US President Donald Trump is trying to turn the government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, into a scapegoat for the nation’s struggle with the coronavirus.
Mr Trump insulted Dr Fauci only weeks before the November 3 election that could hinge on the president’s handling of the pandemic.
He repeatedly assailed his adviser during campaign events on Monday.
Mr Trump claimed that had his administration followed the advice of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hundreds of thousands more Americans would have died.
The attacks followed an interview with Dr Fauci on 60 Minutes on Sunday, in which he said he was not surprised that the president had contracted Covid-19.
Yet Mr Trump’s effort to disparage the adviser, shown by polls to be the most trusted figure on the coronavirus in the government, invites even more scrutiny of the president’s handling of the outbreak, already rated poorly by voters.
But the criticism may resonate with Mr Trump's supporters, who pack his rallies by the thousands with few face masks in sight.
In a nod to Dr Fauci’s widespread appeal, the president’s cash-strapped campaign last week bought television advertisements featuring him to add credibility to the government’s efforts.
But now, Mr Trump is deriding him at rallies as he does with his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
“You know, Biden wants to lock it down. He wants to listen to Dr Fauci,” Mr Trump said on Monday at a rally in Prescott, Arizona.
Hours earlier, the president complained to his campaign staff about the health expert, saying he could not fire him because of public perception.
“People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong,” Mr Trump said on Monday in a call intended to bolster morale among his staff.
His campaign had invited reporters to listen in.
“He’s been here for 500 years. He’s like this wonderful sage," Mr Trump said.
"Fauci, if we listened to him, we’d have 700,000, 800,000 deaths. "Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.”
He said he did not care whether reporters were on the call.
Mr Trump’s attacks on Dr Fauci may fuel the notion that the president ignored the recommendations of doctors and scientists to combat the pandemic.
The disease has killed more than 225,000 people in the US, crushed the economy and fundamentally altered the lives of Americans.
Mr Trump sought to dismiss concerns about Covid-19, and said people were becoming “tired of the pandemic” and news coverage of it.
“People are pandemic-ed out. You know that?” the president said on Monday night during a rally in Tucson, Arizona.
Once a regular at White House briefings on the outbreak, Dr Fauci has been sidelined as Mr Trump elevated Scott Atlas as his closest medical adviser.
Dr Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no epidemiology expertise, is affiliated with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
He publicly belittled social distancing and wearing masks as precautions against the coronavirus, and before joining the White House advocated “herd immunity” against the virus by exposing healthy Americans to infection.
Public health experts said that strategy would result in tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Dr Atlas said he did not recommend the approach to Mr Trump.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Dr Atlas repeatedly clashed with Dr Fauci and Deborah Birx, an epidemiologist who is the White House coronavirus task force co-ordinator, and that Ms Birx sought his removal.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released last month showed that trust in Dr Fauci has eroded and become more polarised in the past few months as Mr Trump ignored his advice.
The share of adults who said they trusted him shrank by 10 percentage points since April, the poll suggested.
While more than eight in 10 Democrats said they trusted Dr Fauci, fewer than five in 10 Republicans said the same.
Donald Trump calls Dr Fauci a 'disaster'
The poll showed support was at 48 per cent among Republicans, down from 77 per cent in April.
Mr Trump said in July he accepted Dr Fauci’s recommendations while fighting the pandemic.
The expert has become a strong proponent of wearing face masks in public, a precaution the president has not followed himself and discouraged among his staff.
Dr Fauci said on 60 Minutes that Mr Trump put himself at risk of infection before announcing on October 2 he had contracted Covid-19.
“I was worried that he was going to get sick when I saw him in a completely precarious situation of crowded, no separation between people, and almost nobody wearing a mask,” he said.
Dr Fauci, who has been a regular on television, said his media interviews had been limited by the White House.
He said he was not allowed to go on “many, many, many shows" that asked to interview him.