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March 2, 2020 – At nearly every turn, President Trump has left the United States dangerously unprepared for the Coronavirus outbreak. In order for his belated response — which materialized only when the stock market began its nosedive — to be effective, Trump will first need to undo much of the damage he and his administration inflicted. 

Rather than continue prudent and modest preparedness investments previous administrations put in place, Trump slashed health budgets and fired some of the very officials we now need to avert disaster. Just as harmful, his incredulous assertion that China has the outbreak “totally under control” — despite the rapid spread of the disease in China and beyond — and his denial and manipulation of science have stripped him of all credibility, among the most precious commodities in a public health crisis.

The Coronavirus outbreak has placed a spotlight on the implications of three years of neglect, incompetence, and chaos. (A social media adaptation of the below points is available HERE). 

 From the outset, Trump has ignored and, in some cases, outright lied about the scale of the threat:

Trump: “You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in.  Typically, that will go away in April.  We’re in great shape though.” [Remarks, 02/10/20] 

  • Reality: Dr. David N. Fisman, professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto: “The idea that this will just fade in the summer, never to be seen again is, I think, wishful thinking.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/26/20]
  • Reality: Dr. Maciej F. Boni, professor of biology and member of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics: “We’re not off the hook just because we’re getting to springtime and the warmer weather.”  [Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/26/20]

Trump: “We’re rapidly developing a vaccine…The vaccine is coming along well.  And in speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop fairly rapidly…”   [Press Conference, 02/27/20]

  • Reality: Health official says coronavirus vaccine will take at least a year to a year and a half to develop – The Hill 

Trump has lavished praise on Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, even as China’s bungled response put millions around the world at risk: 

Trump: “Just had a long and very good conversation by phone with President Xi of China. He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus. He feels they are doing very well, even building hospitals in a matter of only days…” [Tweet, 02/07/20]

  • Reality: “Coronavirus Anger Boils Over in China and Doctors Plead for Supplies” – NYT
  • Reality: “Coronavirus shakes citizens’ faith in Chinese government” – The Guardian
  • Reality: “780 million people in China are living under travel restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak” – CNN
  • Reality: “China’s coronavirus response: Clamp down and shield Xi” – Axios

Trump: “I spoke with President Xi… He’s working very, very hard.  And if you can count on the reports coming out of China, that spread has gone down quite a bit.”  [Press Conference, 02/27/20]

  • Reality: “China’s Xi Jinping knew of coronavirus earlier than first thought” – Financial Times
  • Reality: “White House does not have ‘high confidence’ in China’s coronavirus information, official says” – CNBC
  • Reality: “China’s Coronavirus Figures Don’t Add Up. ‘This Never Happens With Real Data.’” – Barron’s

Trump: “They’re working really hard, and I think they are doing a very professional job. They’re in touch with the World Organization. CDC also. We’re working together.” [Remarks to Press, 02/27/20]

  • Reality: “World Health Organization: China not sharing data on coronavirus infections among health-care workers” – Washington Post
  • Reality: “Experts say confusion over coronavirus case count in China is muddying picture of spread” – STAT

Now, Trump has put Vice President Pence, a known science denier with a proven record of failure on public health issues, at the helm of the government’s response: 

Trump: “[H]e’s also very good on healthcare … Mike Pence of Indiana.  They’ve established great healthcare  … and he’s, really, very expert at the field. And what I’ve done is I’m going to be announcing, exactly right now, that I’m going to be putting our Vice President, Mike Pence, in charge.”  [Press Conference, 02/27/20]

  • Reality: “Mike Pence ‘not up to task’ of leading US coronavirus response, say experts” – The Guardian
  • Reality: “Trump wanted, and got, a coronavirus lead who would give politics primary consideration” – The Washington Post
  • Reality: “Mike Pence, who enabled an HIV outbreak in Indiana, will lead US coronavirus response” – The Verge
  • Reality: Trump eliminated the position of Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biothreats on his National Security Council (NSC) and declined to nominate or delayed nominations for key posts at the State Department and the White House. 

Timeline: The Trump Administration Has Invited Risk at Every Turn

2014: As a private citizen, Trump could not have been more wrong in his criticism of how President Obama handled the Ebola crisis, where American leadership galvanized the international response that was necessary to contain the threat.Instead,Trump raised mass panic, tweeting “KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE” of American health care workers and attempted to discredit the CDC.  

July 2017: The very first budget put forward by the Trump administration called for a 17 percent slash in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

December 2017: Trump signed a bill into law that cut $750 million from the Prevention and Public Health Fund (PPHF), which accounts for 12 percent of the CDC’s budget. 

February 2018: Trump signed a bill to cut $1.35 billion from that same fund over the next ten years. 

Around the same time, the CDC also scaled back work in 39 countries aimed at preventing and responding to future epidemics.

March 2018: Trump nominated a CDC Director with no experience leading a public health agency and who has been accused of having an extreme religious agenda as well as engaging in scientific misconduct.

