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EDITORIAL: If cupboard was bare, Trump emptied it

EDITORIAL: If cupboard was bare, Trump emptied it

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This originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 25.

Woe is Donald Trump. The long-suffering, misunderstood president just can’t make the world understand what a raw deal he got. The pandemic was China’s fault. Or was it the World Health Organization’s fault? One thing we know for sure, the lax U.S. response was President Barack Obama’s fault.

“We inherited a broken, terrible system …,” Trump told reporters April 18. “Our cupboards were bare. We had very little in our stockpile.” That was Trump’s attempt, frequently repeated by the president and recycled in White House presentations, to lay responsibility for the inept pandemic response at Obama’s feet, as if three years in office were insufficient for Trump to repair all the supposed damage his predecessor wrought.

Except it’s a lie of colossal Trumpian proportions.

We’ve taken the time to dissect Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budgets from the year before Obama left office all the way to the present. Trump can lie, but the numbers cannot. Obama left office with an unblemished record of building up the nation’s pandemic preparedness. Trump systematically sought to dismantle it.

Perhaps because of his experience with the 2015 Ebola outbreak, Obama sought to leave his successor fully prepared to confront future pandemics. He asked in his fiscal 2017 budget request to boost federal isolation and quarantine funding by $15 million, to $46.6 million. Congress approved $31.6 million. In Trump’s three years in office, he has not requested a dime more in funding.

Obama asked to nearly double his own $40 million outlay for epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Congress balked, but Obama left Trump with that $40 million as a starting point. What did Trump do? In his 2020 budget, he asked Congress to cut that number to: Zero. Zilch. Nothing.

Obama’s goal was $629.5 million in funding for pandemic preparedness, though Congress only gave him $612 million. If Trump was so worried about a bare cupboard, why did he ask Congress to cut the 2020 pandemic preparedness budget by $102.9 million? In the 2019 fiscal year budget, he sought a $595.5 million cut in the overall public health preparedness and response outlay.

The CDC budget in Obama’s final year mentions “epidemiology” or derivatives of the word 252 times. Under Trump, the word appears 129 times. The phrase “pandemic preparedness” appears exactly once in Trump’s 2020 budget.

Interestingly, Trump’s own 2020 budget contains a chart comparing the nation’s public health emergency preparedness before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and where it stood in 2016 (why it stops with Obama’s final year is unclear). Before 9/11, the nation had a 20% ability to mobilize in response to a health emergency, a 5% ability to establish an incident-command system, and 0% storage and distribution capacity for critical medicines and supplies. By Obama’s final year, the nation’s preparedness on all measurements was 98% to 100%. That’s by the Trump administration’s own assessment.

If the cupboard was bare, it’s because Trump swept it clean.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals.


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