President Donald Trump has sharpened his attacks on one of the country’s top health officials, calling Anthony Foci a “Democrat” but saying he would keep him close.

Trump mentioned Foci during a rally in North Carolina on Thursday, defending his response to the coronavirus pandemic, noting that the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases initially recommended not wearing masks.

“Then you have a friend of mine, and he’s a good guy, Tony – Tony Foci,” Trump said. “He’s a good guy, so I’m keeping him close. Really? We’re going to keep him close. But he’s a Democrat, everyone knows that. He’s a friend of Cuomo,” Trump said, referring to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

Fauci did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the story.

Fauci said health officials did not recommend masks to the public at the start of the outbreak because they were concerned about the shortage of health workers. Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April recommended that all Americans use face coatings, Fauci was a staunch supporter of the practice.

Trump, who said he contracted the coronavirus on October 2 and was hospitalized for three days, is unlikely to ever wear a mask.

The president’s campaign is running a television commercial in which Fauci’s remarks are taken out of context to suggest that he welcomes Trump’s response to the pandemic. Foci publicly objected, saying he had always been publicly non-partisan, and called on Trump’s campaign to remove advertising. They have so far refused.

“By doing this against my will, they are, in effect, persecuting me,” Foci said in an interview with the Daily Beast on Monday.

Fauci last appeared in public with Trump on July 30.

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