In 2018, the Trump administration disbanded the White House pandemic response team. It was originally created as a branch of the National Security Council for Global Health Security and Biodefense in 2016 by President Barack Obama after the administration’s response to the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic was deemed insufficient.
The dissolution of this crucial team of experts has been recently at the forefront of discussions as to why the U.S. has had such a poor response to the global coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, Trump was asked about his decision to disband the pandemic response team at a news conference in the Rose Garden, to which he responded by feigning insult and ignorance. “I just think it’s a nasty question,” Trump said. “And when you say ‘me,’ I didn’t do it … I don’t know anything about it.”
John Bolton, national security adviser to the White House, took to Twitter to attempt to dispel the criticism lobbed at himself and the Trump administration at large. He claimed that in actuality, the NSC structures were simply “streamlined” instead of disbanded, and that any arguments against the process were due to the fact that the “angry Left just can’t stop attacking.”
However, Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, wrote in a rebuttal that closing the pandemic office “clearly reflected the White House’s misplaced priorities and has proven to be a gross misjudgment,” as USA Today points out.
“Bolton’s organizational choices meant the NSC didn’t have a cohesive team able to elevate pandemic readiness expertise directly to senior leaders,” Konyndyk continued. “Instead, the NSC had director-level subject-matter experts scattered around with limited influence and little ability to reach decision-makers. These people were highly capable and impressive, but their influence was diluted by the new structure. This can cost lives in a crisis.”
This isn’t the first time that the Trump administration’s shortcomings when it comes to funding for health and safety have been scrutinized amid the coronavirus outbreak. Last month, Trump was asked if he had come to regret budget proposals that gutted funding for the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization.
He regrets nothing.
“Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years, and if, if we have a need, we can get them very quickly,” Trump said, directly contradicting his claims to have known nothing about all of this. “And I’m a business person, I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them.”
On Friday, Beth Cameron, who formerly led the pandemic preparedness office under Obama, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about the shortcomings she currently saw due to the team’s elimination. “Our job was to be the smoke alarm—keeping watch to get ahead of emergencies, sounding a warning at the earliest sign of fire—all with the goal of avoiding a six-alarm blaze,” she wrote.
Tim Morrison, one of Bolton’s deputies at the National Security Council, wrote his own op-ed for the Post on Monday, firing back at Cameron and asserting that the majority of the blame for the pandemic lies with China: “The fault lies with China sitting on this thing for five weeks. We could have nipped this thing in the bud if the Chinese had come clean earlier.”
Last week, China closed its last temporary hospital in order to combat the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, after an initial outbreak in December. The Trump administration has posited that the U.S. could have the pandemic “under control” by July or August.