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Trump says he can reassemble a health security team quickly (he can't)

After disbanding his global health security team, Trump says he can reassemble it quickly. It'd be great if that were true, but it's not.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump talks about preparedness to confront the coronavirus outbreak during a meeting with African-American leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House, on Feb. 27, 2020.Leah Millis / Reuters

As the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak continues to take shape, among the most important recent reports on the issue is this Foreign Policy piece from a month ago, which said the United States "has never been less prepared for a pandemic."

Of particular interest was the article shining a light on Donald Trump's May 2018 decision to order the shutdown of the White House National Security Council's entire global health security unit. NBC News had a good report on this, also, 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."

For his part, Trump doesn't deny the fact that he disbanded his global health security team and proposed cuts to programs intended to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Instead, the president has argued that he can simply reassemble the operation as needed.

"I'm a business person," he explained on Wednesday. "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."

That may sound sensible. It's not. The Washington Post reports today:

Former federal officials and public-health experts argue that an effective response to a epidemiological crisis demands sustained planning and investment. While the administration's response to coronavirus has been criticized in recent weeks as slow and disjointed, people in and outside the White House have warned for years that the nation is ill prepared for a dangerous pandemic.

Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Post, "You build a fire department ahead of time. You don't wait for a fire. There is an underappreciation for the amount of time and resources required to build a prepared system."

Georgetown's Don Moynihan had a good tweet along these lines the other day, adding, "I'm a public management professor: once you have gutted institutional capacity, you cannot, in fact, quickly restore it."

The president, who's never shown much of an interest in how government works or is supposed to function, seems wholly unaware of all of this. It's yet another reason to question the White House's competence and capacity as the public-health emergency continues.