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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Dems Misconstrue Trump Budget Remarks

After President Donald Trump said, “I don’t know anything about” the disbanding of a White House pandemic response office, the Democrats claimed that he “lied” and pointed to Trump’s earlier remarks about “some of the people we cut” as evidence. But those remarks were in response to a question about proposed budget cuts — not the anti-pandemic team in question.

Several Democrats have criticized the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak by pointing to the dissolving of a team within the White House’s National Security Council dedicated to coordinating a response to a pandemic. As we’ve written before, in 2018, the administration did eliminate a key position that would have been involved in such a response — the senior director of the NSC’s Office of Global Health Security and Biodefense. But that doesn’t mean the responsibilities of that office were eliminated.

Administration officials have described a reorganization or streamlining of the NSC. An NSC spokesman told the Washington Post in May 2018 that the administration “will continue to address these issues with the same resolve under the new structure.”

Some still have been critical of the elimination of the post or a separate global health team. For instance, the Center for Strategic & International Studies recommended in a November 2019 report restoring the position on the NSC as one of seven key changes to better protect the American public from global health threats.

In a March 13 press conference, the president was asked “what responsibility do you take” for the “disband[ing]” of the White House pandemic office, and he responded that he “didn’t know anything about it.”

“And when you say ‘me,’ I didn’t do it,” the president said. “I could ask perhaps — my administration — but I could perhaps ask Tony about that because I don’t know anything about it. I mean, you say — you say we did that. I don’t know anything about it.”

(Trump’s mention of “Tony” was a reference to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.)

The reporter made clear she was talking about “the reorganization that happened at the National Security Council,” and Trump added: “It’s the — it’s the administration. Perhaps they do that. You know, people let people go.”

The next day, March 14, the Democratic National Committee tweeted: “Yesterday, Trump said he didn’t disband the government’s pandemic response team. He lied. Here he is earlier this year defending doing just that.”

The accompanying video showed Trump saying: “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. And if — if we ever need them, we can get them very quickly. And rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

But those remarks came in a Feb. 26 press conference after Trump was asked about his proposed budget cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization.

Reporter, Feb. 26: Your budgets have consistently called for enormous cuts to the CDC, the NIH, and the WHO. You’ve talked a lot today about how these professionals are excellent, have been critical and necessary. Does this experience at all give you pause about those consistent cuts?

Trump: No, because we — we can get money and we can increase staff. We know all the people. We know all the good people. It’s a question I asked the doctors before. Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. And if — if we ever need them, we can get them very quickly. And rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them.

When we need them, we can get them back very quickly. For instance, we’re bringing some people in tomorrow that are already in this, you know, great government that we have, and very specifically for this. We can build up very, very quickly. And we’ve already done that. I mean, we really have built up. We have a great staff.

Trump doesn’t say to whom he’s referring in talking about staffing cuts, but the question was about his proposed budget cuts, not the National Security Council global health security team. The NSC was not mentioned in the reporter’s question or Trump’s answer.

As we’ve said before, Trump has consistently proposed budgets that would cut funding for the CDC and NIH, but Congress hasn’t enacted those proposals. The CDC’s staff has decreased by 591 positions, or 5.4%, from December 2016 through March 2019, the most recent data available from the Office of Personnel Management.

Daniel Wessel, a spokesperson for the DNC, told us that Trump didn’t answer the question that was asked and was likely talking about the NSC issue, which had been in the news that day.

“Trump was not answering the question that he was asked, so we should not be held to the standard of what the question was,” he said in an email. “Trump’s response on the day that headlines were breaking about the decision by his NSC to cut the pandemic response team was just as likely (probably more likely) about the pandemic response team than anything else.”

Wessel added that the point of whether Trump “lied … is moot,” saying there have been several news stories “that showed Trump’s administration and NSC led by John Bolton did indeed dismantle the pandemic response team in the spring of 2018.”

Zach Parkinson, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, told us: “As the full video makes clear, at no point in this exchange was the National Security Council or the Global Health Security Directorate team mentioned. The President was specifically asked about his proposed budgets, not any personnel reorganization or actions.”

Parkinson also said the claim that the NSC team was eliminated is “false,” saying, “former and current National Security Council officials have repeatedly said the team working on biodefense is still at the NSC.”

Others on Twitter, including celebrities and journalists, have retweeted a March 17 article by the Independent, a U.K. publication, that also linked Trump’s Feb. 26 remarks to the NSC issue. The Democratic group Protect Our Care pointed to that article and wrongly said Trump made these comments “in 2018.”

