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Trump targets Dr. Fauci instead of COVID-19 as cases, deaths rise

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump reignited his feud with the nation's top infectious disease expert Monday as U.S. deaths from COVID-19 topped 220,000 and coronavirus hospitalizations rose across the country, raising fears of a deadly third wave of infections as winter approaches.

In a call intended to rally his beleaguered campaign staff two weeks before Election Day, Trump slammed Dr. Anthony Fauci and insisted Americans "are tired of listening to Fauci and these idiots" who were critical of the White House response to the pandemic.

Trump's broadside was a reminder of his distrust of science, and his refusal to heed warnings about the deadly contagion as he tries to salvage a reelection campaign that has sunk in the polls due to his handling of the worst disease outbreak in a century.

Trump's decision to target Fauci -- which continued with a series of tweets mocking the doctor's "worst first pitch in the history of baseball" at a Washington Nationals game -- made little sense politically.

Although Trump's right-wing supporters view Fauci with suspicion, polls show far more Americans trust him on the coronavirus than the president.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, was off the campaign trail Monday ahead of Thursday's second and final debate. His campaign praised Fauci, adding that "Trump's reckless and negligent leadership threatens to put more lives at risk."

"Trump is his own worst enemy," said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. "He is basically helping Biden make his case about his response to the pandemic. Dr. Fauci is one of the most popular figures in America, even if Trump's base doesn't like him."

Trump's ire may have been sparked by Fauci's interview Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes," when the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases said he was not surprised that the president had contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized for three days early this month. Trump's wife and son Barron also tested positive with the coronavirus.

"I was worried that he was going to get sick when I saw him in a completely precarious situation of crowded, no separation between people, and almost nobody wearing a mask," Fauci said of the president.

In recent weeks, Trump has embraced fringe theories pushed by Scott Atlas, an increasingly influential member of his White House team who has no expertise on viruses, and continued to downplay the danger of COVID-19 as he barnstorms battleground states.

Over the weekend, Twitter deleted a tweet from Atlas falsely claiming that wearing masks doesn't slow the spread of the virus, part of the social media company's attempt to limit misinformation about the pandemic.

On Monday, Trump insisted that Americans are no longer interested in wearing masks, socially distancing or taking other precautions, pointing to his recent campaign rallies as evidence. Mostly held at airports, the rallies tend to be far smaller than before the pandemic.

"People are tired of COVID. I have the biggest rallies I've ever had," Trump, who was in Las Vegas, said falsely on the call. "And we have COVID. People are saying, 'Whatever. Just leave us alone.' They're tired of it."

Fauci received death threats after the president first began criticizing him last spring, and now travels with a security detail. He has largely been sidelined from the White House, and did not publicly respond to the president's latest denunciation.

Trump launched his attack the same day Fauci was awarded a second citation from the National Academy of Medicine -- the first person ever honored with two -- for "outstanding service as a trusted adviser to six presidents" and "firm leadership" in the COVID-19 crisis.

"We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, and I can't help thinking that we're really going through a time that's disturbingly anti-science in certain segments of our society," Fauci said in a virtual ceremony.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health Committee, defended Fauci as "one of our country's most distinguished public servants."

"If more Americans paid attention to his advice, we'd have fewer cases of COVID-19, and it would be safer to go back to school and back to work and out to eat."

Trump's closing argument in the race has been inconsistent at best, and his rally speeches often have focused on personal resentments and conspiracy theories.

On Monday he accused Biden of ties to corruption in Ukraine, even though the allegations lack evidence and are rooted in what U.S. intelligence agencies describe as a Russian disinformation plot.

"Joe Biden is a criminal and he's been a criminal for a long time," Trump told reporters traveling with him to a campaign stop in Prescott, Ariz. "And you're a criminal in the media for not reporting it."

Trump spends long stretches of his rally speeches litigating his grievances against various Democrats, the media, poor water pressure in modern showers, the long-over special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, and even Hillary Clinton, who he defeated four years ago.

"Trump is running a campaign to appeal to a constituency of one. Himself," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in Sacramento, Calif. "He's never in the past 3.5 years grown his political base. Now, it is shrinking and he's fixated on excuses and scapegoats as he knows he's likely to be the one who gets told, 'You're fired.'"

Republicans have become increasingly concerned that Trump's dimming political prospects will cost the party its Senate majority.

"He tends to swamp the bigger, more important message because he's playing to the room," said one strategist working on a key race.

His rally speeches, the strategist continued, are "like one shot of the economy and four shots of grievance. That's the sort of thing that doesn't help down-ballot because it's too focused on him."

Trump's campaign brushed off the sagging poll numbers in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

"We're as confident as ever in our pathway to victory," said Bill Stepien, Trump's campaign manager, as he touted plans for a $55 million television advertising buy over the next two weeks.

"I've never seen energy like this. I've never seen momentum like this," said Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

But the president's insistence on holding crowded rallies shows his disdain for public health warnings.

More than 36,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, and the daily numbers of new cases is approaching levels not seen since the second wave of infections over the summer.

Rather than expressing sympathy, or offering support, Trump unleashed his frustration complained at the rally in Prescott, blaming the media for its focus on the pandemic.

"You turn on CNN, that's all they talk about," he said. "COVID, COVID, pandemic, COVID, COVID, COVID."



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