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Following reports that there had been disagreements between President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci over the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, Fauci readdressed previous comments he had made on the Trump administration’s handling of crisis and how earlier intervention could have saved more lives.
Fauci’s comments came in a Monday White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing, shortly after the president himself retweeted a Twitter post that contained the hashtag “#FireFauci.”
After giving updates on the pandemic, the president invited Fauci onstage. Fauci began by speaking on how there were certain areas which were flattening in their coronavirus cases.
Fauci went on to discuss an interview he held on April 12 where he was asked a “hypothetical” question regarding if mitigation efforts were employed earlier, lives could have been saved. Fauci noted that the answer to his question was, “Yes, obviously.”
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“Mitigation helps, I’ve been up here many times telling you that mitigation works,” Fauci said. “So if mitigation works and if you instigate it and initiate it earlier, you probably will have saved more lives. If you initiate it later, you probably will have lost more lives.”
“That was taken as a way of maybe something was at fault here, so let me tell you from my experience, and I can only speak from my own experience, is that we have been talking before any meetings that we had about the pros and the cons, the effectiveness or not, of strong mitigation, so discussions were going on mostly among the medical people, what that would mean,” Fauci said.
“The first and only time that Dr. Birx and I went in and formally made a recommendation to the president to actually have a ‘shutdown’ ... the president listened to the recommendation and went to the mitigation,” Fauci said. “The next second time I went with Dr. Birx into the president and said ‘15 days are not enough, we need to go 30 days,’ obviously there were people who had a problem with that because of the potential secondary effects,” Fauci said.
“Nonetheless, the president went with the health recommendations, and we extended it another 30 days,” Fauci said. Trump had previously indicated publicly that the country would reopen again by Easter, despite Fauci and other health experts having noted that was an unrealistic timeline.
Earlier, White House officials had projected that anywhere between 100,000 and 240,000 people could die from the novel coronavirus if proper prevention methods and social distancing guidelines were practiced. The White House noted that if social distancing guidelines weren't applied, the projected death count could have been between 1.5 and 2.2 million.
As of April 13, across the world, more than 1.92 million people have contracted the novel coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In the United States, there were more than 577,000 confirmed cases, 23,000 deaths and 43,000 recoveries. Nearly 3 million people have been tested and over 92,000 hospitalized in the U.S. for COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins.
A reporter noted to Fauci that he had used the term “pushback” in reference to discussions he had with Trump regarding his suggestions for mitigation efforts. Fauci characterized that term as the “the wrong choice of words.”
Fauci shot back at a reporter who questioned if his positive statements regarding the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic were being made voluntarily. “Everything I do is voluntarily, don’t even imply that,” Fauci said.
Shortly after Fauci left the stage, Trump played a video featuring news clips with a caption that suggested the media had been minimizing the risk of COVID-19. One reporter described the montage as reminiscent of a campaign video, asking Trump who had made it. Trump said the video had been assembled by White House staffers in the two hours preceding the scheduled press briefing.
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Fauci has been seen as the forefront leader of the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic, not shying away from approaching the topic with realism and rationality in media appearances, and also not afraid to clarify potentially inaccurate statements made by the president.
Fauci’s statements in the Monday press briefing were a sharp contrast to his previous tone and statements made on the subject.
Trump, meanwhile, claimed the authority Monday to decide how and when to reopen the economy after weeks of tough social distancing guidelines aimed at fighting the novel coronavirus. But governors from both parties were quick to push back, noting they have the primary constitutional responsibility for ensuring public safety in their states and would decide when it's safe to begin a return to normal operations.
Democratic leaders in the Northeast and along the West Coast announced separate state compacts to coordinate their efforts to scale back stay-at-home orders or reopen businesses on their own timetables, even as Trump tried to say it's his call.
Anxious to put the twin public health and economic crises behind him, Trump has backed federal social distancing recommendations that expire at the end of the month. But it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions, including shuttering schools and closing non-essential businesses.
Taking to Twitter, Trump wrote that some are “saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect ... it is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons.”
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The White House did not immediately respond to questions about what authority the president might have to overrule local orders. Trump can use his bully pulpit to pressure states to act or threaten them with consequences, but the Constitution gives public health and safety responsibilities primarily to state and local officials.
Meanwhile, the president's guidelines have little force. Governors and local leaders have issued orders that carry fines or other penalties, and in some jurisdictions extend out into the early summer.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.