WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s pre-election broadsides against Dr. Anthony Fauci drew mild rebuke and little buy-in Tuesday from Capitol Hill, as Senate Republicans tried to avoid linking themselves too closely to the president's name-calling and the White House's overall COVID-19 response.
With the coronavirus surging nationwide, in record-setting new caseloads and a worrisome rising death toll, the president's allies see little use in attacking Fauci, the government's top infectious disease specialist, as the party struggles to win over voters and keep the Senate majority two weeks before the election.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not necessarily stand up for Fauci after Trump derided the National Institute for Health official as one of the “idiots” leading the country's coronavirus response.
But McConnell declined to pile on. The Republican leader said there's no doubt the virus is surging in his own home state of Kentucky and beyond, and — holding up his own mask — sounded a public health message similar to that of Fauci.
“The one thing we all need to do is wear a mask, practice social distancing, try to prevent the spread,” McConnell told reporters.
"The only thing each of us can do, until we get a vaccine, is act as responsibly as possible."
Trump's own COVID-19 diagnosis following a Rose Garden event at the White House sent ripples to Capitol Hill. Two Republican senators who attended the Sept. 26 announcement of Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court tested positive, as did a third GOP senator in contact with colleagues.
As Trump heads out for big campaign rallies, in defiance of public health guidelines against large gatherings, Republicans are facing an uphill election fight to hold on to the Senate.
Shockwaves hit earlier this month when internal polling showed the GOP Senate races seriously in jeopardy. Trump's handling of the COVID-19 crisis, along with his first debate performance against Joe Biden, caused such a downturn some Republican strategists warned there was almost no way to recover.
But Republican senators are in a political bind. They are unable to break with Trump without risking the scorn of his base of supporters in their states who they need to stay engaged this election season. But they are unable to stand too closely beside the president if they hope to draw in voters in their states who prefer Biden.
Asked about Trump's comments, Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley declined to engage.
“That’s kind of a stupid question,” said the senator, who is not up for reelection, but whose colleague Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is among those at risk of defeat.
Trump insisted Tuesday that he gets along with Fauci, but he also complained on “Fox & Friends” that the doctor is not a “team player.”
A day earlier, Trump said on a call with campaign aides that “People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”
Some Republicans are critical of recommendations from Fauci and other public health leaders that led to the economic shutdown.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a Trump ally, said the president's frustration is easy to understand. “Could he have put it more eloquently? Probably. But I do understand his frustration,” he said. He noted that “the scientists have a great deal of influence over a lot of things, but they don’t have total influence over the entire economy and how to run it.”
Fauci has served since 1984 as the director of the National Institute of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases. He has advised six presidents.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters. “Dr. Fauci is an esteemed professional who has served our country extraordinarily well. And I think the American people have a great deal of confidence and faith in him.”