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Meadows wanted to cease fire on Fauci. Navarro had other plans.

The White House quickly tried to distance itself from the trade adviser's op-ed, even though the points he raised echoed some that officials there have pushed for months.
President Donald Trump distanced himself Wednesday from trade adviser Peter Navarro's op-ed attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci: "He made a statement representing himself. He shouldn't be doing that. No, I have a very good relationship with Anthony," Trump said.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Chief of staff Mark Meadows thought he had declared a cease-fire in the recent White House blitz against the country's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But trade adviser Peter Navarro had other plans, and he wrote a scathing op-ed published Tuesday in USA Today blasting Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, without getting clearance from the White House press shop.

The move was a blow to Meadows' de-escalation strategy, in a similar, frustrating position as his predecessors in the Trump White House: trying to lead a staff in which many believe they answer to an audience of one. Meadows has described the job to associates as "intense," with information and decisions flowing much more rapidly than anticipated, a friend said.

Days after an aide had disseminated a document aimed at discrediting Fauci and following a meeting himself with Fauci this week, Meadows had told staff members to "lower the temperature" on the public split, an administration official said. Navarro's move was a clear violation of Meadows' directive, said the official, who declined to say whether Navarro would face any disciplinary action beyond noting that "the chief is addressing that."

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday, Meadows classified Navarro's op-ed as "an independent action" and "a violation of well-established protocols that was not supported overtly or covertly by anyone in the West Wing."

"I think Peter Navarro spoke for himself, and any comments really just need to reflect Peter Navarro’s personal thinking not the thinking of the West Wing," he said, declining to say whether or not the move was a fireable offense: “I don’t talk about personnel matters," said Meadows.

President Donald Trump downplayed Navarro's piece, saying he has a good relationship with Fauci.

"He made a statement representing himself. He shouldn't be doing that. No, I have a very good relationship with Anthony," Trump told reporters at the White House.

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As one of the few remaining officials from the early days of the administration, Navarro has weathered three other chiefs of staff. Part of his longevity comes from his loyalty to Trump and the protectionist ideas he ran on. Navarro, once a self-described liberal who railed against Republicans, has become one of Trump's fiercest defenders inside the White House in recent months.

He has blasted China for its response to the coronavirus, amplified Trump's support for a controversial COVID-19 treatment and called former national security adviser John Bolton's book "deep swamp revenge porn."

While the White House quickly tried to distance itself from Navarro's piece — titled "Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on" — it echoed many of the same points administration officials and Trump allies have been pushing for months behind the scenes, some of which were included in an opposition research-style memo that was shared with reporters over the weekend.

And while the op-ed may have broken with the official White House line, it was applauded by some of Trump's most vocal and visible supporters.

"Most Americans agree with Peter Navarro," Trump allies Diamond and Silk tweeted. "Dr. Fauci has flip-flopped using flawed data on several things. The American people don't know what to believe. It's time to open back up this country, let people go back to work, and let our children go back to school!"

But outside of Trump's base, Fauci has consistently polled higher than Trump as someone the public trusts for accurate information — making a public war with him politically risky. On Monday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany disputed whether there was any attempt by the White House to discredit Fauci, and Trump himself said that while they don't always agree, "we get along very well. I like him personally."

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In an interview published Wednesday by The Atlantic, Fauci said that the attacks were a "major mistake" and that Navarro was "in a world by himself."

"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."