The Slatest

“I Don’t Know Anything About It,” Trump Says About White House’s Elimination of Pandemic Response Team

Trump speaks at the presidential lectern while the others look on from behind him.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Mike Pence, and CEOs of major corporations watch Donald Trump in the Rose Garden on Friday. `Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In May 2018 the Trump administration dismissed the top “global health security” specialist on the National Security Council and disbanded the pandemic-preparedness team he had led. (Then–National Security Adviser John Bolton was said to have been behind the move.) The responsibility for monitoring infectious disease threats was technically given to another group within the NSC, but even at the time, the Washington Post wrote that the reorganization was seen by experts in the field as “a downgrading of global health security.” This decision has been subject to some scrutiny during the last month of disaster un-preparedness and global health insecurity.

On Friday PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about the subject during a White House press conference, and his response was, simply put, bad. Here’s the transcript (“Tony” is Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who, to be clear, has nothing to do with the National Security Council):

ALCINDOR: You did disband the White House pandemic office, and the officials that were working in that office left this administration abruptly. So what responsibility do you take to that, and—the officials that worked in that office said the White House lost valuable time because that office was disbanded. What do you make of that?

TRUMP: Well, I just thank it’s a nasty question, because what we’ve done, and Tony had said numerous times that we saved thousands of lives because of the quick closing. [Ed.: The closing of borders to some travelers.] And when you say me, I didn’t do it. We have a group of people, I could ask perhaps, in my administration, but I could perhaps ask Tony about that, because I don’t know anything about it. I mean, you say we did that, I don’t know anything about it. Disbanding, no, I don’t know anything about it …

ALCINDOR: You don’t know about the reorganization that happened at the National Security Council.

TRUMP: … It’s the administration, perhaps they do that, let people go, you used to be with a different newspaper than you are now, you know, things like that happen.

Alcindor’s microphone was cut off as she was asking a follow-up question.

Knowing what we do about Trump’s attention span, it’s possible he sincerely didn’t know anything about Bolton eliminating the pandemic team. He was also asked about having an “office of pandemic preparation” in the White House last week during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but there’s no indication in his answer that he understood that such an office had previously existed, let alone that his administration was responsible for getting rid of it. It would not stretch the imagination to learn that before the past few weeks the president had not given any consideration to pandemic readiness whatsoever.

In any case, this was amazingly not the moment in Friday’s press conference that best demonstrated the president’s refusal to take responsibility for the United States’ response to the coronavirus. That’s because he answered another question, about the nationwide shortage of viral testing kits, by saying, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Good stuff!