NIH's Fauci wishes Trump hadn't disbanded global health unit

Two years ago, Trump disbanded the White House's global health security unit. Today, Anthony Fauci suggested that wasn't a smart move.
Image: President Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases attend a meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland
President Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases attend a meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on March 3, 2020, following up on the COVID-19, coronavirus, outbreak.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

When it comes to responding to the coronavirus outbreak, one of Donald Trump's most important missteps came before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. As we discussed on Monday, the president's first error came back in 2018.

It was two years ago when Trump ordered the shutdown of the White House National Security Council's entire global health security unit. NBC News had a good report on this recently, noting that the president's decision "to downsize the White House national security staff -- and eliminate jobs addressing global pandemics -- is likely to hamper the U.S. government's response to the coronavirus."

But now that the public-health response is underway, is the president's 2018 decision having a practical effect? Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was unexpectedly candid on this point today.

In fact, Dr. Fauci took some of his most direct swipes at the White House since the outbreak began. When [Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly] asked him about the 2018 eradication of the global health unit on the White House's National Security Council, he answered, "It would be nice if the office was still there."

The NIH leader added, "We worked very well with that office."

Remember, Trump has struggled to explain why, exactly, he disbanded the global health security unit. As we talked about the other day, the president originally argued, "I'm a businessperson. 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."

As it turns out, the administration cannot actually reassemble such a team "very quickly," though Trump, still unfamiliar with how much of the executive branch works, may not have known that.

His second explanation was even less persuasive. "You can never really think is going to happen," the president said on Friday, adding, "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? ... You never really know when something like this is going to strike and what it's going to be."

It was hardly satisfying. The whole point of having a team focused on epidemiological threats is (a) viral outbreaks can happen; (b) one never knows when they'll happen; and (c) countries want to be prepared when they do happen.

According to the president, "you can never really think is going to happen," but the National Security Council's team existed precisely because officials recognized the possible hazard. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, President Barack Obama established the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, making clear that some folks were acutely aware of possibilities like these.

And now it sounds as if Anthony Fauci would've preferred if Team Trump had left Team Obama's model intact.