There’s clearly a self-serving element to White House trade adviser Peter Navarro’s opinion piece for USA Today, published late on Tuesday. Not that this is new for him.

Navarro came to the administration by virtue of his fervent anti-China worldview (and thanks to some fortuitous Googling by Jared Kushner), positioning him well to be a skeptic of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus that emerged from that country. A pair of memos Navarro wrote earlier this year argued that the virus posed a significant risk and demanded an urgent response — arguments that were largely borne out but that have been hard to evaluate outside the context of his sinophobia. Was he prescient about the pandemic? Or did his worldview simply position him well and allow him to take victory laps where he saw them?

The aforementioned memos are central to the lap he takes in the USA Today essay. In it, he contrasts his self-professed foresight with the pronouncements offered by the nation’s leading infectious-disease doctor, Anthony S. Fauci, saying that Fauci “has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.”

Fauci’s errors, as articulated by Navarro, overlap with the bullet points released by a White House spokesperson earlier this week meant to back up President Trump’s articulation that Fauci had repeatedly been wrong. As my colleague Aaron Blake pointed out, those criticisms were often misleading, incomplete or cherry-picked. For Navarro, though, they were a jumping-off point, allowing him to, for example, contrast his immediate support for banning travel from China with what he presents as Fauci’s opposition to that move. (The editors at USA Today linked that claim to a fact-check making clear that Fauci’s public position on the travel ban was aligned with Trump’s.)

It’s odd for Navarro to position himself as the wise counterpoint to Fauci on issues of public health, obviously, particularly because that positioning includes a return to Navarro’s insistence that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for covid-19, the disease the virus causes. That position has been undercut repeatedly, but Navarro clings to it, hoping, it seems, that through sheer luck or sheer determination, he can be proved right.

After Navarro’s essay was published, the White House communications team quickly declared that he’d gone rogue, offering an opinion that “didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes.” But, again, it’s hard to know what that means. Does that mean that Navarro simply dashed off a note to USA Today, freelancing without any thumbs-up from the White House — including from Trump? Or does it mean that Trump was aware of Navarro’s plan and tacitly approved, and Trump’s communications team is trying to massage that move by noting that Navarro skipped the “clearance process” in the same way that Trump might when tweeting? The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, as knowledgeable about this White House as anyone, seems to think it’s the latter.

After all, it was Trump who made explicit this dispute with Fauci. Fauci’s public insistence on data and science runs contrary to Trump’s public insistence on his own flawless performance on handling the pandemic, and public contradiction with Trump is not something the president appreciates. While Navarro’s disparagement of Fauci is flawed in the specifics, it again mirrors the White House’s position on Fauci in general.

Nor is Navarro the only senior staffer offering criticism of the doctor. Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, a member of the White House communications arm, offered his own disparagement of Fauci on Facebook.

(The illustrator of that cartoon, Ben Garrison, saw an invitation to the White House revoked after past cartoons with anti-Semitic themes were shared widely.)

Did this Scavino post go through the clearance process? Did Trump chastise Scavino for sharing it? If it helps answer the question: The post is still public three days later.

This raises the question of why Trump and his team might want to undercut Fauci. We explored one reason earlier this week: By undercutting scientific experts, Trump muddies the water on how Americans perceive his handling of the pandemic.

That’s tangential to another obvious reason. By portraying Fauci as pouring cold water on the economy or being wrong about the pandemic, Trump supporters are given a focus of frustration over the still-roiling coronavirus outbreak.

Fox News polling over the past four months has found a slight erosion in how well Americans think the federal government is handling the pandemic. In March, 56 percent of Americans viewed the federal government’s response with approval, a figure that slid to 50 percent by June. Among Republicans, the drop was similar, from 80 percent to 73 percent. More worrisome for Trump, though, was the plunge in the number that viewed the federal response with strong approval. In March, 41 percent of Republicans held strongly approving views of how the feds were doing. In June, only 25 percent did.

The head of the federal government is a gentleman named Donald Trump, who is up for reelection in November and who is in dire need of strong support from Republicans to win that contest. It’s useful, then, for Trump to have someone who can absorb the flak directed from his own party at his government. And for that, Fauci is perfect.

Republicans may not have needed much of a push in that direction. Fox’s polling shows that, while views of Fauci among Democrats have improved slightly, views of the doctor among Republicans have plunged faster than views of the federal government’s response.

In March, Trump and Fauci were viewed about equally among Republicans: Each was viewed with approval on the pandemic by more than 8 in 10 members of the president’s party and viewed with strong approval by about 6 in 10 Republicans.

In June? Six in 10 Republicans viewed Fauci’s work with approval, including only a quarter who strongly approved. Views of Trump, though, remained fairly consistent. In fact, as the pandemic has ground on, Trump is the only one who has retained the strong approval of most Republicans.

Again, perhaps it was simply Navarro freelancing in his public denunciation of Fauci as untrustworthy. Perhaps the White House is sincerely annoyed at what Navarro wrote, up to the level of the chief executive. Perhaps the administration wants everyone from Fauci to Navarro pulling in the same direction, working together in the struggle to control the coronavirus.

Or, perhaps, Fauci has a new role in the Trump administration. Scapegoat.