Former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes fired back after President Trump sought to blame his predecessor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) slow rollout of coronavirus testing.
Trump took aim at the CDC under President Obama, saying on Twitter: “For decades the @CDCgov looked at, and studied, its testing system, but did nothing about it. It would always be inadequate and slow for a large scale pandemic, but a pandemic would never happen, they hoped. President Obama made changes that only complicated things further.”
“Their response to H1N1 Swine Flu was a full scale disaster, with thousands dying, and nothing meaningful done to fix the testing problem, until now,” Trump added. “The changes have been made and testing will soon happen on a very large scale basis. All Red Tape has been cut, ready to go!”
But during an interview on MSNBC on Saturday, Rhodes slammed Trump’s comments, adding that “what he said about testing was completely false,” and pointing to recent fact-checks done since then that he says prove “that’s not the case.”
“I think, importantly, what Obama did leave Trump is a global health infrastructure that we had set up informed by the lessons of the Ebola outbreak,” Rhodes said before pointing to a National Security Council (NSC) pandemic directorate The Associated Press reports was dismantled by the Trump administration in 2018.
“And what we did is set up, in the White House, … an office that was responsible for managing pandemics, managing global health threats that was shut down two years ago by President Trump,” Rhodes said.
“And when you don’t have an office like that,” he continued, “you don’t have dedicated people inside the White House who are ensuring that information is acted upon. When you see an outbreak in a place like Wuhan, China, you want people in the White House who are thinking about what needs to be done right away so that you don’t get behind the curve, which is what happened in this White House.”
He then went on to note differences between how Trump is currently handling the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. and how Obama handled the Ebola outbreak during his time in the Oval Office.
“You need a president who’s willing to hear bad news, willing to understand that they’re going to have to focus on something that they may have not intended to focus on. President Trump clearly did not want to hear that bad news when he heard about the outbreak in coronavirus,” Rhodes said.
When reflecting on how Obama approached the Ebola outbreak, Rhodes said the former president “sidelined” officials who were not experts and brought in people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the current head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and others within the government who “had real expertise on how to do deal with this.”
Rhodes said the Obama administration “designed a very unique response where deployed thousands of U.S. troops to Africa to help set up medical infrastructure to contain the outbreak before it could get to the United States.”
By contrast, Rhodes said Trump instead “again seems to turn his Twitter feed and try to do just enough to get him through the news cycle, while not preparing the nation for what is necessary here.”
“And now, we kind of see a unique situation and a crisis where state and local officials are kind of taking the lead here because the White House won’t do it,” he added.
The CDC has come under fire in recent weeks for its lag in coronavirus testing as more cases or reported across the U.S.
As the agency continues to face scrutiny for its response efforts, Trump has sought to distance himself from the pushback, telling reporters on Friday, “I don’t take responsibility at all because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time.”
“If you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this. They didn’t do testing like this, and actually they lost approximately 14,000 people, and they didn’t do the testing. They started thinking about testing when it was far too late,” he said.
His remarks have been called out by fact-checkers over the weekend. The New York Times, for example, labelled his comments “false” and “blatantly wrong.”
In her piece on Friday, Times fact-checker Linda Qui noted that an Obama-era guidance Trump appeared to be blaming for the slow rollout in testing was “not particularly relevant to emergency situations and was never finalized or generally enforced.” She also pointed out that, despite Trump’s claims, the Obama administration had diagnostic testing for H1N1 virus rolled out “less than two weeks after the H1N1 virus was identified and a day before the first death in the United States.”