Donald Trump accused Anthony Fauci, a leading White House coronavirus task force member, of trying to “play all sides” after the infectious disease expert raised concerns about states prematurely opening their economies.
Mr Trump on Wednesday took aim at Dr Fauci when asked if he shared the cautious stance that the doctor, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, gave Congress on Tuesday.
“He wants to play all sides of the equation,” Mr Trump said. Asked to explain his criticism, the president added: “I was surprised by his answer . . . It’s not an acceptable answer, especially when it comes to schools.”
Dr Fauci on Tuesday told Congress that states that did not follow White House-approved guidelines for reopening ran a “real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control”. This, he said, could ultimately delay the reopening of the US economy and lead to avoidable “suffering and death”.
Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, said the US would make a “huge mistake” if it did not reopen its schools in the autumn after the summer holidays.
But Dr Fauci said: “We had better be careful . . . thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects [of coronavirus].”
Dr Fauci noted that US studies had found evidence of adverse impacts on children, including an inflammatory ailment similar to Kawasaki syndrome, that had not been detected in studies in either China or Europe.
Dr Fauci has stood out as the only member of the task force who is willing to contradict Mr Trump, even when he spoke beside the president at the daily press briefings that Mr Trump held until relatively recently.
Speaking on Wednesday as he met the governors of Colorado and North Dakota at the White House, Mr Trump said states should move to open their schools because Covid-19 had “very little impact” on young people.
“I think you should absolutely open the schools. Our country has got to get back and it’s got to get back as soon as possible, and I don’t consider our country coming back if the schools are closed,” Mr Trump said.
Experts say children can transmit the disease to older, more vulnerable people even if they show no or limited symptoms themselves.
Mr Trump’s criticisms of Dr Fauci came as states debate how quickly and aggressively they should reopen their economies as the US unemployment rate has surged to 14.7 per cent.
Mr Trump has taken an uneven approach by criticising some governors for moving too quickly, while accusing some Democrats of being slow because, he said, they think rising joblessness will hurt his re-election campaign.
“Some governors and some perhaps partisans maybe for election reasons don’t want . . . their states open,” he said.
Larry Hogan, Maryland’s Republican governor, on Wednesday announced that the state would lift its stay-at-home order on Friday after it met federal guidelines, which say states should only start phase one of reopening after new coronavirus cases have fallen for 14 days.
In the District of Columbia, however, Mayor Muriel Bowser cited Dr Fauci’s warning about opening too quickly in extending the stay-at-home order until June 8.
In Wisconsin, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the administration of Tony Evers, the Democratic governor, had exceeded its authority when it extended a lockdown order until the end of May. Wisconsin is one of the critical swing states in the presidential election.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi