Jefferson Morley | March 16, 2020
Trump Closed the White House Pandemic Office in 2018
Nothing demonstrates the failure of U.S. national security policymaking in the Trump era more than the president’s decision to downgrade the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense less than two years ago.
Trump and National Security adviser John Bolton had a conception of “national security” that downplayed the well-known risks of pandemics in favor of focusing on more other threats like the possibility that Iran might be able to start a nuclear weapons program in ten years.
They were far from alone. Trump’s critics in the intelligence community did not call attention to the move. In our militarized foreign policy, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction loomed large as threats. Incurable diseases did not.
In the Washington Post, Beth Cameron, former director of the pandemic office, explains how Trump and Co. let down the nation’s defenses.
It’s unclear whether the decision to disband the directorate llll 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. Either way, it left an unclear structure and strategy for coordinating pandemic preparedness and response. Experts outside government and on Capitol Hill called for the office’s reinstatement at the time.
Its absence now is all too evident. In his remarks Wednesday night, the president talked about travel bans and the resilience of the U.S. economy but made little specific mention of the public health crisis unfolding across America — exactly the kind of detail a dedicated NSC pandemics infrastructure would have pushed to address. A directorate within the White House would have been responsible for coordinating the efforts of multiple federal agencies to make sure the government was backstopping testing capacity, devising approaches to manufacture and avoid shortages of personal protective equipment, strengthening U.S. lab capacity to process covid-19 tests, and expanding the health-care workforce.
A former Trump administration official counters that the directorate was not dismantled but reorganized. It was not dissolved but combined with offices on arms control and weapons of mass destruction, says Tim Morrison. Yet Morrison’s defense contains not a single example of what the directorate has done in the last two months. Brief the president? Develop guidelines for federal employees. Ramp up production of masks and ventilators? Morrison doesn’t say.
Politico reports that pandemic experts says Trump’s reorganization hurt the the governmental response to COVID-19.
former officials who worked on the Ebola and H1N1 responses worry that the steady downsizing of the NSC and the elimination of a unit charged with global health and security has further hindered a government response that was bungled early on by confusion and mismanagement.
Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama White House policymaker, predicts our paradigm for national security has been forever changed.