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.”
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.
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.