White House's dubious line on ventilators unravels for Trump

"When we took over, we didn't have ventilators," Trump has repeatedly argued. Even the Trump administration now concedes that was a lie.
Image: ventilator
Frank Schleibach, head physician of anaesthesiology, shows the functioning of a ventilator in the Viersen General Hospital in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, on March 20, 2020.Roland Weihrauch / dpa/picture alliance via Getty I

"We had a ventilator problem that was caused by the fact that we weren't left ventilators by a previous administration," Donald Trump said in April, referring to his Democratic predecessor. Soon after, the president argued, "When we took over, we didn't have ventilators. Nobody knew what a ventilator was."

For Trump, this line of attack -- repeated over and over again the past couple of months -- serves a handful of purposes. First, it advances his goal of blaming Barack Obama for, well, everything Trump can think of. Second, it reinforces the president's goal of convincing the public that he's overcome insurmountable hurdles that mere mortals couldn't have addressed.

But there's also a broader point the Republican has repeatedly emphasized: Trump believes this is an angle to the coronavirus response that's legitimately worth bragging about. His administration went from having no ventilators in the national stockpile to having so many ventilators that the United States can now export them abroad. It's a success story.

At least, it would be, if the president's version of events were true. As the Washington Post noted, reality tells a different story.

There were nearly 17,000 ventilators available for use that had been left behind by the Obama administration. Trump instinctively wants to blame Obama, but no matter how you do the numbers, 16,660 is far more than zero.

It's worth emphasizing that the 16,660 figure came by way of the Trump administration itself: the Department of Health and Human Services released the information this week to FactCheck.org.

The president's "cupboards were bare" talk has long been absurd, and now the rhetoric looks just a little worse.

Complicating matters, presidential dishonesty isn't the only relevant angle to the larger story. NBC News reported overnight on Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who's pressing the White House for answers on why the administration is sending ventilators abroad without congressional approval, and whether the distribution process has been politicized.

"I write to express concern about the absence of clear guidelines for providing ventilators to foreign countries," the New Jersey Democrat wrote in a letter to Trump. Menendez is also seeking the White House's criteria for deciding which countries should receive ventilators.

Watch this space.