Public warfare between top presidential advisers has little if any precedent in America. Now dissension pits top epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci against President Donald Trump's trade adviser, Peter Navarro.
Perhaps Trump's passive response to the Fauci-Navarro clash could be spun as a management technique that uses “creative tension." But this looks more like an exercise in no management at all — a reinforcement of what for years has been couched as Trump's "chaotic style." The president clearly shrinks for the moment from having his name on the Fauci attacks. Others bash the popular doctor, who keeps cautiously contradicting Trump's more obvious falsehoods on the coronavirus.
Navarro wrote in an opinion piece published Tuesday night in USA Today: "Dr. Anthony Fauci has a good bedside manner with the public, but he has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on."
This is exactly the kind of complaint that in most organizations stays behind closed doors until peace is made or the loser in the feud leaves.
Trump seems to have done nothing to parse who's right on the facts and what to do about it. Naturally he wouldn't want to be seen as choosing between public health and economic recovery, although if that were the choice, it's clear he leans toward the latter. So instead of exercising any management skill, Trump seems satisfied to let the bad blood boil.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Fauci called recent White House attacks on him "bizarre" and said they ultimately damaged Trump. "I cannot figure out in my wildest dreams why they would want to do that," Fauci said. "I think they realize now that that was not a prudent thing to do, because it's only reflecting negatively on them."
Of Navarro's piece, Trump said Wednesday: “He made a statement representing himself. He shouldn’t be doing that." Trump's office has been handing out critical fact-checks of Fauci's public statements, some distorted, as if the doctor were a rival political candidate.
Early on, in January, Navarro warned White House colleagues the novel coronavirus could take more than a half-million American lives and cost close to $6 trillion, according to memos leaked to Axios in April.
At the time, Trump proclaimed the virus under control. But Trump praised Navarro and insisted he and the economist had "the same instincts" on the issue. "It was a feeling that he had. I think he told certain people on the staff," Trump said. "I didn't see it," he said of one of the Navarro memos.
It makes you wonder if Trump began accepting Navarro's narrative that China was to blame for the outbreak because the president finally realized it wasn't going away at his political convenience.
Previously, Trump had praised China for fighting the virus. Navarro, who years ago published the book "Death By China," is a militant architect of the administration's trade policy on Beijing.
During three-plus years in office, Trump has proved particularly weak when sorting out difficult facts or even conveying them correctly, and at infusing his team with a united sense of purpose.
Ultimately, this Navarro-Fauci fight will get nobody anywhere, except maybe for those who like to see the executive branch drift.