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2024 Republican presidential candidates Ron DeSantis (L) and Donald Trump (R)Photos by Sean Rayford and Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

(LifeSiteNews) – Former President and 2024 Republican frontrunner Donald Trump claimed Wednesday that he was “not allowed” to fire controversial former White House COVID-19 adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, a claim met with swift rebuke by his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

During an interview (audio only, but with full transcript), Republican talk radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump, “Why did you keep Dr. Fauci?”

“First of all, you’re not allowed,” Trump answered. “He’s civil service, and you’re not allowed to fire him. But forget that, because I don’t necessarily go by everything. But Dr. Fauci would tell me things, and I wouldn’t do them, in many cases. But also, he wasn’t a big player in my administration.”

“When Ron DeSantis says on the debate stage you didn’t fire Fauci and you shut down the country and that was a mistake, how will you respond?” Hewitt followed up.

Trump responded by claiming that DeSantis “shut down his beaches. He shut down the entire state,” and that he had “five articles about how much he [DeSantis] loves Dr. Fauci,” which became six articles later in the answer.

“And by the way, just so you know it sounds very negative, third most in deaths from COVID? Unfortunately, Florida,” the former president added. “Florida was third worst in deaths. So, Ron, and that’s a horrible, that’s a horrible statistic. But that’s a statistic that sort of counts. Ron was the third worst in terms of actual death from COVID. Ron is number three.”

Hewitt did not challenge any of Trump’s claims, but DeSantis did later that day in an interview with podcaster Dave Rubin.

“It’s important to point out for a long time that was not his excuse,” the governor said. “His excuse had been that if you fired Fauci, both the Democrats and the media would have pitched a fit, which, of course, is 100% true. But that’s the price of leadership. You got to stand up and do what’s right. Clearly, he could have been fired from the White House Task Force. There was no obligation to run him out at press conference after press conference, have him doing media interviews.”

“During the height of the COVID stuff in 2020, Fauci would do local hits in Florida media attacking me for having schools open and some of these other stuff,” DeSantis added. “So, there was no obligation to do that. I think you could have also fired him from NIH because he had basically committed misconduct with the gain of function, you also had him saying it was naturally occurring when they knew it was a lab leak.”

“If they sue you, they sue you,” DeSantis stressed, arguing that a president who “had the basis to do that” must be willing to risk the inevitable backlash to doing the right thing.

DeSantis also panned Trump’s criticism of his broader COVID record, reminding Rubin’s audience that through the latter half of 2020 and well into 2021, Trump showered DeSantis with praise for resisting lockdowns. “Nobody in the Republican base thinks New York handled COVID better than Florida,” he said. “All of this stuff was kind of gospel, nobody ever questioned it until three days before the midterm elections, he saw that I was fixing to win a landslide, and he started attacking me, and that’s basically it. Just because he thinks that I’m a threat to his ambitions. That’s the only reason he’s saying this.”

The two former allies’ respective COVID records have been one of the biggest points of contrast between them, with the issue raising DeSantis to national stardom in conservative circles and fueling interest in him as a potential alternative to Trump – making it key for Trump to attempt to dismantle it. 

This is not the first time Trump has claimed that federal civil service rules forbade him from removing Fauci as head of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID).  But while the NIAID director is not a presidentially appointed position, Fauci’s membership on the White House Coronavirus Task Force was purely within the president’s discretion.

Despite reports and comments at the time indicating some disagreement between the two men, as late as July 2020 Trump said that he had a “very good relationship” with Fauci, who has a “very good approval rating and I like that […] We could have gotten somebody else. It didn’t have to be Dr. Fauci.” 

In April 2020, Trump’s reelection campaign was promoting video clips of Fauci attesting that Trump took his advice and “has never overruled me.” As late as October 2020, Trump’s reelection campaign was releasing campaign ads aligning the president with Fauci, whom Trump gave a presidential commendation “in recognition of [his] exceptional efforts on Operation Warp Speed” on his last full day in office.

As the former president’s 2024 campaign has pointed out, DeSantis did speak positively about the Trump administration’s COVID team, including Fauci, in the early weeks of the pandemic. By summer 2020, however, DeSantis was publicly pushing back against Fauci’s claims that he reopened Florida too soon.

Further, it is not disputed that DeSantis initially imposed a number of COVID restrictions (acting in part on data and guidance from the Trump administration), but the governor openly expressed regret at what he calls the “huge mistake” of imposing any restrictions at all, and as more information came in he reversed course, quickly establishing one of the most anti-lockdown records in the country, defying insistence that his policies would lead to mass death and enacting new laws explicitly forbidding new lockdown measures in the future. On Thursday, the DeSantis campaign released a letter the Trump administration sent Florida in January 2021, urging the state to “increase both statewide and local public mitigation” with “masking, physical distancing and avoiding family gatherings.”

“Florida had the third-most COVID deaths because it has the third highest population in the country,” Townhall’s Guy Benson wrote in May. “New York had fewer COVID deaths because it has almost two million fewer residents.  According to these statistics, Florida outperformed New York (and many other states) on per capita deaths, which is impressive, given its disproportionately older population.  Florida also outperformed New York (and many other states) on the key metric of so-called ‘excess deaths.’”

As for the controversial COVID-19 vaccines developed in record time under the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed initiative, DeSantis initially supported the shots, but has long since repudiated them as evidence about their ineffectiveness and adverse effects has come to light. Last year, his administration began conducting its own studies, which concluded that they should not be taken by young men, and the Florida Supreme Court approved DeSantis’s request for a grand jury investigation into the claims of the vaccines’ manufacturers. Trump stands by them, though recently agreed that any data about adverse events should be released.

Former President Trump maintains a commanding lead for the nomination, even as grave questions persist as to whether Trump can defeat President Joe Biden in a rematch. Primary voting begins next January with the Iowa caucuses, where DeSantis supporters hope the governor’s ground operation will deliver a victory that reverses the trajectory of the nomination battle.