WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the leading public health expert on President Trump’s coronavirus task force, sought on Monday to smooth over a growing rift with the president, taking the podium during the task force’s daily briefing to defend Mr. Trump, who has been enraged by reports that he was warned about the potential for a pandemic but oversaw a halting response.
Dr. Fauci said the president approved social distancing measures the first time they were recommended to him. “The first and only time that Dr. Birx and I formally made a recommendation to the president” to put in place strong mitigation measures, he said, referring to Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, “the president listened and went to the mitigation.”
Mr. Trump, who on Sunday reposted a message on Twitter saying, “Time to #FireFauci,” stood at his side.
“I retweeted somebody who said, ‘Fire,’” Mr. Trump told reporters on Monday. But he said he had no plans to remove Dr. Fauci from his team.
“I like him, he is terrific,” the president said, claiming he was merely elevating someone else’s opinion he did not share. “Not everybody is happy with Anthony, not everybody is happy with everybody.”
Mr. Trump’s tweet was part of a weekend-long effort to defend himself against criticism of his slow initial response to the pandemic. The president arrived in the briefing room with a video reel of cable news excerpts showing journalists and Democratic governors complimenting his decision to institute China travel restrictions in late January, and of other experts playing down the threat of the coronavirus.
His anger appeared to also be directed at Dr. Fauci, who on Sunday appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” where he said more lives could have been saved from the coronavirus if the country had been shut down earlier. “I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” Dr. Fauci said.
On Monday, he said the response was taken out of context as confirmation of a New York Times investigation that reported the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic but lack of planning led to a halting response.
“As happens all the time, there were interpretations of that response to a hypothetical question,” Dr. Fauci said. “I thought it would be nice for me to clarify because I did not have a chance to clarify.”
Dr. Fauci bristled when a reporter asked if he was making the clarifying statement voluntarily, implying that he was put up to it under pressure from Mr. Trump.
“Everything I do is voluntary, please,” he said. “Don’t even imply that.”
An angry Mr. Trump also defended his own response, while lashing out at news reporters who raised questions about what steps the administration took in February to slow the spread of the virus.
“Everything we did was right,” Mr. Trump said.