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Vice President Mike Pence joins Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a coronavirus task force meeting on Feb. 27, 2020. (AP) Vice President Mike Pence joins Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a coronavirus task force meeting on Feb. 27, 2020. (AP)

Vice President Mike Pence joins Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a coronavirus task force meeting on Feb. 27, 2020. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 28, 2020
Victoria Knight
By Victoria Knight February 28, 2020

Did Donald Trump fire pandemic officials, defund CDC?

If Your Time is short

  • “Fired” may be a little strong, but in 2018, top national security officials handling pandemics left abruptly and were not replaced by the Trump administration.
     
  • As for funding, there’s no question that the Trump administration sought to cut key CDC budget categories. But thanks to Congress, that funding was restored and even increased in bills that Trump ultimately signed.

During a CNN town hall before the South Carolina primary, Mike Bloomberg — a former New York City mayor and Democratic presidential candidate — was asked whether he had confidence in President Donald Trump to handle a potential coronavirus pandemic, officially known as the COVID-19 virus.

After jokingly saying, "I feel so much better," Bloomberg told the audience, "No. 1, he fired the pandemic team two years ago. No. 2, he's been defunding the Centers for Disease Control. So, we don't have the experts in place that we need. I hope he's right that the virus doesn't come here, that nobody gets sick. That would be a wonderful outcome. But the bottom line is, we are not ready for this kind of thing."

Bloomberg had a point that the Trump administration ousted some of its officials dealing with global pandemics, but "defunding" the CDC is more complicated than he let on.

"He fired the pandemic team two years ago"

"Fired" may be a strong word, but there have been abrupt changes to key national security posts with responsibility for global pandemics. More recently the administration has assigned new officials to take leadership roles.

In May 2018, the top White House official in charge of the U.S. response to pandemics left the administration. Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer was the senior director of global health and biodefense on the National Security Council and oversaw global health security issues, a specialty that had been bolstered under President Barack Obama.

After Ziemer’s departure, the global health team was reorganized as part of an effort by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton. Meanwhile, Tom Bossert, a homeland security adviser who recommended strong defenses against disease and biological warfare, was reportedly pushed out by Bolton in 2018. Neither White House official or their teams, which were responsible for coordinating the U.S. response to pandemic outbreaks across agencies, have been replaced during the past two years.

In November 2019, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and experts formally recommended that health security leadership on the NSC should be restored. And on Feb. 18, 2020, a group of 27 senators sent a letter to current National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to ask him to appoint a new global health security expert to the NSC.

"The fact that they explicitly dismantled the office in the White House that was tasked with preparing for exactly this kind of a risk is hugely concerning," Jeremy Konyndyk, who ran foreign disaster assistance in the Obama administration, told the Guardian. "Both the structure and all the institutional memory is gone now."

Instead, Trump has looked within his administration to fill roles for the coronavirus response. 

Last month, Trump appointed his Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, to chair a coronavirus task force. On Feb. 26, he announced that Vice President Mike Pence would be taking charge of the U.S. response to the coronavirus. 

And the following day, Pence announced he was appointing Ambassador Debbie Birx to assist the effort as "White House coronavirus response coordinator." Birx is a physician and global health expert who is currently responsible for coordinating the State Department's HIV/AIDS task force. The White House said she will be supported by NSC staff in her role.

Featured Fact-check

"He's been defunding Centers for Disease Control."

It’s not accurate to say that Trump has been "defunding" the CDC, but he has tried to make cuts in key programs. It’s just that Congress didn’t listen.

The Trump administration’s initial proposals for the budgets for emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases at CDC — a key player in the fight against coronavirus — have consistently been lower than what was spent the previous year. 

The administration proposed $61.7 million less in 2018 than 2017; $96.4 million less in 2019 than in 2018; $114.4 million less in 2020 than in 2019; and $85.3 million less in 2021 than 2020.

However, Congress reshapes presidential recommendations as they see fit when they craft final spending bills.

Every year since Trump has been president, lawmakers have passed bills — bills signed by Trump — that not only exceeded what Trump requested on emerging infections but also exceeded what had been spent the previous year.

As the chart below shows, funding increased every year from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2020. (We have not included the 2017 proposal, since that was submitted by the Obama administration. The figures for 2020 are preliminary.)

It’s important to note that Trump has asked Congress for a $2.5 billion supplemental budget to help combat the emergence of this coronavirus. House Democrats quickly said the amount was insufficient to meet current threats, and Trump said he was willing to seek more if lawmakers were willing.

In addition, the Trump campaign pointed to consistent funding for certain budget sub-categories, such as CDC’s public health emergency preparedness, which helps states and localities deal with public health emergencies, including outbreaks. That program suffered funding losses that predate Trump.

Our ruling

Bloomberg said Trump is hampered in the fight against coronavirus because "No. 1, he fired the pandemic team two years ago. No. 2, he's been defunding Centers for Disease Control."

On the first point, it’s hard to pin down whether the National Security Council staffers were "fired" in 2018, but they certainly left abruptly and have not been replaced, though other leaders in the coronavirus fight have been named in recent days.

On the second point — funding — there’s no question that the Trump administration sought to cut key CDC budget categories that would be involved in emerging infections like coronavirus. But Bloomberg overlooks that, thanks to Congress, that funding was restored and even increased in bills that were ultimately signed by Trump.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details, so we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

CNN, town hall transcript, Feb. 26, 2020

Washington Post, "White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert resigns," April 10, 2018. 

Washington Post, "Top White House official in charge of pandemic response exits abruptly," May 10, 2018. 

KHN Morning Briefing, "Trump To Assemble U.S. Task Force To Tackle Coronavirus; Top Health Officials Reiterate Americans Are At Low Risk," Jan. 30, 2020.

Washington Post Health 202, "President Trump made it harder to fight coronavirus by actions he took two years ago," Feb. 27, 2020. 

Politico, "Trump puts Pence in charge of coronavirus response," Feb. 26, 2020. 

Politico, "White House announces coronavirus 'coordinator' to lead response under Pence," Feb. 27, 2020. 

The White House press release, "Vice President Pence Announces Ambassador Debbie Birx to Serve as the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator," Feb. 27, 2020. 

Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Ending the Cycle of Crisis and Complacency in U.S. Global Health Security," Nov. 2019. 

Democratic Senators Letter to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, "021320 NSC Novel Coronavirus Letter," Feb. 13, 2020. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, budget data for emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases, 2016-2021

Trust for America’s Health, "The Impact of Chronic Underfunding on America’s Public Health System: Trends, Risks, and Recommendations," 2019

Foreign Policy, "Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response," Jan. 31, 2020

Washington Post, "Congressional leaders launch emergency spending talks for coronavirus response," Feb 26, 2020

The Guardian, "US underprepared for coronavirus due to Trump cuts, say health experts," Jan. 31, 2020

Associated Press, "Democrats distort coronavirus readiness," Feb. 26, 2020

PolitiFact, "Free-for-all: Fact-checking the South Carolina Democratic presidential debate," Feb. 25, 2020

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Did Donald Trump fire pandemic officials, defund CDC?

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