U.S. President Donald Trump called coronavirus expert Anthony Fauci a "disaster" on Monday and sought to reassure campaign workers he still has a path to victory on Election Day 15 days away despite slipping opinion poll numbers.
Trump and Fauci, a member of his coronavirus task force, have been at odds over how best to handle a pandemic that has killed more than 219,000 people in the United States and weakened the Republican president's Nov. 3 re-election bid.
Fauci has openly complained about being cited in a Trump re-election campaign advertisement and said in an interview broadcast on Sunday night by CBS' "60 Minutes" that he was not surprised Trump himself contracted the virus.
"Fauci is a disaster. If I listened to him, we’d have 500,000 deaths," Trump said on a call with campaign workers which the campaign allowed reporters to join.
Speaking from his signature hotel in Las Vegas ahead of two rallies in Arizona, Trump said Americans were fed up with pandemic restrictions.
"People are saying, 'Whatever. Just leave us alone.' They’re tired of it. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots," said Trump, whose rallies include many supporters not wearing masks and standing shoulder to shoulder at odds with the guidance of Fauci and other public health experts.
"Fauci is a nice guy. He’s been here for 500 years," Trump added.
Fauci, 79, is one of the most respected scientists in the United States and has served under Republican and Democratic presidents. He has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
Trump suggested he had avoided firing Fauci because of the negative blowback he would receive.
Trump took his frustration out on Fauci midway through a call intended to buck up his national team of campaign workers amid a spate of stories suggesting a campaign in turmoil. With nearly two weeks to go until Election Day, Democrat Joe Biden holds a lead in national opinion polls and in many battleground states where the election is likely to be decided.
"We have momentum at the exact time that we want momentum," campaign manager Bill Stepien said on the call.
Trump called news stories about internal strife "bullshit" and said he felt he was in a better position now than four years ago when he scored an improbable victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"This is the best I’ve ever felt," he said.
Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said over the weekend that national poll figures were misleading because must-win states were close.
“We cannot become complacent because the very searing truth is that Donald Trump can still win this race, and every indication we have shows that this thing is going to come down to the wire,” she wrote in a memo to donors.