By Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump defended his response to the coronavirus outbreak on Monday and said he did not intend to fire Anthony Fauci after the leading U.S. health expert said earlier mitigation efforts could have saved more lives.
At a contentious briefing with reporters, Trump lashed out at media coverage that has focused on gaps in the U.S. government’s response after initial warnings about the pandemic disease which has now spread throughout the United States.
The president asserted he had the ultimate authority to re-open the largely shuttered economy despite an earlier deference to U.S. state governors and constitutional questions about whether that decision-making fell within his purview.
“The president of the United States calls the shots. If we weren’t here for the states, you’d have had a problem in this country like you’ve never seen before,” Trump said. “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be. … It’s total. The governors know that.”
Trump, who said a plan to open businesses again would be completed shortly, interrupted his daily briefing to play a campaign-style video that highlighted his actions to tackle the virus and included clips of Democratic and Republican governors praising his efforts.
The president also invited Fauci to the stage in the opening minutes of the briefing to make clear that Trump had followed his recommendations on putting mitigation efforts into place across the country.
Trump, who played down the seriousness of the virus in its initial stages, has chafed at media coverage suggesting he did not do enough to prevent its spread.
On Sunday, he retweeted a call to fire Fauci after the top U.S. expert on infectious diseases said lives could have been saved if the country had shut down sooner during the novel coronavirus outbreak.
At the briefing on Monday, Fauci said he was answering a hypothetical question in the television interview and made clear that Trump had listened to him when he recommended mitigation efforts.
Trump said he and Fauci had been on the same page “from the beginning” and declared he liked the respected doctor. “I think he’s a wonderful guy,” Trump said, while adding that not everyone was happy with the health expert.
Fauci has assumed national prominence – and a degree of popular affection – as a leader in the fight against the coronavirus, which has killed 23,543 people in the United States and infected 583,990, according to a Reuters tally.
He has contradicted or corrected Trump on scientific matters during the public health crisis, including whether the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is effective against the virus.
On Monday, Fauci made a point of saying the president had followed his advice on putting social distancing recommendations in place for the country.
“The president listened to the recommendation,” Fauci said. “The first and only time that I went in and said: ‘We should do mitigation strongly,’ the response was, ‘Yes, we’ll do it.'”
The Republican president in the past has repeated critical tweets of officials or enemies rather than make the criticism himself. The retweet fueled speculation Trump was running out of patience with Fauci and could fire him, prompting a White House denial before Trump’s briefing.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump’s retweet addressed what he considered a false report on his travel restriction involving China, where the novel coronavirus originated.
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked on CNN about a New York Times report documenting early warnings issued to the White House about the novel coronavirus. The scientist acknowledged shutting the country down sooner could have saved lives, but cautioned that a number of factors were involved.
“Obviously, it would have been nice if we had a better head start, but I don’t think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor,” Fauci said. “It’s very complicated.”
Already a target of the far right for his contradictions of Trump, Fauci drew more opprobrium after the interview.
Trump also denounced the Times story in tweets on Sunday, calling it “Fake.”
Last week during the daily White House coronavirus briefing, Trump stepped in and prevented Fauci from answering a question about hydroxychloroquine.
“He won’t fire Fauci today,” tweeted Joe Lockhart, press secretary to former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. “That’s not his style. He needs to humiliate him a while first.”
Fauci, 79, has led the federal infectious disease agency since 1984 under Republican and Democratic presidents. Republican George W. Bush honored him with the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.
Some opinion polls during the public health crisis have shown Americans trust him more than Trump.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Doina Chiacu in Washington; additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Peter Cooney and Lincoln Feast.)