Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET on March 19, 2020.
Beth Cameron, a former senior director for global health security and biodefense on the White House National Security Council, complained in The Washington Post on Friday that the Trump administration dissolved her office in 2018, “leaving the country less prepared for pandemics like COVID-19.”
The same day, a PBS reporter asked President Trump about the change he presided over.
“You did disband the White House pandemic office, and the officials that were working in that office left this administration abruptly,” Yamiche Alcindor said. “So what responsibility do you take?”
Trump called it a nasty question. He denied the facts. And he said, “I don’t know anything about it.” He went on to say, “It’s the—it’s the administration. Perhaps they do that. You know, people let people go. You used to be with a different newspaper than you are now. You know, things like that happen.”
But video footage resurfaced Tuesday by the British newspaper The Independent makes clear Trump’s thinking on public-health agencies.* “You have consistently called for enormous cuts to the CDC, the NIH, and the WHO,” a White House reporter tells Trump. “You’ve talked a lot today about how these professionals are excellent, are critical, are necessary. Does this experience give you pause about those cuts?”
“No,” Trump responded. “We can get money, we can increase staff—we know all the people. This is a question I asked the doctors before. Some of the people we cut, they haven’t used for many, many years, and if we have ever need them we can get them very, very quickly. And rather than spending the money—I’m a business person. 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.”
Some have expressed more defensible rationales for the Trump administration’s actions, but they don’t seem to be what motivated the president himself.
In a political context, it is hard to imagine a more damaging video. It shows him openly defending his proposals for significant cuts to agencies that battle infectious diseases, explicitly based on the dubious premise that employing experts in that field is a waste of money in the years between epidemics or pandemics. This is the rare clip that could conceivably make the difference in a national election.
* A previous version of this article described a White House briefing as having taken place in 2018. In fact, the briefing took place last month.