WASHINGTON — Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, defended the beleaguered disease researcher Anthony Fauci in an interview this week, calling the prospect of firing or demoting him “unimaginable.”

Fauci, who has led the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 36 years, has recently come under fire from President Trump, an array of White House aides, and other Trump allies. But Collins, who is nominally Fauci’s boss, implied he would not follow orders to dismiss Fauci, should they come. Instead, he touted Fauci’s decadeslong scientific acumen as a national asset — one that’s especially critical amid a pandemic that has already claimed 138,000 American lives.

“This is a remarkable scientist who has led NIH’s efforts in infectious disease with great distinction for more than 30 years and who continues to be our lead in vaccines and therapeutics for Covid-19,” Collins told STAT. “The idea of losing that leadership at this critical moment for our nation is unthinkable.”

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Asked whether his answer meant he would refuse to dismiss Fauci even if ordered by the president or health secretary, Collins only laughed.

“I think you heard my answer,” he said.

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Collins’ defense of Fauci comes amid a broader White House effort to discredit the renowned infectious diseases researcher, who, unlike other key figures in the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response, is not a presidential appointee.

Trump, in particular, has openly disagreed with Fauci’s guidance on whether fans should attend professional football games in the fall and whether the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine is an effective Covid-19 treatment (clinical trials show it is not).

In recent weeks, as the U.S. outbreak has spiraled out of control, Fauci has urged Americans to wear masks and to practice social distancing. The White House, however, has refused to amplify his advice, and instead has escalated its attacks on him. In a recent interview, Trump accused Fauci of making “a lot of mistakes” in helping to shape the country’s Covid-19 response.

Brett Giroir, a top health official, suggested in a separate interview that Fauci may fail to account for the “whole national interest,” like the economy, when issuing public health guidance.

And on Wednesday, Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s top economic advisers, attacked Fauci in a USA Today op-ed, headlined: “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.”

The White House later distanced itself from the op-ed, saying Navarro wrote it of his own accord and without clearing it through normal administration protocols.

Since the op-ed, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has dismissed the mounting evidence of a rift between Fauci and Trump administration decision-makers. Trump, too, has mentioned that he and Fauci have a “very good relationship.”

Given Fauci’s status as a civil servant and not a political appointee, it is likely that Trump is not permitted to dismiss him directly. Most non-political appointees in federal service also cannot be dismissed without cause, meaning the Trump administration likely can’t dismiss Fauci and can only reassign him — as was the case with Rick Bright, the ousted vaccines researcher who has filed a whistleblower lawsuit following his removal as director of a federal pandemic preparedness agency.

In the unlikely event the Trump administration moves to dismiss Fauci, it would likely require the cooperation of his more direct superiors — NIH’s Collins or health secretary Alex Azar.

According to polling, doing so would be politically unwise: 67% of voters in a recent New York Times-Siena poll said they trusted information Fauci shared about the pandemic, compared to just 26% for Trump.

Helen Branswell contributed reporting. 

  • Good for Collins, to have common sense strongly prevail over the squirming of a spoiled brat who fails to see that he is the root-cause of the worst daily Covid count of any nation. Trump must be muzzled, soon, and this has to be a permanent event – because the US is dangerously close to a full nationwide health care crash.

  • Thankfully we have men of science that are standing up to a president that says things like “could we inject disinfectant into us to clean out the covid-19″ and ” we can’t let Science get in the way of reopening schools”. Thank God for men like Fauci and the men who defend them.

  • How naive Stat thinks we are! As if we’d expect an ‘NIH Man’ to say anything different! We aren’t children! For humanity’s sake, wake up to our calibre! Stop this self-deluding paternalistic drivel you post. We know you hate Republicans but please allow just a sliver of balanced reporting in your articles. Fraudci has been ‘at it’ for 30 years! We know, You know, and increasingly The World knows! Suddenly he wears a Muzzle whenever he’s in public….this from the ‘World Expert’ who only a few weeks ago told us muzzles were “OK, if you want feel good but they won’t protect you.” He wants the entire world muzzled and fearful. He tried and failed with HIV when he was ‘a kid’ but still made millions out of it. Now he thinks he’s untouchable. So no worries, The Brotherhood at NIH always stick together……

    • So you think because Fauci changed his thinking on masks as the Science Informed him to do so is a failure on his part? And now that the majority of health Professionals say that wearing a mask is the best defense we have against a deadly Virus and the best way to get are Economy back on track, and you are still fighting the Science on masks? At what cost is this Anti-Science thinking going to cost us all?

    • Yeah let’s get rid of Fauci and replace him with Chuck Woolery the game show host of love connection, I’m sure he is more qualified. Come on we need to stop this silly fighting and discrediting of our scientists and get back to the job of fighting the enemy that is killing thousands and thousands of Americans.

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