The Atlantic, also citing the Independent story, initially said the president’s remarks were from 2018 but later corrected that.

The Independent story didn’t say the video was from two years ago but may have left that impression. “A video has emerged of Donald Trump talking about cutting the US pandemic response team in 2018,” it said. The date pertains to the cutting, not the video, which is merely a few weeks old.

What Happened with the NSC Team?

As we explained in a March 3 story, the administration did eliminate a key position at the NSC but that doesn’t mean the entire “team” was “fired,” as then-Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg said, or that all of the functions of the office were eliminated.

The Washington Post reported in May 2018 that then-National Security Adviser John Bolton dissolved the NSC’s Office of Global Health Security and Biodefense in a reorganization effort. Rear Adm. R. Timothy Ziemer left his post as senior director of that office and wasn’t replaced.

President Barack Obama had created the NSC unit in 2016 after the yearslong Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Trump appointed Ziemer as senior director in April 2017, but Ziemer left about a year later. He now serves as senior deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID.

The Post said this was part of a “reorganization” by Bolton and quoted an NSC spokesman as saying “global health, global health security and biodefense” would be addressed “under the new structure.” The Atlantic also reported at the time that some team members were shifted to other groups, and others took over some of Ziemer’s duties. 

Tom Bossert, a former White House homeland security adviser who helped develop the Trump administration’s biodefense strategy and was the designated lead for coordinating the American response to a biological crisis, was also reportedly pushed out of the NSC when Bolton took over. Bossert resigned in April 2018, a day after Bolton started as national security adviser.

Bossert was replaced with a series of people, but when Trump announced his coronavirus task force on Jan. 29, he did not name current homeland security adviser Julia Nesheiwat in any capacity.

Bolton, as well as Tim Morrison, former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense for the NSC, also have described the moves as a restructuring or consolidation. What was the Office of Global Health Security and Biodefense became part of the directorate on counterproliferation and biodefense.

Morrison objected to claims that the office was “dissolved,” writing in the Post on March 16 that the administration “create[d] the counterproliferation and biodefense directorate, which was the result of consolidating three directorates into one, given the obvious overlap between arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction terrorism, and global health and biodefense. It is this reorganization that critics have misconstrued or intentionally misrepresented.”

Morrison led that directorate for a year, he wrote, before leaving that position. Another official replaced him, he said. The administration has decreased staffing at the NSC, something Morrison said was needed after “bloat” under the previous administration.

We didn’t get a statement from the White House when we asked about the NSC issue, but the Washington Post Fact Checker did. NSC spokesman John Ullyot told the Post: “No director-level positions were eliminated during this process, and the organization retained its subject matter expertise under a different organizational structure.”

Some have said the NSC needs a separate global health security point person or team — as the Center for Strategic & International Studies recommended. That’s a matter of opinion, and we take no position on that.

Three days before Morrison’s op-ed, Beth Cameron, former senior director for the old NSC team — the global health security and biodefense office — wrote in the Post that disbanding that directorate “left an unclear structure and strategy for coordinating pandemic preparedness and response.”

Democratic senators had questioned the move at the time, as well as former government officials.

Kenneth W. Bernard, who served in both former President Bill Clinton’s and President George W. Bush’s administrations, wrote in 2018 that this was the third time that an administration had “downgraded the importance of disease and bioterrorism threats in the hierarchy of national security issues.” Bernard said he worked in such a post in 1998 but the Bush administration abolished it in 2001, then reopened it a year later after 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks. He said Obama abolished it again after his election, but in his second term created the NSC office.

Bolton responded to the recent criticism on Twitter on March 14, saying: “Claims that streamlining NSC structures impaired our nation’s bio defense are false. Global health remained a top NSC priority, and its expert team was critical to effectively handling the 2018-19 Africa Ebola crisis.”

Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly and Republican Rep. Steve Chabot have introduced a bill that would require that the president create a global health security interagency council and “appoint an employee of the National Security Council, serving at the senior director level or higher, to serve as Chair for the Council.”

Connolly asked Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a March 11 hearing whether it was a “mistake” to “dismantle” the office in the NSC devoted to global health and security. Fauci responded: “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a mistake. I would say we worked very well with that office. It would be nice if the office was still there.”

We take no position on whether it was a mistake or not to eliminate the global health security post or restructure the NSC team. But it’s wrong for Democrats to cite Trump’s remarks about “some of the people we cut” as proof that he “lied” about not knowing what happened to the NSC team.