• Tensions reportedly were rising at the White House as Dr. Anthony Fauci has countered President Donald Trump's attempts to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic
  • These tensions have led to questions of whether  Trump can fire the nation's top infectious disease expert
  • Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier said Trump cannot directly fire civil servants thanks to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883

As coronavirus cases surged across the U.S., tensions at the White House between President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci were reported rising, leading to speculation on whether Trump would fire the nation's top infectious disease expert for challenging presidential attempts to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic.

The better question, however, is: Can Trump fire Fauci?

The technical answer is no.

Federal law does not provide Trump the authority to fire the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases directly. Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier told CNN Trump does not have the authority to summarily dismiss him without cause.

“There are civil service protections for career federal employees that prevent them from being removed or demoted for political reasons,” Stier said.

Stier said the protections are rooted in the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield. At the time, employment in the U.S. government was based on a type of “spoils system” where individuals came into administrative jobs through political connections instead of merit. Garfield’s assassination led to the adoption of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act under successor Chester A. Arthur that overhauled government employment to a merit-based system. The measure became law in January 1883.

The bill eliminated patronage hiring and instituted rules to limit the firing or demoting powers of political leaders over civil servants. Stier said either requires “poor performance or failure to follow orders,” and Trump would be required to go through the proper chain of command. In Fauci’s case, it would be the Department of Health and Human Services.

Stier said even if HHS Secretary Alex Azar or National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins were willing to fire Fauci -- ulikely since Fauci trained Collins -- Fauci has the right to appeal.

Stier said the simplest solution for Trump would be to “sideline” Fauci, preventing him from speaking publicly at briefings or scheduling media appearances -- actions the administration already has attempted. Fauci, however, has found ways to circumvent the effort.