Atlas, a radiologist who was recently rebuked by Twitter for a tweet falsely asserting that masks do not work against the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also criticized Atlas’s claim about masks.

“I have real problems with that guy,” Fauci told the Washington Post of Atlas. “He’s a smart guy who’s talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in. He keeps talking about things that when you dissect it out and parse it out, it doesn’t make any sense.”

In contrast, Fauci said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows deserved some credit for bluntly admitting last Sunday that his administration was not seeking to “control” the pandemic’s spread. Meadows said the U.S. would focus on controlling the development of vaccines and therapeutics as mitigation efforts.

“I tip my hat to him for admitting the strategy,” Fauci said of Meadows. “He is straightforward in telling you what’s on his mind. I commend him for that.”

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