President Donald Trump denied on Friday that he was in any way responsible for his administration’s failure to make coronavirus testing widely available, and professed to have absolutely no idea who had disbanded the White House pandemic response team two years ago (John Bolton), or even if that had happened (it did).
The president’s insistence that the buck very much does not stop with him was overshadowed by his false claim that Google had 1,700 engineers working to create a nationwide website that would direct Americans to testing sites nationwide.
On Saturday, Trump appeared briefly at another news conference and revealed that he has been tested for the illness, Covid-19, after being exposed last weekend to at least two Brazilian officials who have subsequently tested positive.
But Trump’s testy, wounded response to being asked on Friday if he shared the blame for the federal government’s halting effort to stem the spread of the virus is worth pausing on for a moment, because it suggests that he still has little idea, and less interest, in what happens in his own White House.
The revealing exchange began when Kristen Welker of NBC News asked Trump about the lag in testing, which Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had described as “a failing,” the day before.
“Do you take responsibility for that?” Welker asked.
“Yeah, no,” Trump replied. “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
"I don't take responsibility at all."
The Trump presidency in one sentence. pic.twitter.com/BgiAtrDtrn
— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) March 13, 2020
When Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour followed up by pointing out that Trump’s National Security Council had eliminated a team responsible for global health security, which was created by his predecessor to coordinate the response to pandemic threats, the president took offense and denied even knowing if such a thing had taken place.
“You said that you don’t take responsibility, but 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?” Alcindor asked. “And the officials that worked in that office said that you, that the White House lost valuable time because that office was disbanded. What do you make of that?”
WATCH: @Yamiche asked the president about a reorganization of the National Security Council that dismantled a key pandemics team in 2018.
President Trump: "I just think it's a nasty question… You say we did that, I don't know anything about it." pic.twitter.com/lWo0YKS1rl
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) March 13, 2020
“Well, I just think it’s a nasty question,” Trump replied. “And when you say me — I didn’t do it. We have a group of people I could —”
“It’s your administration,” Alcindor interjected.
“I could ask perhaps,” Trump continued. “It’s my administration, but I could perhaps ask Tony about that, because I don’t know anything about it,” the president said, gesturing towards Dr. Fauci, who was not involved in disbanding the team, but had expressed regret that it was no longer there. “I mean, you say we did that. I don’t know anything about it,” Trump added.
“You don’t know about the reorganization that happened at the National Security Council?” Alcindor asked.
“It’s the administration. Perhaps they do that,” Trump replied. “You know, people let people go. You used to be with a different newspaper than you are now,” he said, referring, in confused terms, to the reporter having been hired by PBS, which is not a newspaper, from the New York Times, which did not fire her. “You know, things like that happen,” the president said, before the White House staff cut off the reporter’s microphone to make her next question inaudible.
Many observers assumed that Trump was feigning ignorance when he insisted that he had no idea that his White House had eliminated the positions of the health security and biodefense experts hired by the Obama administration to deal with pandemics. But there is evidence to support the more troubling possibility that he was telling the truth.
Last Friday at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Trump seemed entirely unaware that he had ever had such experts on his staff when Peter Baker of the New York Times referred to them in a question.
“Mr. President,” Baker said, “you said you had not anticipated this kind of thing happening. Would you rethink then having an office of pandemic preparation in the White House?”
“I just think this is something, Peter, that you can never really think is going to happen,” Trump replied, as if the question had been hypothetical. “You know, who — I’ve heard all about, ‘This could be,’ you know, ‘This could be a big deal,’ from before it happened. You know, this — something like this could happen. … But who would have thought, look, how long ago is it? Six, seven, eight weeks ago? Who would have thought we would even be having the subject? We were going to hit 30,000 on the Dow like it was clockwork, right? It was all going, it was right up, and then all of a sudden, this came out. … And the thing is, you never really know when something like this is going to strike and what it’s going to be. This is different than something else. This is a very different thing than something else.”
“But would there be a value in having an office in the White House that’s preparing for this?” Baker asked.
“Well, I just don’t think,” Trump responded, again not seeming to grasp the reason for the question. “I just don’t think that somebody is going to, without seeing something — like we saw something happening in China. As soon as they saw that happening, they essentially — not from the White House. I mean, you know, we don’t need a lab in the White House.”
Last month, when he was asked a related question — if he now regretted budget proposals that called for enormous cuts to the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and and the World Health Organization — Trump said no. “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years, and if, if we have a need, we can get them very quickly,” he said. “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.”