Trump struggles to explain why he disbanded his global health team

According to Trump, "you can never really think is going to happen," but the NSC's team existed precisely because officials recognized the possible threat.
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A view of the White House seen on April 7, 2015 in Washington, DC.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP - Getty Images

One of Donald Trump's most important missteps in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak happened before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. In fact, 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."

It was against this backdrop that a reporter asked Trump late last week about whether he was prepared to "rethink having an Office of Pandemic Preparation in the White House." The president replied:

"I just think this is something, Peter, that you can never really think is going to happen. 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.... 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's worth emphasizing that this is Trump's second explanation related to his decision to disband his global health security team. "I'm a business person," he explained two weeks ago in response to a similar question. "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.

It set the stage for this new argument: Trump dissolved the White House's pandemic team because he had no idea he might need a pandemic team.

Except, that's not an especially satisfying answer. 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 overnight that 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.

It's as if the president is unfamiliar with the idea of insurance on a conceptual level.