May 2018: Trump attempted to rescind $252 million from USAID’s International Disaster Assistance account, reversing course only after frontline healthcare workers protested.

May 2018: The White House forced Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer from his position on the National Security Council and disbanded his global health security team. Ziemer, the NSC official in charge of pandemic response, was never replaced.

June 2018: Trump proposed cutting the workforce for the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by nearly 40%. Congress blocked this effort, but the Corps has nonetheless eroded as retiring officials are not being replaced

September 2018: The administration diverted funds from the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute to pay for the separation of children from the parents at the southwest border.

March 2019: For the third year in a row, the administration sought to decrease spending on global development and even proposed cutting the State Department’s budget by nearly 30 percent.

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May 2019: The administration again proposed cutting funding for the CDC, this time by 10 percent.

 October 2019: The administration shut down a USAID program called Predict that provided surveillance of emerging infectious diseases and viruses. Predict studied new diseases that threatened to move from animals to humans, as was the case with coronavirus.

 February 2020: Even as the Coronavirus was already spreading widely in China and beyond its borders, the Trump administration put forward a budget request proposing $3 billion in cuts to global health programs. 

Experts Agree: Trump Has Left Us Unprepared

Former CDC Chief Dr. Tom Frieden: “[The budget cuts] would significantly increase the chance an epidemic will spread without our knowledge and endanger lives in our country and around the world.” [CNN, 02/05/2018]

Dr. Marc Lipsitch, Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard, in response to Trump’s proposal to divert Ebola funds to the Coronavirus response: “It seems quite inadequate and absurd to divert funds from one serious epidemic to another…Money to control it is a very important investment.” [Markets Insider, 2/25/20]

Dr. Nicole Lurie, former Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, and Ronald Klain, former White House Ebola Response Coordinator: “With one confirmed case on U.S. soil, more likely already here and 8,000 visitors from China arriving every day, it is already too late to avoid multiple cases of the dangerous new coronavirus in the United States. We are past the “if” question and squarely facing the “how bad will it be” phase of the response. Thus, President Trump failed his first test in dealing with the virus, by brashly asserting that the U.S. government has the coronavirus ‘completely under control.’” [Washington Post, 1/22/20]

Ronald Klain, former White House Ebola Response Coordinator: “There is a real reason for us to be scared of the idea of facing this threat with Donald Trump in the White House.” [The Atlantic, 06/23/2018] 

Juliette Kayyem, former DHS Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs: “There is a shell of a homeland security office within the WH now. Offices focused on pandemic preparedness and response were abolished under Bolton.  The Homeland Security Advisor role has been demoted.” [Tweet, 01/26/20]

Jeremy Konyndyk, former director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance: “Breaking up the only NSC directorate with specialized knowledge of infectious disease crises means the White House will be slower off its marks when the next big disease threat emerges. Taken together, these developments point toward an abandonment of US global investments in health security preparedness; a reduction in resources available for future outbreak response; and a dissolution of the White House’s capabilities to effectively manage either of those things. Having lived through the searing experience of managing an outbreak for which we were unprepared, I find it incredible that anyone would voluntarily unlearn the hard-won lessons of that experience. But that is what appears to be happening. And America is less safe for it.” [Center for Global Development blog, 05/17/18]

Jeremy Konyndyk: “As Coronavirus begins reaching the US, reminder that the Trump Administration dismantled the NSC team that was built post-Ebola to manage disease threats.” [Tweet, 01/26/20]

J. Stephen Morrison, Senior Vice President at CSIS: “Health security is very fragmented, with many different agencies … It means coordination and direction from the White House is terribly important.” [Washington Post, 5/10/18]

 Dr. Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health: “In 2015, Donald Trump heavily criticized the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola crisis. Mr. Trump, then a presidential candidate, urged maximalist measures, such as not allowing Ebola-infected American aid workers back into the country. While there’s little chance that such an extreme step will be required this time, there’s also little evidence that Mr. Trump is taking the potential threat from the virus seriously enough.” [New York Times, 01/23/2020]

Elizabeth Radin, Columbia University Lecturer in Epidemiology: “The rhetoric about building walls and reneging on NATO calls into question how willing the administration would be to work with other countries… [A]d-libbing, rambling, or flying off the handle can be very dangerous in an epidemic.” [The Atlantic, 12/20/16]

Lena Sun, Washington Post Health Reporter: “In addition to leaving key posts vacant, the Trump administration has displayed little interest in the issue, health and security experts say. The White House has made few public statements about the importance of preparing for outbreaks, and it has yet to build the international relationships that are crucial for responding to global health crises. Trump also has proposed sharp cuts to government agencies working to stop deadly outbreaks at their source.” [Washington Post, 04/08/17]

We former senior officials and policy experts, academics and civil society leaderswho have seen first-hand how the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world when we stand strong with our allies, pursue principled diplomacy, and stay true to the values that have long defined America at home and abroad. www.NationalSecurityAction.org