USA: Trump Officials Defend Disbanding Pandemic Team

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Washington. Vice President Mike Pence is at left. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Anticipating the likely investigation into their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, current, and former Trump administration officials are starting to push back on widespread allegations that the Administration’s cuts to critical global health staffing and funding may have hampered its response. Much of that attention has focused on 2018 disbanding of a National Security Council unit focused on pandemic preparedness, which critics say left a leadership vacuum in global health security at the White House.

Anticipating the likely investigation into their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, current, and former Trump administration officials are starting to push back on widespread allegations that the Administration’s cuts to critical global health staffing and funding may have hampered its response. Much of that attention has focused on 2018 disbanding of a National Security Council unit focused on pandemic preparedness, which critics say left a leadership vacuum in global health security at the White House.

President Donald Trump dismissed criticism that disbanding the team had slowed things down, calling it a “nasty question” at a White House briefing. “I don’t know anything about it,” Trump said at the March 13 press conference. But a long list of experts, lawmakers, and former officials spent the last 18 months warning that the Trump administration needed to reinstate it before it was too late.

Public health and national security experts shake their heads when President Donald Trump says the coronavirus “came out of nowhere” and “blindsided the world.”

They’ve been warning about the next pandemic for years and criticized the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to dismantle a National Security Council directorate at the White House charged with preparing for when, not if, another pandemic would hit the nation.

“We worked very well with that office,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress on March 11. “It would be nice if the office was still there.”

“It would be nice if the office was still there,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, told Congress this week. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a mistake (to eliminate the unit). I would say we worked very well with that office.”

Trump’s elimination of the office suggested, along with his proposed budget cuts for the CDC, that he did not see the threat of pandemics in the same way that many experts in the field did.

“One year later I was mystified when the White House dissolved the office, leaving the country less prepared for pandemics like COVID-19,” Beth Cameron, the first director of the unit, wrote in an op-ed Friday in The Washington Post.

Now architects of the NSC reorganization are speaking out, defending the White House’s decision by arguing that they merely streamlined a bloated organization and put pandemic and bioweapons experts in the same room, a move that was tested in real-time by the 2018 upsurge in cases of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Former officials say that the outbreak has been largely defeated, proof that the current White House can readily respond to such threats if given enough warning. They instead blame China, claiming the country waited weeks, if not months, to warn the world early enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, with Trump and other officials now calling it the “Chinese virus.” China alerted the World Health Organization to several unusual cases of pneumonia on Dec. 31.

It is the case they are making to the public now in anticipation of Congressional investigations to come into how the Trump Administration fumbled its early response to the virus, according to two former senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they anticipate this will become a legal matter in the future.

“It’s unclear whether the decision to disband the directorate, which was made in May 2018, after John Bolton became national security adviser, was a tactical move to downgrade the issue or whether it was part of the White House’s interest in simplifying and shrinking the National Security Council staff,” Cameron says.

Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton has tweeted that claims that his reorganization of the NSC impaired the country’s biodefenses are “false.” Tim Morrison, the former Special Assistant to the President for Counterproliferation and Biodefense under Bolton, tells TIME “I’m defending my people, who did tremendous good work in the White House — defending people I hired who are there now, working 18 hours a day.” Former NSC official Richard Goldberg tweeted a similar defense Sunday: “There was a team. There is a team. They beat Ebola. They’ll beat this. I see no evidence they are flailing.”

Anticipating the likely investigation into their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, current, and former Trump administration officials are starting to push back on widespread allegations that the Administration’s cuts to critical global health staffing and funding may have hampered its response. Much of that attention has focused on 2018 disbanding of a National Security Council unit focused on pandemic preparedness, which critics say left a leadership vacuum in global health security at the White House.

President Donald Trump dismissed criticism that disbanding the team had slowed things down, calling it a “nasty question” at a White House briefing. “I don’t know anything about it,” Trump said at the March 13 press conference. But a long list of experts, lawmakers, and former officials spent the last 18 months warning that the Trump administration needed to reinstate it before it was too late.

“We worked very well with that office,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress on March 11. “It would be nice if the office was still there.”

Now architects of the NSC reorganization are speaking out, defending the White House’s decision by arguing that they merely streamlined a bloated organization and put pandemic and bioweapons experts in the same room, a move that was tested in real-time by the 2018 upsurge in cases of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Former officials say that the outbreak has been largely defeated, proof that the current White House can readily respond to such threats if given enough warning. They instead blame China, claiming the country waited weeks, if not months, to warn the world early enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, with Trump and other officials now calling it the “Chinese virus.” China alerted the World Health Organization to several unusual cases of pneumonia on Dec. 31.

It is the case they are making to the public now in anticipation of Congressional investigations to come into how the Trump Administration fumbled its early response to the virus, according to two former senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they anticipate this will become a legal matter in the future.

Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton has tweeted that claims that his reorganization of the NSC impaired the country’s biodefenses are “false.” Tim Morrison, the former Special Assistant to the President for Counterproliferation and Biodefense under Bolton, tells TIME “I’m defending my people, who did tremendous good work in the White House — defending people I hired who are there now, working 18 hours a day.” Former NSC official Richard Goldberg tweeted a similar defense Sunday: “There was a team. There is a team. They beat Ebola. They’ll beat this. I see no evidence they are flailing.”

BY KIMBERLY DOZIER AND VERA BERGENGRUEN I Time

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